Unearned Privilege as the American Way

In the second part of his take on Mitt Romney’s speech last night, Jonathan Chait makes a key observation about Romney’s message for the campaign:

Romney has to couch the implications of his argument carefully, but the underlying logic is perfectly clear. He believes that fairness is defined by market outcomes. If Romney earns a thousand times as much as a nurse in Topeka, it is solely because his character, education, or hard work entitle him to that. To the extent that unfairness exists, it is solely the doing of government: clean energy, laws permitting union dues, overpaid government employees, and so on. Aside from unfairness imposed by government, poverty is attributable to the bad choices or deficient character or upbringing of poor people.

Everything about Romney’s campaign is centered on this basic idea. His domestic policy plan—a repurposed version of the Ryan budget—calls huge tax cuts and a huge reduction in the size and scope of the social safety net. If passed in its entirety—which, as Ezra Klein points out, is a real possibility—the Romney/Ryan plan would flatten federal income tax rates, eliminate most forms of support for low-income families, and drastically cut key drivers of economic mobility, like Pell Grants and Head Start.

Under Romney, government would abandon efforts to mitigate the grossly lopsidied outcomes of a market economy. The “losers” of capitalism—aka ordinary people—would be left to the mercy of employers and market forces. Lost your job because your company moved to automated labor? Don’t count on unemployment insurance from the government. Can’t afford health insurance or decent child care? You should have gotten a better education. Can’t afford college? Too bad. Want to organize to defend your interests in the workplace? That would be “unfair.”

More than anything, Romney is running on a plan to generate wealth for the wealthy and protect privilege for the privileged. This isn’t an artifact of his position in the Republican Party; he genuinely believes that the most just outcome is one where the privileged are undisturbed in their position. Need proof? Look at how Romney responds to any mention of his immensely privileged background:

“I’m certainly not going to apologize for my dad and his success in life,” Romney told Fox News. “He was born poor. He worked his way to become very successful despite the fact that he didn’t have a college degree, and one of the things he wanted to do was provide for me and for my brother and sisters.”

This is a straightforward defense of unearned privilege. It’s not just that Romney benefited from the success of his father, it’s that he deserved the tremendous advantage it conferred. He essentially claims the hard work of his father, as if there were a transitive property to overcoming disadvantage.

“I’ve been very successful. I’m not going to apologize for that.” This has been Romney’s line on wealth since the campaign began, and it’s galling. Romney entered life with tremendous advantages—he grew up in a world where poverty was out of view and hard work always rewarded. His life, in other words, was shaped by an immense amount of good fortune. But Romney has advanced an agenda that ignores unearned privilege and relies on the fiction of “just desserts.” Poor people are poor because they’re lazy, rich people are rich because they work hard, and Mitt Romney is running to ensure a world where government does does nothing to interfere with that fantasy.