How bizarre it is, but in some ways, conservatives are becoming regular Che Guevaras. Democrats are now the staunch defenders of the status quo, while Republicans have taken to tossing grenades at dearly held establishment shibboleths. (Thankfully, they’ve stopped short of firing squads to execute the popped-collar oppressors.) Workers of the world, unite! Power to the people! Old communist rallying cries could now become Republican campaign slogans.
Conservatives are promising to fundamentally change the American political landscape by transforming those with little stake in society into the motivated owners of Wall Street stocks, health insurance accounts and homes. As it turns the blue-collar wage earner into an investor, the Bush administration’s proposal for Social Security reform — centered on the voluntary investment of 4 percent of an individual’s taxable income in cautious bonds and stock funds — is the beginning of this revolution. It’s also what Democrats fear most: new legions of Republican voters marching to the tune of individualism, choice and ownership — not entitlement.
Critics charge that the rhetoric of an “ownership society” is nothing more than verbal legerdemain to eliminate safety net programs like Social Security and Medicaid, further lining the pockets of the rich and grinding the faces of working Americans into the mud of poverty. “Do-nothing” Democrats defying the logic of fifth-grade arithmetic; elderly interest groups peddling myths about seniors who will live in boxes because of the risks of privatization; and liberals blinded by opposition to any plan originating from the White House have all triumphantly declared Bush’s proposal for personal accounts DOA.
It’s odd that the so-called party of the working classes, women and minorities — all demographics statistically less likely to invest their money — is seeking to deny major portions of its voting bloc the chance to become part-owners in American companies. Instead, Democrats would rather citizens be wholly dependent on the period scheme that is Social Security and the party’s politics of entitlement.
We live in an entitlement culture. Here at Yale, graduate students claim entitlements to a union, health care for dependents and faculty position assurances, all on top of a free education, generous stipends and benefits. Affirmative-action policies entitle racial minorities to advantages in applying to universities and getting jobs over equally qualified candidates. Medicaid and welfare programs entitle the poor to health care, monthly income and food stamps. The ripe age of 65 entitles today’s senior citizens to Social Security’s benefits and Medicare’s health insurance and prescription drugs. Federal subsidies entitle American farmers and agribusinesses to more than $20 billion in corporate welfare each year. The government hands out, and predictably, the people take.
The problem is that an entitlement culture denies individual responsibility and creates handy excuses for failure. Obese people and smokers claim entitlements to financial compensation by McDonald’s and Philip Morris for damage caused by personal indiscretion. Crusaders for excuses like Al Sharpton, Jesse Jackson and Louis Farrakhan blame societal racism for the problems that plague the inner city rather than engage in a meaningful critique of a culture that perpetuates low expectations. Indulging these race hucksters in their twisted game, politicians justify the reverse-racism of affirmative action as a way of righting past wrongs. And so injustice replaces injustice.
Beyond the issue of shirking responsibility, entitlements bleed the federal budget. Bush’s Medicare prescription drug benefit for seniors — his greatest blunder as president — will cause an $8.1 trillion shortfall over the next 75 years. Another example is the farm subsidy program, perhaps the single greatest scam ever pulled on the American people. Cloaked in populist rhetoric designed to elicit sympathy for the “poor farmer” tilling barren fields, farm subsidies deal out billions of dollars to wealthy farmers (according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, “large” to “very large” farms make, on average, $135,000 in household income) and Fortune 500 companies like Caterpillar and Chevron.
To be fair, some entitlement programs — though at great cost — have proven effective. Social Security has all but eliminated elderly indigence. Welfare, at least after its reform in 1996, no longer gives free rides at the taxpayer’s expense and encourages the development of a work ethic. Outside of sheltered think tanks, no conservatives seriously consider eliminating these programs wholesale.
What is needed is not the outright abolishment of entitlements, but the reform of a culture that promotes widespread dependence on government handouts. Some entitlement policies, such as farm subsidies and affirmative action, are plain irresponsible. Others, like Social Security and Medicare, are well-intentioned but unsustainable.
With the elderly living longer, baby boomers fast approaching retirement, birth rates and the relative size of the workforce declining, Social Security will be unable to pay out current levels of benefits by 2018. The options, then, are either reducing these benefits, increasing payroll taxes that fund Social Security, increasing the retirement age — or creating personal accounts with higher rates of return. Personal accounts will cost several trillion in the short term but save future generations from the burden of a $27 trillion debt (more than 11 times the 2006 federal budget) to cover Social Security shortfalls alone.
While a solvent Social Security and more money in the hands of the retiring American will be admirable feats, the broader goal of Social Security reform is to create an ownership society. Everyone should be afforded the dignity of investment and the rights that wealthier citizens have long enjoyed.
Unlike Che and his collectivist brethren, we conservatives don’t believe in equality of outcome. Individual differences — and dare I evoke feminist wrath a la Larry Summers by also noting gender differences dealt by DNA — mean there will be individuals who excel at some things and fail at others. A society of entitlement measures justice not by how much the government encourages those who succeed, but by how much it rewards those who don’t. That’s not justice; it’s license for mediocrity.
Yet what we conservatives do believe in is equal opportunity, a promise America has yet to fulfill. There are many in our nation’s cities and backwaters that don’t yet have that opportunity to succeed, not because of the color of their skin whatever it may be, but because of continued dependence on a system that lacks the paths and incentives for achievement. Privatizing Social Security will allow those now earning even the smallest paychecks to become part of an ownership society.
Keith Urbahn is a junior in Saybrook College. His column appears on alternate Wednesdays.