In a secretly taped video that became public on Monday night, Mitt Romney tells a group of donors that 47 percent of Americans—those who pay no federal income taxes—“will vote for the president no matter what” because they are “dependent upon government” and “believe that they are victims.”
His words are just the latest formulation of what has become a standard Republican claim: that society is divided into “makers,” who work hard and pay taxes, and “takers,” who live off of others by consuming government benefits. This simplistic categorization is both laughably ridiculous and morally repellent.
We are all takers, and very nearly all of us are makers, at some point in our lives. Unless you sprang from your mother’s womb fully mature and self-sufficient, you were a ‘“taker” as a child. Unless you die before you reach retirement, you will be a “taker” in your old age. Unless you never hold a job or do anything productive over the course of your entire life, you’ll be a “maker” at some point.
But most of the time, we’re both takers and makers simultaneously, if “taking” means accepting government benefits and “making” means paying taxes. The vast majority of Americans receive some type of government benefits, and the approximately 47% of Americans who don’t pay federal income taxes are still paying taxes.
Or suppose we acknowledge those facts and restrict our analysis to the “takers” who receive more in government benefits than they pay in taxes. That many people fall in this category is not a bad thing: On the contrary, it illustrates that the safety net, which involves richer people’s taxes providing a basic standard of living for poorer people, is working. Moreover, as others have pointed out, this arrangement is the result of many policies championed by Republicans, from the Reagan-era tax cuts to the child tax credit and the earned income tax credit.
To expose the silliness from a few other angles: If a retiree is a “taker” for accepting Medicare, is an electrician a “taker” for accepting his employer’s health insurance coverage? If a lawyer is a “maker” because he pays taxes, is his daughter (a college student) a “taker” because she’s not earning taxable income for herself? If an unemployed person is a “taker” for accepting unemployment insurance, is a stay-at-home mom a “taker” for living off her husband’s earnings? If a church secretary is a “maker” because she pays income taxes, is her pastor a “taker” because his income is largely tax-exempt?
The plausibility of the maker-vs.-taker distinction depends on ignoring every aspect of civic life besides the government budget—a mistake that conservatives should avoid precisely because we emphasize the many ways of contributing to and benefiting from society aside from the state. (Families, businesses, voluntary associations, sports teams, and religious groups come to mind.)
Granted, the narrative draws on a small grain of truth: that a few Americans depend on government benefits rather than employment as their primary source of income. The recent expansion of the Social Security Disability program may demonstrate this fact, but even that is mainly a result of unemployed Americans’ inability to find a job. (The ongoing decline of the labor force participation rate, meanwhile, is also at least partly explained by factors other than laziness, like the aging of the population.)
Yes, work is integral to human flourishing, and we should encourage the development of every individual’s talents to enable as many people as possible to contribute to the common good. Demonizing the jobless in the midst of an economic slump, though, is not going to help.
Yet we should reject the maker-vs.-taker distinction for reasons beyond the shortfalls mentioned here. Behind the flawed narrative is a very nasty worldview, one that Romney and Ryan would reject if presented starkly, but one that their rhetoric nonetheless invokes.
This reductionist, utilitarian idea says that one’s worth as a human being is determined by one’s contributions to society. An individual has no dignity as an individual; he has dignity only if he works, only if he pays taxes, only if he produces more than he consumes. If he needs help or cannot work, he is a weak, lazy, good-for-nothing taker.
Any moral person would reject this idea as utterly repellent—but pro-life Christians must take the lead in refuting it, if we truly stand for the unique, inalienable, God-given dignity of every human person.
After all, a society that regards “takers” as mere burdens will abort babies with Down syndrome, stigmatize the disabled, and euthanize the elderly. It will not relieve the oppressed, defend orphans, plead for the widow. It will simply let them die, because the “makers” would be better off without them.
Anna Williams is a junior fellow at First Things.
R.R. Reno, Absurd Republican Rhetoric
Matthew Schmitz, Stop Berating the "47 Percent"
Joseph Knippenberg, Homo Sapiens and Homo Economicus
USA Today, “Romney: Obama voters ‘believe they are victims’”
New York Times, “Our Hidden Government Benefits,” Suzanne Metler
Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, “Misconceptions and Realities About Who Pays Taxes”
Reihan Salam, “Makers, Takers, Taxpayers, Etc.”
Wall Street Journal, “Jobless Tap Disability Fund”
The Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago, “Explaining the decline in the U.S. labor force participation rate”
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