President Bush's domestic agenda, particularly his proposal to
reshape Social Security with private accounts, might mark the most
profound change in the relationship between Americans and the
federal government since the New Deal helped pull the United States
out of economic depression some 70 years ago.
Where the New Deal offered government aid to bring the nation out
of an unemployment morass, Mr. Bush's "ownership society" offers
increased individual choice and responsibility as an answer to the
financial needs of the modern age.
But with increased freedom may come increased risk - and that's
perhaps the nub of the debate over Bush's programs. What's the
proper role of Washington in ensuring the security of US citizens?
How much should Americans simply depend on themselves?
Opponents say Bush wants to unravel a safety net that's worked
well for more than half a century. Proponents say he is simply
promoting the national credo of individualism.
"People would really have choice, and the benefit to direct their
own lives," says Karl Zinsmeister, an American Enterprise Institute
fellow and expert on social issues.
"Ownership society" is a unifying theme that the Bush
administration uses to cover a variety of domestic proposals. The
establishment of private accounts within Social Security is clearly
the highest-priority item involved, but far from the only one: The
established health savings accounts, plus home ownership incentives
and even tax reform, would all be "ownership society" components,
according to Bush officials.
Yet it's possible to exaggerate the extent to which the
administration's proposed legislative changes would actually go
toward remaking American society. Individuals would probably be
limited in their choice of investment vehicles for any private
Social Security accounts, for instance. Traditional Social Security
would still exist, and still offer a guaranteed benefit - albeit a
smaller one than beneficiaries might otherwise expect.
"No one is proposing that there not be some kind of safety net,"
says Mr. Zinsmeister, who is also editor of the AEI magazine The
But breaking the current system, in which Social Security
beneficiaries all reap the same reward for the same investment,
would constitute a profound change in the nature of the system, say
"Since 1935 there has been an understanding that in return for a
deduction from one's wages, there would be compensation in the form
of old-age insurance. This would undermine that contract
significantly," says William Leuchtenburg, professor emeritus of
history at the University of North Carolina and one of the most
prominent chroniclers of the New Deal era.
The paradox is that the New Deal in general, and Social Security
in particular, were originally designed with Americans' famous
attraction to personal liberty in mind. …