Bryan Caplan  

Blame the Republicans

Is Outrage at the Top 1% Distr... The old rules still apply (Wha...
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.

COMMENTS (32 to date)
Tom West writes:

I think the fury against the idea of blaming the poor for their situation is strongly based on the principle of never "punching down".

Blaming those who have less power (wealth, ability, whatever) is basically considered bullying, and thus inspires revulsion in many.

(The same applies for making fun of people - hapless dads in advertisements will continue to be acceptable until men no longer wield most of the power.)

Will May writes:

There's a more utilitarian interpretation of this behavior, though.

"I'm telling you how bad Republicans are so that you don't vote for them, which would lower social welfare."

blsdaniel writes:

Do you really hear that many people excusing the poor with a claim of determinism? I sure don't. I generally hear the claim made that we should still be compassionate (i.e., not let their poverty fall too low) out of, well, compassion. This being the case, the comparison doesn't seem apt, as liberals blaming Republicans does nothing to let their poverty fall to too low a level.

Erik Jonsson writes:

[Comment removed pending confirmation of email address. Email the to request restoring your comment privileges. A valid email address is required to post comments on EconLog and EconTalk.--Econlib Ed.]

Curtis L. writes:

Again, I don't necessarily disagree with your premise, but goodness you could do a better job presenting it.

"If you can blame Republicans for lying about WMDs, why can't you blame alcoholics for lying to their families about their drinking?"

So you really want to equate the lies about WMDs with a disease? Do you also think it's justified to blame a woman for getting breast cancer?

You make such a good case throughout the post and then just veer off into silliness at some points. Perhaps sit on it for a couple hours before hitting the post button.

Unlearningecon writes:

I don't think this is particularly difficult to answer. When the left sympathise with groups such as the unemployed or addicted, they are doing so because they perceive these people as systemically disadvantaged. These people do not have the tools or wealth to deal with problems in their family, community, lack of contacts etc. and so they end up in the situation they're in. Conversely, Republicans (and Democrats) are largely well-off white males with plenty of opportunities not to be lunatics.

Having said that, I don't think it's particularly fruitful to blame each and every individual Republican for the party's shortcomings - clearly, there's something much larger at play here, whether it's the 'culture' of the party, the influence of a hysterical media, the Military Industrial Complex or what have you. I don't see how an aspiring individual Republican can really change these things.

Dave Anthony writes:

"So you really want to equate the lies about WMDs with a disease?"

Alcoholism as a "disease" was an invention to take blame from alcoholics (they can't help themselves!). Perhaps belief in pre-emptive war is also a disease?

Lee Kelly writes:


The social psychologists have beaten you to it: conservatism is a mental disorder.

Daniel Kuehn writes:

Could you give an example of someone who thinks Republicans are uniquely blameworthy?

I'm wondering about your claims about people who object to your poverty posts. I think a lot of poverty is out of peoples' control. But of course some is within their control too - and they're blameworthy to the extent that it's within their control. I get the sense that when a lot of people aren't as keen on a theory as you you interpret them as rejecting it outright. Signaling in education is another good example. I thought everybody believed signaling happened, but you seem to think otherwise, and I get he impression it's because maybe you think it's more important than everyone else thinks it is.

So some examples would be nice, I think. It's hard for me to comment on why people might think Republicans are uniquely blameworthy when I'm not even sure such a phenomenon exists.

NZ writes:

Consider that "Republicans," as the term is currently being used, refers to a political party that was infiltrated and overtaken by an outside group--i.e. the Neocons--some time after WWII. Neocons presently control the party and the party rhetoric, and with the help of the media they police nominations to ensure they remain effectively more or less a monopoly within the party.

While after decades in power they've managed to convince their base to take certain counter-self-interest stands on certain issues (e.g. supporting never-ending globalist wars and drug prohibition), Republican leaders for the most part share nothing in common with their voter base. For example, Republican leadership either expressly supports or no longer expressly opposes things like immigration, gay marriage, abortion, or the expansion of government in general.

A few prominent Neocons have pet projects that are truly conservative (e.g. David Horowitz's campaign against affirmative action), but these Neocons tend to be outliers, not permitted into the inner circles of Republican party administration.

In instances where they can be energized to show up to vote at all, Republican voters still vote Republican only because they feel they need to viably oppose the Democrats. However, they're getting sick of doing this after repeatedly being rewarded for their loyalty with policies that run counter to their own interests and values.

roystgnr writes:
Do you really hear that many people excusing the poor with a claim of determinism? I sure don't.

There's one in this thread, two comments down from you...

Jeff writes:

I am sympathetic to the gist of your argument, but characterizing progressives as broadly rejecting the concept of blame entirely is a bit of a straw man. I suspect the average American progressive has a slightly more nuanced opinion of the deserving vs. the undeserving poor than you give him credit for.

But I don't find anything puzzling about the situation you describe, either. Poor and working class people are part of the American center-left coalition. Why on earth would you expect progressives to alienate people whose votes they need or erode public support for the programs with which they purchase their (the poor's) loyalty?

Glen Smith writes:

Can't say I've ever heard very much argument that we should have compassion on the poor because the poor because of determinism though I've heard a lot of people who want to ignore the poor because of determinism. The blame the poor thing is driven by the desire to ignore them as irrelevant or even to justify mistreatment of the poor.

NZ writes:

By the way, I made my point about the divide between Republican party leadership and constituency because it's one thing to vote against your own interests out of ignorance, but it's another thing to vote against your own interests out of complacency.

Sebastian H writes:

"Instead, I'll just point out that blaming Republicans is incompatible with any fundamental rejection of the notion of blame."

Very few people are true determinists in the sense of fundamentally rejecting ALL notions of blame.

Our discourse is shaped however by ideas of systemic hardship and over-blaming. Over the course of your arguments, you seem to both dramatically undervalue systemic pressures, and interpret arguments of the style 'the poor really only deserve about half of what happens to them and the other half is bone crushing' as a rejection of your whole concept.

Further, sometimes a focus on harm reduction is more fruitful than worrying about who deserves what they get. See for example needle exchanges. Just because you're a heroin user doesn't mean I should want you to also have to deal with AIDS if that is cheaply and easily avoidable, and it is.

Also the signaling thing should factor strongly for you, but doesn't seem to. The poor are systematically excluded from certain very strong signaling mechanisms and this helps keep them poor in subsequent generations.

Hazel Meade writes:

I actually don't blame Republicans for those things, because I know that a lot of Republican voters are poorly educated social conservatives, and how can you expect someone who believes in a 6000 year old Earth to take climate change seriously. I mean, even if they voted the right way, that would not be evidence of the credibility of any of their other positions.

But I do blame Democrats for things like opposition to nuclear power and GMOs, because Democrats are supposed to be better than that. Democrats are supposed to be better educated and more tolerant, so it infuriates me more when I see them supporting pseudoscientific positions. People who are smarter (or at least think they are smarter) and better educated have MORE obligation to be honest and intellectually rigorous in their thinking. So when they fail to live up to that, I am more angered than when a creation scientist makes a stupid argument about global warming.

Hazel Meade writes:

Conversely, Republicans (and Democrats) are largely well-off white males with plenty of opportunities not to be lunatics.

Is that really true?

Lots of Republicans are white rural poor.

A greater pecentage of Democrats is college educated. People with graduate degrees lean even more heavily leftwards.

The Christian right is largely made up of poorly educated lower-middle-class whites. They can't help it if they were raised in a southern redneck fundamentalist sect. You only need to hear one of them speak for 5 minutes to know they aren't firing on all cylinders.

RPLong writes:

In Selfish Reasons To Have More Kids, Caplan clearly comes out in favor of behavioral genetics. How, then, can he reconcile those views with his opinions on blame?

Tim writes:


I don't think he said that behavioral genetics absolve anyone of responsibility.

Just because a person is genetically predisposed towards one behavior or another does not mean that they've lost their agency.

RPLong writes:

@ Tim - You're probably right, but it's important to note how much tension there is between these two ideas. In order to allow for a meaningful understanding of the concept of "agency," we have to impose pretty strict limits on behavioral genetics. The stronger the hereditary causality, the weaker is a person's free agency.

It's not impossible to have a belief in both, but they do clearly tug against each other. Caplan has gone on the record espousing both beliefs. Given their contradictory nature, what we now need to hear from Caplan is how he fits these two ideas together into the same world view.

I'm not saying he's not capable of doing it, I'm saying that until he explains his reasoning, his views look self-contradictory, at least to me.

John V writes:

Hazel Meade,

Wow. You really have a lot to learn about the make-up of the parties and what people really believe. Very overly simplified on your part.

You sound very clearly like an educated urban liberal who simply projects him/herself onto the group of affiliation. Your naive partisan bias is surreal. I doubt I am the only independent libertarian reading your posts to be getting this impression.

Either that or you are being very sarcastic.

NZ writes:

@John V and Hazel Meade:

One of the biggest voter gaps is the marriage gap. That is, if you're married it's far more likely you will vote Republican.

Quickly survey other stats related to marriage and you will realize that the Republican party does not get voters primarily from illiterate socially conservative rednecks (who, by the way, would not recognize any of their values reflected in Republican party leadership).

David C writes:

Bryan, have you become a liberaltarian?

BFB writes:

You say that you think that 80% of the blame of Republicans is justified, but the link provided is from 2008. Since then, Democrats have controlled the White House and the Senate, and have not stopped blaming Republicans for the crappy economy since, despite the fact that Republicans are virtually powerless right now.

Wouldn't that justify a downward adjustment in the blame factor, or is the 80% factor current?

Thomas DeMeo writes:

Who we blame pretty much defines what our politics are.

John V writes:

Yes NZ,

Very true and well said. As I get older, I can't help but chuckle more and more at the pretentiousness (and insular tone-deafness) of young educated liberals. They may someday too.

And though I am not a conservative or a Republican, I know more than a few that do NOT fit the stereo-type that young educated liberals feel somehow compelled to swear by. I have also come to understand and sympathize with the negative perception among conservatives (both educated and not so much) toward white educated urban liberals. It's beyond the issues. It's an attitude. I'd rather hear the heartfelt (though wrongheaded) economic populist passion from members of the UAW or inner city community activists. I may not agree with them but it just lacks the smugness and pretension that is so unbecoming among the Left's more upper-class and educated.

[comment edited with permission of commenter--Econlib Ed.]

John V writes:

"Who we blame pretty much defines what our politics are."

Quite true. I blame government and its inherently flawed incentives along with the voters who enable its perpetuity through flawed incentives of their own.

Viva Buchanan. You are alive and well in many of us. :-)

LD Bottorff writes:

I feel your frustration. I am a small government Republican who is frustrated that so many in my party do not see the disconnect between wanting a small government and wanting a war on drugs or an e-verify system. Republicans are supposed to be better than that.

caryatis writes:

Does anyone actually defend able-bodied people on disability? That sounds like a straw man. Seems more likely that there is a dispute about how many people on disability are actually able.

Tiago writes:


I think that blame is a tool. Like every other tool, it should be used when it works, and not used when it does not work. So if blaming Republicans for lying about WMDs can help prevent future presidents from doing the same thing, it is a well justified use of blame as a tool. If, on the other hand, it will accomplish nothing (like blaming an alcoholic) then it is just pointless.
I do think that some liberals tend to use blame in a counter-productive way, mostly when they blame people for looking after their own interest more intensely than society's.

James writes:


Blaming alcoholics seems to work well enough to warrant continuing to blame alcoholics. One way in which people blame alcoholics is that at the scene of a DUI car accident, the drunk driver is actually cited as being responsible for the accident. Another is that most bosses are far less lenient with tardy employees when their tardiness coincides with whisky breath and vomiting in the company bathroom. Both practices seem pretty effective.

Unlearningecon writes:


To clarify: I was referring to the politicians themselves.


I didn't "excuse the poor with a claim of determinism"; I just said they were systemically disadvantaged.

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