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The Southern State Fast Becoming Ayn Rand's Vision of Paradise

Tennessee lawmakers have elevated hatred for government and disgust for poor people to an art form.

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Obviously, this is insane, right? Not if you've already started down the road of whipping the poor into shape. The proposed draconian cuts are just an extension of previous policies that already made welfare contingent on school attendance. As Travis Waldron  reports in ThinkProgress

When Campfield introduced the legislation in January, he said parents have “gotten away with doing absolutely nothing to help their children” in school. “ That’s child abuse to me,” he added. Tennessee already ties welfare to education  by mandating a 20 percent cut in benefits if students do not meet attendance standards, but this change would place the burden of maintaining benefits squarely on children, who would face costing their family much-needed assistance if they don’t keep up in school.

By the way, the Tennessee legislature is  lily-white: One percent is Latino, 6% AfricanAmerican and 91% Caucasian. But the complexion of poverty is darker. Nearly 80 percent of Tennessee's poor children are black and brown.

Attacking the poor as the answer to the Wall Street crash?

These attacks on the poor, rather than on poverty, are not peculiar to Tennessee. In fact, similar concepts circulate among political and policy elites in Washington. For Ayn Rand acolytes, Wall Street's reckless, greedy casinos couldn't possibly be the real reason the economy crashed. After all, the rich get rich because they are terrific at what they do. We should reward these creators, not blame them for their foresight, their ingenuity and their obvious success. The blame instead should fall on the poor -- the takers -- and on the collectivist government liberals who cater to them. Didn't the government force banks to put unqualified poor people in homes they couldn't afford? (It doesn't matter that the data shows that low-income buyers who gained loans through the Community Readjustment Act didn't default in higher numbers than anyone else. The idea of blaming the poor has power.)

Blaming low-income people for chronic unemployment is the next move. As the rate stays stubbornly high (precisely because all Republicans and even a few Democrats don't want the government in the business of job creation) we hear talk of "structural" unemployment. That's code for the jobs would be there if only the workers were qualified. But you know, those lower-income workers just don't have the skills and work habits to compete in our globalized economy. Even older middle-class workers are hopelessly out of date. So there's really nothing government can do about it.

The final twist is to claim that the richest country in human history doesn't have the means to eradicate poverty. Instead, we are told, rising debt is forcing us to tighten our belts -- rather, we need to tighten the belts of the poor by taking away a few more dollars from Medicaid and Social Security.  

How to justify meanness?

It's not easy to be cruel to someone who is down and out. After all, most of us feel ashamed when walking by a homeless person or watching kids crammed into over-crowded classrooms. It requires several psychological twists and turns to make life even harder for low-income Americans.

  • You have to blame low-income parents for their own economic problems. Even if the unemployment rate is sky-high it must be the poor person's fault.
  • You need to feel superior -- that somehow you got to where you are today not by an accident of birth but rather by your own hard labors. Anyone not as successful as you, by definition, is inferior.
  • You have to believe that meanness really is tough love -- that by taking benefits away from the poor you are actually helping them on the road to self sufficiency. 
  • It's helpful to have access to the broader Randian/libertarian philosophy that argues all forms of collective government action are an attack on freedom. In this view, altruism is seen as a curse that justifies collective government programs which essentially steal money from the makers and to waste on the takers. All collective caring by the state, therefore, is evil, so that all support for the poor via government is evil as well.
  • It's psychologically crucial to have your prejudices confirmed by charismatic alchemists like Ayn Rand, Rand Paul and Paul Ryan who peddle selfishness as the highest form of morality (although only Ayn Rand had the guts to say it so bluntly).

Is Washington locked into increasing inequality?

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