Monday, November 21, 2011

Voting against your own interests

In times of elections, many people wonder why parties traditionally advocating for the rights of a minority get so many votes. It is a recurrent topic of conversation among analysts and even in bars and cafés. Just google "why people vote X", making X the political party which, for you, favours the interests of the affluent minority, and you will realise that many other people have asked the same question. And the answers are also miscellaneous, but they can be divided into two groups basically.
On the one hand, some appeal to the voters’ ignorance of political issues, including soft answers (such as “you need to be really cultured to have a clear picture of politics, history and economy, and this is not easy for everybody”) and not so polite answers (to put it bluntly, “people are stupid”). But more or less, all these answers get to the same point: those who vote a party defending different interests means that they are unaware of the political agenda of this party or the most favourable policies for their own interests.
On the other hand, there are some answers saying that voters, especially in those democracies in which a two-party system seems to rule, react according to the pendulum principle --that is, punishing those who have long been ruling the country because they are to be blamed for all the problems, and the other party is the only available alternative. Some times the pendulum swings towards the party favouring the interests of a majority, whereas some other times it swings towards the party favouring the interests of just a few.
So, which answer is correct? Both types of answers may be right (and they are: just check on the news to identify different cases in which either one of them can be applied). But even if these answers are based on our reality, this is not all. Maybe those who vote against their interests are not ignorant fools or misinformed or cast a punishing vote. Or at least not all of them. Maybe it is just that they wish to vote that party. And this is the argument of John Kenneth Galbraith, one of the greatest economists of the 20th century, in his book The Culture of Contentment. We will try to provide you with a short explanation.
For centuries, the ruling minority passed the rules. The rest of the population, despite being a majority, had no saying in the political and economical matters. With the conquest of the parliamentary democracy, things are different in many countries and most people can take part in decision-making. But do not be misled: even if a majority can influence the public life, it does not include everybody. This is what Galbraith calls the contended voting majority --that is, the socially and financially lucky ones.  Anyway, this majority does not include all citizens but just those who really vote --it does not include those citizens who decide not to vote and those who do not have a right to vote (like immigrants). This contended majority votes for favourable parties, those who give priority to their interests above other people’s interests. When these people talk about cutting the Government’s expenditure, they talk about cutting social assistance, cheap housing, public health services, public education or the needs of immigrants, but   never about cutting other provisions like the financial support to ensure bank deposits in case of bankruptcy (which is an astronomical expenditure) or the subventions to large agrarian corporations exporting to Third World countries. According to this contended majority, such expenditure is not a burden for governments (but poor people’s health expenses and unemployment benefits are). On the contrary, this expenditure is the pillar of citizens’ welfare and safety. In other words, it is like in the ancient regime, when nobles justified their privileges as necessary for the good performance of economy and the country’s stability. Currently, the contended majority justify their privileges with the same arguments. Needless to say, there are always economists and political scientists ready to give a more intellectual nuance to this justification.
Defending your own privileges is not always monolithic. There are more and more privileged people who are also concerned for the rights of those who do not enjoy general welfare, going beyond their own personal contentment, and this is one of the best-known forms of social discourse. But in practice, when the contended majority goes to the polls, they give priority to their own welfare rather than to social justice.
When we say “privileged people”, nobody feels included. But privileged does not only include those who live in luxury, have yachts and celebrate parties on a tropical island. Privileged also includes those who have a job, a house and no major problems to make ends meet. These are privileged too, if compared to those who are not financially sound enough. And not wanting to help the underclass seems to be working: just keep what you have and do not lose privileges. The voters of parties who defend these privileges are in fact supporting the end of the welfare state because they ultimately consider that paying less taxes (hence, ending up with the welfare state) benefits them. And they even justify the excess of the affluent society: if the contended majority attacks the excesses of the supercontended minority, their own excesses would be too obvious in the eyes of deprived people. Paraphrasing Galbraith’s words, the grand opulence of the affluent people is the price to pay by the contended majority to keep what they have, which is not so much but it is good enough nonetheless.
To sum it up, our (well-grounded) criticism on the unfair privileges of the affluent citizens should also include some self-criticism towards our advocacy of our own privileges, which in the case of excessive consumption or the claims to pay less taxes just condemn millions of people to utter poverty.
Maybe those who vote the parties defending the privileges of the contended majority know what they are doing. But maybe they should start thinking if it is fair to defend your own interests to the detriment of the undefended minority.


  1. John Kenneth Galbraith:
  2. The Culture of Contentment:

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