The Ownership Society and Its Discontents: You Can't Count on George Bush and the GOP Congress to Transform the Welfare State

Article excerpt

CHOICE IS APPEALING. That's why it's at the heart of the loose amalgam of programs, theories, and buzzwords that President George W. Bush calls the Ownership Society. It's Bush and his political advisor Karl Rove's way of trying to bring everyone inside the Republican tent. People who are happy with the government just the size it is shouldn't be spooked, they say: The Republicans aren't trying to take anything away, they just want to give people more choices, libertarian types shouldn't be spooked either, and maybe they should even be excited: Republicans are finally dismantling the New Deal and replacing it with the free market, or at least a Rube Goldberg approximation thereof. And if policies to expand home and small business ownership can be tied in (because, hey, the word ownership is in there), all the better; that could appeal to African Americans and Hispanics. A Republican Party pushing an Ownership Society can be all things to all people.

This leaves those of us who care about limited government with a dilemma. Do we take the idea of an Ownership Society seriously, despite the fact that it comes from a group of people who have proven beyond a shadow of a doubt that they are comfortable not just increasing but ballooning the size of the federal government? Or do we cast it aside, despite the fact that as a political formulation the Ownership Society offers perhaps the most promising path in a generation to expanding individual freedom?

At the risk of giving the Bush administration the benefit of the doubt, libertarians, small-government conservatives, red all other natural skeptics of the president and his policy shop should take a step back, take a deep breath, and take the Ownership Society seriously. The big-government conservatives are right about one thing: Republicans are never going to roll back the New Deal. But they can shape what takes its place as America mores past the framework of its old industrial-era economy, to which the New Deal is inextricably tied.

At the same time, the Ownership Society can't be judged in a vacuum. The Republicans have held the presidency, the House, and (except for two years) the Senate since 2001. The president has had more than the years to advance a bold new approach to conservatism under some of the most favorable political conditions imaginable, and at first glance it doesn't look like he has much to show for it. What's more, the small steps he has taken toward realizing that vision have come at great expense in sheer dollars and cents, as well as in greatly expanding the role of the federal government.

If the Ownership Society is supposed to be the best political means to achieve small-government ends--if it's supposed to be the realistic alternative to the paint-fume-huffing delusions of committed libertarians--then it only makes sense to judge its performance in the real world, without pulling punches or granting points for effort.

The Evolution of Ownership

Though Bush had used the phrase on occasion before, it wasn't until the 2004 Republican National Convention that he brought under the umbrella of the Ownership Society several policies and goals that turned out (more by happenstance than by design) to tie together thematically. "Another priority for a new term is to build an Ownership Society, because ownership brings security, and dignity, and independence," he told the crowd at New York City's Madison Square Garden. "In an Ownership Society, more people will own their health care plans, and have the confidence of owning a piece of their retirement." Bush extolled the fact that homeownership was at an all-time high in America, and he promised that more Americans would own their own homes. He said that his administration was transforming schools by raising standards, and he promised that it would keep insisting on accountability and empowering parents and teachers. "In all these proposals," he said, "we seek to provide not just a government program, but a path--a path to greater opportunity, more freedom, and more control over your own life. …