Rebirth of Reason


Voter Motivation
by Joseph Rowlands

Occasionally people will describe to me why they think people vote for certain candidates and policies. A popular notion is that the leftist politicians have widespread support among welfare recipients and others who are trying to get free money. And the corresponding belief is that conservatives are supported by people who want to keep their money. In other words, the primary motivation for voting behavior is some kind of self-interest, whether short-sighted or not.


I find this theory problematic for a number of reasons. When I do find people who vote for leftist policies, they are almost never beneficiaries of those policies themselves. The primary motivation for their voting is a belief in altruism. Even when I've talked to very poor people, they are motivated by trying to help the even poorer.


Those voting for conservatives also tend to vote based on moral motivations. There are plenty of poor people who vote for Republicans because they believe in individual responsibility and that people should be allowed to succeed. It isn't just wealthy people voting for conservatives. And in fact many wealthy people vote liberal.


The idea that selfish motivations dominate the political landscape is wrong and creates a distorted view of the world. For instance, libertarians and conservatives are often depressed at the likelihood of making any kind of progress towards freedom by the thought that people will always vote to get free stuff. It seems inevitable if those espousing big government constantly offer more loot for their constituents. But this misunderstand the motivations on both sides. In this view, it should be shocking that as many people vote for allegedly free market supporters. That Republicans ever win is a surprise. But when you see that voting patterns reflect moral beliefs and not a hope for loot, reality makes much more sense.


A different problem with this mistaken assumption is that it is assumed that conservatives are all rich, or have been fooled or bribed by the rich. A common idea is that anyone who supports free markets and private property must be getting corporate funding. This is all wrong, and people can and do support these moral positions even without hope of direct payouts. But the assumption creates the impression that there is something fundamentally corrupt going on. And more importantly in the altruistic world we live it, there is an assumption that petty selfishness is the only motivation for voting conservative. As long as that belief holds, the right will continue to be dismissed as mean-spirited and selfish at the expense of others, instead of upholding their own moral ideals.


In some ways, the fictions that the left is primarily supported through welfare recipients would be easier to deal with. It is clearly one group versus another. There are winners and losers, and you might get the losers (those who pay taxes) to stand up against the winners (the parasites). But if altruism is the key motivator, then it isn't so simple. Many of the people who are victims of redistribution may still favor it and see their own loss a kind of moral sacrifice.


If altruism is the motivator, then it must be tackled head on. You can't expect people to stand up for their own rights when they feel that they should be sacrificing for the sake of others.

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