Individualism vs. Dependency

Posted on October 12, 2012. Filed under: Arkansas Democrat-Gazette Columns |

Presidential candidate Mitt Romney is running further away from comments he made during a donor event earlier this year, including his now infamous “47 percent” remark.

Asked after the debate what he would have said if President Barack Obama had questioned him about it, Romney replied that he would have admitted to saying something “completely wrong.”

The trouble is, he wasn’t completely wrong. He was partly wrong, primarily because he confused two points in his answer to this donor question: “For the last three years, all everybody’s been told is, ‘Don’t worry, we’ll take care of you.’ How are you going to . . . convince everybody you’ve got to take care of yourself?”

Romney immediately asserted the incumbent base was large, but not a majority, choosing the figure 47 percent to size up the popular vote Obama already had in the bag. He then categorized those people as dependent on government, believing the health care, food and housing were entitlements they expected the government to provide.

“They will vote for the president no matter what,” he said, alluding to self-serving suffrage as the long recognized peril of democracy.

Where he went wrong was when he shifted to income tax. Roughly 47 percent of the people may not pay federal income tax, but that does not make them dependent on government. Some of the most fiercely independent and ruggedly individualistic citizens, who are now retirement age, may not be paying income tax.

It’s clear Romney was trying to point out that a low-tax message has no appeal to a nontaxpayer, but he bungled it and should admit to being wrong about equating income tax and dependency. He should re-assert his belief, however, that when it comes to individualism versus dependency, he’s rock-solid in the camp of the former.

Government dependency should be a major campaign issue, because it’s a major national concern. The Heritage Foundation 2012 Index of Dependence on Government report, released in February, painted an alarming picture of U.S. society in which nearly one in three (91 million) Americans either receives federal government assistance or is employed by the government.

The study analyzed aid in five categories—health and welfare, college education, housing, retirement and agriculture—to compute dependency. For the first time ever, the federal government spending per recipient figure exceeded the disposable income per capita figure for all Americans.

Romney was right on when he said he’s never going to win the dependency crowd over. Rather than backing off, he needs to turn up the volume on how individualism has always been the American way.

The westward expansion defined the U.S. in a number of ways, not least because it helped raise the tension level about slavery. But Manifest Destiny was achieved in spite of government, not because of it. The West would never have been won had the government tried to manage it—or had the settlers tried to vote their way to prosperity. Imagine if the federal government had demanded that the infrastructure of frontier settlements adhere rigorously to recognized regulatory standards of the East. Pioneers had to carve bridges and schools and towns out of the wilderness, and could never have complied.

By 1840, nearly 40 percent of the nation’s population had left the civilized environments of the East in search of economic opportunity in the trans-Appalachian West. Despite the wellknown and predictable hardships, this wagon-train multitude did not wait on government assistance. Every family knew full well that survival depended on their own individual strength, determination, perseverance and faith.

Dependence on government in those days meant starvation, exposure, sickness and massacre, but settlers didn’t blame Washington. They never expected, and frankly didn’t welcome, over-meddling regulation or its prerequisite taxation. The lure of the West was freedom, which was widely understood to be opportunity for self-employment, self-sufficiency and a purer form of self-government.

The federal government’s lone involvement was to give westward expansion pioneers what the Declaration of Independence had promised: the pursuit of happiness. The Pre-emption Act of 1841 guaranteed that settlers could stake a claim on land they cleared and improved, with the right to buy up to 160 acres. What each settler did, or didn’t do, with that opportunity was largely left to his own ambitions. Many died, many lived but in all instances the federal government’s general absence didn’t create tragedy—it fostered achievement, sometimes against all odds.

Eighteenth-century Scottish historian Alexander Fraser Tytler was a student of ancient democratic governments, and a critic of the American experiment. He observed that patriotic fervor, such as powered the U.S. revolution, “like all other affections and passions . . . operates with the greatest force where it meets with the greatest difficulties. . . . but in a state of ease and safety, as if wanting its appropriate nourishment, it languishes and decays.”

Author Robert Heinlein nailed the shift from individual ingenuity to regulatory largesse 40 years ago when he defined an elephant as “a mouse built to government specs.”

The more people dependent on government, the weaker our nation is. That’s not mean-spirited rhetoric, it’s truth. We desperately need a candidate who will stand by it.

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