The Ugly History of “Makers vs. Takers” Rhetoric

This is not a good way to debate human social organization. Its just not.

This is not a good way to debate human social organization. It’s just not.

During the 2012 presidential election, Republican nominee Mitt Romney made some remarks that may have sunk his candidacy. This was nothing new for the perennial presidential candidate. After all, the guy is about as charismatic as a brick wall and has changed his political positions so often over the course of his public career that “foot in mouth disease” likely runs in his bloodline. But the comments to which I’m specifically referring were his infamous “47 percent remarks” delivered on May 17, 2012 in Bacon Raton, Florida to a table of chair-straining plutocrat donors. The remarks were, of course, captured on hidden camera by bartender Scott Prouty.

Romney’s remarks effectively divided the U.S. into two populations: the supposedly hard-working, usually rich, GOP-voting, and always self-unaware “takers,” and the 47 percent of welfare-addicted takers who allegedly rely on government redistributive policies to siphon wealth from the “makers.” The full text of Romney’s remarks can be read here, but the “47 percent” spiel went as follows:

“There are 47 percent of the people who will vote for the president no matter what,” Romney says in the video. “All right, there are 47 percent who are with him, who are dependent upon government, who believe that they are victims, who believe the 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 … These are people who pay no income tax.”

Besides the unmitigated chutzpah of a son-of-a multi-millionaire arbitrarily chastising some amorphous mass of U.S. citizens for not working hard enough while claiming that he himself had “inherited nothing,” Romney’s comments echoed a familiar idea, popular in the conservative slime-o-sphere, that crudely divides human society into camps of either productive workers or useless parasites. In recent years, this idea has been promoted in pseudoscientific right-wing literature, is routinely promulgated by utopian-craving Libertarian circle-jerk centers like Reason.com, and is spewed out by columnists like Wall Street Journal fungus-sprout, and privileged son of the affluent Chicago suburbs, Stephen Moore.

Such a simplistic division of humans into opposing “productive” and “worthless” camps, however, is nothing new. In fact, this odious approach to social organization is rooted in 19th-century pseudoscientific racial thinking. The idea of “makers vs. takers” influenced the social trajectory of modern western history and, when taken to its extremes, provided the intellectual justification for slavery, eugenics, and, in the worst case scenario, the Holocaust. Lest the former point strike you as hyperbolic, I thought I’d take some time highlight some past examples of “makers vs. takers” arguments as revealed in some good ole’ fashioned primary source documents. These texts can help demonstrate why the “makers vs. takers” argument is despicable and dangerous.

19th century philosopher Herbert Spencer. At least his impressive chops were the fittest.

19th century philosopher Herbert Spencer. At least his impressive chops were the fittest.

Let’s begin with Herbert Spencer, the 19th-century English philosopher, anthropologist, and all around tool whose unscientific application of Darwinian natural selection to human societies led him to coin the term “survival of the fittest.” Spencer adamantly opposed Victorian era “poor laws” — early types of state welfare — because he believed such laws took from the “strong” to give to the “weak.” Take, for example, this excerpt from Spencer’s work Social Statistics (1851):

The poverty of the incapable, the distresses that come upon the imprudent, the starvation of the idle, and those shoulderings aside of the weak by the strong, which leave so many “in shallows and in miseries,” are the decrees of a large, far-seeing benevolence.

It seems hard that an unskilfulness which with all his efforts he cannot overcome, should entail hunger upon the artizan. It seems hard that a labourer incapacitated by sickness from competing with his stronger fellows, should have to bear the resulting privations. It seems hard that widows and orphans should be left to struggle for life or death. Nevertheless, when regarded not separately, but in connection with the interests of universal humanity, these harsh fatalities are seen to be full of the highest beneficence—the same beneficence which brings to early graves the children of diseased parents, and singles out the low-spirited, the intemperate, and the debilitated as the victims of an epidemic.

Spewing the racialist thought popular at the time, Spencer believed that some humans, like European whites, were inherently genetically superior to others, like black Africans, that were inherently inferior. He thus divided humans into “weak” and “strong” camps, and justified the disease, death, suffering, and poverty experienced by millions as natural retribution for their inherent weaknesses. Spencer claimed that the good of greater humanity depended on such “harsh fatalities,” which were, in fact, of the “highest beneficence” to humanity in general. He opposed poor laws and welfare because he believed that such laws propped up weak, inferior takers at the superior makers’ expense.

Spencer, an early supporter of eugenics, advocated sterilization to eliminate the “unfit” parasites from the earth. In the 19th and early 20th centuries, eugenics was popular among both progressive and conservative thinkers, but Spencer’s Social Darwinian theories are still popular within contemporary right-wing circles, where his delegation of the human race into “fit” and “unfit” categories appeals to those inclined towards a “makers vs. takers” worldview. Indeed, it’s no coincidence that nearly all of Spencer’s writings can be accessed for free at the website of Liberty Fund, an Indiana-based Libertarian foundation.

Moving along from Spencer, let’s visit the antebellum South, where we’ll examine the famous 1858 “Mudsill Speech” delivered by pro-slavery apologist, and South Carolina senator, James Henry Hammond. Hammond was unquestionably one of the great scumbags of U.S. history. In 1829, at age 21, he married a wealthy heiress named Catherine Fitzsimmons, from whom he gained ownership of over 100 slaves. Hammond not only sexually abused his female slaves on multiple occasions, but also molested his own nieces, a process he bragged about in detail in his own journal! Dude, not cool.

These actions stemmed from Hammond’s domineering worldview that saw women and blacks as tools for his pleasure. This idea informed his “Mudsill Speech,” through which he defended southern slavery against northern criticism by dividing society into a racial hierarchy of peon laborers and dominating owners:

In all social systems there must be a class to do the menial duties, to perform the drudgery of life. That is, a class requiring but a low order of intellect and but little skill. Its requisites are vigor, docility, fidelity. Such a class you must have, or you would not have that other class which leads progress, civilization, and refinement. It constitutes the very mud-sill of society and of political government; and you might as well attempt to build a house in the air, as to build either the one or the other, except on this mud-sill. Fortunately for the South, she found a race adapted to that purpose to her hand. A race inferior to her own, but eminently qualified in temper, in vigor, in docility, in capacity to stand the climate, to answer all her purposes. We use them for our purpose, and call them slaves.

Hammond emphasized that without a laboring “mudsill” class to do manual labor without complaint, and for little compensation, civilization itself could not flourish. The existence of a permanent laboring class freed up enlightened geniuses like himself to marry rich women and pursue intellectual stimulation that would lead to cultural “refinement.” In Hammond’s racist time, better to have enslaved “inferior” blacks do the dirty work. For him and his ilk, “equality” was anathema to freedom, since the natural order of free society supposedly necessitated an “inferior” (read: black) class to provide for the economic and political security of a ruling (read: white) class. For men like Hammond, abolishing slavery entailed foisting a vast “taker” class of African-Americans onto the ruling “makers” who were busy building civilization.

James Henry Hammond: he really was a total jerk.

James Henry Hammond: he was a total jerk.

Echoes of Hammond’s “Mudsill Theory” reverberates in modern conservative ideas about “makers and takers.” This view of society provides those who identify themselves among the “makers” with a feeling of superiority over an allegedly idle class that refuses to pull up its collective bootstraps and embrace good old fashioned labor. No matter the pittance of compensation or carefully constructed barriers to economic advancement that may come with such labor; conservatives, like those at the Heritage Foundation, bemoan the supposed “erosion of our culture of work” because such an erosion allegedly creates a parasitic class that refuses to be “mudsills,” and instead leaches from the noble upholders of American civilized culture.

But by dividing society into “makers and takers,” conservatives come eerily close to consigning the human population into “worthy” and “unworthy” classes, a type of social division that provided the ideological justification for slavery’s domination of one human group by another. Pro-slavery ideologues like Hammond dehumanized black people as unworthy of participation in the American experiment, and modern conservatives who blithely dismiss half the population as parasites by extension deny millions of their fellow citizens their basic human dignity as legitimate members of the body politic.

The repugnant, and possibly dangerous, consequences of viewing human society as made up of “makers” and “takers” stems from a long tradition of historical beliefs that sought to categorize the human race into various types of “worthy” and “unworthy” groups along lines of genetics, race, gender, and class. The Social Darwinism of Herbert Spencer still echoes in modern conservatives’ characterization of “welfare” as undeserved “handouts” to those unwilling to work on their own. Moreover, the notion of hard-working “worthy” and idle “unworthy” classes underpinned pro-slavery arguments that inequality was essential to the upholding of freedom for the “civilized” classes.

When you arbitrarily divide human beings into “productive” and “unproductive” groups, you inherently deem the so-called “unproductive” classes as undeserving of social acceptance. Historically, this has been the first ideological step taken by those wishing to dominate other humans by controlling their labor or, in the worst case scenario, eliminating them altogether. Those who label their fellow humans as “takers” equate them to parasites, and parasites must be exterminated.

Historically, this view, when taken to its utmost extremes, resulted in the genocide of Native Peoples in America, the extermination of Jews in Nazi-occupied Europe, and the slaughter of the Tutsis tribe in Rwanda, to name but a few examples. It’s no coincidence that 19th-century American Indian Bureau officials sought to “make labor honorable and idleness dishonorable” among Indians who would otherwise starve to death following the confiscation of their hunting grounds by whites. It’s also no coincidence that the Third Reich railed against “parasitical Jews,” and that Rwandan Hutu death squads viewed Tutsis as “treacherous speculators and parasites.”

Dividing human beings into simplistic camps of “makers” and “takers” implicitly dehumanizes one group while empowering the other. The historical baggage that comes with such divisions is not something that should be exhumed from the graveyard of discarded human ideologies. Political differences are fine, and should be recognized, but let’s not lose sight of basic human dignity in the process.

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