Tuesday, 2 November 2010

Undeserved Wealth

If you're like me, then you're experiencing the US midterm elections through the hilarity that is watching the Teabaggers[1] show just how removed from reality people can be without subscribing to cultural relativism. Wear a flag shirt, write a stupid messages and complain about taxes. And it looks like they're going to stick it to those Washington "elites" who have lost touch with "real America" too!

And while the birthers, those making racist slurs about Obama, and those crazy kooks on the religious right provide much entertainment, it's sometimes hard to remember just exactly what they're outraged against. As much as we like to think we're experts, not all of it can be attributed to the Dunning Kruger effect[2]. Most people aren't sociologists, they aren't political scientists, and they aren't economists. Yet those issues are at the centre of the political discourse. We're impotent to rule on them, to discuss them on their merits, and to make informed decisions. Much has been made of the use of the word socialist, and I think that's key to understanding just where the Teabaggers are coming from.

At the core I think the issue is fairness. The Teabaggers are a group of people who in hard economic times don't want to be paying for the prosperity of others. Bailing out those who took out risky housing mortgages sounds like it's rewarding people for taking risky behaviour. If they didn't want to suffer the consequences then they shouldn't have taken out those loans to begin with[3]. But it goes further than that, as Michael Shermer illustrates in the video link it's about owning the responsibility through being the hard-working person who has to foot the bill for the irresponsible actions of others.

Of course in that respect, the victims would be all those who were put out of work because of the irresponsible actions of people who engaged in irresponsible or malevolent practices. If someone happened to have worked for the company that was bailed out, was it really their risk? And for those who did work that flowed on indirectly from these large companies too, they would all suffer too because of those who were irresponsible. But I suppose that's the way of the system, got to take the good with the bad and if the economy collapses then it's your fault for living in such a place where there was that kind of economy to begin with!

But it's in that outrage where I think we can comment on. Even dogs have an innate sense of fairness[4], and we do too when it doesn't go our way of course[5]. To sacrifice our individual prosperity then it should be for those who are truly needy of it. In Australia we beat up on dole bludgers[6]:
A CURRENT AFFAIR: I work really hard, I pay - half of my salary goes in taxes every week, I promise you that, I work really hard, sometimes too hard.
ACTIVIST: Do you call this working hard?
A CURRENT AFFAIR: Yes, it is hard work sometimes, not all the time. But why should I support you?

Why indeed? It's the sacrificing of individual prosperity for the sake of another's. When it comes down to real numbers it's not very much at all. But that's not the point, it's an affront to our reciprocal altruistic tendencies. It doesn't surprise me at all that there are those who hate the fact that the government is propping up people who don't really need it, that there's a system of middle class welfare that is distributing the funds of some to others. No matter the necessity, no matter the social utility, it's taking someone's hard work and giving it to someone else.

But therein lies the problem with a lot of this rhetoric. It's human to feel cheated, to feel that those who took the risks shouldn't be bailed out. What good is a risk if they have everything to gain and a safety net if they fail? No system is perfect, but when systems that have great utility to focus on those cases where the system is subverted is committing the perfect solutions fallacy. Would it be preferable to see that many people get denied healthcare because there are some people who are poor yet have an iPhone? To remove welfare because there are some that don't even try to get a job yet have nice TVs and can still go drink at the pub?

I think the word "socialist" is a demonic word because it's on face value institutionalising that unfairness. It's not about whether there are individual advantages from certain services being distributed, but that it feels wrong to be paying for someone else's affluence. It's not the wealthy who are the teabaggers[7], they are just regular people. And that's all such outrages needs: regular people. It doesn't matter if people are hypocrites about it, or any matter really[8], it's unfair if other people do it because they don't deserve it. To quote Michael Shermer[5]:
When it comes to money, as in most other aspects of life, reason and rationality are trumped by emotions and feelings.

[1] - They came up with the label.
[2] - http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dunning%E2%80%93Kruger_effect
[3] - http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zo4tXIpDySI
[4] - http://www.wired.com/wiredscience/2008/12/dogenvy/
[5] - http://www.michaelshermer.com/2008/01/weird-things-about-money/
[6] - http://www.abc.net.au/lateline/stories/s474408.htm
[7] - http://www.rollingstone.com/politics/news/17390/210904
[8] - http://www.prochoiceactionnetwork-canada.org/print-friendly/anti-tales.shtml

No comments: