We can all shake our heads and laugh at the likes of Sharron Angle, crusader against big government, who just happens to get her health insurance, and her husband's pension, through the government (he was a government employee). Is it hypocritical? Sure. But there's something a little more subtle going on. Take a look at this interesting conversation Rolling Stone's Matt Taibbi had with some participants at a Tea Party rally:
"I'm anti-spending and anti-government," crows David, as scooter-bound Janice looks on. "The welfare state is out of control."
"OK," I say. "And what do you do for a living?"
"Me?" he says proudly. "Oh, I'm a property appraiser. Have been my whole life."
I frown. "Are either of you on Medicare?"
Silence: Then Janice, a nice enough woman, it seems, slowly raises her hand, offering a faint smile, as if to say, You got me!
"Let me get this straight," I say to David. "You've been picking up a check from the government for decades, as a tax assessor, and your wife is on Medicare. How can you complain about the welfare state?"
"Well," he says, "there's a lot of people on welfare who don't deserve it. Too many people are living off the government."
"But," I protest, "you live off the government. And have been your whole life!"
In order to understand why it makes perfect sense to David and Janice to be opposed to "big government" but in favor of the benefits they get from the government, it's necessary to see it through a particular lens. What matters isn't the size of the spending, or the whether there's some kind of intrusion into your life. The key question is who is benefiting. Medicare? Well, that's for people like David and Janice, and their friends, so that's good. "Welfare"? Well that's for shiftless, undeserving people -- not people like them. Chances are that most Tea Partiers have no idea exactly what the stimulus is paying for, but given their preconceptions about Barack Obama, they're pretty sure it's benefiting people who don't deserve it -- people who are not like them.
There are situations in which personal experience can help one cross that line of empathy that will change one's views on a subject -- if you find out your beloved grandson is gay, it becomes much harder to continue believing that gay people are dangerous, for instance. But being the beneficiary of government benefits doesn't seem to change some people's view about what sort of person gets government benefits.
-- Paul Waldman