How much should we care about MPs’ expense claims?

Few people
in the UK could have missed the furious storm about MPs’ expense claims
 that has dominated the news headlines for the past several weeks.  A steady flow of stories has revealed not
only which MPs bent the rules on expenses, but also that many of the rules are themselves objectionable and arguably
facilitate a misuse of taxpayers’ money.

Of course,
few of us enjoy paying tax, but most of us grudgingly accept that it is
necessary if we want certain social goods like decent healthcare and a fair
justice system.  None of us likes to
think of our money instead being directed towards those who already enjoy a
higher income and better job perks than we do. 
What is most striking about the current focus on MPs’ expense claims,
however, is the fact that we are in the middle of a serious recession
. 
And the amount of taxpayers’ money used to finance MPs' bogus
mortgage payments
, luxury goods,
and furniture is but a drop in the ocean compared to the financial losses suffered by
homeowners due to falling property prices, by the half-million workers who have lost their jobs in the past nine months, and by those still employed whose tax payments must help support the newly jobless.  Given that the impact of a recession on
ordinary people is at least partly the result of government decision-making,
why does the recession consistently take second place in the headlines to the
relatively trivial matter of MPs’ expense claims?

One plausible answer is that it is much easier to become
angry about perceived injustices when we have somebody to blame—ideally,
somebody who has the sort of qualities that we typically despise.  Job losses and a falling property market may
cost us millions; but most of us are not entirely sure who is to blame, and
those who blame the government generally blame its incompetence—a
quality that usually provokes annoyance rather than anger.  On the other hand, creative expense-claiming
can be blamed squarely on individuals who are greedy, sneaky, spoilt, and self-serving:
an ideal target for our wrath.  With that in
mind, it seems hardly to matter that MPs’ expenses cost us less than the effects of the
recession.  What matters is that MPs' expenses make us angrier.  And what makes us angry makes us care, and therefore makes for good headlines.

Satisfying as it may be to lambast greedy politicians,
however, allowing their misdemeanous to eclipse more serious political issues
is a dangerous game.  As a society, we—via
the media—are sending out the message that we are willing to tolerate serious
shortcomings in the way the country is governed providing that those
responsible keep their heads down and play by the rules.  As a result, we are providing a strong incentive for the government to prioritise addressing the issue of how MPs are allowed to claim expenses above getting jobless people back to work.  Even the most indignant among us must surely concede that this puts things back to front.  

The next time we get angry about a perceived
injustice—be it MPs' expenses, the obligation to use metric measurements, or surcharging on larger bra sizes—we would do well to consider whether our anger might be more
productively directed elsewhere.  There are plenty of issues to choose from, even in the UK: while MPs hog the headlines, children live in poverty and animals continue to be abused.  Being selective about where we direct our anger may be less satisfying than allowing ourselves to be led by our emotions, but we are more likely to address the most important issues as a result.

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One Response to How much should we care about MPs’ expense claims?

  • Dennis Tuchler says:

    One reason for the anger is envy. Why should they have chances at things that I don’t have, just because they are elected officials.

    Another reason may be more subtle. Government necessarily provides opportunities for some to enrich themselves in ways that we generally think of as illegitimate. So do corporations, but they are limited by their bottom line. Government doesn’t seem to be. The more complex government gets, the more people who work for government, and the more services government provides, the greater the likelihood of illegitimate gain by those in government. Few of us, especially those who want more government services, want to know about that. We suspect it, but we don’t like the consequence — a tradeoff between corruption and government services.

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