The Progressive's Chump Effect

Progressive policies penalize those who play by the rules and shower benefits on those who don’t.

Last January, a small but telling exchange took place at an Elizabeth Warren campaign event in Grimes, Iowa. At the time, Warren was attracting support from the Democratic Party’s left flank, with her bulging portfolio of progressive proposals. “Warren Has a Plan for That” read her campaign T-shirts. The biggest buzz surrounded her $1.25 trillion plan to pay off student-loan debt for most Americans.

A man approached Warren with a question. “My daughter is getting out of school. I’ve saved all my money [so that] she doesn’t have any student loans. Am I going to get my money back?”

“Of course not,” Warren replied.

“So you’re going to pay for people who didn’t save any money, and those of us who did the right thing get screwed?”

A video of the exchange went viral. It summed up the frustration many feel over the way progressive policies so often benefit select groups, while subtly undermining others. Saving money to send your children to college used to be considered a hallmark of middle-class responsibility. By subsidizing people who run up large debts, Warren’s policy would penalize those who took that responsibility seriously. “You’re laughing at me,” the man said, when Warren seemed to wave off his concerns. “That’s exactly what you’re doing. We did the right thing and we get screwed.”

That father was expressing an emotion growing more common these days: he felt like a chump. Feeling like a chump doesn’t just mean being upset that your taxes are rising or annoyed that you’re missing out on some windfall. It’s more visceral than that. People feel like chumps when they believe that they’ve played a game by the rules, only to discover that the game is rigged. Not only are they losing, they realize, but their good sportsmanship is being exploited. The players flouting the rules are the ones who get the trophy. Like that Iowa dad, the chumps of modern America feel that the life choices they’re most proud of—working hard, taking care of their families, being good citizens—aren’t just undervalued, but scorned.

The word “chump” probably derives from an ancient Norse term for a stump or large chunk of wood. The modern word “blockhead” comes to mind, which—no coincidence—was Lucy’s favorite label for the too-trusting Charlie Brown in the Peanuts comic strip. Lucy never tired of snatching away the football; Charlie fell for it every time. We all know the feeling: when you’re inching forward in the freeway exit lane, say, and another driver flies past and swerves onto the ramp at the last second; when your child has to complete her [ … ]

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