Economics Index and Qualifications
By Richard Bruce BA, MA, and PhC in Economics
Former Instructor St. John's University, New York City

Rwpublican Policies and Middle Income Self-Interest

You hear the question from the pundits all the time. Why do middle-income people vote Republican? Why don't they vote their self-interest? Are the middle-income people confused or are the elites confused? More specifically what does Trump offer the middle-income voter? No doubt both the elites and the middle-income voters are confused, but if we properly understand the middle-income voter's self-interest in terms of religion, good schools, crime, and safe neighborhoods, then their votes make more sense than the pundits give them credit for.

Probability, Self-Interest, and Values, In Theory

First, it needs to be said, the probability of casting the deciding vote is vanishingly small so there is no temporal self-interested reason for people to vote vote for their self-interest and against their values. The man who is willing to give very little to help the poor out of his own pocket, or is unwilling to spend even trivial amounts to buy a green, ecology friendly product, may vote to give government tax revenue to the poor or spend it on protecting the ecology. Voting your values costs virtually nothing, because the probability that your vote will decide the election is so close to zero.

Furthermore, the average household gives hundreds of dollars to charity every year. The sacrifices involved in selfless voting in a state or national 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 finally pointed out that the idea 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 help me 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 published 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.

Voting, Self-Interest, and Values, Observed Empirically

So, if people are being rational they should vote their values, and ignore their self-interest, but do people actually act that way? Several decades ago a number of academic articles were published on the empirical issue by David Sears a social psychology professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, and various collaborators. They found over and over again that when factors measuring self-interest and values were added into the equation, the values determined the vote and the self-interest variables dropped out.

So rational self-interest 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.

Religious Self-Interest

When we discuss values and self-interest, religious self-interest is normally counted as a value. The term self-interest is used to mean temporal economic self-interest. Religious self-interest, the desire to please a supernatural entity, usually God, to receive benefits in this life or the next comes under the heading of values.

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. Furthermore when you ask religious people if they vote their religion they almost universaly say they do.

Class and Ethnic Loyalties, The Appearance of Self-Interest

Why then are there so many people that think voting is determined by temporal economic self-interest? One reason is that at first glance it often appears to be. One of the values that guide voting is group loyalty, including class, ethnic, local, and racial loyalties. These group loyalties lead people to vote in ways that appear self-interested.

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.

Class Interest and Middle-Income Voters For the Republicans and Trump

So this brings us back to wondering why middle-income voters would support Republicans. How do the Republicans serve their class interest? Why do middle-income voters support tax cuts for the rich, especially when decade after decade there is precious little evidence that this makes the economy grow faster? Are they simply confused by the clever arguments of the rich, blinded by racism, what is it?

Unequal Income Distribution Serves the Class Interests of Middle-Income Voters

Many pundits, the liberals, and the Democrats think that some movement in the direction of income equality and therefore governmental income redistribution is in the interest of middle-income voters. They are quite certain that they, not the Republicans represent the best interests of middle-income voters.

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.

Poverty, Inequality and Crime

Of course, the liberals do not see it this way. They are convinced that giving money to the underclass will change their behavior. Liberals typically believe crime is caused by poverty.

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.

The Liberals Were Right When The Country Was Poor

Does this mean there is nothing to the liberal theory that poverty causes crime? Actually no, it does not. There are many poor countries with murder rates far above the American rate, but no rich, First World countries with murder rates nearly as high as the American rate. The great depression in the 1930's saw a rise in the murder rate. Rising income and economic equality tend to lower murder rates in countries that have not achieved developed nation status, about thirteen thousand dollars a year per person according to the World Bank. There is massive evidence that the liberals are right for developing countries today, and they were right when the developed countries had not achieved what today we consider developed status. In the 1930s neither the United States nor any other major country was what the World Bank considers developed.

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 more than 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 or their class interest.

There is no Automatic Equation between Self-Interest and Voting, Values Matter

Of course, as I have argued above self-interest does not necessarily determine votes because the individual voter is unlikely to cast the deciding vote. Ideology and religion are far more powerful in the voting booth than in the marketplace. The Catholic Church favors government redistribution of income, so middle-income Catholics might still vote for redistribution.

Many Republicans believe in ideologies, for example the philosophy of Ayn Rand, that oppose government income redistribution. This could influence them to vote against their economic self-interest. So my point is not that middle income Republican voters are voting their self-interest or their class interest, but simply that they might be. The voters may be reasonably calculating their self-interest, or even the interests of their class in objectively reasonable ways that lead them to vote Republican.

Social Security, Medicare, Republicans and Trump

Many Republicans leaders want to cut Social Security and Medicare. These are not popular cuts with the voters, even Republican voters.

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 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.

Lesson for Republicans

There is a message here for Republican leaders. Many Republican leaders entertain the fantasy that the Republican party is composed of people who agree on an ideology of small government. There is some truth to this. Because the probability of casting the deciding vote is infinitesimal ideology is important and many Republicans agree with this ideology. However, the Republican party is a coalition of religious voters, supporters of gun rights, and other causes. An important part of the coalition are middle-income people who are worried about crime and other social pathologies of the underclass. For them, social security and socialized medicine are very different than welfare.

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.

Lessons for Democrats

There are also lessons for Democrats. First, a message from Karl Marx, violent street criminals are not revolutionaries, nor are they useful to the revolution. Violent street criminals and other thugs fit along with other groups under Marx's term lumpenproletariat, a group useless and indeed harmful to the revolution. Violent crime usually helps elect Republicans and prevents, rather than encourages, income redistribution. There have been rare and brief exceptions, but this has been the overwhelming trend.

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 for the Democrats.

The Elite vs. The People

Finally, the elite should realize that the people may not be as confused and ignorant as they imagine. The wealth and privilege of the elite gives the elite the opportunity to learn more, but also the opportunity to cling stubbornly to failed ideas that have not and will not work.

Here is an index to my other pages on economics, and a short review of my qualifications in this field.

Tell me what you think. Here is my contact information..

Last updated March 27, 2017

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