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Tue Sep 18, 2012, 05:48 PM

The Theory of the Moocher Class [View all]


The Theory of the Moocher Class

SEP 18, 2012
Mark Schmitt

The conservative narrative of the "entitlement society" ignores the fact that most Americans are both givers and takers.

As David Brooks points out, Mitt Romney's remarks describing 47 percent of the population as, in effect, moochers who would vote for Obama because they got government benefits were not “off the cuff,” as he described them today. There is a carefully developed theory behind his words, which has seen expression in previous Romney speeches, such as one last December in which he described Obama's vision as an “entitlement society” in which “everyone receives the same rewards,” but in which “we'll all be poor.”

The lab where this theory that we're headed toward a radical egalitarian state is being developed is the American Enterprise Institute, the oldest of the conservative think tanks and one that, much like Romney, has forsaken the traditional business-minded conservatism of, say, the first President Bush, for hard conservatism in which everything is a grand showdown of incompatible worldviews. The two recent books by the current AEI president, Arthur Brooks (The Battle and The Road to Freedom) embody this apocalyptic approach, as does a recent essay-with-graphs by longtime AEI scholar and accomplished demographer Nicholas Eberstadt, called “A Nation of Takers.”

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This dramatic reorientation of the safety net didn't just happen; most of these initiatives had significant bipartisan and cross-ideological support. Not only do they provide a ladder out of poverty and reward work, they also make possible the relatively low-wage, low-security labor market that gives employers enormous flexibility. Conservatives used to argue, for example, that raising the EITC was a better alternative to raising the minimum wage, and they mostly won that fight. The result is that low-wage employment is essentially subsidized, and businesses are able to hire at very low cost and low commitment, with none of the barriers to either hiring or firing that are common in Europe. Paul Ryan, Mitt Romney and others in the current wave of conservatism seem to have entirely forgotten the merits of these innovations, and in their promise to protect programs only for the very, very poor, they threaten to restore the hopeless poverty traps of the 1970s and 1980s.

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It's disappointing that Romney shows no interest in either drawing out the submerged state or in the bipartisan project (of which his health reform in Massachusetts was a part) of smoothing the path to economic success for families. Instead, he just sees half the country as people who can't be convinced “that they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives.” That's a very strange view of this country and a tragic development in modern conservatism.


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