CHOICE IS APPEALING. That’s why it’s at the heart of the loose amalgam of programs, theories, and buzzwords that President George W. Bush calls the Ownership Society. It’s Bush and his political advisor Karl Rove’s way of trying to bring everyone inside the Republican tent. People who are happy with the government just the size it is shouldn’t be spooked, they say: The Republicans aren’t trying to take anything away, they just want to give people more choices. Libertarian types shouldn’t be spooked either, and maybe they should even be excited: Republicans are finally dismantling the New Deal and replacing it with the free market, or at least a Rube Goldberg approximation thereof. And if policies to expand home and small business ownership can be tied in (because, hey, the word ownership is in there), all the better; that could appeal to African Americans and Hispanics. A Republican Party pushing an Ownership Society can be all things to all people.
This leaves those of us who care about limited government with a dilemma. Do we take the idea of an Ownership Society seriously, despite the fact that it comes from a group of people who have proven beyond a shadow of a doubt that they are comfortable not just increasing but ballooning the size of the federal government? Or do we cast it aside, despite the fact that as a political formulation the Ownership Society offers perhaps the most promising path in a generation to expanding individual freedom?
At the risk of giving the Bush administration the benefit of the doubt, libertarians, small-government conservatives, and all other natural skeptics of the president and his policy shop should take a step back, take a deep breath, and take the Ownership Society seriously. The big-government conservatives are right about one thing: Republicans are never going to roll back the New Deal. But they can shape what takes its place as America moves past the framework of its old industrial-era economy, to which the New Deal is inextricably tied.
At the same time, the Ownership Society can’t be judged in a vacuum. The Republicans have held the presidency, the House, and (except for two years) the Senate since 2001. The president has had more than five years to advance a bold new approach to conservatism under some of the most favorable political conditions imaginable, and at first glance it doesn’t look like he has much to show for it. What’s more, the small steps he has taken toward realizing that vision have come at great expense in sheer dollars and cents, as well as in greatly expanding the role of the federal government.
If the Ownership Society is supposed to be the best political means to achieve small-government ends—if it’s supposed to be the realistic alternative to the paint-fume-huffing delusions of committed libertarians—then it only makes sense to judge its performance in the real world, without pulling punches or granting points for effort.
The Evolution of Ownership
Though Bush had used the phrase on occasion before, it wasn’t until the 2004 Republican National Convention that he brought under the umbrella of the Ownership Society several policies and goals that turned out (more by happenstance than by design) to tie together thematically. “Another priority for a new term is to build an Ownership Society, because ownership brings security, and dignity, and independence,” he told the crowd at New York City’s Madison Square Garden. “In an Ownership Society, more people will own their health care plans, and have the confidence of owning a piece of their retirement.” Bush extolled the fact that homeownership was at an all-time high in America, and he promised that more Americans would own their own homes. He said that his administration was transforming schools by raising standards, and he promised that it would keep insisting on accountability and empowering parents and teachers. “In all these proposals,” he said, “we seek to provide not just a government program, but a path—a path to greater opportunity, more freedom, and more control over your own life.”
A fine vision, that. But Bush’s words didn’t flesh out exactly what an Ownership Society is at the end of the day, or how far along his administration might be in creating one after a full term in office. In fact, Bush didn’t make a single speech during the 2004 campaign or in the year after his reelection giving the idea significant depth or detail.
Still, upon examination, it’s possible to map out a constellation of programs and proposals that, taken together, form something of a coherent picture. Bush’s stalled proposal for private Social Security accounts? Definitely part of the Ownership Society. The tiny health savings accounts tacked onto the humungous Medicare prescription-drug bill? Also part of the Ownership Society. Setting targets for increased minority homeownership? Sure, why not. Proposed job-training accounts? What the hell. A prospective overhaul of the federal tax code? Somewhat inexplicably, Bush aides also consider this idea part of the package. The No Child Left Behind law? Passed in 2001, it predates the newfangled slogan, but administration officials say it gives parents more control over their kids’ education, an idea central to the Ownership Society concept.
What’s remarkable, then, is just how short a distance Bush has traveled with this idea in five-plus years. Even the president’s greatest defenders are left praising achievements his administration hasn’t…well, achieved. “Imagine if the president had won the fight for private accounts in Social Security,” the conservative pundit Fred Barnes wrote in his 2006 book Rebel in Chief. “And imagine if he had expanded consumer-driven health care.…Achieving it would have been an epic feat. And Bush, having succeeded in creating an ownership society, would be the most important and consequential domestic policy president since FDR.”
Too bad it didn’t work out that way.
Barnes still says he thinks the Ownership Society has a shot at going down in history next to the New Deal and the Great Society (some company). Bush’s conservatism, Barnes and others argue, breaks daring new ground because it is not aimed at reducing the supply of government, as in the Gingrich years. Instead, it aims to reduce the demand for government, by making people more self-sufficient and less dependent on handouts. Even if many of Bush’s bolder proposals haven’t yet been enacted into law, they argue, his pilot programs and half-measures will whet Americans’ appetites for choice, and his reorientation of the political debate will set the course for future Republican presidents and congresses.
Libertarian critics counter that the Ownership Society is merely big government by another name, providing only the faintest illusion of choice. The government would still be taking people’s money and forcing them to spend it on schooling or health care, or to save it for retirement; adding insult to injury, it would then allow (force?) citizens to choose from a menu of pre-approved, government-sanctioned options as to how precisely they would like to receive the required services. Meanwhile, government’s growth would continue unabated.
Each of these views of the Ownership Society has an element of truth. But the only way to judge Bush’s success is by looking at the results so far.