In a previous post, I pondered whether certain critics of market outcomes might be committing an error that is inaccurately projected on economists – the assumption that money is all that matters. It turns out, another unfair criticism of economists also seems to follow a similar pattern. The unfair criticism goes something like this:

Economists misunderstand what motivates people. They speak as if people are only interested in narrow monetary rewards, but in reality we are driven by so much more than that. People are motivated by a wide range of values, and care about more things in life that just money.

Of course, no halfway decent economist fails to recognize this. But there are some people who do seem to be guilty of this error. 

Redistribution is a controversial issue, supported by some and opposed by others. Among those who oppose redistribution, some do so for practical reasons, arguing that redistribution makes things worse overall with bad incentives, moral hazard, or other negative consequences. Others oppose redistribution for ethical reasons. As Dan Moller puts it in his book Governing Least, “Insisting on the right to improve our position at the cost of other people, by threats or violence if need be, is the moral mistake that animates this version of libertarianism.” 

As I’ve mentioned before on this blog, this is the version of libertarianism to which I subscribe. While I’m well situated now, I grew up in a very low-income family and I financially struggled for a significant portion of my adult life. But it was never obvious to me why that would make me entitled to receive involuntary financial benefits at other people’s expense. Or, as Moller puts it, “the core impulse isn’t outrage about being asked to give; it is in the first instance a bewilderment at the suggestion that we are entitled to demand.” 

Now, I realize not everyone shares that view. But even if you disagree with that take, and don’t see insisting “on the right to improve our position at the cost of other people, by threats or violence if need be” as a “moral mistake” in the way Moller and I do, it doesn’t seem to me that this view should be baffling either. If I say, “I don’t see myself as entitled to demand others be made worse off for my benefit,” I wouldn’t expect you to say, “How can you possibly believe that?” in response. At most, I would expect pushback to take the form of “I can see why you would think that, but actually you’re mistaken, and you are entitled to make those kinds of demands of other people, because [insert some argument here].” 

And yet, the very notion that some people would oppose redistribution despite ostensibly being able to benefit from it seems to baffle many people. For example, the political scientist Gweneth McClendon, in her book Envy in Politics, speaks of her confusion about some “citizen’s puzzling opposition to redistribution policies that would put more money in her pocket.” Similarly, Katherine Cramer, in her book The Politics of Resentment, wonders, “why is it that many low-income voters who might benefit from more government redistribution continue to vote against it?” But this should only seem puzzling if we assume that people necessarily equate “puts more money in my pocket” with “good and worthwhile” – that is, if we assume people are entirely motivated by mere financial self-interest, with no other values or priorities guiding their actions. 

In the same way, many people I know were baffled by the fact that my wife and I both opposed the various plans for student loan debt forgiveness, despite the fact that my wife still carries a substantial amount of student loan debt. The simple fact that such a program would benefit us financially somehow leads people to assume to mean we must support it. But again, that only makes sense if you assume people treat “personally benefits me” as logically equivalent to “good and justified public policy.” 

But money isn’t all that matters, and financial gain isn’t the only thing that motivates people. Other things matter too – there are things in the world that are more important than a narrow focus on money. The fact that many people who find themselves facing difficulties in life would still prioritize these values even when abandoning them would “put more money in their pocket” is something deserving of admiration, however much it baffles and frustrates those pontificating from their armchairs.