One of the things Republicans tell each other about Social Security reform—behind closed doors more often than in their op-eds—is that by creating more investors, it’ll alter public culture and create more Republicans, since people who hold investments tend to be more fiscally conservative. In the current Reason‘s cover-story debate on SS reform (not yet online), Jim Glassman hangs a hell of a lot on precisely that argument. Yet it doesn’t seem all that plausible. For starters, people with lots of investments skew afluent to start with, and even once you control for income, presumably people who invest without prodding from a large government program are also a rather different self-selecting group in other ways. So, on the one hand, I don’t think “It’ll create Republicans” is a good argument for reform anyway by the standards of public reason, even if we think SS as currently structured tends to push people in the other direction. But it’s also not clear that it’s even a sound argument.
So the following entertaining thouhgt occured to me: Our usual cynical narrative about politics has it that folks offer all sorts of public-spirited sounding reasons to support policy that they actually favor for cynical, self-interested reasons—campaign finance regulation, say, which tends to protect incumbents. Could Social Security reform be an instance of the reverse? That is: Since the public policy reasons to fix the system have to do with long term problems not particularly pressing for folks whose time horizon only extends to the next election cycle, the “creating Republicans” argument was crafted by ideologues to appeal to their more pragmatic colleagues, a fake cynical argument for an actually idealistic position? It’s a superstructure laid on a base laid on a superstructure… a fun idea even if false.