A Philosopher's Blog

Delusions of Self-Reliance

Posted in Epistemology, Ethics, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on February 27, 2012

When the Tea Party movement was in the upswing, comedic critics of the movement loved to point to the wonderfully inconsistent command to “keep your government hands off my Medicare.” While it is easy enough to dismiss this remark as being an aberration, it actually seems to represent a relatively common ignorance regarding government assistance.

Paul Krugman notes that some of the people who are very vocal in their opposition to government assistance and who often support politicians who promise to eliminate such assistance are themselves recipients of that assistance. This is based on the research of Suzanne Mettler:

Percentage of Program Beneficiaries Who Report They “Have Not Used a Government Social Program”
Program “No, Have Not Used a Government Social Program”
529 or Coverdell 64.3
Home Mortgage Interest Deduction 60.0
Hope or Lifetime Learning Tax Credit 59.6
Student Loans 53.3
Child and Dependent Care Tax Credit 51.7
Earned Income Tax Credit 47.1
Social Security—Retirement & Survivors 44.1
Pell Grants 43.1
Unemployment Insurance 43.0
Veterans Benefits (other than G.I. Bill) 41.7
G.I. Bill 40.3
Medicare 39.8
Head Start 37.2
Social Security Disability 28.7
Supplemental Security Income 28.2
Medicaid 27.8
Welfare/Public Assistance 27.4
Government Subsidized Housing 27.4
Food Stamps 25.4

Since all of the above are government social programs, 100% of the people using them have, in fact, used government social programs.

Tea Party

Tea Party (Photo credit: nmfbihop)

In some cases, such as the tax deductions or tax credits, people might believe that these are not government social programs. After all, when most people think of a government social program they think of the government handing out food stamps, cheese, health care or money. However, these programs are government social programs. While people no doubt think that they have earned the credit or deduction, they are actually getting a financial benefit from the government at the expense of the taxpayer. For example, in the case of mortgage deductions this means that the taxpayers are subsidizing the home owner’s mortgage by allowing him or her to pay less taxes because s/he owns a house. While this is not as obviously a social program as getting food stamps, it is essentially the same. Naturally, it can be seen as a negative program (paying less) rather than a positive program (getting something) but the results are the same-either way, the person gains from a government social program.

As noted above, people who are opposed to government social programs seem to often be unaware that they themselves are beneficiaries of such programs and they are, as in the quote above, often inclined to want to keep these programs. As Paul Krugman contends, these folks can hold to inconsistent views because they simply do not realize that the programs they wish to keep benefiting from are the programs that they also think they wish to eliminate. That is, they are operating under a delusion of self-reliance when they are, in fact, benefiting from the very thing they profess to loath. This creates an interesting epistemic and ethical problem. That is, they do not know they are doing wrong by their own principles.

To be fair, there are obviously people who are well aware of that these programs are government social programs and they oppose them. Perhaps some of these people even refuse to avail themselves of such programs and live in a manner consistent with the principle that the state should not provide assistance to people.

Even if there are not such people, the arguments against such programs can still have merit. After all, the mere fact that many (or some) people who are against  government social programs in principle also use such programs does not prove that the arguments against such programs are flawed.  To think otherwise would be to fall into a classic ad homimen fallacy (ad hominem tu quoque). They might, in fact, be excellent arguments.

That said, the fact that people avail themselves of these programs in seeming ignorance of their true nature is rather interesting. It does suggest that at least some of the people who are critical of said programs are critical from ignorance and that perhaps they would modify their views if they were aware  that they benefited from what they have been attacking. At the very least informing these people would allow them to act consistently with their principles by refusing to avail themselves of such programs. They could simply refuse to claim the deductions and credits, mail back any checks they receive from the state, and refuse to use Medicare. After all, while not practicing what one preaches does not show that the preaching is incorrect, one should (morally) follow one’s own sermons or at least have the decency to remain silent and thus avoid compounding one’s sin with hypocrisy.

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29 Responses

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  1. T. J. Babson said, on February 27, 2012 at 8:43 am

    So I guess the tax deduction for charity is also a government social program? So even Warren Buffett benefits from a government social program?

    As far as I can see, the logic is that since the government has grown so big that it is now impossible to live without the government “assisting” you is some way, you are somehow a hypocrite for pointing this out and asking that the government grow smaller.

    • magus71 said, on February 27, 2012 at 9:44 am

      Mike goes through these phases from time to time. But he’s truly over the edge now that he’s quoting Paul Krugman. Is there any doubt left as to Mike’s biases?

      Also, I take offense to having the GI Bill lumped in with food stamps. The GI Bill is part of the contract that a service member signs. It is given to them as payment for their service. Apparently because I’m a soldier, I’m taking part in a government social program.

      The whole point of challenging government spending a programs is not to prove the evils of government, but to excise policies and programs that make the nation weaker instead of stronger. That is the rub: what is good for us and what is not despite momentary appearances.

      • T. J. Babson said, on February 27, 2012 at 9:59 am

        “Apparently because I’m a soldier, I’m taking part in a government social program.”

        Actually, now that the EPA is regulating carbon dioxide, the fact that the government allows you to breathe means that you are participating in a government social program.

      • anon said, on February 27, 2012 at 10:59 am

        I see Mike is a “leftist” because he is using facts & numbers to support an argument. If he was “right” he’d go on his gut feelings and ignorance.

        “Apparently because I’m a soldier, I’m taking part in a government social program.”
        And those who get protection from the military (which hasn’t been happening so much lately) are benefiting from the government too.

        “The whole point of challenging government spending a programs is not to prove the evils of government, but to excise policies and programs that make the nation weaker instead of stronger”
        Too bad politics, instead of facts, are used to determine what makes a nation “weaker” or “stronger”.

        • Anonymous said, on February 27, 2012 at 2:38 pm

          “I see Mike is a “leftist” because he is using facts & numbers to support an argument. If he was “right” he’d go on his gut feelings and ignorance.”

          Clearly.

          “And those who get protection from the military (which hasn’t been happening so much lately) are benefiting from the government too.”

          Who’s calling for no government?

          Magus

      • Josiah said, on March 7, 2012 at 4:13 pm

        Actually, you signing up for military service means you have taken part in a governmental program. Despite you taking offense to the idea that the G.I. Bill is a social program, it remains to be one. You are honored for your service, and the GI Bill is part of that honor. It is paid for by tax payers. This does not lessen it in any way, so no “offense” should be taken.

        Actually, you taking offense is exactly what I believe to be illustrated in the blog post. i.e. people perceiving a stigma around social programs while being unaware that they actually partake in one.

        Also, simply quoting Paul Krugman doesn’t make him biased. In fact, he has presented this post rather empirically. He also considers the idea that “arguments against such programs can still have merit”. If you disagree, that is fine. Just don’t write the author off biased because it doesn’t quite line up with your views.

        • magus71 said, on March 7, 2012 at 9:20 pm

          No, Josiah, military service is not the same thing as food stamps. We can get in to an argument about tropes if you want, but getting shot at in Afghanistan still won’t be the same as getting free government cheese for being unemployed. No offense to those getting free cheese–but it’s not the same. Government program? sure. Government social program? No.

          as for my statement about Mike’s making his bias obvious by quoting Krugman, I stand by that. While it is true that each statement should be examined on its own merit, I only have so much time, so I filter out a lot of the bs by knowing who wrote something before I read it. After I read several articles by a person and remain unimpressed or even outraged by a series of lies or foggy thinking, I stop reading their junk and move on to more enlightening, or at least entertaining, material. Krugman is fully in the camp of nut jobs. His idea on economics is this: When in debt spend more and never stop. Try it with your own finances and see how it turns out. Oh wait, you don’t have a printing press that makes money.

          • Josiah said, on March 7, 2012 at 11:02 pm

            I concede to your point about it not being a social program. I see the point you are trying to make. However, to continue your logic: getting financial aid isn’t the same as getting free government cheese. The fact remains they are both government social programs. GI Bill is a social program. You can argue that you earned it, and you would be right. This doesn’t cheapen what you have received for your honorable service.

            http://articles.latimes.com/1994-06-22/news/mn-7133_1_gi-bill

            Btw, your argument against Krugman is an Ad Hominem fallacy.

            Feel free to get the last word on this…I agree with you, I dont want to get into a long debate.

            Wow, civilized debate on the internet.

    • anon said, on February 27, 2012 at 10:52 am

      What does “grow smaller” even mean? How about you use a few words describing it instead of repeating unless political slogans.

  2. ajmacdonaldjr said, on February 27, 2012 at 11:41 am

    I think you make a valid point here, in general, if not in particular: all American workers have certain monies taken from them (us) by the US federal government for use – and redistribution – by the federal government, and some of these monies they (we) do re-collect via certain federal programs (medicare, medicaid, Social Security, federal taxes) if/when they (we) qualify for such.

    In my 35+ years of working and paying taxes I have never received medicare, medicaid, or Social Security, although I might have done so during this time, had I needed it; but I didn’t. The only US Treasury checks I have ever received were (small, usually well under $1,000) IRS refund checks, almost every year.

    I have no idea how much I have paid into the above programs over 35+ year, except for Social Security, which I have paid into to the tune of over $30,000 (my employers matched this amount = $60,000 into the US Treasury total).

    Yet I was told, last year, by President Obama, concerning Social Security: “The coffers are empty”.

    See: http://www.thefinancialphysician.com/blog/?p=7236

    Had I become disabled during my working life I could have collected Social Security, which I would have appreciated, but I haven’t, yet.

    (Maybe I should apply for a crazy check? LOL: )

    If I live to be 67 years and 10 months of age, I can begin collecting Social Security until I die (to the tune of about $400 per month).

    Question: How many year will I have to live in order to collect my $30,000 dollars back? and my employers $30,000?

    The only other time in my life I have ever received a check from the US Treasury was twice per month for three years while serving on active duty with the US Army; and the only times I have ever received assistance from the US federal government – in the form of services – is whenever I go to the VA for my health care, which I do, because this federal benefit was part of my service agreement (three years active, three years reserve). If I survived, I had life-time health care.

    This health care, the VA, which is available to any and all Americans who wish to serve.

    I have had a federal health care plan since 1976 (active duty) and I will have it until the day I die (VA health care System) because I served my country.

    My problem is with those people who have never done a damn thing for America but who hold their hands out all day long for federal (other people’s) monies.

    So where do I fit, in your scheme, above, Professor? I feel like all I ever do is pay-in, pay-in, pay-in; but I never collect anything for that which I haven’t already contributed to.

    I feel like I am/have been ripped-off for 35+ years. How am I wrong to think/feel this way?

    Perhaps if EVERYONE SERVED AMERICA SOMEHOW FIRST I would have less of an issue with this, because I dislike FREELOADERS (i.e., those who collect having NEVER served).

    • dhammett said, on February 27, 2012 at 12:16 pm

      From the article you provided:
      Obama: “I cannot guarantee that checks go out August 3rd *if* we have not resolved this issue, There simply *may* not be the money in the coffers to do it”. Actually, we know the coffers aren’t empty. Obama *didn’t* say “the coffers are empty”. Please note his “if” and his “may”. Repeat: The coffers are not empty.

      http://writ.news.findlaw.com/buchanan/20100812.html

    • Anonymous said, on February 27, 2012 at 2:42 pm

      Excellent points. People pay taxes to a government that cannot balance budgets. Some want to redistribute wealth when the government can’t even properly distribute the money taken from people who earned it to ensure the earners are actually protected, too.

      Magus

      • dhammett said, on February 27, 2012 at 8:13 pm

        Many hate Wikipedia, but the “Balanced Budget Amendment” article is a worthwhile read, particularly the US Federal Government/History and Deficit Spending sections.

        “Unlike the constitutions of most U.S. states, the United States Constitution does not actually require the United States Congress to pass a balanced budget, one in which the projected income to the government through taxes, fees, fines, and other revenues equals the amount proposed to be spent. This has led to deficit spending and the creation of a national debt. Except for a short period during the presidency of Andrew Jackson since its inception the United States federal government has always been in debt.”There’s nothing new about this government not being able to balance budgets.

        And paying taxes isn’t new.
        Again Wikipedia (“Income Tax in the United States” Section 21.History) provides the basics (sourced).

        Something really really new would be an American public that can distinguish between what it thinks it needs and what it needs. What it must have, and what it can do without. What it thinks it can do and what it can actually do. And once they’ve decided, they should be willing to pony up and pay for it. The first part is difficult, but doable. Now getting the public to pay. . .that’s another thing entirely

        Problem is, the real world has gotten in the way of making easy distinctions between real wants and real needs . Progress., for example, damn her evil soul, gets in the way
        Better-educated people discover that they’ve got to move away from their hometowns to find the jobs they were educated to do. They take up residences in cities far, far away from their mamas and papas. The parents grow old, retire on minimal pensions, and there are no longer nuclear families to care for them.
        Should society provide Social Security and Health Care? That costs money. MY money, right?
        Does Bill *need* government run SS and health care? Perhaps not. Do Bill’s parents far far away need it? Yes, perhaps. Seems Bill would have some choices: (a)move them across country to live with him or near him, tearing them away from their dearest friends when they need each other most, (b) move back home , returning to nuclear family status, and forsake the employment (and pay level he’s worked for), (c)send monthly checks covering health care and gaps in necessary living expenses. Or Bill could (d) trust that his society, his fellow Americans see the need to care, at least in part, for people like his ma and pa and other people in need who have worked hard for years and need assistance in their later years. Just as Bill should be willing to help provide a safety net for the parents of others.

        • T. J. Babson said, on February 27, 2012 at 8:27 pm

          Here is a philosophical question. Right now, is one better off living frugally and saving for tomorrow, or borrowing as much as one can and never giving a though to paying it back? Which group is being rewarded now, and which punished?

          • Anonymous said, on February 27, 2012 at 10:56 pm

            They’ll find a way to argue it, TJ. It’s no use. This entire thing is a demonstration of the intellectual’s fatal flaw: An overwrought belief in the power of words.

            Magus

            • dhammett said, on February 27, 2012 at 11:33 pm

              Here –I believe–is a philosophical question: Which can wreak more havoc—“An overwrought belief in the power of words” or an overwrought belief in an ideology (Hoffer-true-believer style)?

            • Michael LaBossiere said, on February 29, 2012 at 1:27 pm

              Words are powerful. We think in words and words define how we perceive reality.

              Ironically, you just replied in words. :)

          • dhammett said, on February 27, 2012 at 11:28 pm

            You could go back and raise that question with presidents and legislators from our past.
            (see the last sentence in the first quotation in my 8:13 pm post.)

            While you do that, you should consider whether ” living frugally” means eliminating the safety net, cooperating sensibly to save the safety net, or just generally bitching about the debt ceiling. Whether it means cutting back on defense spending ,increasing it, or keeping it the same— depending on whatever foreign policy stance we’re choosing to follow at the time *and/or* intranational and international events that demand great unplanned expenditures over long periods of time. Whether “saving for tomorrow” means only cutting out obvious waste or if it includes adding to our coffers with needed revenue increases .

            • T. J. Babson said, on February 28, 2012 at 12:22 am

              You are fighting against simple mathematics, dhammett. One cannot live beyond one’s means for very long. I suspect we have no more than 3-4 years.

            • Michael LaBossiere said, on February 29, 2012 at 1:29 pm

              Capitalism is essentially a rob (or borrow from) Peter to pay Paul system in which there is an attempt to create a perpetual expansion machine through unceasing growth.

              As you note, there must be a limit on this (infinite growth cannot occur in a finite system).

          • Michael LaBossiere said, on February 29, 2012 at 1:27 pm

            Depends on what you mean by “better.” From a moral standpoint, I’d go with the idea of living frugally.
            Generally, over borrowing comes with its own punishment. Unless you are talking about the big corporations who got sweet bailouts or those that get sweet subsidies (which can be seen as loans that are never paid back).

  3. dhammett said, on February 28, 2012 at 10:28 am

    The US has been living on borrowed money for years. How long is “very long”?
    I suspect it’s easy to predict and suspect.

    Apparently it’s not so easy to balance the budget of a major nation: ” Except for a short period during the presidency of Andrew Jackson since its inception the United States federal government has *always* been in debt.” And it’s interesting to note that deficits seem to have increased as we’ve become a more powerful, important part of the international community. In the 19th century our costs were primarily internal and we ran deficits that we quickly paid off. As we enter the 20th century, the deficits grow and linger. See the last two charts on this page:

    http://www.usgovernmentdebt.us/us_deficit

    So until we get down to seriously discussing and answering the questions in my 11:28 pm above– and more– we’re going to keep grinding on the idea that the deficit is growing and “Oh, my it’s getting worse” and “Lawsy our great country is reaching an end, if we don’t cut taxes for the wealthy and corporations and cut back or eliminate the social safety net.”

    • dhammett said, on February 28, 2012 at 10:30 am

      . . . reply to TJ @ 12:22am

  4. Anonymous said, on February 28, 2012 at 10:39 pm

    Democrats for Santorum in Michigan:

    CBS News’ Exit Poll finds that 9 percent of respondents identified themselves as Democrats. Among that group, 3 percent voted for New Gingrich, 17 percent each for Ron Paul and Mitt Romney, and 53 percent for Rick Santorum.

    http://www.nationalreview.com/campaign-spot/292212/53-michigan-democrats-voted-santorum

    What conclusions can we draw from this?

    • T. J. Babson said, on February 28, 2012 at 10:40 pm

      That was T.J.B. who just ran CCleaner.

      • Michael LaBossiere said, on February 29, 2012 at 1:34 pm

        Handy software-it cleans out a lot of crap. If only we had a CongressionalCleaner program. That would be awesome.

    • dhammett said, on February 28, 2012 at 11:30 pm

      That, like Homer Simpson, you’re easily distracted from the subject at hand by anything sweet, beery, or shiny?

    • Michael LaBossiere said, on February 29, 2012 at 1:33 pm

      Rick’s robo-calls worked?

      I’d go with Mitt Romney (past Mitt, that is) on this. Mitt said he loved to go in vote for the weakest Democrat in open primaries, so it seems reasonable to infer that Democrats might also vote for the Republican they think the Democrats can most easily beat.

      I think Rick would hand Obama a win. While Santorum does appeal to certain base elements, his stance on what most folks regard as women’s issues will hurt him in the general election.

      I suspect the Republicans have already written off 2012 and are looking ahead to 2016.


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