I was going to blog about some new education research, but that can wait. I feel compelled, instead, to write about Mitt Romney’s closed-door comments about government dependency, which were leaked by Mother Jones yesterday. Here’s what Romney told a group of donors:
“There are 47 percent of the people who will vote for the president no matter what. All right, there are 47 percent who are with him, who are dependent upon government, who believe that they are victims, who believe that government has a responsibility to care for them, who believe that they are entitled to health care, to food, to housing, to you-name-it. That that’s an entitlement. And the government should give it to them. And they will vote for this president no matter what… Our message of low taxes doesn’t connect…so my job is is not to worry about those people. I’ll never convince them that they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives. What I have to do is convince the five to 10 percent in the center that are independents, that are thoughtful….”
I predict that until this blows over, liberals will take to the airwaves to blast Romney for his callousness and lack of concern for half of the country that he wants to govern. They are right. The comments are insensitive by any measuring stick, just as it was insensitive for Obama in 2008 to talk about bitter conservatives “clinging to their guns and religion” at his own closed-door event. That’s the easy point to make.
For the moment, let’s also ignore two inconvenient truths for Romney. First, most households that pay no income taxes do pay thousands of dollars in payroll taxes and sales taxes. Second, many households in the top half of the earnings distribution claim thousands of dollars in generous government subsidies – there is a welfare state for the rich too. So the simple view that the bottom half lives on government welfare, and the top half does not is simply wrong.
That said, let’s try to unpack the statement a bit more carefully. If the statement reflects a belief that people vote their economic self-interest – the median voter hypothesis – then that claim is easily debunked. But I think the statement also gives us some insight into a belief about dependency and government welfare. One idea Romney may be expressing is that people become accustomed to living in a welfare state, and that affects their incentives to work, and to claim benefits.
On this blog, we have tried to review some of the research for this claim. Ben has written thoughtfully about this issue before. As Ben points out, the welfare state can have different effects on people’s behavior – causing them to reject taking terrible jobs out of desperation on the one hand, but encouraging greater contribution to collective schemes and encouraging a work ethic in solidaristic societies on the other hand. In other words, people do not perform a simple-minded cost benefit analysis of whether to take welfare benefits or enter the labor market, but rather they depend on many subtle social norms to shape their attitudes to work. If people feel disrespected in the labor market, they may seek some other alternative that they think is more dignified.
That does not prove that welfare dependency is not a problem. A central tension in American social policy (and in Britain too) has always been between conservatives who emphasize that many people that are permanently dependent upon the welfare state could be working more productively, versus liberals who emphasize that government dependency often reflects stark inequalities in health, wealth, and social resources. But these positions are not mutually exclusive. The interesting question, which is rarely asked in a thoughtful manner, is how to encourage more empowering work in a cultural and economic context that does not encourage stable employment and upward mobility.
Even if you think that the government should be doing more to inculcate a culture of hard work, and an aversion to dependency, you can still believe in a safety net. Other than the libertarian fringe, the right and leftwing consensus in American politics has always been that the government is in the business of providing citizens with a minimal entitlement of food, housing, health care – the list of things that Romney dismisses out of hand. The idea of a government responsibility for providing the essentials needed to avoid material deprivation resonates widely, even if the package has never been comprehensive or complete. If Romney wants to redefine that consensus too, he should speak more clearly about his guiding political philosophy. He should lay out his vision for what binds us together as fellow participants in a joint system of economic cooperation. And he might have to apologize a bit more for his “mistakes” as governor of Massachusetts.