Imagine someone voting out of “self-interest,” what comes to mind?
Most people think of pressure-group politics:
-A father votes to increase federal funding of the school-system…
-His landlord votes to lower property taxes…
-The landlord’s wife votes that all companies must give paid maternity leave…
-Her boy, a college student, votes to increase in funding for universities…
-The boy’s professor votes to protect social-security…
None of these people are voting on principle. They want whatever they can grab from whoever can give it.
In a recent article, “What the Election Reveals About Us, and Why We Vote as We Do,” Al Mohler criticized this behavior. As President of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, Mohler is recognized as a leading spokesman of Evangelicalism and the Southern Baptist Convention. He specializes in analyzing current events in biblical perspective. When Mohler speaks, I listen.
I was intrigued to read Mohler’s report of the election. His analysis centered on the idea of the voter’s “self-interest.” He expressed two widely-held views:
1) That pressure-group voting reflects self-interest.
2) That self-interest would not lead one to vote on principle.
Mohler approvingly quoted a New York Times article by Jason Weedon and Robert Kurzban, arguing that:
Most people aren’t ideologically pure, and most don’t derive their opinions from abstract ideologies and principles. People are more strongly influenced by the effects of policies on themselves, their families and their wider social networks. Their views, in short, are often based on self-interest.”
Apparently Whedon, Kurzban, and even Mohler do not see the questionable implications of this statement.
Is it in one’s self-interest to trample the principle of rights?
Many people do assume it is, but this assumption reveals a deep confusion, both about principle and about self-interest. Yes, this kind of voting is bad. But no, this is not self-interest. It is a misguided attempt at self-interest.
The error is not that people seek a reward; the error is in how they seek it. Consider how Jude condemned those who, “ran greedily after the error of Balaam for their reward” (Jude 11, KJV). He condemns their conception of self-interest, not their desire for it.
Americans make the same kind of error as Balaam, seeking self-interest in the wrong way. How could it be in one’s self-interest to undermine the principle of private property for the sake of some handout? That is mere short-sightedness, a failure to see the eventual consequence of setting such a precedent. We have not noticed that in telling the government to rob one group to pay another, we destroy the principle of our own protection. We have failed to understand the moral principle that it is wrong to initiate force. Thus, we do not understand the resulting political principle of property rights.
On a deeper level, we have failed to understand the role of the mind in human life. To deprive producers of their product is to inhibit the creation of material values and to undermine the condition which makes all human flourishing possible—namely the freedom of each man to rationally pursue his self-interest.
Al Mohler was correct to criticize American voting habits, but I respectfully disagree with his concept of self-interest. Is it proper to seek to live? Then it is proper to seek one’s own self-interest. This would not lead us to abandon moral principles, but to embrace them.