Delusions of Self-Reliance

When the Tea Party movement was in the upswing, comedic critics of the movement loved to point to the wonderfully inconsistent command to “keep your government hands off my Medicare.” While it is easy enough to dismiss this remark as being an aberration, it actually seems to represent a relatively common ignorance regarding government assistance.

Paul Krugman notes that some of the people who are very vocal in their opposition to government assistance and who often support politicians who promise to eliminate such assistance are themselves recipients of that assistance. This is based on the research of Suzanne Mettler:

Percentage of Program Beneficiaries Who Report They “Have Not Used a Government Social Program”
Program “No, Have Not Used a Government Social Program”
529 or Coverdell 64.3
Home Mortgage Interest Deduction 60.0
Hope or Lifetime Learning Tax Credit 59.6
Student Loans 53.3
Child and Dependent Care Tax Credit 51.7
Earned Income Tax Credit 47.1
Social Security—Retirement & Survivors 44.1
Pell Grants 43.1
Unemployment Insurance 43.0
Veterans Benefits (other than G.I. Bill) 41.7
G.I. Bill 40.3
Medicare 39.8
Head Start 37.2
Social Security Disability 28.7
Supplemental Security Income 28.2
Medicaid 27.8
Welfare/Public Assistance 27.4
Government Subsidized Housing 27.4
Food Stamps 25.4

Since all of the above are government social programs, 100% of the people using them have, in fact, used government social programs.

Tea Party

Tea Party (Photo credit: nmfbihop)

In some cases, such as the tax deductions or tax credits, people might believe that these are not government social programs. After all, when most people think of a government social program they think of the government handing out food stamps, cheese, health care or money. However, these programs are government social programs. While people no doubt think that they have earned the credit or deduction, they are actually getting a financial benefit from the government at the expense of the taxpayer. For example, in the case of mortgage deductions this means that the taxpayers are subsidizing the home owner’s mortgage by allowing him or her to pay less taxes because s/he owns a house. While this is not as obviously a social program as getting food stamps, it is essentially the same. Naturally, it can be seen as a negative program (paying less) rather than a positive program (getting something) but the results are the same-either way, the person gains from a government social program.

As noted above, people who are opposed to government social programs seem to often be unaware that they themselves are beneficiaries of such programs and they are, as in the quote above, often inclined to want to keep these programs. As Paul Krugman contends, these folks can hold to inconsistent views because they simply do not realize that the programs they wish to keep benefiting from are the programs that they also think they wish to eliminate. That is, they are operating under a delusion of self-reliance when they are, in fact, benefiting from the very thing they profess to loath. This creates an interesting epistemic and ethical problem. That is, they do not know they are doing wrong by their own principles.

To be fair, there are obviously people who are well aware of that these programs are government social programs and they oppose them. Perhaps some of these people even refuse to avail themselves of such programs and live in a manner consistent with the principle that the state should not provide assistance to people.

Even if there are not such people, the arguments against such programs can still have merit. After all, the mere fact that many (or some) people who are against  government social programs in principle also use such programs does not prove that the arguments against such programs are flawed.  To think otherwise would be to fall into a classic ad homimen fallacy (ad hominem tu quoque). They might, in fact, be excellent arguments.

That said, the fact that people avail themselves of these programs in seeming ignorance of their true nature is rather interesting. It does suggest that at least some of the people who are critical of said programs are critical from ignorance and that perhaps they would modify their views if they were aware  that they benefited from what they have been attacking. At the very least informing these people would allow them to act consistently with their principles by refusing to avail themselves of such programs. They could simply refuse to claim the deductions and credits, mail back any checks they receive from the state, and refuse to use Medicare. After all, while not practicing what one preaches does not show that the preaching is incorrect, one should (morally) follow one’s own sermons or at least have the decency to remain silent and thus avoid compounding one’s sin with hypocrisy.

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  1. “For example, in the case of mortgage deductions this means that the taxpayers are subsidizing the home owner’s mortgage by allowing him or her to pay less taxes because s/he owns a house. While this is not as obviously a social program as getting food stamps, it is essentially the same.”

    Actually, a rebate or deduction is not “essentially the same” as food stamps. In the case of a rebate/deduction, taxpayers get to keep more of the money they have earned. In the case of food stamps, they get something that they have not earned. (I am not criticizing welfare benefits here.) Only if you take the view that the government is entitled to take all your earnings are rebates/deductions the same as food stamps.

  2. “Only if you take the view that the government is entitled to take all your earnings are rebates/deductions the same as food stamps.”

    This is objectively wrong. They are the same if you take the view that the government is entitled to take as much of your earnings as it would have taken if you were not paying a mortgage.

  3. Not objectively wrong and not even obviously wrong.

    a) Rebates/deductions amount to a reduction in tax paid.

    b) People getting food stamps (almost certainly) don’t pay tax.

    Under (a), someone pays less tax. Under (b), someone who doesn’t pay tax gets something for free.

    It is difficult to see how these are “essentially the same”.

  4. I think the image of the state holding a gun to someones head, demanding taxes, and then handing them back (less a handling fee) and saying ‘now be grateful we are so generous’ is a curious and interesting philosophical one far more worthy of discussion.

  5. » Recommended Reading – Delusions of Self-Reliance - pingback on February 28, 2012 at 2:09 pm
  6. It is easy to shout for low taxes, small government and no government spending etc… without really understanding the consequences of such choices – to society as a whole.

    The best way of running society, surely involves getting a balance and fairness in the distribution of wealth for the happiness of the many and not the few.

    This does not mean taxing the rich to pay the poor, but rather it is optimizing the resource pool of individuals strengths and weaknesses for the common good ie to help maximize the potential of individuals to add their greatest value and to minimize their innate weakness to destroy value.

    Simply put, some are born to be helped and others are born to help – in the end, we all need each other! Though it is not easy to see that sometimes.

  7. Excellent post.

    I think the most charitable interpretation is that anti-government people really use “government” as a kind of rhetorical device to describe certain government programs in particular, aimed at certain populations (most notably, the poor). I think this would make some sense of their rhetoric, but also the data, which suggests, although it doesn’t prove, that poverty-related programs are what people have in mind when they think, “government social program.”

    However, given the hostility to the poor it reveals, in the end my interpretation may not be that charitable.

  8. Keith-

    First, you’re incorrect. Everyone always forgets payroll tax.

    Second, your response is irrelevant to the point you originally made. I know I shouldn’t be surprised- anti government rhetoric is typically flippant. You argued this:

    “Only if you take the view that the government is entitled to take all your earnings are rebates/deductions the same as food stamps.”

    All that’s actually required is that the government be entitled to as much of your earnings as they would have received if they didn’t give you the rebate or deduction. If I’m entitled to a thousand dollars from you, then there’s no difference whether I forgive $100 of your debt, or whether I accept the debt and then give you a gift of $100. And if I’m entitled to that thousand dollars, then there’s no difference between you, who owes me $1000 and then gets $100 off or back, and someone else who owes me nothing and receives a free $100 check. Neither of you have any moral claim on the money, if we’re conceptualizing that sort of claim in terms of what one is or is not “entitled” to.

    And obviously nothing in that analysis requires that I have a claim on 100% of your earnings. Just the $1000 mentioned.

  9. Patrick

    “Keith- First, you’re incorrect.”

    You’re right. And black is the same as white, as long as you ignore the ways in which they are different. $100 may have the same purchasing power, however it is obtained. But $100 taken from me and then given back to me is different from $100 I never had in the first place.

  10. s. wallerstein (amos)

    The issue does not really seem to be whether one pays more for taxes than one gets back.

    Some people seem to see society as an investment in which they want get back in monetary terms what they put into it. The idea that they pay more in taxes than they receive in state benefits disturbs them.

    Others, myself included, see society not as an investment, but as a community, in which those who have more resources support basic services, healthcare, education, childcare, old-age pensions, public transportation, food stamps, for those who have fewer resources.

    There is a radical difference between those two views of society and I myself find that those who see society as an investment and those who see it as a community don’t have much to say to another.

    The difference between the two points of view is so radical that it’s not worth arguing.

  11. Pod,

    Good points. I’ve been reading the Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin and it is interesting to see how many public institutions in America (hospitals, fire departments, the military, colleges, etc.) were created. The basic idea is that people realized that such things would be a public good and that the cost of them would be best shared by everyone. Apparently the Tea Party folks who rail against taxes and praise the founders didn’t read that much about the actual founders’ views and experiences.

  12. s.wallerstein,

    Good points.

    As you note, a viable view of matters is to see oneself as part of a community rather than just as a paying customer. Of course, even if one takes the view that one is a paying customer, most folks get a pretty good deal from the collective goods. Imagine if one had to bear the costs of the roads, fire, police, defense and so on all by one’s self? By being able to drive on our roads, I save a great deal over what it would cost me to drive on my roads.

  13. “There is a radical difference between those two views of society and I myself find that those who see society as an investment and those who see it as a community don’t have much to say to another.”

    Do people really fall neatly into these two divisions? I doubt it.

    “The idea that they pay more in taxes than they receive in state benefits disturbs them.”

    Perhaps. But the only thing about this discussion that disturbs me is people claiming that tax rebates/deductions and food stamps are “essentially” the same thing.

    I would add that, in my view, many people are not opposed to government per se, but to “big government”.

  14. michael reidy

    In an election year it is important that the opposition be shown to be fraught by contradiction and generally incoherent. Of course it offers an opportunity to distract from the bizarre aspects of the Obama administration. Is getting up war talk about Iran responsible, winding up the rubber bands on the drones etc? Starting up your own war as a way of getting re-elected is surely the most dangerous form of political activity. Tweedledum vs Tweedledee again.

  15. This is one of those rare pieces of research that radically redraws the lines of reality. Thanks for publicizing it.

    We must not underestimate the ignorance that’s out there. Which means: we must address it.

  16. While the argument about whether tax breaks are a government subsidy or not is interesting in its own right it takes away from the most important point of the article. Regardless of your position on the tax issue, an incredible number of people are either ignorant about the nature of programs like Pell Grants and Student loans or are hypocrites.

  17. It appears to me that the people that complain more about the big goverment are the ones that benefit more of it. I propose a super tax on lobbying; certainly that will not hurt the average folk, but the true people that benefit from that activity and do actually benefit from the goverment activity.

    I agree with Sam and I see society as a community, and there are certain things that we’d better do together as equals.

  18. Government Social Programs « There Are No Others - pingback on March 2, 2012 at 9:28 am
  19. It does worry me that so few people appreciate that its not so much about the principle of sourcing one’s own services versus giving the government the money to do so as the efficiency and efficacy of so doing.

    In short its not really a philosophical issue: Its a pragmatic issue of cost-benefit analysis.

    Lazy thinking applies the moral knee jerk response of ‘its fairer to support those who can’t support themselves’

    May be so. But is it efficient and is it efficacious?

    No, and No!, is the experience of doing it.

    It is never a matter of principle, it is always a matter of practice.

    Consider: let’s privatize every single mile of road. You travel along and every couple of miles there is a toll booth, where your vehicle weight is measured, and a toll extracted on the basis of the damage you will do over that stretch. Your average speed is now 25mph and the whole system grinds to a halt BUT its the ‘fairest’ way of taking from those who cause damage to pay for that damage.

    HOWEVER because there are now instead on one centralized tax authority and a more or less slender distribution of taxes to road repairers the whole thing actually costs more.

    Centralization nets you economies of scale and you absorb the unfairness in a larger centralized organization that is overall MORE efficient..

    Contrast: Let’s take supermarkets and food supply chains. In the context of Europe. Animals must be taken to APPROVED MONITORED slaughterhouses of guaranteed quality of and so on, during which process they travel several hundred miles in trucks, alive, are turned into labour intensive packaged frozen chunks of more or less meat and then pushed back into the supermarkets where people drive cars to stock their freezers. Here at least the hoof-to-shelf price is between two and three times higher.

    That’s reflected in the waste of ‘past sell by date’ food, which cannot be sold (although it may be given away) and the massive labour content and fuel expenditure in moving an animal then its carcass round the country to end up at a shop 100 yards from where it was reared.

    It no longer represents value or even variety. The supermarkets like a ‘one size fits all’ approach to product.

    In this case you sacrifice efficiency for convenience. Bigger is in fact simpler and more easily REGULATED BY CENTRAL AUTHORITY. But its ceased to be better fir anyone except low grade supermarket and abattoir employees.

    Supermarkets use government policy to destroy any opposition from small mom and pop stores by essentially raising the regulatory barriers to entry so high only they can afford to do it.

    Here centralization is becoming a curse. One size does not fit all. Centralization plus a huge bureaucratic overhead reduces choice, and efficiency and increases product cost.

    So one example where is madness NOT to have centralized funding at least – even if the repair scheduling is local – the roads – a true one size fits all product, sufficiently ubiquitous to not arouse the ire of the one person in America or Europe who never uses one or a product delivered along one.

    Contrasted with spiralling food costs at supermarkets who now have a de facto monopoly on food distribution – except they don’t. Here I can buy meat from a farmer who has it butchered privately at one half the supermarket cost, and the same for fruit and vegetables.

    In general though I accept the need for some community managed taxable entities, I do not see that it, as a principle is defensible.

    It’s just what works slightly better, or slightly worse, depending.

    What it does do is give the government altogether too much spending power and vote buying power, when it manages somehow to involve > 55% of GDP in its activities. Yes folks over have the income of GB plc is vectored through a government whose job is not to maximize returns on the taxpayers money, but to finagle who gets that pork barrel money so as to ensure that the party stays in power.

    That is a LOT of money to swing. And to swing on political experiments rather than sound management.

    If you like, one of the greatest arguments against large scale socialist government is that governments cannot be trusted to spend wisely or well, or even efficiently.

    I have seen it so often – the COST of deciding who gets government money and the cost of acquiring it at all is as high as 95% – even 100% of the money that is available. I have – hand on heart – seen a company whose REAL business model was no more than applying for and getting, an endless supply of government grants of which 50% went in the pockets (as wages) of the people deciding they were going to get it and the other 50% went in the pockets of the people who worked incredibly hard to present the case for being given it.

    There was nothing left over to do with it once that had happened. One man was a token ‘researcher’ using it do develop ‘pan European postal harmonization initiatives’ or something. Which meant chatting to a bunch of people in state run postal systems and writing an annual report on what might in theory be done, some day. Obviously with a huge extra government grant to make it happen.

    No one seemed to think that my question ‘is this all worth the money and time being spent on it’ was a question worth answering.

    And yet that is where Big Government ends up..when carried to its ideological conclusion.

    Like so much of life, once ideology and moral principle enters the door, common sense flies out of the window.

    And with it efficient, efficacious use of public money. It is now reaching the stage where Europe itself at the political level is approaching complete meltdown. So MUCH money is being spent (and not earned but borrowed) on social programs, that governments themselves are bankrupt. It is not a question of ideology, it is a question as to whether the institutions will survive at all. I pray that many do not.

    The idiocy of maintaining that bigger is better (Socialism) is only outranked by the idiocy of maintaining that government control of anything at all, is worse. There are optimal sizes and public responsibilities attached to every function : Good governance of the conservative sort is to arrive at something like the optimal balance, and no more, and then leave it alone.

    But sadly no one ever does, when they have someone else’s money to spend.

  20. The second to the last paragraph that points out that the entire essay is essentially an ad hominem is really the only part that needed to be written.

    Since when does equating a position with a demographic, then laying out a case that that demographic is stupid, constitute philosophy?

    This is another example of a philosopher assuming the make-up of his audience, and taking liberties he would never presume to get away with in addressing people he considered his equals. “Tea-party types are too stupid to study philosophy, so I can disparage them here without fear of criticism”.

  21. Ryan,

    I am not claiming that people are stupid nor am I launching an ad homimem. My main point is that the confusion over what is and is not a public program is tainting the public debate over such matters. In short, when some folks who use public programs attack public programs in general while claiming that they do not use public programs, they are engaged in something of a mistake that should be sorted out so that we can have a proper discussion of the matter.

  22. People who are able to afford to buy a home are paying less taxes than people who are not able to afford to buy a home. They may make the same amount of money as the homeowners but may have more expenses – for example: disabled relatives. Whether this evens out or not, people who pay less taxes because they have a mortgage are receiving a benefit from the tax system.

  23. Mike,

    Here’s an article about a survey in which 21% of American atheists claimed to believe in God.

    You can find any number of other sources too if you like.

    So apparently, atheists are ‘confusing’ the ‘debate on religion’ because they don’t know what the word ‘God’ means.

    I suppose we should go find that 21% and educate them so we can have a ‘proper discussion’, eh?

    Or does this perhaps say something about the role (or lack thereof) of demographic surveys in philosophic inquiry?

    My point is, if you wanted to be even the least bit charitable to the ‘small Government’ position, you’d use something (anything) other than a demographic survey to characterize the people who hold it. That’s what makes it so obvious that the function of your paper is just to point at a group and call them stupid. If only we could explain to these Tea Party (atheist)-types, what a social program (God) actually is, they’d give up their silly positions and stop gumming up the debate.

  24. Sheila,

    True-that deduction is a tax benefit supported by other taxpayers.

  25. Ryan,

    Well, if someone claims to be an across the board atheist (that is, they believe in no gods) and then claims to believe in God, then they are confusing the debate. They should, in fact, be informed that they are not using “atheist” or “God” correctly.

    I don’t think small government people are stupid. After all, I am a small government person. But I am well aware of what programs benefit me and hence can approach the debate with that understanding rather than in ignorance.

  26. Mike,

    Sure, some high-school teacher or parent or whatever should inform those people. But I disagree that such people are ‘confusing the debate’- I suspect that 99% of the time, such people aren’t even participating in the debate. The 21% of self-proclaimed atheists that believe in God aren’t going to affect one way or the other the discussion of theism in philosophical circles going forward, right?
    I think that the political discussions that actually matter are populated by people, like you, who know enough about social services to debate intelligently.

  27. Ryan,

    It would be nice if the discussions were populated by folks who debated intelligently, but American politics is often dominated by ideology rather than intellect. That is why I should get my own TV show. 😉

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