Blame the Republicans
By Bryan Caplan
When I blame people for their problems, Democrats and liberals are prone to object at a fundamental level. One fundamental objection rests on determinism: Since everyone is determined to act precisely as he does, it is always false to say, “There were reasonable steps he could have taken to avoid his problem.” Another fundamental objection rests on utilitarianism: We should always do whatever maximizes social utility, even if that means taxing the blameless to subsidize the blameworthy.
Strangely, though, every Democrat and liberal I know routinely blames one category of people for their vicious choices: Republicans. Watch their Facebook feeds. You’ll see story after story about how Republicans – leaders and followers – shirk their basic moral duties. Republicans ignore their duty to help the less fortunate. Republicans ignore scientific evidence on global warming. Republicans lie to foment war. The point of these claims is not merely that Republican policies have bad consequences, but that Republicans are blameworthy people.
The underlying logic is rarely stated, but it snaps neatly into my framework of blame. Why are Republicans blameworthy? Because there are reasonable steps they could have taken to avoid being what they are. Instead of ignoring their duties to help the less fortunate, Republicans could show basic humanity. Instead of ignoring scientific evidence on global warming, Republicans could calmly defer to the climatological consensus. Instead of lying to foment war, Republicans could tell the truth.
Are these “reasonable” alternatives? Sure. This is clearly true for the Republican rank-and file. Since one vote has near-zero chance of noticeably changing political outcomes, political virtue is effectively free. Asking the typical Republicans to reverse course on global warming isn’t like asking him to unilaterally give up his car. It’s like asking him for a one-penny donation. Totally reasonable.
The same goes for Republican leaders. Yes, a successful Republican politician who broke ranks with his party would probably lose his job. But he could easily find alternative employment that didn’t require him to spurn the poor, scoff at climate science, and make up stories about WMDs. Stop heinous activity, keep your upper-middle class lifestyle. Quite reasonable.
I’m tempted to dispute (some of) liberals’ underlying factual claims here. But I won’t. Instead, I’ll just point out that blaming Republicans is incompatible with any fundamental rejection of the notion of blame. Blaming Republicans is incompatible with the determinist rejection of blame: If Republicans, like all humans “just can’t help what they do,” how can you blame them for scoffing at the IPCC? Blaming Republicans is incompatible with the utilitarian rejection of blame: If we should always do whatever maximizes social utility, blaming Republicans is just an irrelevant excuse for public policies that fail to take Republicans’ feelings into account. Blaming Republicans is an existence theorem; if blaming Republicans is justified, blaming people is sometimes justified.
Personally, I strongly favor blaming Republicans. I think 80% of the blame heaped on Republicans is justified. What mystifies me, however, is the view that Republicans are somehow uniquely blameworthy. If you can blame Republicans for lying about WMDs, why can’t you blame alcoholics for lying to their families about their drinking? If you can blame Republican leaders for supporting bad policies because they don’t feel like searching for another job, why can’t you blame able-bodied people on disability because they don’t feel like searching for another job?
Democrats and liberals who expand their willingness to blame do face a risk: You will occasionally sound like a Republican! But why is that such a big deal? Maybe you’ll lose a few intolerant hard-left friends, but they’re replaceable. By taking a reasonable step – broadening your blame – you can avoid the vices of moral inconsistency and moral nepotism. To do anything less would be… blameworthy.