Hey, did you know that Jews are good with money?
Nobody has (yet) accused Mitt Romney of that old anti-Semitic slur following his recent suggestion that cultural differences explain why Israel prospers and Palestinians don't. But the fact that the Republican presidential candidate has been accused of both anti-Palestinian racism and (in the words of Forbes Magazine contributor Peter Cohan) veering “perilously close to citing (Jewish) stereotypes” nevertheless illustrates why America's national government and politics have been rendered nearly impotent:
Not even the truth is acceptable when the wrong person says it.
Only a fool would deny that the prospects for wealth or poverty are influenced by the common values that shape behavior norms. As syndicated columnist Charles Krauthammer points out, even the United Nations – no friend of Israel – has concluded that “traditional Arab cultures and values” are among the impediments to Arab economic progress.
In this context, “culture” transcends such frivolities as entertainment, fashion, art or even ethnicity. The word properly reflects those values and beliefs that shape the manner in which wealth is created and protected. Romney said as much when he noted that the United States and Israel share a culture that “is based upon individual freedom and the rule of law” and added that such a culture in Israel “has created conditions that have enabled innovators and entrepreneurs to make the desert bloom.”
No matter how badly some desire economic equality or “social justice,” the undeniable truth is that people's values and resulting actions inevitably promote or deter prosperity. The conservative Heritage Foundation makes this point very well in its annual “Index of Economic Freedom” – a survey that consistently finds a clear if imperfect link between fiscal freedom and national financial well-being.
In truth, Israel does not fare particularly well in the 2012 report, which considers such factors as the rule of law, limited government and regulatory efficiency. It ranks just 48th in the world, after Oman and ahead of Hungary. And if Palestinians received more than $3 billion in annual aid from the United States, as Israel does, no doubt their standard of living would improve, too.
But Romney's larger point is undeniable: The economic and political conditions in Israel are more conducive to widespread prosperity than they are in most other areas of the Middle East. It should not be considered politically incorrect or unwise to say so, especially if you actually care about Palestinians.
Instead of debating the economic impact of various Middle-Eastern cultures, Americans would do themselves a favor by concentrating on their own. As the Heritage report notes, “in 2010, for the first time ever, the U.S. fell from the ranks of the economically free. In 2012, the U.S. score dropped again, falling to 10th place. This reduction in economic freedom has been accompanied by a stagnant economy, persistently high unemployment and lethargic economic growth.”
Most people are "poor" at one time in their lives. But just as people who do not value education, effort, strong families and long-range goals are more likely to stay poor than those who do, countries that make it more difficult for individuals to prosper inevitably invite stagnation on a national scale.
It was probably unintentional, but Romney's message about Israel should serve as the central theme of his coming campaign here: Does America want to continue down the path of higher taxes, more regulation and greater dependency? Or can it rediscover the individual and community values that promote and reward achievement while protecting those who cannot care for themselves?
Such a campaign could not offer a clearer choice between the two candidates: An charismatic incumbent who believes government exists to level the differences between individuals in the name of “fairness,” and an otherwise uninspiring opponent willing to challenge those same individuals to create their own cultures of success – the kind of success government can neither create nor claim to have caused.
No wonder so many people in Washington are accusing Romney of a “gaffe.”