Morality and Politics, British Style

Mostly, the style is clueless, as this piece from The Guardian‘s Gary Younge illustrates.  For instance,

At times the contradictions are striking.  In August 2009, when opponents of Obamacare were disrupting town hall meetings with claims of death panels, Kenneth Gladney and other members of St Louis tea party got into a fight with Democrats at a public meeting.  He had to go to the emergency room with injuries to his knee, back, elbow, shoulder and face and ended up in a wheelchair.  It turned out Gladney, who had recently been laid off, had no health insurance.  He appealed for donations.

What contradiction is this?  Can Mr Younge really not see the difference between government handouts, which by definition begin as mandated confiscations from strangers, and private donations, which by their nature are purely voluntary?

Trace a map highlighting government dependency and those most reliant on benefits live in Republican states and often Republican counties.  In Floyd county in Eastern Kentucky, 40% of the income comes from the government.  In 2008 Floyd, where almost 20% live below the poverty line and the median income is almost 20% lower than the country, voted for McCain—a 27 point swing against the Democrats and the first victory for Republicans in living memory.

Of course.  Conservatives, far more than liberals, try very hard to avoid government handouts and once having been forced to accept them, to get back off that government dependency before they become addicted to it.  Conservatives understand what it means to be dependent and what it means to be self-capable.  This is what has made America great, even if the folks in Floyd County, for instance, don’t speak of it in these terms.

On some level explaining why poorer whites would vote for the Republicans demands a resource sorely lacking in American political culture at present—particularly during election time: empathy.  There are more to “interests” than just the economic.  If someone’s core conviction is that abortion is murder or gay marriage is wrong then their decision to vote for a candidate who is against abortion or gay marriage is not an act of delusion but conviction.

Indeed.  An understanding of the nature of dependency on handouts matters; this requires more than mere “empathy.”  It requires a basic understanding of the morality of that dependency, with the demand it creates for a share of someone else’s prosperity, which is where the transfer payments that is that dependency originate.  (Never mind the conflation of conservative social policies with conservative economic policies.)

Moreover some people, despite being poor, legitimately believe in free market and small government, even if it doesn’t benefit them in precisely the same way that wealthy people may favour greater government intervention even if it doesn’t benefit them.

Hmm….  But it does benefit the poor quite a bit, if not “in precisely the same way that wealthy people” might benefit.  A free market and small government favor their opportunity to do better, rather than to be trapped into merely getting by on the government’s dole.  They favor the poor man’s work to stop being poor.  Many poor people—generally those who haven’t spent generations on the dole—understand this at a gut level, even if they don’t articulate the strict economic science of it.

Meanwhile, that greater government intervention does benefit the wealthy—but only those wealthy who buy their way into the process and so to influence that intervention.  There is no morality here, only narrow, short-sighted pecuniary interest.  And it is far from universal: the Koch brothers, whom Mr Younge carefully elides in his article, also are firm believers in free market and small government—and they’ve spent enormous amounts of their wealth on supporting those.

Finally…poverty is not necessarily a permanent state.  People fall in and climb out of it.

Indeed.  Even—especially—the poor recognize the truth of this, if only at a gut level.  It’s that desire to improve their and their families’ lot in life, and these folks recognize this is possible only with free markets and limited governments.  Government handouts are designed explicitly to block this—guaranteed bread in return for votes for the incumbent.

In the end, Mr Younge complexifies the matter far too much, and so he gives short shrift to the simple matters underlying the situation.  The moral foundation of self-sufficiency, of being responsible for seeking one’s own (Adamsian) happiness is one.  The simple economic facts of the failure of handouts (which he seems to lump, indiscriminately, with hands up) to free individuals from the outcomes of dislocations, instead trapping them in dependency, is another.  Which he acknowledges in passing [emphasis added]:

In a report…the New York Times examined the growing number of people who were simultaneously dependent on government aid and against more government spending. “Many people say they are angry because the government is wasting money and giving money to people who do not deserve it,” it concluded. “But more than that, they say they want to reduce the role of government in their own lives. They are frustrated that they need help, feel guilty for taking it and resent the government for providing it. They say they want less help for themselves; less help in caring for relatives; less assistance when they reach old age.

In a country where social mobility is assumed—even if it has in fact stalled—and class consciousness is [weak] the poor may vote in the interests of an imagined, but not necessarily imaginary future, rather than solidarity based on shared economic hardships.  A Gallup poll in 2005 showed that while only 2% of Americans described themselves as “rich”, 31% thought it very likely or somewhat likely they would “ever be rich”.

Because we still know a central truth: we’ve been through these situations before, and gotten out of them before.  We’re not used to dependency, we still decry it, and we still have our dreams and aspirations.  And successes.  Thus, we know we’ve been knocked down today, but we also know we’ll get back up.  We still have our morality to steel our backs.

Mr Younge, with his legitimization of the demand of one for a share of the prosperity earned by another, is a clear demonstration of the result of becoming used to government handouts at the expense of self-reliance, self-respect, and community.  No, “poor” conservatives aren’t voting against their interests when they vote against (or don’t vote for) an Obama or any other Progressive candidate.  These folks are voting for their (moral) interests.  Mr Younge, though, is simply unable to take seriously a moral underpinning for such voting.

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