A CONSERVATIVE GOVERNMENT SWEEPS TO POWER for a second term. It views its victory as a mandate to slash the role of the state. In its first term, this policy objective was met by cutting taxes for the wealthy. Its top priority for its second term is tackling what it views as an enduring vestige of socialism: its system of social insurance for the elderly. Declaring the current program unaffordable in 50 years' time, the administration proposes the privatization of a portion of old-age benefits. In exchange for giving up some future benefits, workers would get a tax rebate to put into an investment account to save for their own retirement.
George W. Bush's America in 2005? Think again. The year was 1984, the nation was Britain, the government was that of Margaret Thatcher--and the results have been a disaster that America is about to emulate.
For all the fanfare that surrounds the Bush administration's efforts to present a bold new idea on pension reform, the truth is that it is not new at all. In fact, the proposal looks suspiciously like the plan set in train during Thatcher's first term in 1979 and which has since led Britain to the brink of a crisis. Since then, the nation's basic pension, which is paid for out of tax receipts, has shrunk dramatically. The United Kingdom has the stingiest state pension program of any G8 nation, and there is growing consensus--even among British conservatives--that reform is needed. And ironically enough, considering that America is on the verge of copying Britain's mistake, most experts seek reform in the direction of a more generous, and simpler, basic state pension--one similar in design, in other words, to America's Social Security program.
David Willetts, the Conservative MP who is the opposition spokesman on pensions (and whose intellectual agility has earned him the sobriquet "Two Brains"), is one admirer of the U.S. system. "I like the way they distinguish between Social Security and means-tested welfare," he says. "They have higher Social Security benefits to keep elderly people off welfare." And last year, in a startling reversal of its decades-old policy, the Confederation of British Industry, the United Kingdom's premier business group and the functional equivalent of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, called for a more generous state retirement benefit, saying--remember, this is the nation's leading business lobby talking--that it would even support raising taxes to help pay for it. (It also called for raising the retirement age.)
Britain's experiment with substituting private savings accounts for a portion of state benefits has been a failure. A shorthand explanation for what has gone wrong is that the costs and risks of running private investment accounts outweigh the value of the returns they are likely to earn. On average, fees and charges can reduce pension lump sums by up to 30 percent on retirement. The nation's savings industry, which sells those private accounts, has already acknowledged this. Which brings us to irony No. 2: Just as the United States prepares to funnel untold billions to its private sector for the management of private accounts, back in 2002, many U.K. insurance companies, mindful of tough new rules against giving bad advice, began to write to their customers urging them to consider abandoning their private savings and returning to the state pension system--something hundreds of thousands of Britons have done already.
And this is the system that the United States is seeking to emulate?
HOW BRITAIN'S RETIREMENT SYSTEM GOT TO WHERE it is today is a twisted tale that combines political ideology with fiscal expediency.
Britain has had pensions since medieval times; offering them to monks and abbesses was Henry VIII's simple formula for dissolving Catholic monasteries without a revolt by their occupants. They were given more widespread use in the late 19th century by some of the more enlightened entrepreneurs. …