Voting Against Self-Interest

Posted: July 3, 2011 in Corporatism, Economics, Politics

I saw the documentary What’s the Matter with Kansas? recently and felt an odd mixture of empathy and disdain toward the people profiled in the film. It’s hard not to feel some empathy for folks who are witnessing their way of life slipping away. But that’s true of all of us now, as the Age of Oil winds down, so there is nothing especially notable about Kansans, who are presented in caricature as though everyone in the state is a farmer. The troubles of Kansas farmers are not really of their own making, but their questionable understanding of modern dilemmas and subsequent voting for policies and politicians who protect one set of interests while undermining another have led to worsened outcomes and films that ask WTF? Feeling disdain for them is a little like blaming the victim or even Schadenfreude, which are unwholesome sentiments to harbor.

The film focuses on two intertwined institutions: the family farm and the nuclear family. Both had their heyday during living memory and became idealized notions of how living arrangements might best be constituted. Yet they were in actuality confined to a relatively narrow band of mid-20th-century history. (Farther back in history, Kansas had a reputation as a hotspot of radicalism. Go figure.) Kansans apparently believe they are voting for those institutions in all their faded glory, but demographic and technological change has already nearly wiped out the economic conditions that made them possible.

Some of us who learned civics in high school, back when it was still fashionable to teach and learn such things, came to believe that a healthy socioeconomic system includes informed voters making rational decisions and voting accordingly. It was considered a sign of civic virtue to vote for public interests, especially if that meant voting against personal interests, because society would degrade if everyone voted selfishly. The conflict, as one can observe in Kansas, is that people vote for conservative social issues while unwittingly ceding their economic interests to agribusiness. Revised economics dictate that small family farms either merge and grow into corporate behemoths or eventually be put out of business. The cause and effect is not so simple as the voting record, but folks are nonetheless given the mistaken notion that, for example, voting in defense of marriage helps to stem the decay of that once-hallowed American institution and the nuclear family that flows from it.

It would probably have been better if voters had acted instead to protect their economic interests rather than vote their emotions and hates, as many do now. Shifting from principled community interests to purely private economic interests sounds like market fundamentalism, an economic policy shared by many conservatives, but in rich irony, voting against the latter and in support of the former has left the field open for corporations and the monied elite to consolidate their economic positions without effective opposition or resistance.

  1. John says:

    I support the civic virtue of voting for the common interest rather than one’s selfish interest. My concern is that large numbers of voters are so uninformed, so uninterested in the general welfare, so ignorant about current events that they do not have much conception of what their selfish economic interests really are; as a result, they are susceptible to responding to simple and emotional arguments that motivate them to vote their hates. Right now, at the top of the hate list, are government and taxes.

  2. I think you’re confusing the concepts a bit. By your writing, I’d suggest that you are voting against “enlightened self-interest”, rather than “rational self-interest”. Please correct me if I am wrong.

    Personally, I vote out of rational self-interest. The candidate who appeals most to my values will most-definitely get my vote. I do not vote for the general welfare, nor do I vote for the “greater good”. Enlightened self-interest is merely another form of altruism, which I see to be the cause of all America’s economic and social problems.

    Most importantly, I agree with John where he says that many voters are uninformed and uninterested — that is the heart of the issue. Overall, very well written! Thank you!

    • Brutus says:

      I’ve used the term interest in its public and private senses, and the term self-interest in its economic and emotional senses. You distinguish between enlightened and rational self-interest as expressed in your own voting. All well and good, I suppose, but yours are more recognizable as terms used in academia, which isn’t really the context of my blog post. The central dichotomy is public/private, where voting in support of public institutions such as marriage and against political candidates who might, for example, favor a social safety net has feel-good appeal but is ironically a strategic failure.

      I can well imagine a debate over how any given issue might be construed as either rational, irrational, public, private, emotional, or economic depending on one’s perspective and how big a shovel is used. For instance, voting for so-called family values has obvious appeal to private citizens but is conventionally a matter of public policy, and the economics of family planning (removing or restricting abortion rights, say, resulting in more unwanted pregnancies) has implications down the road in the form of criminal incarceration (this causation — or is it merely correlation? — was raised controversially by the Freakonomics guys).

  3. timkautsky says:

    Stellar. As a Kansan I took great interest. After graduating from college (University of Kansas) I spent much of the next four years teaching abroad. It was always a shock to come back and find how little things had changed and how minds were pretty much where I left them. Your readers talk of being uninformed, but what I noticed in the disconnect that existed between myself and those friends and family in Kansas is that being uninformed came out of a genuine disinterest. Kansas is not a very cosmopolitan state with the exception of lots of Mexican immigrants in the southwest. It allows the small town mentality to solidify and became a point of pride and my own experiences abroad looked pointless and elitist.

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