Voices

'Let there be wealth'

Social Security reform pits wealth creators against wealth dividers

Issue: "Social Security breach," Feb. 19, 2005

As you listen to the big Social Security debate over the next few months, be sure not to miss the main philosophic difference between the two sides in the argument.

Those who oppose President Bush's proposed revisions tend to believe that there's only a fixed amount of wealth in this tired old world, and that it's government's job to divvy up that little bit of wealth just as fairly and justly as it possibly can. Those who back Mr. Bush's proposals tend to believe, on the other hand, that God's work of creation is not yet over-and that He is still in the business of saying more-or-less frequently along the way, "Let there be wealth!" (Not all of Mr. Bush's allies are quite that theologically inclined, but that's another story.)

This ideological gulf is not, of course, unique to the Social Security debate. It was just as visible a decade ago when welfare reform was the main topic. It is part of the root difference between conservative and liberal thinking.

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Liberals tend to think we're running out of everything, and that only the government is wise enough to ration out the little bit that is left. And since we always seem to be running short of resources for old age pensions, food stamps, subsidized housing, health care, college tuition money, oil and natural gas, radio and TV frequencies, flood and hurricane and tornado relief-and just about every other shortage you can think of-the perpetual answer is to form a new government program or agency to handle the shortage.

Conservatives, on the other hand, tend to be a more optimistic crew. They're inclined to believe that somewhere, somehow, there's a virtually endless supply of almost every commodity and resource we need to live prosperous, comfortable lives. It's our job to uncover the secrets of God's creation order (sorry, I just can't help being theological about this), and to unleash the enormous productivity that has been built into everything around us. That is part of our human calling.

In practical terms, applying this difference in perspective to Social Security, liberals really do tend to see the Social Security transaction as a bookkeeping relationship. It's a warm-hearted relationship, to be sure, but still just a matter of perpetually adjusting the numbers. From the inception of the program under Franklin Roosevelt, Social Security has always been a finely tuned system of balancing a certain number of wage earners paying in over against a certain number of pension claimers taking out. But nothing of any dynamic or explosive nature has ever been allowed to take place between the two groups. Group A passes something on to Group B-but nothing "creational" is encouraged or permitted in the process.

Conservatives, on the other hand, are regularly looking for the snap, crackle, and pop of wealth creation. They want to see what happens when the dollars paid in by Group A are put to work for a few years with a goal of being multiplied and then made available again-directly to Group A! But no, this is not merely the goal of a fanatic and selfish few in American society. It was exactly the spirit behind the thinking of the U.S. Congress when it voted overwhelmingly in 1987 to create a "Thrift Savings Plan" for all federal employees (including themselves)-a plan which is in many ways a mirror-image to that being proposed now by President Bush for revising Social Security. And what has happened over 17 years to that "Thrift Savings Plan"? It has produced an average annual internal explosion of growth amounting to 12.1 percent.

Yet even that shifts the focus from the biggest and most enduring difference in the two styles of thinking. Because the liberal perspective has to do only with rearranging the furniture rather than building new furniture along the way, all the furniture in the room sooner or later wears out and disappears. It's true that if I live to be 90, I'll get back most (but probably not all) of what I've paid in. But if, when I am still just 66, my wife and I were to die in an accident, that's the absolute end of the tens of thousands we've invested over our lifetimes in Social Security. With the proposed reform, we would be creating an asset to pass on to our children, grandchildren, and favorite charitable organizations. By merely re-tuning Social Security, we'd be maintaining the existing severe limitation on anything we might call our own.

That whole difference between creating wealth, compared to merely redistributing it, is one all Americans should keep in mind. It's a distinction Christian Americans should take especially seriously.

Joel Belz
Joel Belz

Joel, WORLD's founder, writes a regular column for the magazine and contributes commentaries for The World and Everything in It. He is also the author of Consider These Things.

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