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Saturday, November 05, 2011

Differing Attitudes Toward Genuine Hypocrisy

Paul Krugman has a question for you:

Genuine Hypocrisy, And Attitudes Thereto, by Paul Krugman: Not sure how much blogging I can do this weekend... But here’s an item that caught my eye, given what I wrote about hypocrisy yesterday:
Deadbeat Rep. Joe Walsh, Who Owes $100k In Child Support, Receives ‘Pro-Family’ Award From Family Research Council.
Now that’s real hypocrisy — and if the past is any indication, it won’t matter at all for Rep. Walsh’s career.
There’s a big difference between the left and the right in such matters, one that I don’t fully understand, although I’m trying. Here’s how it goes: if a liberal politician is caught behaving badly — enriching himself while preaching the need to help the poor, or just in general showing himself less than admirable by having an affair, visiting call girls, whatever — his career is over.
But if a conservative politician who preaches stern traditional morality is caught engaging in actions that are at odds with what he preaches — buying sex, taking wide stances in restrooms, or, in this case, stiffing his family even while preaching family values — he may well ride right through the scandal. Witness what’s going on now with Herman Cain.
How can this be? Here’s what I understand: on the right, “moral values” are considered to be, literally, God-given principles. And a politician is well-regarded for advocating those values, no matter what he does personally. Instead of his personal behavior devaluing his political position, his political position excuses his personal behavior; a philandering politician who preaches the sacred bond of marriage is considered a good man because of what he says, no matter what he does.
And I sort of understand the logic of that position; if the cause is what matters, the flaws of those who serve that cause can be overlooked.
In a way the liberal attitude is more puzzling. Why don’t people like me show an equal willingness to overlook the sins of those who espouse ideas we like? And we don’t. I’m willing to cut some slack; it really matters not at all whom FDR may have turned to for solace, but I can’t imagine forgiving a liberal politician who behaved like Walsh.
The answer may lie in a greater degree of openness, which makes the principles less absolute and therefore gives greater weight to the personal attributes of the messenger. But I’m not entirely sure. Discuss.

I am not sure about this, but let me give another explanation a try anyway. The right believes that the need for government programs derives from the lack of morals of the lower classes. That is, the reason some people are asked to give up a portion of their income to support others -- a redistribution of income the right abhors -- is because these people make poor choices. If they had the necessary morals, if they behaved better, we wouldn't have to take so many resources from those who are successful and waste them on people who could do better if they only had the right value structure.

A successful politician, businessperson, etc. obviously doesn't have these problems. They are successful and their transgressions won't, in the end, result in someone else having to give up income to bail them or their families out. They are not the problem the right is trying to solve. If a poor person takes drugs, endangers their family, drinks too much, etc. the result is a strain on social services and hence on the successful. But when a successful person doesn't live up to the moral code in every way, there's no danger that it will cost others anything -- there are no social externalities to worry about as there are with the poor.

The moral code for the right is really about finding a way to stop asking the good, hard-working people to support people who could support themselves, but make bad choices the hard-working who care about their families would never make. Everyone makes mistakes and people who are basically moral -- and have proven they must be by their success -- should be forgiven when they step over the line, politicians included, it's the fundamentally immoral people that are the problem.

The left, of course, believes social conditions rather than exogenous personal choices have a lot to do with economic outcomes, and that part of this is due to the moral transgressions of those who are better off exploiting the vulnerable. Thus, moral transgressions by the powerful are harder to forgive -- they are a sign that the powerful have no respect for those who are less powerful (e.g. sexual harassment). A tax cheat probably cheats on wages, safety, etc. too, their morals matter for the economic outcomes of the less fortunate, and transgressions are harder to forgive.

But surely you'll have better explanations in comments...

    Posted by on Saturday, November 5, 2011 at 09:27 AM in Economics, Politics, Social Insurance | Permalink  Comments (78)


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