The behavior of both sides of the liberal-guilt–welfare axis might find some explanation in this line, drawn from a review of Arthur Brooks’s The Battle: How the Fight Between Free Enterprise and Big Government Will Shape America’s Future by Matthew Continetti (subscription required):
It is not inequality, Brooks writes, that makes people unhappy. It is a lack of self-worth. It is the feeling that success is unearned.
On the welfare-recipient side, Continetti notes:
In 2001, the University of Michigan’s Panel Study of Income Dynamics noticed a correlation between welfare dependency and sadness. The panel found that going on the dole increased the chances of feeling “inconsolably sad” by 16 percent. “Welfare recipients,” Brooks writes, “are far unhappier than equally poor people who do not get welfare checks.” And while Brooks is quick to point out that correlation is not causation, the data certainly suggest that welfare doesn’t make you any happier.
On the guilty liberal side, one thinks of the simplified explanation that Rush Limbaugh (gasp!) frequently offers: they know that they’re wealthy beyond their merits, so they assume the system that so blessed them must be unjust. Rather than returning their “unearned” rewards, though, they seek to take a smaller amount from everybody — regardless of desert — in order to give to those who have “unearned” and not received.
Move beyond — if you can — the previous paragraph’s poke at our pals on the left and focus on Brooks’s point, which he states thus, in a 2007 City Journal article:
What I found was that economic inequality doesn’t frustrate Americans at all. It is, rather, the perceived lack of economic opportunity that makes us unhappy. To focus our policies on inequality, instead of opportunity, is to make a grave error—one that will worsen the very problem we seek to solve and make us generally unhappier to boot.
Pointing out that income inequality in the United States has been expanding because “the rich are getting richer faster than the poor are getting richer,” Brooks highlights the astonishing fact that, for some who rail against inequality, discouraging work among the successful is actually a feature, not a bug, of income redistribution:
According to British economist Richard Layard, “If we make taxes commensurate to the damage that an individual does to others when he earns more”—the damage to others’ happiness, that is—”then he will only work harder if there is a true net benefit to society as a whole. It is efficient to discourage work effort that makes society worse off.” Work, according to this postmodern argument—contrary to millennia of moral teaching—is no different from a destructive vice like tobacco, which governments sometimes tax in order to discourage people from smoking.
We who are productive, but not yet successful, might wish to interject that making gobs of money typically involves enabling other people to make or save money, too. As we’ve discussed on Anchor Rising before, replacing the rich folks who run WalMart with an army of mom ‘n’ pops would eliminate the employment of the large company’s relatively well-compensated employees and disallow people of the same economic class from economizing in the way that WalMart’s retail model allows.
Unsurprisingly, the difference in perspective ultimately seems to come down to whether one views society as a collection of castes or of individuals. The left sees those who work for WalMart as People Who Work for Walmart and, implicitly, always will. The right sees them as people who currently see WalMart as offering the greatest opportunity given their current circumstances. The poster representative for the former view is the single mother grasping about for any means of supporting her family; the poster representative for the latter view is the young adult making some side cash while learning the benefits of a strong work ethic and developing workplace interpersonal skills.
By way of a disclaimer: these distinctions are false. The single mother is just as apt to see “check out clerk” as a stepping stone, and the young adult may just as likely max out his potential stocking shelves. The point is that one side of the political divide presents current occupation as demonstrated maximum potential without public assistance, while the other side leaves potential up to the individual to demonstrate. (Shades of this difference can also be seen in union lamentations that teachers don’t make as much money as others with the same amount of education. The problem is that individuals who go on to higher-paying gigs — say, quarter-million-dollar education commissioner — no longer appear in the “teacher” category.)
As Brooks and Continetti also explain, the effect of attempts to eliminate income inequality don’t increase happiness. Because perceived opportunity is the greater contributor to that emotion, their policies actually have the opposite effect. We can take this assessment a step forward if we look to an underlying consequence of the mindset, whether it’s conscious or not: The left’s policies make government the provider of opportunity. To the extent that the right believes opportunity is provided (rather than seized from amidst the flow of uncontrollable natural and social forces), its policies put the responsibility in the hands of individuals.