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A Genealogy of the "Makers/Takers" Theory of America

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The Mitt Romney video you've probably heard about—the one where he talks about the 47 percent of Americans "who are dependent upon government, who believe that they are victims, who believe the 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"—has certainly not suffered a lack of commentary. But I can't resist linking to a particularly clear-headed intellectual history, written by the Roosevelt Institute's Mark Schmitt, of the broad view Romney is laying out here.

The makers/takers theory went viral within parts of the conservative movement long before this particular video went viral on the internet. The Wall Street Journal's "lucky duckies" op-ed from 2002, which referred to the block of Americans who pay no income taxes under the Bush tax cuts, has been cited by many folks this week as an antecedent. But Schmitt points to the American Enterprise Institute—the quintessential conservative establishment think tank, once a font of "traditional business-minded conservatism"—as a place where this kind of rhetoric has been cooked up with alacrity in recent years.

It was not always thus; indeed, one of Schmitt's biggest points is that the social safety net we have now—particularly the many parts of it that are written into the tax code—is a truly bipartisan creation (rather than the work of some unified left-redistributionist-moocher constituency). Really, you should read the whole thing. But I want to draw particular attention to Schmitt's mention, near the end of his brief piece, of some fascinating research by a political scientist out of Cornell whom I've worked with a bit in the past:

It's also worth noting that most members of the “Nation of Takers” probably don't think of ourselves as “takers.” In her important recent book, The Submerged State, Suzanne Mettler of Cornell looked at data asking people whether they had ever benefited from a government social program. While most participants in the classic, older transfer programs [like food stamps, unemployment insurance, etc] were aware that they had benefited from programs, most of the newer programs, especially those delivered through the tax code, [like the charitable deduction, the home mortgage interest deduction] were invisible to a majority of their beneficiaries.

In other words, most of these "takers," when asked if they'd ever been a beneficiary of a government program replied, "no." This research goes a long way toward explaining how it can be that, as has been widely noted, the 47% (actually it's 46%) of Americans who pay no income taxes, and whom Romney casts as takers in the tank for Obama, actually vote disproportionately Republican.