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June 14, 2012 11:40 AM Progressive Policies Are Good for Rich People

By Mark Kleiman

No doubt Keith Humphrey (citing Jonathan Haidt) is right to say that poor people who are victims of Republican downward class warfare and who vote Republican anyway because they think Republicans agree with them on “values” questions aren’t necessarily acting irrationally. As as Weber pointed out a long time ago, “ideal interests” are just as genuine as material interests.

I don’t think it’s irrational for me to vote according to my beliefs about what would make a better word, independent of the effects of specific policies on my individual situation; why should I think it’s irrational for other people to behave the same way?

Of course, there’s a different question hidden here; the progressives asking “What’s the matter with Kansas?” mostly think that some of the “values” Red voters are voting for – expressing their prejudices against blacks and Latinos, a sexual-purity fetish, opposition to women’s personal and economic independence, and hostility to scientific inquiry – are themselves irrational. But “People shouldn’t believe that” does not imply either “People don’t believe that” or “People who believe that are acting strangely if they act on those beliefs.”

Where I disagree with Keith is on the flip side of the question. He thinks Warren Buffet and other Blue-team rich folks are favoring their ideal interests over their material interests just as much as the Red-voting poor and working-class folks. I disagree: they’re voting (consciously or not) for what’s good for them and their families.

Some prosperous types would be willing (certainly I would) to sacrifice material to ideal interests – to favor a redistribution of income that would reduce their material standard of living in order to make people on the bottom half of the totem pole better off – but the question mostly doesn’t arise.

I can’t speak for Warren Buffet, but as someone who “earns like an Episcopalian and votes like a Puerto Rican” I see progressive policies as being very much in my narrow self-interest. As Robert Frank points out, I’m not competing socially with home health workers or Wal-Mart clerks; I’m competing with other well-paid professionals. If we all pay somewhat more in taxes, I don’t come out behind in the status race, and most of the material things I want – especially housing – simply have their prices bid up as my competitors and I earn more money. So a downward redistribution of income takes no skin off my back in standard-of-living terms, while the benefits to me of living in a more egalitarian (and therefore less stressful, healthier, and less crime-ridden) society would be substantial.

Similarly, my primary unfilled material desires – better air to breathe, for example, or improved knowledge about how to prevent and treat disease – are mostly public goods rather than private goods. There’s no possible improvement in the car I drive that would be as much use to me as having less congested and better-maintained roads to travel on, or – better yet – reliable public transit that would free me of the need to drive altogether. I’d be much better off, personally, if my taxes went up and, in return, my local NPR station could stop running fund drives and art museums stayed open convenience-store hours.

Progressives are, rightly, proud of our concern for the dispossessed and our willingness to make sacrifices on their behalf. But the unfortunate result has been a failure to claim, correctly, that progressive policies are – even putting aside the question of macro-economic management – in the selfish material interests of the rich. The truly irrational voters are the secular rich folks who vote Republican.

[Cross-posted at The Reality-based Community]

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Mark Kleiman is a professor of public policy at the University of California Los Angeles.
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Comments

  • Consumatopia on June 14, 2012 9:21 PM:

    It's not irrational to choose values over material interests. What's irrational is when group loyalty is one of those values you're voting to uphold, but you belong to a group that's getting screwed over by the people you vote for. My suspicion is that social conservatives, even poorer ones, tend to believe that fiscal conservatism is in their material interest--except for, perhaps, some Catholics, I've never encountered any Republican voter who believed that Republican policies would harm them, even though this is surely true for some Republican voters. Under Republican policies, Good People will Prosper. And we are Good People, for we are Republicans.