Weekly Standard executive editor Fred Barnes contradicted himself by insisting both that President Bush's plan to allow workers to divert Social Security payroll taxes into private investment accounts should not be called "privatization" and that "the key" to Bush's plan is that beneficiaries will "own" their accounts. In fact, any account that a Social Security recipient truly "owns" will, by definition, be a "private" account, so any plan that would implement such a system is a "privatization" plan (though allowing workers to divert only a portion of their payroll taxes into private accounts would be merely partial privatization).
On the February 1 edition of FOX News' Special Report with Brit Hume, both Barnes and host Hume echoed the Bush administration's well-documented aversion to the terms "privatization" and "private accounts," insisting that the Bush plan "is not what you call 'privatization.'" Hume showed a clip of Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) saying, "President Bush should forget about privatizing Social Security." Then Hume asked the "All-Star Panel": "Is privatizing Social Security -- in the way that Senator Reid suggests -- what the president is up to?" But when the panel initially declined to unequivocally reject the term "privatize," Hume answered his own question. "But just for the record, he's [Bush] not promising, or asking to privatize the system," Hume said. Then Barnes picked up the thread:
BARNES: No. No. Here's why it is not privatization. It's not. I mean, for one, the government will decide how much of your Social Security payroll taxes you can actually invest. The government will decide what your options are in investing it, and they'll probably be fairly narrow -- index funds and so on. And the government will tell you when you can actually take the money out and sell the stocks and have the money.
Seconds later, Barnes transitioned smoothly from claiming that Bush's plan "is not privatization" to claiming that "the key" is ownership:
This is not what you call "privatization." It does allow people to do something other with some of their payroll tax money than just leave it in the Social Security system because they can make more money this way and they will own that account. The key is they'll own it, and they can pass it on to their heirs.
The truth is that any plan in which accountholders truly "own" their accounts would by definition be a form of "privatization." On the other hand, if the government "will decide what your options are in investing" and "will tell you when you can actually take the money out," as Barnes claimed, then accountholders will not truly "own" their accounts. After all, millions of Americans today who own 401(k) accounts can invest in whatever they want and can withdraw money before retirement at their discretion -- e.g., to start a business, pay for an illness, or go on vacation. Asking the government to guarantee a core retirement income for seniors -- which is the motivation for the proposed restrictions on personal accounts that Barnes mentioned -- is fundamentally at odds with promoting genuine "ownership," which inevitably involves risk.
Bush himself used the term "private account" at a Republican fund-raiser in September 2004, and the conservative Cato Institute, which has been a leading advocate privatization for years, began a "Project on Social Security Privatization" in 1995 before quietly changing the name in 2002 to the "Project on Social Security Choice" in response to Republican requests, as The Washington Post reported.