Hypocrisy in the public sphere is nothing new. Political and social elites have long behaved one way while urging, or mandating, the rest of us to live another way. But it’s particularly galling when the biggest hypocrites are celebrated in popular culture for their moral preening.
Ed Conard recently discussed this phenomenon in response to Time magazine’s placement of Leonardo DiCaprio on one of the six covers used for its “100 Most Influential People” issue because of his global-warming advocacy:
DiCaprio is a one-man carbon-polluting machine. According to the leaked Sony documents for example, DiCaprio took six private roundtrip flights from Los Angeles to New York over a 6-week period and, a private jet to the 2014 World Economic Forum in Davos Switzerland. Pictures of him vacationing on big yachts show that his polluting ways extend far beyond his charitable work. What hypocrisy! He enjoys the very luxuries that he admonishes others not to indulge.
By wrapping himself in carbon offsets, the editors of Time Magazine and Secretary of State John Kerry, who authored the tribute, claim he is setting a fine example for others to follow. But is he? Hardly.
Conard draws parallels between DiCaprio’s moral licensing — whereby the purchase of carbon offsets frees his conscience from the need to change his heavy carbon-producing behavior even as he demands others do so — to those soothing their guilt by voting to spend other people’s money to help the needy. He attributes a number of counter-productive economic policies to this impulse:
Unfortunately, we see the power of moral licensing at work throughout the economy. Few people truly sacrifice to help others. They don’t reduce their consumption to make risky investments that employ others; risk their lifestyle to find and commercialize innovation that improves living standards but is likely to fail; or even to serve the poor through charitable work until it hurts…
Their hollow need to help others without personal sacrifice drives them, without end, to redistribute income and find more people in need of help…
…[T]he true cost of income redistribution is borne, not by the 1%, but by workers and consumers. We see exactly that in the wealthiest European economies, France and Germany for example, where median incomes are lower, growth is slow, and their contributions to innovation are paltry compared to the United States. Politicians who run on the promise of income redistribution take full advantage of the electorate’s failure to understand these tradeoffs.
There are too many examples of this to give an exhausting list but here are a few: Hillary Clinton claims to be the defender of the little guy but she whole-heartedly supports programs like the Ex-Im Bank whose main beneficiaries are large and rich companies with no need for government help, including the giant Mexican state-owned oil and gas giant Pemex (so much for curbing fossil fuels) or lawmakers who voted for the giant Dodd-Frank bill in the name of putting an end to the oversized influence of Wall Street but ended up instead building a wall of protection around some of the worst offenders. Another example of this is President Obama’s recent overtures for an additional $10 tax per barrel of oil. As I explained at the time, this was a clear case of the president prioritizing “virtue signaling” over the welfare of Americans.
It’s worth pointing out that not all hypocrites are necessarily equal. Some genuinely strive to the high standard they preach but come up short because they fail to understand the unintended consequences of the programs they are pushing. That’s arguably better than engaging in the same behavior but professing no standards at all — in other words, thanks for sparing us the lecture.
Yet politicians and those pushing for greater political control over the lives of others tend to be a different sort of hypocrite. When they say one thing and do another, it’s because their moralizing is entirely self-serving. They are hoping to exploit the public’s moral impulse in the naked pursuit of political power.