The “Ownership Society” seems poised to make a comeback, just in time for the president’s second term. Some might remember the Ownership Society: It made a brief appearance during last fall’s campaign, as the president and his handlers took a half-hearted stab at what the elder George Bush once called “the vision thing,” before it vanished from sight like some Republican Atlantis. Yet it still could serve as a useful and inspiring framework with which to package and sell the president’s second-term agenda.
What is an ownership society, as opposed, say, to a Great Society or a New Deal? To our way of thinking, it’s a society in which all Americans take a greater ownership stake not just in their personal property and affairs, career choices, health care and retirement, but in themselves, as autonomous and responsible individuals. What the Great Society and New Deal aimed at was different; they turned choices and responsibilities once vested in individuals over to government, with the promise of enhancing the people’s security or improving their prospects. Though well intended, these approaches had regrettable results, and today it often seems the government owns the people rather than the other way around.
If loosening the government’s grip on the people is what the Ownership Society is all about, sign us up. An Ownership Society couldn’t help but be a freer society than the one we have at present. But if it’s just rhetorical Christmas wrapping on the same old approach — pushed this time by big-government Republicans — forget it. It will once again become the Republican Atlantis, and good riddance.
The first critical test of whether Americans are willing to embrace such a future will be the outcome of the present clash over Social Security. As constituted, the program is the perfect embodiment not of an Ownership Society, in which citizens take responsibility for their own retirement, but of a nanny state, in which they look first to government as a provider and security blanket.
What the president proposes is giving Americans a slightly greater ownership stake in Social Security by allowing future recipients to invest a portion of their withholdings in the market, searching for greater future returns. This proposal brought the nanny statists out in force, rallying to the defense of an unsustainable Ponzi scheme.
Among them are Robert Reich, a secretary of labor during the Clinton era, who fretted in one recent news report that the “people will, through bad luck or poor decision-making, find themselves in dire straits” if the system isn’t left entirely in government hands. Added Robert Reischauer, the former head of the Congressional Budget Office: “It’s an appealing label but with ownership comes responsibility and risk and that’s the downside.”
Here the crux of the matter is exposed. One’s support for an ownership society seems to hinge on whether one views Americans as responsible adults, capable of handling their own affairs — in this case, planning ahead for their retirement years — or one sees them as helpless children who can’t be trusted to look out for themselves. We prefer the former, in which people fend for themselves and are held responsible for their actions.
This litmus test can be applied not just to Social Security, but to a panoply of government programs established to help the supposedly incompetent and irresponsible through life, with minimal exposure to risk or responsibility. Perhaps the existence of such programs, instead of saving the incompetent and irresponsible from themselves, actually breed more of both.
The president’s chance of ushering in an ownership society depends on whether a majority of Americans want to be treated like adults, or prefer being coddled like children; on whether we Americans put a higher premium on liberty or security.
The president can map out such a society in broad terms. But its success or failure ultimately rests with everyday Americans, who elect either to take responsibility for themselves or reflexively look to Washington, Santa Fe, or our county and city governments for all the answers.