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Romney's remarks reveal a deeper fear about success

By Matthew H. Bowker

Early this week, mainstream media outlets publicized Mitt Romney's comments at a May fund-raiser that roughly 47 percent of Americans with no federal income tax liability consider themselves "victims" and feel "entitled" to free goods and services. These people, said Romney, are helplessly dependent on the government and, therefore, will never take "personal responsibility" for their lives.

While the 47 percent includes students, elderly citizens, disabled persons, military members and unemployed individuals who do not seem to fit this description, what is really interesting about this argument is that it stands next to the Republican contention that taxes should be lowered for all.

If we recognize that lowering taxes among the 53 percent who pay taxes implies reducing government services and benefits, then the idea behind Romney's argument becomes clear: Those with greater financial independence should pay fewer taxes so that those with less financial independence will be unable to continue to be dependent.

Behind this obsession with independence lies not only a denial of the realities of complex economic and political interdependence, but a misdirected rage at the dependent. The high-pitched anger directed at those who receive help, who trust government to help and who can accept help without feeling impotent suggests the work of envy, which seeks to destroy what it cannot have.

Of course, those who work and find success because they genuinely enjoy work and success will not likely resent the putative dependence of the 47 percent. But those who feel that without success they are nothing, that success is the proof of their good character, may very well wish that they could escape this terrible bargain, because they are the ones who are truly dependent.

Individuals who require external affirmations of their goodness in the form of financial success and independence are dependent upon continued success in order to feel good. This dependence implies a terrifying vulnerability, for if success were ever taken away, if the business were to fail, if the job were to be lost, these individuals would lose more than money: They would lose self-respect and self-worth.

A tragic irony here is that, for such individuals, affirming one's own goodness means taking away the benefits and services others need. These efforts not only protect the financial success of the successful, but reinforce the cherished belief that the determinant of financial success or failure is personal goodness. In this light, it should not be surprising when such individuals and groups infuse debates about the link between national goodness and national independence with an urgency and a desperation unwarranted by political or economic reality.

Matthew H. Bowker, Ph.D., is a political theorist and visiting assistant professor at Medaille College.