- The Washington Times - Saturday, January 1, 2005

As the Social Security debate — make that “knock-down-drag-out” — bubbles and boils, anintriguing question awaits examination.

The question: What’s wrong with “private”?

Everything, you might think, to hear defenders of the present system carry on, announcing belligerently their intention not to let George W. Bush “privatize” the system.

“Privatize” the system? I don’t believe the president has ever announced his intention to do any such thing as he moves toward rescuing Social Security from prospective bankruptcy. I believe all the president ever has said is the system should be changed to accommodate accounts invested privately by investors making private decisions.

There’s a larger point here, even so. The point is: What’s inherently, intrinsically, everlastingly bad about encouraging Americans to take a larger hand in providing for their futures? Isn’t that one of the things America supposedly is about — decisionmaking by individuals rather than elites and experts? What exempts retirement planning from the protection individual decisionmaking is presumed to enjoy?

Social Security’s reactionary defenders froth over the very prospect of changing the sacred handiwork by which the system came into being during the Great Depression. The left-wing economist Paul Krugman complains: “Very little about the privatizers’ position is honest. They come to bury Social Security, not to save it.” Yet another economist, and informal John Kerry adviser, charged last fall the momentum for “privatization” comes from investment firms poised, if the Bush effort succeeds, to rake in $940 billion in fees over 75 years. You get the impression the Bush White House has decided to sweep away a treasured social program for no worthier motive than further enrichment of the already too-rich.

Gentlemen,gentlemen. Please. Could we consider, first of all, that the Bush plan, insofar as mere hints can flesh it out, consists only of allowing, not mandating, the investment of some, not all, Social Security taxes in personal accounts? Second, could we consider, whatever Social Security purists claim, no one is talking about undoing the system? The talk is of adjustments so the system can meet its lavish promises.

But again the question: What’s wrong with “private”? Are we a nation of sheep, or serfs, that we view the government alone as qualified to see us through old age? Whatever benefits Social Security may have conferred when on sounder financial footing, the system rests now as always on confiscation for a purpose in which the confiscatee has no say. To just go on that way, whether it works right or not, is nuttiness at its nuttiest.

Getting from A to B — or, if you will, F for “Freedom” — will be immensely hard, requiring intermediate borrowing to replace revenues diverted to private accounts. Even so, the financial costs, seem to excite critics less than the whole idea of letting sheep decide where to lie down and what to eat. Why, if you value Big Government, you just can’t allow such a thing.

That’s right — you can’t. I would think that is one more argument for any Social Security reform that creates wiggle room for freedom. The Krugmanites don’t want more room; they would rather do the deciding. You out there — they don’t trust you. You would probably blow your whole investment.

How can they know that? Because that’s what happens in free societies: Some people blow it. The Krugmanites can’t have that — not when they infallibly understand your best interest.

Reformers know the risks and are prepared to place some low fences around the civic sheepfold, specifying, for example, what kinds of investments could be made with Social Security revenues. Beyond that — well, you never know what people will do with their freedom. But we know they often do amazing and surprising things. Perhaps they would again, with their shepherds’ gracious permission.

William Murchison is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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