How You Should Vote

As I write this in early October, Election Day in the United States is about a month away. While most Americans do not vote, there is still in question of how a voter should vote.

While I do have definite opinions about the candidates and issues on the current ballot in my part of Florida, this essay is not aimed at convincing you to vote as I did (via my mail-in ballot). Rather, my goal is to discuss how you should vote in general.

The answer to the question of how you should vote is easy: if you are rational, then you should vote in your self-interest. In the case of a specific candidate, you should vote for the candidate you believe will act in your self-interest. In the case of such things as ballot measures, you should vote for or against based on how you believe it will impact your self-interest. So, roughly put, you should vote for what is best for you.

While this is rather obvious advice, it does bring up two often overlooked concerns. The first is the matter of determining what is actually in your self-interest. The second is determining whether or not your voting decision is in your self-interest. In the case of a candidate, the concern is whether or not the candidate will act in your self-interest. In the case of things like ballot measures, the question is whether or not the measure will be advantageous to your interests or not.

It might be thought that a person just knows what is in her self-interest. Unfortunately, people can be wrong about this. In most cases people just assume that if they want or like something, then it is in their self-interest. But, what a person likes or wants need not be what is best for him. For example, a person might like the idea of cutting school funding without considering how it will impact her family. In contrast, what people do not want or dislike is assumed to be against their self-interest. Obviously, what a person dislikes or does not want might not be bad for her. For example, a person might dislike the idea of an increased minimum wage and vote against it without considering whether it would actually be in their self-interest or not. The take-away is that a person needs to look beyond what he likes or dislikes, wants or does not want in order to determine her actual self-interest.

It is natural to think that of what is in a person’s self interest in rather selfish terms. That is, in terms of what seems to benefit just the person without considering the interests of others. While this is one way to look at self-interest, it is worth considering what might seem to be in the person’s selfish interest could actually be against her self-interest. For example, a business owner might see paying taxes to fund public education as being against her self-interest because it seems to have no direct, selfish benefit to her. However, having educated fellow citizens would seem to be in her self-interest and even in her selfish interest. For example, having the state pay for the education of her workers is advantageous to her—even if she has to contribute a little. As another example, a person might see paying taxes for public health programs and medical aid to foreign countries as against her self-interest because she has her own medical coverage and does not travel to those countries. However, as has been shown with Ebola, public and even world health is in her interest—unless she lives in total isolation. As such, even the selfish should consider whether or not their selfishness in a matter is actually in their self-interest.

It is also worth considering a view of self-interest that is more altruistic. That is, that a person’s interest is not just in her individual advantages but also in the general good. For this sort of person, providing for the common defense and securing the general welfare would be in her self-interest because her self-interest goes beyond just her self.

So, a person should sort out her self-interest and consider that it might not just be a matter of what she likes, wants or sees as in her selfish advantage. The next step is to determine which candidate is most likely to act in her self-interest and which vote on a ballot measure is most likely to serve her self-interest.

Political candidates, obviously enough, try very hard to convince their target voters that they will act in their interest. Those backing ballot measures also do their best to convince voters that voting a certain way is in their self-interest.

However, the evidence is that politicians do not act in the interest of the majority of those who voted for them. Researchers at Princeton and Northwestern conducted a study, “Testing Theories of American Politics: Elites, Interest Groups, and Average Citizens”, to determine whether or not politicians acted based on the preferences of the majority. The researchers examined about 1,800 policies and matched them against the preferences expressed by three classes: the average American (50th income percentile), the affluent American (the 90th percentile of income) and the large special interest groups.

The results are hardly surprising: “The central point that emerges from our research is that economic elites and organized groups representing business interests have substantial independent impacts on US government policy, while mass-based interest groups and average citizens have little or no independent influence.” This suggests that voters are rather poor at selecting candidates who will act in their interest (or perhaps that there are no candidates who will do so).

It can be countered that the study just shows that politicians generally act contrary to the preferences of the majority but not that they act contrary to their self-interest. After all, I made the point that what people want (prefer) might not be what is in their self-interest. But, on the face of it, unless what is in the interest of the majority is that the affluent get their way, then it seems that the politicians voters choose generally do not act in the best interest of the voters. This would indicate that voters should pick different candidates.


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  1. Mike,

    You seem to be stretching the meaning of “self-interest” a great deal.

    I might vote for a candidate in favor of guaranteeing quality healthcare for everyone, regardless of their ability to pay, not out of self-interest (the measure might not affect me since I have enough to pay for my own healthcare), but out of a sense of the common good or out of compassion for the suffering of others or out of utilitarian considerations or because justice demands quality healthcare for everyone, etc.

    Why should I only vote out of self-interest, regardless of how “self-interest” is defined?

  2. s.wallerstein,

    I’m stealing from Socrates here. He seemed to take the view that people should act from self-interest, but regarded it very broadly. So, as with your example, it would be in my self-interest to do what is right because my self-interest is not merely my perceived selfish interest.

    But, you do raise a very reasonable point. Self-interest, as you rightly note, seems to generally taken as far more limited and is usually contrasted against the good of others. That is, there seems to be an assumption that my self-interest aims at my self primarily (or entirely) which can often be in conflict with the common good.

    I am, perhaps wrongly, operating from the stock assumption that people should act from self-interest. But, like Socrates, I think that self-interest in actually a broader thing than my selfish interests. That is, being good is in my best interest and this requires me to not be selfish.

  3. “This would indicate that voters should pick different candidates.”

    But the beauty of this racket is the voters are only allowed chose candidates who are backed by corporations. Lockheed Martin fund both American political parties, nearly all media in the US is owned by six corporations. The system of “democracy” operates in a very similar way to the “democratic” elections in the Soviet Union or Iran. The powerful select the candidates, the media they control reports it as a free and fair process, the people vote. In present day Russia, people are forced to vote, so they can’t even register a protest by not voting.

    The end game for the US that people like the Koch brothers desire, is Vladimir Putin’s Russian Federation; where 120 people own 80% of all Russia’s wealth. The Koch’s are not driven by pure greed alone, there is a social ideology here. And that is enlightened despots must be given absolute power through wealth, and the majority should be impoverished to the point of absolute powerlessness, so they can be controlled for their own good. When the children of the wealthy are taught Plato’s republic in the elite universities, this is the ideology they derive from it; though there is an element of an ass looking in a mirror and seeing an ass.

    Politicians are not merely servants of the wealthy; they are in fact whores of many pimps. For the moment, they still need votes. The American public school system is an indisputable mess. For every 30 thousand spent on a teacher, another 50 thousand gets spent “administering” them. Most of that missing 50 thousand is spent buying votes, and of course some goes to the corporations who bribed the politicians.

    In societies you have recognisable groups, whose members recognise each other, and act not in a simple self-interest, but coherently in an enlightened self-interest. They promote the idea of individualism, for the purpose of atomising others they wish to exploit (and keep fooled), while being secretly hostile to the idea of individualism as it can threaten to undermine group solidarity that provides the rewards of exclusion and patronage their lives depend on.

    Patronage systems are disastrous regardless of who is being served. American millennials are buying less cars not because they’re more environmentally conscious than previous generations. They’re not suffering the temporary effects of the banker caused great recession. It is they can less and less afford to support a system, where their parents and grand parents sold them out before they were old enough to vote or even have an opinion of what their interests would be. Even their teachers sold them into slavery. The politicians, serving the corporations, tricked them into being maimed or killed in wars that were in the business interests of a few, instead of the security, or even economic interests of the many.

    America is not the only country with these problems. The economic disasters in Europe, especially in countries like Spain, Portugal, and Greece. Parents literally demanded policies which would impoverish their children (though in the back of their minds they were hoping their children, or at least, their favourite children, would dodge the bullet, and it would be someone else’s child getting shot).

    Young people were tricked with battles over Guns, Gays, and Jesus. These are important issues to young people; but they are of no economic consequence. They’re diversions from the essential material interests of the young; which is not having their parents, teachers, employers, drink their milkshake before they’ve even had a chance to taste it; while still being expected to pay for it. When Ronald McDonald comes out with a rainbow Big Mac for gay pride, and lloyd Blankfein publically endorses gay marriage, you have to start thinking there’s something funny in the koolaid; something fishy; or maybe rat and fish.

  4. if you are rational, then you should vote in your self-interest

    This is a flawed axiom because it doesn’t rule out immoral, violent behavior.

    Would you vote to steal other people’s property if it’s in your self interest? How about incarcerating people who engage in peaceful behavior if it’s in your self interest? How about murder for self interest? I would hope not. Violent, evil acts such as these are always wrong regardless of self interest.

    The Non-Aggression Principle or NAP is a far more clear and morally principled axiom than this because it prohibits aggressive violence.

    *The NAP doesn’t prohibit violent self defense or justice

  5. The idea of self-interest vs. selfish-interest has long fascinated me. Mitch McConnell’s recent comments about climate change clearly show him to legislate based on selfish-interest at the expense of self-interest. I’m also fascinated by the tactics politicians use to get people to vote against their self-interest. It’s often not even selfish-interest. It’s often bigotry, fear, and outright deception. I agree with you, if people would vote for their actual self-interest, the world would be a much better place.

  6. JMRC,

    It is quite a racket indeed. As the study I mentioned indicates, the will of the people is generally not made into law, Rather, the will of the wealthy becomes the law. As you note, this is not unique to the US.

    When I took my first political science class, I learned that every civilization is structured like a pyramid: a few on top have most of the goodies while the many get by with the leavings. I sometimes joke that the Egyptians built the pyramids as a timeless reminder of this fact.

  7. Gene,

    True-people do get manipulated to vote against their self-interest. One example of this is how some Republicans have used the narrative of “taker” minorities to get poor whites to vote against government programs that would actually benefit them, such as medicaid and unemployment.

  8. Mike,

    While income and wealth distribution are shaped in pyramid form in all societies, the shape of the pyramid differs radically from society to society: politics, in my opinion, is about, among other things, making the income and wealth distribution more equal, without excessively worsening other variables.

    Your comment about all civilizations having an unequal income distribution seems to imply that inequality is an eternal, unchanging component of the nature of things, which avoids the question of how to make our societies less unequal and more just.

    Your country, the United States, has a very unequal income distribution, as measured by Gini co-efficient, as does mine, Chile.

  9. Hobbes and others have claimed that political bodies follow laws just as physical bodies. So, it might be the case that societies are, as a matter of natural law, pyramid shaped. I can’t think of any actual civilizations that were not pyramids: folks on top holding the whips and those below them doing the work.

    But, you are right to note that the steepness of the pyramid does vary. The US has a very pointy pyramid while other countries have one that is a bit less sharp.

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