In the twenty-first century, it seems that during every year divisible by 4, the left recycles their “analysis” that many Americans vote against their self-interest by not electing Democrats.

The most famous of these quadrennial efforts was historian Thomas Frank’s 2004 What’s the Matter with Kansas, which spent 18 weeks on the New York Times bestseller list. He argued that people in his home state voted Republican, even though it undermined Democrats’ redistributive agenda which would have expanded government coercion and shifted more of others’ resources to Kansans, an “obvious” violation of their self-interest. In the face of economic difficulties, “ask them about the remedies their ancestors proposed (unions, antitrust, public ownership), and you might as well be referring to the days when knighthood was in flower.”

In the current election, similar views were channeled by Leon Friedman in a Huffington Post article titled “Why Does the (White) Lower Middle Class Vote Republican?” The core of his analysis was:

Based purely on self-interest, such lower wage earners should vote for the party that would help them the most economically. The Democrats favor a higher minimum wage, protection of union rights, generous, if not free, medical care programs for working class Americans, safety regulations for the working place, reducing global warming (which affects the health of everyone), higher taxes on rich people to pay for even more generous social programs, and maintaining if not increasing social security payments. Republicans, on the other hand, want to reduce taxes on the rich, restrict union rights, repeal Obamacare, privatize social security benefits (which would could to undermine the program’s reliability) and eliminate various regulations on businesses, including safety requirements and efforts to deal with global warming.

Policies that Appear to Help, Really Hurt

It is worth noting that in a world without free lunches, the supposedly beneficial Democratic policies cited are all stolen lunches. And once people have had time to respond, market capitalization will turn many of those stolen lunches into ones “beneficiaries” must pay for, whether they are worth the price or not. (For example, mandated benefits which will ultimately come out of worker compensation packages.)

Furthermore, many of those redistributionist policies benefit some at the expense of others from within same groups, rather than offering an unmitigated gain to all Higher minimum wages, for example, which benefit some low-skill workers, but harm others via reduced jobs, hours and fringe benefits. We see similar results in the case of increased power to raise union wages, which harms all other workers by shifting labor supply into the non-union sector, lowering wages there.

However, even if we were to grant that some stolen lunches would expand the resources under the control of redistributive clients of government, that does not imply voting against such policies is inexplicable. Reconsidering Adam Smith’s analysis can show why.

Self-Interest vs. Selfishness

Paul Heyne, in Are Economists Basically Immoral? identified the drift of some economists away from Adam Smith’s principle of self-love (not self-interest) to where “self-interest is identified with selfishness, selfish interests are assumed to be material interests, and concern for justice or fairness is regarded as irrational.” In consequence, “Many of the most eminent and sophisticated theorists in the economics profession make no effort to distinguish between self-interest and selfishness or between rational behavior and greedy behavior.”

Heyne would bring us back to the Smithian emphasis on reputation, and “the impartial spectator” whose respect we most value.

A clear implication … is that self-respect is for many people a primary objective in self-interested behavior. A large portion of the anomalies … disappear the moment we recognize that it is in many people’s clear self-interest to behave in ways that will allow them to retain their self-respect.

Heyne further noted the role of the impartial spectator in self-respect, particularly in terms of justice:

When Smith argued that everyone should be “left perfectly free to pursue his own interest in his own way,” it was only on the important condition that “he does not violate the laws of justice.” … Legislation is unjust, in Smith’s view, when it promotes the interests of one group of citizens by imposing unequal restraints on the actions of other groups.

Or, to quote Smith:

To hurt in any degree the interest of any one order of citizens for no other purpose but to promote that of some other, is evidently contrary to that justice and equality of treatment which the sovereign owes to all the different orders of his subjects.

If we accept Smith’s view of justice — equality of treatment, contrasted with government favoritism at others’ expense — the redistributionist policies being promoted are plainly unjust. If being just is an important part of one’s self-respect, one would have to weigh the added resources made available by an unjust policy against the damage done to one’s self-respect and one’s reputation with others.

To illustrate, what if you wish to be just (internally) and known as just (externally)? Would you choose to engage in thievery, directly or via government? It depends. Virtually everyone would be willing to give up some coercive ill-gotten gains to be more just. But the values people place on being more just (or what they consider just) differ, as do the “prices” in different situations. In many cases, that can explain voting “yes” on some policies that supposedly advance your self-interest (e.g., those with a smaller cost in self-respect or a bigger narrow self-interest payoff), while voting “no” on others (e.g., those with a larger cost in self-respect or a smaller narrow self-interest payoff). Further, it can explain why those promoting policies that amount to theft use so many rhetorical and logical tricks to rationalize them as something else (e.g., Marx’s justification of workers expropriating capitalists because the capitalists supposedly expropriated workers first, echoed by the more recent demonization of “the 1%,” or the current insistence on calling every project that takes one group’s resources to pay for others’ benefits an “investment in our future”).

However, for such a self-respect mechanism to persist over time, opponents of state-sponsored redistribution of wealth would have to act, not just talk, on behalf of justice (which Cicero defined as “doing no injury to men” over two millennia ago) and advocate fewer unjust policies.

Gary M. Galles is a professor of economics at Pepperdine University. He is the author of The Apostle of Peace: The Radical Mind of Leonard Read.


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