It seems that in every modern election, someone reiterates the belief that working-class Americans who do not vote for Democrats vote against their self-interest. The best-known example was Thomas Frank’s 2004 What’s the Matter with Kansas, which spent 18 weeks on The New York Times bestseller list.
He argued that people in his home state of Kansas voted Republican even though that undermined Democrats’ redistributive agenda, which would have shifted more of others’ resources to Kansans, demonstrating an “obvious” violation of their self-interest.
In 2015, Leon Friedman offered similar views in “Why Does the (White) Lower Middle Class Vote Republican?” in the Huffington Post. The core of his analysis was:
Based purely on self-interest…lower wage earners should vote for the party that would help them the most economically. The Democrats favor a higher minimum wage, protection of union rights, generous, if not free, medical care programs for working class Americans, safety regulations for the working place, reducing global warming (which affects the health of everyone), higher taxes on rich people to pay for even more generous social programs, and maintaining if not increasing social security payments.
Republicans, on the other hand, want to reduce taxes on the rich, restrict union rights, repeal Obamacare, privatize social security benefits and eliminate various regulations on businesses, including safety requirements and efforts to deal with global warming.
Policies That Appear to Help Really Hurt
It is already obvious from the state of the Democratic presidential field that Democrats plan to double- or even triple-down on an agenda similar to that outlined by Friedman, from free university education and Medicare for All to the Green New Deal.
But given that, as economists so often remind us, “There ain’t no such thing as a free lunch,” sometimes shortened to TANSTAAFL, we must recognize that all those supposedly free lunches are more accurately understood as stolen lunches. And even if some stolen lunches would expand the resources under the control of government’s redistributive clients, that does not imply voting against such policies is inexplicable. Reconsidering Adam Smith’s understanding can show why.
Self-Interest, Selfishness, Self-Love, and Self-Respect
In Are Economists Basically Immoral?, Paul Heyne recognized the drift of some economists away from Adam Smith’s principle of self-love (not identical to self-interest) to where “self-interest is identified with selfishness, selfish interests are assumed to be material interests, and concern for justice or fairness is regarded as irrational.” As a consequence:
Many of the most eminent and sophisticated theorists in the economics profession make no effort to distinguish between self-interest and selfishness or between rational behavior and greedy behavior.
Heyne would pull us back toward the Smithian emphasis on reputation, and “the impartial spectator” whose respect we most value, because:
Self-respect is for many people a primary objective in self-interested behavior. A large portion of the anomalies [reported about people’s behavior]…disappear the moment we recognize that it is in many people’s clear self-interest to behave in ways that will allow them to retain their self-respect.
Heyne further noted the role of Smith’s imaginary “impartial spectator” whose approval we desire, in maintaining self-respect, particularly in terms of justice:
When Smith argued that everyone should be “left perfectly free to pursue his own interest in his own way,” it was only on the important condition that “he does not violate the laws of justice”...[but] legislation is unjust, in Smith’s view, when it promotes the interests of one group of citizens by imposing unequal restraints on the actions of other groups.
Or, to quote Smith:
To hurt in any degree the interest of any one order of citizens for no other purpose but to promote that of some other is evidently contrary to that justice and equality of treatment which the sovereign owes to all the different orders of his subjects.
If we accept Smith’s view of justice—equality of treatment contrasted with government favoritism at others’ expense—the redistributionist policies Democrats are promoting to an even greater degree than usual on the presumption that it should close the case for their election are plainly unjust. And if being just is an important part of one’s self-respect, one would have to weigh the added resources made available by an unjust policy against the damage done to one’s self-respect and one’s reputation with others.
Self-Respect Over Self-Interest
What if you wish to be, and to be known as, just? Would you choose to engage in thievery, directly or via government? It depends. Virtually everyone would be willing to give up some coercive ill-gotten gains to be more just. But the values people place on being more just (or what they consider just) differ, as do the “prices” in different situations. In many cases, that can explain voting “yes” on some policies that supposedly advance your self-interest (e.g., those with a smaller cost in self-respect or a bigger narrow self-interest payoff) while voting “no” on others (e.g., those with a larger cost in self-respect or a smaller narrow self-interest payoff).
Further, it can explain why those promoting policies that depend on theft for their implementation use so many rhetorical and logical tricks to rationalize them as something else, whether it is
Marx’s justification of workers expropriating capitalists because the capitalists supposedly expropriated workers first, echoed by the demonization of “the 1%,”Over two millennia ago, Cicero argued for the importance of being just, which he defined as “doing no injury to men.” or the insistence on calling every project that transfers one group’s resources to pay for others’ benefits an “investment in our future.”
Recognizing self-respect as a core part of self-love may be a puzzle to those whose worldviews and/or models assume it away, but it was understood by Adam Smith well over two centuries ago. But it didn’t start or end with Smith. Over two millennia ago, Cicero argued for the importance of being just, which he defined as “doing no injury to men.”
Even earlier, there was the Hippocratic Oath—“First, do no harm”—which is inherently violated by the need to take the resources for “doing good” involuntarily from others, and that is still with us. And when we realize that resistance to robbery or piracy because we value self-respect more than the prospect of getting some of the treasure taken, there is no longer any anomaly of not voting for the Democrat agenda.