In social policy, “government picking winners and losers” boils down to the haunting fear that someone else got something you didn’t. (More)

Picking Winners and Losers, Part II: Social Policy

This week Morning Feature considers the conservative talking point of “government picking winners and losers.” Yesterday we saw that phrase used to argue against an innovative industrial policy. Today we consider how that phrase is applied to social welfare policy. Tomorrow we’ll conclude with how to discuss “government picking winners and losers” with Fred, our archetypal median voter.

Pathological Puritanism

H.L. Mencken famously defined Puritanism as “The haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be happy.” Like many comical aphorisms, it carries a germ of truth. For example, consider Republican presidential also-ran Rick Santorum’s statement this week on contraception:

One of the things I will talk about, that no president has talked about before, is I think the dangers of contraception in this country. It’s not okay. It’s a license to do things in a sexual realm that is counter to how things are supposed to be.[…]

[Sex] is supposed to be within marriage. It’s supposed to be for purposes that are yes, conjugal … but also procreative. That’s the perfect way that a sexual union should happen. This is special and it needs to be seen as special.

People using birth control might make love just to be happy. That’s wrong because God wants us to suffer. Women are supposed to suffer in childbirth, and men are supposed to suffer at work. It’s right there in Genesis. Birth control allows making love without the woman suffering in childbirth and the man suffering to feed another child. And as for gays and lesbians, they can make love all they want and never have to suffer. Ewww.

Pathological Individualism

That same impulse echoes in conservative criticisms of social welfare policy. Consider this critique by James Shott at Observations:

It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to realize that when government is willing to pay people to do certain things, people are perfectly willing to do whatever will get them the money: when something is subsidized, you get more of it.

Subsidies given out by the government come in many forms, including housing loans, student loans, money or tax breaks to businesses and various types of support payments to individuals.

With the best of intentions, we subsidize not working through welfare, food stamps, Medicaid, unemployment insurance, etc. Helping people in trouble is a good thing, although it is inappropriate for government to do so, but if people can get free food, free health care, a free place to live, why work? Someone who has lost their job may be less motivated to take a less-than-perfect new job if they know they can get unemployment payments for 99 weeks. These subsidies often remove or substantially dull the incentive for people to have a job. In such cases the safety net becomes a hammock.

It’s essentially the same argument Santorum made about contraception, except Shott focuses on the curse of suffering at work. Care for the needy, Shott argues, and they won’t take that “less-than-perfect new job.” Instead they’ll relax and nap in the social welfare “hammock.” Any “tinkering” by government – “picking winners and losers” – just makes the problem worse.

Are you a loser …

Conservatives sometimes frame the argument as injustice, as in this 2009 column by The Provocateur:

Beyond the sheer size of the spending, the main concern should be just how targeted it is. In other words, either you are a major recipient of the new TARP, or it’s likely you are going to be the one to pay for it. Talk about a redistribution of wealth … this is a massive government program that picks winners and losers.

Some of the biggest winners include banks, struggling homeowners, alternative energy providers, struggling states, auto makers, folks on food stamps, students, providers of infrastructure, providers of internet broadband. The losers are anyone not a winner.

That’s a rather expansive definition of “loser.” Our society as a whole benefits by a stable financial system, a stable housing market, cleaner energy alternatives, state governments that aren’t awash in debt, auto workers who aren’t unemployed, upgraded and better-maintained infrastructure, more students able to afford college, and fewer children going hungry. But if you paid taxes and didn’t get a direct, personal check for those things … you’re one of the “losers.”

In fact, you’re a “loser” if you’re rich and can’t get richer still by profiting on others’ distress:

Just imagine you have some money and you want to start buying up foreclosed properties. Here is a business that ought be thriving. Yet, the government will do all it can to make sure you don’t make one red cent.

Oh, the injustice of it all.

… or a winner?

The biggest government-picked “winners” are, of course, the working poor. They coast through life mowing lawns, mopping floors, washing dishes, and running registers. These “freeloading parasites” get all the cushy jobs. Many also get food stamps and other public assistance. And they pay no income taxes. Some folks just get all the luck.

Yet somehow, despite all the prattle about “Going Galt,” there haven’t been a lot of stories about CEOs, bank executives, and other rich folks quitting their high-paying jobs and giving away their multi-million-dollar mansions so they can become government-picked “winners” – mowing lawns, mopping floors, washing dishes, running registers, and other such cushy jobs. For all their talk about America being the land of opportunity where anyone can get ahead if they apply themselves, you’d think those rich folks would apply themselves and stretch out in that social welfare “hammock.”

Maybe that’s why the wealthy are “losers.” They just don’t try hard enough.


Happy Friday!