06 April 2010

self-interest

I got this posed to me as a question: How do you explain working or middle class republicans who vote against their self-interest?

This got me thinking. First, I disagree that middle class or working class people are benefited by voting for Democrats over Republicans. Secondly, I'm not sure that they're benefited the other way either. At least by default, neither major party offers a particularly middle-class friendly worldview as far as their active policies. But more to the point it's crucial to define "self-interest" as it relates to this question. There are many union voters for example who will tend to vote solidly Democrat (on the logic that somehow Democratic policies are more friendly to unions), but who may in fact hold widely dispersed views on things like abortion, homosexuals, and, especially for a typical union voter, immigration, from the party platform on these issues (this last point is a crucial reason why a sensible immigration reform, even as a half-measure toward a more sensible and open border policy, will be impossible). The difference, as I understand it, between the two parties is that one makes a bigger deal out of these bedroom police-state mindsets and requirements that people look like WASPs to live and work here and the other pretends to make a bigger deal out of boardroom policies. What however does that reflect about "self-interest". As I understand it, the critical reason to establish governments, at least under a political theory, is to protect and arbitrate disputes over property and contracts from a theoretically neutral viewpoint. This includes administrating courts in civil and criminal law. Thus the self-interested voter expresses through their vote a policy which, probably, gives themselves maximum latitude over their property and contractual arrangements with others but still protects them from abuse or fraud from others. My argument against either party being a party reflective of middle class' peculiar self-interests would be as follows
1) Most voters are not involved enough in the practises and intricacies of government to follow its behaviors and assess them for political purposes: ie voting. They are uninformed, rationally, in part because they have lives where their information investments can be better served (because of markets).
2) Most voters thus over-prioritize things that cannot be legislatively controlled: such as the demand factors of others for products like sex or mind-altering substances, on the logic that somehow governments are responsible for protecting them from such things just as they supposedly protect them against more serious violations like fraud or murder. This is, of course, false. Governments do not protect anyone. What they do is find and punish people who do these things through impartial processes. Occasionally public servants will act humanely in precise moments to stop crimes and abuses from happening or from getting worse than they already are. But prevention is very different than protection.
3) Most middle-class/working class voters are especially disinterested in the political processes governing their property rights, in part because they often hold little property and perceive little risk for paying little attention and in part because their daily lives have already greater risks over what little they have (ie, they could lose their income from a job and then lose their mortgage).
4) It is impossible, or at least much more difficult, to assess from the top-down legislative process who benefits from a change in the rules structure ahead of time. A bias toward the comforts of familiarity leads toward a "conservative" bias preference for the status quo over potentially more beneficial reforms, even if those reforms are more radically oriented toward markets or if they are likewise, more socially governed and reigned in through governmental authorities.
5) Local self-interests may or may not be appropriate to assess from a top-down or outsider perspective. Educated people who hold some sort of longer term capacity may preference a sense of "eudemonia" or contented lives or even a utilitarian benefit spread across many people over short-term pleasures or benefits. People who smoke for example presumably experience some sort of benefit; either social or physiological. Their failure is in failing to properly assess the risk of that benefit over a long-term, just as say people who have unprotected intercourse with the risks that entails or people who buy cheap fast food "meat". The reason that these benefits are not "properly" priced is that the risks, or costs, involved are not properly priced into the presumed good(s) that a product or service offers and thus are invisible to the consumer. The added problem is that there are heuristic or hedonistic preferences as well which may value these experiential goods over and above the costs for some people anyway (ie, there is no price high enough that you could still sell something and which nobody would consume that good. If it is still perceived as a good, they will consume it, but perhaps less of it).

In other words, it's very hard to say that people are not voting with their self-interests, even if they're working class Americans voting Democratic or Republican straight tickets. What might be more appropriate is that they have some dumb or uninformed ideas about what their self-interests are, "ought to be", or how they are of any concern to the broader public for the purposes of informing public policies. For example, it should be easy to justify that we have a reason to police the activities of a person's sexual relationships when they are non-consensual or coerced/forced through mind-altering substances, or if these offending others have attempted such things on ourselves, but it becomes silly to say that we have any public interest in the consensual behaviors of others (where we are not involved), much less that we should devote crucial public resources to affirming these choices and self-interests upon others. It is far easier to govern over real public concerns than the private affairs of citizens and residents. Once a law becomes unenforced or unenforceable, it is rendered pointless. "Cultural law" which appoints a "conservative" approach to preference the status quo over new and potentially beneficial, or potentially dangerous and/or false, notions does not require government to administer. Only property and contractual arrangements do. As a result it may be fair to say that many voters have idiotic ideas about what constitutes their self-interest, but it makes no sense to say that they don't vote in a way which reflects what they think that self-interest is.

At least on balance. Many voters are so uninformed about the political process that it doesn't matter what their self-interest is or who might be more beneficial for it.
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