April 1, 2005

What's the thinking behind the Ownership Society?

The Ryan Sager article mentioned by Glen Reynolds today is a type of attack that's really starting to bug me.

...This represents a fundamental shift in the direction of the Republican Party and a threat to its traditional alliances. The shift is self-evident. Instead of being the party that tries to rein in entitlement spending, the Republican Party is now the party of the $1.2 trillion Medicare prescription-drug benefit. Instead of being the party that is opposed to even having a federal Department of Education, the Republican Party is now the party of extensive intrusion into local schoolhouses by Washington, D.C....

There's something missing here [I'm partly quoting myself from a recent post about Bill Quick's similar argument. Sorry, time is short]. I don't like the lard either, but in both cases Bush traded (and this was at a time when we didn't control the Senate) spending increases for important components of the Ownership Society. The Medicare bill included HSA's, and NCLB included the parental-choice provisions.

What's the thinking behind the Ownership Society? First, that shrinking the government isn’t going to happen. Not now, not never. Every law, subsidy, tax-break or program creates a constituency that will fight to preserve that bit of big government. It’s a trap that liberals have created for us, and no number of grumbling fiscal conservatives will ever get us out of it.

BUT, there is a way out of the trap. Even though Social Security (to take just one example) is a big-government program, any diversion of dollars into Private Accounts is, effectively, shrinking government. And that creates a trap of the opposite sort, one that will make people want more and more privatization as they start to see their accounts grow. (Or, similarly, more and more choice over which school your kids go to. Or more ability to just choose any medical service you want and pay it yourself without consulting any bureaucracy)

That’s why the Left is fighting private accounts so bitterly. Sager most likely doesn't agree with the strategy, but he ought to be aware of it. Bush has yielded on spending increases to gain long-term benefits of Choice and Ownership. I think Bush's plan is clear enough that Mr Sager has an obligation to try to refute it. I notice that these libertarian types never mention Social Security when they complain about Bush. Nor do they mention the Faith Based Initiatives, that put government spending into the hands of local groups.

I wonder if Mr Sager has an HSA?

* Update: Glenn Renolds writes:

ANOTHER UPDATE: Interesting discussion in Weidner's comment thread, one that would make interesting fodder for any journalist/pundit writing on this topic. Lots of small-l libertarians and fiscal-conservative types feeling left out, and lots of social-conservative types delighting in heaping scorn on them, which strikes me as a poor way to maintain a coalition.

I think he's being a teensy bit unfair to my mostly reasonable commenters. But my own point is that folks like Ryan Sager are missing out on something that's (possibly) really GOOD. For fiscal conservatives. Whose efforts so far (and I've been something of a FC since at least the time of Gerald Ford) have yet to accomplish much of anything. After four decades or so perhaps it's time to be open to a different approach. At least not to ignore it and pretend it doesn't exist. I'd like to see some thoughtful critiques of the whole concept of the Ownership Society. I've yet to see any.

Posted by John Weidner at April 1, 2005 8:06 AM
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