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The Government vs. the People

3:31 PM, Sep 18, 2012 • By JONATHAN V. LAST
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Lots of people have already unpacked the philosophical and logical problems with Mitt Romney’s belief that 47 percent of the country is basically free-loading off of everyone else (and voting Democratic). I’m struck, however, by how the moocher theory was presaged during the primaries in the difference between how Romney and Rick Santorum talked about the moral problems inherent in the welfare state. Tim Carney was the first to notice it back in January:

Romney talks about a restoring a “merit society” instead of the “entitlement society” that Obama promotes. That’s fairly standard Republican talk, and Santorum made a similar point Tuesday night, but with a very different moral frame. Speaking of the workingman and woman, Santorum charged that Obama "wants to make them dependent rather than valuing their work.”

You see the nuance? Romney is knocking welfare queens. Santorum worries that government is harming the working class. In both accounts, government is the enemy, but the co-conspirators in Romney’s account are the victims in Santorum’s.

Carney’s insight was exactly correct. The problem isn’t (just) in looking at the country and seeing “makers” and “takers”—it’s in locating the motivating forces behind the dichotomy. Santorum believed that government is to blame and that, in its effort to expand and pass out goodies it has undermined the dignity and autonomy of the people it has sought to benefit. The Santorum view was that the moral case for reducing the size of government is partly about helping people trapped into dependency recover their freedom and ability to prosper.

By constantly viewing that exact same dynamic as a fight between “the entitlement society” and “the merit society,” Romney took the view that government wasn’t the problem—the people were.

At his press conference last night, Romney did nothing to dispel (or even pretend to dispel) the notion that this is how he views America. In fact, he kind of doubled down on it. Here’s what he said:

It’s a message which I’m going to continue to carry which is, “Look, the president’s approach is attractive to people who are not paying taxes because frankly my discussion about lowering taxes isn’t as attractive to them.”

Now in Romney’s defense, I suppose he could be objectively right. If you take a really dark view of our future—like Mark Steyn levels of dark—then you might believe that we’re locked in one of those European death spirals with a populace so unserious that we’re going to keep voting against reality, and for handouts, in perpetuity. In which case, we’re screwed.

But I suspect that Mitt Romney doesn’t really see the world that way. Because if you actually believed we were going to hell in a handbasket, then who would want to be president of the basket?

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