Risky Business

No man is an island, entire of itself. — JOHN DONNE

Consider the full-page ad for Harley-Davidson motorcycles that ran in USA Today on August 27, 2009. IT'S A FREE COUNTRY, the headline proclaimed, BUT HAVE YOU FELT LIKE THAT LATELY?

Then, in smaller print, but still in caps: IS IT STARTING TO FEEL CLAUSTROPHOBIC INSIDE THE SAFETY NET? It seemed to us like a strange ad to place at a time when the economy was reeling and polls showed Americans were feeling very insecure indeed. But in its own way, it beautifully summarized a dominant American idea: freedom trumps security.

Yet much evidence suggests that a sense of security actually provides the foundation for risk-taking, freedom, and individualism, much as discipline, patience, and knowledge of music fundamentals provide the basis for free-wheeling jazz. Happiness polls have found that in countries like Denmark, where the safety net is tightly woven, respondents are most likely to say that they feel “free to do the things I want to do.”1 Sure, it's possible to go too far and remove too much of the risk and adventure from life. No doubt that was the case in the former Soviet Union. But that's hardly the case in this economy, where the safety net has been getting weaker for the past thirty years.

Somewhere in the middle of his long reign, George W. Bush offered a glimpse of his vision for our future. Bush called it the Ownership Society.2 In his view, John Donne was wrong, and probably a wimp. Indeed, Bush declared in effect, “Every man is an island, fully responsible for himself.” Every American, Bush made clear, should provide for his or her own social security, health care, retirement plans, and a host of other forms of insurance. Americans were told to say good-bye to the concept of social insurance and pooled risk, to the idea that they are all in this together.

Bush might have called it the You're on Your Ownership Society. But this idea didn't originate with him. It was the culmination of a generation of policies directed at stripping Americans of security guarantees they had become accustomed to since the New Deal.

“You know how to spend your money better than government does,” said Bush.3 Clever phrase; countless heads must have bobbed in affirmation. But when it comes to economic security, it's not as easy as it sounds.

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