15 March 2005

Hey hey, ho ho, Social Security has got to go

As supporters of Senator Rick Santorum chanted, Jonathan Chait writes on how conservatives have desired for many years to dismantle social security, and are employing doublespeak in their privatization push.
What was clarified at those events has, alas, been obscured in Washington. The consensus among the capital's chattering classes holds that the Social Security debate primarily concerns the program's solvency. Therefore, the questions center around political courage, and the greatest threat is that the parties will not agree on a solution. This consensus is wrong in every particular. In truth, the debate is fundamentally ideological. It does not lend itself to compromise. Despite conservatives' insistence that Social Security faces a "crisis," in reality, the fiscal threat is distant and manageable, while the political threat is immediate and dire. It follows from all this that those who believe in Social Security should make it their highest priority to drive a stake through privatization. 

In the Washington establishment, the suggestion that conservatives essentially want to do away with Social Security is something close to a lunatic conspiracy theory. When a guest on "Meet the Press" suggested as much, Tim Russert replied incredulously, "So you're suggesting that private personal accounts are a secret plan to get rid of Social Security?" 

In fact, the plan hasn't been secret very long. Conservatives always saw the program as an indefensible infringement upon freedom. Alf Landon, the 1936 Republican presidential nominee, called Social Security a "cruel hoax." More than 40 years ago, Milton Friedman wanted to let workers opt out of it, and Barry Goldwater said, "Perhaps Social Security should be abolished." That view, however, has never proved popular. And so conservatives hit upon the tactic of phasing out the program by transforming it into a system of private accounts. Privatization activist Peter Ferrara was quite open about this point in a recent interview with Steven Thomma of Knight-Ridder. "A lot of conservatives thought Social Security was an unjustified invasion into the private sector," he said. "But they weren't getting anywhere, because that was all negative politics. ... Personal accounts would work because that's positive politics."

Chait also notes that there has been "constant refrain" from the Bush camp on touting that privatization would offer a better return on your money and that the "professed concern for Social Security's solvency is a pretext".