Thoughts on motivation for voting

Thoughts on motivation for voting May 13, 2015

The general election is only just over, and I am sorry for being off my usual topics. I will return to them shortly. I would like to provoke thought on what motivates voters to vote for particular parties, briefly and rather anecdotally and theoretically.

I have personally spoken, as mentioned anecdotally, to a number of Conservative voters (and this is not exclusive an exclusive claim) and the open admission is that the vote was in their own best interest. One of the big ones was tax reduction supposedly meaning more money in their pockets.

This is human nature and is nothing, in and of itself, surprising.

But it is not really what I would want from an electorate. This shows a deep-seated individualism which defines voting; I will vote for what is best for me even if it is not better for society as a whole (or simply ignoring calculations of what is best for society as a whole).

I think what defines the left/right paradigm is the collectivist/individualist idea, but in a sense of that voting decision. This is not particularly striking, but it does hit home when people admit this openly. When you have parties wishing to get rid of Inheritance Tax (IHT), which proportionally affects the richer more and more, and reduce top-end taxes etc. etc. (and see who funds the respective party and for what reasons), then it is clear that the Conservatives and UKIP are in this game to benefit the richer in society. (Likewise, workers are in the best interests of Labour, one can argue, with Trades Unions playing their funding part). The problem is that, often, these things, like IHT, sustain privilege. I have lots of money (whether through hard work or privilege) and I leave it to my children; my children are not doing the hard work to get that. It is an accident of birth.

As another commenter elsewhere quite rightly pointed out, there is also a real issue with the problematic notion of praiseworthiness and blameworthiness in a philosophical context. Are people to be praised or blamed for their situations of privilege or lack thereof (think free will theories here)? Part of this, for the record, stretches to the Victorian myth of blaming the poor’s poverty on laziness or some similar notions (eg “Poor people want to be poor, they say. Really?” or “Lazy, drunk, benefit cheats a myth, according to new report” from which the following quote comes):

According to the report while over 80% of the UK population believe that “large numbers falsely claim benefits”, fraudulent claims have in fact decreased to historically low levels “that the tax system can only dream of.”

Figures show that less than 0.9% of the welfare budget is lost to fraud.

Addressing the myth that claimants “have an easy life” the report found that benefits “do not meet minimum income standards” and “have halved in value relative to average incomes over the last 30 years.”

The report also found that fewer than 4% of benefit claimants report any form of addiction, while the majority of children in poverty are from working households.

Figures also show that the proportion of our tax bills spent on welfare has remained stable for the last 20 years.

The accident of birth problem is what the left seek to change, but the right seek to sustain. This is obvious, and disheartening, and what I think the people bemoaning the Conservative victory are tapping into. It’s this sense of injustice and inequality that humans have built into them (see fairness tests on bonobos, for example).

By Adrian Pingstone (talk · contribs) (Self-photographed) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
By Adrian Pingstone (talk · contribs) (Self-photographed) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Speaking to Green voters, I saw the complete opposite to this. Whether their policies are workable or not, is another question, but the intent is really quite clear: the benefit of a wider “us” over a narrower “me”, stretching across, even, species.

There are lots of variables at work, but my impressions are that voting for the Conservative Party, for example (I live in a totally Conservative area, including most all of my family, many colleagues etc.), is a mix of social identity theory (us and them), tradition, and perceptions on economy, all within a context of benefiting the individual voter at the heart.

There is a lot of intuitive desires post hoc rationalised, too.

It’a all quite depressing! (and I won’t start on the wildly incorrect views of the many [family and colleague] UKIP voters I have spoke to. The above problems distilled and crystallised…)

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  • im-skeptical

    I recall seeing some study (sorry, I don’t have a reference) that showed voters, in the absence of any additional knowledge about candidates, will vote for the more physically attractive candidate. I have a feeling this accounts for at least some part of the outcomes we observe.

    • I wonder if there is evidence for voting for one which is most like yourself.

  • jg29a

    “The report also found that fewer than 4% of benefit claimants report any form of addiction”

    Even tobacco? I would find that number very surprising.

    Things may be very different outside of the U.S., but there the left=collectivist/right=individualist model really breaks down. The Republican party as it exists today would be impossible without many millions of people who can’t even get to considering their self-interest, because they literally view supporters of abortion and gay rights as a threat to civilization itself.

    • There is such a visceral polemic in the States. It is frustrating that a country which supposedly fights for democracy has one of the poorest one sin the world. A two party system with no other choice?

  • Daydreamer1

    How to fit something as complex as that in a few paragraphs.

    It is probably right in a very basic broad brush way with regard to economics, but it is also describing simplified positions. I know plenty of conservatives and they are not simplistic individualists. In fact, looking at actual behaviour I find it hard to spot the difference between labour voters and conservative ones unless we want to pick at the extremes.

    I will vote for what is best for me even if it is not better for society

    The issue here is that people define ‘better’ in different ways. If we went into a terrible recession that ended up with 80% of people unemployed then the voting pool for any new political party saying it would increase benefits to £30,000 per year for every person would be huge and such a party could well win under that situation, but would that really be ‘better for society’?

    The fact remains that we live in an ever changing economy with a vast number of inputs and outputs that fluctuate constantly reacting to any number of variables. The balance between the size of the public services and the size of the private sector, or the sum total of all sectors paying for it (including the public sector paying taxes etc) is what should be key in this discussion. However, all too often it just comes down to people voting for what benefits them most. If the public sector grows too large and at the same time is irresponsible in its voting then too many can vote for an increase in the size and cost of the public sector, beyond what the economy can support. Arguments for an increase in spending or of the size of the public sector are easy to make given its crucial importance and role – who doesn’t want more money spending on health and education…

    So it is easy in a democracy to ‘creep’ beyond what the country can afford.

    Both the left and the right try and tackle this problem. We are currently in deficit and with a total national debt equivalent to borrowing £150 from every person on the planet and spending it on ourselves. By definition we are not paying our way.

    ‘I will vote for what is best for me even if it is not better for society’

    If I was living on benefits I would vote for more benefits or whoever told me they would give me the most. That is not necessarily the same thing as ‘best for society’ though. As it stands I am not on benefits, however my family finances are in complete disarray. This month I borrowed money from a friend just to pay the mortgage to keep the roof over my wife and children’s heads. I ran out of money on the 15th of this month. I am not entitled to any benefits because I earn too much – just not enough to support 4 people and a house, car, fuel, food etc. I’ll get through this – in 8 weeks my 5 year wedding loan pays off and I can start paying off debts :)… Life hay. It is not always easy. (yes, my wife has been trying to get work, but it is not easy, especially with young kids and me working away from home).

    That is just to say that people are still voting in their own interest, and it can go awry. People do not always vote with the ‘country’ in mind, i.e. the system that feeds us all and how it balances out and functions – many from both sides are happy to vote to put it in danger or miss balance it or increase its future instability just to see their current lifestyle increase. Nor is there a simple line between those who could do with state help and those with jobs. Plenty of Tory voters get benefits and plenty are struggling and not able to get any.

    It is a complex issue. First you would need to define what is ‘best’, and then get it to work in the current context. Meanwhile, just borrowing more from the future to pay us more today isn’t what most people voted for in the last election (even though it was on offer by multiple parties), but neither did they vote for the far left or far right.

    • Long time no hear. Glad to have you back, sir!

    • And now to read your comment.

      • Daydreamer1

        I’ve still looked in occasionally, but life has been pretty stressful of late. It turned out that the passion for skepticism and lay-philosophy diminished when other stresses increased, or took second place. As a geologist working in the oil industry there’s been a fair amount of learning and thinking to do, and handling all the demonisation, harassment, and polite attacks – though I do know many of the people who have been actually attacked or received death threats etc (although I suppose I have had death threats in the sense of general ones made at specific building/places etc).

        I am personally hoping that the Paris meeting will put us on a proper course towards setting climate change commitments as well as setting out how individual countries will act within it so we can get on with it.

        There is a huge amount of anti science floating around, and real science and better politics needs to be put in place to limits its harm.

        I could rant and rave as I have some good pent up feelings, but it is stuff like the common presentation in the media and by activists of a decarbonised electricity system where no fossil fuels are used in energy generation (even if we throw in transport, heating and cooking) as being a country that would require and use zero hydrocarbons, instead of stopping for a second and remembering the vast number of important/crucial products that use them (chemical feedstocks, plastics, medicines, fertilisers etc). It is stuff like the National Grids Future Energy Scenario document 2014 whereby we use around 835 trillion watt hours of gas today and if we progress slowly to a green economy by 2035 that drops to 675TWh. In a green economy where all climate commitments are met, energy is decarbonised, and the 80% reduction in national CO2 is met national gas demand drops to 705TWh. So a green economy uses more gas than failing to decarbonise – because solving climate change means more prosperity for us all, economic growth, and people using more products, which are made from hydrocarbons… As ever the real science is often the reverse of what the layperson intuitively feels..

        The problems is that demonising a group of people leads to actual discrimination, and in the case of the demonisation of people working in the oil and gas industries that discrimination is starting to take a very nasty turn.

        Hence, lets hope that the Paris agreement gets something in place and that the oil and gas companies shrinking context is put in place. There is obviously going to be a plan for reducing the amount of fossil fuels each country can burn each year – to the point where countries are no longer burning hydrocarbons and all the hydrocarbons being produced are then going to products (with less overall hydrocarbon production globally).

        Anyway, thats me. How are you?

        With my comment above I guess I was just speculating that many people just vote for what is best for them, and voting for the parties that increase benefits by people in receipt of them isn’t necessarily occurring as a moral action, but may be the equivalent of an opportunity to vote for your own pay rise. I stated that I thought that the way to tell whether that was occurring as a moral action was whether the country could support the decision. I still think that that needs to be a part of the assessment.

        My personal politics would fall along the lines of assessing the amount needed by the public sector and then asserting that given tax rate X and efficiency rate X the overall economy needs to be grown to size X.

        Then it falls down to the economists to say how that needs to be done.

        In the case that we were just in, where the economy was not capable of supporting the public sector at the size parties wished to pay I was keeping a very close eye on the amount of debt we had, the size of the deficit, the length of the time the party planned on reducing the deficit over and increasing borrowing by, and their overall attitude towards business – which ultimately affects the overall size of the economy.

        I felt the greens were complete lunatics who if they ever got power would massively indebt us, crash the economy, then be voted out 4-5 years later leaving someone else to pick up the mess.

        The SNP concerned me.

        UKIP – no way.

        BNP – obviously not once if the universe lasts another trillion years.

        I have always been a natural labour voter, but the left (esp far left) has left me out to dry, attacked me, vilified me, and turned a blind eye to people attacking me and harassing me in ways that if it was to a member of your family you would expect the police to do something, but the police just stand by because we apparently have a right to do whatever we want to people so long as we only break civil laws and are willing to pay a few quid to a court. (plus the more serious crimes they cannot prove who did it – damage to vehicles, setting of fires etc)

        One thing we might have some hope with is that it sounds like the Tory manifesto was the start of a bargaining position that they expected to bargain away piece by piece when forming a coalition. It sounds like it is going to be more hacked away by the Prime Minister than by the far right of the party.

        It is very unlikely that they will make $12billion in cuts, for example – or that they ever expected to have to. These things were more the start of bargaining positions where they expected to compromise and meet in the middle.

    • “I will vote for what is best for me even if it is not better for society”

      That of course is normal, but a shame that we are so “selfish” in some core senses (and I understand why). I suppose this only generally comes when we have comfort and we can afford to think more bout others. Maslowe’s Hierarchy of Needs and all that.

      Obviously, in order to make most points about a spectrum of people, one has to generalise.

      I think, though, that one can see this difference when one compares the Greens, say, to the Tories.

      I hope things pick up for you in the near future!