THE DOW OF SOCIAL SECURITY
Sep 14, 1998, Vol. 4, No. 01 • By DAVID FRUM
The clock is ticking in another sense, too. Unlike President Clinton's Democrats, the party of Dick Morris's multitudes of mini-ideas, the Republicans are the party of a few big ideas. The party is now wrestling with the question of what its next big idea should be. Ought it to be radical tax reform and big tax cuts? If so, there will be little time and energy left over for Social Security reform -- especially since one of the favorite arguments of the radical tax reformers is that their low, flat income tax will so boost the U.S. economy that the old unreformed Social Security system will suddenly seem affordable. (Which is why Steve Forbes's 1996 tax plan, which so dramatically pledged to eliminate income taxes for lower-income families, quietly left in place the much more onerous payroll tax on those families.) If, on the other hand, the Republicans choose to make an issue of Social Security, tax reform will inevitably sink into second place. That's why the tax reformers get so grouchy when anyone gets too earnest about fixing the Social Security system: Recently, the Wall Street Journal's Paul Gigot used his column to administer a stinging rebuke to Sen. Phil Gramm for just this offense. And since the tax-reform option is the one most appealing to risk-averse Republicans -- Who ever saw his poll numbers drop for proposing to cut taxes? -- sheer inertia suggests that the longer Social Security reform is postponed, the less appealing it will become to Republicans.
In other words, time may not in fact be on the reformers' side. Reform may be most feasible when memories of the bull are still fresh and hopes for its return are strong. This question of timing becomes all the more urgent if the tax reformers are wrong and it is indeed Social Security that is the most important economic issue for conservatives. Make no mistake: Low tax rates are wonderful things. But Social Security privatization is the American equivalent of Mrs. Thatcher's sale of council housing -- a social reform that will transform millions of voters from dependents into owners. The partisans of the Social Security status quo understand this: Increasingly they defend the rattle-trap old system not in economic terms but as the last bulwark of collectivist ideals.
Proponents of reform should be at least as openeyed -- should understand that this is the one reform that will install self-reliance at the very center of the American economic constitution. Tax rates fluctuate. But Social Security reform will create a permanent political majority in favor of sound money, corporate profitability, and a free economy. The fact that such a majority happens to be in place now should not blind us to the possibility that it could very well vanish. And last week's market turmoil is a warning that it could vanish with stunning rapidity. If Republicans miss the opportunity to reform Social Security now, they may never get the chance again.
David Frum is a contributing editor to THE WEEKLY STANDARD.