The 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 college-entrance exams within a designated time period, but your neighbor’s child gets twice as long because of a suddenly diagnosed “learning disability”; when you pay extra to have your pet travel in the airplane’s cargo hold but the yipping poodle across the aisle, an “emotional-support animal,” gets to ride on its owner’s lap for free. You didn’t know that you could get an emotional-support card just by claiming an anxiety disorder and paying a fee to an online agency? What are you—a chump?
What makes these indignities so infuriating isn’t just that a few people game the system. It’s that their selfish gambits work only because the rest of us follow the rules. If every driver mobbed the freeway exit from the passing lanes, traffic would come to a halt. The student who fraudulently obtains extra test time gets a leg up only if most other students stick to the original time limit. And if every pet were designated an emotional-support animal, airplanes and restaurants would become full-time menageries. (Some airlines have begun tightening rules on support animals for just this reason.)
Thousands of norms, rules, and traditions make civilized life possible. Some, like paying taxes or not littering, are enshrined in law. Others are informal. Most of us take pride in adhering to basic standards of etiquette and fairness, to say nothing of following the law. And we have a deep emotional investment in having the people around us follow these norms as well. There’s a reason that we call selfish, disruptive, or criminal behavior “antisocial.” We know that if everyone stopped paying their taxes, or started running red lights and shoplifting, our society would be on its way to collapse.
It’s bad enough when some random jerk makes you feel like a chump; it’s much worse when government policies create entire classes of chumps. Warren fizzled as a presidential candidate, but her activist positions remain very much in play, promoted by far-left Democrats and party leaders. Many of these plans would penalize people who follow traditional norms and shower benefits on those who don’t. Joe Biden’s platform includes many similar proposals, including a scaled-down college-debt plan. And, across the country, progressive governors, mayors, and district attorneys are pushing local policies—including ultra-lenient treatment of lawbreakers—that turn responsible citizens into chumps, too. The economic and ideological disruptions brought on by the Covid-19 pandemic and Black Lives Matter protests have only intensified this ongoing bifurcation of America. Call it the Chump Effect.
Chump-Effect policies take two main forms. The first involves bestowing some financial or other benefit on a favored group. Often, these groups are poor or considered victims of discrimination. To be clear, having a compassionate safety net for the poor does not, in itself, turn other people into chumps. The problem arises when antipoverty programs make it more attractive to stay on public assistance than to become self-reliant. When poorly structured incentives reward dependence and penalize work, strivers wonder: Why do I bother? Of course, not all benefit programs are aimed at the poor. Various farm subsidies cost U.S. taxpayers more than $20 billion a year. Most of that money goes to the largest and wealthiest producers. Meantime, most farmers—just like most businesspeople—somehow survive without tapping into a giant federal slush fund. Then there are various “pro-business” programs such as the Export Import Bank, which, as Veronique de Rugy of the Mercatus Center documents, inevitably favor huge corporations such as Boeing. Businesses without armies of lobbyists must fend for themselves.
The other type of policy that turns regular folks into chumps is the failure to penalize—or sometimes even criticize—irresponsible or illegal behavior. This often reflects a well-meaning effort to avoid excessively punishing those who already face challenges in life. We see this in the decision not to prosecute most fare-beaters in New York subways, or the reluctance to remove some disruptive students from classrooms. But “defining deviancy down,” in the late senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s famous phrase, doesn’t affect only the underclass. White-collar criminals sometimes benefit from the perception that their crimes are less serious than those of common thieves. Today, in Portland, Oregon, and other cities, organized provocateurs—many of them white and college-educated—nightly attack government buildings and law-enforcement officers with fireworks, lasers, and firebombs. But as long as the protesters are assumed to be on the left, the national press describes their actions as “mostly peaceful.”
Virtually all transit riders pay their fares. Most students are reasonably well behaved, even in the toughest schools. Most people protesting George Floyd’s killing really have been peaceful. But when authorities downplay or ignore violations of those norms, it sends an unmistakable message to the principled majority: we take you for granted; our sympathies are with the transgressors.
Both types of Chump-Effect policies—those that unfairly distribute benefits and those that normalize transgressive behavior—are dismissive of what many call bourgeois norms. Policies that selectively favor the needs, or tolerate the misdeeds, of certain groups often have the perverse corollary of undermining the norm followers. When disruptive students remain in the classroom, it’s their attentive classmates who suffer. If a big business games federal programs for an unfair advantage, smaller businesses and consumers pay the price. What’s particularly galling about such policies isn’t just that they reward norm violators—it’s that they’re predicated on the assumption that everyone else will continue adhering to the norms. That’s wishful thinking, of course. Over time, policies that excuse lax behavior by the few will begin to influence the many, corroding the standards that keep a society healthy.
To be clear, not everyone who benefits from Chump-Effect policies is a slacker or selfish rulebreaker. People in genuine need have every right to sign up for anti-poverty programs, just as farmers who receive federal aid are simply working within the existing system. Nor is it unethical for people to take advantage of arcane tax breaks, or for members of public-employee unions to enjoy their lavish pensions. When flawed programs make unemployment more lucrative than work, pay farmers to grow crops no one wants to buy, or create tax loopholes for favored industries, you can’t blame people for acting accordingly. And when government expands its role in distributing society’s resources, you can’t blame influential groups—farmers, unions, businesses—for lobbying in their own interests. But over time, the number of people and businesses dependent on subsidies and other targeted benefits will grow. So will their political influence. Meantime, the pool of people forced to get by without special carve-outs will shrink, even as its members pay the tab for everyone else. In the end, Chump Effect policies encourage Americans to see themselves, not as self-reliant individuals and families, but as members of competing groups, all jockeying for advantage. This is a recipe for political conflict and resentment.
No one likes being treated like a chump. Not even monkeys. In a famous 2003 experiment, researchers trained capuchin monkeys to perform small tasks in return for a treat, either a delicious grape or a less desirable chunk of cucumber. When the monkeys were alone, they would accept either grapes or cucumbers as their reward. But then the researchers put two female capuchins in adjacent cages. Each completed her task, and each received a treat. But one monkey got a grape, while the other got only cucumber. When the second monkey saw that she’d been shortchanged, she howled in protest and hurled the cucumber back at the researcher. When the task was repeated, and again poor capuchin #2 received a cucumber while her neighbor got a grape, she stood up and shook her enclosure in outrage and despair.
Who can’t relate? Studies involving humans show that this “social inequity aversion” can be found in cultures around the world. Even young children will protest being shortchanged in social settings. What’s more, children and adults also sometimes resist being given more than their fair share in these sorts of experiments. It seems that fairness is hardwired into human psychology. When we see others receive unearned benefits—or escape well-earned condemnation—it can trigger resentment. And we are willing to go to surprising lengths to make sure that others live up to our standards.
In a 2002 study, Swiss researchers Ernst Fehr and Simon Gächter tried to discover the unwritten rules that enable cooperation between strangers. They recruited volunteers for a game-like experiment involving constantly changing groups of participants who never met face-to-face. Each player in a group of four would receive 20 “money unit” credits, which the players were told they could convert to real cash and take home at the end of the session. A player could hold on to his or her credits or choose to invest some or all of them in a joint pot. Money added to the pot would be partially matched with a contribution from the researchers. At the end of each round, the now-expanded pot would be divided evenly among the players, regardless of how much each contributed.
Obviously, the best strategy for the group as a whole would be for all the players to invest all their money in the pot; all would go home considerably richer. But since players weren’t allowed to communicate, they couldn’t be sure how much the other participants would contribute. For an individual player, therefore, the best strategy would be to hold on to the initial 20 credits and then share in whatever money the other players put into the pot. In this scenario, the least cooperative player would take home the most money. Nonetheless, at first, most players were willing to contribute substantial sums to the pot. But when the pots were divvied up after each round—and each player’s contribution revealed—it was obvious that the stingiest players were reaping the biggest benefits. Not surprisingly, with each successive round, players were less and less willing to contribute.
Economists call this the free-rider problem, and it has bedeviled cooperative economic systems since hunter-gatherer days. But Fehr and Gächter also conducted a different version of the money-pot game, one that addressed the free-rider issue. In this version, after the players’ contributions were revealed at the end of each round, the other players had the option of “punishing” the freeloaders by taking away some of their winnings. But doing so wasn’t cheap. In order to take away three credits from a “defector,” or a low-contributing player, the punishing player had to give up one credit. So individual players actually lost money each time they opted to punish another. And they didn’t even have the incentive of goading freeloaders to contribute more in future rounds. Since the makeup of the groups changed with each round, the players knew that they would never interact with a particular player again. Nonetheless, “punishment of defectors was harsh,” the researchers reported. And the more a particular player’s contributions fell short of the group average, the more severe the punishment.
Fehr and Gächter used the term “altruistic punishment” to describe this willingness to penalize another for violating a norm, even at cost to oneself. When the researchers asked the players why they were willing to do this, the answer was simple: they were mad as hell. On a scale of “negative emotions,” participants reported very high levels of animosity toward the defectors. Nobody likes a freeloader. But with the punishment option in place, the experiment changed dramatically. Even on the first round, players contributed more to the pot. And contributions rose with each successive round, as players grew more confident that other players would do their part. What’s fascinating here is how willing participants were to spend their own money punishing the free riders. They weren’t acting in self-interest; they were defending a social norm.
Everyone knows that resentment can be a powerful force in politics. But the money-pot game and similar experiments show just how primal the impulse to punish perceived free riders can be. Most forms of populism are based on the idea that some other group is getting an unfair leg up, while we are being taken advantage of. On the left, that sentiment leads to calls to punish “the 1 percent.” On the right, it can lead to distrust of “elites” and a backlash against immigration and free trade. Donald Trump’s aggrieved style of political speech ably mines this vein of discontent. So does Elizabeth Warren’s refrain that “the game is rigged.” Around the world, rising populist anger has erupted in the gilets jaunes protests in France and last year’s mass demonstrations in Chile. The initial targets of those protests seemed modest: in France, rural workers complained that climate policies unfairly burdened them with high fuel prices; in Chile, a small rise in transit fares was the ostensible spark. In both cases, though, the broader motivation was summed up in a graffito commonly scrawled on Santiago buildings: “Dignidad.”
Politicians ignore such primal forces at their peril. On the right, free-market advocates have long downplayed the social tensions caused by rising income inequality. Today, many young people, facing poor job prospects despite heavy education debts, see American society—and capitalism itself—as fundamentally unfair. That’s one reason the initial outrage over George Floyd’s death ballooned into a much broader protest movement. But policies promoted on the left can also lead to backlashes. Under Barack Obama, many heartland Americans believed that government policies were biased toward helping undocumented immigrants and educated elites, while undermining opportunities for the middle class. That frustration led to the Tea Party movement and, later, the stunning rise of Trump.
Today, progressives have cultural momentum. Ideas that would have seemed radical under Obama—defund the police, abolish ICE, ban fossil fuels—are now on the table. But that swing of the pendulum may be short-lived. The policies beloved by progressives are particularly prone to creating counterreactions among the citizens they turn into chumps. There are two main reasons for this. First, the social-justice worldview sees all people not as individuals but as members of intersecting categories of power or victimization, defined by class, race, gender, sexual orientation, and more. Since these categories are mostly immutable, individual choices don’t matter much; all life outcomes are the result of “structural inequities.” Thus, progressives necessarily downplay the importance of individual behavior. If people mention that bad personal choices might limit a person’s progress in life, they are, of course, blaming the victim. On the flip side, a person proud of achieving success is likely to be told some version of Barack Obama’s retort in the 2012 presidential campaign: “You didn’t build that.”
Second, the backlash produced by progressive policies isn’t just a matter of hurt feelings. Progressives believe that the primary role of government is to redistribute society’s resources: housing, jobs, education, and other benefits should all be preferentially allocated to certain groups. The sacrifices that an individual might have made, say, to invest in a small apartment building, or to excel in school, aren’t considered when officials determine who deserves discounted rent or should be admitted to a selective high school. It’s easy to assume that the beneficiaries of progressive policies are mostly the poor or minorities, but that’s often not the case. Many zoning rules, environmental programs, and government pension plans, for example, wind up hurting low-income groups while favoring those more affluent. By the same token, many progressives believe that, since certain groups are targets of discrimination, criminal behavior by members of those groups should be penalized less severely, or not at all. Here, too, the victims of the resulting increased crime are almost always members of those same communities.
Both types of progressive policies do tangible harm to the followers of traditional norms. “Pro-tenant” housing regulations can destroy an urban striver’s lifelong investment. In Chicago, New York, and other cities, sweeping bail reform and early-release programs to protect prisoners from Covid-19 returned thousands of criminals to their neighborhoods in 2020. Murder rates predictably skyrocketed. Many of those caught in the crossfire have been children. Progressive policies aim for “equity,” but in practice, many function more like the money-pot game or the capuchin experiment. Under proposals now on the table, wise technocrats would divvy up society’s rewards—doling out grapes to some, cucumber to others—while free riders would have broader license to game the system.
Next to the extremism of Warren or Bernie Sanders, Joe Biden struck many primary voters as the sensible, moderate choice. In reality, Biden and his advisors have embraced their party’s leftward lurch, even as the candidate retains his amiable Uncle Joe image. “He appears more centrist than he actually is,” Peter Beinart writes admiringly in The Atlantic. A delighted Noam Chomsky calls Biden’s policy positions “farther to the left than any Democratic candidate in memory.” And the party’s hardliners are planning to hold the presumptive president-elect to these promises. The Warren-aligned Progressive Change Campaign Committee is working with allied groups to pack a Biden executive branch with activists. “The goal is to have people throughout the federal government who know how to exercise power,” says PCCC cofounder Stephanie Taylor.
“Democrats believe we must embed environmental justice, economic justice, and climate justice at the heart of our policy and governing agenda,” the party platform states, using the coded jargon of the modern Left. In progressive circles, “justice” doesn’t mean fairness or evenhandedness; it describes a world in which every problem is the fault of some entrenched power group. Therefore, every solution should involve both special aid for the victims and some sort of punishment for those who created the problem.
The Democratic platform promises a root-and-branch overhaul of federal programs to ensure that they operate according to elaborate calculations of race, gender, sexual orientation, and other metrics. As the country struggles through the Covid recession, for example, the party promises that funds supporting small businesses will flow preferentially to companies owned by women and minorities and promises to “combat gentrification” and offer relief from “exorbitant” rents. (Under the “justice” paradigm, landlords are guilty until proven innocent.) A Biden Department of Education would bring back Obama-era rules forbidding “disparate disciplinary treatment” of students based on race. In practice, that means that students will be disciplined not based on the frequency of their misbehavior but according to racial quotas.
Even Biden’s $2 trillion climate plan seems designed more to spread wealth among favored groups than to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions. You’d think anyone who believes that climate change is an existential threat would want to build green infrastructure as quickly and as cheaply as possible—the faster it’s deployed, the quicker emissions come down, right? But in announcing his plan, Biden said, “When I think about climate change, the word I think of is ‘jobs.’” His platform proposes obligating green contractors to hire union workers, which would drive up costs dramatically. “And we will do all this with an eye to equity, access, benefits, and ownership opportunities for frontline communities,” the platform says. In other words, expect every green project to be bogged down in endless reviews to ensure that contractors and workers represent the prescribed racial and gender mix. The plan is a recipe for high costs, slow progress—and sweetheart deals. Who pays for this? Ordinary consumers—the chumps—who will see their energy, food, and other expenses skyrocket, all for surprisingly little environmental benefit.
The platform offers sticks along with carrots. Some far-left climate advocates tend to focus more on their desire to drag energy companies into court than on the need to develop alternatives to fossil fuels. “These are criminals,” Bernie Sanders has said of fossil-fuel executives. Warren uses similar language. Biden’s platform also threatens legal action against companies that “put profit over people.” For these politicians, the top priority seems to be ensuring that the right villains are punished and the correct “frontline communities” get their subsidies. They are less interested in how much their policies will actually help the climate or how deeply they will disrupt the lives of ordinary Americans.
California is a test case in how environmental programs can wind up burdening the poor and middle class while benefiting the affluent. For example, people who purchase electric cars in California receive a state rebate of up to $4,500 per vehicle. Given that the most popular EV in California is the luxury Tesla, with an average price of over $50,000, we can assume that few lower-income people are cashing these checks. EV owners also get the right to drive—alone—in the coveted high-occupancy vehicle lanes on the state’s crowded freeways. The upshot: while working-class chumps stew in traffic, rich Tesla owners sail by in their own special “diamond lane,” serenely isolated from the gas-burning hoi polloi.
The incentives encouraging homeowners to install rooftop solar systems also amount to “subsidizing the rich,” according to an analysis by the American Enterprise Institute’s Benjamin Zycher. Meantime, as Joel Kotkin notes, strict environmental and business regulations have made California “the worst state in the U.S. when it comes to creating middle-class jobs.” While California’s tech boom mints billionaires, the state’s non-rich have seen their lives become “proletarianized,” he writes. This growing class divide was starkly illustrated during recent heat waves. Though the state has poured billions into wind and solar projects—and residents pay some of the nation’s highest electricity rates—that green infrastructure couldn’t keep up with demand. Rolling blackouts left residents sweltering in the dark—some of them, anyway. Among the state’s most affluent homeowners, $30,000 backup-generator systems are the new must-have.
In 2010, University of Tennessee law professor Glenn Reynolds made an offhand comment on his Instapundit blog. The government often tries to expand the middle class by subsidizing the things that middle-class people have, he observed:
If middle-class people go to college and own homes, then surely if more people go to college and own homes, we’ll have more middle-class people. But homeownership and college aren’t causes of middle-class status; they’re markers for possessing the kinds of traits—self-discipline, the ability to defer gratification, etc.—that let you enter, and stay, in the middle class. Subsidizing the markers doesn’t produce the traits; if anything, it undermines them.
Since then, that insight has been cited so often that it’s become known as Reynolds’s Law. It’s based on a deep truth: success in life isn’t determined by owning things, or even having a high income. It is largely the result of certain habits that lead to lifelong advancement—what economists call “cultural capital.”
In his book Who Killed Civil Society, Manhattan Institute fellow Howard Husock explores how the academic establishment and social-welfare bureaucracy came to denigrate those habits, or bourgeois norms. In the twentieth century, the values of industriousness, good citizenship, and the like were reinforced by organizations including “settlement houses” for immigrants, Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts, and various adult civic groups. Husock has cited the influence of Karl Marx in redefining these values as exclusive privileges of the elite. In reality, Husock argues, “bourgeois norms [are] an inclusive set of norms.” They can benefit anyone who follows them. The mission of settlement houses and similar groups was formative, he says, not reformative—that is, they tried to encourage productive behaviors, rather than simply help people survive the consequences of poor life choices.
Sadly, the values that lifted generations of immigrants out of poverty have been under thoroughgoing attack for at least two generations. In an effort not to stigmatize the poor, social-welfare reformers overshot the target and also dismantled the stigmas against behaviors that keep people poor. It became considered unseemly to criticize unwed childbearing, drug use, or even petty crime. Under the social-justice paradigm, those behaviors were reframed—not as choices but as symptoms of an unjust social structure.
In a weird revival of racist stereotypes, today’s critical-race theorists see dysfunctional behaviors occasionally found among minority groups as being emblematic of those groups. In turn, traits that help people succeed—ones shared by cultures around the world—are stigmatized as typically “white.” Earlier this year, the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History & Culture explained this bizarre framework on its website. A handy chart summarized some of those “Aspects & Assumptions of Whiteness,” including “self-reliance,” “the nuclear family,” and the idea that “hard work is the key to success.” Reliance on the scientific method, mathematics, and “rational linear thinking” were also identified as instruments of white dominance. If a secret arm of the KKK created a doctrine designed to undermine the advancement of minority communities, it could hardly do a better job than the Smithsonian’s woke theorists.
Chump-Effect policies don’t just undermine societal values; they also typically fail at their stated goals. One reason they so often backfire is that they rely on present-tense thinking. Lawmakers—and the voters they answer to—tend to look at issues in the current moment, rather than seeing them as evolving conditions. So they create policies to solve a problem for a particular group of people right now, without considering the perverse incentives that their program puts in place.
Rent control is a classic example: a ceiling on rent hikes certainly helps current tenants. But years pass; family incomes climb; children grow up. Decades later, a well-off widow might be paying minimal rent to stay in an apartment much bigger than she needs. With many people like her staying put in underutilized apartments, the price of unregulated units soars, making it hard, if not impossible, for the next generation of low-income families to find housing. Landlords, the chumps in this scenario, adjust by cutting back on maintenance, and sometimes by simply walking away from money-losing buildings. “Rent control appears to be the most efficient technique presently known to destroy a city,” writes Swedish economist Assar Lindbeck, “except for bombing.” Somehow, this reality always takes progressives by surprise. True to form, Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez last year proposed a federal rent control law, and she has joined in the campaign to #CancelRent in the wake of the Covid crisis.
The failure to anticipate how incentives influence behavior also bedevils most tax-the-rich plans. For progressives, extremely high taxes on the rich serve two functions: they would supposedly yield inexhaustible funds for social programs; and, as an added bonus, they’d inflict some well-deserved pain on the people whom leftists hold responsible for inequality. But high-tax advocates fail to anticipate the dramatic ways people adjust their investments and lifestyles in the face of extreme taxes. The Rolling Stones, Rod Stewart, and David Bowie weren’t the only wealthy innovators who fled Britain’s confiscatory taxes in the 1970s. In late August, when many of New York’s richest residents still hadn’t returned from their Covid refuges, Mayor de Blasio pleaded with a voter, “Help me tax the wealthy. Help me redistribute wealth.” New York governor Andrew Cuomo, on the other hand, has been begging New York’s wealthiest to return, conceding that, despite the accusation that the rich don’t pay their fair share, nearly half the city’s income-tax revenues come from the top 1 percent of earners. Given threats of still-higher taxes, many probably won’t come back.
High earners have been leaving tax-heavy states like California and New York for years. That concern hasn’t stopped AOC and other lawmakers from supporting a new “billionaires’ tax” that would target not just the income but also the investment wealth of the richest New Yorkers. California lawmakers have also floated proposals for wealth taxes. Characteristically, Warren offers the most ambitious plan, a 2 percent federal tax on assets over $50 million and a higher rate for billionaires.
Warren claims that her tax would raise $2.75 trillion over a decade from under 0.1 percent of households. Many economists believe that’s naïve. People don’t become superrich by ignoring economic conditions. Clinton administration Treasury secretary Larry Summers and a colleague estimate that Warren’s tax plan would raise less than half the revenue she predicts. And all those efforts to avoid taxation carry hidden costs: less investment in new businesses, less innovation, less willingness to take risks. These costs are no less real for being diffuse: tepid growth, fewer jobs, and slower progress in pharmaceuticals and other life-improving innovations.
In early 2019, I swiped my MetroCard to enter the subway in New York’s Grand Central Terminal and noticed a man in his early thirties lingering by the security gate. He was well dressed, with a Jack Spade leather messenger bag tucked under his arm and his blond hair sharply styled. I was wondering why he didn’t swipe his card to enter when a knot of exiting commuters pushed through the gate. He caught the door before it swung shut—and walked through as though he owned the place.
Just a year earlier, Manhattan district attorney general Cy Vance, Jr. had announced that his office would no longer prosecute most people arrested for beating fares in the transit system. Enforcing laws against turnstile jumping, it was argued, unfairly targets the poor and minorities. Ocasio-Cortez lent her support on Twitter: “Arresting people who can’t afford a $2.75 fare makes no one safer and destabilizes our community,” she wrote. Of course, enforcing laws in the subway makes everyone safer, as fare-beaters are also far more likely to commit other crimes. And turnstile jumping is not a static phenomenon. People respond, again, to incentives—even people who can afford Jack Spade bags. In the months after the DA’s move, fare-beating climbed dramatically, costing the MTA an estimated $300 million in 2019.
Eliminating penalties for petty crimes is another example of present-tense thinking. Reduced penalties for “minor” offenses in several states have led to huge spikes in shoplifting and other crimes. In Chicago, Portland, San Francisco, and other cities, progressive DAs have cut back on prosecutions of many low-level crimes. The University of Chicago’s Charles Lipson calls the new policy “‘Go ahead, break our windows’ policing.” And, just as the Broken Windows theory would predict, the resulting upswing in lawbreaking goes beyond petty crime. According to the Wall Street Journal, homicides have spiked in 36 of the nation’s 50 largest cities.
Nonetheless, progressives see tolerance for transgressive behavior as a kind of moral duty. If the perpetrators are poor, or perceived as targets of injustice, the plight of their victims is a secondary concern. After all, the progressive project focuses on structural inequities—that is, the status of entire groups of people as being part of either oppressive or oppressed classes. If a particular crime—say, an unjustified police shooting of a minority suspect—seems to embody that power dynamic, it becomes the focus of national attention. There’s nothing wrong with that, in itself. Unjustified police shootings should merit calls for reform. But if crimes don’t fit the framework—say, gang-related killings, vastly more common—they get little notice. In the end, the large majority of people in poor communities who actually do follow the law are treated as chumps.
This selective focus has been on dramatic display during the months of protests following the Floyd killing. It’s true that only a small fraction of protests turned violent, but those incidents still added up to thousands of cases of looting and arson and dozens of shootings. Most didn’t make the national news. And, while the peaceful protesters have mostly returned to their lives, the violent minority is growing more emboldened.
Independent journalist Michael Tracey, who spent weeks touring overlooked riot zones in cities like Fort Wayne, Indiana, and Olympia, Washington, was shocked by the scale of the destruction. Minority and immigrant communities “bore the brunt of the damage,” he reports. Even as the violence has spread, calls to “defund the police”—even “abolish the police”—are being heeded in many cities. Budgets were being slashed even as riots continued. In Portland, the district attorney is declining to prosecute hundreds of protesters arrested for “nonviolent” crimes. (One such quickly released suspect allegedly stabbed two people to death a week later.) In short, one of the most destructive crime waves in U.S. history is being met with a collective yawn from the media and a mild scolding, at best, from some representatives of law enforcement. It wasn’t until polls started showing rising voter concern that Biden and other Democrats began cautiously criticizing the violence.
In North Minneapolis, Tracey talked with Flora Westbrooks, a black woman who had owned a hair salon there for 34 years. The business helped her earn enough to buy a house and send her son to law school. On May 29, arsonists burned it down. “Sometimes I’m like, OK, I gotta go to work,” she told Tracey. But then she remembers: “I don’t own anything anymore. Everything’s burned to the ground. I have nothing no more. Everything I worked for.” The tragedy of the Chump Effect is in stories like these. People devote their lives to making things better for themselves, their children, and their communities. They follow the bourgeois norms so disdained by the Left. Then, when our society stops defending those norms, they’re the ones who suffer.
Top Photo: Volunteers cleaning up a Minneapolis neighborhood ravaged by violence and looting in May. (JOHN AUTEY/MEDIANEWS GROUP/ST. PAUL PIONEER PRESS/GETTY IMAGES)
City Journal is a publication of the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research (MI), a leading free-market think tank. Are you interested in supporting the magazine? As a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, donations in support of MI and City Journal are fully tax-deductible as provided by law (EIN #13-2912529).