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home >> the library >> article archive >> Against Selfishness

Against Selfishness
February 10, 2005

by Steve Breyman print version
print version (graphics)
Disowning the Ownership Society




President Bush’s second term domestic agenda (Social Security privatization, tax cut permanence, tort “reform”, etc.) is marketed under the umbrella concept “Ownership Society.”

While perhaps intuitively appealing to some of us—better to own something than not—the notion is fundamentally selfish. It sets the possessive individualist against “the government” and the rest of civil society. It separates what’s yours from what’s mine. It’s about me, not we.  

Take the current controversy over whether to carve out “personal savings accounts” from two-thirds of the Social Security withholding tax paid by wage earners and the salaried. Following the problematic initial claims regarding the perilous financial condition of the social insurance scheme, the proponent of privatization immediately tries to set the mature portion of her audience at ease by declaring those 55 and older exempt from the proposal. Some of us get to breathe easy, the rest of us are at the mercy of Wall Street. Generational conflicts are neither new nor probably even completely preventable. Encouraging them, however, is likely not good public policy. E pluribus Unum.   

The second condition for Social Security privatization enumerated by the President and his sales force is that payroll taxes will not be raised in the process. With a peremptory wave of the privileged hand is one of the easiest and fairest “quick fixes” swept from the table. At present, we pay 6% of our gross income into the Social Security trust fund, matched by our employers. But we only must pay the tax on the first $90,000 or so of income (a limit that grows slowly over time). Any and everything we earn above this level is exempt. It’s reasonable to view this loophole as a bonanza for that very small proportion of us who make more than this. It’s also reasonable to look here first when searching for new revenues to stabilize the program’s long-run financial footing. Is it not fairer for the whole of all citizens’ income to be subject to withholding? Apparently not in the “Ownership Society,” where greed trumps fairness.

In the classic Liberal trade-off between self and society, Bush comes down squarely for the (well-to-do) individual. Bush’s individual American is crouched, calculating, looking over her shoulder, calling her broker. The ideal of the community-centered citizen, the small town American—open, decent, compassionate, helpful, responsible—is nowhere to be seen. Thus are collective understandings of national attributes like mutual aid and fellowship replaced by market exchanges for gated communities, car alarms, and pepper spray. What’s best about Americans, our deepest, most meaningful, spiritual, and human traits—care for the sick, weak, and disabled, concern for our children and their children, pulling together in moments of crisis—are simply never evoked. Instead, even concern for the long-term well being of our parents and grandparents can be transformed into a selfish market opportunity.

In some sense, Bush’s initiatives reflect the society upon which they are pushed. But rather than have us rise above hyper commercialism and bottomless self-promotion for the Common Good, Bush’s proposals mirror the America of Reality TV: Social Darwinist, me against them, do anything for a buck degradation. Donald Trump, now complete with a clothing line, fragrance, and bottled water, replaces Martin Luther King, Jr. as national icon. Backstabbing supplants social solidarity and cohesion. Chemical and surgery-enhanced self-improvement obscures fraternity and equality. “Pimping” one’s “ride” and “making over” one’s private home is the new American “freedom.”

The “Ownership Society” also fits neatly with the Wal-Marting of the country. Endless desire for “everyday low prices” precedes support for local merchants. Acres of blacktop and monstrous Big Box architecture are the best uses for our disappearing farmland, wetlands, and open space. Socializing the costs of employee benefits is the new business model. The $3 T-shirt is more important than the working conditions and pay of teenage girls in the developing world. Corporate sovereignty defeats the rights of working people to organize trade unions.  

Some bumps have already appeared in the toll road to the “Ownership Society.” We may be witnessing a renewed confidence among those for whom the American Dream does not mean record budget deficits, record national debt, record consumer indebtedness, or record trade deficits. These distressing fiscal indicators are only worrisome to those of us more concerned about we than me. Here’s to more boulders and potholes along the way.


Steve Breyman is Director of Graduate Studies in the Department of Science and Technology Studies at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute.

Steve Breyman breyms@rpi.edu is Co-Chair of the Board of Directors of Citizens Environmental Coalition.






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