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Against Your Own Interest

In mid-2004, in the middle of the presidential campaign, Thomas Frank published a book called What’s the Matter With Kansas? in which he posited that blue-collar Americans — typified by the Kansans he chronicled — have been bamboozled and swindled by the emotional rhetoric of ‘conservatives’ into voting irrationally, against their own self-interest — or, more specifically, against their own economic interest. In his formulation, the Republicans are the party of the rich and powerful, advocates for an economic aristocracy that oppresses the workers to enrich the robber barons. The benighted proletariat would be better served by the economic egalitarianism of the Democrats, but the Republicans have so frightened them with irrelevant demagoguery about gay marriage and abortion and terrorism and traditional values and moral decay that they can no longer see clearly where their interests lie.

This conceit was quickly echoed by others on the left and used as a consolation in the days immediately after the election, as a self-validation of their righteousness and a no-fault explanation for why they had, again, failed to win the presidency or the Congress.

On the day after the election Nicholas Kristof of The New York Times took up the theme in his column, chastising the Democrats for failing to connect with those “millions of farmers, factory workers, and waitresses,” for failing to bring them the enlightenment they deserve about where their interests actually lie. This was my response to him.

3 November 2004

In today’s column you — as the Democrats you are criticizing — express puzzlement and dismay at the “millions of farmers, factory workers and waitresses who ended up voting – utterly against their own interests – for Republican candidates.

I think I have spotted the problem for you: you (as so many people of the left do) are thinking only like an economist. Perhaps it is the legacy of Marx — all problems are at root economic — on the thinking of the modern liberal intellectual.

When you say that those benighted folks are voting “against their own interests” you are making an enormous presumption — that material well-being is the measure of interest. If material well-being is, indeed, the only, or even primary, measure of one’s interest, then those who vote against it must be either irrational or bamboozled.

But most people (even Democrats) hold a host of other interests in account when making decisions about how to live their lives — and about who to vote for. It is in no one’s material interest to spend a large amount of money on tickets to the World Series or to a hot Broadway play — yet people do such things all the time. It is in no one’s material interest to drive a flashy car or an egregious SUV when a fuel-efficient compact would get them where they need to go just as well — yet people do such things all the time. It is in no one’s material interest to forsake a boring but lucrative job to pursue some dream of being an artist or a writer or an actor or a full-time parent — yet people do such things all the time. It is in no one’s individual material interest to donate time and money to the alleviation of suffering for strangers — yet people do such things all the time.

Here’s what the Democrats really need to acknowledge: “values” — whatever they may be — are a huge part of our “interests” and most of us are willing to sacrifice some (or even a lot) of economic advantage to have the “values” of society reflect our own — or, at least, to secure our freedom to live by our “values” without interference from people who think they know better than we.

And that doesn’t even touch the subject of whether or not short-term and long-term economic (and other) interests diverge — whether cheaper health-care now will result in poorer quality health-care later; or whether higher retirement benefits for my parents now will yield an implosion of debt for my children later; or whether some number of deaths in Iraq this year will yield far fewer deaths in America in a decade; or whether losing jobs to free trade now will yield a more prosperous economy with more and better jobs later; or whether tax policies that bleed resources from “the rich” to subsidize incomes for “the poor” now will result in lower productivity and less overall wealth to share in the future. Those questions — which involve predictions rather than observations — are very hard to answer; and those choices — which require judgments of value as well as assessments of fact — are very hard to make.

Yet most people try to do so when choosing leaders, and they may very well sacrifice their short-term interest for their long-term interest or for the long-term interest of their children.

© Copyright 2004, 2005, Augustus P. Lowell

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