Let's start from Hopi's point that the distinction between shirkers and strivers is a "false divide." He's right. Official figures show that, in Q3, 871,000 people lost their jobs. That's 3% of all employees. This is not so much thanks to the recession as to the fact that even in normal times, job destruction is high; over 50,000 jobs were destroyed each week between 1997 and 2005.
This means there's a significant risk that "strivers" will become benefit claimants themselves. So why are so many hostile to claimants? People who pay home contents insurance don't regard insurance claimants as scroungers (though some are!).And if, say, Aviva were to announce that it will cut its payouts to insurance claimants, its customers would be aggrieved. So what's different about the insurance system that is the welfare state?
In theory, the hostility could be rational. If people are risk-tolerant, they might judge that the adverse effects (in good economic times) of unemployment benefits on work incentives outweigh the gains from better risk-pooling.
But this runs into several problems. High demand for poor-value insurance products such as PPI and extended warranties, and low stock market participation, suggest that people aren't risk-tolerant and so should favour higher unemployment protection. The benefit cuts apply to tax credits as well as out-of-work benefits and so have ambiguous effects upon work incentives. And OECD data show that the UK's out-of-work - even including child and housing benefit - are quite mean by international standards, suggesting that work incentives here are already quite sharp.
This leaves us with other possibilities. One is that people have a powerful instinctive norm of reciprocity, and so want to punish "scroungers" who violate that norm, even if doing so hurts themselves. Perhaps, then, we tolerate low welfare benefits - even though they offer us less protection - as a price worth paying to enforce this social norm.
But this runs into the problem that, at a time of mass unemployment, the idea that people should look for work is actually harmful to "strivers". In this context, the norm of reciprocity is an atavistic anachronism.
Perhaps, though, something even less rational is happening. Maybe hostility to benefit claimants is founded upon a mix of ignorance about the true levels of benefits, and cognitive biases, such as the optimism and self-serving biases, which lead people to under-estimate their chance of losing their job, and so undervalue the worth of out-of-work benefits.
Perhaps, then, Alex is right, and support for benefit cuts is irrational. What he doesn't say, though, is that this raises (more) doubts about the value of democracy. From the point of view of winning votes, a reasonable (though in my view mistaken) concern to improve work incentives has as much weight as sheer ignorance and irrationality.
It's sometimes said that "democracy is two wolves and a sheep deciding what to have for dinner." What we have here, though, is sheep thinking they are wolves.