Reinhold Niebuhr explains Mitt and the 47%

By now we are all familiar with the remarks made by Mitt Romney on that fundraiser tape.  Here is the Mother Jones transcription

There are 47 percent of the people who will vote for the president no matter what. All right, there are 47 percent who are with him, who are dependent upon government, who believe that they are victims, who believe that government has a responsibility to care for them, who believe that they are entitled to health care, to food, to housing, to you name it. That that’s an entitlement. And the government should give it to them. And they will vote for this president no matter what. And I mean, the president starts off with 48, 49, 48—he starts off with a huge number. These are people who pay no income tax. Forty-seven percent of Americans pay no income tax. So our message of low taxes doesn’t connect. And he’ll be out there talking about tax cuts for the rich. I mean that’s what they sell every four years. And so my job is not to worry about those people—I’ll never convince them that they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives.

My husband and I have a large library and one of my retirement projects is to get them onto a database. It is hard because I keep getting distracted by having to read parts of almost everything – like browsing at a bookstore.  Anyway, I came across a copy of Reinhold Niebuhr’s Moral Man and Immoral Society and looked through the table of contents.  Chapter V is titled “The Ethical Attitudes of Privileged Classes”.  Caught my eye.  So, I wondered, does he explain Mitt?

Turns out yes.  Even though he was writing in 1932, Niebuhr’s words still have truth.

He begins by explaining his understanding of classes.

Classes may be formed on the basis of common functions in society, but they do not become sharply distinguished until function is translated into privilege.  Thus professional classes may be distinguished by certain psychological characteristics from other middle-class groups; but these psychological distinctions will be ultimately insignificant in comparison with the common political attitudes which professional groups will have with other middle-class groups on the basis of their similar social and economic privileges.


Whatever may be the degree of the self-consciousness of classes, the social and ethical outlook of members of given classes is invariably colored, if not determined, by the unique economic circumstances which each class has as a common possession.  This fact, regarded as axiomatic by economists, still fails to impress most moral theorists and ethical idealists.  The latter, with their too unqualified confidence int he capacity of religious or rational idealism, persist in hoping that some force of reason and conscience can be created, powerful enough to negate or to transcend the economic interests which are basic to class divisions.  The whole history of humanity is proof of the futility of this hope.  The development of rational and moral resources may indeed qualify the social and ethical outlook, but it cannot destroy the selfishness of classes.

The reason wy privileged classes are more hypocritical than underprivileged ones is that special privilege can be defended in terms of the rational ideal of equal justice only, by proving that it contributes something to the good of the whole.  Since inequalities of privilege are greater than could possibly be defended rationally, the intelligence of privileged groups is usually applied to the task of inventing specious proofs for the theory that universal values spring from, and that general interests are served by, the special privileges which they hold.

This seems to have become the reason we need more tax cuts for the 1% who have branded themselves as the job creators.  This is where we get trickle down.

On the other hand it has always been the habit of privileged groups to deny the oppressed classes every opportunity for the cultivation of innate capacities and then to accuse them of lacking what they have been denied the right to acquire.

Mitt Romney is clearly of the privileged class and he is not, although he sometimes pretends to be, one the few members of  his class who, in Niebuhr’s words, is an “able man”, one who transcends his classes and uses his educational and economic advantages for good.

47  253/365  Niebuhr contemplates

47 253/365 Niebuhr contemplates (Photo credit: stratoz)


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