When Mitt Romney linked the "Lower 47" who do not pay federal income taxes and are "dependent" on government with those who "do not take responsibility for their own lives," he was not only confessing an unfamiliarity with the American people (including his own Republican base) that was appalling for someone who's been running for president these past six years, he was also exhibiting a Master Class view of the world that has not been this unapologetic since the Gilded Age.
To listen to Romney declaim on the relationship between the individual and the state at his $50,000-a-plate Boca Raton fundraiser last May, you almost expected him at any moment to blurt out his loathing for "the masses" so as to keep faith with his robber baron antecedents.
The Progressive Movement at the turn of the 20th century was a massive reaction, led by such reformers as Teddy Roosevelt (who've since been run out of the Tea Party Republican Party), to correct the imbalance between human rights and property rights that distinguished a period in our history when a small plutocratic elite managed to segregate itself from the rest of society after fattening their fortunes on that collectivist government stimulus program known as the Civil War.
And as the imperatives of protecting those fortunes against democratic control grew more insistent and urgent, so too did the intemperateness of those doctrines the plutocrats used to justify and preserve their ill-gotten fortunes.
Among them were ideas about the absolute "sanctity" of private property and contracts that were embraced by the reactionary Supreme Court of that era to strike down the federal income tax, to declare workplace safety regulations unconstitutional and to treat labor unions as criminal syndicates. Prevalent, too, were the survival-of-the-fittest ideas of doctrinaires like Herbert Spencer, whose conception of "freedom" was so severe it disqualified government from even protecting patients against injury from quacks on grounds of caveat emptor.
But the dirty little secret the Top 1% don't want you to know is that no one is more dependent on government than the property-owning rich. I am not talking here about the myriad waivers, subsidies, deductions, no-bid contracts and other forms of "corporate welfare" to which the wealthy regularly indulge. I am talking about the basis upon which they stand atop the American social pyramid -- the nature and origin of "private" property itself.
Private property is not a naturally occurring phenomenon. There is no such thing as private property in the jungle, or that place called the State of Nature, out of which humans pulled themselves when they came together to form governments for their mutual protection and convenience.
Before there were states, whatever private property there was consisted of what the strongest and most ruthless were able to grab for themselves and protect against trespassers by building high castle walls around it which they then defended using mercenaries called knights.
But the idea of "property" that we comprehend today - especially the intangible kind based on paper agreements or good ideas - is entirely a creation of the modern state and its ability to confer certain "rights" which the "owner" is entitled to exercise and which others are compelled by the state to honor and observe.
The idea that we should "let the market decide" by keeping government out of our economic arrangements entirely makes no more logical sense than when Tea Party Republicans disrupted congressional town hall forums to demand the government "keep its damned hands off my Medicare." That is because markets, like property, are creatures of the state and could not exist without the rules and regulations the state creates to define and govern them.
Yet, when you listen to conservatives today it quickly becomes apparent that those functions which facilitate the ability of private property owners to make a profit pretty much exhaust the list of government powers conservatives are willing to accept as legitimate, whether it is the power of the police to protect property here at home, or the firepower of a military to protect markets overseas, or the ability of state and federal courts staffed by right-thinking judges to privilege capital over labor.
I am already barricading myself against the avalanche of abuse I expect to receive from conservatives who will charge that what I am about to say indelibly marks me as a "socialist." But I find I am in agreement with the great 18th century legal theorist, William Blackstone, when he said the only justification for "private" property" is as a "public" good.
At the end of the day "the earth and all things therein are the general property of all mankind," wrote Blackstone. It is the law, and only the law, that gives everything "capable of ownership a legal and determinate owner" - not for the purpose of satisfying the greed of acquisitive men but of promoting "the grand ends of civil society."
As a community, in other words, we allow portions of our natural inheritance to be "owned" by particular individuals so that "the earth may be enjoyed most fully" by the entire commnity, as Walter Lippmann once said.
This utilitarian conception of property was in fact the original justification for a supply-side, trickle-down economics that promised general benefits for all provided we gave massive tax cuts to a few.
But once it became clear supply-side's actual returns were not so good for the bottom 47%, or even the middle class, the rich began rooting about for alternative rationales to explain away their over-sized fortunes. It was at that point that Ayn Rand's ideas about the morality of capitalism, the virtues of selfishness, the superiority of Job Creators and the idea that taxes were theft and government itself an organized conspiracy began to take hold as Rand herself enjoyed a literary renaissance on the Right.
Rand's ideas about "absolute private property" inevitably imposed grave hardships on the neighbors and descendants of those owners, as Lippmann observed.
Property owners unconstrained by law ruined the soil and burned and cut forests, said Lippmann. They polluted streams and killed wildlife, they cornered markets and formed monopolies, they held land and resources out of use (just as corporations are doing today when they sit on $2 trillion in un-invested cash) and they exploited the "feeble bargaining power of wage earners," just as Republicans are now doing when they dismantle worker unions.
And because laissez faire conservatives privileged property rights over human rights they had no practical remedy for these "intolerable evils," as Lippmann called them, because "they had lost the tradition that property is the creation of the law for social purposes."
The genius of the American Republic, as writers like E.J. Dionne, Jr. have more recently written is the fusion Americans have managed to achieve between individualism and community.
From the very beginning, says Dionne, Americans have been "communitarian individualists or individualistic communitarians" without being fully comfortable with either.
Instead, he says, America's deepest traditions involve the balance and interplay "between the public and the private spheres, between government and the marketplace, and between our love of individualism and our quest for community."
And nowhere has this creative balance been more in evidence than how we think about, and treat, private property - an institution that achieves community objectives by conferring individual rights.
It is this tradition that conservatives who claim to represent American values have broken faith with, says Dionne, in their single-minded obsession with lower taxes, fewer regulations, less government -- and little else.
Today, the Top 1% earn one-quarter of all national income and control 42% of all financial wealth while the top 5% own nearly 70% of all US assets.
So, the next time you hear Mitt Romney or some other representative of the property-owning class talk disdainfully about those who are "dependent on government," ask yourself if these people have a clue where their property comes from or who among us is really the most reliant on the state.