Deborah Poff’s column “Free Ride, Anyone?” in the Oct. 6 Brandon Sun invites thought, reflection and discussion.
As referenced in the column, U.S. Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney’s sentiments about the poor being free-riders, using the current vernacular, resonates, with a lot of people. The familiar stereotype of the poor presents them with the hand out for public support in the form of charity, welfare, food banks and hampers.
The stereotype also presents them as lazy and uninspired, with no thought or effort to make their contribution (financial, preferably) to society. The stereotype is so familiar as to be almost axiomatic — poor equals indolence and free-loading. In fact the stereotype is so deeply ingrained in the public psyche that it becomes necessary to apologize for the poor when lobbying or speaking on their behalf.
It is this stereotype that allows persons to make a blanket statement about the poor as free-riders, free-loaders, without qualification, without evidence. It is this stereotype that is operative when the term ‘free-rider’ or ‘free-loader’ is immediately associated with the poor. It is this stereotype which allows public policy-makers to design programs which treat the poor as social and economic pariah. Simply and crudely put, they are the “welfare bums.”
And then there are Ralph Nader’s “corporate welfare bums.” (Recall that in Canadian law corporations are defined as persons.) In a recent article in The Star, journalist Carol Goar, wrote about the report authored by Mark Milke (senior fellow of the Fraser Institute) regarding “Corporate Welfare Bargains.” In the report, Mark Milke states that Ottawa, the provinces and the municipalities spent $202 billion on business subsidies between 1994 and 2007. Which is a fair “chunk of change.”
To these subsidies can be added the $75 billion plus bailout of Canadian banks in 2007-08. As well, we can add tax havens, corporate relocations, tax cuts, tax allowances and loopholes, favourable treatment of certain income sources, whereby corporations can avoid taxes to the best of their ability. Labour laws and environmental laws can be added as public policies which allow corporations to enjoy the gains derived from using resources at a significantly discounted price. The primary stereotype that accrues to these corporations is that of being engines for growth and job creation while, according to the Bank of Canada, they are, at present, sitting on $526 billion, a good portion of which may come from generous tax cuts in the past several years.
Wealthy individuals, similarly, do not escape notice. Wealth has its privileges in terms of holding onto and increasing that wealth. Wealthy individuals can escape Canadian taxes through off-shore accounts. Tax laws favour income from sources other than wages and salaries which favours the wealthy. As well, the wealthy have access (by virtue of their wealth) to tax avoidance vehicles which are not available to the less fortunate. There is no universal negative stereotype which is attached to wealthy people. The closest they come to being identified as being free-riders or free-loaders is when it is suggested that maybe they are not paying their fair share of taxes to support public programs and services and generally make their respective contributions to the wealth of the nation as opposed to just personal wealth.
Note that all the above examples reference activities that are legal. Which means that they are legitimate in terms of Canadian law and, therefore, approved, certified and supported by Canadians. Which begs the question, why are the poor singled out as the free-riders or free-loaders?
Economic and/or political power may have much to do with it. The poor have none of both. Which means that they can be, and often are, convenient targets when the questions of public largesse or funding cut-backs are at issue. The poor are there by their own design. At least that is the common mantra. Therefore, it is to their benefit that they are castigated and, hopefully, thereby, motivated to improve their lot and become productive citizens. Very few aspire to be poor or are inspired by poverty. So it is relatively safe to cast aspersions on the poor.
The contrary is true of wealth and the wealthy. To support the poor smacks of socialism. To support corporations and the wealthy is the great tradition of free-market capitalism. The vote is in favour of socialism for the well-to-do and free-market capitalism for the poor.
As for the in-between class. They are too rich to qualify for public entitlement to food, shelter and clothing. Although indications are that the reluctant in-between-class is being actively recruited for membership into the lower-income class. They are too poor to qualify for the advantages of the wealthy. The fascinating observation is that the in-between class has been taught to embrace the current situation and lead in the good fight for free-market capitalist principles while they are being abandoned by those same capitalists.
In the meantime, hope springs eternal in the minds and hearts of the in-between class.
Free ride, anyone? Everyone.
ROSEMARIE and CHESTER LETKEMAN
Republished from the Brandon Sun print edition October 13, 2012