In his inaugural address, George W. Bush accomplished two things. Judging from the accolades, he successfully branded his administration — “freedom” is its name.
And in freedom’s name he laid out an agenda borrowed from the libertarian right — the establishment of an ownership society:
In America’s ideal of freedom, citizens find the dignity and security of economic independence, instead of laboring on the edge of subsistence. This is the broader definition of liberty that motivated the Homestead Act, the Social Security Act and the G.I. Bill of Rights. And now we will extend this vision by reforming great institutions to serve the needs of our time. To give every American a stake in the promise and future of our country, we will … build an ownership society. We will widen the ownership of homes and businesses, retirement savings and health insurance.
Indeed, his speech could have been written by the Cato Institute’s Tom Palmer, who has said, “The extension of ownership rights to fields that have been dominated by government power — including Social Security, medical care and schooling — represents an opportunity for Americans to enjoy … the responsibility, freedom and prosperity that only ownership can make possible.”
“Ownership society” is a pleasant-sounding euphemism for privatization. And top on the list for privatization is Social Security, the program that allows the government to guarantee an income for those in old age, those whose breadwinner has died or those who have been seriously injured and are unable to work. The program was established as an acknowledgment that we as a people have a collective responsibility to provide for our fellow citizens.
Creating an ownership society, said Bush, will prepare “our people for the challenges of life in a free society [by] making every citizen an agent of his or her own destiny.” In other words, it will make everyone a free agent.
Getting rid of Social Security also performs another service. Through the creation of individual retirement accounts, it transfers an immense amount of wealth from the public to the private sector — that is, to the real owners of our society, the 1 percent of the population that owns nearly 40 percent of the nation’s wealth.
In essence, Bush’s proposal to create an “ownership society” bears witness to H.L. Mencken’s definition of an American: “He is intensely and cocksurely moral, but his morality and his self-interest are crudely identical.” Or, as Bush put it, “America’s vital interests and our deepest beliefs are now one.”
Bush’s interest in “America’s vital interests” is in sharp contrast to Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s vision. In his inauguration speech of 1937, FDR warned against “dulled conscience, irresponsibility and ruthless self-interest.” He continued:
In this nation I see … millions of families trying to live on incomes so meager that the pall of family disaster hangs over them day by day. …We are determined to make every American citizen the subject of his country’s interest and concern. … The test of our progress is not whether we add more to the abundance of those who have much; it is whether we provide enough for those who have too little. … Overwhelmingly, we of the Republic are men and women of good will [who] will insist that every agency of popular government use effective instruments to carry out their will. … They will demand a nation uncorrupted by cancers of injustice and, therefore, strong among the nations in its example of the will to peace.
That president created Social Security; the current one seems intent on getting rid of it.
“Americans, of all people, should never be surprised by the power of our ideals,” said Bush, a man whose vision of an “ownership society” represents the death of the ideal that we are all members of a community, and that an injury to one is an injury to all.
Joel Bleifuss, a former director of the Peace Studies Program at the University of Missouri-Columbia, is the editor & publisher of In These Times, where he has worked since October 1986.