Moral Judgments and the Safety Net

In the context of predicting what Republicans will ultimately do about extended unemployment insurance specifically, and efforts to help Americans in need generally, Tom Edsall has an interesting if unsatisfying column for the New York Times that relies heavily on a 1993 study about liberal and conservatives attitudes in times of good and bad economic conditions:

It is…one of the ironies of political economy that support for the liberal agenda declines just when the needs of the needy are strongest. Conversely, when the economy begins to expand and the spending cuts sought by conservatives would be least painful, support for conservative belt-tightening drops.

One of the best explanations of this phenomenon was published two decades ago. The paper focused on the differing responses of the right and left to scarcity and plenty, and was written by Linda J. Skitka, a professor of psychology at the University of Illinois-Chicago, and Philip E. Tetlock, a professor of psychology and management at the University of Pennsylvania.

Skitka and Tetlock conducted a survey assessing how liberals and conservatives would allocate three resources; azidothymidine (AZT) for AIDS patients; organs for would-be transplant recipients; and low-income housing for the poor – under conditions of plenty (“no scarcity”), low scarcity and high scarcity.

When participants in the experiments were told that resources were very scarce, liberals became less generous and began to make the same judgments as conservatives. Both left and right “denied assistance to people they deemed personally responsible for their plight.” In other words, scarcity and a lack of resources made participants more conservative in their outlook.

But when participants were told there was “no scarcity,” liberals awarded benefits to everyone, and only conservatives made a distinction between giving to the “deserving” and withholding from the “undeserving.”

Based on this hypothesis, Edsall predicts that House Republicans, sensing that non-conservatives don’t share their moral judgments about beneficiaries of government assistance, will go along with extended UI. This appears to be part of his more general belief that John Boehner is in the process of engineering some sort of move to “the center” that will put the Tea Party in its place (citing last-month’s tongue-lashing of “outside” conservative groups, and Boehner’s more recent hint that he may still favor some sort of immigration reform effort).

I’m guessing Edsall penned this column before Boehner’s announcement yesterday that House Republicans would oppose extended UI unless it is accompanied by budget offsets, repeal of Obamacare, and Senate action on major elements of the Republican agenda. Perhaps he thinks this is just a feint to the right before the long-awaited move to the center.

But there’s a pretty obvious contrary interpretation: as the research Edsall cites indicates, conservatives don’t change their judgmental attitudes just because the economy’s improving or “resources” are more abundant (presumably meaning lower federal budget deficits). In an environment where conservatives consistently believe “sticking to their conservative principles” is not only morally essential but the path to electoral victory, why would they cave on extended UI just because public opinion is drifting in that direction? Has adverse public opinion convinced them to abandon their hard-core opposition to higher taxes for the wealthy? Stronger background checks for gun purchases? Immigration “amnesty?” Same-sex marriage?

Perhaps Edsall will be proved right, but it appears to me that he is one of many political observers for whom a “move to the center” for the GOP is so compellingly logical that signs of it are imagined everywhere, even after a solid five years of ideological militancy on the Right. I’m holding out for more convincing evidence than the occasional gestures of a House Speaker who’s at most marginally in charge of his troops, and stampedes to the fever swamps whenever he’s really pushed.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.