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People Are Motivated Not Only By Narrow Material Considerations

Here’s a letter to the New York Times:

Nicholas Kristof is befuddled that people who benefit from government handouts sometimes support politicians who oppose such handouts (“In Trump Country, Shock at Trump Budget Cuts, but Still Loyalty,” April 2).  He shouldn’t be.

One reason why beneficiaries of government handouts might politically oppose such handouts is that no voter’s individual expression of political opposition is determinative.  Because in nearly all cases government will do what it will do regardless of the words or actions of voter Smith, voter Smith can express opposition to some program without increasing the chances that this program will actually be eliminated or even trimmed.  Political talk and voting are both cheap.

Yet there’s another, very different reason why some people oppose government handouts that ostensibly are aimed at helping these people – namely, some people have preferences and values that genuinely override the material benefits of receiving government handouts.  I’ve a personal example.

When in the early 1970s my father was laid off from his pipe-fitting job at a Louisiana shipyard, one of his co-workers tried to persuade my parents to apply for the Food Stamps for which my family was then eligible.  But the thought of being on the government dole so appalled my parents that they flatly refused.  My family got through that difficult time by dipping into our savings and cutting our already modest budget.  So while my parents’ refusal to use Food Stamps made us a bit poorer money-wise, it also made us much richer dignity-wise.

Mr. Kristof should understand that in fully human lives money is not all that does, or should, matter.

Donald J. Boudreaux
Professor of Economics
Martha and Nelson Getchell Chair for the Study of Free Market Capitalism at the Mercatus Center
George Mason University
Fairfax, VA  22030