Conservatives in the United States continue a healthy debate over how they can reconnect with voters and channel their ideals and goals into policies relevant for the 21st century. But a spectre haunts these conversations — a ghost called the ownership society.
This ghost subtly frames and guides all current approaches to conservative thinking, though its influence isn't clearly articulated or noticed anymore. This is a problem, because until the conservative movement reflects and deals with it, the movement is unlikely to advance.
The ownership society mantra of the former president George W Bush and his era is usually treated as a punchline, associated with Republican cheerleading of high home ownership numbers during the bubble or the push to privatise Social Security in 2005 that failed before it even got started. But the ownership society was the articulation of a deep part of conservative philosophy.
The ownership society rested on two claims. The first, most important part was that the government should shift the risks we face onto individuals and families. The second part was to devolve organisations and responsibilities from the federal government to states and communities. As Mr Bush said in his second inaugural address, these two actions together would make "every citizen an agent of his or her own destiny".
Even though the younger George Bush and his agenda are off the main stage, the ownership society never went away and still influences conservative policy. The congressman Paul Ryan's plan is to turn everything that isn't nailed to the floor into block grants.
Yuval Levin of National Affairs argues that families ("which after all are not liberal institutions") are the best agents of cost controls in health care. To the extent they exist, Republican approaches to health reform seek to reduce the share of medical-cost risk that is socialised.
While the numerous individualised programmes and government activism of Bush-era "compassionate conservatism" seem to contrast with the "47 per cent" meme of the Tea Party versus the looters, these are just two sides of the same coin. Or, perhaps, the good cop and bad cop of the ownership society. The good cop offers you a range of tax-free personal accounts to try to help you to mitigate risk while he transforms public programmes into private ones; the bad cop tries to stigmatise and dismantle what remains of government assistance.
That the ownership idea has survived as a driver of conservative policymaking is important because the vision of an ownership society has not survived the current downturn well. The crown jewel of block-granted policy, welfare reform, has collapsed under the recent economic crisis as increasing numbers of Americans have been left without paying jobs or a welfare check. State budgets crumbled under the bursting of the housing bubble, leaving them unable to absorb responsibilities from the federal government.
Meanwhile, if not for the automatic stabilisers and emergency stimulus that increased national income as the economy went into a downturn, the recession would have been far more vicious.
As unemployment doubled across most occupations, industries and demographic groups, it required a collective government response to combat the recession.
What Americans need today is less individual ownership of risk, not more.
Though political fortunes come and go, the desirability of privatised risk is unlikely to change in the near future. Regular voters do not see the risk ofbeing unable to afford major surgery as a precondition for real freedom, wisdom and virtue. They see a role for the government in protecting us from such a risk through regulation, subsidies and mandates. Conservativeshave not adequately addressed what risks should be shared across the public and how the government should share those risks through law and markets. Most conservative plans try to push costs and risk back onto families, regardless of whether they are prepared to handle them. And such reforms are unlikely to be compelling in the current and future economic environments.
* Bloomberg News