A Philosopher's Blog

How You Should Vote

Posted in Politics by Michael LaBossiere on October 13, 2014

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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17 Responses

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  1. T. J. Babson said, on October 13, 2014 at 12:53 pm

    “… if you are rational, then you should vote in your self-interest.”

    Mike, why not vote for what is best for the country? That is what I do. My self interest tells me to vote Democratic, but it is clear that the Republicans will damage the country less.

    • WTP said, on October 13, 2014 at 4:12 pm

      Doing what you want with money and resources you worked for and earned, even if you voluntarily donate money, resources, and time to efforts you view as worthy, is selfish.

      Voting to use the power of the state to take money, resources, and even time, from other individuals who put forth their own efforts to acquire such, is simply a rational thing to do. It enables you to profess ignorance of how this is different from the messy responsibility and guilt a morally healthy, and dare I say ethical, person would feel should they take money, resources, and time from another person directly.

      Sincerity is the key. Once you can fake that, you can teach ethics to others with confidence.

    • Michael LaBossiere said, on October 15, 2014 at 11:15 am

      That raises a very good classic moral question: is my self-interest distinct from the general good? Socrates accepted that people should act in their self-interest, but argued that it is in your self-interest to be just rather than selfish.

      If what is best for the country is, in fact, what is best for you, then it would be in your self-interest to vote for what is best for the country. But, I don’t think that the Republicans, in general, want what is good for the country (taking that to mean the general good of the people). The Democrats seem to think they want what is good for the many. However, both parties seem committed to benefitting themselves and the few who contribute stacks of cash to their campaigns.

      • TJB said, on October 15, 2014 at 10:56 pm

        When the Dems do to the U.S. what they did to Detroit maybe you’ll admit you were wrong.

        • Michael LaBossiere said, on October 16, 2014 at 4:15 pm

          Well, since we have only two real parties, every damn thing that happens must be the fault of one or the other. If we stack up the fails, both stacks would reach orbit. Still, the Democrats are less awful in general.

          • TJB said, on October 16, 2014 at 9:14 pm

            Mike, I suspect that the reason you favor the Dems is that you have no kids. If I were just thinking of myself I would also support the Dems. But since I have kids it bothers me that the Dems want to spend now and let the kids pick up the tab. It’s just not fair.

            • Michael LaBossiere said, on October 17, 2014 at 11:33 am

              Actually, if I had kids I would be even more likely to support the generic Democrat. Democrats generally favor supporting schools, health programs for kids and college education. Also, the Democrats tend to favor things that benefit mothers and women.

              I don’t buy the myth that Republicans are small spenders-they just spend a bit differently than Democrats.

              Buying into the two party option is one of the major problems in American politics.

            • T. J. Babson said, on October 17, 2014 at 7:04 pm

              “Democrats generally favor supporting schools, health programs for kids and college education. Also, the Democrats tend to favor things that benefit mothers and women.”

              I favor all of these things, too. I just don’t favor passing the costs onto the kids. If the Dems want all of this stuff they should be honest and raise taxes rather than sticking it to people who either can’t vote or who aren’t even born yet.

            • Michael LaBossiere said, on October 20, 2014 at 10:43 am

              I do agree that the state should avoid deficit spending. But, both the Democrats and Republicans seem to lack the interest or will to actually reduce spending significantly and responsibly. This is nicely expressed by the sentiment that the government should keep its hands off medicare. People want everything cut…everything but their own entitlements.

      • TJB said, on October 15, 2014 at 11:03 pm

        If you were a policeman in Detroit, was it in your self interest to vote Dem? Even though they bankrupted the city?

        • Michael LaBossiere said, on October 16, 2014 at 4:15 pm

          Would the Republicans have saved the city?

          • Glen Wallace said, on October 16, 2014 at 10:29 pm

            Having a professional football team, the Detroit Lions, stay there sure didn’t save the city. And yet the talking heads would come on TV and write in the paper that keeping the Vikings in Minnesota was so vital to boosting our economy and advertising our state to the world that we just have to pay for a billionaire’s playpen so that a bunch of millionaire football players will continue to prance around in tights here 11 days a year.

  2. Glen Wallace said, on October 13, 2014 at 10:11 pm

    It is clear that, as a rule, voters don’t vote in their self interest or interests. Instead, voters vote for reasons that often have little or nothing to do with the designated role of governing that the politician is vying for. It seems the most common reason for choosing a candidate is purely team loyalty — the candidate is either on the Democratic team or the Republican team.

    I believe the competitive rivalry between the two teams provides a useful distraction for the ruling powers, who are in fact giving the orders to both parties, to steer the masses mindset away from the wholesale looting of the country and the planet of the bounty that rightfully belongs to those very masses who are so caught up in the partisan ball game.

    But when the ruling elite like how things are going, they order both parties to engage in partisan stalemate so that nothing changes. When the elite want some change, like a new free trade agreement, they order both parties to reach a seemingly miraculous bipartisan agreement to pass the legislation that the elite want enacted.

    Representative democracy is clearly a failed experiment — that is assuming it was an experiment at all. If our form of government was in fact designed, from the start, to be a system that is neither representative of the masses nor a democracy for the masses, but rather as a system designed to concentrate and consolidate wealth and power until we have a plutocratic oligarchy, then the plan worked magnificently.

    Case in point: The debate over public funding for a new Minnesota Vikings stadium reached its peak in 2012. Everyone knew that a referendum would have failed, so the supporters did everything they could to avoid a referendum and instead get a bill on the floor of the legislature to fund the stadium. Well, the supporters succeeded and got the bill passed and currently the new stadium is under construction. When the legislation passed there was some question as to whether the majority of voters who oppose public stadium funding would vote against their representatives come election time. Some claimed that there would be no repercussions for the politicians because the voters have such a short term memory for issues like the public funding of pro sports stadiums. From what I could tell, the legislators who voted for the stadium not only had no problems getting reelected, I don’t think the the topic of how they voted on the stadium issue hardly came up at all in the run up to the election. I think the voters just largely did as they always do, vote for their team.

    • nailheadtom said, on October 14, 2014 at 11:11 pm

      Not only that, the contract for the construction of the stadium was awarded with no bid process or even any plans.

    • Michael LaBossiere said, on October 15, 2014 at 11:28 am

      True-the elections do often seem to result in choices that are not in the rational interests of the majority of the voters. At least if being in their interest is defined in terms of what benefits them in measurable ways (income, rights, etc.). Rather, as the study I mention shows, the financial elite generally have their interests served.

      I recall from my first political science class that every civilization is a pyramid: a few on top control almost everything. I have jokingly told my students that the Egyptians built the pyramids to remind us of this eternal fact.

      You do raise a good point about repercussions: voters seem to respond mainly to a general dislike rather than to specific harms. So, for example, pundits claim that because Obama’s popularity is tanking voters are swinging towards Republicans.

      In my own case, I do keep track of what “my” politicians do and vote based on how they have impacted my interests. Unfortunately, I usually end up picking between bad and worse rather than between better and worse. The well-funded party system has a solid lock on almost all American politics. I had hoped that the Tea Party would become a viable third party, but they seem to have been tamed by the Republicans-with some interesting exceptions.

      The libertarians do keep trying, but they have little success.

      • Glen Wallace said, on October 15, 2014 at 11:51 pm

        I also try to vote based on how the candidates voting on legislation would or have impacted my interests. For instance, before the last election I did a quick online research to find out how my state representative candidates voted, if they were in office at the time, on the stadium issue (along with their stance on a host of other issues). But interestingly, in the online comments section of the local metro newspaper the StarTribune, while comments opposing public funding get an abundance of up votes, when I posted a comment reminding readers that the politicians who voted for the stadium where elected into office by the public, I got predominantly down votes for that comment.

        Sometimes it seems as though most people just want to have preserved what I call their ‘grumble rights.’ By ‘grumble rights’ I mean the right to complain on message boards and elsewhere about the decisions of politicians without the responsibility of those same grumblers to make the difficult executive decisions necessary to run a government. However, I still contend that if the general public were thrown into a scenario where there was no escaping a direct, participatory democracy, most people would rise to the occasion as they do when forced to be members of a jury, and would make those decisions in a much fairer and just manner than the professional so-called representative politicians currently do.

        I have largely given up on the party system of politics as there is too much power, opacity and therefore high capacity for corruption and the thwarting of democracy by way of the parties. Even if there currently is an uncorrupted third party, I have little doubt that if that party were to become popular enough to put winning candidates out, that third party would quickly become just as corrupt as the Republican and Democratic parties.

        • Michael LaBossiere said, on October 16, 2014 at 4:17 pm

          Emma Goldman made a similar argument: anyone elected to office becomes either ineffective or corrupt.

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