Social Security, George W. Bush--And the "L" Word (No, Not Liberalism)

News at Home

Mr. Toplin is Professor of History at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington. He is the author or editor of ten books.

Direct Textbooks Textbook resource center

Millions of Americans who view Social Security as one of the most successful programs ever created by the U.S. government find current talk about its supposed failures puzzling. They recognize that the system is generally healthy today, and they understand that some minor adjustments in future years can sustain it long past the middle of the twenty-first century, the time when shortfalls will likely develop because of an aging population. Yet President Bush continues to make frightening predictions about the system’s coming “bankruptcy” and “collapse.” Furthermore, his proposal to shift funds to private accounts will add about $2.5 trillion to the already huge national debt, since cash would have to come from somewhere to pay current benefits after the change.

Why would the president put the nation’s finances and the wellbeing of future retirees at great risk, many ask? Is there more to his opposition to Social Security than meets the eye?

There is. A key to the Bush Administration’s hostility to Social Security can be found in ideology. The president and many of his top advisers view the issue in the manner of libertarians. They prefer not to mention the L-word in public, though, because they do not want to frighten the American people.

George W. Bush did not suddenly discover a need to change the Social Security program radically because of the appearance of disturbing new statistical evidence about the system’s future difficulties. He expressed libertarian-style contempt for the system decades ago when he first ran for public office in Texas. He views economic issues in the manner of a libertarian and takes advice on economic policy from many of them, but he is careful not to identify himself openly with their ideology.

Bush and other libertarian-style thinkers that have gained prominence in Washington, D.C. in recent decades champion markets in the extreme. They are enthusiasts of laissez faire who oppose strong governmental intervention in the affairs of individuals and businesses. Libertarians prefer to reduce government’s activities to a few essential services such as defending the public from foreign threats and protecting citizens from criminals. They seek the privatization of state-run programs (such as Social Security) and massive tax cuts. Often they advance their goal of limited government by squeezing the budgets of social programs.

Libertarians sometimes succeed in winning public support for such budget reductions by fostering situations that make severe declines in domestic spending appear necessary. They tend to be less troubled by today’s gargantuan deficits than moderate conservatives and liberals, because those imbalances can force changes that they promote. Libertarians love the tax cuts that contributed to deficits, and they know that the public’s fears about a growing budget crisis will justify finance-chopping actions against popular entitlement programs such Medicaid, the health system for the poor.

Frequently, libertarians attempt to soften public enthusiasm for the government’s social outlays by claiming that federal programs are in a state of crisis. President Bush and his supporters have exemplified this practice recently by likening Social Security to the Titanic approaching the icebergs.

Libertarian-minded Americans, including the president, tend to avoid any public association of their proposals with libertarianism, because they do not want to be identified with a controversial philosophy. They seldom mention the L-word, because libertarianism has a reputation for radicalism. One of the leading gurus of libertarian thought in the United States, Nobel Prize-winning economist Milton Friedman, avoids the term as much as the president. Friedman likes to call himself a classic liberal of the nineteenth-century tradition.

Committed libertarians tend to be sticklers for consistency. If government is the problem and not the solution, they reason, then its role in modern American life should be reduced considerably. Many libertarians resist forms of state intervention in the public interest such as pollution controls, government-initiated college loan programs, unemployment compensation, regulation of pharmaceutical products, monitoring of toys for child safety, and provision of housing and food stamps for the poor.

Furthermore, libertarians often celebrate the “moral autonomy of the individual,” which means, essentially, that most activities involving adults are O.K. as long as they do not harm others. Many (but not all libertarians) believe mature Americans should enjoy an unfettered right to indulge in drugs, consume alcohol, obtain pornography, or participate in gay relationships. Additionally, many oppose wars generally, because war usually leads to higher taxes and larger government. Specific aspects of this broad agenda appeal to many people. Few Americans, however, are willing to accept the entire package, much of which was outlined years ago by a pioneer of the movement, Murray Rothbard.

Quite a few libertarian-minded Americans like to cherry-pick favorite themes and turn away from others. George W. Bush is a notable example. He gives particular attention to the libertarians’ ideas about the economy. Bush often expresses enthusiasm for free markets and small government. On the other hand, President Bush does not publicly promote the libertarians’ social themes, which maintain that citizens have the right to live in any way they choose as long as they respect the rights of others. And, of course, the president has shown little public interest in the traditional libertarian advocacy of peace over war.

When President Bush and other hard-line, market-oriented conservatives present their case for limited government, they usually call for specific measures to deal with specific problems, concealing their larger ideological interests. They offer proposals in ways that make the recommended changes seem like needed solutions to save the nation from a crisis rather than a philosophical cause designed to move the libertarian ideal closer to reality.

Washington-based libertarians (such as those associated with the Cato Institute) frequently provide the news media with data suggesting that government programs are failing. Then they suggest radical measures to remedy the problem. Libertarians talk about failing “government” schools and then propose vouchers to support private school education. They describe Medicare programs as unsustainable, then recommend private insurance programs to replace them. And, of course, they talk about a Social Security crisis and point to privatization as a remedy (although they chose other terms to describe their program for Social Security after polls showed that many Americans reacted negatively to the word “privatization”).

When discussing the debates over Social Security, it would be useful for the news media and the public to look beyond familiar disagreements over interpreting demographic data and comparing the merits of long-term investment in stocks and treasury bonds. The clash over Social Security involves more than disputes about crunching numbers. It is also about ideology. The libertarian-inspired assault on Social Security represents one battle in a full-scale war that aims to defeat many of the principal government-oriented reforms of the twentieth century.

Related Links:

comments powered by Disqus

More Comments:

JohnM Bernard Mendolusky - 4/6/2005

LIAR is the more appropriate word to describe this paleo-fascist.

Hugh High - 3/18/2005

Louis Armstrong was allegedly asked :

"Mr. Armstrong, how can you tell the difference between good jazz and REALLY good jazz? "

Armstrong allegedly replied, "Baby, if you don't know, then can't nobody ever tell you ! "

And so it is, Mr. Dresner !!

Arnold Shcherban - 3/18/2005

Below you'll find an amusing piece.

Fake Moustache Falls Off Veep During Press Briefing.

The White House press corps was rocked by another scandal today as a man thought to be a professional journalist was revealed to be Vice President Dick Cheney wearing a fake moustache.

The shocking discovery took place during a daily briefing at the White House in which spokesman Scott McClellan took the following question from a reporter he referred to only as “Herb”: “Wouldn’t you agree that President Bush’s plan for reforming Social Security totally rocks?”

Before Mr. McClellan could respond to the question, the reporter’s moustache suddenly fell off his face, revealing him to be none other that Vice President Cheney.

Mr. Cheney, unaware that his disguise had fallen off and seemingly oblivious to the audible gasps of the journalists in the room, continued: “And wouldn’t you agree that anyone who opposes it hates our country?”

After adding, “And isn’t everything in Iraq going really well these days?” the vice president noticed that his fake moustache was on the carpet at his feet.

He then quickly excused himself and bolted out of the room.

Hours after the incident, the White House took great pains to explain Mr. Cheney’s dual role as vice president of the United States and obsequious journalist.

“For the past three years, we have consistently stated that Vice President Cheney has been in a secure, undisclosed location,” Mr. McClellan told reporters. “That location was, in fact, the White House press room.”

Elsewhere, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said that she would not run for president in 2008 “unless the Democrats nominate somebody really easy again.”

Jonathan Dresner - 3/17/2005

Is this like the difference between classical music and "classic rock"?

David T. Beito - 3/17/2005

If you were thinking of Juan Cole, I rather like his work (at least when he sticks to foreign policy!).

Arnold Shcherban - 3/16/2005

Sorry for mistake: I meant Mr. Toplin, of course.

Arnold Shcherban - 3/16/2005

Mine is between 40-50K.
What's yours? I'll tell you the relevance, as soon as you kindly answer the question, which I assure you has nothing to do with taxing your income or using it to solicit a pornosite.

David Timothy Beito - 3/15/2005

That's antimilitaristic.

David Timothy Beito - 3/15/2005

Who is "Mr. Cole?" I was addressing myself to the views of Robert Trent Toplin. Toplin did not restict himself to the assertion that Bush's libertarianism is limited social security (a dubious claim in itself for a program of forced savings and increased governmental regulation of the stock market). He used sweeping language about the alleged libertarian nature of Bush's administration.

I didn't even mention how Bush's pro-war views run completely contrary to the antiwar/militaristic stain of the overall libertarian tradition.....but then I don't need to do this to illustrate the flaw with the author's thesis.

Arnold Shcherban - 3/15/2005

Mr. Beito,

Your objection canoot be serious.
The article's author forwarded the hypothesis that based
on many similarities of Bush position on the social security reform to the corresponding positions of libertanian theorists it is very likely that the former
position is libertanian one.
Mr. Cole did not conclude that Bush is certainly a libertanian on all other social, economic and ideological issues, the generalization you tried to blame him for.
One obviously can be libertanian or proletarian or delusional on one issue and quite opposite on all, or some, others.
So, sleep well; none is trying to hijack any ideology in
anyone's favor.

David Timothy Beito - 3/15/2005

I believe that Teddy Kennedy calls himself a "classic liberal."

David Timothy Beito - 3/15/2005

I had to shake my head when I read this strained revisionist claim. Are we talking about the man who signed the most massive expansion of Medicare since the 1960s, has raised tariffs repeatedly to "protect" American industry, imposed new regulations on broadcast content on the "public" airwaves, expanded farm subsidies, and signed a pork-barrel bill to subsidize transportion? How are any of these positions "libertarian?"

Hugh High - 3/14/2005

Mr. Shcherban,

The relevance ?

And yours ? (which is relevant merely because you raised the issue and, somehow, think that income is determinative of ideas -- a tired idea, I would add. )

Lisa Casanova - 3/14/2005

I understand. However, the AC article seems to be more of a critique of some caricature of what a particular conservative thinks libertarians are all about. I think it very unfortunate that it is a widely misunderstood and mischaracterized philosophy, and this article and the one from AC are proof of this.

Marc "Adam Moshe" Bacharach - 3/14/2005

You make some excellent points. I did not mean for my post to assume that I agreed with the AC article, merely that it was a conservative critique of it and thus to highlight some of the differences between conservatism and libertarianism.

On a personal note, I happen to know many libertarians and they are no more caring or uncaring about freedom and dignity than any liberal or conservative. It is simply an alternaitve political ideology that I respect, though do not share.

Lisa Casanova - 3/14/2005

The American Conservative article is a total smear. If you read it, you will come away without any concept of what libertarians actually believe. As for George W. Bush, nothing expands the government and its power like war. His leanings, and his actions in office, are hardly libertarian. Libertarians, though certainly not a monolithic group, have a fundamentally different view of the role of the state in society and the need for the things the state does than most people do, and that includes the need for programs like Social Security. I would not say that George Bush shares this view. As for the comment on the above thread inquiring about a poster's annual income, it is not a philosophy of spoiled rich people (another smear I come across occasionally). It has nothing to do with how much money you have and everything to do with what you believe about human freedom and dignity.

Arnold Shcherban - 3/14/2005

Mr High,

I have only one question for you: would you be so kind
to tell us what's your family's income (just a ball-park

Marc "Adam Moshe" Bacharach - 3/14/2005

You bring up some excellent points about libertarianism and I would be happy to discuss our disagreements over what exactly constitutes libertarian beliefs. First however, I would like the opportunity to comment on some of your points:

1) “Libertarians, above all else, eschew violence and think that no one should coerce another. And most government programs are, at botttom, coercive relying of force, or the threat of force, for their implementation.”

This is very true, of course, but then the entire concept of law enforcement is equally coercive. Both Locke and Hobbes recognized long ago that in the absence of government, even a coercive one, mankind would be left to “man against man,” as Hobbes said, and a complete breakdown in the concept of “private property” as Locke maintained. The only way such property can be protected is through some law enforcement mechanism as well as some way to monitor who owns what, both of which require taxation.

The article that I cited however, does a far better job than I of articulating some of the conceptual difficulties with abolishing government institutions in order to lower violence and coercion.

2) “Most libertarians would not be concerned with government programs which are voluntarily… IF government acts and programs are so good, as they assert, then surely most people will recognize this so they can, and should, be completely voluntary, e.g. Taxes.”

I would not assert any such thing to be “silly,” but it does go against what we know about economics. Within economic theory lies a collective action problem. Take national defense as an example: Since I would benefit from it regardless of whether or not I contribute money into it, the rational choice would be to refuse to participate and simply free ride on the program provided by others. This is true whenever a good or service cannot be excluded (like environmental protection). An allegory of this problem is often used through the “tragedy of the commons,” which goes something like this:

A group of farmers who all live on their own property in a particular track of land (the commons) all posses’ cows that eat the grass on that land. As the number of cows increases, the commons begins to suffer from the problem of overgrazing. It would be in everyone’s best interest to limit the number of cows that they purchase or to limit the amount of food those cows can eat. However, each individual farmer has a rational incentive to consume as much of the commons as possible since however much they consume does little to harm the commons individually. Thus what is individually rational is collectively harmful.

(The following is the article which originally articulated this allegory

3) “A second major point of disagreement with Mr. Moshe is his implicit suggestion that allowing people not to be plundered for the benefit of those on welfare rolls is not a liberating act when, clearly, it is. Liberals are those who wish to liberate, not to control, as do most who are called, in America, "liberals" , about whom there is precious little liberating, and much controlling.”

I suppose the only answer I can give is that there can be no freedom without control.

Beyond that, Liberals would respond in 2 ways to this:
- Since the majority of the people support such programs through the democratic process, the only alternative would be to allow the objections of the minority to veto policies that cannot be economically isolated. In other words, it is either all (everyone pays into the system through taxes or other fees) or none (there is no way to get anyone to do so).\

- The term “liberal” could refer to liberating people from the uncertainty and deficiencies in the market. “Allowing people not to be plundered for the benefit of those on welfare rolls is not a liberating act” when such action would return society from a war of all against all as it was following the industrial revolution but prior to the New Deal. Certainly, few people today view Teddy Roosevelt as having “plundered” the people for creating the FDA, or preventing the unfettered development across the entire nation.

My point is not that you are wrong, you are certainly not, but merely the idea of freedom depends on whether such a thing as “the public” good exists, who gets to decide, how those decisions are made, and whether they necessarily conflict with individual good.

4) “One can agree Bush is a not a libertarian -- but rather has vastly more in common , as regards governmental intrusion into the lives of the citizenry, with F. D.Rooselvelt.”

Hmmmmm, I suppose the way the above comment is worded I would not disagree, however I am loath to compare the policies of the current administration with those of FDR, since the beneficiaries of their policies are markedly different.

Hugh High - 3/14/2005

While agreeing with much of what Adam Moshe says, it is important to note that he is quite wrong as to what is the essence of libertarian beliefs . Libertarians, above all else, eschew violence and think that no one should coerce another. And most government programs are, at botttom, coercive relying of force, or the threat of force, for their implementation. Most libertarians would not be concerned with government programs which are voluntarily -- indeed, I often remind my socialists and statists friends (NO, not ALL Democrats or Republicans are statists -- just most ) that IF government acts and programs are so good, as they assert, then surely most people will recognize this so they can, and should, be completely voluntary, e.g. Taxes. Curiously, most assert 'that is silly' -- when, in fact, it is but a logical extension of their assertsions as to the asserted merits of governmental action.

SO, it is not that libertarians are guided, particularly , by a belief in the efficiency, or efficacy, of markets -- but rather they don't think some groups should plunder and seize the property, lives and time, of other citizens as do most members of the Democratic and Republican parties who have few qualms in espousing public policies and legislation designed, in fact, to do just that -- "for the common good" of course.

A second major point of disagreement with Mr. Moshe is his implicit suggestion that allowing people not to be plundered for the benefit of those on welfare rolls is not a liberating act when, clearly, it is. Liberals are those who wish to liberate, not to control, as do most who are called, in America, "liberals" , about whom there is precious little liberating, and much controlling.

One can agree Bush is a not a libertarian -- but rather has vastly more in common , as regards governmental intrusion into the lives of the citizenry, with F. D.Rooselvelt.

Marc "Adam Moshe" Bacharach - 3/14/2005

The author uses social security to demonstrate how Bush is exhibiting libertarian tendencies. However, a look over his policies and administration reveals that he is neither libertarian, nor conservative by the traditional understanding of the terms.

Libertarianism is quite simply the desire to end government intervention in peoples lives. Although most libertarians acknowledge the need for national-defense and a few other topics, most things we now assume to be the role of government (education, welfare, crime control, road maintenance, etc.) libertarians believe would be better delivered by the open market.

Conservatives, by contrast, tend to lament only federal, or national control over peoples lives, believing that democracy works best when localized, or closest to the people which the national government is not. Thus few have any philosophical problems with state and local government programs, although they may have some political objections to individuals items.

So where does Bush fit into this? Although his efforts to dismantle Social Security under the guise of “reform” brings glee to both conservatives and libertarians, what of his other policies? The PATRIOT Act, while widely welcomes by many Americans, was an anathema to both groups, who believes that it gives the federal government extraordinary police power with little or nor oversight. Similarly, while liberals complain that the NCLB Act was grossly under funded and over promised, the very idea that the federal government would be making policies on education (traditionally a state issue) is counter to libertarian ideology. Ditto with Bush’s proposal to amend the Constitution on gay marriage. While many conservatives and libertarians have solid roots in various Christian movements, this goes along with more power being taken from the states and given to the federal government. Also, although tax-cuts have long been the swan song of conservatives and libertarians, the current federal deficit is almost universally condemned by such groups and always have been.

Bottom line: Bush is a Republican, and partisanship is not the same as ideology. Bush is no more conservative or libertarian than Clinton was a liberal (remember cutting welfare rolls in half and balancing the budget through spending cuts?). Looking at one issue (social security for example) gives us no more accurate view of Bush’s agenda or ideology than looking at a single strand of hair tells us about what a person looks like.

For a conservative critique of libertarianism, see the following:

Hugh High - 3/14/2005

Prof. Toplin asserts that the Bush administration's apparent desire to alter Social Security owes to ideology and is , he says , a "libertarian-insprired assault" and "represents one battle in a full-scale war to defeat many of the principal government-oriented reforms of the twentieth century."

There is an alternative explantaion which Toplin apparently doesn't recognize -- that since Social Security is but a Ponzi scheme , and the government is merely the enforcer which takes money from one group by threat of force, and then gives it to another group, the Bush Administration might be driven by a desire to eradicate this theft and confiscation.

Further, as Social security is, indeed, a Ponzi scheme, requiring an ever expanding number of people enterring the system to give part of their wages to those eligible under current rules , Toplin's suggestion that interpretation of demographic data is of modest importance is difficult to understand.

Finally, I find it difficult to understand why anyone would suggest that a confiscatory tax system and a fraudulent Ponzi schemd is a "reform" -- a horrible example of Orwellian double-speak.