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Self-interest taints view of political world

Matthew Gillham

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Have ideas about how the world ought to be? How the government ought to run? Don’t fool yourself: you’ll probably be voting out of self-interest come November.

Don’t get me wrong, you’ll have quite a few 
justifications for political stances through primary season (I’ll have a few of my own), but have political ideologies become simply a façade to hide behind, a mask of ethics to cover an opinion designed to chiefly benefit you? I would argue yes.

It’s not that we don’t have opinions about how the government should work – most of us do. But if polling numbers can teach us anything, those opinions can, and largely are, shaped by opinions that would chiefly benefit us, sometimes at a cost to society.

Consider a (grossly oversimplified) scenario where two candidates are facing off in a general election. Candidate A, an older, mature Timmy, promises to make 55 percent of the population slightly better off, at the vast expense of the 45 percent left. His opponent, Richard, promises to make the 45 percent significantly better off, at the slight expense of the 55 percent. Who wins the election? If voting is truly determined by self-interest, Timmy, in all his presidential glory, would be sitting in the oval office despite having a platform where the United States as a whol, would profit less than with Richard at the helm.

So why do I think self-interest dominates an individual vote? Mostly because in the face of incomplete information, purely objective ideological voting is impossible – and self-interest taints and skews how we see the world and how it ought to be. It’s inevitable for ideology to, at the least, 
favor self-interest.

To illustrate, the vast majority of economists agree that, as a whole, the subsidies ($10 billion since 2007) that Iowa farmers receive for ethanol is detrimental, as a whole, to the United States economy. But how does Iowa typically vote? Over the last thirty years, no Iowa caucus winner has opposed federal subsidies to the industry. The arc of history might bend towards justice, but the arc of personal opinion bends towards personal benefit.

Consider further the demographic lines that divide political parties over the years. In 2012, 93 percent of African-Americans, 60 percent of people making less than $50,000 and 67 percent of unmarried women voted for Obama, while 59 percent of Caucasians, 78 percent of white evangelicals, and 58 percent of those making more than $200,000 chose Romney. Each group, for various reasons, had patterns in individual decisions that reflected a view on how the world ought to be.

The only problem? These seemingly (or ought-to-be) objective decisions about a country reveal a significant bias towards how it would affect the individual voting. Either it’s a coincidence that each of those votes above fall the way they do, or perhaps one or more of those groups might be 
voting chiefly for themselves.

And such a bias is only as wrong as it is human. In the age of media, as Nate Silver points out 
several times in “The Signal and The Noise,” polarized political opinions can find support in the sheer abundance of media coverage today. Thus, as demographic groups live and interact with those similar to them, they tend to reinforce each other’s thought, finding support for skewed opinions in both each other and the media coverage for which these groups create demand.

Ideological stances bent towards personal gain aren’t morally wrong, per se, but they are often inaccurate, if the goal is a better nation as a whole. The challenge, then, is not to eradicate opinion, but to seek new information and to uncover how your bias might cloud ethical statements about how the world ought to be.

That way, when November does come, you can ask yourself as you check your box: is this really better for the country, or just better for me? And hopefully, such discrepancies in demographic voting patterns rooted solely in self-interest might slowly erode.

Matthew Gillham is a a senior majoring in 
economics. His column runs biweekly.

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Self-interest taints view of political world