Equality, Community and Fairness

Why the white working class votes against itself – The Washington Post

Why did all those Economically Anxious™ Trump voters reject policies that would have helped relieve their economic anxiety?

Maybe they believed any Big Government expansions would disproportionately go to the “wrong” kinds of people — that is, people unlike themselves.

. . .

We’ve known for a long time, through the work of Martin Gilens, Suzanne Mettler and other social scientists, that Americans (A) generally associate government spending with undeserving, nonworking, nonwhite people; and (B) are really bad at recognizing when they personally benefit from government programs.

Hence those oblivious demands to “keep your government hands off my Medicare,” and the tea partyers who get farm subsidies, and the widespread opposition to expanded transfer payments in word if not in deed.

On one level this sounds about right.  There have been a number of studies done over the years showing that many social animals, including humans, have a sense of “fairness” hardwired into their brains.  If one member of a social group sees others in the group getting greater benefits than themselves it often causes a great deal of distress.  For better or worse we all seem to want what those around us are getting.

This is probably why the social programs that enjoy the most popular support (e.g. Social Security, Medicare, public schools, etc.) are those that benefit the most people with the fewest restrictions.  These are programs available to everyone and have no significant income or “identity” requirements.

This may also explain why the Affordable Care Act is unpopular regardless of whether it is shown to work.  There seems to be a sense that the program is designed to benefit some at the expense of others.  My own suspicion is that politically there are really only two choices when it comes to building social programs to deal with things like health care.  Either the government needs to cover everyone or no one at all.  Trying to save money and only cover those deemed most “needy” just breeds resentment.  For whatever reason it is a lesson the rest of the world (particularly the Nordic countries) seem to have already leaned.

That said, I think we need to be careful we don’t oversimplify the concept of “fairness”.  While lower social animals likely have a very black and white sense of fairness where everyone needs to see the same result, human beliefs about fairness are probably more nuanced.

. . . responding to getting less than a partner is not the only aspect of fairness. For a true sense of fairness, it also matters if you get more. [Dr. Sarah} Brosnan and [Dr. Frans] de Waal hypothesize that individuals [are also] willing to give up a benefit in order to reach equal outcomes and stabilize valuable, long-term cooperative relationships.

In other words humans appear to view fairness as being more than just equal outcomes.  We also seem to have an innate sense that we are “all in this together”.  We will willingly make sacrifices to preserve the long term social stability we need to survive.

The problem of course for “white working class voters” and many other Americans is that they are watching significant economic changes tear apart their communities.  It obviously doesn’t make much sense to work for the common good when that “common good” all seems to be sinking below the surface.  Developing social programs that treat everyone equally is one thing.   Creating programs that help preserve or rebuild our nations declining communities is a much more problematic challenge.