The “ownership society” paradigm the Bush administration invokes in its campaign to dismantle Social Security scares me in a very old and deep place, chilling my soul. When I feel the shiver, an image shimmers in my mind, fleeting as a reflection on water: an old woman, wrapped in rags, sitting at the mouth of a cave, praying for warmth.
Just when I think the irony can’t get any thicker, it does: the week Bush picked to make his case for survival of the fittest is the one the Hebrew calendar assigns to \Mishpatim\, Exodus 21:1 to 24:18, setting out a great many rules and policies for the ancient Israelites to live by. It includes some of the harsh language that turns some people away from this particular Book (such as “eye for eye, tooth for tooth”). But those who, like myself, see this ancient compilation of wisdom as deep metaphor rather than literal instruction, will find something of use.
Here’s what \Mishpatim\ has to say about Social Security: “You shall not ill-treat any widow or orphan. If you do mistreat them, I will heed their outcry as soon as they cry out to Me, and My anger shall blaze forth and I will put you to the sword, and your own wives shall become widows and your children orphans.”
On the surface, this reads like a threat: oppress the weak, and I will punish you. But I read it rather differently: oppress the weak at your own peril, the text is saying, because none of us knows when we may slip through a crack in the ownership society and yearn for the mercy we withheld from others in need.
It is true that there is pleasure and a measure of security in owning things — one’s home, perhaps a car, other useful and expensive possessions, the wherewithal to look after ourselves and our loved ones. Markets are incredibly resilient and powerful social mechanisms for delivering goods and services to those in a position to pay. Given the option, I imagine almost everyone would choose to possess his or her own means of securing the necessities of life, rather than having them doled out by a central authority with the power to withhold or grant largesse.
But here are some of the things that markets cannot do: provide affordable housing for the poor, extend medical care to those without insurance and private resources, educate the children of hard-pressed communities like Richmond, where I live, where arts, sports, libraries, counseling — all the “frills” that make life worth living — have been cut to accommodate shortfalls from a state in which the Terminator presides over a privatization campaign that neatly dovetails with Bush’s program. If you doubt this, count the number of homeless people on the street the next time you stroll through one of our great cities; if you doubt this, reread the statistics on child poverty I quoted on December 7th.
What is sacred about Social Security is its essence, which is collective responsibility. Even if, by some miracle, every citizen could suddenly own enough private wealth to obviate the need for support from our commonwealth — even then, it would be essential to maintain a universal social safety net to assert our commitment to care for the weak in our midst, to assert our belief in the moral grandeur of which human beings are capable. To not behave as beasts.
Bush’s argument is being couched in palliative language. Under pressure, he has begun enumerating safeguards he would append to the privatization of Social Security, such as limiting the types of investments people can make with their private accounts, or the rate at which they can withdraw funds. But the core of the proposal is this: to convert a public safety-net program to a marketing opportunity, enriching those who benefit from stock trades and capital transfers at the expense of those who cannot afford the risk. No amount of hedging can disguise the underlying choice he has put before us: are we to heed the words of \Mishpatim\, pooling our resources and our risks so as to care for the widow and the orphan? Or are we to turn our backs and descend to the condition so powerfully described by Hobbes as “a war of all against all”?
If you think I am laying too much weight on a simple proposal to privatize Social Security, I ask you to think again. The decision now put before us is between two models of society, one in which at bottom, each is for all; and one in which individual economic benefit outweighs all other considerations. If we go the wrong way — if we are deceived by pretty wrappings into buying this pernicious package — then we will usher in the society described in this Bedouin proverb:
I against my brother
I and my brother against our cousin
I, my brother and our cousin against the neighbors
All of us against the foreigner.
AARP is one place to go for opposition to Bush’s campaign; United for A Fair Economy looks at all tax policies, including Social Security, from the perspective of fairness. There are many places to stand together against these attempts to convert a commonwealth (however incomplete and imperfect) to another opportunity for the few to accumulate wealth. What’s at stake requires all of us to show up.