January 8, 2014 by David K. Sutton
The Economics Of Moral Outrage, How Liberals And Conservatives Differ
At some point we as a society need to come to terms with the fact that economic status is not a good barometer for morality, and it certainly tells you nothing of the character of a human being. You are not in higher moral standing because you earn a larger paycheck. And a person should not automatically be assumed morally suspect because they are unemployed, or can’t pay their mortgage, or can’t keep food on the table.
But our entire civilization is built around this economic class structure. You don’t turn on the TV to watch poor people go about their day unless it’s to mock them. Rich people, or at least people who make comfortable salaries, are seen as role models. Their status is seen as something to aspire to. On the other hand, poor people, or even just average lower middle-class people, remain in the shadows, hardly seen in popular culture.
For example, if you watch a television commercial for typical mundane household product, the house you see in the commercial is almost always upper middle-class, even though the target audience is likely solidly middle-class. And we think nothing of this. But I think it is a subtle form of brainwashing, or at least it serves to reinforce biases that we all might be guilty of. I’m talking economic bias. Most people are more likely to believe something if the person saying it is viewed as an equal or “better” on the economic scale. And yes, “better” is in quotes to highlight the language we use to describe economic status.
This is not something I think is unique to left or right. Both conservatives and liberals are guilty of this inclination. What I do think is specific to left/right politics is how we shape public policy with regard to this economic prejudice.
The Moral Calculus Underlying the Debate Over Unemployment Insurance — When liberals talk about extending unemployment insurance, they talk about people who can’t find work and are keeping their heads above water only because of those benefits. Take away the benefits, and that family could lose their home or suffer other kinds of deprivation. What distresses liberals is the thought of a family that needs help not getting it.
This is absolutely true. Conservatives label liberal support for unemployment insurance or other government benefits as “free handouts.” They believe, or at least they would like everyone else to believe, that liberals want injustice. That liberals want to take money from one person to give to someone else for doing absolutely nothing. But this is a conservative fabrication. Liberals are morally outraged that in the richest country on Earth, people are starving, and that people are unable to provide for their families because there are not enough jobs to go around. That is why liberals support things like unemployment insurance. There’s no hidden wealth redistribution agenda.
Conservatives don’t deny that those people exist. But they don’t talk about them. When conservatives talk about this issue, they focus on a different kind of person, the one who could get a job, but hasn’t because he’s chosen to suckle at government’s teat, making taxpayers pay for his continued enjoyment of things like food and heat.
What morally outrages conservatives is that fraud exists. There’s no further calculation. Their outrage leaves no room to consider the measure of abuse in a specific government program. Fraud exists, and it must be eradicated. For conservatives, it’s a top-tier concern that someone is taking advantage of something they didn’t earn. So great is this concern that it trumps concern for the truly deserving person who will go without heat tonight so that punitive measures can be taken against the abuser.
Liberals don’t deny that those people exist, either. Somewhere, there’s an unemployed engineer who could get a menial job somewhere, but is managing to pay the rent and feed himself with the help of unemployment benefits, and is hoping that if he holds out a few more months he’ll be able to find a job in his chosen field. What liberals believe is that even if you think that guy is “undeserving,” taking away 50 other deserving people’s benefits just so you can tell that one guy to get his butt down to Arby’s to fill out an application would be unconscionably cruel.
As a liberal, it’s hard for me to imagine seeing this the other way around. It seems to me the conservative viewpoint is that punitive measures for the undeserving in society takes precedence over helping someone who truly deserves the help. Does fraud happen? Sure, but unless you can show me that a program is a complete failure, with high levels of abuse, I’m not going to pull the plug in order to teach a few people a lesson when I know it will result in needless suffering.
But that numeric argument is utterly unpersuasive to conservatives, because the family not getting the benefits they need—even fifty such families—doesn’t, for them, have the same moral urgency as the one guy getting benefits they think he doesn’t deserve. You can also show them research demonstrating that extended unemployment benefits don’t lead people to sit around watching TV when they could be out looking for work, and that won’t make much difference either. If there’s anyone getting an undeserved benefit, it sticks in their craw and demands action.
When you know that fraud and abuse in government programs is measured in single digit percentages, you know that most people receiving these benefits are deserving. I cannot square the level of moral outrage that conservatives see in isolated cases of fraud. It just doesn’t add up.