Statistical Hypocrisy

Marc Kilmer Sep 19, 2011

Are Republican states “welfare queens”? Are Republican voters hypocritical when they attack President Obama for being socialist because these voters live in states that get a lot of federal aid? That’s the charge that’s commonly leveled, most recently by a blogger at Maryland Juice (hat tip to Mark Newgent for pointing this out to me and for inspiring an e-mail discussion about this subject). Unfortunately for those who make these charges, their misuse of statistics don’t prove this charge.

The statistics used by the Maryland Juice blogger are fairly straightforward: the Tax Foundation published a list of what the taxpayers in each state remit to the government in taxes and then what the federal government spends in each state. Some states remit more in taxes than they receive and others receive more than their residents pay in taxes. Somewhat surprisingly, states that tend to vote Republican receive more in federal money than their residents pay in taxes and states that vote Democratic are the opposite.

Some liberals want to say this proves Republicans are hypocritical or that they are “the biggest welfare queens ever,” as Maryland Juice puts it. But does this simple exercise really prove that?

One main problem with this analysis is that it equates “voters” with “states.” Not every person in Idaho or Utah voted for McCain. Not everyone in Maryland voted for Obama. Let’s look at Maryland. According to the 2010 Census, there are 5.8 million people in the state. In 2008, 1.63 million voted for Obama, which translates to 28.1% of the state’s population. Can we really make a broad generalization about the entire state’s population based on this 28.1%? Of course not. We can’t even make a broad generalization about that 28.1%, since I’m sure those who voted for Obama had a variety of reasons for doing so. 

A more revealing statistic would be to see how those individuals who receive large amounts of government payments vote. Do people who receive TANF vote Democratic or Republican? How do government contractors vote? What about federal employees?

Of course, there is a kernel of truth in the criticism that some conservatives are indeed hypocrites when it comes to government spending. In farm areas, there are a lot of very conservative Republican farmers who complain about government spending but love their farm subsidies. A lot of the people at Tea Party rallies are clearly on Social Security and Medicare. Unlike others, I’m of the mind that it’s fine to be a conservative/libertarian and accept government money if you qualify for it. It’s not like your refusal to accept the money is going to end the program, after all.

Furthermore, just because you are paid government money or receive some benefit from the government doesn’t mean you approve of the government doing that activity. Let’s say I favored the privatization of roads (which I don’t). Would I be a hypocrite because I used government roads? Of course not. There are no private roads and my tax dollars are already paying for the government roads. There is no intellectual inconsistency in using the system that exists but advocating for a change to that system.

What’s not fine is to advocate for the reduction of government but make exceptions for those programs that benefit you. When speaking against ObamaCare, I heard a number of Tea Party people express opposition to the bill because it would cut Medicare and because it would increase government spending. You can certainly oppose ObamaCare because of its Medicare cuts, but any argument you make against increased government spending is pretty worthless.

You’re not a very principled person if you want to cut government spending for everyone else but preserve it for the programs that benefit you. There is a certain amount of that happening in the conservative ranks and it’s right that we’re called out on it. The statistics cited by the Maryland Juice blogger don’t prove this, though. They are a crude measurement that simply measures states; they don’t capture the actions of individuals.