It’s no secret the right hates all forms of public assistance, from public housing to food stamps to welfare. But why? We liberals assume it has something to do with race. This is not an unreasonable assumption with the incredible amount of racist rhetoric that comes from the right in a nonstop flow of verbal sewage. Reagan coined the term “Welfare Queens” with the specific implication that “they” were black despite having full access to the same information that we do that the vast majority of recipients are white. But it’s more than just race. There’s something that convinces conservatives to vote against helping others while hurting their own economic future at the same time. What is it?
Sometimes truth is indeed stranger than fiction. Sometimes it’s so obvious that it goes unspoken. Bob Dylan recognized it almost 50 years ago and sung about it in “Only a Pawn in Their Game.” More recently, however, a study was conducted by the National Bureau of Economic Research into why people lower on the economic ladder vote for people who ensure that they stay lower on the ladder:
Why do low-income individuals often oppose redistribution? We hypothesize that an aversion to being in “last place” undercuts support for redistribution, with low-income individuals punishing those slightly below themselves to keep someone “beneath” them. In laboratory experiments, we find support for “last-place aversion” in the contexts of risk aversion and redistributive preferences. Participants choose gambles with the potential to move them out of last place that they reject when randomly placed in other parts of the distribution. Similarly, in money- transfer games, those randomly placed in second-to-last place are the least likely to costlessly give money to the player one rank below. Last-place aversion predicts that those earning just above the minimum wage will be most likely to oppose minimum-wage increases as they would no longer have a lower-wage group beneath them, a prediction we confirm using survey data.
Translation: People don’t like being in last place and will take steps, not necessarily to better themselves, but to keep someone lower than themselves.
Yes, it’s exactly as short-sighted, stupid and petty as it sounds, “I don’t care if my life gets any better as long as yours is worse.”
But it suddenly brings certain things into focus, doesn’t it? Common wisdom is that conservatives do not support taxing the rich because they are convinced that they, themselves, will someday be rich. But conservatives don’t honestly believe that they’re suddenly going to become millionaires and then magically be taxed back into poverty. I’m sure some do, but most aren’t actually that stupid. They are, however, selfish enough to not want the poor being brought up to their level.
Here is yet another fundamental difference between liberals and conservatives. I’m not poor. I’m certainly not rich and I’ve got my share of debt (college loans, of course) but my family and I are not one step away from living out of car. Hell, I’m a stay at home father! My income is negligible but we pay our bills on time and occasionally even get to go out to a movie. If I was considered the bottom of the economic ladder because everyone below me had been pulled up to my level I would be thrilled for all those people that no longer have to choose between rent and medicine or new shoes for their children and dinner for a few days. What a world that would be if I were the poorest of the poor! Most liberals, I imagine, feel the same.
But to a conservative, being the bottom of the barrel cannot be countenanced! There must be someone for them to look down on. If they’re a different color, so much the better (while it’s not just about race, they can’t suppress that streak of hating the “other” for long). To make sure that there is always someone more miserable, they will vote for tax cuts for the rich and pretend it’s about their taxes. They will vote against unemployment insurance and complain that people should go find a job, knowing full well there aren’t enough to go around. They will support lowering the minimum wage knowing full well it will lead to their own wages being suppressed in the long run.
These things do not matter.
Here, listen to Bob Dylan:
A South politician preaches to the poor white man
“You got more than blacks, don’t complain
You’re better than them, you been born with white skin” they explain
And the Negro’s name
Is used it is plain
For the politician’s gain
As he rises to fame
And the poor white remains
On the caboose of the train
But it ain’t him to blame
He’s only a pawn in their game.
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