I was listening to the White House press briefing today on CSPAN, and a reporter asked McClellan something like, “Wouldn't the president's plan–putting a portion of SS witholding in private accounts–reduce the amount of the benefit guaranteed by the government.” (It's online, so I guess I should just listen.) As I remember it, she tried to push her question at least one more time, again stressing the “guaranteed” part, clearly frustrated that Bush's solid frontman refused to accept her framing. Now, that “guaranteed by the government” part always annoys me when folks talk about SS.
The government doesn't guarantee anything. I need to check, or somebody can tell me, but I think my legal entitlement to SS money is entirely at the discretion of Congress. It could disappear !*POOF*! just like that. If Congress tomorrow raised the retirement age to 157, established means-testing such that you don't get benefits if you have more than $7 in your savings account, or abolished the program outright, I wouldn't see one shiny dime of the thousands of dollars the government has taken from me, and there is nothing other than the winds of public opinion and whatever else motivates politicians keeping the government from doing this sort of thing. Furthermore, today's government has no real ability to bind tomorrow's government, which might decide to use all the Social Security money to pay for a titanic nationwide party with the best firework show ever. Isn't this why Al Gore kept talking about lockboxes? Because there is NOT a legal/institutional impediment keeping future governments from doing whatever they want with the SS money?
And isn't one of the nice things about giving people property rights in their retirement accounts just this: that it at least creates some kind of legal barrier between your money and the state, which is certainly more of a guarantee that the money will be there when you retire than earnest assurances by some politician who will be dead when you reach middle age?
(Of course, nothing can really guarantee that the government won't just take your money, if it really wants to. That is, nothing except the vigorous exercise of our second amendment rights!)