Many conservatives believe ? quite sincerely, as far as I can tell ? that privatizing Social Security will actually create new conservative voters and they also seem to believe (likewise sincerely) that liberals share this belief and that this explains why liberals don’t like privatization.
It’s true that some conservatives believe that creating a country of stockholders will also create a country full of people dedicated to corporate growth, and therefore a country that’s more sympathetic to the goals of the Republican party. But I think that misses the forest for the trees.
The truth is simpler, although it’s not something that any savvy conservative will admit these days: they just don’t like Social Security and they want to get rid of it. They didn’t like it in the 30s when FDR first proposed it; they didn’t like it in the 50s when Eisenhower made his peace with it; they didn’t like it in the 60s when they nominated Barry Goldwater for president; and they didn’t like it in the 80s when David Stockman briefly tried a frontal attack on benefits but then retreated to a strategic hope that rising payroll taxes would eventually inspire a workers revolt against the whole system. (It didn’t work.)
So now they’ve learned their lesson: not only are frontal assaults fruitless ? Americans like Social Security ? but they’re ephemeral anyway. Sure, price indexing might cut benefits and therefore the overall size of Social Security, but so what? Even if you passed it, some future Congress would just reverse it.
Private accounts are the only thing you can do to undermine the nature of Social Security that’s likely to be permanent. There are no absolute guarantees, of course, but once you start up a program of private accounts, it’s almost impossible to dismantle it. In the same way that there are enormous transition costs to ditch the current system in favor of private accounts, there would be enormous transition costs in the future associated with any attempt to ditch private accounts and bring back guaranteed benefits.
And that’s the key: privatization is the only plan that has a chance of permanently crippling Social Security as a system of guaranteed benefits. When FDR created the current payroll tax-supported system, he said, “With those taxes in there, no damn politician can ever scrap my Social Security program.” And he was right. Today’s Republicans are hoping to achieve the same thing in reverse with private accounts. Social Security will eventually wither away, and no damn politician will be able to do anything about it.