Confusing political economy with personal virtue

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Apparently, a number of people in the comments genuinely did not understand the point of my last post. Okay, let's go over it again.

It is common to hear Democrats/progressives complain that Republicans/conservatives/libertarians are selfish because they want to cut taxes instead of spending that money on national health insurance or expanded welfare benefits or some other social program.

But this makes absolutely no sense. Democrats are not advocating spending their own money on the poor; they're advocating spending the money of a very small group of voters who lean Republican. One might argue that this very small group of voters is selfish, but they are not the majority, or even a plurality, of Republicans staunchly opposed to taxes. Or other people opposed to taxes. Of all of the libertarian bloggers out there advocating lower taxes and social spending, I'm hard pressed to think of one who wouldn't personally benefit more from the increased social spending than from the lower taxes.

The majority of people opposed to purchasing the higher-taxes/lower-social-spending combo pack may be wrong on some utilitarian basis, but whatever their sins, they are not the sin of selfishness.

Yet public debate often features an underlying moralistic current in which Democrats act as if they have captured the moral high ground on matters of the public purse--as if advocating public charity were some lesser form of engaging in private charity. It isn't. It may be necessary to take money from third parties in order to give it to other third parties, but doing so at absolutely no personal cost to yourself is not an act of virtue.

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Megan McArdle is a columnist at Bloomberg View and a former senior editor at The Atlantic. Her new book is The Up Side of Down.

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