cross-posted at politicsofselfishness.com
Mitt Romney’s comments about the 47% and gifts and Bill O’Reilly’s observation on the night of the election that voters chose to reelect President Obama because they wanted “stuff” continue to resonate among many disappointed GOP supporters.
The New York Times (Jack Healy, “Conservatives Feeling Left Behind,” November 19, 2012) quotes a Wyoming businessman, James Yates, who remarked “Where government runs everything, it’s completely not sustainable.” Mr. Yates lamented that the young and minorities “went toward the perspective of what can I get.” Yates apparently forgot that his restaurants are permitted to pay his employees a sub-minimum wage because of an exemption to the Federal Fair Labor Standards Act that was successfully lobbied for by the National Restaurant Owners Association. Despite his having gotten a “gift” from the federal government, he still believed that the election was a choice between socialism and “free enterprise” in which the former won.
The views of some of Mr. Yates’ neighbors are equally short-sighted. In that same article, M. Lee Hasenauer, the owner of a tree-trimming service who was just elected to a two year term as a commissioner for Laramie County, attributed Obama’s win to voter fraud and feared that the country is drifting leftward to fiscal ruin. Hasenauer’s friend, Bradley Harrington, publishes a right-wing newspaper called Liberty’s Torch and hosts a radio talk show in Cheyenne. Harrington contends that the election results vindicated the right-wing commentators and pundits who talked about the 47% of Americans who pay no taxes. Although it is not clear precisely what, if anything, Harrington produces, he is quoted as saying, “The parasites now outnumber the producers. That’s why Romney lost and I think it’s going to get worse.”
The opinions of these three Wyoming voters remind us that the myth of the self-made man is alive and well in many parts of the United States. In the West, this is perhaps the legacy of the frontier where free land served as a kind of tabula rasa upon which John Locke’s ideas of personal autonomy, unfettered property rights and hostility to government played out. As Frederick Jackson Turner, in an essay entitled “The Problem of the West,” observed, “...from the lack of organized political life, from the atomic conditions of the backwoods society...the individual was exalted and given free play. The West was another name for opportunity....The United States is unique in the extent to which the individual has been given an open field, unchecked by the restraints of the old social order, or of scientific administration of government. The self-made man was the Western man's ideal, was the kind of man that all might become.”
But it would be a mistake to assume that extreme views about the rights of individuals are unique to the West. In the nineteenth century, William Graham Sumner, the American disciple of Herbert Spencer, was as adamant in his defense of individualism as any Wyoming resident today. He argued in a polemic styled “State Interference” that “It is at the present time a matter of patriotism and civic duty to resist the extension of state interference. It is one of the proudest results of political growth that we have reached the point where individualism is possible. Nothing could better show the merit and value of the institutions which we have inherited than the fact that we can afford to play with all these socialistic and semi-socialistic absurdities.”
In “The Forgotten Man and Other Essays,” Sumner, from his lofty perch at Yale University, enumerated the blessings which unskilled workers received from laissez-faire policies. He warned against the calamity that would befall these unskilled workers if they were seduced by a different political paradigm – one in which the government, through legislation, abandoned the passivity he counseled and became, instead, a positive instrument to ameliorate their misery: “In the United States the farther we go in the grade of labor, the greater is the advantage which the laborer has over the higher classes. A hod-carrier or digger here can, by one day's labor, command many times more days' labor of a carpenter, surveyor, book-keeper, or doctor than an unskilled laborer in Europe could command by one day's labor...This is why the United States is a great country for the unskilled laborer...All schemes for patronizing ‘the working classes savor of condescension....In society that means that to lift one man up we push another down. The schemes for improving the condition of the working classes interfere in the competition of workmen with each other.”
Sumner’s politics have been enthusiastically embraced by generations of moguls and plutocrats. Andrew Carnegie, the quintessential robber-baron, was unapologetic about the role that the 1% has played in transforming civilization. His essay entitled “Wealth,” published in the North American Review in 1889, has become part of the canon of right-wing ideologues and their economic theories: “The contrast between the palace of the millionaire and the cottage of the laborer with us to-day measures the change which has come with civilization. This change, however, is not to be deplored, but welcomed as highly beneficial. It is well, nay, essential for the progress of the race, that the houses of some should be homes for all that is highest and best in literature and the arts, and for all the refinements of civilization, rather than that none should be so. Much better this great irregularity than universal squalor. Without wealth there can be no Mæcenas...... A relapse to old conditions would be disastrous to both--not the least so to him who serves--and would Sweep away civilization with it. But whether the change be for good or ill, it is upon us, beyond our power to alter, and therefore to be accepted and made the best of. It is a waste of time to criticise the inevitable.”
Sumner’s vision, shared by Carnegie and his heirs, remains, in large part, the world view of today’s GOP and its supporters. Their insistence of some kind of stark divide between the “makers and the takers” and fears of redistribution betray a fundamental ignorance about economic policy and an inability to understand the obligations of citizenship in a democratic society. In remarks that were later echoed by President Obama, Senator-elect Elizabeth Warren reminded voters in Massachusetts that none of us has made it solely on our own.
Andrew Carnegie himself received a leg-up from his work as Assistant Secretary of War in charge of military transportation during the Civil War. In the October 8, 2012 New Yorker, James Surowiecki notes (“Corporate Welfare Queens”) describes the vast expanse of corporate welfare from “the days of high tariffs and giant land grants to the railroads, business and government have always been tightly intertwined in this country. But, in recent decades...the corporate welfare state has become bigger. Energy companies lease almost forty million acres of onshore land in the U.S. and more than forty million offshore, and keep the lion’s share of the profits from the oil and natural gas that they pump out.” In addition to oil and mining rights, Surowiecki chronicles the tax cuts from which businesses and investors benefit and copyright and patent protection, “the cost of which is worth hundreds of billions of dollars a year to the drug industry alone.”
With respect to direct subsidies, the data is equally startling. In 2006, the U.S. government spent $59 billion on traditional social welfare programs, including food stamps, while $92 billion was spent on direct corporate subsidies.
Even Wyoming is a major recipient of government largesse. As the story in The New York Times reported, largely because of royalties from mining and drilling, Wyoming residents receive more federal funds per person - $3757.00 per person - than any other state. That figure should be viewed in conjunction with the other economic data that shows that a majority of the red states are net-welfare recipients - takers, not makers - despite the persistence of the myth of rugged individualism, particularly among white voters. Those states receive vastly more in federal transfer payments from the taxpayers of the wealthier, more productive blue states than they contribute to the federal treasury.
The evidence shows that it is virtually impossible to separate the makers from the takers. Hence, the terms used in the narrative need to be redefined. The real distinction in American politics is between those who are hoarders and those who are sharers. The hoarders are those short-sighted, selfish, sanctimonious individuals who insist upon stopping the redistribution chain after it has extended its benefits to them - and who want to prevent it from extending benefits to others. Donald Trump exemplifies the hoarder mentality. The sharers understand that our personal fates are inextricably and collectively bound to the fates of all others, who are our neighbors, our brothers and sisters, our fellow citizens. Dorothy Day epitomizes the perspective of the sharers.
In this, the season for sharing, the Gospel of Luke reminds each of us that “To whom much is given, much is expected in return.” An acknowledgment of that admonition would do much to reduce the rancor and animus in American politics today and might provide a starting-point for the GOP and its supporters to reconsider their political and economic priorities.