My Attempt to Vote Selfishly

How Can I Best Look Out for my Self-Interest?

The Founding Fathers were not thrilled with the idea of political parties. They feared that the existence of parties would lead to a permanent factionalism, with the various factions fighting more for their particular interests than for the country as a whole. Given the current state of affairs in the United States, the Founders were more than a bit prophetic. But given the state of human nature, political parties and self-interested factions may be unavoidable.

It is hard to deny the fact that many Americans vote out of self-interest. Social class, for instance, is one of the most significant determinants of a person’s party affiliation. Higher income people tend to be Republican in order to keep those tax rates low, and poor people tend to be Democrat in order to protect social programs. It does not always work out this way, but I suspect that self-interest is a bigger factor in determining ideology for many people than a rigorous, objective attempt to figure out what is best for the country. We are all influenced by at least a bit of selfishness, no matter how hard we may try to be noble and rational.

So if lots of other people are going to base their vote on self-interest, then I might as well do the same. As an adjunct community college instructor in California, it is clear what I must do in statewide elections. Since Republicans want to bring our perennially deficit prone budget into balance purely with cuts, and education spending is a big chunk of the state budget, then I should vote Democrat across the board. Cuts are going to come either way, but Democrats are more likely to defend education from the more severe actions supported by Republicans. Sure, this may lead to avoiding more cuts with higher taxes, more borrowing, or various accounting shenanigans. Also, it is important to note that much of this education spending goes to bureaucrats, administrators, and pension plans instead of the classroom, and Republicans are more likely to complain about waste than Democrats (and their union buddies). But for me personally, I am more likely to get hurt by education cuts than either tax hikes or future interest payments on borrowing. And if big education cuts are implemented, adjunct instructors like me will suffer much more than those higher-paid administrators or current retirees (with their AARP membership). So like most Americans, I will focus on the short-term, protecting my piece of the pie before some other interest group either eliminates or grabs it.

At the federal level, things get a bit more complicated. Since federal education is far less significant than statewide spending, particularly for me at the community college level, my teaching prospects are unlikely to be impacted much by federal elections. In theory, the fact that Democrats generally favor education spending over Republicans could have some minimal impact, particularly with financial aid programs. If students have easier access to financial aid, more will have the ability to show up and fill my classrooms. But since there is far more demand for classes than supply at the moment, measures regarding financial aid might not matter much either. So I will need to look beyond my particular job to figure out the best way to vote selfishly.

Most federal spending goes toward weapons, Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, and interest on past borrowing. Since I am not in the military, and I do not currently pay into Social Security, government actions in these areas will not directly affect me. And since old people and the defense establishment wield enormous power, we are unlikely to see much significant change in these areas anyway. I also have no access to federally provided health insurance, and if I keep my current job(s), I will not be buying insurance in 2014 from an “insurance exchange.” So any changes to the health care system – whether recent reforms are repealed, changed, or maintained - are unlikely to impact me directly either. And the federal government, of course, can’t do much to avoid paying all of that interest without creating an international financial calamity. So for me specifically, it’s difficult to determine how any significant changes with federal spending will have much of an impact, and major changes seem unlikely anyway. There are too many entrenched interests out there who have a stake in the system as it stands. If a person is not old, disabled, poor, connected to the defense establishment, or employed in the federal bureaucracy, it’s hard to see why they would get excited about federal spending (and elections) at all.

Of course, there is one area of federal policy where we all have an interest: taxes. So the most direct way for me to vote selfishly at the federal level is to vote Republican, the party more likely to defend and/or implement even more tax cuts. But for a person in my position, it is unlikely that the upcoming elections will have much of an impact on my tax rate. Barring an unknown, long lost relative leaving me a fortune or my recently published book - see link at the bottom of the page - becoming a best seller, I am not going to be joining those “rich” people who make more than $250,000 per year. And even Democrats, as recent history has demonstrated, are not stupid enough to push for tax increases on a significant percentage of the population. In spite of the historically low tax rates of recent years, Americans today feel overtaxed, and they will crucify any politicians who seek to raise them even further.

So in spite of my selfish efforts, I am apparently forced to go against human nature and think about the good of the country as a whole. For if the economy improves, and the federal government can start to get its fiscal house in order, these positive developments will ultimately trickle down to little old me. But what is the best way to make these closely related improvements happen: tax cuts, tax increases, defense cuts, entitlement reform, infrastructure spending, further health care changes, deregulation, more regulation of the financial sector, or some combination of the various ideas floating around?

In the end, any objective attempt to deal with complex economic and political problems will lead to a couple of basic conclusions. First, there are not any simple answers, as demonstrated by the very smart people who have been debating one another over these questions for decades. And history, in spite of so many attempts to back up ideological arguments with highly selective historical information, is often not a clear guide. Second, politicians have a limited impact on the economy, especially in a highly partisan age when it is difficult to get much of any significance done. So I can understand why people choose – whether consciously or unconsciously - either to vote selfishly or to break down the world into simplistic, ideological terms in which there are clear answers. You can only get excited about elections, after all, when you feel that there are concrete things that your vote can do to improve your personal situation. Being a bit cynical about the whole thing, however, has at least one advantage. You don’t get too bent out of shape if the elections do not go the way that you hoped.

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Comments 8 comments

Larry Wall 4 years ago

Excellent hub. You said, more eloquently, the same things I have been saying for years. There are just some things that the politicians cannot fix--they can do harm, but they usually cannot fix, such as the current economic situation. We have been in this situation before and survived and thrived for awhile until some people got too greedy, or too many tax cuts were handed out in an election year.

I will check out your book when I get the chance. It sounds interesting.

Voted up, useful and interesting.


christopheranton profile image

christopheranton 4 years ago from Gillingham Kent. United Kingdom

Surely it can't be all just about the economy? Are there no foreign policy issues to influence the voters as well? Also don't people vote on social issues such as Gay marriage, immigration, abortion etc, or don't these things count any more?

I hope everyone makes the wisest decisions possible, but pure self interest is not the only way to go.


dmhenderson profile image

dmhenderson 4 years ago from Missouri, USA

With all the FUD going around, it's not surprising that citizens are in a quandary regarding the best way to go. I think the first step to clarity is ignoring politicians. I don't want to vote selfishly, and I don't want to surrender to the notion that "it's all just beyond us," or words to that effect. The idea that we will all simply bumble on through these hard times because we have before is not terribly convincing; the world has changed too much. Maybe we will and maybe we won't, but if we simply let things happen the thread will run out.


Freeway Flyer profile image

Freeway Flyer 4 years ago Author

This is not meant to be taken (entirely) seriously. It's a thought experiment based on a faulty premise. But in a culture as self-centered as this one, it is the logical result of an outlook where many people look out for number one.


Matt Phillips profile image

Matt Phillips 4 years ago

I suspected that you might be taking a slightly Jonathan Twist approach to the subject, so I'm not entirely sure how to comment. The one thing that I think the polls will bear out (and the false premise you mention), at least over the last 20 years, is that people largely (as in a majority of the population) do not vote in their personal best interests and party affiliation has little to with social class. I believe this is due to a strategic decision on the part of the Republican party to own a reactionary counter revolution against Johnson's Great Society.

The "values" vote often undermines people's capital self-interest but allows for a sense of moral inclusion in a war against "the other", a self-righteous war against those that they believe seek to destroy "their way of life". And to be honest, the strategy has been a monumental success and I'm quite sure that the history books 100 years from now - assuming books still exist - will be dominated by the architects of the strategy.

There is some great studies on the beneficiaries of the EITC that are easy to Google if anyone is interested in how the government actually impacts the lives of everyday people trying to make ends meet.

Thanks for giving a voice to this one, FF. As Thurber said, "There are two kinds of light--the glow that illuminates, and the glare that obscures" and I think you did some nice jujitsu with your glare.


Nick Hanlon profile image

Nick Hanlon 4 years ago from Chiang Mai

Hold an internet referendum on every bill that comes before congress.That would destroy the importance of the party system.


Freeway Flyer profile image

Freeway Flyer 4 years ago Author

Matt, excellent point, and in a twisted way, I may have been trying to address it. What's strange is that I did not even know what I was trying to say as I wrote this hub. It was a thought experiment, and in a convoluted way, it may get people to ask themselves if they are voting in a way that actually benefits them. Before social issues became so big in the 1980's, you could divide Democrats and Republicans largely on their views regarding fiscal and economic policies. Today, it's to hard to find much logic in how people vote, and many apparently think that voting for certain types of politicians will impact our society's family values.


Freeway Flyer profile image

Freeway Flyer 4 years ago Author

Nick, I understand the appeal of that idea. And in many states, through the referendum process, this has been going on for years. The problem is that a significant percentage of the public is not particularly interested or informed when it comes to politics. So whether people are voting for candidates or for the laws themselves, they can still be easily manipulated, and there will still be a tendency to focus on the short-term.

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