Big Government in America part two: Americans don’t mind government, so long as it’s fair

Why is Social Security so popular even among conservative voters? Because the contribution-to-benefit ratio is proportional.

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This is the second of a three-part series. The first installment, which you can find here, argued that Americans are as open as ever to European-style protections against the vagaries of capitalism.

In his bestselling book The Righteous Mind, Jonathan Haidt, a political psychologist at New York University, recounts how his influential “moral foundations” theory was honed after he received feedback from conservatives about an early version. The theory posited several foundations that collectively define morality, with the relative importance of each varying for liberals and conservatives. Two seemed particularly important to liberal values: the care foundation – one’s intolerance of the suffering of others – and the fairness foundation – one’s intolerance of inequality.

Haidt’s intuition about fairness as a liberal value associated with equality was consistent with that of most politicos. So, he was surprised when he started receiving feedback from conservatives indicating his survey was missing something about their values: “Much of it was related to fairness, but this kind of fairness had nothing to do with equality,” he wrote. “It was the fairness of the Protestant work ethic and the Hindu law of karma: People should reap what they sow. People who work hard should get to keep the fruits of their labor. This made me realize that I had done a poor job of capturing conservative notions of fairness, which focused on proportionality, not equality.”

When he modified his survey so that questions about fairness emphasized proportionality rather than equality, he found it was now a conservative value.

Social insurance is proportional

Taken at face value, equality and proportionality are different principles that predict very different policy preferences. For example, if Social Security was strictly proportional then those who made the largest contributions during their working years would receive the most benefits during retirement. Instead, low-income individuals receive more than they contribute, and high-income individuals receive less than they contribute.

Why, then, is Social Security so popular among conservative voters? For one thing, the contribution-to-benefit ratio is proportional for middle-income individuals. As for working-class conservatives who might come out ahead of what strict proportionality would dictate, why would they complain? One might say Social Security is sufficiently proportional to reassure conservatives – excepting those with high incomes – that it does not violate their sense of fairness.

If Social Security is consistent with conservative values, then is it inconsistent with liberal values such as equality and care? No. The fact that low-income individuals receive more than they contribute does much to redress inequality and mitigate poverty among elderly citizens. In fact, the broad popularity of a progressively-funded social insurance program like Social Security proves that it has found the sweet spot that satisfies both liberal and conservative values.

Conservatism is thus related to the fairness of government rather than its size. Centrists who continue to fixate on size – who want to shrink social insurance rather than defend or expand it – are misunderstanding conservatism and thus misunderstanding centrism too.

Remember that Donald Trump successfully distinguished himself from his small-government opponents for the Republican nomination by promising to protect Social Security. More recently, the Niskanen Center, a libertarian think tank, advocated for a more robust social insurance state in a report that was well-received by the center-right and center-left.

Although progressives want an expanded social insurance state, they undermine this goal by preaching to the choir rather than doing the necessary missionary work among those who do not have the same moral priorities. In other words, if the proportionality of social insurance is central to its broad popularity, then it is insufficient to appeal to values, like equality, that are uniquely important to liberals.

When the left promotes Medicare-for-All, for example, they emphasize the plight of the uninsured, and expect the insured to be selflessly supportive. The broad appeal of a single-payer health care system, though, is that it is the most effective means by which nations have controlled costs in a way that allows individual contributions and benefits to approximate proportionality.

If the Democratic Party felt it had to shift to the center in order to broaden its appeal, it should be making more of an effort to convince taxpayers that social insurance is an investment in themselves rather than in others. Such an investment can be big – as long as it is perceived as fair.

Progressive taxation is proportional

In September 2011, just after beginning her first Senate campaign, Elizabeth Warren generated considerable excitement with a novel argument about taxation:

“There is nobody in this country who got rich on his own … You built a factory out there? Good for you. But I want to be clear. You moved your goods to market on the roads the rest of us paid for. You hired workers the rest of us paid to educate. You were safe in your factory because of police forces and fire forces that the rest of us paid for … Now look, you built a factory and it turned into something terrific … God bless. Keep a big hunk of it. But part of the underlying social contract is, you take a hunk of that and pay forward for the next kid who comes along.”

To paraphrase, Warren was arguing that progressive taxation obeys the principle of proportionality: Our wealthiest citizens should make a higher tax contribution because they have received more in government benefits. Given that the goals of the Left require more revenue, as well as a broader base of support, the importance of this argument should not be underestimated. Why, then, do Democrats – including 2020 presidential candidate Warren – neglect to make it?

In July 2012, during his re-election campaign, President Obama tried to capitalize on the enthusiasm for the argument, which must have seemed particularly attractive given the high net worth and low tax rate of his opponent, Mitt Romney.

But Republicans shrewdly made hay of a few words taken out of context: “If you’ve got a business, you didn’t build that. Somebody else made that happen.” It can be hard to give credit to the role of public resources in enabling individual success without sounding like you are underplaying the efforts of the successful individual, and the negative fallout made others fearful of making the proportionality argument for progressive taxation.

Despite their reluctance to give this argument another chance, leftist Democrats are ignoring centrist prohibitions against taxing the wealthy in order to pay for their goals. For example, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez recently floated a significant raise to the top marginal tax rate, and Warren proposed new taxes on fortunes exceeding $50 million.

Interestingly, the arguments defending these proposals have largely avoided humanitarian language, preferring instead to argue that extreme inequality is bad for society as a whole, rather than just the poorest members of society. Nevertheless, because it is based on equality rather than proportionality, it is not the most broadly persuasive argument that Democrats have at their disposal.

This is the second of a three-part series. The first installment, which you can find here, argued that Americans are as open as ever to European-style protections against the vagaries of capitalism. The next installment of this series, which will be released next week, addresses some of the challenges faced by the Democratic Party in the age of populism.

Dan Meegan (@DanMeeganJr) was born and raised in the United States and now lives in Canada, where he is a professor of political psychology. For a book-length treatment of the ideas presented here, see America the Fair: Using Brain Science to Create a More Just Nation.