The myth of voting with one’s wallet – The Property Chronicle
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The myth of voting with one’s wallet

Political Insider

Do Americans “vote with their wallets?” This near-ubiquitous cliche seems at first to pass the test of common sense. Why wouldn’t people vote for the candidates under whom they’ll do the best financially? A wealthy voter should favor the candidate who will lower their taxes. A chronically unemployed voter should support the candidate promising lavish government handouts.

In the most basic economic terms, however, this logic falls apart. If one votes, for example, to maximise the present value of their future income, the answer is to not vote at all. Given the vanishingly low probability of breaking a tie, voting isn’t worth the gasoline used to drive to one’s local fire station and cast a ballot.

Perhaps this critique says more about the limits of economic modelling than it does about voting. Slogans like “It’s the economy, stupid” and “Are you better off than you were four years ago?” suggest a bigger-picture view people can take when voting with their wallets. But once again, this view fails to hold water.

The concept of “voting with one’s wallet” frequently causes partisans who don’t understand the other party’s voters to make strategic errors. It also perpetuates the destructive idea that different groups of citizens are playing a zero-sum game against each other. Finally, and perhaps most insidiously, it creates the myth that the right politician can make our wallets grow.

The seduction of Joe Sixpack

In late 2004, after voters delivered four more years of George W. Bush, my parents and their progressive friends were abuzz about George Lakoff’s book Don’t Think of an Elephant. Lakoff urged earnest lefties to get more politically savvy. To summarize the book, John Kerry had lost because of those crafty Republicans who through use of buzzwords like “pro-life” and “tax relief” had mesmerised Joe Sixpack into voting against his economic interest. A couple of years later came Thomas Frank’s What’s the Matter With Kansas? – similar in its cringeworthy myopia though subtly more scolding to Joe Sixpack himself in tone.

Unwilling to part with the idea that the GOP was fueled exclusively by the rich getting richer, progressives needed expert analysis and suburban book clubs to tell them why such a large fraction of the non-rich might be on board. The great irony is that most of the head-scratching about white working-class voters going against their economic interest was being done by upper-middle class progressives who wear their own votes against lower tax rates as a badge of honor. 

These prosperous-but-perplexed progressives in turn expose the mirror-image fallacy held by Republicans – that voters on the left just want “handouts” or “free stuff”. The vanguard of socialism, progressivism, and welfare-statism has always come from relatively well-off intellectuals. Rather than wanting free stuff, they want to see themselves as the givers of free stuff.

Two economies?

Economic outcomes and political narratives don’t play nicely together, and the results increasingly harm more than just the two parties’ strategic efforts to win converts. A 2019 study from The Wall Street Journal and the Brookings Institution characterises the current landscape as “Two Parties, Two Economies”.

The study clearly and effectively presents the divergence of different types of voters over the last decade. Democrats are more concentrated in highly educated urban areas that depend on professional and information-economy jobs; Republicans in rural areas built on manufacturing and agriculture. The differences have grown more stark with time.

The authors conclude: “For at least the foreseeable future, therefore, the nation seems destined to struggle with extreme economic, territorial, and political divides in which the two parties talk almost entirely past each other on the most important economic and social issues, like innovation, immigration, and education because they represent starkly separate and diverging worlds. Not only do the two parties adhere to very different views, but they inhabit increasingly different economies and environments.”






Political Insider

About Max Gulker

Max Gulker is an economist and writer who joined AIER in 2015. His research focuses on two main areas: policy and technology. On the policy side, Gulker looks at how issues like poverty and access to education can be addressed with voluntary, decentralized approaches that don’t interfere with free markets.

Articles by Max Gulker

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