clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Sorry, conservatives, but you share an ideology with a bunch of rich jerks


My colleague Tim Lee has written a response to my post about how rich people are jerks, taking issue with some of its facts and assumptions.

Clearly, Tim is a huge jerk.

Ha ha! I kid. I haven't met Tim, but all evidence points to him being a mensch. And I don't want to turn Vox into an internal debate society. But I do want to weigh in once more, since I don't think I was entirely clear the first time around. Tim seems to think I was characterizing all fiscal conservatives as jerks, or saying that fiscal conservatism is de facto evidence of jerkdom. That was not my intent.

Rather, the argument is that being rich in America seems to make people jerks in a very particular way, and fiscal conservatism is one of the ways that particular form of jerkdom expresses itself. It's not the only way to get to fiscal conservatism, but it's the way that many rich people do.


Pictorial representation of man slowly coming to see the wisdom of low marginal tax rates on high earners. (Shutterstock)

Utilitarianism and trying not to be a jerk

Let me back up a bit.

I'm a consequentialist, which means, broadly speaking, that I believe the morality of our actions is measured by their consequences. More specifically, I'm a utilitarian, which means I think public policy (and individual behavior) ought to aim to produce the most welfare. Even more specifically, I identify as some form of rule utilitarian. Whereas an act utilitarian believes each individual action should be calculated to maximize welfare, a rule utilitarian thinks we ought to adopt the principles, guidelines, and policies that maximize long-term welfare. (Obeying such rules will, in some individual cases, mean sacrificing some short-term welfare.)

The philosophical details aren't all that important. I just want to identify three implications of utilitarianism that are relevant to this discussion.

First, any kind of consequentialism, but especially utilitarianism, implies a commitment to empiricism. The only way to discover what produces the most welfare is to pay attention to the facts. So Tim is entirely right about, say, the minimum wage. There is obviously such thing as a too-high minimum wage. The right minimum wage is the one that maximizes welfare; the way to find out what it is is to pay serious attention to research and historical experience.

Second, utilitarianism imposes, or ought to impose, a kind of cognitive and psychological self-discipline. Anyone who has studied human psychology — or, y'know, met a human — knows that we are masters of self-deception, highly prone to motivated reasoning. Our natural mode of inquiry is to seek out facts that confirm our tribal biases and worldviews. But if we really want to maximize welfare, we have to fight this tendency; we have to strive to see the evidence clearly and guard against confirmation bias (as Tim says).

Third, utilitarianism runs contrary to human nature, more so the stricter it gets. Humans are wired to have circles of concern, starting with the self and moving outward to family and tribe. (There are always multiple overlapping tribes: extended family, city, state, nation, ethnicity, shared interests, shared ideology, etc.) The farther out the circle goes — the global poor, all humanity, future generations, life on Earth, the cosmos — the more abstract, intellectual, and tenuous the concern becomes. To really conceive of the interests of people far away in time or space, we have to reason our way there, using our frontal cortex. We don't feel the pull of those far-off interests in a visceral way, unlike the interests of our own bodies, families, and people. The smaller the circle of concern, the more directly it engages our lizard brains, and the more we feel it.

When humans feel anxious, afraid, or angry, the frontal cortex gets quieter and the lizard brain gets louder; our circles of concern constrict, and we become more "in-group conscious." The function of morality, as I take it, is to act as a countervailing force, to push our circles of concern outward, to give us a framework and heuristics that help tack against our natural parochialism.

No one is perfect at this; no one is, in practice, really as concerned about a Bangladeshi farmer as they are about their neighbor (unless they happen to be the Bangladeshi farmer's neighbor). Everyone favors his or her own tribe in a pinch. We are all saddled with some combination of nature and nurture that shapes our instincts, making those expanded circles of concern easier for some than others. And some people face circumstances — poverty, stress, insecurity — that make looking beyond the bottom rungs of Maslow's hierarchy difficult to do at all.

But being a good person means trying, making an effort to increase the net amount of love and decency in the world, to see the evidence clearly, to be wary of our biases, to take into account others far away in space or time. We should all have compassion for one another when we fall short. But we should all try. To not try is to be a jerk.


Not making much of an effort. (Shutterstock)

Jerkish and non-jerkish reasons to support small government

So let's bring it back to the discussion at hand. As a consequentialist, I have no a priori preferences regarding the size of government. I support whatever level of taxation, spending, and regulation produces the most welfare. That's why I am, in the context of contemporary American politics, a liberal. This is something Jonathan Chait has written about:

Liberalism ... claims to produce certain outcomes: more prosperity and security, especially for the poor and middle classes; a cleaner environment; safer foods and drugs; and so on. If it were proved beyond a doubt that liberal policies fail to produce those outcomes—or even, as conservatives often claim, that such policies hurt their intended beneficiaries—then their rationale would disappear. It may be hard to imagine liberals advocating capital gains tax cuts as a way to lift up the working stiff. But that's just because there's no evidence to show they do. If the evidence were to change, so would the liberal mindset. The point is that liberalism has no justification other than the belief that liberal policies produce beneficial outcomes.

Liberalism is, in short, empiricist and consequentialist. At least mine is, and Chait's. (In a blistering reply to Chait, libertarian Will Wilkinson claimed that empiricism is actually extremely rare on both sides, and no more common on the left than on the right. I agree that self-disciplined empiricism is rare, but it's simply not true that rigidity and dogmatism are evenly distributed in US politics today. The right has more.)

Now, some people arrive at fiscal conservatism through consequentialist reasoning. They "sincerely believe that high taxes on the wealthy shrink the economic pie, making everyone worse off in the long run," as Tim says — a straightforwardly utilitarian argument.

I happen to think it's wrong. Obviously there is some level of taxes that produces net negative effects. Similarly, there are some regulations that do more harm than good and some spending programs that are wasteful or misguided. As an empirically minded utilitarian I oppose those particular tax levels, regulations, and programs. But I think the evidence shows pretty clearly that, in our current circumstances, taxes are well short of that point and the regulations (Clean Air Act, Dodd-Frank) and spending programs (Social Security, Medicaid) targeted by conservatives produce far, far more welfare than they cost economically. Other developed democracies demonstrate that it is possible to have better health and welfare outcomes than the US while still sustaining robust economic growth.

I think the evidence on this is so clear that I have trouble crediting consequentialist reasoning that concludes otherwise. Still, I accept that such reasoning exists, is sincere, and is not jerky in and of itself.

However! Evidence indicates that very few real-life fiscal conservatives are motivated primarily by utilitarian convictions. Chait quotes Milton Friedman saying "economic freedom is an end in itself" — not a means to positive outcomes, but an end in itself. Libertarian patron saint Ayn Rand was very, very clear that an individual owes no obligations to others beyond those explicitly, contractually agreed upon; obligation to the common good, in her worldview, literally makes no sense. And legendary conservative Margaret Thatcher said, "There's no such thing as society. There are individual men and women, and there are families."

These are explicitly deontological, anti-utilitarian arguments. The rights of the individual, including "economic freedom," are sacrosanct, no matter the consequences. This view makes small, unobtrusive government an intrinsic good — not good because it's better for more people, but good because it respects the individual's right to keep what they produce. Conservatives can and do often make empirical arguments about the superiority of small-government outcomes, but mainly to convince those who don't share their first principles. It's the principles that matter.

Rich people prefer the jerkish variety

And here's the thing. If you are a rich person, a person who has benefited enormously from the status quo, and are offered an ideology that serves to justify your good fortune, an ideology that tells you you deserve everything you have, that the poor deserve less because they don't work as hard and aren't as smart, that extreme income inequality reflects merit, that trying to help other people actually does them harm ...

Well, that's awfully convenient. It seems to me if you find yourself blessed with power and money, in a position to have enormous effects on other people's lives, you have a special obligation to interrogate your own priors, to be suspicious of an ideology that so neatly overlaps with your self-interest. It seems to me, if you are comfortably insulated from risk, you ought to be very, very careful about supporting policies that put other, more vulnerable people at greater risk. You ought to be damn sure you have good reasons, that you haven't just fallen for a self-justifying fairy tale.

But rich people in the US, by and large, don't seem to interrogate their priors at all. If anything, getting rich (or being born into wealth) seems to have the opposite effect. It primes them to accept self-justifying ideology and surrounds them with people who share that ideology. They come to believe not just that they can get away with jerky behavior, but that jerky behavior is their right. As science journalist Maia Szalavitz put it, summarizing several studies, "Rich people tended to take advantage of others primarily because they saw selfish and greedy behavior as acceptable, not just because they had more money or higher social status."

"Why do I mistreat the peons? Because I can, darling. Because I can." (Shutterstock)

"Why do I mistreat the peons? Because I can, darling. Because I can." (Shutterstock)

The rich are showered with privileges and come to believe that those privileges are their just deserts, that those who don't share the privileges don't deserve them. They minimize or dismiss the role of luck in life outcomes. They develop horrifying views about the lazy, shiftless, undeserving poor, the 47 percent of the country that's all moochers and takers who vote Democrat because they want Obama phones and food-stamp steaks. They come to see themselves as heroes, job creators, makers beset on all sides by the envious and less gifted, a beleaguered, victimized class.

They don't interrogate conservative ideology at all. They lap it up, wallow in it. They use their enormous wealth and political influence to advocate for slashing assistance to the poor, reducing their own taxes, weakening or repealing successful public-health regulations, and keeping money supply tight even in the face of a sluggish recovery and the zero lower bound. And they show an astonishing lack of self-awareness about any of it.

Tim and his smart, urbane DC libertarian friends might not come to their fiscal conservatism via toxic, myopic, self-justifying myths. But the American rich sure seem to. They are not jerks because they are fiscal conservatives; they are fiscal conservatives because, as a great deal of other evidence demonstrates, they are jerks.

Sign up for the newsletter Today, Explained

Understand the world with a daily explainer plus the most compelling stories of the day.