Political propaganda: the zero-sum “fairness” technique

The moral psychologist Jonathan Haidt is well-known for claiming that conservatives use a wider range of moral foundations in political thought than left-wingers. But the more I see of recent rightwing politics, especially in the UK, the more I think that much of their success rests on a distorted version of one moral foundation: “fairness”. A sense of fairness seems to be near universal: it’s been observed in chimpanzees for example. And it’s probably evolutionarily necessary for any social group to avoid too many freeloaders (people who take resources without contributing them). But such basic principles of fairness can be manipulated to create a very cruel society.

The zero-sum fairness argument, as used by right-wing politicians, works like this. We only have a fixed sum of resources (money, housing, jobs etc).  If undeserving group B get these resources there isn’t enough for deserving group A. This is an argument made both in opposition: “you’re not getting help because the government is spending too much money on foreign aid” and in government: “we have to crack down on disability benefit fraud in order to have enough money to help people who are really disabled.” And it’s a very successful argument.

It works, I think, because it rests on several wrong but intuitive beliefs and cognitive biases. Firstly, that the overall level of government spending is unalterable. We’re used to having fixed budgets in our own lives, so it’s easy to forget both that governments can raise money in other ways, and that we ourselves might borrow to obtain something that will be an investment (an education, a house, etc).

The second cognitive error this argument uses is the actor-observer bias. We know our own motives, but we judge other people on their actions. What this means, for example, is that we know that we deserve unemployment benefit, because we really want to work, but that other person down the street is lazy and just wants to sit around doing nothing. We only need help to feed our children because of unforeseen events; that mother deliberately chose to have another child to get welfare.

This bias very easily combines with in-group bias. We know the people in our group and so we know they’re deserving; those other people whom we don’t know aren’t so deserving. The tendency to think that “they” aren’t deserving is made even stronger by the availability bias: we’re very much affected by what comes most easily to mind. So if we read lurid newspaper stories about how a family of immigrants has got thousands of pounds in housing benefits or how millions of pounds has been spent to save a species of butterfly, it’s such rare cases we’re likely to remember rather than the fact that they are rare. Similarly, the one person we know who’s cheating the benefit system is likely to be far more memorable than the hundreds of people we know who aren’t. (In fact, people in most countries tend to be wildly inaccurate about their country’s actual social statistics).

In one way this is nothing new: when it comes to jobs, for example, this is essentially the lump of labour fallacy as used in anti-immigration arguments: the reason there aren’t enough jobs for “good” people is that undeserving immigrants have taken them. And in Britain there’s been a division of the poor into the deserving and undeserving since at least Elizabethan times. But Elizabethan or Victorian divisions of people into the deserving and undeserving were predominantly made by the middle classes in deciding who among the poor ought to be given support.

What seems newer to me politically is right-wing politicians using zero-sum fairness to get the poor and less educated to vote for them, rather than more left-wing candidates. Arlie Hochshild, for example, talks about how many white people in southern states see others as “cutting in line”, getting ahead of them in the wait for prosperity via the unfair preferences of politicians such as Barack Obama. As a result, such people vote for Republicans, even though they are harmed by Republican policies.

It’s easy to see this simply as due to the exploitation of racial divides in the US. But the same arguments have been used in the UK for a number of years, without necessarily any racial angle to it. The archetypal scrounger in the UK, for example, isn’t black, but white (although there may be regional biases, such as making them Scouse).  Notoriously, back in 1992, Peter Lilley claimed that teenage women got pregnant just to get a council house, a stereotype that’s still current today.

So people who are influenced by zero-sum fairness arguments aren’t necessarily doing so because they’re racist. Nor are they necessarily just spiteful, willing to suffer themselves in order to make sure others don’t get help. If you have a disability that means that you can’t work, for example, it may be quite reasonable to think that disability benefits should be a higher priority for government spending than benefits for healthy unemployed people. An employed person without a disability might also agree that those who aren’t healthy enough to work should be given priority in support over those who can work. Setting spending priorities is part of a government’s role.

But once this is put into a zero-sum framework, it becomes a way of pitting the unemployed against people with disabilities. We have to cut your disability benefits because of the money we’re spending on lazy people who don’t want to find jobs. We can’t help you when you’re unemployed because the cost of disability benefits is out of control. It’s someone else’s fault that you’re suffering, not government choices.

The same technique is repeated over and over again, setting one group against another, and it’s very successful. I’ve heard a homeless seller of the Big Issue complaining about how the government shouldn’t be spending money on overseas aid, for example. And the Brexit campaign relied heavily and successfully on this claim that money sent to the EU should instead be used on the NHS. (The fact that this claim was promptly dropped after the referendum, says all you need to know about the sincerity of right-wing politicians).

How can left-wing politicians counter this potent argument? I’m not sure I know good answers, but I think both the zero-sum aspect and the “fairness” side needs to be countered. One way may be to tackle the zero-sum point, for example, by saying that a shortage of housing isn’t due to immigrants, but to the government’s failure to build more houses. But part of the problem is that the deserving/undeserving divide can make voters unwilling to support more spending generally. What’s the point of building more houses if we’re letting in “too many” immigrants: they’ll just take all the new houses?

So I think we also probably need more effective use of (accurate) graphics to display statistics. Claims about the undeserving often rely on headline-grabbing large numbers, which are actually either outliers or small percentages of total budgets. I rather like the anti-Brexit ad by Laurence  Taylor, for example, as a means of debunking this, but I don’t know empirically how effective it is. If anyone knows more effective ways of countering this zero-sum fairness argument, it’d be very useful to hear about them in comments. Because otherwise, conservative tactics of divide and rule are likely to continue to be successful in the UK and elsewhere.


2 thoughts on “Political propaganda: the zero-sum “fairness” technique

  1. One graphic that might help explain the difference between zero sum and its alternatives are a pie charts and a bar graphs.

    The pie chart represents zero sum gains. When one portion of the pie chart gets bigger, the other parts must get smaller; the parts are inversely related. That’s just how pie charts work.

    The bar graph represents independent variables: an alternative to zero sum games. It allows for multiple values to increase/decrease independently of other values. The bar graph can be used to represent real-world data showing that, say, as immigration increases, so does employment, GDP, etc.

    The point of the graphics is to show people a visualization of their intuitive sense of fairness and the more reflective sense of fairness. The hope is that they can easily remember the images and correct their thinking next time their confronted with zero-sum rhetoric.

    Also, you might be interested in Steve Gerben’s educational stand-up routine about immigration here: https://youtu.be/JoHCT2bUjwg

    Thanks for your post!


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