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.