WASHINGTON, April 19, 2013 — The Ownership Society is a big idea whose time is now.
It isn’t easy to think big right now. We’ve locked ourselves into a pointless political war of attrition with no clear goals other than obstruction. Gridlock feeds pettiness and pettiness smothers problem-solving.
The only way out of this situation is to change the shape of the game. Somehow we have to look past petty scandals and scalp-counting to imagine a new relationship between the individual and the state, one appropriate for our dynamic economy.
The solution is right under our noses. As the Cold War ended, a group of Republicans began to envision a new rationale for the Republican Party; one based less on fear of an enemy than on hope for better, freer, more prosperous lives for everyone. The Ownership Society, as originally conceived, would have been a bridge allowing ordinary Americans to cross over from pure wage-earning to a capital-driven economy.
The Ownership Society is less a specific policy than a political posture. In its first iteration it was strangled by ideological demands that forbade Republicans from even acknowledging, much less addressing, some of the weaknesses in the concept. Nonetheless it remains a potent idea, the one most relevant to the needs of our time.
The Ownership Society is a world in which individuals have primary control every aspect of their lives. Instead of a society that turns to government to deliver all of the basic requirements of life, government in the ownership society is merely an aid to a population in control of its own fate. Capital ownership is not limited to a wealthy elite, but is a standard feature of life for most people. Holding a full-time job provided to you by an institution or capital owner is only one of many different ways for middle-wealth families to earn a living.
Government in the Ownership Society is an enabler instead of a provider. It plays a key role in delivering infrastructure, a safety net and enforcing the rules of the economic game, but it has little to do with economic outcomes. Unions are antiquated, as workplace protections are delivered by regulation. A highly dynamic technical and employment environment makes “job security” more of a shackle than a value.
The safety net in the Ownership Society is designed to be more of a trampoline and less of a spider web. It would actually be bigger, stronger, and reach more people than we are currently used to, but its emphasis would be vastly different.
While the dynamic nature of the economy means almost anyone might need income support at some point in their lives, only the sick or disabled receive long-term or permanent support. The largest public program in the Ownership Society would likely be education — not just traditional public schools, but lifelong training. Technical training would be a key component of almost every kind of public support.
Transforming the Ownership Society from political slogan to everyday reality would require Republicans to think hard about problems whose existence we mostly refuse to acknowledge. This approach to our culture has the potential to create devastatingly serious problems if hijacked by market fundamentalists.
Particularly in matters of health care, education, and regulatory policy, a reversion to simple laissez-faire policies would smother the Ownership Society in its crib. A culture of mass capital ownership will not emerge from economic anarchy. Without efforts to mitigate the impact of this transition on those slow to benefit from it we would risk building a vast underclass, cut off from the opportunity to compete. Under a weak government an ownership culture could quickly dissolve into a banana republic.
To make this transition work, Republicans will have to focus on some ideologically uncomfortable problems and devise pragmatic solutions. How will minority groups and others with little current access to capital make the transition? How do we reduce the bureaucratic burdens on our capital markets without unleashing mass fraud (again). Can we bring about this transition without concentrating too much power in too few hands? How do we deal with problems that resist market solutions, like healthcare and environmental protection?
How do we square an emphasis on individual decision-making with a respect for traditional values? What does an ownership culture mean for gay marriage, abortion, school prayer, and other social questions? Can social conservatism become the force that gives the Ownership Society its compassionate conscience?
It is time to acknowledge the results of the last election and move past petty, short-term squabbles over budgets and taxes. The next American Century is a mass of tools and materials strewn all over our collective garage floor. It is available to us, but isn’t going to build itself. We have to do some thinking and a create plan on which we can build a party and a culture for the future.
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