Values and interests

Democracy, interests, and values

Is democracy (and politics in general) an arena for competing interests, or a way to seek peaceful compromise about conflicting values?

Democracy is about values

Politicians, of course, were dismissed as purely self-serving, and government in general was presented as little more than a public trough that everyone was trying to get their face into.


[I]t seems obvious that countless people have become involved in politics out of some public-spirited zeal. The fact that the reform movements they join often fail to overcome the entrenched power of well-financed special interests doesn't mean that people don't have public-spirited instincts. The public-choice theorists would have us believe that nobody ever gets involved in government or the political arena out of a desire to accomplish public goals, and that all the products of government— the building of schools, hospitals, roads, libraries, museums, public parks—happen only incidentally, as by-products of someone's desire to advance a personal career. Needless to say, the notion that citizens would voluntarily band together to fight injustice and poverty in faraway parts of the world is incomprehensible to this kind of thinking. This Perhaps explains the frequent attempt to dismiss those in the anti-globalization movement as nothing more than a group of self- seeking opportunists—as if there is some kind of money to be made in championing debt elimination for the Third World.

- Linda McQuaig, All You Can Eat

We like to think we care about values, but really we only care about values when they align with our interests

This is one of the most common ways that we are hypocritical.

The absurdity of public-choice theory is captured by Nobel Prize—winning economist Amartya Sen in the following little scenario:

"Can you direct me to the railway station?" asks the stranger.

"Certainly," says the local, pointing in the opposite direction, towards the post office, "and would you post this letter for me on your way?"

"Certainly," says the stranger, resolving to open it to see if it contains anything worth stealing.

While much of public-choice theory seems implausible, its political usefulness appeared to make up for any intellectual deficiencies…..their revelations about the untrustworthiness of government could be used to bolster arguments about the danger of majority rule


[T]he elite, who always had a lurking fear that the masses might one day gang up on the small group who enjoyed great wealth. By imposing hefty taxes on inheritance and capital gains, the majority could transfer much of the tax burden away from themselves and onto their wealthier fellow citizens. Public-choice theorists offered a set of arguments to explain why this shouldn't be allowed to happen. Basically, they argued that since there was no broad public interest, only individual preferences, government shouldn't be allowed to make decisions about the distribution of resources, because the majority of people would unfairly impose their interests on others.Therefore, there should be constitutional protections against majority rule in the area of taxation


What has filtered through to the public consciousness—indeed, what has become firmly embedded in the public consciousness—is a profound suspicion and distrust of government. The notion that government is simply an abusive, intrusive force with no higher purpose or beneficial capability has permeated deeply into the popular culture, under mining public confidence in all kinds of policies aimed at distributing resources more fairly or limiting the power of private corporate interests.

In debates in the social sciences, there is always a tension over the issue of what should be defined as natural and what should be defined as the mere product of human conditioning. If something can be defined as natural or innate, we are less inclined to try to change it or modify it, believing that we are dealing with part of the apparatus of nature. How astonishing, then, to think that the greed impulse in humans—long the object of constraints in one form or another in the interests of social harmony—has now been reclassified as natural, indeed as the only natural human impulse!

Thus was the modified, more restrained version of capitalism of the early post-war years brought to a screeching halt. Once the public-choice theorists had provided the intellectual underpinnings for the vilification of government, capitalism was easily liberated. No longer would the profit motive be confined by Keynesian constraints aimed at giving the broader public some measure of control. Released from the yoke of government, capitalism could now enjoy a striking new freedom and prestige. No more on the defensive, capitalism could stretch its legs and walk down the street in broad daylight, with a spring in its step … and bureaucrats better get out of its way! The new capitalism—cocky, self-assured and ready to take on the world—was born.

> - Linda McQuaig, All You Can Eat

Why do some people vote against their interests?

A politician who represents the interests primarily of economic elites has to find other means of appealing to the masses. Such an alternative is provided by the politics of nationalism, sectarianism, and identity – a politics based on cultural values and symbolism rather than bread-and-butter interests. When politics is waged on these grounds, elections are won by those who are most successful at “priming” our latent cultural and psychological markers, not those who best represent our interests.

Karl Marx famously said that religion is “the opium of the people.” What he meant is that religious sentiment could obscure the material deprivations that workers and other exploited people experience in their daily lives.

In much of the same way, the rise of the religious right and, with it, culture wars over “family values” and other highly polarizing issues (for example, immigration) have served to insulate American politics from the sharp rise in economic inequality since the late 1970s. As a result, conservatives have been able to retain power despite their pursuit of economic and social policies that are inimical to the interests of the middle and lower classes.

- How the Rich Rule by Dani Rodrik - Project Syndicate

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