Mitt Romney's candid-camera comments, telling donors at a fundraiser that nearly half of Americans are sure to vote for President Barack Obama because they are handout-seeking, responsibility-shirking victims, have been widely deplored, even by many conservatives. But the blunder could be a teachable moment about the growth of the welfare state and entitlements -- as long as the debate focuses on facts, not inflammatory rhetoric.
Romney's claim was based on the fact that 47 percent of Americans don't pay federal income tax and 49 percent live in a household where someone receives government benefits. As critics have pointed out, this hardly correlates with a population of moochers. Most who pay no federal income tax are either seniors or parents with minor children -- for whom, ironically, Republicans once worked to create tax breaks. The vast majority pay other taxes (federal payroll taxes as well as state and local ones).
Nor is it true that we face a crisis because the "takers" are starting to outnumber the "makers" and keep voting themselves more benefits. Yes, low-income people are more likely than the affluent to vote Democratic, but they are also much less likely to vote, period. And plenty of affluent people vote Democratic as well. In 2008, Obama and John McCain were tied among voters with annual household incomes of $100,000 and higher.
Yet spending on social benefits has unquestionably skyrocketed in our time. American Enterprise Institute scholar Nicholas Eberstadt, author of the forthcoming book "A Nation of Takers: America's Entitlement Epidemic," notes that, adjusting for inflation and population growth, government payouts to individuals have grown more than sevenfold since 1960, to $2.2 trillion in 2010.
Eberstadt, along with many other conservatives, argues that this is bad not only for America's fiscal sustainability but for our character, recalling the times when people would rather suffer hardship than go on the public dole. In some cases, welfare programs can indeed create a morally unattractive, and expensive, sense of entitlement. It's happened in some of Europe's generous social democracies. A few years ago, I had a memorable chat in an online forum with a young woman from Finland. She had been unemployed for over a year but was in no rush to get a job; her benefits were sufficient to allow foreign travel, and while she had to attend periodic career workshops, she could not be forced to take a job that didn't suit her preferences. She was using the downtime for hobbies. Any society that enables such lifestyles is in trouble -- as Europeans are realizing.
Yet that's not the picture in the United States. Most federal benefits go to retirees, and two principal reasons for entitlement expansion are better medical care and longer life spans. There are also federally subsidized student loans, and benefits that help the working poor stay afloat.
These programs shouldn't be sacrosanct. Given our debt burden, we should be able to review the Social Security retirement age as well as benefit levels for affluent seniors. We should also look at how subsidies in some areas, such as education, drive rising costs. But criticism of big government should never turn into bashing lower-income Americans, particularly when, as libertarians such as Sheldon Richman of the Foundation for Economic Education point out, "corporate welfare" that benefits the wealthy -- from bank bailouts to federal contracts -- contributes to government growth as well.
If small-government advocates are to make their case to America, they must show how smaller government benefits all -- or they will never shake their caricatured image as warriors for the privileged.
Cathy Young is a regular contributor to Reason magazine and the website RealClearPolitics.