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Sorry, Mitt, 'lucky duckies' get to vote

September 19, 2012|By Michael McGough
  • Mitt Romney speaks to reporters in Costa Mesa on Monday.
Mitt Romney speaks to reporters in Costa Mesa on Monday. (Charles Dharapak / Associated…)

Mitt Romney’s dig at the 47% of Americans who don’t pay income taxes has been deconstructed every which way. My favorite exegesis comes from the New Republic's Timothy Noah, who traces Rommey's complaint to a conservative meme known as  the "lucky duckie" problem. (The term comes from a 2002 Wall Street Journal editorial titled "The Non-Taxpaying Class.")

Here's the theory in a nutshell: Because they don't pay taxes themselves, thanks to progressive rates and tax credits, the lucky duckies are not only a poor target audience for tax-cutting politicians; they also have no reason to oppose increases in government spending. In  Romney’s telling, of course, they are also the beneficiaries of that spending.

One answer to this problem is to keep the duckies from voting. No one is seriously proposing denying the franchise to non-taxpayers, and it would run afoul of the 24th Amendment. On the other hand, the notion that Americans earn the right to comment on government by paying taxes is deeply rooted. When journalists refer to the misuse of "taxpayers' money," the implication is that the scandal du jour is of interest only to those who subsidized it through their 1040s.

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In Washington, which lacks a voting representative in Congress, the license plates bear the tendentious slogan "Taxation Without Representation."  Yet a lot of the cars with those plates are driven by people who don’t pay income tax.  I don’t know of any advocate of statehood or voting rights for D.C. who would endorse the idea of allowing only taxpayers to vote, even if the Constitution allowed that. Their rallying cry is “No taxation without representation,” but they’d be horrified if someone advanced the converse claim of of “No representation without taxation.”

Actually, some Republicans have suggested that there is something unseemly about voting when you don’t pay taxes. Former presidential candidate Michele Bachmann put it this way: “Part of the problem is [that] today only 53% pay any federal income tax at all; 47% pay nothing. We need to broaden the base so that everybody pays something, even if it's a dollar. Everyone should pay something because we all benefit."

This model of citizens as shareholders has an understandable appeal. Remember the joke about the citizen who tells the cop he deserves to be protected “because I pay your salary”? (The cop replies: “I want a  raise.”) But luckie duckies can’t make that pitch to the police officer or the president. Nor should they have to.


They may not be shareholders in government, but they are (to use an overworked neologism) "stakeholders." Their fortunes are just as tied to government policies as are those of taxpayers -- perhaps more so. 

It’s not surprising that Romney is more comfortable with shareholders than with stakeholders.


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