Ten Miles Square


June 10, 2012 12:16 PM Not all of Voters’ Self-Interests are Economic

By Keith Humphreys

It’s one of the oldest tropes of the left: Working class people who “should” support liberal candidates instead elect conservatives because they are tricked into voting based on cultural issues (e.g., abortion, religion). In this fashion, the theory runs, conservative candidates fool blue collar people into betraying their own self-interests.

Jonathan Haidt asks rhetorically “But are voters really voting against their self-interest when they vote for candidates who share their values?”. His answer, well-described and defended, is no. Moral and cultural interests are as much self-interests as are economic concerns. Working class voters who support conservatives are therefore not being duped. Rather, they are responding to those of their self-interests which transcend the economic.

I generally agree with Haidt’s analysis, but find both his argument and the “working class dupe” theory lacking in one respect: Why does so much effort go into analyzing this phenomenon as if it were unique to the working class? There are millionaires and billionaires, such as Warren Buffett, who advocated for higher taxes on themselves. There are legions of middle and upper-middle class people who favour expanded funding of welfare programmes upon which they themselves do not rely, but which are in keeping with their values.

In short, middle and upper class voters also often prioritize their moral interests over their economic interests. Such political behaviour is not a “working class thing”. It’s a human thing.

[Cross-posted at The Reality-based Community]

Keith Humphreys is a professor of psychiatry and behavioral medicine at the Stanford University School of Medicine.
tags ,


  • Armand on June 08, 2012 4:23 PM:

    True dat.

  • James E Powell on June 08, 2012 6:43 PM:

    In talking with people who use culture and social cues rather than economic or policy cues to make voting decisions, I get the impression that they do so not just because they believe culture/social is more important, but because they understand them more clearly. A great mass of Americans have no understanding of how economic or other policy choices impact their lives. Obamacare is a very obvious case.

    Consider the willingness of Wisconsin voters to support cutting their neighbors' wages.

  • rk on June 08, 2012 6:55 PM:

    There are millionaires and billionaires, such as Warren Buffett, who advocated for higher taxes on themselves.

    Unless I read this post incorrectly, the inference is that Buffett's advocacy of higher taxes is acting against his own interests. Is there evidence that this is the case? The price of Berkshire Hathaway Class A stock increased ca. 465% from January 1993 to January 2001 and only 31% from January 2001 to January 2009. Given that much of Buffet's wealth is tied up in Berkshire it might be interesting to see whether there is any evidence for the proposition that higher taxes are not in his self-interest.

  • Neil Bates on June 08, 2012 8:59 PM:

    No, wrong. Classic simple-minded, Villager style conceit and mistake. The working class voters who get polices detrimental to their actual lives are indeed voting against their interest, because allowing other people more personal freedom does not really detract rationally from the lives of those WC voters.

    Furthermore, we should be proud of honest wealthy critics like Buffet, for acknowledging the fundamental unfairness of some of the tax rate structure. It's not a matter of some silly generic knock against not always following self-interest just applied relatively and equally to everyone. We are thinking about fairness issues, the public interest, the long-term health of the economy versus some people getting an edge that isn't connected to their actual productive value, etc.

  • greennotGreen on June 09, 2012 9:10 AM:

    Neil Bates, while I agree with you that "allowing other people more personal freedom does not really detract rationally from the lives of those WC voters," the key word here is how one defines "rationally." If your belief system tells you that allowing "immoral" practices such as abortion and gay marriage will damn your nation to hell, then prohibiting them is no different to social conservatives than addressing global warming in a constructive manner is to progressives. I don't think for a moment that most of the conservatives who ride that wave of projected religious extremism share those beliefs, but they're certainly happy to use them to better themselves financially.