Voters’ best interest?

Who's best qualified to say what's in the 'voters' best interest'? The voters themselves, or commentators?

By , Guest blogger

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    A voter drops off his ballot at a King County Elections drop box in north Seattle, on Election Day 2010. When low-income voters vote in favor of Republican policies, are they voting against self-interest?
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Ronald Dworkin, a well-known legal scholar, describes last month’s election results as depressing and puzzling. In a commentary in the New York Review of Books, he asks, “Why do so many Americans insist on voting against their own best interests?”

The New York University law and philosophy professor is not the only left-liberal to pose this question. It is a common belief that many people irrationally side with capitalist fat cats while opposing Obama administration policies that benefit themselves, such as the new medical entitlement.

“Why do they vote in such numbers for the party favored by the bankers and traders who brought on the economic catastrophe?” wonders Mr. Dworkin.

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The argument here is that many voters will reap the benefits of increased government action but do not have to worry about the costs, which will be borne by the well-off. Hence it appears to be rational for a large part of the electorate to favor bigger government, trusting it to take from the relatively rich and give to the relatively poor, like a gigantic many-headed Robin Hood.

Higher-income groups indeed carry a large chunk of the tax burden. So why do individuals in lower-income brackets oppose the growth of government? Well, for one thing, they and their children will still bear part of ballooning cost. Two, they or their children have the possibility of climbing up the income ladder, thereby joining the rich who are being soaked. The left-liberal argument assumes that upward mobility is not really in the cards and people are irrational to think of it—in other words, it rules out the American dream.

But there is more. The political-bureaucratic class, as the middleman that does the redistributing of wealth, takes to itself a hefty share of the pie. Obviously, its goodies include capitalizing on a political career to get plum jobs on Wall Street, as for instance Obama’s former budget director Peter Orszag just did at Citigroup, reportedly for a salary in the several million dollars. Bankers and public functionaries are often the same people moving back and forth through a revolving door. Knowing this, voters who take a dim view of bankers are unlikely to love them in their guise as public agents.

The more the government does, the greater the various opportunities for the political class—this is the one group that benefits hugely from the limitless expansion of Leviathan.

Perhaps the most important reason we may vote against what Mr. Dworkin identifies as our best interest is that some of us don’t relish being turned into wards of the state. The sight of so many tentacles of government increasingly insinuating themselves into our existence, including our health insurance, was surely a big factor in this election.

The right to lead your life with less political-bureaucratic-legal meddling and to preserve this right for the next generation goes beyond economic calculation. This is a moral issue. Perversely, redistribution advocates claim the moral high ground, as William McGurn points out in the Wall Street Journal. That’s because liberty does not enter their calculus.

Here’s a new puzzle: why do people like Dworkin argue for the best interests of the political class?

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