February 1, 2011

Defining Down Hypocricy

There was an interesting little kerfuffle in the blogosphere last week that reminded me of something that came up a lot last year during the rise of the Tea Party and the debate over health care reform.  Sort of a step beyond the dunces showing up at rallies with "keep your government out of my Medicare" signs.  It was the charge of hypocrisy levied against those who argue for smaller government while taking advantage of big government benefits.

The potential new example of this is actually an old one, and one that involves the all time small government mama grizzly, Ayn Rand.  According to a "social worker and consultant" to Rand's law firm, the creator of such fierce individualists at Howard Roark and John Galt signed up for, and received, Social Security and Medicare payments:
As Pryor said, 'Doctors cost a lot more money than books earn and she could be totally wiped out' without the aid of these two government programs.
The apparent hypocrisy is easy to see: Rand, who made a career out of touting individual responsibility and referred to those on public assistance as "parasites," violated her own principles by taking government benefits.  But is it really that simple?  I don't think so, and that's without getting into Rand's rationalization for it (that because the state stole her property via taxation she had a right to get it back as possible).

The key issue when it comes to hypocrisy, it seems to me, is whether the person charged with being a hypocrite actually has any chance of implementing whatever ideal she is alleged to have violated.  A person who rails against a system she has no real hopes of changing can't really be a hypocrite if she takes advantage of that situation.

Rand, for all her influence, would have been the first to admit that the world she argued for was aspirational, not an accurate reflection of reality.  It was a fantasy.*  Reality was a governmental structure that levied taxes and provided (in some limited ways) for the general welfare with the proceeds.  That wasn't going to change anytime soon, although it could be snipped a bit around the edges.  In other words, Rand was no different from any other Utopian thinker.  The fact that any Utopia is a fantasy doesn't, it seem to me, bind any particular Utopian to a course of action in the real world.

Compare someone in that situation to, say, a member of Congress.  One of only a few hundred similarly situated, she has a great deal of power and influence.  There are ways of changing how Congress does business that are within her grasp.  Someone in that situation who, for example, rants against earmarks and pork spending and then turns around and loads her state or district up with earmarks and pork projects is acting hypocritically.  She has the power to stop seeking those things.  Might cost her reelection, but it's doable within the real world.

Hypocrisy is a bit like forgiveness, then.  It's situational.  I can only forgive someone who has actually wronged me, not their agent.  I might appreciate the agent's concern, but true forgiveness is something he can't earn.  Similarly, the charge of hypocrisy turns on one's ability to actually act in a meaningful way. 

The deployment of hypocrisy also derails a substantive discussion of issues.  As this comment in a follow-up post puts it:
To me, the key point is not that Rand got social security and Medicare, but that Evva Pryor, the social worker who helped Ayn Rand get it, said that Rand needed to get on social security because 'Doctors cost a lot more money than books earn and she could be totally wiped out.' So this isn't a case of Rand simply 'getting back' what she put into the system, but of her NEEDING the system she despised in order to exist. In other words, she failed to be the completely self-made person she demanded others be and ended up as 'dependent as the beggar, the social worker and the bandit.' She ended up being the type of person she would have called a parasite.
That's the takeaway here, I think: that even the most most vocal individualists recognize the need for a social safety net when they need to take advantage of it (sort of like how pro-life politicians seen to find a loophole when it's their daughter that gets knocked up).  That's hardly a revelation.  Utopian fantasies, after all, tend to crumble when brought into contact with reality.

* As someone once said:
There are two novels that can change a bookish fourteen-year old's life: The Lord of the Rings and Atlas Shrugged. One is a childish fantasy that often engenders a lifelong obsession with its unbelievable heroes, leading to an emotionally stunted, socially crippled adulthood, unable to deal with the real world. The other, of course, involves orcs.


  1. Dig the post! And someday I need to read "Atlas Shrugged."

  2. You probably don't, actually. It's less painful to read about _Atlas Shrugged_, from what I've seen.