It's the system, man

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I was reading Matt Zeitlin on Social Security, a post in which he says:


The real problem with her argument is that Obama’s rhetoric on Social Security buys into a particular frame — that social security reform is an urgent agenda item — that really serves two purposes: One, to find a large “crises” that the David Broders of the world can blame on both parties and two, to create an enviroment where conservative proposals to destroy Social Security will become acceptable (Garance collected some great quotes to this effect).

This echoes the accusation that I want to "Destroy the public school system". There's an implication that conservatives have no reasons for this--just a wanton desire to destroy anything good, especially if it goes against their weird, talismanic belief in the markets.

Forgive me if I suggest that this itself implies a weird, talismanic belief in the superiority of the status quo. A lot of the articles I read from the left simply assume that the school system, or the social security is worthy of defense.

But I come neither to praise public programs, nor to bury them. To me, the programs are a means to an end: educating all of America's children, keeping the old and weak from starving. The question is, do they do a good job at reaching these ends, and at what cost?

If I were designing a system to serve these ends from scratch, would they look anything like the current system? No, obviously, because I'm a libertarian; my solution would look a lot like a means-tested voucher. But even a liberal trying to put together a school system or a retirement program would be very unlikely to design anything even remotely like what we have today. So why are they so hysterical about "destroying the system"? I'm interested in the people it serves, not the bureaucracy and the buildings.

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Megan McArdle is a columnist at Bloomberg View and a former senior editor at The Atlantic. Her new book is The Up Side of Down.

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