You may be poor, but not as poor as the uncalibrated picture on the left.

This morning I listened to This American Life’s episode #478: Red State Blue State about rifts in families and friendships caused by clashing politics. On it, we heard from a Republican woman who cannot fathom her friend’s Democratic views because, to paraphrase, “she’s not selfish, but liberals are selfish.”

This is standard rightwing fodder, the idea that liberals want “free handouts,” etc. I recall when I used to dog conservatives on forums for right-leaning news sites (where the cons were relentless at responding – I always had to get back to my job, don’t they have jobs?), and whenever I supported some liberal policy I’d invariably be accused of being a welfare recipient (which I’ve never been, btw). The idea here is clear: that I had to be defending liberal policies because I was benefiting from them, i.e., only someone on welfare would support welfare.

And I had an epiphany. Conservatives cannot conceive of the idea that someone would support policies that aren’t of direct benefit to themselves, because conservatives only support policies that are of direct benefit to themselves. The idea that I want systems in place to help the poor because I care about the poor can’t even enter their consciousness. It causes a short circuit in their thinking, because they themselves are incapable of thinking in this way. Help other people? How exactly does that work?

The TAL episode fascinated me because a conservative relative of mine and I have clashed in email (he usually sends me some spurious anecdote “all in fun,” which I subsequently attack with logic “all in fun,” and then his wife emails and tells me to stop upsetting him), and ultimately his arguments can be boiled down to how he doesn’t want his taxes to support liberal schemes. In other words, he wants to keep more cash for himself, to spend on things like a $400 specialized calibration of his plasma TV (true story).

So answer me this question, ye conservatives: what is more selfish, to agree to spread one’s own wealth to improve the lives of all people and society in general, or to keep one’s money to get a prettier TV picture?