If a man says he believes in God, he tells you more about himself than he does about the existence or not of the deity. We should interpret the latest British Social Attitudes survey in the same way - as telling us more about those surveyed than about external reality.
The survey suggests, says George Eaton, that “the public are increasingly individualistic and less concerned with inequality and climate change than they were a decade ago.”
It shows that only 34% of the public believe the government should reduce inequality through more redistribution, 63% think child poverty is partly because parents don’t want to work, whilst 55% think benefits for the unemployed are too high.
But why are the public so mean-spirited? It could be that unemployment benefits really are too high. After all, we can all live like kings on £67.50 a week, can’t we?
The very question, though, hints at another possibility - that these attitudes tell us not about the facts of poverty and the benefit system, but rather about the way in which ideology is constructed. I suspect there are (at least) three mechanisms at work here:
2. The just world effect. One way people respond to injustice is by denying that it exists. Instead, people construct narratives to convince themselves that things are fair. The medieval peasant who thought his feudal lord treated him badly because it was God’s will, the claim that rape victims were asking for it, and the belief that people are poor because they don’t want to work are all examples of the same cognitive bias.
3. Adaptive preferences. Another response to injustice or ill-fortune is to resign oneself to it, to reduce cognitive dissonance by adpating one‘s preferences to what one believes (rightly or wrongly) to be feasible. As Chesterton said, "No man demands what he desires; each man demands what he fancies he can get." We see this in the survey in three ways:
- a large proportion of people (38%) say it is inevitable that people will live in need.
- the lack of demand for redistribution might be in part a reflection of the fact that seriously redistributive policies are not on offer. Folk don’t want what isn’t available.
- Some of the longer-term unemployed might respond to their plight by diminishing their desire to work. They will then seem lazy. But their laziness is the effect of their joblessness, not the cause. If folk confuse cause and effect, they’ll blame unemployment upon laziness, rather than vice versa.
My point here is there are socio-psychological forces which generate an anti-leftist ideology, whether the facts sustain such beliefs or not.
And this has a grim implication for the left. Given public opinion, it is very difficult to be both an egalitarian and a democrat.