Social Security and "Moral Values"

I really liked this Jonathan Rauch piece in National Journal. His conclusion:

The 2004 exit polls suggested, to many conservatives, that “moral values” won the election for Bush. It may seem odd, then, that his boldest post-election priority is not abortion or gay marriage or schools, but Social Security. The key to the paradox is that Social Security reform is not, at bottom, an economic issue with moral overtones. It is a moral issue with economic overtones.

That's right. I'm planning to write a couple longish essays on the moral dimensions of Social Security reform, which I think are far more significant than the immediate economic dimensions.

The strategy of the left is to try to spike reform on the model of the right's demolition of Hillarycare. The big difference, as far as I can see, is that Hillarycare was popular at the outset, but not because it struck the ordinary Joe as some kind of moral advance, but because it seemed like free stuff. The anti-nationalization coalition I think effectively destroyed that idea that anyone would really get a good deal from it, and, perhaps more importantly, plucked several resonant American moral notes about independence, autonomy, and choice.

It seems that the pro-reform coalition in the present case faces broad skepticism about changing social security. However, other than scare tactics about market Russian roulette, the only moral arrow in the quiver of the left is a dull social democratic conservatism about preserving a moribund social insurance scheme. The case depends implicitly on the rather bizarre and unmotivated notion that taking care of each other means offloading responsibility onto the political class. I don't think this tune really sings in the heart of Americans, no matter how “populist” the arrangement. The “save the New Deal” trope lost its luster long ago. So I don't know how well it will fly. The best thing anti-reformists really have going for them is that people are risk averse and are wary of change.

On the other hand, the reformers have a moral message about ownership, independence, choice, and equality that I think may prove popular. A problem for the left in the Hillarycare debacle was that they had no adequately resonant response to the moral argument of the anti-nationalizers (not to mention the practical arguments). I don't think they have an adequately resonant moral response in this case, either. So their success really depends on their ability to effectively plumb the depths of mammalian fear. Risky schemes! Grandma on cat food! Rapacious moneybag bankers!