There is a wisp of a serious argument in Mr. Romney’s comments bemoaning the half of the country that pays no income tax. Conservatives have worried for years that Americans who don’t pay taxes have no incentive to restrain spending. Government payments to individuals have risen dramatically, and beneficiaries become an interest group that makes reform of health and pension programs difficult.
But here’s why it’s only a wisp. Of the 47 percent of Americans who pay no federal income tax, two-thirds pay federal payroll tax. Most of them aren’t making a lot of money; a couple with two children has to earn less than $26,400 to pay no income tax. Altogether, only a tenth of Americans pay no federal tax, and most who pay neither income nor payroll tax are retirees.
Mr. Romney’s vision of the country, in other words, is a fantasy. He believes that 47 percent of Americans “are dependent upon government . . . believe the government has a responsibility to care for them . . . that they are entitled to health care, to food, to housing, to you-name-it.” This is dramatically out of touch with how hard most middle-class people work and how hard they find it to make ends meet. Half of all American households — households, not individuals — earn $50,000 or less, and the official poverty line for a family of four is a meager $23,021.
Mr. Romney’s comments echo those of his running mate, Rep. Paul Ryan (Wis.), who told the Republican convention that President Obama offers Americans “a dull, adventureless journey from one entitlement to the next, a government-planned life, a country where everything is free but us.” Mr. Ryan worries not that the safety net may be inadequate but that it will turn into a “hammock.” Does Mr. Romney share this ideology, or does his profoundly skewed vision result from spending his days with people like him?
Either way, Mr. Romney’s condescension toward half the country oddly mirrors the liberal disparagement of working-class Republicans that conservatives have long (and rightly) found offensive. The liberal misconception has been that anyone in the 47 percent who votes Republican is acting against economic self-interest and therefore must be stupid or duped by political ads — as if such voters cannot have principles on abortion, say, or economics that trump self-interest, even if you accept the Democratic definition of the latter.
Mr. Romney suggests that Obama voters are such sheep that there is no point in reaching out to them — and that their support for Democrats is purely selfish. The possibility that principles might motivate their political behavior does not even occur to Mr. Romney. It’s a demeaning, as well as inaccurate, view of the people he hopes to lead.