Why Do People Vote Against Their Own Self-Interest?

As part of a discussion I had a few days ago, the question was asked: why do you people vote against their own self-interest?

Seems like a simple question, pointing out the weirdness that is people voting in politicians who support policies that are clearly at odds with their own situation. It’s blatantly ridiculous, and these people are clearly uneducated and/or foolish. Right?

The short answer is “no, that’s completely wrong.” Like most things in life, this is complicated.

First, it’s important to be aware that no-one (no-one) is just floating about in the world with zero influences on them from outside of themselves. This influences colour not only how we see ourselves, but how we see the world, and how we interpret the facts of the world. Moreover, politicians almost never promise just one thing, so disentangling precisely what I’m voting for when I vote for a particular politician is a complex (and, frankly, nigh-impossible) task.

What is “my self-interest”? As an Irish immigrant with Canadian Citizenship, living a fairly middle-class existence: what is my self-interest? Should I be voting for the politicians that make it easier for other immigrants to become citizens? For them to enter the country? Should I be voting to consolidate my ‘middle-class’ existence by voting to decrease the benefits given to those out of work? Should I, perhaps, be voting to ensure that (if I lose my job) the state will look after me? Are any of these clearly “against” my self-interest?

If I’m out of work, long-term unemployed (more than 6 months, as I have been in the past): should I be voting to increase my benefits (drawing the tax money from… where?)? Should I be envisioning myself in work, in the future, and voting to decrease my welfare benefits, seeing that they will be a drain on my future income?

If I live in an area that is historically populated by people in a lower socioeconomic class, how should I vote? What if I identify poorness and poverty as markers of failure and laziness, but have decided that I do not share these qualities with my fellow poor? My voting to hurt them necessarily hurts me too, but it would seem to be in my long-term self-interest to do so: after all, my fall into poverty is merely temporary. Once I’m out of poverty, screw these moochers and looters: I want to limit what they can take from me.

Or let’s make this a little more nuanced: what if I’m poor, with minimal prospects, but I suspect that I do have a chance of getting out of poverty, and I believe that if taxes are reduced on businesses, then more jobs would open up? But the cost of those reduced taxes are fewer social services? Seems like a gamble, but at least I’d have ‘some pride’, right? In the mean time, the same party that is promising me these things is also warning me about those undocumented immigrants coming into my country, and taking jobs for less than minimum wages. Those immigrants are reducing my chances of getting a job! So I’ll vote to keep the immigrants out, to ease the tax burden on the businesses, and I’ll grit my teeth and deal with the hardship while I wait (forever) for those jobs to open up.

Determining whether or not something is within someone’s self-interest or not often requires that we understand the many world-views that they could be entertaining. No-one (no-one) looks at their voting options and thinks “Hmmmm… Option A could help me a lot here, but Option B really screws me. I’m going to go with Option B!” It doesn’t happen.

When trying to determine why people in different positions from ourselves make choices that seem counter-intuitive (from where we stand), and good first step is not assuming that they’re stupid or ignorant or simply greedy, and instead trying to devise world-views that are compatible with the voting pattern. And it’s important to be aware that this kind of thinking should not be merely applied to those in poverty: it’s not in the long-term interest of the Walton family to have a 0% inheritance tax. I’d humbly suggest that it’s in their long-term self-interest to have a large middle-class with a decent disposable income, who don’t need to worry about job instability, as that is the best way (over several generations) they could maximise their profits.

But hey, I’m just suggesting that so long as money is a significant factor in politics, we also need to be concerned about the views held by those with the money, and not merely berate the poor for “voting against their own self-interest”.

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