Thursday, January 20, 2005

Altruism vs. Liberty at the Inauguration

Bush's Altruism Undermines His Case on Social Security

by Robert Tracinski

President Bush's second Inaugural Address turned out to be very interesting, and in ways I did not quite expect.

As has become the pattern for Bush, the first half of the speech was devoted to foreign policy. Also as usual, this section was stronger and more articulate than the rest of the speech.

Here, Bush re-stated the basic theory behind the "Forward Strategy of Freedom:

"After the shipwreck of communism came years of relative quiet, years of repose, years of sabbatical—and then there came a day of fire.

"We have seen our vulnerability—and we have seen its deepest source. For as long as whole regions of the world simmer in resentment and tyranny—prone to ideologies that feed hatred and excuse murder—violence will gather, and multiply in destructive power, and cross the most defended borders, and raise a mortal threat. There is only one force of history that can break the reign of hatred and resentment, and expose the pretensions of tyrants, and reward the hopes of the decent and tolerant, and that is the force of human freedom.

"We are led, by events and common sense, to one conclusion: The survival of liberty in our land increasingly depends on the success of liberty in other lands. The best hope for peace in our world is the expansion of freedom in all the world."

The good part of the "Forward Strategy of Freedom" is Bush's recognition of the connection between tyranny and war. Nations that murder and enslave their own citizens always seek to export those evils outside their own borders. So it is true that America's long-term interests come from the spread of liberty across the globe.

But the primary problem with Bush's theory is that he regards liberty as a causeless "yearning of the human heart" implanted there by God, which therefore requires no intellectual or cultural foundation. Notice that in Bush's speech the lack of freedom is regarded as the "deepest source" of terrorism—while "ideologies that feed hatred and excuse murder" are regarded as mere by-products, as movements that opportunistically take advantage of the "simmering resentment" caused by tyranny.

And so, for example, Bush believes that deposing Saddam's regime and holding elections is all that is required to promote the spread of liberty in the Middle East. No Western institutions or ideas are needed—and indeed, he says later in the speech, "America will not impose our own style of government on the unwilling. Our goal insstead is to help others find their own voice, attain their own freedom, and make their own way." That is the root of everything that is wrong with his administration's management of the occupation of Iraq.

The main difference between this speech and previous foreign policy speeches is that Bush stated the "Forward Strategy of Freedom" in far more sweeping terms.

"So it is the policy of the United States to seek and support the growth of democratic movements and institutions in every nation and culture, with the ultimate goal of ending tyranny in our world.

"This is not primarily the task of arms, though we will defend ourselves and our friends by force of arms when necessary. Freedom, by its nature, must be chosen, and defended by citizens, and sustained by the rule of law and the protection of minorities..

"The great objective of ending tyranny is the concentrated work of generations. The difficulty of the task is no excuse for avoiding it. America's influence is not unlimited, but fortunately for the oppressed, America's influence is considerable, and we will use it confidently in freedom's cause....

"Today, America speaks anew to the peoples of the world:

"All who live in tyranny and hopelessness can know: the United States will not ignore your oppression, or excuse your oppressors. When you stand for your liberty, we will stand with you. Democratic reformers facing repression, prison, or exile can know: America sees you for who you are: the future leaders of your free country. The rulers of outlaw regimes can know that we still believe as Abraham Lincoln did: 'Those who deny freedom to others deserve it not for themselves; and, under the rule of a just God, cannot long retain it.' The leaders of governments with long habits of control need to know: To serve your people you must learn to trust them. Start on this journey of progress and justice, and America will walk at your side."

This is a manifesto of global republican revolution, sponsored by the United States—especially in that line about foreign dissidents being "the future leaders of your free country" and dictators not retaining their own freedom for long. We will see how much this Bush is willing and able to implement in his second term.

As for domestic policy, anyone expecting Bush to make a strong pitch for his reform of Social Security—as I was hoping—was bitterly disappointed.

The transition to the domestic section of the speech was promising, because it described domestic policy as an extension of the theme of advancing freedom:

"America has need of idealism and courage, because we have essential work at home—the unfinished work of American freedom. In a world moving toward liberty, we are determined to show the meaning and promise of liberty."
But any talk about liberty was dramatically undercut in the next paragraph, when Bush invoked a "broader definition of liberty":

"In America's ideal of freedom, citizens find the dignity and security of economic independence, instead of laboring on the edge of subsistence. This is the broader definition of liberty that motivated the Homestead Act, the Social Security Act, and the GI Bill of Rights. And now we will extend this vision by reforming great institutions to serve the needs of our time. To give every American a stake in the promise and future of our country, we will bring the highest standards to our schools, and 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 from want and fear, and make our society more prosperous and just and equal."

The "broader definition of liberty" endorsed by Bush is the same view of freedom promulgated by Franklin Roosevelt, complete with the worst of Roosevelt's "Four Freedoms": "freedom from want." Bush explicitly endorsed the welfare-statist view that freedom means a social guarantee of prosperity, to be provided by the state.

Thus, in proposing a semi-privatization of Social Security, Bush is not promising to lift the heavy hand of government out of our lives and reverse the disastrous legacy of the New Deal welfare state. No, he presents his reforms as a continuation and extension of Roosevelt's legacy, only in a newer, more practical form.

It gets worse in the next paragraph, where Bush makes liberty conditional on religious belief and altruism.

"In America's ideal of freedom, the public interest depends on private character—on integrity, and tolerance toward others, and the rule of conscience in our own lives. Self-government relies, in the end, on the governing of the self. That edifice of character is built in families, supported by communities with standards, and sustained in our national life by the truths of Sinai, the Sermon on the Mount, the words of the Koran, and the varied faiths of our people. Americans move forward in every generation by reaffirming all that is good and true that came before—ideals of justice and conduct that are the same yesterday, today, and forever. In America's ideal of freedom, the exercise of rights is ennobled by service, and mercy, and a heart for the weak. Liberty for all does not mean independence from one another."
The only sop to a genuine pro-liberty viewpoint is one phrase: that the goal of his proposals is "making every citizen an agent of his or her own destiny." But that, buried in amongst the rest, is too little to make much difference.

In today's speech, Bush advocated freedom—but within the constraint that we are our brothers' keepers. And he billed private investment accounts, not as a means of escaping from government control, but as an extension of the legacy of the Roosevelt-era welfare state.

A partial privatization of Social Security is the most important positive result we can hope for from a second Bush administration. Why that is, and what would constitute a good implementation of that reform, are topics I will begin to discuss in more detail in TIA Daily starting next week.

But his statements in his second Inaugural Address show that Bush is doing everything he can to undermine the case for privatization—or to ensure that it will be implemented in a twisted, compromised form.