Unemployment insurance is expiring, and the Republicans in Congress seem quite happy to let that disaster happen. One reason frequently cited for the Republican stance is their belief that unemployment insurance reduces incentives to work; in the conservative worldview, the unemployed are too often tempted to luxuriate in the munificence of their jobless benefits than to go out and beat the pavement to find gainful work. Of course, unemployment insurance costs money–taxpayers’ money–so another reason for conservative dislike of unemployment insurance is their wariness of excessive government spending.
So, Republican opposition to unemployment benefits is rooted in deeply held convictions about the work ethic and prudential management of the public purse.
Except that there’s another way of explaining Republican economic policy preferences. As Paul Krugman explains, unemployment is good for employers: it strengthens the power relationship of the employer viz. his employees because the option of quitting a lousy job is less attractive the more daunting the prospects are of finding a better job. Unemployment insurance, by making joblessness somewhat less intolerable, alters the power relationship between boss and worker in favor of the latter.
Now, the Republican Party is the premier party of business in the United States—the party of employers. Is it overly cynical to suggest that the real reason for Republicans’ aversion to unemployment insurance is their solicitude for the interests of management? How about taking it a step further to argue that Republican aversion to government spending generally reflects other objectives that serve business interests: spending to strengthen the social safety must be opposed because it weakens the labor market discipline that helps keep workers in line. Besides, any public expenditures financed by a progressive tax system place a disproportionate burden on the rich. (That’s one reason why conservatives generally urge that policy problems be left to the states instead of the big bad federal government–state revenue sources are generally more regressive.)
I’m not saying that every Republican opposing unemployment insurance is a conscious lackey of Scrooge-like employers. I’m not a mind reader. Paul Ryan et. al. may be quite sincere in their horror at the moral lassitude induced by excessive government attention to the unfortunate. But the reason that these ideas have political currency is that they serve powerful interests. Politicians linked to those interests will find it worth their while to embrace those ideas. It’s not necessarily a matter of conscious hypocrisy—people will tend to believe what is convenient for them to believe. Thus does class interest acquire the garb of ideology.
Leftists, unlike conservatives, can be upfront about the class interests they seek to advance: they seek explicitly to use government to alter the balance of social and economic power in favor of the disadvantaged. But if your political interest lies with maintaining inequality and strengthening the positions of the privileged, you need to find the language—an ideology—that makes those objectives palatable in a democratic society.