Poverty is Good For You

I’m struggling to understand and explain a spectrum of opinions about the recession that I see exhibited by conservatives. I have three examples that seem to form a gradient around the idea of self-reliance and group action.

At the extreme is Charles Murray who recently delivered a lecture at the American Enterprise Institute entitled The Europe Syndrome and the Challenge to American Exceptionalism. I found the lecture via a link at Matthew Yglesias weblog.

The central core of Murray’s argument is that happiness requires struggle and that government policies that make happiness easier are fundamentally unfair because they take away the struggle for happiness that we all have a right to. If we don’t work hard for our rewards then our victories will taste sour.

Damon Linker at the New Republic calls this Donner Party Conservatism, a term he borrows from John Holbo.

it refers to the brand of conservative thinking that defends America’s relatively minimal welfare state and anemic economic regulations on the grounds that it’s good for people to have to struggle and suffer to get by – just like those plucky, entrepreneurial pioneers who resorted to cannibalism to avoid starvation while trapped in the Sierra Nevada mountains back in the winter of 1846-1847. For some Donner Party Conservatives, struggle and suffering are good because they call forth and demand great acts of virtue, which serves to replenish the ever-diminishing stockpile of “moral capital” that our nation has inherited from its (pre-liberal) past. Murray himself argues this point at length. But he also claims that struggle and suffering are good because they are a necessary condition of human happiness.

Michael Gerson made a similar call to virtue in the Washington Post last month in a column on Recession’s Hidden Virtues

Recessions and depressions are brutal beasts that stalk the stragglers, especially retirees and the poor. There is too much inherent suffering during a recession to ever welcome it. But times of economic stress, it appears, can also be times of cultural renewal. “One reasonable hypothesis,” argues James Q. Wilson, “is that the Depression pulled families together, and this cohesion inhibited crime.” Many Americans who struggled through the Depression adopted a set of moral and economic habits such as thrift, family commitment, savings and modest consumption that lasted through their lifetimes – and that have decayed in our own.

My third example is from last month by David Brooks at the New York Times. He starts his column in the same individualistic place that Murray begins at:

Our moral and economic system is based on individual responsibility. It’s based on the idea that people have to live with the consequences of their decisions. This makes them more careful deciders. This means that society tends toward justice — people get what they deserve as much as possible

But he ends at a different place, much closer to my own political views.

And they seem to understand the big thing. The nation’s economy is not just the sum of its individuals. It is an interwoven context that we all share. To stabilize that communal landscape, sometimes you have to shower money upon those who have been foolish or self-indulgent. The greedy idiots may be greedy idiots, but they are our countrymen. And at some level, we’re all in this together. If their lives don’t stabilize, then our lives don’t stabilize.

My tentative explanation for these three variations on the theme of individual responsibility and group actions is the fundamental attribution error from psychology. “When we are trying to understand and explain what happens in social settings, we tend to view behavior as a particularly significant factor. We then tend to explain behavior in terms of internal disposition, such as personality traits, abilities, motives, etc. as opposed to external situational factors.”

Murray is completely captured by the fundamental attribution error. Happiness comes from the individual and institutions, especially the government, are barriers to the achievement of “deep satisfaction.” Gerson is in the middle and Brooks starts with the standard conservative appeal to individualism but then concludes by holding his nose and acknowledging the need stabilize the group even if it means rewarding the foolish.