A nation's political trends are governed by several factors--the state of the economy, the vested interests of politicians and bureaucrats, the attitudes of the media, and many others. But the fundamental factor is moral: the beliefs people have about right and wrong, good and bad; their aspirations for their lives; the virtues they practice and vices they denounce; the responsibilities and obligations they accept; the things they feel entitled to; the standards that govern their sense of fair play; the ideals that shape their sense of what is worthy.
The impact of morality on politics is obvious for many of the issues on the political front burner today, such as sex and violence in popular entertainment, or the alleged decline of family values. But these are just the tip of the iceberg. To understand the broader and more pervasive impact of morality, consider another issue on the front burner: Social Security reform.
On its face, the plan to privatize the government retirement system is not a moral issue but an economic one. Advocates of the plan argue that because Social Security is a pay as you go system, in which current benefits are paid by current taxes rather than by returns on funds invested in the past, the system is headed for financial disaster as the number of retirees increases in proportion to the number of workers supporting them. Opponents claim that the problems can be fixed by relatively minor adjustments to the retirement age, payroll tax rates, and benefit levels.
Opponents of the privatization plan also claim that investing retirement funds in the stock market is too risky a proposition for most people; too many would end up destitute in old age. Advocates of privatization argue that the market trends upward over the long-term, and that the returns people get over an extended period will far exceed what they can expect from Social Security.
So where in the debate over Social Security does morality enter the picture?
Social Security was created in 1935 as the centerpiece of President Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal. Imagine that 150 years earlier, someone had proposed to the Founding Fathers, at the Constitutional Convention where they were creating a new federal government, that the government pay for every citizen's retirement by taxing a portion of every citizen's earnings. It would have been denounced as a system of universal dependence and universal slavery, an insulting attempt to treat free men like the mob in ancient Rome. What made Social Security possible in 1935 was not economic change. It was not the Depression. There had been depressions before, and absolute standards of living were still much higher in the 1930s than in previous generations, despite the increase in relative poverty.
What made Social Security possible was the growth of collectivist thinking among intellectuals and cultural leaders during the preceding century. The ground was prepared by critics of individualism who taught that solidarity and equality are more important than freedom. As I noted in my 1998 book