Last night on the NewsHour with Jim Lehrer there was a segment with Tom Frank, the author of What’s the Matter with Kansas?: How Conservatives Won the Heart of America. Frank argues that conservatives have successfully used cultural issues to con the lower and middle classes into voting against what Frank believes to be their “economic self-interest.” It’s probably the leading explanation for the migration of the middle class away from the Democratic party. A smart Democratic friend of mine from church recently used it while lamenting Mormons’ support for Republicans. The NewsHour invited conservative David Frum, one of Bush’s former speech writers, to respond to Frank. Frum responded ably (if Democrats care so much about the lower and middle classes, why do they dismiss their opinions on cultural issues important to them? Who is Frank to tell someone they should care more about the sales tax rate than abortion? ), but he didn’t expose the weakest part of Frank’s argument: his premise.
The common idea that forms Frank’s premise — that people should vote their self-interest — is repugnant and corrosive to public discourse.
What Frank means when he says people should vote for their self-interest is this: people should support policies that benefit themselves vis a vis others. Labor should support policies that benefit themselves vis a vis management; employees should support policies that benefit themselves vis a vis their employers; low income earners should oppose tax cuts for high income earners; white people like Tom Frank should oppose policies that benefit minorities vis a vis whites.
Oops! Even though it’s in Frank’s self-interest to oppose affirmative action, he supports it! Which political huckster has duplicated the conservative trick and conned Frank into supporting affirmative action against his own self-interest? No one, of course, has tricked Tom Frank. He knows perfectly well that affirmative action gives preference to women and racial minorities and does not benefit white males like Tom Frank personally. He supports affirmative action because he thinks it’s good for society as a whole, even though the policy doesn’t benefit himself personally.
That is how everyone should vote on every issue: for policies that are fair and good for society as a whole, even if the policy doesn’t directly benefit themselves. It’s never proper to support affirmative action because one benefits from it, or to oppose it because one doesn’t benefit from it. The only justification to support or oppose affirmative action is because you believe it is good or bad for society.
The same goes for policies about tax burdens. It is only proper to vote for tax policies that are good for society and that are fair — how the tax policy effects oneself should not be a consideration. And many people with low incomes, like my mother, don’t think the wealthy should pay more than they do. Tom Frank and my friend from church would try to convince my mom that she could have more money and services if only she would stick it to the corporations and the rich at the polls. But she, and many conservatives like her, reject out-of-hand Frank’s argument that her voting-booth analysis should be: What’s in it for me?
Because Tom Frank wouldn’t try to persuade my mom to oppose affirmative action for minorities, it’s clear he don’t really think people should vote in their narrow self-interest. (Nor does Frank complain that the wealthiest Americans are becoming increasingly Democratic, even though it’s against their “self-interest,” as Frank defines it.) In reality, Frank, my friend, my mom and me are all in agreement: we think people should only vote for policies that are good and fair. We believe that what’s really in our “self-interest” is to live in a society that is good and fair. What we disagree on is what apportionment of the tax burden is good and fair. Frank harms public discourse, however, by employing the narrow “self-interest” argument only when selling to people that would directly benefit from a policy.
No one should support a policy because it benefits themselves at others’ expense. The self-interest argument pits citizens against one another. It’s a concept that doesn’t belong in a moral person’s vocabulary.