One way of looking at the 2012 election is that Mitt Romney provided the most persuasive explanation for his defeat — six months before the voting. A surreptitious recording at a fundraising event in May found Romney assessing his difficult electoral prospects:
There are 47 percent of the people who will vote for the [incumbent Democratic] 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 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. That that’s an entitlement. And the government should give it to them. . . . My job is not to worry about those people. I’ll never convince them they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives.
People like getting things, in other words. If they’ve been getting things from the government, and have been assured repeatedly that no considerations of practicality or honor need inhibit them from taking whatever the government is giving, they will want the stream of benefits to continue, and prefer increases to decreases. And if the number of people in a democracy getting things from government reaches a tipping point, then restraining the transfer policies, much less reversing them, becomes politically impossible.
For Romney to win, according to his calculation, he would have needed to get more than 94 percent of the votes from within the slender majority of Americans who are not dependent upon government. The surprise is not that Romney lost, but that he even came close — winning 48 percent of the total vote, which would represent more than 90 percent of the votes from the 53 percent of Americans not yet aboard the gravy train.
When Mother Jones broke the story about Romney’s remarks in September, just as the general-election campaign was engaging the nation’s attention, Romney regretted expressing himself poorly. In October, however, the Templeton Press published A Nation of Takers, which doesn’t mention Romney’s controversial remarks but supports the idea that — even though many people enrolled in government programs ended up voting for him, even as many people who were beneficiaries of no such program voted for Barack Obama — Romney’s candid assessment was more right than wrong. Takers is written by Nicholas Eberstadt, a political economist and demographer at the American Enterprise Institute. This slender book, an extended essay, is buttressed with 30 graphs, maps, and tables presenting data about America’s entitlement programs, along with responses to Eberstadt’s thesis by Yuval Levin of National Affairs and William A. Galston of the Brookings Institution.
The title of the 1974 Doobie Brothers album What Were Once Vices Are Now Habits is the core of Eberstadt’s lament. In the America that Alexis de Tocqueville encountered 180 years ago, “men and women viewed themselves as accountable for their own situation through their own achievements,” an attitude that produced “a horror of dependency and contempt of anything that smacked of a mendicant mentality.” Although America’s per capita GDP in 1830 was only 4 percent of where it stood in 2008, “even people in fairly desperate circumstances were known to refuse help or handouts as an affront to their dignity and independence,” according to Eberstadt.
Modern America, however, is caught in a vicious cycle, as escalating government provision both encourages and is encouraged by the attenuation of self-reliance. We have arrived at the point, writes Eberstadt, where “a treasure chest of government-supplied benefits is open for the taking of every American citizen,” and ordering items from that menu “is now part and parcel of the American way of life.” It is no surprise to learn that in 2004, decades after the establishment of Social Security and Medicare, 98 percent of households with a person age 65 or older were receiving benefits from at least one government program. It’s more sobering to read that 35 percent of households where everyone was under that age were also recipients of government assistance. In 1960, 0.65 percent of prospective work-force participants between the ages of 18 and 64 were receiving benefits from Social Security’s disability-insurance program. In 2010, 5.6 percent were — despite advances in medicine and life expectancy, not to mention the larger proportion of jobs that consist of indoor work with no heavy lifting. Of the 8.6 million Americans receiving government disability benefits in December 2011, Eberstadt observes, 29 percent qualified on the basis of diseases of the “musculoskeletal system and the connective tissue,” and another 15 percent because of “mood disorders.” It is virtually impossible, Takers notes, “for a medical professional to disprove a patient’s claim that he or she is suffering from sad feelings or back pain.”