Most Americans are not aware of it yet, but there is a great philosophical debate underway across the country about what sort of a nation this will be in the years ahead. Broad philosophical discussions are a rarity on the American scene, given the national predilection toward nonideological pragmatism; those involving the direction of public policy and its intellectual underpinnings come along perhaps once every generation or two. As a rule, the country avoids introspection, preferring to focus on instant solutions to problems, but this time, introspection has been forced upon it.
What has precipitated the emerging debate is the reelection of George W. Bush and the presentation, however unspecific in detail, of his domestic program for the next four years. The president's immediate predecessors, Bill Clinton and George H.W. Bush, never advanced ambitious agendas and were not prone to linger over "the vision thing;" the former was absorbed with political triangulation and pure survival, the latter with foreign affairs and the minutiae of statecraft. The current occupant of the White House is a different breed; he sees himself, somewhat vaingloriously, in the pantheon of presidential greatness and seeks the confirmation of a bold vision enacted.
The Bush vision, the likely product of a cadre of ideologically motivated advisors, has been offered up under the rubric of the Ownership Society. The term began to be bandied about during last fall's political campaign, but it was kept deliberately murky until a reelected president and a Republican Congress were safely ensconced in office. Until then, voters were encouraged to read into it what they would, "ownership" being a rhetorical positive; its materialistic appeal was a little like another of the administration's electioneering mantras, "It's your money."
It was only with the presidential inaugural and State of the Union addresses that the Ownership Society began to be spelled out and its implications made clear. The ruling ethic would revolve around risk, dressed up as self-reliance, and selfishness, clothed in the colorful garb of freedom and independence. More of the responsibility for an individual's health care, retirement security and standard of living would be shifted to that individual; government's role, in the form of public safety nets and interventions in the marketplace, would be cut back or eliminated. Future generations of Americans would make it (or not) on their own. If they made it, they would owe nothing to society; if they didn't, they could expect little from the broader community except barebones public assistance and, perhaps, random neighborly charity.
Beyond the president's bracing words about "the dignity of economic independence," "the challenges of life in a free society" or "making every citizen an agent of his or her own destiny" lay a deeper and more hard-edged meaning: Americans were, and are, being asked to return to some semblance of the law of the jungle -- to voluntarily embrace an updated version of the world of social Darwinism that existed in the 19th and early 20th centuries, when it was, quite literally, every man for himself. They're being asked in a comforting way, of course, a way that urges private compassion for the losers -- they shouldn't actually starve -- while saluting the winners.
The centerpiece of the Ownership Society is Social Security privatization, the riskiness of which has been well documented; it would substitute individualized stockmarket investing for the government-run social-insurance system presently guaranteeing retirement and disability protection. Some (the clever, the knowledgeable, the affluent, the lucky) might prosper under the shift; many others would fall through the cracks into a life of poverty. Most would probably survive, but with no appreciable wealth enhancement and the constant fear of uncertainty hanging over them like a financial sword of Damocles.
The rest of the Ownership Society agenda consists of replacing such things as traditional employer pensions, workplace health insurance and government education loans with an array of savings and investment vehicles (IRA and 401(k) retirement accounts, health savings accounts, educational savings plans and the like) that all feature the enticement of tax-deferred savings for those able to set aside the money and accept the added risk. Albert Crenshaw, who analyzed the personal-savings aspects of the Ownership Society for the Washington Post, calculates that much of upper-income America may thrive under such a scenario by virtue of lower current taxes and burgeoning future nest eggs. As for the rest, well, tough luck. Savings and risk, Crenshaw points out, don't mean the same thing at all income levels. The less wealthy will invariably save less, be forced to take more chances and face more hardship if their investment efforts don't pan out.
The proposed Ownership Society basically holds out the promise of compounded wealth for those with the wherewithal to strike out on their own, reject cooperative institutions, whether public or private, and ride out the vicissitudes of the market. Its slogan might be, with apologies to Huey Long, "Every man an entrepreneur." The approach is the total opposite of that offered by the other side in the great philosophical confrontation of our time, the liberal New Deal construct, which it seeks to destroy in its entirety.
The New Deal philosophy, which updated for today might be relabeled neo-New Dealism, has its roots in the Populist and Progressive eras and the Great Depression that followed. It's a cooperative approach to civic life that says, in effect, we're all in it together, and there exists a commonly held responsibility for society as a whole. Rather than deifying radical individualism and glorifying the survival of the fittest, New Dealism stresses the need for protective group action. It reaches for economic security in a chaotic globalized economy and demands a resumption of the lapsed social compact between capital and labor.
In today's world, the New Deal ethic favors trade unions and negotiated contracts, living wages and defined benefit pensions, Social Security as we have known it and comprehensive national health insurance as we have not. It wants more regulation, not less, and less privatization, not more. It has a healthy skepticism of the marketplace and rejects the Ownership Society effort to make it America's sole arbiter. In short, it seeks to revive the political spirit of Franklin Roosevelt and modernize, not replace, the institutions he created to fit changing times. It's a clear philosophical choice: George W. Bush or the ghost of FDR.
Wayne O'Leary is a writer in Orono, Maine.