Romney’s verbal blips tend to be revealing. His brief but telling discussion of which American demographic he’s concerned with shouts “objective-oriented upper management” louder than it shouts anything else.
The reason Romney hasn’t had that much real political success is that he doesn’t have much in the way of a political philosophy. When political conditions are set for him by outside agency, he’s an effective manager. His admirable record at Bain, and his achievement in organizing a faltering Olympics for success, attest to that. But his record as governor of Massachusetts indicates that in a political role, he accepts existing conditions as given, and seeks merely to optimize certain narrow priorities within them.
He is not committed to political principles, but to management. The two things are different, and one of the worst mistakes Republicans make is to imagine that management trumps political principle. In fact, the management focus knuckles under repeatedly to political pressure (see Romney in Massachusetts, Schwarzenegger in California, and generations of big businesses facing political activists). Only philosophical commitment, based on irreducible and non-negotiable ideas, can stand – or prevail – against the assault of demagogic-statist political themes.
It is clear from his passage on “the very poor, the very rich,” etc, that Romney is operating on the vague, complacent mindset conventionalized by left-trending American politics over the last 80 years: that government must “help” certain demographics, while rebuking others; and that no amount of evidence will induce us to change our definition of “help,” or our assessment of the need for it.
What that means in practice is a “cycle of poverty” welfare regime for the very poor; a symbiotic relationship for government with the very rich; a selective dismissal of the impact of government regulation and taxes on our economic conditions; and an incessant, increasingly expensive use of the middle class as a political football.
Those are the factors that have created our current, untenable situation. Its greatest impact is – as always – on the poorest among us. The poor have less opportunity today than they did as little as 40 years ago to “pull themselves up by their bootstraps,” through enterprise and investment as opposed to narrowly-defined “education” and “jobs.” And the principal reason is that regulation has them surrounded. It has suppressed job opportunities, made it harder to set up in small business or as an independent contractor, and jeopardized saving by increasing the prices of the goods and services needed for survival.
Impoverishing the middle class with taxation and job-killing regulation hits the poor even harder than it does the middle class. The middle class is what ultimately employs the poor, by exercising market demand; if it has less purchasing power, the poor lose jobs and business opportunities. Forcing the price of goods and services up with regulation also hits the poor harder than it hits anyone else. Policies that seek to suppress the industries and commercial activities disliked by activists hit the poor harder than anyone else.
Government favoritism, toward unions and big business alike, hits the poor harder than anyone else, because it is based on favoring the already connected, and preventing independent “upstarts” – frequently the poor – from competing with them. Besides distorting markets and costing everyone more in price terms, favoritism also creates a public debt burden, which hits the poor again by adding to the economic discouragement of the middle class.
A separate but intertwined aspect of this issue is the one Newt Gingrich has spoken passionately about: the debilitating and demoralizing effect on the poor of the very programs that, in Romney’s formulation, keep them “taken care of.”
I truly don’t think Romney means to be cavalier about the poor. But his wording indicates that his first political instinct is managerial rather than liberty-promoting. The two postures pull in different directions. Governments are perennially inclined to try to manage their people. They don’t naturally respect their people’s liberties and dignity; they have to be ordered to, and kept under constant surveillance and rebuke. Romney is not the man to do that. He appears to see the poor, like a lot of other things, as a managerial problem for government.
In the present case, respect for the people would entail acknowledging and revising policies that are socially destructive, and seeing whoever is poor at a given time principally as a “middle-class in waiting,” in need of liberty and opportunity. It is still possible to offer public assistance without maximizing the disincentives thrown up by government to enterprise and independence for the poor. The key is to avoid the deadly idea that assistance programs render the poor “taken care of,” as if the poor are a bill coming due. The poor are people – the source of all creativity and wealth – who will largely respond to and make the most of the same incentives as the middle class and the rich. America is, if nothing else, a demonstration of the truth of that maxim.
Romney consistently comes off as having an old-school interventionist approach to government. He also seems to have missed the right’s whole welfare-vs.-enterprise discussion of the 1980s and ‘90s. He is clearly not someone who would say that for the good of the people and in the interest of our most precious, most empowering commodity – liberty – government needs to stop doing whole categories of things. Romney doesn’t reflexively or naturally formulate any comment on policy in small-government terms.
It is not, in fact, conservative to think of the poor as “taken care of” by the destructive, self-perpetuating welfare regime in the United States. Far better for the poor to have the kind of opportunity, and the buying power of their earnings and savings, that they do not have now, but would have if the load of regulatory overreach, predatory taxation, and constituency-tending-by-overspending were lifted on Americans as a whole.