Towards A Good Samaritan World

Friday, May 06, 2005


The Cato Institute, which did not (so it seems) welcome Bush's progressive indexation proposal, keeps plugging this line on Social Security reform:

"... Major reform requires political toughness and tenacity and a real thoughtfulness when it comes to explaining why change is necessary. Alas, neither congressional Republicans nor the White House has excelled at presenting the case for reform. They are failing to draw on the rich populist themes of the dignity of ownership and the right to dispose of one's own earnings and savings that can win the political debate."

As usual when Cato and Bush disagree, I'm with Bush on this. Far from being a "rich populist theme," I think "the dignity of ownership" would be a loser in this debate. And this even though I think the phrase captures a profound moral truth.

There is dignity in ownership, in standing on one's own two feet, in not being dependent on others. But the dignity of ownership is a truth felt by a farmer who runs his fingers through the soil of his own land; by a tenant oppressed by a snooping landlord; by an employee who has to kiss up to and surrender his moral scruples for the sake of a boss he despises, all because he doesn't have enough money to last him a few months while he looks for the new job he knows is out there. A private retirement account, heavily regulated by the government, invested automatically in remote mutual funds and firms, is too abstract to engender this feeling.

Moreover, the dignity of ownership flows in part from the economic security that it provides, and since a Social Security check seems safe-- even though it's not-- people feel a certain dignity in receiving it.


  • I think you're bang on here. However, I will say that it's not *just* security that engenders dignity in the case of SS, it is also (1) the fact that you *paid* for those benefits (even if you didn't) throughout your entire life, and (2) that they are often construed as society's acknowledgement of a lifetime of work and thus contribution to society.

    By Anonymous Tom West, at 4:24 AM  

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