`Welfare state' under siege

February 25, 2005|By Jules Witcover

WASHINGTON - When the redoubtable Newt Gingrich was speaker of the House, before a sea of troubles persuaded him suddenly to give up his official megaphone and become a private citizen, he loved to rant about the evils of "the welfare state."

The phrase was his putdown of every manner of Democratic Party program that sought to help the nation's poor, elderly or otherwise disadvantaged soul, embodied in the party's self-congratulatory label as the party of the people.

Mr. Gingrich still rants about the welfare state with less influence, but it doesn't matter much. His basic message has now been embraced by President Bush with the customary cover disclaimer of "compassionate conservatism," which in four years has been more "conservative" than "compassion."

The president's fiscal 2006 budget, slashing all manner of what the Democrats would call people programs such as education and Medicaid and revamping Social Security, is a thinly veiled beginning of the most dedicated conservatives' efforts to polish off what remains of Mr. Gingrich's hated "welfare state."

But the effort is couched in a gentler, positive term. It would replace that abhorred state with "the ownership society," that paradise wherein the individual somehow takes control of the engine of capitalism, eliminating the need for government to stick its heavy hands into his affairs.

The Bush plan for what he calls "personal" investment accounts paid with a portion of an individual's Social Security payroll tax (what Democrats call partial privatization) would make the individual the "owner" of his retirement plan.

The notion of ownership does have the distinct benefit of enabling a taxpayer to pass on his retirement savings to a survivor of his choice, which is not possible under the existing Social Security system. But the basic notion of the system as created 70 years ago was to provide a safety net to help retired seniors through the collective action of all, not a form of inheritance.

In his second inaugural address, Mr. Bush spoke of his goal to build an ownership society: "We will widen the ownership of homes and businesses, retirement savings and health insurance, preparing our people for the challenges of life in a free society. By making every citizen an agent of his or her own destiny, we will give our fellow Americans greater freedom, and make our society more prosperous and just and equal."

That speech generally was received as a bold declaration of intent to spread freedom throughout the world. But part of the message conveyed a determination, in the context of conservative thought, to push freedom at home from paternalist government.

The current issue of The American Enterprise, the house organ of the conservative think tank the American Enterprise Institute, sums up the objective in a cover piece appropriately titled "From Alms to Ownership: America's safety net is about to be dramatically modernized."

In the same issue, William Tucker writes that "the current one-size-fits-all Social Security system was designed at the height of the Stalinist era. It was probably the best that could be done at the time." The debate now, he says, "is much more than just a political fight, or an actuarial dispute, or a scrap over economic spoils. It is a landmark decision for our future.

"Will the American government operate with the laws of nature, the logic of problem-solving mathematics, and the power on its side?" he asks. "Or will we continue with the mediocrity of a benign but extremely crude Stalinism as our best effort to solve America's pressing social needs?"

Franklin D. Roosevelt as Stalin? Die-hard defenders of FDR's New Deal are put on notice of the assault to come.

Jules Witcover writes from The Sun's Washington bureau. His column appears Wednesdays and Fridays.

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