5 Ways Conservative Politics Promotes Freeloading and Shirking
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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 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 1970s is credited to 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 McDonald's 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 iconic 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.