Early in high school my daughters learned a lesson about group projects: some people don’t like to pull their weight. It wasn’t the kids who struggled to produce quality work that the girls found most frustrating. As fiery Ohio State Senator Nina Turner says, “We don’t all run the race at the same pace,” and the girls got that. It was the shirkers. I myself used to want one of those bumper stickers that say, “Mean people suck.” The girls would have wanted one that said, “Freeloaders suck.”
If life were just about bumper stickers, most conservatives would agree. The welfare queen icon of the 1970’s is credited to of conservative strategist Lee Atwater, and Republicans ranging from self-serving paranoia mongers like Glenn Beck to self-righteous fundamentalists like Phyllis Schlafly wax eloquent about personal responsibility.
But if you pay attention to conservative policy priorities you will notice that conservatives don’t actually want all Americans to step up, pitch in, and take responsibility. Responsibility is for ghetto dwellers, and fat kids who eat at McDonalds, and teens who get knocked up, and poor people who have fallen on hard times. Bootstrap it, baby, even if your feet are bare.
The delusion that each of us is master of his or her own destiny generates a callous attitude toward people who are struggling; it also generates a lack of appreciation for what successful Americans have received from generations past. Conservatives who think success is a matter of bootstrapping don’t ask what investments we need to make today so that future generations have the same bounty and opportunities we had. Bootstrap believers are oblivious to the principle of pay it forward.
Seattle, where I live, is scattered with people who got rich in the high tech lottery. Some of them are keenly aware of the conditions that allowed them to win big: rule of law, great schooling, teamwork, early government investment in the internet, and so on, along with their own hard work. Some are not. I remember one retired Microsoft millionaire commenting wryly about another, “He was born on third base and thinks he hit a home run.” As venture capitalist Nick Hanauer reminds us in his book, The True Patriot, there’s no such thing as a self-made man.
The fact is, just like those Microsoft and Google millionaires, America’s prosperity has been a group project. The most archetypal image of American history is not the lone cowboy but the barn building. Generations past laid the foundation for our economy, everything from physical infrastructure like roads that transport goods to market, to the abstract rules of the market itself—copyright protection, for example, or anti-trust laws. But even with that well-built foundation there are some things the market doesn’t do well. Clean water, sewer systems, national security, air traffic control . . . these are things we can’t very well create alone or by competing with each other, so we build and own them together, and we hire employees we call public servants to manage them. Many of these basics of prosperity only work if we all play by the same rules and all do our share.
But for all of their hardnosed rhetoric about personal responsibility, conservatives get mighty squishy when responsibility gets personal. Basic human flaws like selfishness and greed and a near limitless capacity for hypocrisy mean that we humans often end up with our heads on backwards; we talk one way and walk the other. That is how it is with conservatives and responsibility. Look at the walk instead of the talk, the policy priorities instead of the bumper stickers, and you will see that freeloading and shirking are perfectly compatible with conservative thinking. Here is just a handful of examples.
1. Disaster relief for some. Faced with someone else’s disaster or one that hasn’t yet made landfall, conservatives in the House and Senate fight to cut disaster relief funds. Why should I pay more taxes when my back yard is high and dry? Yet when election time came in November, New Jersey governor Chris Christie got points from Republican allies for securing federal funds in the aftermath of Superstorm Sandy. In the words of William Palatucci of the RNC, Christie truly cared about the problems confronting families. At the time of Sandy, Oklahoma Senators James Inhofe and Tom Coburn voted against providing relief funds for the Eastern seaboard. But when tornados touched down in their home state, they had no trouble putting out a hand and asking those East Coast liberals and the rest of America for assistance. They sought help from the same FEMA insurance funds they had been trying to whack back.
I personally don’t consider it mooching when people who have been hit hard want to draw on an insurance pool that they’ve paid into, but some want to draw out without paying in. Oklahoma senators aren’t the only culprits. Most religious organizations claim that paying taxes on their real estate or income would blur the line between church and state, God forbid. But they don’t express the same concern when money flows in the opposite direction. Legislation currently advocated by both Catholic and Protestant lobbyists would allow churches to draw on public disaster relief funds that they haven’t paid into.
2. Subsidies for religion. That’s not the only way that religious organizations and individual are hoping to get something for nothing. Rather like corporations that want the rights but not the responsibilities of personhood, churches and even some religious individuals want the benefits of citizenship without the duties. They want exemptions from basic human rights laws, like the obligation to serve gay people in public accommodations or to provide preventive health coverage to employees or to respect religious freedom in the military. They also want public money without having to chip in. In recent decades, figuring out how to pay for religion on the public dime without paying into the public kitty has become big business.
Religious clergy use the same roads, electric line, water pipes, and sewers as the rest of us. They benefit from the same police services, military protection, and international diplomacy. But since 1954 they have not had to pay income tax on any compensation designated as a “housing allowance.” A clergy member could have $25,000 of his $75,000 salary so designated, use the money to purchase a house, and then, in a practice called “double dipping,” deduct mortgage interest and property taxes. On November 22, a federal judge ruled against the exemption, which re-directed an estimated $2.3 billion out of public coffers over a five year period. Given the amount at stake, it is expected that church lobbyists will pressure the Obama administration to appeal the decision. When clergy and churches don’t chip in for the services they use, either the rest of us pay more, or our country goes farther in debt. It’s that simple.
3. Corporate profits; public losses. Corporations gain a competitive advantage when they can get someone else to pay their costs—someone like taxpayers or future generations of Americans. For example, one small bike shop in Colorado Springs spends $24,000 on medical insurance for four employees, while their biggest competitors, Walmart and Target, get the general public to subsidize healthcare for their workforce. They do it by paying below-poverty wages and limiting employees to part time work. In 2011, the state of Massachusetts spent $14.6 million on insurance for Walmart employees and their dependents, and even more for employees of Target. Freeloading lets irresponsible businesses undercut good-citizen competitors and drive them out of business.
The same is true when irresponsible corporations are able to use our air and water like a free dump for hazardous waste. In India, it is estimated that pollution from coal plants causes 20 million new cases of asthma each year and kills 120,000. Here in the U.S., pollution levels are lower and asthmatics are more likely to get timely treatment. Even so we have data going back to the 1970’s showing that coal burning increases asthma attacks and respiratory ailments. Coal companies like Peabody don’t have to pay the cost of harm done, which means their profits are subsidized by the American public who take a hit in terms of both health and healthcare costs. Who really pays? The elderly and children. If coal companies had to step up and take responsibility for the real costs of their dirty products, energy innovators might find themselves on a level playing field.
4. Right to Work or Right to Shirk? Speaking of level playing fields . . . The tug-of-war between living wages and corporate profits isn’t actually a tug of war unless workers can team up and pull together, and conservative profiteers realized a long time ago that they could skew the balance of power in their favor if they could somehow defund the labor movement. The strategy they came up with, which they call “Right to Work” legislation is a stroke of freeloading genius. These laws basically say that anyone who works in a union shop gets union scale wages and benefits even if they don’t join up, pay dues, or participate in negotiations. Conservatives are banking that if some people have the right to a free ride, they will take it, and eventually there won’t be enough dues-paying members to keep labor organized.
In the children’s book, Swimmy, small fish get terrorized by big fish until they learn to team up and swim together in the shape of an even bigger fish. For the past century, the labor movement organized small fish to swim together, to cast the shadow of a big fish both in wage negotiations and in the halls of congress. Now, with globalization and technology shifts, old models aren’t working so well, which makes this particular conservative freeloader tactic well timed.
5. The Smoking Gun. If one institution in the U.S. could be held up as the pinnacle of conservative freeloading it should be the NRA. The objective of the gun lobby is to ensure that profits accrue to the manufacturers while public health and safety costs do not. In other words, for its funders the NRA advocates the opposite of personal or corporate responsibility. Thanks to relentless lobbying, weapons manufacturers are exempt from liability caused by their deadly products.
Gun advocates often are as guilty as manufacturers when it comes to shirking and freeloading. The libertarian ethic that idolizes gun rights is actually one that says I play; you pay. Today, if I left a sword lying around unsecured where it could be found by a curious child or suicidal teen, I would be more legally liable than if I left an enticing gun lying around under the same circumstances. A sword owner has a responsibility to protect the general public under what are called “attractive nuisance” laws. Seventeen percent of gun owners keep their guns both loaded and unlocked. Last year, 52 kids in King County, Washington, were caught with guns at school. If guns were treated like other dangerous possessions, careless owners would be in a world of hurt, because the hurt they create would belong, at least financially, to them.
I could give dozens more examples—extraction companies that want to draw down America’s bank account of natural resources and then put profits in offshore tax shelters; online retailers that want to replace brick and mortar stores without paying local taxes that fund worker retraining; university educated bankers who pay expensive accountants to help them avoid chipping in for higher education. . . . But the bottom line is this: When conservatives talk about responsibility, don’t read their lips; read their white papers. Corporate conservatives want special rules that let them privatize profits and socialize losses. Religious conservatives want special exemptions from civic duties and laws that apply to everyone else. Libertarian conservatives simply believe they are special—that 4000 diaper changes and university educations notwithstanding, they truly are self-made and don’t owe anything to anyone, past, present or future. It’s time we challenged the notion that the Republicans are the party of responsibility.
Valerie Tarico is a psychologist and writer in Seattle, Washington. She is the author of Trusting Doubt: A Former Evangelical Looks at Old Beliefs in a New Light and Deas and Other Imaginings, and the founder of www.WisdomCommons.org. Subscribe to her articles at Awaypoint.Wordpress.com.