What the —! Well it occured to me, and not for the first time, that a lot of people really don’t understand my Social Security project and particularly what even some of my friends and allies think is a narrow focus on the nuts, bolts and numbers of Social Security financial reporting. It seems to them to often miss the point entirely. But there is method to my madness (although all madmen claim the same) although that method is based on an apparent paradox: the battle over Social Security is NOT about numbers and in most respects never has been. So why focus on them? And why set up a so-called game called ‘Total Security on Elsinore’ that seeks to abstract Social Security from all societal and economic context? Well the clues are in the post title and hopefully will be explicated below the fold.
But fair warning. There will be a lot about “Me” here. And for people who find me and my writing some combination of irritating, innumerate, illogical, intemperate, and worst of all interminable this probably isn’t the post for you. For others, friends, allies, and foes —–
If the battle over Social Security is not really over numbers and solvency then what is it about? Well I suggest it is a manifestation of a clash of philosophies between two irreconcilable camps. One camp takes its collective inspiration from a canon that includes Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged and The Virtue of Selfishness, Milton Friedman’s Capitalism and Freedom, and Friedrich Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom. Each work and its respective acolytes subscribe to one or both of the following equations: Capitalism = Freedom and Socialism = Tyranny. In this camp the firm and often fervent belief is that any and all government interventions in the Free Market via central planning, regulation or programs that redistribute gains from productivity are if not Socialism per se, certainly steps along the path. They may admit that such interventions might be well motivated and even for a time have positive net effects by Utilitarian Greatest Good for Greatest Number calculations but still maintain that promoters of them are either dupes or active collaborators with a fundamentally anti-Freedom and anti-Capitalist agenda. Which as Friedman suggests are ultimately the same thing.
On the other side of this divide is a group that takes its inspriration from a quite different canon, one that includes FDR’s Four Freedoms Speech and for the more religious the Sermon on the Mount. If you had to some up the unifying philosophy it is explicitly anti-Rand in holding that not only is Selfishness NOT a Virtue and still less the PRIME virtue, but instead close to The Root of All Evil.
As a result there is little room for compromise in the parallel battles of Chicago vs. Hyde Park, Objectivism v. the New Deal, or Libertarianism vs. Social Democracy, each draws on a different vision of what it means to be fully human. So the fight tends to play out by proxy and programmatically, Glass-Steagal is passed and then later repealed, tax schemes are advanced and fought back, and perhaps most persistently there has been a decade long struggle against the largest interim victory of the New Deal/Social Democratic side. Which is to say Social Security and its expansion via Medicare (the official title of the “Medicare” Act was the Social Security Amendments of 1965)
Historically the major obstacle for the Selfishness as a Virtue camp is that Social Security and later Medicare proved to be extraordinarily popular, to the point that conventional wisdom dubbed the former ‘The Third Rail of American Politics’ because ‘Touch It and You Will Die’. Also relatively few people, whether of faith or not, are willing to simply reject the messaging of the Sermon on the Mount out of hand, or at least openly admit to the same. Because at some point the more extreme versions of Objectivism/Libertarianism devolve into Every Man For Himself/Sociopathy.
Of course many Libertarians and Free Marketeers are not sociopaths and indeed love their kids and their parents and don’t kick puppies. And many of them don’t want other peoples kids and parents to suffer unduly. On the other hand Freedom is not something you just allow yourself to lose. And if you sincerely believe that State Socialism = Slavery and that Social Democracy is just State Socialism-Lite then you have a moral obligation to roll back the Social Welfare State, because the stakes in the game Freedom vs. Slavery could not be higher.
This approach leaves most New Deal/Great Society types baffled. Because they simply don’t accept the premises that underlie the theses presented in Virtue of Selfishness, Capitalism and Freedom and The Road to Serfdom. As a result they don’t see the resistance to Social Welfare programs as a defense of liberty but instead an attack on the Sermon on the Mount. Which leaves the two camps shouting past each other in mutual incomprehension.
But there is another result. The Capitalist Freedom Fighters have over the years come to recognize the danger represented by the Third Rail of American Politics and so as a matter of tactical necessity rarely take Social Security straight on. Instead they have adopted strategies designed to drain the Juice from the Third Rail, which Juice is in the end just the Confidence of succeeding generations that the system is sustainable going forwards. And the core of that was outlined rather straightforwardly in a 1983 paper by Stuart Butler and Peter Germanis included in the Fall 1983 Social Security Reform issue of the Cato Journal. That paper is available online in PDF and had the title listed in the TOC as Social Security Reform: Achieving a ‘Leninist’ Strategy but on the actual title page not including the first three words.
The paper is worth reading in full but the strategy can I think be summarized in three phrases: “Reassure the Old, Scare the Young, and Blame the Boomers” and the weapon of choice is to use a narrative of ‘crisis’ and ‘bankruptcy’ and ‘sooner is better than later’ based on a particular set of numbers. With the twist that the authors are forced to disguise their ideological opposition to Social Security as being a threat to Freedom under the guise of concern about such things as solvency of the system going forwards. Mind you many of them might believe their own numbers and the seeming implications for solvency, but to the degree that all see this fight as a moral obligation to fight for Freedom as they define it, it is not surprising or particularly morally culpable in their eyes if they rest their thumbs on the scales particularly when it comes time to measure the rhetoric and deliberately using terms interchangeably that are not the same thing at all. As an example ‘unfunded liability’ vs. ‘debt’.
As a result I am not inclined to react with indignation but instead with a resolve to use their own weapon of choice back against them. And that weapon is numbers. Which doesn’t make them more important than the underlying ideological clash nor even undermine my own commitment to the values of my camp in this struggle. It is just that in this particular battle, this particular duel they got to choose the weapons.
I put it this way in a 2005 post on my own blog titled Social Security: it it about Solvency or about Ayn Rand?
This site is all about the numbers. You get links to every Social Security Report from 1942 to 2005, you get breakouts to particular tables from all Reports from 1997 to 2005, you get some explications of what those tables mean. The numbers are important, if you are going to participate in the debate over the future of Social Security you need to understand them, you need to understand their implications, you need to be able to measure them against the numbers you read in the paper every day. Because oddly enough this debate is not about numbers and in most respects it never has been.
And I stand by every word of that today. The debate is about Ayn Rand and the Leninist Strategy and the Road to Serfdom and my fundamental belief system is well spelled out in FDR’s Four Freedoms speech. It just happens to come formatted in data tables and budget language.