47%: Taxpayers vs. Citizens

A quick note about Mitt Romney’s “47 percent” comments, which many other conservatives seem to share.

There are many aspects of these beliefs that are odious, but one of the most odious is that people who don’t pay federal income taxes don’t have any “skin in the game.”

When our country was founded, most states had property qualifications for voting. In other words, you weren’t eligible to vote unless you owned property. The idea was that only stakeholders knew the relative costs and benefits of different economic policies; if you didn’t have any “skin in the game,” as it were, then you were unaffected by policy choices or couldn’t possibly be aware of the effects of those policy choices. As our society became more democratic over the first half of the nineteenth century, states reduced or even eliminated these property qualifications.

Today, the idea that there should be a property qualification for voting seems ridiculous. Under such a rule, nobody who rented an apartment would be allowed to vote.

Now, those who decry the mooching 47 percent aren’t saying that the 47 percent — which includes the elderly, the working poor, war veterans, and others — shouldn’t be allowed to vote. But the sentiment is similar. Certain people are better than others because they “produce” and pay taxes. Everyone else doesn’t count. (Except that it’s apparently all-American to try to pay as little taxes as you possibly can.)

If you’re homeless or unemployed, you’re not a full person. Can’t afford a voting ID, or don’t have a car to get to the DMV? Too bad. (My favorite argument about voter ID is, “You need an ID to get an airplane; why shouldn’t you need an ID to vote?” Um, do you think everyone in this country flies on airplanes?)

There’s this subtext (and sometimes it’s not even the subtext — it’s the actual text) that certain people just shouldn’t be allowed to participate in our democracy.¬†We got rid of property qualifications in this country sometime before the Civil War; some people seem to want to bring them back in some form.

But being a human being is about more than owning property.

And “taxpayer” is not a synonym for “citizen.”