Does Benefiting from Government Make You Hate It?

by Noam Scheiber | August 19, 2010

[Guest post by Noam Scheiber:]

Michael Powell has an interesting piece in today's New York Times probing Alaskans' paradoxical contempt for government spending--paradoxical because they benefit from it more than citizens of any other state. (Our own Frank Foer also wrote a great piece along these lines several years ago.)

Reading Powell's piece gives you insight not just into the incoherence of the average Alaskan, but some insight into why the stimulus may be so unpopular, even if, as many economists believe, it's worked pretty well. In a nutshell, the idea is that having to acknowledge your dependence on someone else's money for your survival is demeaning--an admission of your own impotence--which makes you resentful toward the source of the largesse and reluctant to acknowledge that you actually need it. Imagine, say, living with your parents well into middle-age and you get the idea.

The state's former Democratic governor Tony Knowles hints at this in the piece:

This sentiment baffles Tony Knowles, a long drink of a man who worked on the North Slope oil rigs before becoming the governor of Alaska in 1994 as a Democrat. He understands the frustration that comes with bumping into federal officials at each turn. But the trade-off is not so terrible, he notes, such as having the feds pay to put broadband in Alaskan villages.
“Nobody likes to have all their eggs in one basket, and so you do feel vulnerable,” he said.

Read this way, Alaskans may be anti-government precisely because they're so dependent on it, not in spite of that fact.

Now, in reality, I suspect there's a bit of both going on: Alaskans are a bit more anti-government than the average American by sociology and natural disposition, and they're made all the more so by their defensiveness over being so reliant on it. 

Relatedly, I think the biggest reason the stimulus is unpopular is that a lot of people simply don't think it worked, notwithstanding evidence to the contrary. (Or they think it involved bailing out banks or someone else.) But I think there's a competing reflex here, at least among people who have jobs, which is to recoil at any suggestion that they needed the government to save them, in which case touting the vast job-saving benefits of the stimulus may be a double-edged proposition. If nothing else, the bankers whose jobs and firms were clearly saved by the financial-sector bailout seem to feel this way.

Source URL: http://www.newrepublic.com//blog/jonathan-chait/77127/does-benefiting-government-make-you-hate-it