Pity the Worker – or the “Left Behind” Strike Again

by Mary Lucia Darst

In the current national dialogue, especially during and following the 2016 election, the focus is the supposed plight of the ordinary worker, “left behind” or “left out” by technological progress, globalization, or the (nasty capitalist) elites in the cities. This narrative is built upon two postulates: there is an information gap that makes these people victims of circumstance and there is an unseen geographic restriction on pursuit of opportunity. To understand and weigh these assumptions, it is necessary to examine their scientific and historical validity.

At its core, the knowledge gap, officially termed information-gap theory, is a situation where one group of people possesses a body of knowledge which another group lacks. The theory first developed in the 1960s with economist George Stigler’s seminal paper “The Economics of Information,” in which he posited that knowledge is a consumer good that people purchase in order to make sound decisions on other consumer matters, e.g. property valuation services or financial advising. Stigler’s work opened examination into the social element of information and decision-making.

In 1970, the paper “Mass Media and the Knowledge Gap” squarely transitioned the conversation to the sociological aspect and laid the foundation for the contemporary idea that there are some people with access to information and some without access. Using newspaper and television coverage of issues as a control, the authors found a knowledge break on subjects as diverse as the UN or cancer. Despite everyone having equal access to the sample information, only certain groups believed, cared about, or acted upon it. As the University of Twente’s theoretical history page explained,

[P]eople of higher socioeconomic status get their information in a different way than lower educated people. Furthermore, this hypothesis of the knowledge gap might help in understanding the increased gap between people of higher socioeconomic status and people of lower socioeconomic status.

In the original study, the higher group preferred to both read newspapers and watch news on TV, while the second set preferred TV, although they had access to papers.

The researchers found that the first group believed in the correlation between ill health and smoking before the second did, even though both groups were simultaneously exposed to equal coverage of the issue. In the course of the research, the scholars found that most people from the lower sector simply didn’t care to expand their knowledge bank. The study did establish that there is a difference in long-term prospects between the groups based on how well they interacted with information. It is this difference which social justice warriors unconsciously take as fuel to their “protect the poor worker who doesn’t know to become informed” stance. It is, however, an utterly and completely fallacious argument.

Psychologist-economist George Loewenstein of Carnegie Mellon University has studied extensively the correlation between psychological interactions with information and their economic effects. His 2016 paper, written in collaboration with Russell Golman, “An Information-Gap Theory of Feelings About Uncertainty” examined the role of emotions in the process and established that human beings have a physiological reaction, akin to panic, when in the presence of information gaps, both concrete, e.g. unfamiliar machinery or technology, and abstract, i.e. ideas or social conventions. This research proved that people are aware of their own lack of knowledge since their bodies literally tell them that they are uninformed, though what they do about the situation is left to individual choice.

The scholars also found that humans have a fight-or-flight response to the gap, with one type preferring to grapple with and master needed information and the other behaving like “ostriches,” a phenomenon officially titled “the ostrich effect.” The paper made no additional commentary on the social context of the people studied but did indicate that those who acquired and engaged with information fared better economically than those who did not. Golman and Loewenstein’s findings support economist-commentator John Tamny’s assertion that the knowledge-gap excuse is invalidated by history, with the latter remarking that if pre-telephone, people still knew about and participated in the California gold rush (1840s), then the modern unemployed worker has no excuse for not knowing about opportunities elsewhere and acting accordingly.

Tamny’s observation opens up the geographic element of the “poor worker” equation. The notion that authority and society at large have failed the rural poor and inhabitants of deindustrialized cities was a substantial part of public discussion during the 2016 election cycle. Early that year, political author-commentator Kevin D. Williamson threw down the gauntlet to the myth of the “left behind,” especially the urban worker variety, with a piece titled “Chaos in the Family, Chaos in the State: The White Working Class’ Dysfunction” for which the social justice warriors on both sides of the political aisle promptly attacked him. Since Williamson’s central thesis was, and still is, valid – paternalistic government cannot replace family and individual responsibility, no matter how much the spoiled recipients of welfare policies and federal interventions may think it can – the critics were forced to concentrate on the meanness of spirit expressed.

One point raised by Williamson that particularly raised the ire of the politically correct cabal was the idea that the modern American worker is an historical anomaly; most of the critics threw up their hands in horror at the very thought that people should go to where the jobs are, not vice versa. One rather left-wing publication, Arc, did appreciate the point, though, grudgingly recognizing that:

Many of these people don’t want to move, nor do they admire those who are willing to move to make their own lives and the lives of their children better. They are entirely within their rights to do so, there are many arguments against moving, and the way that many government benefits are tied to geography doesn’t help.

Of all the responses, this one came close to the mark in recognizing the personal choice element and the right to exercise that choice, though the Arc author still proposed that people should be shielded if they don’t like the consequences of their decisions. However, everyone missed Williamson’s main point – government must get out of people’s lives and let them fend for themselves even if it means some slip through the cracks – and proposed solutions that would mean more federal involvement, justified citing knowledge gaps and presumed geographic disadvantage. Unfortunately, Williamson’s piece did not start a national dialogue about the unfair burden placed on a nation by those who wilfully stagnate, and the idea that these people are a wronged group has only become further entrenched.

Most recently, Reason’s Nick Gillespie wrote in January 2018, in response to President Trump’s executive order mandating additional special subsidies for rural areas, introduced with loaded language from both the president and the sponsoring regional senator regarding sharp distinctions between the “forgotten (the president’s adjective)” farmers and everyone else,

The answer to people being “left behind” isn’t to bring the future to them (especially through tax dollars, which farmers and rural states soak up at massive rates). It’s to make it easier for them to move. [….] But instead, Trump and his team, and too many rural legislators, simply pander to the shrinking percentage of Americans who stay on the farm or out in the country while demonizing the very people who are willing to risk so much by pulling up stakes and starting a new life.

Using history, Gillespie also made the point that America was built by men and women who willingly “pulled up stakes” to begin anew, and their ideological descendants are the ones who drive the modern economy and develop America’s future. It is not pleasant or politically correct to recognize, but the contribution made by those who stay as functionaries in established or antiquated industries is negligible, if not negative, since they cannot put back into the economic ecosystem through material consumption what they take through overall inefficiency, or, as Williamson chronicled, in welfare payouts. The idea that they can is a direct gift from John Maynard Keynes and his ideas, which, though thoroughly discredited at the professional level, continue to blossom at the populist social one.

Gillespie cited statistics indicating that only 19% of the American population is rural, and only 1.5% of the population is actively engaged in agriculture, so most of the “forgotten rural” cannot really claim to be farmers. This means that 17.5% of the so-called “left behind” have no ties to their current location that are valid enough that the rest of society should have to support them. But still, we are supposed to feel badly about them simply because they live out in the countryside, or might have to receive vocational retraining in the case of urbanites.   

Despite the rhetoric, the genuine existence of the “left behind / forgotten” is doubtful. As Gillespie noted in his citations, a rural person has the same real income as urban dwellers; the two groups spend differently, but that is a matter of personal choice. Williamson pointed out that there are thousands of new jobs every day available to the urban worker that require few skills yet go unfilled. American sociologists, especially Charles Murray, have been saying for some time that the system resembles a pyramid, but not the traditional one: this new one is inverted with the hardworking hustlers, entrepreneurs, and professionals supporting the others, e.g. the 17.5% of rural dwellers who don’t farm. All this in the name of social justice and / or kind feelings. Populists point to the resentment of the “left behind” toward the urban elites, but in light of the numbers and the facts, not the feelings, we should ask a basic question: Who actually has a moral right to feel resentment?

Mary Lucia Darst is an intern at the Austrian Economics Center. She graduated from Columbia University with an MA in History and Literature. In addition to working as a writer and researcher, she is an active classical musician.


The views expressed on austriancenter.com are not necessarily those of the Austrian Economics Center.

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