Furthermore, the average household gives hundreds of dollars to charity every year. The sacrifices involved in selfless voting in a state election are likely to be a fraction of a penny. Given that people make far larger sacrifices for their values all the time, it is reasonable to think that they will vote their values rather than their self-interest.
Gordon Tullock pointed out this general concept in his 1971 article "The Charity of the Uncharitable" in Economic Inquiry. Several other academics independently discovered the idea and published it various journals, including two articles in the American Political Science Review the most distinguished journal of political science in that era. Neither of these two articles mentioned Tullock or each other. It was not until the fifth publication of the idea that it was pointed out that it was being repeatedly published over and over again. I was, alas, not one of those that published the idea, though like so many others I did invent the idea independently.
While voting your values costs you almost nothing, it is a highly effective way of supporting the causes you believe in. Many years ago I invented a formula for determining the probability of casting the deciding the vote in an election. This did not gain me much academically because Howard Margolis had already published the same exact formula. I contacted him and he said I was third, a mathematician was second. Of course, only the academic who publishes first gets credit.
But this formula can be used to measure the effectiveness of voting. I applied the formula to California gubernatorial elections. I then multiplied the result by the budget of the California state government for four years. The governor's term of office was four years. From this, I determined that a single vote was like determining whether the Republicans or the Democrats would have a governor's influence on over a hundred thousand dollars of state government spending. That is a lot of money, so a vote is a highly effective way of supporting the causes you believe in. However, as the California voter is only one out of about forty million California residents we should divide this number by forty million to get an estimate of self-interest. The result is a fraction of a penny. So voting is a very efficient way to support the causes you believe in, but a very ineffective way to pursue your own interests, or those of your immediate family.
So logical theory tells us that values should dominate voting and many empirical studies show us the same thing. If theory and empirical evidence support the same conclusion that conclusion should not be lightly dismissed.
There is a good reason for this. Separating religious self-interest from values is difficult, maybe impossible. As God is usually believed to be all powerful and all knowing pleasing him is in your self-interest, but as God is also all good and all knowing pleasing God is also the most ethical or moral course of action. Properly understood ethics and self-interest are identical under the logic of monotheism.
Theoretically, people should vote according to their religion, empirical studies have shown again and again that religion is one of the most powerful, perhaps the most powerful factors influencing how people vote. So once again theory and careful empirical studies published in academic journals tell us exactly the same thing.
This is one the issues that David O. Sears and his associates studied. They found that the interest of the individual was not crucial, but the interest of the group was. If a pork barrel politician brought jobs to the community he was rewarded by the voters, but the people who received jobs were no more influenced to vote for the pork barrel politician than others in the community that did not receive the jobs.
I am going to argue something radical. An unequal income distribution is in the interest of middle-income voters even if it does nothing to make society as a whole richer, even if it does not increase the size of the pie.
Suppose the government taxes the rich and gives to the poor, leaving those in the middle untouched. The liberals think that this is in the interest of the middle-income voters. They should realize that they might fall on hard times and need the government safety net. This is a good point, but it ignores another overriding concern of middle-income voters.
Among the chief concerns of middle-income people are avoiding the crime, bad schools, and other pathologies of the underclass. If the underclass is given more money, they can afford higher rents, and invade the middle-income neighborhoods. Then the middle-income people will either have to suffer with more crime and a poor educational system, or they will have to spend more of their income on housing so they can move away from the problems of the underclass. If they move away, they will have less to spend on making there lives comfortable. So an increase in the income of the underclass is not in their interest.
The late sixties and early seventies tell a very different story. Between 1965 and 1972 the murder rate doubled. Practically every other measure of social health you can name became radically worse. This happened in a period where percentage of the population falling below the poverty threshold was rapidly decreasing, the income distribution was more egalitarian than almost any time in American history, society was rejecting materialism and conspicuous consumption, the unemployment level was exceptionally low, income per person was rapidly rising, and the government was redistributing more money to the poor. Virtually everything on the liberal wish list happened. According to the standard liberal theory, crime should have plummeted and all the other social indicators should have improved, but the opposite happened.
In 1973 the measured poverty rate reached its lowest level ever. Since then the percentage of the population falling below the poverty threshold has remained above the 1973 level. Remember, that the official poverty threshold is an absolute, not a relative measure. It was set in the mid-1960s and has only been adjusted for inflation since then. Furthermore, the income distribution has gotten steadily worse. We have become more materialistic. Yet the murder rate now is much less than half what it was in 1973 and is probably at the lowest level since we have had reliable statistics. The great recession and continuing economic slump that we are suffering through have been accompanied by generally falling murder rates.
Even at higher levels of income increasing either prosperity or income equality will reduce crime, but somewhere between the threshold between developing and developed countries and twice that threshold, about twenty-five thousand dollars a year per person, the relationship seems to break down. More than fifty years ago the liberals were right, but half a century has gone by and they still have not figured out that the old relationship between poverty and crime no longer applies in very rich countries, though once again it still applies in poor countries.
The liberals think they have the solution to crime and many other social ills. If the electorate would just let them redistribute income all those problems would disappear, but the evidence does not support their position, so it may be that the middle-income voters have correctly determined their self-interest.
Trump, on the other hand, has said that he will not cut these programs and sometimes he seems willing to raise taxes on the rich. Many ideological Republicans regard this as socialism and heresy.
But the middle-income Republicans seem comfortable with socialism for the old, even if they oppose socialism for the young. Perhaps this is because old people do not commit violent crimes and disrupt school classrooms. Sure social security and medicare may help members of the underclass, including African Americans and Hispanics move into their neighborhood, but the middle-income whites and Asians are not concerned about the color of people's skin or their ethnicity. The middle-income Republican Trump voter is not a racist in the sense that they do not believe in an ideology based on race, like the NAZI ideology or white supremacy. Furthermore, they do not bear racial animosity. They do not fear African American and Hispanic women, children, and old men. Young men in the high crime years are an issue. Safe neighborhoods and good schools are issues.
Social Security and Medicare, socialism for the old, have been called the third rail of American politics. If you touch the third rail on a subway you die. This analysis makes it clear why socialism for the old is the third rail of American politics.
Furthermore, middle-income voters may support programs that help the old, and perhaps provide medicine and food to all. Programs that threaten the de facto segregation that keeps young African-American and Hispanic men out of their neighborhoods, and young African American and Hispanic students out of their schools can be politically dangerous.
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Last updated March 27, 2017
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