Voting against their own interests?

We are often told by our friends on the left that the poorer among Republican supporters are voting against their own interests, and that conservative politicians induce them to do so by appeals to their racism or to their unreasonable attachment to their weapons.

I won’t comment here on their alleged racism or the wisdom (or lack thereof) of gun control. But I will declare them not guilty of voting against their own economic interests and Republicans, by implication, not guilty of “tricking” them into it.

How can that be, you say? Lots of areas where conservative economic policy holds sway, the people tend to be poorer than average. Surely, you say, I should admit that the idea that lower taxes and less regulation leads to more wealth for anyone but the elites has been soundly refuted by the evidence?

Not so fast. While it is true that the average income of such areas is unusually low, that doesn’t mean that conservative economic policies have made those particular people poor. The question we should ask ourselves is not “why are those people poorer on average?” but “why do so many poor people tend to live where relatively non-leftist economic policy holds sway?”.

I submit to you that the answer is simple: Because they can.

If your labor isn’t worth a whole lot, and you’re too proud to go on welfare, your ideal environment is one in which (a) housing is cheap, (b) everything else is cheap, and (c) lots of employers in the area are offering low-wage jobs that you qualify for.

Now housing is going to be cheaper where land use restrictions and building codes are less stringent. Everything else is going to be cheaper where commercial land is cheap (which goes back to the land use restrictions and building codes) and taxes and business regulations are light (thus minimizing costs that end up getting passed to you) and where the local powers-that-be aren’t harassing successful discount retailers and chasing them out of the area.

And low-wage jobs are going to be plentiful where the cost imposed on businesses that offer them in taxes and regulation is relatively low, and where the local powers-that-be aren’t harassing them for offering jobs at wages that you can actually earn.

In short, the policies that our friends on the left characterize as “screwing the poor” are more hospitable to them than the “compassionate” policies of jacking up the price of everything in sight and chasing out their jobs. For many Americans, generous welfare benefits aren’t a consolation. Thus, it really shouldn’t surprise us to see such people congregate in areas that have policies more aligned with their true economic interests, and the fact that such people drag down the local statistical averages isn’t an indictment of the policies that allow them to stand on their own two feet and actually get by without resorting to charity. And it shouldn’t surprise us to see such people voting for a contiuation of the policies that allow this state of affairs to continue, and to vote against saddling themselves with high taxes and heavy regulation that they really can’t afford.

Wealthier people can afford that nonsense. And areas with more wealthy people tend to show less resistance to such nonsense, since their own standard of living isn’t so drastically affected. Not that they wouldn’t be better off still without it, unless they make their money through regulations that keep competitors from bothering them. Or they vote against their own economic interests precisely so they can make the “riff raff” bugger off (two can play that accusatory mind-reading game!).

9 thoughts on “Voting against their own interests?”

  1. Yes, your are right. And I’m sorry this is so long (perhaps you should develop a “hidden” feature for those of us with lengthy replies so they don’t take up all your space).

    The people who make that argument are generally urban and don’t understand small town America.

    First of all, urban liberals believe we define ourselves by economic class. Small town Americans don’t think that way; we define ourselves by family or geography or hobby or church. We see Marxist definitions as limiting.

    A friend (of another, clearly wrong, ideology) asked me to look at a Harper’s article; it observes that the poorest counties in the country, in my native Nebraska, are solidly Republican. The first paragraph quotes a friend of the author, who remarks “How can anyone who works for someone else be a Republican?” Given George Soros (and those of his weight category) in this election, I sometimes wonder who is left that they think might be Republican.

    Moving on, this betrays a real misunderstanding of who lives in those counties. They are made up of overworked and underrewarded entrepreneurs. Where I come from few work for others and few have employees. We were willing to work hard because we were our own bosses. Farmers run small family businesses, ones with unusually tight deadlines and little security – we were at the mercy of weather, broken machinery, international markets. But we like being close to the earth, a part of a closely interwoven community, bringing up our children with a sense of the responsibility and dignity of work. These are choices made with our eyes wide open. Many have, indeed, made more elsewhere because small towns breed the kind of work habits that make us effective.

    The choices may not be the ones that Lewis Lapham would make. But they are not stupid.

    In addition, we often know quite a bit about the world. (The Great Books discussion group thrived in my youth; my family would exchange magazines such as Esquire and the New Yorker with their neighbors; many are on the net today.) What we knew – either by instinct or by reading – was that collectivization was not likely to be a good thing. Mao and Stalin, Mugabe and Castro – all had turned rich farmlands into regions of starvation. Certainly the Democrats would not argue for the policies of these dictators, but I suspect that some of the Harpers’ staff would find such solutions a good deal more attractive than the farm boys with whom I grew up.

    And it is guys like that – who were out there moving irrigation pipes in 8th grade – who are more likely to see duty and honor and community interwoven in a way that makes their lives more meaningful to them and yet that also makes them see values greater than their own personal desires.

    They have proved Ehrlich crazy and have worked to feed the world. Few government dollars have been better spent than on Ag Extension, Ag Experimental Stations, and County Agents.

    The Chicago Boyz who know more about economics may have a solution. Yes, I wish these farmers made more; I wish they were appreciated more. The current system – with farm subsidies and low wages are leading to the death of the small family farm. Only the really stubborn are holding out. Hanson speaks profoundly and bitterly. He understands because he’s lived it. But, you notice, his essays are showing up in National Review and City, not in the Nation and Harper’s. I suspect that is because he is a historian and hasn’t blinked at the big lessons of the twentieth century.

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  3. I found your post via Sebastian Holsclaw’s blog ( And made the following comment there:

    The more obvious reason is that povery corellates with religious devotion. People simply are less religious as the get richer. Are there exceptions? Of course, but in general, this holds sway. Hence, the poorer parts of the USA are peopled by religious folks. And the caucasian members of this group tend to vote for the party that represents their ideology.

    We are seeing, I think, a major realignment of voters and the parties. Affluent people of all stripes are increasingly voting for the Democrats. This is not in the least bit counterintuitive. More so than the GOP, the Democrats are the party of the status quo in America in terms of economics. The Democrats might favor higher taxes, but most upper income houselholds have long since realized that only rubes don’t know enough to hire a good accountant. Also, the tax code as it’s currently structered, via the mortgage interest deduction, heavily rewards households with enough earning power and credit to qualify for huge mortgages (the tax code furthermore props up the value of most high income households’ biggest asset, their homes).

    Also, like any good bourgeoisie, America’s affluent and upper middle class are deeply suspicious of government debt, because they rightly fear such large-scale borrowing may some day impinge on their ability to service their own (often huge) personal debt. Clearly today’s Republican party (at least its more radical elements) views huge defecits as an agent of structural reform. I know if I were carrying an 3-year ARM of $500,000, I’d be sweating bullets right now.

    Moreover, GOP plans to reform Social Security don’t create much excitement in the ranks of the upper middle class and affulent. After all, the regressive nature of the tax is exactly what your economic interest would favor if you’re a two-income household pulling in, say, 250k a year. And since even very wealthy retirees will receive a cash pension under current rules, it only makes sense to support the status quo. This support for the staus quo tends to hold true on many issues: education, Medicare, the tax code, etc. Simply put, GOP supported market-style reforms hold limited appeal to people who are doing very well under current rules.

    So, the Democratic party has really evolved into the defending bullwark of the affluent (if not necessarily the hyper-rich), professional home-owning class. The Democrats’ lavish support of superior goods such as environmental protection and social libertarianism neatly coincide with this evolution.

    Thus, the reason we see the red/blue divide is that the two groups tend to dominate in numbers on a regional basis. But we’re already beginning to see how this may change in the Democrats’ favor. As the economy becomes ever more national in nature (or, better yet, global), urban areas become ever more alike. Thus voters in the nicer bits of metro Phoenix, Atlanta or Houston may become increasingly indistinguishable from their counterparts in Boston or San Francisco — to the peril of today’s GOP.

  4. The progressive tax system is one of the policies that maintains the staus quo, which explains why the wealthy have generally supported the Democratic party in numbers that some would find astonishing given the historical rhetoric of that party dating all the way back to Jefferson. But there’s a reason that the Rockefellers of the world are Democrats.

    Here’s why: The progressive tax code taxes income not wealth. If you are a wealthy aristocrat, let’s say a Kennedy for example, Ted can send 91% of his income (OK, nobody actually paid that much unless they were complete morons) to the government and he’ll still be rich for as long as he lives. He may not acccumulate as much additional wealth as he would have otherwise, but his lifestyle won’t be deteriorated in the least. Most silver spoon types don’t have the sort of ambition that lead to the creation of the original wealth in the first place, they just want to party, play “opps I dropped my towel”, and drown young, nubile campaign workers in a drunken stupor anyways, so why worry about a few bucks when your every need has been taken care of your whole life?

    But, the progressive tax system DOES penalize people trying to GET rich by accumulating income. As soon as they make an income that would lead to wealth accumulation they are taxed at higher and higher rates. It less true in America than in Europe, but the progressive tax system discourages socio-economic climbing.

    What the tax system does affect is that the taxes taken could otherwise be used for capital formation or for hiring workers, buying plant and equipment or upgrading infrastructure that leads to more productivity and more jobs for the average worker. But the wealthy generally don’t want anybody else enterring their priviledged existence, so it’s a small sacrifice.

    The “helping the poor” rhetoric also soothes the rich, white guilt that many of these extraordinarily rich guys feel, while doing absolutely nothing that will actually endanger their place in the world, or actually help the poor. If George Soros or Warren Buffet really wanted to help the poor they wouldn’t spend billions trying to get Democrats elected, they would take those billions and buy a mutual fund for every person living below the poverty line and put $50,000 in it. If these people had any sense they could be out of poverty within a generation due to the wonders of compound interest.

  5. I followed a link from Obsidian Wings, and made this comment there:

    The thesis is that “people with less marketable skills who nonetheless want to avoid living on the dole will choose to live in places where they can afford to live.”

    It seems to me that you could empirically test this by finding out whether poor areas that vote Republican actually have significantly lower percentage of people on government assistance than correspondingly poor areas that vote Democratic.

    Another way would be to see if these poor Republican communities experience disproportionate population growth during recessions. Presumably a measurable number of these Republicans who become unable to afford their lifestyle during recessions would respond by moving.

    Results would probably depend on how you define “the dole”. If you were willing to include agricultural subsidies in your definition of “the dole”, I strongly suspect that you would fail to confirm the thesis. My impression from Habitat for Humanity is that there are an awful lot of people on some kind of government assistance in rural areas in the South. But I honestly don’t know.

    On a macro level, we all know that aggregate “blue states” pay more in federal taxes than they get back, and “red states” get more back from the federal government than they pay in federal taxes, but that doesn’t really answer the question.

  6. OK, my math may not work out exactly, but these 2 guys and many more like them could certainly help a lot of poor people if they really wanted to.

  7. And Almeida, poverty and religion are not necessarily linked.

    I didn’t say they’re necessarily linked, and certainly the two variables, religious observance and wealth, aren’t perfect opposite corellates, but I think nonetheless the evidence is pretty strong in that direction. The United States is one example, of course: Religious devotion tends to be more overt and more regular in the poorer parts of the country, and alternatively, the trend toward secularism is strongest in the most affluent regions. I also think the tendency is quite apparent in, say, Europe, where, with time, greater affluence tends to erode traditional religious devotion in favor of secularism (Ireland would be the classic, though not the only, illustration what I’m referring to). I’m not, for what it’s worth, making a judgement as to whether or not this is a good or bad development. Certainly there’s a lot to be said for secularism, not least of which is the tendency to avoid fighting wars about theology.

    In general, the still-evident influence of Marx in academia tends to make economic determinism the coin of the realm in analyzing socioeconomic phenomena. Economics counts for a lot, but it’s not the only game in town, especially with regard to the way people behave, and vote, as they do.

  8. I think Mr. Barlow’s thought is interesting, but one needs to differentiate between Federal and State/Local taxation and assistance. Federal taxation isn’t going to be different in different localities. It would still be cheaper to live in a place where there is less local and state assistance, because this would have to come from local and state taxation and hidden costs as the post discussed.

    You can’t get away from Federal taxation by moving from, say, Santa Barbara to Butte, but you may be able to increase assistance from the federal government (e.g. farming assistance) by making such a move. But this wouldn’t affect the local cost of living. Actually, this idea would imply that the best place for the poor to live would be in a place that lends itself to high federal assistance but no local/state assistance. These areas might historically vote Democrat nationally and Republican locally/state. Although now they could love Republicans nationally.

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