It's an Open-and-Shut Case

Being willing to entertain the idea of ruining Social Security is no virtue.

JONATHAN CHAIT

Los Angeles Times

March 11, 2005

In the Social Security debate, apparently the worst thing anybody can say about you is that you've made up your mind. A Washington Post editorial writer penned an Op-Ed article praising "the thoughtful voice of a Democrat not reflexively opposed to personal accounts." Joe Lieberman's spokesman piously insists the Connecticut senator is "still in a listening and learning stage and keeping an open mind." Well, good for him. But I've read several books and many articles advocating Social Security privatization, and it still strikes me as a horrible idea. Can I stop listening and learning now? Or must I remain thoughtfully agnostic while the same unconvincing arguments are repeated ad nauseam, in the hope that another repetition will finally sway me?

What's on display here is something you could call militant open-mindedness. Of course, it's good to have an open mind. Like all virtues, however, open-mindedness can be taken too far. In this case, it's being used to self-righteously impugn the motives of everybody else — or at least everybody who has a clear position — while placing one's own beyond reproach.

The militantly open-minded are particularly exercised against those who would take options "off the table," to use the cliche du jour. "For anyone to take anything off the table at this point would be counterproductive," barked Rep. Jim McCrery (R-La.), who heads the House subcommittee on Social Security. "I hope we will all calm down and say everything is on the table." Everything? What about mass euthanasia of retirees? That would take care of Social Security's financial problems.

To be sure, nobody is proposing anything that compares morally with mass murder. But there are some fairly important principles at stake. If you believe in Social Security's basic function as social insurance, then introducing private accounts is anathema.

Indeed, it's precisely because conservatives oppose Social Security and the concept of social insurance that they came up with the concept of privatization in the first place. Opposing something that would undermine the core liberal domestic achievement of the last century is hardly, as privatization advocates suggest, a petulant tactic intended to humiliate President Bush. It's the essence of a principled disagreement.

The right, too, has its own bright red lines. Recently, conservatives in Congress rejected any solution that involves a tax hike. I happen to think the conservative belief that low taxes are the most important thing in the world is crazy. If you hold to that view, though, then rejecting any Social Security change involving tax hikes makes perfect sense.

The rhetoric of militant open-mindedness falls into two camps. The first is the genuinely open-minded. Senate Finance Committee Chairman Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa) asserts: "We have an obligation to keep an open mind. If we make a commitment to build a bipartisan consensus … " etc.

This is all well and good if, like Grassley, you see Social Security as primarily a problem of making the numbers add up. But if you care about the core question of whether Social Security continues in its present form or is transformed into something radically different, then having an open mind is suicidal. It could mean supporting a bipartisan process that leads to a result you think does great harm.

Those in the second category don't actually believe there are no principles worth insisting upon. For them it's simply a way of framing their own principles as beyond dispute. Take this line from the Washington Post Op-Ed: "Every once in a while, in a debate as dominated by partisanship and dogma as the current slugfest over Social Security, you run into someone whose views seem informed instead by facts and fundamental principles."

Got that? "Dogma" is bad. "Principles" are good. What's the difference between dogma and principles, you ask? Principles are what your side believes in. Dogma is what the other side believes in.

At the heart of this view is the belief that anybody willing to listen to your side is bound to come around to it. GOP pollsters recently lamented that most voters "still do not possess enough detailed information about the nature of the problem to embrace personal retirement accounts as part of the reform effort."

Funny, it seems to me that the more people learn about privatization, the less they like it. But perhaps I'm being closed-minded.