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By now, I assume that you, dear reader, have heard about Mitt Romney’s surreptitiously recorded comments , offered in response to a question at a Florida fundraising event this past May. I have a number of observations to make about them.

First of all, the context for his answer is provided by electoral politics. When he says he isn’t worried about the 47 percent who pay no federal income taxes (more about that number in a moment), he isn’t saying that he doesn’t care about them, that his fondest wish is for them to starve to death in the streets, but rather that he doesn’t think he can win their votes. He assumes that they will vote their pocketbooks, which he assumes are filled with government checks. A Republican candidate is never going to win a bidding war with a Democrat if what’s being bid is a government transfer payment.

Second, there are ways in which this number is right and wrong. He’s probably right that we’re pretty close to a 50/50 nation politically , that some substantial portion of the nation will support Obama, no matter what, just as some substantial portion will vote for Romney, no matter what. The election will be won or lost at the margins, by the side that most effectively appeals to the persuadables and/or that most effectively mobilizes its base. But he’s wrong when he assumes that the 47 percent of the population that doesn’t pay income taxes is in some sense homogeneous. His critics are quick to point out—rightly, I might add—that some portion of the 47 percent consists of retirees (most of whom likely once paid income taxes) and whose government transfer payments may come largely from social security and Medicare, that is, “insurance” that they purchased with their payroll taxes. They also point out that another portion of the 47 percent pay no income taxes, but do pay (among other things) payroll taxes, thereby “investing” in the same insurance whose benefits the seniors now enjoy.

Third, Romney is surely mistaken when he assumes that all those with no current federal income tax liability just can’t wait for their next government check. That may be true for some, but can’t (or at least need not) be true for all. But as a matter of politics, he’s probably correct that a political appeal based upon lowering tax rates won’t work very well with them, to the extent that they indeed vote their pocketbooks .

This brings me to my last point. However incautious and impolitic he was in making his generalization, Mitt Romney shares an assumption that most political consultants and most political scientists—and perhaps many ordinary citizens—make: People vote their interests, and conceive these interests largely in economic terms, Thomas Frank back in 2004 and Barack Obama in 2008 lamented the fact that, more frequently than they’d like, people indulge in a kind of false consciousness, clinging (for example) to religion when they should be paying attention to their “real” economic interests. All these views underestimate ordinary American people, who are quite capable of rising above mere self-interest, of making sacrifices on behalf of a common good, and of conceiving their own good in something other than simplistically material terms. Romney could have been more careful in stating the commonplace views he seems to share with most political professionals. But for my money his biggest mistake was in speaking as if we the people can’t “transcend” our pocketbooks.

If he retracts, restates, or corrects anything, that’s what I’d like to see him revisit. Tell us, Mr. Romney, that homo sapiens isn’t really reducible to homo economicus , that our commitments, for example, to faith and family are solid evidence that we’re not, as the economists put it, rent seekers, and that your administration will honor and respect the ways that we love and serve one another.

See also: 

Anna Williams,  Makers vs. Takers

R.R. Reno Absurd Republican Rhetoric

Matthew Schmitz,  Stop Berating the “47 Percent”

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