Thursday, December 15, 2005

Voting Against Self-Interest

Something you often hear from the left is the claim that the Republicans have managed to trick the middle/lower classes into voting for them, even though this runs counter to the self-interest of these groups (i.e. because Republicans really don’t care about the poor and will just give tax breaks to their rich friends, etc). In the words of Nicholas Kristof of the New York Times following the last presidential election: “One of the Republican Party’s major successes over the last few decades has been to persuade many of the working poor to vote for tax breaks for billionaires.” This is lack of concern for one’s economic self-interest is, of course, viewed as a negative – by many of the same people who, in other venues, think we should value many, many things besides our own self-interest, such as the environment, poverty, etc. These are indeed legitimate concerns, but with that in mind perhaps we should not criticize those who vote based on principles they believe in, rather than on whether or not they personally get a better bribe out of the deal (all this talk about self-interest just reveals politics for what it largely is: a coordinated system of bribery and deal-making).

The other thing about this that really bugs me is that it is the height of arrogance to presume to know what is “best” for someone else. While some may think they know what political decisions may make the best material gains for certain classes of people, there is plenty of evidence from experimental economics (i.e. the ultimatum game) that illustrates that, even in economic settings, people value many more things, such as fairness and justice, besides their own material self-interest. Perhaps these voters who are purportedly voting against what is best for them are looking at elections as more than just a way to extort more money into their own wallets. Perhaps it is the non-material values that influence the voting patterns in middle America.


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