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May 07, 2014 4:08 PM Resentment and Entitlement

By Ed Kilgore

My colleague Martin Longman has posted two items at Ten Miles Square today discussing the resentment of the less fortunate on which conservative political appeals so often depend—as richly illustrated by the Establishment Republican Hero of the Day, Thom Tillis. He cites three destructive social byproducts of this politics of resentment:

For starters, the way this tends to manifest itself is in scapegoating and stereotyping certain groups of people who are classified as insufficiently enterprising. In America, this means blacks and Latinos. So, while the political strategy may start out as colorblind, it immediately transforms into racism.
Secondly, this idea that being on government assistance is “debilitating” is an exhortatory argument that, while having merit, is no way to deal with those who are genuinely in need. Public policy is not the same thing as life advice. We give assistance to mothers with dependent children because the children need food and clothes regardless of why the mother is unable to provide these things herself.
Thirdly, this constant appeal to resentment is not morally edifying for the people who are targeted by it. Rather than telling them that they are doing a good thing by contributing to the upkeep of our infrastructure and the needs of the poor, they are told that people are taking advantage of them and that they should be able to keep all the fruits of their labor.

I’d go two steps further.

First of all, the preoccupation with selected “unearned” forms of public assistance tends mightily to blind people to their own dependence on the state. That could be in the form of Social Security and Medicare benefits that Republican voters choose (not all that accurately) to view as “earned,” or the kinds of public investments Elizabeth Warren talked about in her infamously slandered “You Didn’t Build That” speech. Or it could be in the form of the tax subsidies that homeowners enjoy and much-despised renters don’t. Or it could be the private-school or homeschool education subsidies that many parents feel entitled to receive so they can take their kids out of common schools. Or in the case of many Republican pols and donors, there are a host of special-interest privileges that come at public expense, which they often tend to think of as a partial rebate of the taxes they should not have to pay in the first place.

So far, we’ve excused the strict libertarians who are willing to criticize the hypocrisy of resenting public subsidies for some people while accepting them oneself. But there’s an even more basic problem with encouraging people to “look down” on the less fortunate: it implicitly depends on the belief that the rewards gleaned by successful people in our system reflects both their contributions to the common wealth and their moral value, rather than luck, unproductive inherited privilege, and even misallocation of resources and actively evil exploitation. And the great seduction involved in the politics of resentment of the less-fortunate is that it reinforces one’s own sense of entitlement to whatever life has provided.

Now I’m not saying that successful people necessarily haven’t worked hard or aren’t good people or didn’t overcome handicaps, and I’m also not denying there is an efficiency argument for relatively free markets, inheritances, and other ways of entrenching privileges. It’s the presumption of social utility and virtue among the successful, and of the opposite qualities among the unsuccessful, that’s objectionable and corrosive of any true “commonwealth,” much less one supposedly characterized by Judeo-Christian ethics rather than the ethics of Ayn Rand. Every time a Thom Tillis tells an audience it ought to “look down” on people who are struggling to survive, he’s reinforcing what Rand called “the virtue of selfishness,” and at a minimum needs to be stopped from uttering pious words about Jesus.

Ed Kilgore is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly. He is managing editor for The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Find him on Twitter: @ed_kilgore.

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