Brief Note on How the Makers and Takers Conversation Has Evolved

1. Ron Brownstein of National Journal writes that the “makers and takers” framework is a conservative standby:

Far from a gaffe, Romney’s remarks reflected both a long-standing belief among conservatives that the nation faces a “tipping point” in which growing dependency will create an insurmountable electoral majority for big government — and Democratic candidates.

2. Henry Olsen of AEI argues that the “makers and takers” message is in tension with Reaganite conservatism:

[W]hen Romney divides the world into makers and takers and presumes that our ability to pay federal income tax is a measure of which group we belong to, he sends a different message. He implicitly tells average Americans that their quiet work doesn’t “make” America unless they are entrepreneurs who make enough money. Worse, he tells them that their lives aren’t even dignified, that they are “takers” who are unable to exercise personal responsibility over their lives.

3. Peter Coy of Bloomberg Businessweek reminds readers that Reagan was one of the chief architects of the narrowing of the federal income tax base.

4. And Tim Carney of the Washington Examiner maintains that Mitt Romney’s “47%” remarks were grounded in “false liberal premises”:

Romney’s statement at a closed-door fundraiser reflected the mistaken liberal view that the growth of government mostly redistributes wealth downward — it doesn’t. He also implicitly bought into the Left’s narrow view that both tax cuts and welfare programs mostly benefit the immediate recipients. Finally, Romney conflated tax cuts with government aid, reflecting the perverse mindset that all wealth originally belongs to the state.

5. I’ve been on the road, but my general sense is that people who see conservatives as hostile to the interests of the poor see Romney’s remarks as vindication, and they see conservatives who have criticized Romney’s remarks as in tension with conservative beliefs as marginal or irrelevant. Only the conservatives who have embraced the remarks count as the real thing.

Conservatives, meanwhile, have been having a lively debate, with some emphasizing the corrosive impact of dependency and others, including Ramesh Ponnuru and Rich Lowry and others at National Review, arguing against the “makers and takers” framework on various grounds, e.g., that it mirrors the popular center-left argument that taxes should be celebrated as a mark of democratic participation and social cooperation. 

I found Yuval Levin’s take helpful. Democrats accuse Republicans of being radical individualists. Republicans accuse Democrats of being radical collectivists. But the real debate — the debate that is of real consequence — is the debate over what Vaclav Havel called “the independent life of society”:

While the progressive view of government has long involved the effort to shrink and clear that space between the individual and the state, the conservative view of government has long seen the purpose of the state as the creation, protection, and reinforcement of just that space—as creating the conditions for people to live thriving private lives. Most of what we do together is not done through government but through the institutions that exist between the individual and the state, and government exists to sustain the space in which those institutions, and with them our society, may flourish. This means that government is crucially important, but it also means that limits on government are crucially important—and for the very same reason. Without those limits, the state can gravely threaten the space for private life that it is charged with protecting. It can threaten that space by invading it and attempting to fill it, and by collapsing it under the weight of the government’s sheer size, scope, and cost. Both are clearly happening in our time, and the Left is in essence making a positive case for allowing both to proceed.

We cannot be a self-governing people if the space where our non-political institutions function—and where they shape citizens by forming their character—is permitted to collapse. We are therefore indeed in the midst of a great debate about the kind of country we want to be, and about whether it will be possible for the preconditions of American life as we have known it to persist. But that is not fundamentally an argument about dependency, or even exactly about government benefits. There are ways to provide the kinds of benefits that most Americans truly do want our government to provide—basic income and health benefits for the oldest and poorest Americans—without the kind of ballooning of government’s size and role that we have experienced. If we understand the purpose of such benefits as enabling access to the private economy (rather than shielding beneficiaries from it), and if we allow the means by which such benefits are provided to be shaped by modern markets rather than by the old social-democratic ideal of the provider state, we can provide essential protections for the needy and the vulnerable through government while also making room to provide the needy and the vulnerable with far more—with the kind of loving support that actually brings people out of poverty—through the institutions of civil society, which can do what government never could.

I imagine many progressives will resent Yuval’s characterization, yet what he is channeling is the “statist individualism” of those who see the traditional mores and social strictures of families and villages and neighborhoods as miniature tyrannies that only the state can vanquish or contain. The truth is that there really is such a thing as private authoritarianism, as anyone not too far removed from village life can attest. But I tend to see pluralism as the antidote for the worst excesses of private authoritarianism rather than a broad effort to supplant civil society. The state needs to (re)learn to share the playing field with other vehicles of social cooperation, which won’t easy. This process will involve reversals and missteps, and it is vulnerable to arguments from the “postcode lottery.” But like Yuval, I think it is really important that we reform and reshape the state so that it can allow for the revival of localism, self-help, and community action. 

Reihan Salam — Reihan Salam is executive editor of National Review and a National Review Institute policy fellow.

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