Bad Apple Theory
By Tom Sullivan
June 1, 2008 - 11:28pm ET
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Personal responsibility – a shibboleth of movement conservatives; the fear that a few bad apples somewhere might benefit from tax policy more than they do.
Like children splitting a can of Coke, eyeballing the tumblers to ensure their siblings don’t get a hair’s breadth greater share. Or anxious that someone less worthy might get any.
And programs that share risk among us, programs that meet basic needs like health care? Non-starters. Because they might benefit the Other, the less responsible (and worse, breed Democratic voters).
Conservatives wouldn’t mind paying their taxes if the government spent them responsibly, as they would (if “real” conservatives ran Washington). It’s not as though they refuse to pay their share. It’s that someone somewhere in America of lower status might pay less – and they don’t mean corporate persons.
“Now why should I pay more taxes to provide health care for somebody who doesn’t even pay taxes?” a co-worker recently asked - meaning bad apples, counting income taxes only, blind to payroll, property and other taxes low-income workers still pay.
Why indeed? Why should we put out fires in their homes? Protect them against invading armies? Investigate crimes when they’re victims? Educate their children? Or allow them to vote? Why not leave them behind?
Such people won’t become productive citizens, personal responsibility boosters suggest, if protected from suffering the consequences of their own bad choices (more on that later). Unassailable on its face, personal responsibility makes a handy euphemism for people who made bad choices of parents, national origin and skin color.
Saying so explicitly is bad form, thus the emphasis on loftier-sounding efficiency, personal responsibility (and the ever-popular, freedom). It's a well-crafted pitch. Not specifically class-based, but based upon perceived virtue, wealth and class being principle measures of virtue. Personal responsibility justifies dismantling “failed” New Deal programs serving the bad apples, the nameless, faceless, numberless, cheats and slackers movement conservatism perceives as being – morally, not necessarily economically – of a lower, less virtuous caste: the unwashed Irresponsibles.
Challenge movement conservatives to put numbers to what qualify as failed programs, past or present. How many bad apples does it take to justify dismantling safety net programs like Social Security or Medicare that benefit the other 300 million Americans?
Ballpark. What percent?
For perspective, over $10 billion in Iraq reconstruction cash delivered to Baghdad shrink-wrapped on pallets essentially vanished. $12 billion a month continues to flow into Iraq, much of it disappearing almost as neatly. Congressional conservatives have shown little interest in eliminating that waste and inefficiency. How many bad-apple contractors does it take to justify pulling the plug on that ?
Ballpark. What percent?
For movement conservatives, a helping hand belongs only to real Americans like them – profitable contractors, bankers and campaign donors – not to Irresponsibles. Thus, the poor of New Orleans were dismissed as Irresponsibles for not having the resources to leave town on their own. Meanwhile, the buyers, brokers, bankers, investment banks and investors of the subprime mortgage debacle all ignored the bad-apple loans passing through their hands. As investment guru John Bogle once noted, “It’s amazing how difficult it is for a man to understand something if he’s paid a small fortune not to understand it.” Yet conservatives instinctively blamed buyers first, while higher-caste players further up the food chain – among them, their friends, colleagues and Bear Stearns – made out like bandits and/or received bailouts.
In bad apple theory, fellow citizens who need help succeeding deserve only pity, if that. It's the law of the meritocratic jungle. Social Darwinism. If they are not smart enough, talented enough, disciplined enough, educated enough or well-born enough, it’s because they are Irresponsibles. Helping them enables their dependency and unjustly burdens the more virtuous, i.e., more successful. A society that taxes the able to help the less able disincentivizes success, deprives people of their freedom, tilts the nation towards socialism, and worst of all, fosters personal weakness.
If there’s one thing that makes a movement conservative's skin crawl, it’s personal weakness. Ask Bill Bennett or Rush Limbaugh.
In The Great Risk Shift Jacob Hacker explores what he dubs the "Personal Responsibility Crusade," finding its roots in the insurance industry. Pooling risk among policyholders was once the point of insurance, like spreading the costs of national defense so that no citizen had to bear the burden of buying his own tank or fighter-bomber. One downside was an obscure insurance concept called moral hazard: "Protecting people against risks reduces the care people exercise in avoiding those risks." It's a potential risk the insurance industry deals with through properly designed programs.
But by the 1980s, Hacker contends, moral hazard became a new justification for dismantling New Deal-era programs conservatives had opposed for decade, programs that pool risk in the private sector.
"Insurance had been justified as a way of aiding the unfortunate – now it was criticized as a way of coddling the irresponsible. Insurance had been understood as a partial solution to social problems like unemployment and poverty in old age – now it was condemned as worsening the very problems it was meant to solve."
Teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime. Insure him against a fisheries collapse, and he'll have no incentive to fish. Insure Irresponsibles against illness and they'll overconsume health care, driving up costs and inefficiency for the more responsible among us.
All it takes are a few bad apples.
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