I am a big fan of Paul Krugman, but I think he missed something important in today’s column.
First, let’s go back to November. In this blog post, Krugman pointed out correctly that it is silly to perceive an inconsistency or “hypocrisy” when wealthy individuals promote progressive taxation. If Warren Buffett believes that the good of the nation is against his self-interest, this is civic-minded unselfishness, the furthest thing from hypocrisy. Furthermore, the belief that the wealthy should pay more should never be confused with hatred of the wealthy, or self-hatred; one does not imply the other.
Today, Krugman points out a supposed contradiction between (a) conservative opposition to the social safety net and (b) the fact that social programs send more benefits to red states (which tend to be poorer) than blue states. What, conservatives can’t be civic-minded? Just as it is not inconsistent for Mr. Buffett to fail to volunteer higher tax payments, it is not inconsistent to accept benefits while believing they shouldn’t exist. If I find myself playing Monopoly with the horribly misguided house rule that money is placed under Free Parking, am I morally compelled to refuse the money, on the grounds that I believe with all my heart it shouldn’t be there? Clearly, no. It would be hypocritical to complain about other players’ accepting the Free Parking money while I do so myself, but not hypocritical to advocate that the rule itself be changed so that no one receives money including me.
(Side note: One shouldn’t actually conclude from a state-by-state correlation that the individuals receiving benefits are the ones opposing them. It is equally possible, based only on such data, that seeing one’s red-state neighbors receive benefits leads one to oppose them.)
Finally, while I think failing to note the analogy with his previous post was a big omission today, I do think that other evidence in the column tends to recover Krugman’s point. He wants to show that support for conservative austerity measures is based not on principle and willingness to fairly share sacrifice, but on perceived self-interest, which is in some cases misperceived. The column cites a study by Suzanne Mettler stating that over 40% of those receiving benefits from Social Security, unemployment and Medicare believe they “have not used a government program.” This does suggest the possibility that some conservatives are opposed to such programs only “for other people.” A lack of self-awareness can facilitate the cloaking of self-interest in a purported principled stand, which would indeed be hypocrisy. In contrast, Mr. Buffett could hardly miss the fact that a “Buffett tax” would fall heavily on him.