The Moral Calculus Underlying the Debate Over Unemployment Insurance

The Senate is working its way toward (possibly) overcoming a Republican filibuster of an extension of longterm unemployment insurance, after which the measure will die when John Boehner refuses to bring it up for a vote in the House. Or perhaps not; Boehner's current position is that he's "open" to allowing a vote if the cost of the benefits is offset, presumably by taking money from some other program that helps the less fortunate. Boehner might also allow a vote in exchange for a fun-filled afternoon in which a bunch of orphans and widows are brought to the Capitol building so Republicans can lecture them about their lack of initiative, then force them to watch while members of the Banking Committee and a carefully selected group of lobbyists eat mouth-watering steaks flown in from an exclusive ranch in Kobe, Japan.

I kid. But there is a particular kind of moral clash at play in these negotiations, one that we don't think about very often. It has to do with the question of what makes liberals and conservatives distressed and angry.

You can hear it in the way they talk about the issue. When liberals talk about extending unemployment insurance, they talk about people who can't find work and are keeping their heads above water only because of those benefits. Take away the benefits, and that family could lose their home or suffer other kinds of deprivation. What distresses liberals is the thought of a family that needs help not getting it.

Conservatives don't deny that those people exist. But they don't talk about them. When conservatives talk about this issue, they focus on a different kind of person, the one who could get a job, but hasn't because he's chosen to suckle at government's teat, making taxpayers pay for his continued enjoyment of things like food and heat.

Liberals don't deny that those people exist, either. Somewhere, there's an unemployed engineer who could get a menial job somewhere, but is managing to pay the rent and feed himself with the help of unemployment benefits, and is hoping that if he holds out a few more months he'll be able to find a job in his chosen field. What liberals believe is that even if you think that guy is "undeserving," taking away 50 other deserving people's benefits just so you can tell that one guy to get his butt down to Arby's to fill out an application would be unconscionably cruel.

But that numeric argument is utterly unpersuasive to conservatives, because the family not getting the benefits they need—even fifty such families—doesn't, for them, have the same moral urgency as the one guy getting benefits they think he doesn't deserve. You can also show them research demonstrating that extended unemployment benefits don't lead people to sit around watching TV when they could be out looking for work, and that won't make much difference either. If there's anyone getting an undeserved benefit, it sticks in their craw and demands action.

This applies to other government programs as well. Conservatives are sincerely angered by food stamp fraud, and have written pieces of legislation with draconian measures to try to eliminate it, even though rates of fraud in the food stamp program are tiny. They'll cite fraud as the reason they want to slash benefits for everyone, because fifty people going hungry is less of a moral outrage to them than one person taking advantage of the system. Liberals feel the opposite: they'd certainly prefer that there be no fraud, but they're willing to tolerate a little bit of it if it means that millions of Americans get desperately needed help.

There are other arguments people on both sides make (for instance, liberals point out that unemployment benefits immediately flow through the economy because almost by definition they'll be spent quickly), but this moral judgment is at the heart of what divides them on this question. And it isn't particular to the broad category of "people taking advantage of government." If we're talking about defense department contracts, liberals have a more visceral reaction to fraud than conservatives do. That shows that at the heart of this question is a moral judgment about the kind of people we're talking about. Conservatives see poor people as inherently morally suspect; liberals see defense contractors the same way. An individual who comes from a class you see as suspect committing a transgression is going to make you very, very angry; an individual from a class you see as virtuous (or at least morally neutral) committing a transgression is likely to make you say, "Well, that's just the price we have to pay."

Not everyone is exactly at these two moral poles, of course. There are some Republicans in Congress who support extending unemployment insurance, and presumably they're doing it partly because there's political gain to be had, and partly because they think it's the right thing to do. Whether the extension passes depends on how many such Republicans there are. But if you want to figure out where someone's coming from on this issue, all you have to ask is what makes them angry.

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