According to the GOP, right-wing think tanks and Fox News, the U.S. is on the verge of becoming a nation of “takers” who want to be given (as Mitt Romney put it) “free stuff.” These takers are flush with a sense of “entitlement.”
As candidate Romney explained in a leaked video of a meeting with his financial backers, typical Obama voters (the inferior 47 percent) are parasites who “believe the government has a responsibility to care for them, who believe they are entitled to health care, to food, to housing, to you name it.” If they can’t afford these necessities, they expect the government to pay for them by taxing the earnings of other people.
On Jan. 3, Fox News commentator Arthur Herman repeated his widely circulated warning of a “coming civil war between makers and takers.” This fantasy comes straight from the pages of Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged, a novel that continues to be a best-seller 55 years after it was first published. In 2009-11, it sold 1.5 million copies.
The novel’s hero, John Galt, organizes a “strike” by the business leaders of the world, to protest against government regulation of their activities and taxation of their wealth. The effect of this strike is that civilization goes into drastic decline. This catastrophe teaches ordinary people (the “second-raters”) how much they depend on the striking business leaders for even basic necessities.
John Galt broadcasts a Castro-length speech in which he pours contempt on the lower classes and their government representatives. Instead of being offended by the great wealth of superior people, these little people should be grateful for the opportunity to buy all the good stuff made possible by their betters.
In Rand’s school-girl vision of capitalism, a tycoon isn’t just someone who is good at making money. He is Daddy Warbucks for little orphan Aynie — a super-human brimming with energy and creativity. The best antidote for readers exposed to this silliness is Donald Trump. He is a living demonstration that business success has no necessary connection with any other desirable human quality. Or we can think of the Wall St. CEOs whose greed and incompetence plunged the world into a lingering economic crisis in 2007-8.
The world-view of the Romney-Ryan ticket was saturated with Ayn Rand. Ryan, self-styled GOP “young gun” and current chair of the House Budget Committee, told the Atlas Society in 2005 that “I grew up reading Ayn Rand and it taught me quite a bit about who I am and what my value systems are, and what my beliefs are.” After dumping on the 47 percent for benefitting from federal programs while not paying federal income tax, Romney said he’s given up on them: “I’ll never convince them they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives.”
According to the Tax Policy Center, the vast majority of this 47 percent are either the elderly (22 percent) or the working poor (61 percent). (The latter do pay federal payroll as well as state and local taxes, most of which are regressive.) The remaining 17 percent include students, the disabled and the unemployed.
The arrogance and condescension in Romney’s rant probably cost him the election. Yet most Republicans continue to exhibit the same insulting attitude in their relentless attempts to defund social programs. The Ryan budget recently adopted by the House in a party-line vote pursues deficit reduction by harming the poor while protecting the wealthy.
Conservatives ridicule people for thinking they “deserve” the food, health care and other goods these programs provide to people who aren’t paid enough to be able to buy them. They are making “entitlement” a dirty word.
And yet, too many rich Americans have their own sense of entitlement — a belief that they “deserve” an ever greater share of the nation’s income and wealth. For instance, as reported by the AFL-CIO, “The ratio of CEO-to-worker pay between CEOs of the S&P 500 Index companies and U.S. workers widened to 380 times in 2011.” That is nine times greater than 1980’s ratio of 42 to 1.
Of course we’re all better off with some degree of inequality to provide incentives for those with greater ability. But it would be absurd to claim we’re nine times better off today than in 1980.
What makes something my property is that society’s laws and government will uphold my claim to it. If someone steals my car, the police will try to recover it for me, and arrest the thief. Otherwise, my car is just something I have until it’s taken from me. Why should the 99 percent in a democratic nation let their government uphold the claims of the 1 percent to so much of what we produce? Why accept the rules of a market system that increasingly funnels wealth to the top?
A majority of the 99 percent live from one inadequate paycheck to another, lacking adequate, affordable health care and secure employment, increasingly unable to afford higher education. Why should they consent to that?
Brian Cooney is emeritus professor of philosophy at Centre College.