Cognitive dissonance

The New York Times has a story today describing how the American middle class are becoming more reliant on government aid, much to their chagrin.  However, the reaction of many of the people interviewed  is animosity towards government programs and support for culling them, even though that would hurt themselves economically.

New York Times: One of the oldest criticisms of democracy is that the people will inevitably drain the treasury by demanding more spending than taxes. The theory is that citizens who get more than they pay for will vote for politicians who promise to increase spending.

But Dean P. Lacy, a professor of political science at Dartmouth College, has identified a twist on that theme in American politics over the last generation. Support for Republican candidates, who generally promise to cut government spending, has increased since 1980 in states where the federal government spends more than it collects. The greater the dependence, the greater the support for Republican candidates.

Conversely, states that pay more in taxes than they receive in benefits tend to support Democratic candidates. And Professor Lacy found that the pattern could not be explained by demographics or social issues.

Cognitive dissonance is a term in psychology that describes the uncomfortable feeling when two conflicting thoughts are simultaneously held and the attempts to rationalize the inconsistency. The political dynamics currently playing out in the United States may be a giant manifestation of this phenomenon.  A telling aspect of the article was that many of the people interviewed acknowledged that they could not survive without government assistance but felt that they did not deserve such help and preferred that it be reduced rather than subjecting others to higher taxes to pay for it.   This rather honorable attitude serves as a stark contrast to the premise of the heavily debated new book of Charles Murray, Coming Apart (see New York Times review here) that argues that the economic travails of the white working class is due largely to a lapse in moral values.  What was also striking in the article was that there was no sense that the dire economic situation these people were facing was due to the fact that the economic game was stacked against them.  There was just a silent resignation that this is the way things are.  The American mythos of the self-reliant and self-made individual is a powerful metaphor that is firmly implanted in a large fraction of the population.  People will not always support policies that are in their economic interests.  This facility for self-denial is a large part of what makes us human.  How we obtained it is still an unresolved problem in evolutionary biology.


9 thoughts on “Cognitive dissonance

  1. I think there’s a fallacy of composition here, and in similar “What’s the matter with Kansas?”-type arguments. Taken literally, if people of below-mean wealth always democratically supported redistribution from people of above-mean wealth, as is supposed to be in their interest, there are only two kinds of final equilibrium — one in which everyone has the same wealth, or one in which the mean is below the median. Empirically, the latter results in crushing poverty for a few as we continue to take from them — this doesn’t seem a likely scenario. The former results in crushing poverty for most, as evidenced by the 20th century.

    The fallacy of composition arises because it is supposed that when the marginal benefits to program X to individual A exceed their costs to that individual, then individual A should support it. But program X may change the landscape of cost and benefit for future calculations in an adverse way for groups to which A belongs, or perhaps to almost everyone. It is not hard to imagine dynamical systems where following gradient ascent on a surface that responds to your moves still leaves you lower than where you started. And it this understanding (in part) that may motivate what seems like self-defeating behavior. Practically, it is something like, “OK, it would be great to get this check every month, but is a world in which bureaucrats decide people’s fates the kind of world I want to live in?” And lots of people answer no.


  2. Your points are well taken but there is another alternative, which is that the current economic system is rigged in favour of a few that artificially skew the distribution by collecting rent. Thus, there could be a different system where there is still a gradient in incomes but not because of an inherent unfairness.


  3. I think the power of a rent-seeking few is compatible with my story, because those lower middle class who don’t want to see increases in the welfare state aren’t envisioning those rent-seeking few as being the ones who pay for the welfare state.

    And indeed they are right, as rent-seeking is one of the best ways to avoid taxation under current law, so it is more like the upper middle class who are paying for it — they probably have the greatest negative utility to taxation if not the largest overall tax bill.

    Since the lower middle class aspire to be the upper middle class, and can picture themselves being there, I think it diminishes their appetite for that kind of redistribution.

    Why is why the most successful narrative for Obama will be 99% against rent-seeking few, and the most successful narrative for the Republicans will be “look at our tax code, this will just end up being lower half vs. upper half”.


  4. I don’t think that it is cognative disonance. When a program is adopted by the federal government, it is simply the case that on the state level similar programs are canabalized or removed completely as they become redundant or unaffordable (due to the existance of the federal program). However, on the state level there is more oversight and control, thus the opposition to the more clumsy and inefficient federal government aid.

    I used to live in Rhode Island, generally fairly rich, where all of the middle to lower income familes I knew were venemously opposed to liberals in the federal government for that very reason (although their general philosophy was liberal, and they loved dems on the state level), because they wanted their local government to be responsable and accountable for the efficiency of the programs they were receiving benefits from.


  5. I agree with Mary. An analogy would be opposition by voters in a European country to EU control of their finances (let’s make this pre-financial crisis to not mix messages). They could be very liberal or even socialist, but believe that social programs would best be operated by e.g. Danes for Danes, rather than Europeans for Europeans. The situation is the same in the U.S., with similarly sized populations at the various levels, except we are many decades deeper into the central concentration of available government powers.


  6. If you read the entire article, the opposition to assistance is not out of some sense for local autonomy. It was definitely a sense that they don’t think that their hard earned dollars should go to someone else, even if that someone is them.


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