Transforming moral problems into politics

Posted: Feb 15, 2005 12:00 AM

Am I pushing the envelope too far to suggest that there is common ground between the politics of slavery and the politics of Social Security?

When moral problems are transformed into politics, we can find surprising similarities in issues that otherwise might seem worlds apart.

This past week I attended a conference at Washington's Cato Institute on Social Security reform. I moderated a panel examining the impact of personal retirement accounts on women, minorities and the poor.

Listening to the case for transforming Social Security to a regime of personal ownership is simple and compelling. The numbers no longer add up in our current system. Personal accounts would allow ownership and wealth creation. If we had to start from scratch, no one would want the system we now have. If the case is so clear, why isn't it simple to change?

This month is Black History month, so my thoughts float back to another time a few hundred years ago when America was bound in another system that had been around for many years and also needed changing. Slavery.

Historian Joseph Ellis, in his book "Founding Brothers," provides a riveting account of an attempt in the first U.S. Congress to deal politically with the dilemma of slavery. The incident sheds much light on the politics of today.

The story begins early in 1790 with the arrival of petitions, one day after the other, to eliminate the slave trade and to abolish slavery. The first petition was delivered by a Quaker delegation and the second came from the Pennsylvania Abolition Society and was signed by none other than Benjamin Franklin.

Slavery was the "third rail." Politicians had little interest in airing their views on this sensitive subject publicly. But debate was forced by this initiative from early American idealists.

What stuck me in reading Ellis's account is how quickly the moral question deteriorated into a debate characterized by pure political calculation.

Although there was general appreciation of the incongruity of a nation founded on the principles of freedom tolerating slavery, morality and ideals soon were obscured by concerns about perceived social and economic costs of freeing the slaves.

For instance, what would it cost to compensate slave owners for each freed slave? Estimates of $100-$200 per slave produced an overall estimate of $140 million, 20 times the size of the federal budget of that year. The cost seemed prohibitive.

Furthermore, what could be done with the freed slaves? It was unthinkable then that "negroes" be set free to live amongst and intermingle with the white population.

Various emancipation schemes were cast about, such as moving the freed slaves out West or transporting them back to Africa. All the ideas seemed unworkable and unwieldy.

Bottom line: The transition costs of unwinding ourselves out of the bind of the institution of slavery seemed far too high.

And, of course, slaveholders, whose entrenched interests were in the status quo, were pleased to see the issue disappear.

With the cooperation of the likes of John Adams, Alexander Hamilton, George Washington and James Madison, the first initiative in Congress to end slavery, spearheaded by Franklin, was engineered into political oblivion.

Franklin, the visionary, knew slavery could not go on and knew that the longer the nation waited, the challenge of ending it would grow only more complicated and painful.

We are saddled today with a government program, designed many years ago, that diminishes the wealth, benefits of ownership and freedom of every working American.

There have been numerous attempts over the past decades to fix Social Security. These attempts have only prolonged the agony and made the exit more painful and complicated.

When we look back 200 years, we wonder how great men could have turned away their eyes. I wonder today whether the outcome of the great Social Security debate will reflect the ideals of a free nation or calculations of entrenched political interests.

Maybe most to the point, Ellis concludes his essay by saying, "Perhaps it was inevitable, even preferable, that slavery as a national problem be moved from the Congress to the churches, where it could come under scrutiny as a sin requiring national purging, rather than as a social dilemma requiring a political solution."

This, perhaps, gives us a hint of the nature of our problem today.