Words matter, and Governor Romney’s depiction of the bottom half of American Tax-Payers didn’t help his campaign any, but it may have provided an opportunity. Because while words matter, the truth matters more. And Romney spoke the truth even if it was unkind or difficult to hear.
IRS tax data indicates that the bottom 50% of working Americans pay about 2% of all federal income tax collected. At the other end, the top half of American workers pay the remaining 98%. This is a problem because it results in what American political theorists as far back as James Madison and John Calhoun characterize as the development of two competing classes in American society – tax payers and tax consumers. If half the country pays taxes and the other half benefits from those taxes, you wind up with two competing parties advocating either an increase or reduction in taxes depending on how their constituency benefits. And here we are.
The problem with Romney’s candid address was not what he said, but what he didn’t say. While Romney has been slammed for inciting class warfare, President Obama has also done the same with relatively little rebuke. The Presidents call for “everyone to pay their fair share of taxes” is misleading at best, demagoguery at worst. With 47% paying no taxes (due to credits and deductions and a low tax rate to begin with), not everyone will be paying . Only the people who pay taxes can, well, actually pay more taxes. And Mitt is right, many of the people who currently pay no taxes are largely the recipients of government largess in the form of social programs and tax credits.
Advocates of raising taxes can appeal to morality, charity, and our obligation to help our brothers and sisters. These are all appropriate considerations. But the danger here is that in a system where almost half pay no taxes and the other half pay all the taxes, the power of democracy can be used to wrench by force money and property from those who have it. There is no virtue in that because it robs the giver of the act of giving, and the recipient of the gift of charity. It becomes robotic, cold, and bureaucratic. Nobody cares but “the system.”
Romney should not back pedal on his words, but use this as an opportunity to explain the conservative position on helping the poor. Too often conservatives come across as cold and indifferent. This is Romney’s main image problem, and his words didn’t help him any. What he needs to make clear is that conservatives understand that poverty is a problem but, unlike liberals, conservatives don’t see state aid as the best solution. Welfare and government programs are like putting bandages on a bacterial infection. It makes us feel better because its more aesthetically pleasing and the person who gets the band-aid is always grateful, but the infection lives on.
If we really love our brothers and sisters, we need to find ways to get people out of poverty. We need more educational options so that poor kids can get the best education possible. We need to encourage young men and women through church, school, and family programs to delay having children until they’re married. And we need to encourage through our tax code our more affluent citizens to support these efforts by granting deductions to those who give to programs designed to improve the lives of others. Frustratingly, there are people opposed to allowing deductions for such giving because they are concerned that it gives too much power to the people who actually give the money while reducing the power of bureaucrats to cut the checks and take the credit.
Demagoguery is one of the great dangers of any democratic system. Demagoguery combined with the power to give people things can have transforming effects on a political system. If the half who pay no taxes become the majority, why would they ever consider changing a way of life financed by the other half? What Romney needs to make clear is that while President Obama can claim that he cares about the “bottom 47%,” real compassion is figuring out how to get people out of “the bottom” rather than viewing them as a permanent fixture of the American landscape without any real hope for change.