Self-interest and public opinion

Being a longtime political junkie and occasionally involved in campaigns I suggest that, putting the ideologues aside, the driving force in voting behaviour is perceived self-interest.

commenter Graham today

I’m not so sure. Though there is a complex relationship between opinion on issues and voting behaviour, a self-interest hypothesis at best seriously under-explains opinion on numerous issues, and in some cases people hold opinions that seem contrary to their self-interest.

Self-interest under-explains opinion because there are many issues in which the voter (or poll respondent) has no personal material stake. People are passionate about the ‘sorry’ issue though, as the ‘practical reconciliation’ critics point out, it in itself will make no material difference to anyone. The republicans don’t argue that doing away with monarchy will make us richer, but that it will somehow make us feel more independent. The gay civil union/marriage issue cannot materially affect more than 2-3% of the population, and probably much less, yet most people seem to have a view on it. The government’s Tampa exercise was very popular, though most Australians live many hours flying time from where the boats come in, and most will probably never meet a refugee. The Iraq war is unpopular, even though few Australians know any soldier serving there and the cost has had no impact on daily life back home.

In the most recent federal election, many people would have struggled to identify a financial reason for voting one way or the other. The two parties offered very similar taxing and spending policies. In state elections a financial rationale for voting decisions is even harder to find. There are always targeted bribes during election campaigns, of course (pollies have to pull what levers they can), but what voting impact these have is not clear. If electoral bribery reliably converted dollars to votes, John Howard would still be in the Lodge.

Even where some potential self-interest can be identified, it is a poor predictor of opinion. In my recent article on industrial relations reform, I showed that both opposition to and support for WorkChoices greatly exceeded the proportion of people who thought that they would be disadvantaged or advantaged by the policy. In my article on protectionism (pdf) a few years back I found polling evidence that significant numbers of people understood the benefits of free trade, but still supported tariffs because they were worried about other people’s jobs. In my work in the past on the rising proportion of voters wanting more taxing and spending, I found that income had little influence on opinion – even though upper-income Australians would almost certainly end up paying more than they received in return for such an arrangement (though with the caveat that Graham makes about ‘perceived’ self-interest – they may not all realise that they would be net losers).

In the Morgan Poll series of questions about important issues, respondents give different answers to questions about which issues the federal government should be doing something about, and which issues would benefit the respondent and his/her family.

To draw on Bryan Caplan for the second time this week, there is a perfectly rational reason why self-interest might be a poor predictor of the vote. This is because (outside of McEwen at least) the chance of any one vote influencing the result is low, making voting an ineffective way of advancing material interests. But even without affecting the result, voting can express a sense of what we stand for (social justice/patriotism/the environment). People who, when arriving at the booths, ostentatiously take only one party’s how-to-vote card are making a statement, and not just casting a vote. Voting becomes an expressive act rather than a calculating, self-interested act.

As the ‘post-materialist’ theories of political behaviour have long maintained, as more people meet their material needs they will look for other things through politics. The middle-class left, consistent with this theory, is now a big consumer of symbolic politics – just at the middle class generally spends a lot on brands, so that they have the right image. (There is a nice David Brooks column in the NYT this week on this.)

One of the Coalition’s political problems is that while it is reasonably good at devising policies to meet material needs, it is weak on symbols. That is why, for a while, it started picking up working class voters, who still wanted to improve their standard of living, even as it was shedding doctors’ wives. WorkChoices was a political disaster because it upset both working class self-interest and middle-class expressive politics, which did not like its ‘unfairness’.

Self-interest is never likely to be irrelevant to politics. But there is no way a theory of public opinion and political behaviour can be built on it, and it is likely to become an even poorer guide to elections in the future than now.

16 thoughts on “Self-interest and public opinion

  1. I think you’re correct Andrew. The Howard/Costello mob seemed incapable of understanding it, which is strange for professional politicians. Right to the end, they were obsessed with the line that people had never had it so good, and seemed genuinely puzzled at the prospect of people voting against them.


  2. Ken – Though I think it is still true to say the competent economic management is a threshold issue: if you aren’t credible on that you are unlikely to win. However, as Labor had reached that threshold, and the polls show a long-term decline in the importance of economic issues because of the long boom, the election could be decided on other things.

    Re Howard/Costello: pollies have to work with the political resources available to them. Simply because economic issues did not get them over the line does not mean that these were not the best issues available to them.


  3. Thanks. It is an excellent analysis Andrew.

    I agree that ‘fairness’ is a crucial ingredient. But what do Australians mean by a ‘fair go’ in public policy? I have argued (on the basis of the polls I have studied) that it is a complex mix of four attitudes
    – policy reform should not hurt the poorest and most vulnerable in our society (social justice);
    – the policy framework should ensure everyone is able to develop their full potential irrespective of the original circumstances of their birth and childhood and at any one time people’s earnings should be determined by their own ability and effort (equality of opportunity);
    – people should ’have a go’ before seeking help from governments (personal responsibility and self-reliance);
    – and people should in general be left to lead their own lives according to their own idea of what is good ,so long as they do not harm others (individual freedom).

    So fairness is a mix of social democratic and libertarian elements. The politician who can work out which of the four is dominant on any big policy issue will do very well.


  4. Fred, it’s hard to imagine how anyone could argue with such attitudes – however I’ve seen hard-core libertarians argue that promoting “equality of opportunity” necessarily comes at the *expense* of maximum economic growth, therefore “hurts” everybody.


  5. NPOV it is possible that passive redistribution may hurt growth at times. But I totally disagree with the libertarian view that opportunity-levelling (“active”) programs hurt economic growth. Indeed I have argued in my writings that the opposite is true. My argument begs the question: at what point do governments get diminishing returns from social investment? I don’t know for sure but my reading of the inter-country literature is that we are a long way away from that threshold point.


  6. Fred, that’s exactly my position too. There are plenty of countries that are doing just as well as us economically with far greater levels of government spending.
    Hence high government spending levels just aren’t a major problem in Australia currently.


  7. Most people know that what is good for Australia or the economy is not necessary good for them. I believe if we believe the economic policy of a party will harmed them, that will influence their vote. The reality is that managing the economy can be done competently by both parties.

    I believe that we believe we should treat others as we want to be treated ourselves. This is basic self protection.

    Maybe unfair policies may not directly affect us, but there is always the chance it will.


  8. I agree. I also think people believe this (including many politicians), but it is far from truth. A good example here is Jeff Kennett, who had many policies that were essentially in no-one’s self interest (excluding those that are able to conceptualize overall government tax-takes and what that means to them), but he was very popular for quite some time.


  9. A very interesting post Andrew, although it did tend to drift away from the specific issue “perceived self-interest being the driving force of voting behaviour”.
    If I might be allowed a few comments-
    You say “a self-interest hypothesis…seriously underexplains opinion on numerous issues”. There is little doubt that people have opinions on a variety of issues in which they have no personal stake. However the holding of opinions should not be confused with voting behaviour! The issues you cite with the exception of Tampa are peripheral and hardly relevant to voting intent.
    Re the 2007 election: Although the tax/spend aggregates were similar there were clear qualitative and focussed differences apart from Work Choices eg the micro focus on economic issues of groceries,petrol etc by the ALP as opposed to arguing macro economic management was clever politics – although it may come back to haunt them. A self interest issue I would think.
    Re your Work Choice article: I must apologise, I’ve not read it but have now obtained a copy and will remedy that omission.
    Re drawing on Bryan Caplan: This of course takes us back to the various theories of the democratic process – in my view the so-called “heuristics”theory is probably closest to the realit of my experience. In regard to Caplan, the question is how seriously does one take his work – I can easily accept that most voters are not economists and do have biases regarding how economies work. However underlying Caplans thesis is a limited view of “rationality” and either a dislike for or misunderstanding of democratic processes. (perhaps best left for a discussion on another day!) Whatever, the important point here is simply that perceived self interest does not always equate with actual self interest.
    Re post-materialist theories of political behaviour (or a re-visited Maslow goes political so to speak). Inglehart et al have shown thatwith modernization peoples basic values and beliefs are changing in ways that affect their political behaviour – there is ample evidence to support that thesis. However, while agreeing that the middle-class views are beginning to encompass symbolic politics there is little evidence in the literature to suggest that they have forsaken their more material concerns. Indeed it would be a brave decision for any government to remove Fred Argy’s recent list of middle-class welfare.
    Notwithstanding the aspects youraise, I think the case supporting the view of perceived self interest driving voting behaviour is alive and well.
    Anyway, your post was most interesting and probably raised more questions than were answered – but is that not the nature of politics (if not economics)?


  10. Graham – I did drift from the voting behaviour issue, because that is very hard to analyse because voting bundles responses to many issues, and it is hard to work out which is most important. In Newspoll’s post 2007 election survey, eight issues achieved more than 50% responses as a ‘very important’ factors in the way the respondent voted. The AES provides scope for some multivariate analysis, but it is limited by the questions asked. And most people vote for a particular party, regardless of its promises. Are they making a long-term assessment of their self-interest, or voting for a view of which party is better for the country more generally?

    I don’t think we need to buy all Caplan’s arguments about ‘rational’ views on economics to see that his basic point about what can be achieved in voting is a good one.

    I don’t disagree that some voters are self-interested, and that more would be if their living standards were fundamentally threatened. But I don’t think your generalisation about politics can hold, and that a political party that simply bases its appeal on financial self-interest will find itself in trouble.


  11. Graham
    There’s a good deal of political science research that has looked at whether people vote self-interestedly. On the micro level, the research quite uniformly indicates that people do not vote self-interestedly; this supports Caplan’s logic. I know much less about macro level research, where “self interested” behavior would indicate group-self-interested voting, which is not the same thing as individual self-interested voting.
    For more, see Bryan Caplan’s paper
    and/or the survey article “Self-Interest in Americans’ Political Opinions” by Sears and Funk in Beyond Self Interest.


  12. Perhaps a lot of people did vote ALP out of self interest. On the one hand, Libs were telling voters that they would create full employment, and on the other said, “turbulent times are coming”.

    On issue 1 (full employment): doesn’t concern most people already have jobs… as do their family/friends. Any increase in employment will (in their minds) simply put upward pressure on interest rates.

    On issue 2 (turbulent times coming): Libs may be regarded better at managing the economy, but ALP are generally regarded as better on “providing services”. Telling people that turbulent times are coming was perhaps a bad idea on part of the libs – it made people vote for the party they thought would “look after them” if they got into strife.


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