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To many Americans, they're only "government benefits" when they go to someone else

Posted by Jesse Singal  February 8, 2011 05:19 PM

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Robert Benmosche, chief executive officer of AIG, is catching some well-deserved flak for a comment he made last week. But if one political scientist's research is any indication, his sentiment was dumb, but by no means uncommon.

At a conference in Washington, Benmosche explained that liberals are loath to take responsibility for their lives (by buying insurance from his company) the way conservatives do:

All of the states where we’re a leader, where we’re the No. 1 insurer, are red states. All of the states where we’re at the bottom are blue states. Part of what we found out is that our model is about culture, and it’s about the attitude in the public. And what we find is where there’s more of a tendency for people to be more liberal, more that the government is responsible for what happens to me.

It certainly takes some chutzpah for a man whose company only continues to exist because a $180 billion bailout from the government forestalled its collapse to muse about people relying on government instead of taking responsibility.

But he's far from the only American who suffers from this sort of disconnect when it comes to government programs, at least according to a fascinating paper published last summer in the journal Perspectives on Politics. In it, Cornell University Political Scientist Suzanne Mettler notes that many people who benefit from government programs don't think they do.

The paper is behind a paywall, but Henry Farrell reproduces a key chart from it on The Monkey Cage. For each government program listed on the left, the number on the right is the percentage of participants in that program, who, when asked in a survey if they have used a government program, said they haven't:

governmentprograms.jpg

So while Benmosche's comment was very stupid, it's of a piece with how many Americans approach debates over the role of government: I deserve what I get; if it went to you, it would be government overreach.

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ABOUT THE ANGLE Online commentary and news analysis from the Boston Globe. The Angle is produced by Rob Anderson and Alan Wirzbicki. You can follow Rob on Twitter at @rcand.

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