Thursday, February 16, 2012

The Myth of Ownership

Binyamin Appelbaum and Robert Gebeloff of the New York Times have written a very good piece that was published a few days ago, and I just got a chance to sit down with it. While the article is quite long, I highly recommend you read it.

If you're strapped for time, I can tell you that the basic gist of Appelbaum and Gebeloff's work is a profile a series of self-identified fiscal conservatives (in the sense that they prioritize the budget deficit over other issues) who also draw benefits from the state in some way or another. I think it would be too facetious to characterize the whole thing as cognitive dissonance on the interviewees part; they are real people with real struggles, that, as Appelbaum and Gebeloff explain,
"describe themselves as self-sufficient members of the American middle class and as opponents of government largess are drawing more deeply on that government with each passing year." (emphasis mine - JMG)
Ta-Nehisi Coates has touched on the power of the myth of self-sufficiency (which he terms the "Cowboy"), and he has done a very good job of it. I would like to expand on it a bit, specifically the way the myth of self-sufficiency plays into a myth of ownership; that we are the sole owners of our life's outcomes, without regard to environmental influences like government.

The subjects of Appelbaum and Gebeloff's profile allude to an ideal of self-sufficiency, and they experience frustration, guilt, and resentment over their need for public benefits. Part of the problem with their thinking is the assumption that, absent direct in-kind transfers, they would then be "free" of onerous government interference.

The fact is that government "interferes" with our daily lives in some of the broadest and most minute ways. I would argue on the balance that is a good thing, too. When you buy ground beef, the FDA has (hopefully) made sure the meatpacking facility that made it meets basic health standards. When you buy gas for your car, a local weights and measures inspector has (hopefully) checked to make sure the pump hasn't been rigged to rip you off.

To be "free of government" one would need to be free of society, or more plainly, free of other people. Unless we truly live on an island or in a cave, the notion that all of our life's successes and failures are attributable to oneself and oneself alone is, well, mythical. An understanding of oneself as "independent" in the context of the market is a denial of the myriad connections that exist between market participants.

It's no accident, then, that calls for "limited government" are commonly framed in the conceptual rather than concrete ways. Government spending in abstract is politically unpopular because people enjoy mythological beliefs about their independence. In the same turn, government spending specifics are popular because they tend to cultivate a political constituency of real people, with real needs on a scale that calls for public action.

I'd like to close by relating this to some of my prior comments on the trap of making normative moral judgments based market outcomes. When people are unsuccessful the the market (i.e. not rich) there's a tendency to attribute personal failure. I think a lot of the respondents found in the NYT piece have internalized this. They judge themselves based on their lack of material wealth, and their inability to enjoy their neighbor's standard of living without public assistance.

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