Cover the kids’ ears! Hide their eyes! Shuffle the weak and frail from the room! A politician running for president has uttered a heresy that brings into question the holy grail of democratic politics. Romney has failed to pretend as if the country is one big happy family that uses our glorious voting system to discover ever better ways of governing ourselves.
Which is to say that Romney made a gaffe.
You know the definition of a political gaffe: inadvertent and unscripted truth. That’s what the supposed scandal of Romney’s off-the-cuff comments amounts to. He told potential donors an unvarnished truth that everyone knows but which is not part of the official civic creed of the land of the free:
“There are 47% of the people who will vote for the president, no matter what… All right, there are 47% who are with him, who are dependent upon government, who believe that they are victims, who believe the government has a responsibility to care for them, who believe that they are entitled to health care, to food, to housing, to you-name-it. That that’s an entitlement. And the government should give it to them. And they will vote for this president no matter what…These are people who pay no income tax.”
The implied model here is that modern democracy is a system that enables mass confiscation of wealth by some from others. And who can doubt it? In older monarchical systems, only a tiny elite was privileged to steal from everyone else, and if they stole too much, people would get angry and overthrow them.
Democracy solved the problem by granting everyone the privilege once reserved to elites. Now we can all steal from each other, and even from ourselves. This way, it is no longer clear who the enemy is. We don’t know whom to blame when things get bad. There is no one to overthrow but ourselves.
And things are indeed getting bad. As income falls, the household budget is ever more squeezed, we are living ever longer, and the boomers retire, government benefits are soaring on autopilot.
Indeed, the 47% figure might be low. Other estimates put it closer to half. And it is rising. A smaller percentage of household income comes from wages than ever before. Food stamps, Medicaid, unemployment benefits, disability benefits, Social Security… this stuff adds up and amounts to dependency.
He also helpfully noted that 47% do not pay income taxes. That doesn’t mean that they don’t pay tax. They are actually heavily taxed at the payroll level — a tax that pays into the very benefits that have made them dependent, a tax that has been more heavily raised under Republicans than Democrats. Everyone is taxed for every dollar earned and on the sale of nearly everything. But of course, neither party wants to talk about those taxes.
Also presumed in Romney’s talk: People vote their economic interest. Again, experience bears this out. If household economics don’t stack up, nothing else works. Politicians have limited time and money and need to get the biggest bang for their buck.
No, this is not writing off half the country, as the partisan pundits are saying. It is the mapping out of an electoral strategy based on the “median voter theorem.” This is the idea that elections are won not by the partisans or extremes on either side, but by the people in the middle. This is the business of politics. It is about finding and appealing to the interests of the median voter.
Shocking? If so, you have never bumped into a campaign consultant at a cocktail party. This is how they all talk and think. Indeed, this is how politics has worked for, oh, 200 or so years, and ever more so since the expansion of the franchise.
In the video, Romney goes on to say that his job is to appeal to the independent 5% who will turn the election in his direction. Notice that this outlook also “writes off” all the people that he already knows will vote for him. He is also giving himself a license to put their interests on the shelf as well, at least in rhetoric.
For this reason, anyone who dedicates himself or herself to getting Romney elected, as a means of protecting personal wealth from confiscation, will be sorely disappointed. Republicans as much as Democrats find ways to take what is yours.
And by the way, Obama thinks the same way. Obama will never convince voters who are already dedicated to Romney, and every single Obama adviser knows this. This is a fight for the remaining 5%. And what’s more, politics is business in another form. It is about giving and getting. Political parties represent interests, not ideas.
But oh, how precious is American political culture! We must not hear these things. We must never be permitted to hear what is true. Instead we have a Victorian sensibility about our civic religion. We sing the national anthem, say the pledge and reflect on 19th-century mythologies about our revered Founders, because, after all, we have the greatest system of government ever conceived, one so wonderful that it should be exported and imposed all over the world.
Or so we tell our youngsters. As adults, we should know the truth. Politics is a means of wealth redistribution. Electoral strategy is a race to the bottom. After all, it is emphatically not the case that Romney’s chosen constituents are free of dependency. Note that he is ramping up his imperial warmonger talk in recent days.
Every day, there is a new enemy that he accuses Obama of not slaying. And it’s not only about the military. It is about our trading partners. He has blasted the Obama administration for being soft on China.
What’s this about? It’s about reassuring his supportive pressure groups that he supports their interests. He will protect the American corporate class against foreign enemies who attempt to bypass the corporate oligarchs by selling cheap stuff to you and me. No, he won’t let that happen. And it is about reassuring the military-industrial complex that its subsidies will continue.
In fact, Romney represents a different class of dependents. Large banks. Financial institutions on the dole. Monied elite who live off cheap credit and infinite liquidity courtesy of the central bank.
Either way, the rest of us get looted. The election is about who controls that margin of loot that remains after the autopilot spending administered by the permanent class of bureaucrats is finished doling out its entitlements left and right.
In a way, I feel sorry for the bourgeoisie gathered in that small room to hear his talk. He wanted their money — a payment in exchange for his promise to protect their wealth from the grasping hoards. But he still wanted their money. Whether he will actually do this is another matter. And why should they have to pay at all?
There once was this idea called freedom. You keep what you earn. You don’t live off others. You mind your own business. Society works out its own problems without politicians, police, bureaucrats, and power elites running lives.
Is what both Romney and Obama are doing a corruption of the idea of the political party? Ludwig von Mises, whose book Liberalism (a Laissez Faire Club selection) explains everything you need to know about democracy, says that this is precisely why political parties were founded. “All modern political parties and all modern party ideologies originated as a reaction on the part of special group interests fighting for a privileged status against liberalism.”
The best statement on this was framed by Frederic Bastiat: “The state is the great fictitious entity by which everyone seeks to live at the expense of everyone else.” His book The Law is part of the Laissez Faire Club’s “Economics in One Library” that comes free to every Club member. The point of law is precisely to prevent the mutual looting that goes by the name “democracy.” But once property rights are no longer secure, political elites can plunder with impunity.
In fact, as I think about the next month and a half of grueling election posturing, I can’t imagine doing without this book. It not only foresaw this moment, but fully explains it, and further shows how no truly independent-minded person can depend on any political machine to protect his or her interests.
To keep our liberty and property from their clutches is our job.