What’s the Matter with New York?

Two months ago, which is, like, 49 months in blog-months, Kevin Drum suggested there was a very good essay to be written called “Why People Hate Liberals.” This is not that essay. But it reminded me that there’s something that irritates me quite a lot about liberals. And I say this as a full-fledged card-carrying pretty-much-liberalish-certainly-more-left-than-rightist. That is this: when liberals are stunned, puzzled, bemused by conservatives’ continuing interest in voting against their own economic self-interest. The working assumption seems to be that to vote for any reason other than economic self-interest is to be somehow bamboozled. Or at least, clearly irrational.

Before I get to what’s wrong with the left, I will say this does remind me a bit of a sin of the right. Nothing drives me nuttier than a self-proclaimed “values voter.” I was reminded again, when our own intrepid Tod braved the “Values Voter Summit.” Is there any construal of the act of freely voting where it does not express a value? Aren’t all votes “values votes”? Republicans may not like the values liberals express when they vote. But a valueless vote is practically an incoherent concept. Even on Jason‘s boo-hurrah theory of voting (he argues that it is obvious that your vote makes a difference so if you vote, it must be to say yay to one candidate or boo to another), you are expressing a value by symbolically affiliating yourself with a candidate.

Anyhow. Back to my kinfolk, the blue-staters, the friends-of-unions: think of all the things that matter to you. Think of all the things you want, all your goals for your life, everything you want to get and achieve and experience. Then think of all the things that you want for your family. Okay. Now think of only the things that are in your economic self-interest. My guess is, unless you are a cartoon of a Wall Street investment banker, those two lists are not exactly the same. The things that in your economic interest are also part of your general goals, sure. I’m guessing, however, that you have other goals as well. Maybe you want to read the complete works of Jane Austen, feel safer in your neighborhood, be more patient with your children, learn Spanish, see your children flourish in various ways, stay healthy, fall in love and stay in love with a person with whom you can have a healthy relationship, etc.

Now think of all the things you want for the world that have nothing to do with you whatsoever. Surely, unless you are navel-gazing to the point of near-sociopathy, you have desires that the world change in some way that will not benefit you at all. Maybe you hope more homeless people will have homes. Maybe you hope future generations will have a greener planet. We liberals are sort of self-congratulatory on the point that we really care about other people, no?

Can’t we imagine voting for anything that might be in our interest that does not happen to be in our economic self-interest? Can’t we imagine voting for a state of affairs that we want for the world, but from which we will get no benefit? I certainly can. In fact, I was sort of startled to realize that this upcoming presidential election is the first election where I actually feel like my economic interests hinges in a significant way on the outcome and that I am voting accordingly. Even so, I wouldn’t say my perceived economic benefit is the main reason why I’m voting the way I’m voting. It’s just one of many reasons.

There seems to be a large set of possible states of affairs that might not be in a person’s economic self-interest, but which she might consider in her overall interests or her desires for the world. Even if she didn’t have all that much money.

In fact, it seems pretty damn condescending to say that the only reasons that should motivate poor people to vote are those that impact their own economic betterment. Are we really telling someone that on pain of irrationality, they should forget about any other values they might have, anything else they might want for themselves or the world? Is that really what we’re saying? Is caring about something larger than yourself only rational if you’re rich? Why aren’t liberals chiding Warren Buffett for voting for reasons other than economic self-interest?

Liberals don’t happen to like the things that poor conservatives care about other than their own economic interests, such as being pro-life or anti-gay-marriage. I, for one, am stridently pro-gay-marriage. I believe conservatives are dead wrong on this. But these issues deserve arguments on their own merits, rather than an insistence that it is irrational for certain people to care about, say, moral and/or cultural issues because they should be more concerned with how they are going to get dinner on the table. The conservative poor, however, are rationally entitled to care about something other than the fact of their own poverty.

Cross-posted at main page.

Rose Woodhouse

Elizabeth Picciuto was born and reared on Long Island, and, as was the custom for the time and place, got a PhD in philosophy. She freelances, mainly about disability, but once in a while about yeti. Mother to three children, one of whom is disabled, two of whom have brown eyes, three of whom are reasonable cute, you do not want to get her started talking about gardening.

One Comment

  1. Thomas Frank’s thesis was more complicated than that. He wasn’t just bemused at his fellow Kansans for voting against their economic self interests. He thought “Values Voters” were suckers. Guys like Sam Brownback would promise to fight abortion and smut on TV and gay marriage and countless other culture war issues. But, in Frank’s opinion, they never delivered. When they got into power, they’d largely ignore the culture war and vote for tax cuts for the rich and Wall Street deregulation and other things that were clearly in the economic interests of the elite and against the interests of their constituents.

    The fatal flaw in Frank’s book, as Andrew Gelman later proved, was that Red State voters largely /do/ vote their economic self-interest. The poorer you are, the more likely you are to vote Democrat, wherever you live. If you’re a rich conservative and you live in a Red State, the GOP caters to your economic and cultural interests.

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