Columns » Warwick Sabin

What's the big idea?


Politics in a democracy is always defined by the tension between the ideological and the practical. We vote for people with whom we agree on the broad issues of the day, but we also respect the officials who can make the trains run on time. Sometimes it’s a tricky balance. You can admire a principled leader, but you can’t ignore bad results. Or you can fundamentally oppose a politician’s philosophy while still acknowledging his or her management skills. However, in its stubborn commitment to abstract ideas despite the real-life consequences of its actions, the Bush administration is creating more problems than it is solving. Bush’s effort to reform Social Security is only the latest manifestation of his slavish devotion to theory. A recent e-mail on the subject from Peter Wehner, the director of White House Strategic Initiatives, encouraged allies by saying, “We have it within our grasp to move away from dependency on government and toward giving greater power and responsibility to individuals.” Later, he wrote, “At the end of the day, we want to promote both an ownership society and advance the idea of limited government.” These are admirable goals, but they are not exactly consistent with Bush’s public statements, in which he usually talks about “saving” or “preserving” Social Security. Rather, it seems that the Bush administration privately would like to get rid of Social Security altogether, because it does not fit with its utopian vision of society. Never mind that Social Security’s future shortfall could easily be addressed by raising the payroll deduction ceiling, which currently prevents increased withholdings from salaries above $90,000. Never mind that the debt incurred from creating private investment accounts will jeopardize the entire system, drive up interest rates for everyone, and cause instability in the stock market. Social Security is the crown jewel of New Deal-era entitlement programs, and its dismantling would be the defining victory in Bush’s ideological crusade. Before Bush even took office, there was speculation about the policies he would pursue based on his advisors’ academic and journalistic writings. For instance, some of them suggested — knowing it is politically unpopular to propose eliminating programs like Social Security and Medicare — that the government should systematically bankrupt itself through increased spending and lower taxes, thereby forcing the reduction of entitlements. Nobody actually believed they would be bold enough to do it, but today we face an unprecedented national debt, and Bush has not even proposed a realistic way to shore up Medicare, which is facing a more immediate crisis than Social Security. Similarly, Bush’s foreign policy team had extensively advocated for regime change in Iraq through the 1990s, so in retrospect it is no surprise that they used every possible argument to realize their goals once in power. But you can agree with their intentions — removing a tyrant and establishing a democracy in the Middle East — and still abhor their methods and their subsequent incompetence. This is what is so worrisome about Bush’s Social Security reform proposal. We already have learned that, in the minds of Bush and his allies, any tactic is justified in service to the overall ideological pursuit. That includes being disingenuous about their true intentions, manipulating facts, acting unethically, and denying reality. If you strongly believe in something, you should be able to convince people that you are correct without resorting to distortions (as happened in the lead-in to the Iraq invasion, and as is happening now with Social Security). If the lives of others will be impacted by the implementation of your ideas (as is happening in Iraq, and as will happen with Social Security), you should be absolutely certain that you understand that awesome responsibility. And with that in mind, you must ensure that you fully prepare for the task at hand, so that your commitment to an idea does not blind you to the realities on the ground (as has happened in Iraq, and as could happen with Social Security). The appeal of the big idea is almost irresistible, because it imposes order on a chaotic world. And if the idea is romantic enough, and you are powerful enough, you will probably decide that you are doing the world a favor by forcing it to correspond with your vision. But obsession can overturn common sense, and the Bush administration will not allow moderation, reason, or logic to obstruct its agenda. Make no mistake: They come to bury Social Security, not to praise it.

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