Maybe This Is What Gives

by Don Boudreaux on January 19, 2015

in Man of System, Myths and Fallacies

Princeton University Press just sent me a copy of its newly published American Insecurity, by Cornell political scientist Adam Seth Levine.  (I’ve not yet read this book.)  Here’s part of Jacob Hacker’s endorsing blurb that accompanies the book:

The worst economic crisis since the Great Depression, growing financial threats to the middle class, and the biggest political movement is the antigovernment Tea Party.  What gives?  The answer is that Americans buffeted by economic crisis don’t give.  They don’t give money or time to political organizations seeking to improve economic security.  When you try to rally people to the cause, you inadvertently but powerfully deter their political participation.

Notice Hacker’s presumption that improving the economy for the middle class requires greater “political participation” – and participation that is pro- and not anti-government.  This proposition about the necessity of active government intervention and redistributive taxation on behalf of the middle-class could be correct (although I don’t believe it to be so); but its correctness is hardly as indisputable as Hacker seems to think.  It’s telling that Hacker treats this proposition as a valid presumption.

Perhaps the reason that “Americans buffeted by economic crisis don’t give” to those political causes that Hacker (and I assume also Levine) presume to support middle-class economic security and prosperity is because a sizable number of Americans in fact do not share Hacker’s confidence in the necessity, efficacy, and trustworthiness of the government – at least compared to market forces – to improve their economic prospects.  And maybe, just maybe, many of these middle-class Americans put the bulk of the blame for the crisis on government itself.

I know that my own parents – working-class Americans from head to toe and from cradle to grave – instinctively opposed big and active government on the domestic front.  And it’s not because my parents were ideological in any recognizable sense.  My father never read a single book, and my mother read only biographies of movie stars.  I’m quite certain that they’d never heard the term “libertarian” until I became one as a young adult, and I know that they were never quite sure what being a libertarian meant.  They almost never discussed politics.

Yet something in their marrow would not abide relying on government handouts or allow them to look favorably upon any politician or pundit who proposed to tax rich people more heavily and then transfer the booty to them and their friends.  They harbored neither envy nor suspicion of rich people, yet were naturally suspicious of politicians and government.

I can’t say for certain that my parents were very much like lots of working-class Americans, but I have every reason to suppose that they were not unusual.  And if my supposition here is correct, then the explanation for why so few middle-class Americans support political activism of the sort that Hacker presumes is pro-middle-class is more straightforward than Hacker and Levine think: relatively few middle-class Americans share Hacker’s fear of markets and his confidence in politicians and bureaucrats.


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