Elitist Hokum from Krugman

by Chidem Kurdas

It has become a standard left-liberal jibe that those complaining of government largesse receive a piece thereof themselves. Such beneficiaries go against their own interest if they favor smaller government—so it is alleged. Thus Paul Krugman in the NYT  largely agrees with Thomas Frank, who attributed apparent red state ingratitude to the exploitation of social issues by Republicans in his book What’s the Matter with Kansas? 

In addition Mr. Krugman cites evidence suggesting large percentages of Social Security and Medicare beneficiaries  are confused about their use of these government programs.  They don’t seem to think they’re getting handouts.

Maybe that’s because they’re in fact not getting handouts.  As they were reminded every time they looked at their paycheck stub and saw the Social Security and Medicare tax deductions, they were forced to sacrifice part of their income for these programs through their working lives. The programs are compulsory; there is no opting out of them; the taxes come out of your paycheck whether you like it or not.

Therefore the notion that people who don’t like big government should not get Social Security and Medicare is utter nonsense. What are they supposed to do? Refuse the benefits that they already paid for? You’d have to be rich to do that. But one can see why left-liberals keep bringing up this humbug. People who don’t share their love of big government are labeled inconsistent for doing what by law they are coerced to do, mocked for complaining about a government apparatus from which they can’t escape.

In another column Krugman explains what he sees as extreme conservatism.  He says economic conservatives and their wealthy supporters played a con game to advance their own agenda of tax cuts and deregulation, but over the decades “this strategy created a base that really believed in all the hokum—and now the party elite has lost control.”

While it is well established that much of the electorate is ignorant of policy issues, it does not follow that voters don’t know their own values. Of course politicians cater to certain preferences as a way to construct a brand that they hope will get them elected. They do that because part of the public has those preferences.

The desire for limited government that left-liberals regard as extreme is an old American value, going back centuries to the founding of the country. If you think it was newly created by bad politicians, you have to believe that people have no sense of what they like. This view of the public as a flock of sheep fits the top-down statist ideology of political dictates and bureaucratic control.

It also explains the extreme reaction against the grass roots movement for limiting the growth of government.  The best and brightest like Mr. Krugman should be able to mold the public mind—-assumed to be entire malleable by the select few. So why are all these people still objecting after they’ve been told to shut up, pay their taxes and be grateful for whatever scraps the government throws to them? It must be that they were misled by certain evil members of the select, since they are presumed incapable of judging things on the basis of their own values.

Thomas Sowell has long been the trenchant critic of this elitist vision. “The anointed do not simply happen to have a disdain for the public,” he wrote in The Vision of the Anointed.  “Such disdain is an integral part of their vision, for the central feature of that vision is preemption of the decisions of others.”

That explains a lot of the punditry’s hysteria. Some of the supposed sheep have become uppity, going against the wisdom of  the anointed. What bothers Mr. Krugman is that “the party elite has lost control” and hence politics as deal making within the elite can no longer be taken for granted, at least not all the time.

18 thoughts on “Elitist Hokum from Krugman

  1. The claim that Medicare benefits are “already paid for” is simply mistaken.

    General fund revenue pays for 74% of the cost of Medicare Part B and 83% of the cost of Medicare Part D. For all of Medicare, 42% is funded by general fund revenue. [And personally I’m pretty much fine with that.]

    But anybody who opts into Medicare Part B or Part D is getting a government benefit. And anybody who doesn’t recognize that is wrong.

    Click to access 7305-06.pdf

  2. I don’t read Krugman much, but from what I have read of his writing, I’ve only seen one economic criticism of government intervention, which was a good column five or six years ago against intellectual “property.” I made a link to it at the againstmonopoly.org blog.
    MInimum wage laws? Nope. Occupational licensure? Forget it. Zoning laws? Nada. Restrictions on taxi licenses? Who you kidding? Etc.

  3. Greg Trandel: And where’s the general fund revenue coming from? Where do “government benefits” come from? The Tooth Fairy?

  4. The Frank argument that red state voters are duped into voting against their interests has been making the rounds on the left. It has its origins in the Marxist concept of the lumpenproletariat, the workers who have false class consciousness.

    (I didn’t just imply that Frank is a Marxist. It is true, however, that the left has absorbed many Marxist ideas without knowing it.)

    Chidem makes good points. I’ll add one about public schools. Just today I heard it argued that we all owe our success to government because we attended public schools. (Actually, I didn’t.) Schooling is compulsory and public schools are funded through compulsory levies. Many have no choice. Nothing normative can be inferred from a compulsory transaction.

    Then we drive on public streets, so government is partly responsible for our success. That one came from a prominent law professor. These arguments are made by people who think they are our betters.


  5. The left-liberal elite have reacted strongly to by denouncing and ridiculing the Tea Party’s invocation of the Constitution, and, for example, its being read aloud at the opening of Congress. This goes to the vision of the anointed: God forbid the rubes study the Constitution! They might discover what a mockery has been made of it for the last 100 years.

  6. Greg Trandel–
    In addition to the point Allan Walstad made above, I’d like to note that the complexity of the Medicare system — with its parts A, B, C, D and the various financial provisions for each — does not change the fact that the Medicare payroll tax is compulsory and there is no opting out of it.

    The complexity, of course, like the complexity of the tax code, is another imposition. One pays and one is caught in an absurd Rube Goldberg contraption.

  7. Jerry O’Driscoll–
    Good point: “It has its origins in the Marxist concept of the lumpenproletariat, the workers who have false class consciousness.” The Frank argument does have Marxian roots going back some 150 years.

  8. I have always been amazed by the argument that the red staters are hypocrites because they accept SS and Medicare. They paid into it. Trandel’s attempted misdirection aside, the truth is that the general fund is funded by taxes, which are coerced from every person who pays a federal income tax. This stuff isn’t hard to understand, but the obfuscators sure are persistent.

  9. And don’t forget that our betters–bettors playing with your money?–in Congress exempt themselves from SS and Medicare, if I’m not mistaken, going instead with gold-plated benefit packages you’re paying for. Enjoy their ride, ha ha.

  10. I think this kind of argument derives from a category error. They are conflating a policy argument (“we shouldn’t have policy X”) with a moral argument (“good people shouldn’t take advantage of policy X”). Thus, “Medicare is bad policy” gets conflated with “You shouldn’t use Medicare”; “Governments shouldn’t run universities” gets conflated with “You shouldn’t work at a government-run university.”

    But note that the reasons pro/con for the policy differ substantially from the reasons pro/con the moral statement (although there may be some overlap). As a reductio ad absurdum, should we conclude that anti-communists living in the USSR have forgone government food and housing? This kind of position effectively demands that critics of existing policy to deliberately disadvantage themselves relative to supporters of the existing policy.

    When people ask me why I drive on government roads, hold a job at a government university, etc., I always reply, “I’m a libertarian, but I don’t live in a libertarian world.”

  11. Rob Nabakowski–

    Re “the obfuscators sure are persistent”
    Indeed, you find this line that people who don’t like Medicare & SS shouldn’t get them & if they do are either confused/ignorant or hypocrites pops up all the time, in all sorts of places. I must have seen it in several NYT pieces just in the past couple of weeks.

    None of these mentioned that you still have to pay whether or not you get the benefit.

  12. Glen–
    Re “This kind of position effectively demands that critics of existing policy to deliberately disadvantage themselves relative to supporters of the existing policy. ”
    Yes, as a critic one is implicitly supposed to pay but not benefit from a program, thereby financing the supporters of the program. No surprise, the supporters see no problem with this.

  13. Larry Bartels did a bunch of working showing that lower income folk don’t vote on social issues – let allow conservative ones. Ironically, he shows that higher income liberals actually do vote on social issues.

  14. From Bartels’s Quarterly Journal of Political Science article on Frank, What’s the Matter with Kansas?–
    “The apparent political significance of social issues has increased substantially over the past 20 years, but more among better-educated white voters than among those without college degrees. In both groups, economic issues continue to be most important.”

  15. “We live in a world where the economy and civil society have developed within a state-supported framework, so that many of their functions would cease to operate on the sudden disappearance of the state, as surely as a patient on a ventilator would die if the power were cut off before he could be weaned off his dependence on the machine. The state has, in effect, interposed itself between us and countless H-bomb controlled dead-man triggers so that we are dependent at least in the short term on its continued functioning until the bombs can be disarmed” (Carson 2008, p. 468).

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