Among the most natural of human impulses is to blame our misfortunes on others. Each of us as individuals is inclined to do so. “My grades are poor because my teacher hates me” was a favorite excuse of mine when I was a child.
Even adults are sometimes prone to such excuse-making. “My marriage is rocky because my spouse is unreasonable.” “I didn’t get promoted because my boss is a jerk.” “I drink too much because the world treats me unfairly.”
While some spouses are unreasonable and some bosses are jerks — and the world isn’t always fair — too often the fault we see in others is really a reflection of our unwillingness to take responsibility for our own poor choices. And this unwillingness, of course, only worsens matters by preventing us from changing our behavior in ways that might improve our lives.
If others are to blame, we must somehow make others change or be protected from others. We ourselves, being blameless, need to change nothing of our own behavior.
The problem is deepened when friends and loved ones let us get away with blaming others. Parents who allow their children to blame others are rightly regarded as being derelict in their duties.
This human itch to blame others is bad enough at the individual level. It becomes much more malignant when manifested in the public square, as it often is as hostility to imports and to immigration.
Nothing is more simple-
minded than for a politician to blame the country’s economic woes on foreigners. Anti-foreigner tales told on the campaign trail tap easily into our penchant for blaming others. And such tales insult no voters at home. The politician flatters us with assurances that we’re doing nothing wrong, and he promises that he will courageously defend us against “them.”
How comforting for us. Our leaders assure us that we’re righteous innocents whose inherent goodness and generosity make us a target for crafty foreigners.
And so we need not change our behaviors, for our woes are not our fault. We need not save more, work harder or do without any benefits we receive from government. All that is required of us is to elect strong leaders who will do for us what our weakling leaders in the past have failed to do — namely, protect us from the predations of foreigners.
Are some businesses at home making fewer sales than they’d like? “Unfairly” low-priced imports are to blame! Let’s solve this problem by imposing tariffs on imports. Are some workers at home stuck in unemployment lines or in dead-end jobs? Foreigners “unfairly” sneaking into our country to “steal” our good jobs are to blame! Let’s solve this problem by tightening immigration restrictions and ramping up immigration enforcement.
Is our government’s budget tight? This problem is caused not by our government’s profligate spending or hesitancy to tax us, but instead by foreigners greedily leeching off of our generosity. And this problem, too, has an easy fix: keep foreigners out.
Blaming foreigners is a cheap and ages-old political trick, but one that too often wins political office and public applause for those who play it. Falling for this trick has ill consequences beyond relieving us of the need to take personal responsibility for our actions. Falling for this trick also further fuels unjustified fears of foreigners — fears that impoverish us by prompting us to reject opportunities for mutually beneficial trade and cooperation with foreigners.
Donald Boudreaux is a professor of economics and Getchell Chair at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va. His column appears twice monthly.