The Immorality of Voting One’s “Self-Interest”

Last night on the NewsHour with Jim Lehrer there was a segment with Tom Frank, the author of What’s the Matter with Kansas?: How Conservatives Won the Heart of America. Frank argues that conservatives have successfully used cultural issues to con the lower and middle classes into voting against what Frank believes to be their “economic self-interest.” It’s probably the leading explanation for the migration of the middle class away from the Democratic party. A smart Democratic friend of mine from church recently used it while lamenting Mormons’ support for Republicans. The NewsHour invited conservative David Frum, one of Bush’s former speech writers, to respond to Frank. Frum responded ably (if Democrats care so much about the lower and middle classes, why do they dismiss their opinions on cultural issues important to them? Who is Frank to tell someone they should care more about the sales tax rate than abortion? ), but he didn’t expose the weakest part of Frank’s argument: his premise.

The common idea that forms Frank’s premise — that people should vote their self-interest — is repugnant and corrosive to public discourse.

What Frank means when he says people should vote for their self-interest is this: people should support policies that benefit themselves vis a vis others. Labor should support policies that benefit themselves vis a vis management; employees should support policies that benefit themselves vis a vis their employers; low income earners should oppose tax cuts for high income earners; white people like Tom Frank should oppose policies that benefit minorities vis a vis whites.

Oops! Even though it’s in Frank’s self-interest to oppose affirmative action, he supports it! Which political huckster has duplicated the conservative trick and conned Frank into supporting affirmative action against his own self-interest? No one, of course, has tricked Tom Frank. He knows perfectly well that affirmative action gives preference to women and racial minorities and does not benefit white males like Tom Frank personally. He supports affirmative action because he thinks it’s good for society as a whole, even though the policy doesn’t benefit himself personally.

That is how everyone should vote on every issue: for policies that are fair and good for society as a whole, even if the policy doesn’t directly benefit themselves. It’s never proper to support affirmative action because one benefits from it, or to oppose it because one doesn’t benefit from it. The only justification to support or oppose affirmative action is because you believe it is good or bad for society.

The same goes for policies about tax burdens. It is only proper to vote for tax policies that are good for society and that are fair — how the tax policy effects oneself should not be a consideration. And many people with low incomes, like my mother, don’t think the wealthy should pay more than they do. Tom Frank and my friend from church would try to convince my mom that she could have more money and services if only she would stick it to the corporations and the rich at the polls. But she, and many conservatives like her, reject out-of-hand Frank’s argument that her voting-booth analysis should be: What’s in it for me?

Because Tom Frank wouldn’t try to persuade my mom to oppose affirmative action for minorities, it’s clear he don’t really think people should vote in their narrow self-interest. (Nor does Frank complain that the wealthiest Americans are becoming increasingly Democratic, even though it’s against their “self-interest,” as Frank defines it.) In reality, Frank, my friend, my mom and me are all in agreement: we think people should only vote for policies that are good and fair. We believe that what’s really in our “self-interest” is to live in a society that is good and fair. What we disagree on is what apportionment of the tax burden is good and fair. Frank harms public discourse, however, by employing the narrow “self-interest” argument only when selling to people that would directly benefit from a policy.

No one should support a policy because it benefits themselves at others’ expense. The self-interest argument pits citizens against one another. It’s a concept that doesn’t belong in a moral person’s vocabulary.

79 comments for “The Immorality of Voting One’s “Self-Interest”

  1. October 29, 2004 at 12:30 pm

    I’ve meant for weeks to write a post which, among other things, discusses how impossibly condescending Frank’s take on the behavior and mentality of the rural poor and working class really is. It wouldn’t bother me so much–the urban elite always condescends to the rural average–except that I happen to believe that Frank’s observations are highly important ones: figuring out how (populist, conservative) cultural concerns and (elite, progressive) class interests have been turned against each other in some cases, and made to align in others, is crucial if the whole “red state-blue state” dynamic is to be in any way transcended or transformed. But Frank, in the end, just plain dislikes the people of Kansas, and thus can’t move his argument beyond a rather hopeless flailing about how ignert farmers just don’t see how them mean capitalists are playing them for fools. Sad.

  2. October 29, 2004 at 12:33 pm

    “No one should support a policy because it benefits themselves at others’ expense. The self-interest argument pits citizens against one another. It’s a concept that doesn’t belong in a moral person’s vocabulary.”

    Incidentally Matt, please note that in making this statement you have resurrected the traditional, republican, conservative complaint against such interest-focused liberal luminaries as James Madison and Adam Smith. Good for you!

  3. a random John
    October 29, 2004 at 12:40 pm

    Unfortunately politics is an adversarial system. Doing something reasonable, like advocating a position that is in the nation’s best interest rather than your own, will lead to you getting eaten alive by those that take extreme positions in order to later compromise. You have to advocate a postition that you don’t believe in to be able to achieve something resembling what you do believe in.

  4. Bryce I
    October 29, 2004 at 12:45 pm

    Isn’t the choice between acting in one’s narrow, short-horizon economic self-interest vs. acting in the interest of society as a whole a version of the prisoner’s dilemma?

    (asks Bryce, whose primary contact with the idea is through computer science courses).

  5. October 29, 2004 at 12:51 pm

    “That is how everyone should vote on every issue: for policies that are fair and good for society as a whole, even if the policy doesn’t directly benefit themselves. It’s never proper to support affirmative action because one benefits from it, or to oppose it because one doesn’t doesn’t benefit from it. The only justification to support or oppose affirmative action is because you believe it is good or bad for society.”

    This is all well and good when you are dealing with the hypothetical population that will do what they “should”. The problem is that the majority does not always do so, nor are thier motives factored into thier vote. What about people that vote certain ways because they both benefit from it AND believe it good for society, or perhaps they feel it is good for society because they or others in their peer group benefit from it?

    Of course one of the other problems is of fairness. There is a pretty wide interpretation on what is fair for all. Should the rich be heavily taxed because they could live on a much smaller fraction of what they make then the poor? I beleive the most fair taxation is a 10% across the board with no deductions or anything else. Everyone pays the same percent. But others would cry foul as a person making 25 grand a year would only take home 22.5, while a rich six figure incomer could pull down 90 grand after taxes. Is that fair?

    These are the concerns when voting for self interest vs social benefits. I hope we can all vote our conscience and support things we believe are good for society, but I’m afraid these questions will loom over our heads and we may never get a really thoughtful social discourse on this going (in terms of national social discourse).

  6. Greg Call
    October 29, 2004 at 12:52 pm

    Quick question: If a free market (where each actor acts in his or her own self interest) is the most efficient way to allocate private goods, why isn’t it the most efficient way to allocate public goods? Conversely, if public goods ought to be distributed according to what is “good and fair”, then why not have a regulate the market to do the same?

  7. October 29, 2004 at 12:54 pm

    “Conversely, if public goods ought to be distributed according to what is ‘good and fair’, then why not regulate the market to do the same?”


  8. October 29, 2004 at 1:13 pm

    “…a free market (where each actor acts in his or her own self interest) is the most efficient way to allocate private goods,� – assuming perspicuous transactions between agents. The debate of what becomes a public good and how to distribute them can rarely (if ever?) be satisfied with the same assumption.

  9. October 29, 2004 at 1:17 pm

    A 10% flat across-the-board tax is a long-held personal fantasy. It seems to me to be the obvious resolution of so many societal problems — our complicated tax system for example.

  10. Matt Evans
    October 29, 2004 at 1:18 pm

    Russell and Greg,

    The difference between the political market (which it’s possible to interpret Frank as supporting) and the economic market is freedom of contract. The political market is involuntary and is governed by the police power. The economic market is governed by voluntary labor and voluntary capital allocation.

    Because the political system is based on the coercive power of the state, a politician who promises me more benefits does so by coercing others. If the rich refuse to pay their higher taxes, he’ll take their stuff and put them in jail. If countries comprised of volunteer tax payers competed for citizens by promising people a better deal, I wouldn’t have any objection to people basing their decision to move on their self-interest.

    Because the economic system is based on voluntary contract, a car company who promises a better deal is willing to voluntarily give purchasers more for their money than their competitors are. Everyone who has worked on the car has voluntarily agreed to exchange their labor for a wage. Had the production, distribution and financing of the car been coerced under threat of force (like government does), it would be immoral for someone to purchase the car even though it was in their “self-interest” because it was cheaper.

  11. Matt Jacobsen
    October 29, 2004 at 1:20 pm

    I haven’t read Frank’s book, but it seems to go along with other arguments I’ve heard concerning the middle- and particulary lower-class: since they don’t have (relatively) much money, of course the most important thing they should be worrying about is acquiring more money. Once the masses have their money, only then they are expected to concern themselves with other issues. Is this perhaps a projection of the values of the one making the argument?

    On a few occassions I’ve tried to offer help or a gift to a friend whom I felt really needed it, only to have the offer rejected. Oddly enough it began to turn my charity into anger — not only was my friend incapable of achieving the result I thought he needed, but he insulted me by rejecting my well-thought-out plan to achieve that result.

    To address the larger question of this post, when I vote I like to think that I am voting for issues that will make society better. Yet I feel that this is still very much in my self-interest. I vote for the type of society that I want to live in, at the expense of the type of society that others may want. Instead of dollars I get warm fuzzies. Sometimes I even think that the dollars others may receive with the way I vote will make up for the warm fuzzies I am denying them (maybe I’m not so different from Frank).

  12. ed
    October 29, 2004 at 1:24 pm

    Russel: It sounds like you are slandering James Madison and Adam Smith. They were not “interest-focused” in the sense that they believed it was good and moral to be self interested…they merely recognized that, since men are not angels, we should try to set up institutions that still work pretty well even when many people act selfishly.

    The idea that the free market is effective at turning greed into socially productive activity does NOT imply that “greed is good,” despite the mistakes of Gordon Gekko and many other real and fictional individuals on both the right and left.

    BTW, great post…I totally agree with Matt.

  13. October 29, 2004 at 1:28 pm

    The key to a flat tax, regarless of the percent, is for the government to recognize that they do not have the obligation to fix “all” social ills. Ideally, the government has a fairly small role in our lives, law legislation and enforcement, military and some economic.

    If we as a people could have a discourse on what the government’s role should be then the government would be better equipted to work within the confines of its economic restraint (the 10% for example). Many frivolous projects could be abanded and we would theoretically invite the private sector to account for the void is some cases.

    Families would take care of themselves rather than relying on the government to support them after retirement, and so on.

  14. October 29, 2004 at 1:32 pm

    An even deeper problem with the self-interest approach is that, if accepted, it fundamentally defeats conservative principles at their core. That is to say, if my only way of interfacing with government is in the frame of what the government is giving to me, it doesn’t matter if I’m Republican or Democrat, I have abandoned any notion of government as anything besides my caretaker. Even though left and right may desire different benefits differently, if all accept that they should vote based on their desired benefits, the game is already won.

    Thus, what Frank’s really saying is that the people in Kansas who vote for policies that don’t necessarily benefit them are stupid because they’re conservative (i.e., they believe that government ought to be interested in controlling benefits, rather than doling them out).

  15. October 29, 2004 at 1:37 pm

    Matt: You explained what I meant to do in my previous hurried obtuse post. Although, for a second there I thought you might be channeling Ayn Rand.

  16. October 29, 2004 at 1:52 pm


    “It sounds like you are slandering James Madison and Adam Smith. They were not ‘interest-focused’ in the sense that they believed it was good and moral to be self interested…they merely recognized that, since men are not angels, we should try to set up institutions that still work pretty well even when many people act selfishly.”

    We may just disagree on emphasis here. The fact that you allow that the accusation of being “interest-focused” may be construed as “slanderous” confirms the point that being self-interested is not really any different from being selfish, and hence something negative. Did Madison and Smith argue on behalf of systems that assumed selfishness? Yes. Which means they did not argue on behalf of systems which sought out, or attempted to inculcate, virtue or an egalitarian concern for others in the population. Now, one might argue that they did this because they were 1) realistic or 2) convinced that sufficient civic virtue and basic moral concern will exist anyway, and thus needn’t be attended to by our political or economic institutions. If your preferred interpretation is 1), that certainly makes sense, but let us at least acknowledge how very low their contractual and factional conceptions lowered the bar for social life. If your preference is for explanation 2), however, one must still explain why Madison, Smith, and other classical liberals failed to notice how easily a focus on a self-interested economy or polity would degrade that necessary civic virtue, a point very much on Jefferson’s or Tocqueville’s mind.


    “The economic market is governed by voluntary labor.”

    Of course, this begs the central Marxist question: exactly how voluntary can a labor contract be when the possession of capital, which sets the terms and bounds for any contract, is not the same for all laborers? But that takes us in a direction that I don’t have the energy to go in at the moment.

  17. October 29, 2004 at 1:59 pm

    “That is how everyone should vote on every issue: for policies that are fair and good for society as a whole, even if the policy doesn’t directly benefit themselves. It’s never proper to support affirmative action because one benefits from it, or to oppose it because one doesn’t benefit from it. The only justification to support or oppose affirmative action is because you believe it is good or bad for society.”

    What you’re describing here is best known as “enlightened self-interest,” or the awareness that what truly benefits all of society as a whole is ultimately of the most benefit to one’s self. Unfortunately, it’s a long-term, ultimate kind of self-interest which quickly gets buried in a society of fast-food expectations.

    The kind of self-interest to be decried is a short-term, proximate kind of self-interest which usually turns out NOT to be in one’s true self-interest in the long run. This is the kind of self-interest which encourages a man to cheat his neighbor even though he’s going to have to live next to him for years, or encourages a CEO to gut his workforce in order to jack up next quarter’s profits.

  18. Last_lemming
    October 29, 2004 at 2:15 pm

    Well, so much for T&S being a liberal blog. Is this one of those threads Adam wanted where you have to agree with the premise in order to comment?

    In case its not…

    All in favor of going against their self-interest by raising taxes now so that their children won’t be saddled with enormous deficits in the future, please raise your hands.


    I didn’t think so.

  19. kneight
    October 29, 2004 at 2:45 pm

    Is raising taxes the only weigh to erase the deficit?

  20. Greg Call
    October 29, 2004 at 2:48 pm

    Matt wrote: “What Frank means when he says people should vote for their self-interest is this: people should support policies that benefit themselves vis a vis others. Labor should support policies that benefit themselves vis a vis management; employees should support policies that benefit themselves vis a vis their employers; low income earners should oppose tax cuts for high income earners . . .”.

    Would your critique disappear if Frank instead he argued that conservatives have used cultural issues to *change* the middle and lower classes view of what is good or bad for society as a whole? That is, perhaps some miner in West Virginia in the 1940s thought that what is good for society as a whole was, above all else, governmental check on capital, a robust right to organize, and a strong social safety net. Now maybe that miner in West Virginia thinks that what is good for society as a whole, above all else, is a ban on abortion, a ban on same sex marriage, rebuking Hollywood culture, and school prayer. On this account, the current conservative coalition is not criticized for conning the lower classes into voting against their economic interests, but rather for shifting their vision of the public good from economic to cultural issues. It still has the problem of being hopelessly condenscending, and perhaps quite wrong on causation (it may have been the Democrats that shifted their focus toward cultural issues in the first place), but I think it avoids the critique you set out.

  21. Last_lemming
    October 29, 2004 at 3:06 pm

    Is raising taxes the only weigh to erase the deficit?

    Well, we could eliminate foreign aid, the EPA, NASA, and the Departments of Labor, Education, HUD, Interior, Commerce, and Agriculture.

    Oh wait… that still wouldn’t do it.

  22. Last_lemming
    October 29, 2004 at 3:10 pm

    I haven’t actually read Frank, but it seems he thinks that Kansans vote against their economic self-interest. Nonsense. From whose mind does he think abominations like the 2002 Farm Bill spring?

  23. Matt Evans
    October 29, 2004 at 3:12 pm


    The reason I focused on Frank’s “self-interest” premise (rather than his substantive claim about party migration) was because he mentioned the term “self-interest” a half-dozen times in the segment. He really seemed to think people should vote by their self-interest, and that’s what I object to. The notion of self-interest had been on my mind since my conversation with my friend from church, and Frank’s strong reliance on it last night moved me to write a post showing why it’s such a corrosive idea.

    I’m not qualified to address the substance of his historical and causal claims about Americans’ shifting views on the role of government and the proper limits of coercive force. My guess is that cultural forces outside any group’s ability to control have been responsible.

  24. a random John
    October 29, 2004 at 3:16 pm

    Didn’t we have a balanced budget very recently without elimniating those things or raising taxes?

  25. David King Landrith
    October 29, 2004 at 3:16 pm

    In some sense, party identification combined with the notion that self-interested voting habits are immoral leads to paradox.

    For example, I’m a Republican. This may means that serves my self-interest for Democrats to lose. In this case, is it immoral for me to vote Republican? Yet if I do the moral thing, and vote Democrat, I then become a Democrat and face the same problem with voting for Democrats.

    Surely, this is what the founders had in mind when they thought that political parties weren’t good for the union.

  26. October 29, 2004 at 3:18 pm

    Matt Evans, I think what you are wanting is for the masses to completely separate their opinions from their circumstances. But if that were possible, why would we need elections? What you are asking for is, sadly, unreasonable in practice.

    The beautiful thing about voting is that one person’s self-interest will cancel out that of another person, and what we end up with is majority rule. There might be a better way to prevent conflicts of interest from affecting the entire population, but I don’t know what it is.

    Matt Jacobson, good point about what’s good for society is also what’s good for the individual. A friend of mine says this year he is going to vote Libertarian because it makes him feel good, which also could be interpreted as voting in one’s own self-interest.

  27. October 29, 2004 at 3:19 pm

    John Leo has an intelligent, but brief, commentary on the Kansas book at

  28. ed
    October 29, 2004 at 3:25 pm

    Russell says:
    Did Madison and Smith argue on behalf of systems that assumed selfishness? Yes. Which means they did not argue on behalf of systems which sought out, or attempted to inculcate, virtue or an egalitarian concern for others in the population….let us at least acknowledge how very low their contractual and factional conceptions lowered the bar for social life.

    I guess you’re saying that republican democracy and/or free markets somehow encourage people to be selfish, moreso than other systems. You may even be assuming that a system that is somewhat robust to selfishness must actually encourage selfishness. You say this as if it’s self evident, but it’s not to me.

    Do you have any evidence? What sort of virtuous but undemocratic/heavily-regulated systems do you have in mind? Are these just hypothetical utopias, or can you point to examples? (And I don’t think answers like “the city of Enoch” count, unless you can explain why such a society is more likely to arise in the absense of republican democracy and free markets.)

    Also, I don’t understand how you can accuse Adam Smith of not caring about inculcating virtue…didn’t he write “The Theory of Moral Sentiments?”

  29. Greg Call
    October 29, 2004 at 3:30 pm

    Fair enough, Matt. I haven’t read Frank (just book reviews and interviews) so I wasn’t sure how central “self-interest” is to his logic or rhetoric. I think the reality may be that one’s view of what is good for society is vitally affected, at some level, by one’s own particular preferences and interests, economic or otherwise. If so, one’s behavior in the voting booth will not really change that much whether they’re voting based on self-interest or some grander vision of the good. In any event, I agree with you that it more moral to strive to vote the common good rather than self-interest.

  30. Last_lemming
    October 29, 2004 at 3:32 pm

    Didn’t we have a balanced budget very recently without elimniating those things or raising taxes?

    No. The tax increases of 1990 and 1993 were integral to achieving the balanced budget. (As was the stock market boom, another one of which we cannot count on).

  31. October 29, 2004 at 3:37 pm

    don’t faithful LDS citizens have an obligation to vote according to:

    1. their conscience (which may/may not have anything to do with money); and
    2. which candidate(s)/parties will best help/least hinder the establishment of Zion?

  32. jeremobi
    October 29, 2004 at 3:38 pm

    All voters vote self-interest. But the rankings of individual preferences that determine one’s best interest do vary. On occasion I vote against what I think is my economic self-interest because to do so might make me feel guilty (not in my self-interest) or because I want to do right by others (I get warm fuzzies when I think I’ve eased another’s burden–solidary interest), and because my own economic well being is only one of many things I value. This is merely ranking one set of my own preferences over another. It’s still self-interest.

    We can all do the math, so unless you’re in Ohio, I’m willing to bet that most of us vote in national elections because we prefer the psychic benefit (emotional interest). Plus I like the little stickers I get afterwards (material interest).

  33. Rob
    October 29, 2004 at 9:03 pm

    Looks like the conservatives are running with the full moon tonight.

    Charles, could you give me some examples of government’s “frivolous projects” so we can have a healthy discussion of that, or are you just blowing libertarian (but presumably tobaccoless) smoke?

    Last-lemming, hard to know how to respond to you unless you can tell us what’s your specific beef with the farm bill.

    What’s the difference between someone from the Middle East who wants to destroy government policies and someone from the Midwest or Mountain West who wants to destroy government policies? Some folks would say there isn’t much distance between the right-wing anti-government nut job of a Timothy McVeigh and a Muslim fundamentalist. Some of you seem to be in agreement with them that our government is too big and intrusive. You should be able to make some good friends with those in the mountains of Pakistan.

    Some of you in both camps probably consider yourselves patriots and freedom fighters.


  34. Jack
    October 29, 2004 at 9:29 pm

    The midwesterners don’t use car-bombs to destroy policy.

  35. Jack
    October 29, 2004 at 9:47 pm

    Oops! I got caught in a trap. I just remembered who Timothy McViegh is.

  36. Jack
    October 29, 2004 at 9:52 pm

    Rob, Shall we liken your support of government policy unto Stallinist methods of enforcement? That’s how ridiculous your comparisons are.

  37. Larry
    October 29, 2004 at 9:55 pm


    You were right when you said there was not much difference between Timothy McVeigh and a Muslim assassin. I hope you weren’t trying to suggest that conservatives are represented by the likes of McVeigh. If you were, then your thought processes are so far out of line that a reasonable discussion can not take place.
    The difference between the “left” and the “right” is that the left appears to want someone else make their decisions because they don’t trust the population as a whole to make the right choice. Hmmm.
    Governments can get too big and too intrusive. The best tool used by politicians on both sides is they promise to take care of you so you don’t have to worry.
    A conservative today and a classic liberal are in the same camp.

  38. Jack
    October 29, 2004 at 10:00 pm

    Thanks for helping me simmer-bown, Larry.

  39. Rob
    October 29, 2004 at 10:12 pm

    I just saw Joe Trippi and Richard Vigeurie on NOW with Bill Moyers…both argue that there will be a war within their respective parties that will begin after the election. They both also agree that power should be given back to the American people as empowered individuals. So, Larry, your articulation of differences between liberals and conservatives may be miscast, though you are surly right in stating that many politicians on both sides trade favors for power and like to see people beholding to them for handouts. So where’s the real difference?

    This isn’t about the size of government…as the Clinton administration (which I’ll wager many of you hate) was the most successful at getting the size of the government reduced.

    The real question is, what is the purpose of the government?

    I obviously didn’t mean to say that conservatives and terrorists share tactics. Just some of the same motives. Something to be careful about.

    And Jack, your reference to Stalin is OK…as long as strong-arming on both sides is recognized as illigitimate (I’ve seen more people thrown out of Bush rallies than Kerry events lately).

    So, again, what is the purpose of government? Surely that’s a good topic for us here? And I promise not to call anyone a fascist as long as I’m not called a communist.

    And finally, three cheers and a round of drinks (appropriate Mormon adult beverages of choice) for Lyle’s voting criteria. Though I’m sure I’d argue about how he used those criteria in this election ;)

  40. October 29, 2004 at 10:30 pm

    >No one should support a policy because it benefits themselves at others’ expense.

    Unfortunately, a lot of policies are not that cut and dry. What the laborer sees as fair, the employer sees as a liability and vice versa.

    I know for fact that a single person can live on well less than 30K in the midwest. However, some time ago, I believe on another blog, people were off the hook freaking out because a celebrity they didn’t like sponsored a scholarship for minorities to become librarians. They argued that no one could support themselves on such a paltry salary of around 30K, regardless of location. I’m guessing they go to bed on a mattress stuffed with money and can’t imagine people actually shop at Wal-Mart. They’d be appalled to know I’m friends with a family of 5 that survived on 42K a year without food stamps or welfare and didn’t live in da ‘hood.

    So I suspect if people told those horrified folks that they could afford to pay more in taxes, they’d beg to differ. By the same token, if you told someone that food stamps would now only cover staple foods and not overpriced frozen dinners, Lunchables, junk food, etc, they would probably argue as well.

    In both cases, society as a whole would benefit and budgets could be cut. But would most people agree? Not on your life. Our lives are full of “nice to haves” that have become “requirements” in most of our minds.

  41. Larry
    October 29, 2004 at 11:18 pm


    You are wrong on motives. Period. I’m not surprised that both sides predict wars within their respective parties. Remember, not all conservatives are Republican and not all liberals are Democrat.
    Please explain the difference to me between a fascist and a communist. Their techniques are the same ( concentration camps and gulags) and the results are the same – people living under totalitarian gov’ts. The mere mention that they are polar opposites baffles me because one is a national socialist and the other is an international socialist. Both attack their neighbours and both rule by fear.
    Just because they sat on opposites sides of the gov’t in Europe does not make them opposite ends of the political spectrum. They just fought each other for power and control.

  42. Greg Call
    October 29, 2004 at 11:35 pm

    Its not entirely uncontroversial, but fascism is generally understood to refer to right-wing, nationalistic, authoritarian movements that seek to preserve the class structure.They are generally hostile to the working class, particularly trade unions and other progressive movements. As such, I think it is fair to characterize it as the polar opposite of socialism. Nazism had some of these traits, but it is not the sine qua non of fascism. And the word “socialism” in the Nazi party name had very little to do with actual socialism — that party rose up as a violent reaction against socialism, international or otherwise.

    Here’s a good source for more info:

  43. Jack
    October 29, 2004 at 11:46 pm

    “I’ve seen more people thrown out of Bush rallies than Kerry events lately”

    Does that mean there’s fewer hecklers at the Kerry events?

    Clearly this whole argument has a lot to do with one’s political POV.

    Yes, my strong-arming was meant to be illegitimate. I used it rhetorically only to point out that your strong-arming was illegitimate.

  44. Jack
    October 29, 2004 at 11:51 pm

    Greg, I agree with Larry that the net outcome of the two are essentially the same. Naziism was fueled by an angry working class and ultimately sought to imperialize it’s ideology.

  45. Jack
    October 29, 2004 at 11:58 pm

    This is what Rob Briggs has to say on the subject (on another thread):

    “The usual formulation is Communism on the extreme left & Fascism (Nazism) on the extreme right. As you’re probably aware, some take this left-right continum & bend it into a circle so that the extreme left & extreme right join – conveying the similarities of the totalitarian left & right.”

  46. Larry
    October 30, 2004 at 12:00 am

    Hi Greg,

    Thank you. I will read with great interest. I’ve always equated facism and nazism as the same. Let me play the devil’s advocate here.(what a poor choice of words but you know what I mean)
    A question from the practical side and not the theoretical.
    Aside from rhetoric how are the two really different? The class structure inside both groups is exactly the same. Party members are treated with special favours. (there were millionaires under communism and fascism) and they preserved the status quo.
    As far as trade unions are concerned the fascists oppose them, the communists use them and the results are the same. (They could put the worker down by destroying his union or destroying his moral drive to get better by making everyone equal regardless of output). The poor stay poor and the rich get richer. Both employ the same tactics to keep power.
    Aside from intellectual discourse they used to differentiate their positions what really makes one worse than the other?
    I appreciate your willingness to discuss this since discussion on this level is a rare event except for here.

  47. Larry
    October 30, 2004 at 12:02 am


    Once again timing is everything and I missed your comments until mine went in.
    I’ll try to slow down a little. Thanks.

  48. Adam Greenwood
    October 30, 2004 at 12:08 am

    Greg Call,
    I think you understate the extent to which the Nazis and other fascists took their socialism seriously.

  49. Jack
    October 30, 2004 at 12:09 am

    No worries Larry. You you said it much better than I did.

  50. Larry
    October 30, 2004 at 12:20 am


    From the site you just sent me to:
    “If classical liberalism spells individualism,” Mussolini continued, “Fascism spells government.”
    This should through the fear into leftists. If the “right” wants less government the “left” is way off base calling them fascists. There ought to be more looking in the mirror before calling names.
    Thanks for the reference. It appears that fascists were more closely allied with communists than nazis originally. I will study further.

  51. Larry
    October 30, 2004 at 12:28 am

    oops. My grade 4 teacher would throw chalk at me for this boo-boo. It should have read “throw the fear” not “through the fear”.

  52. Greg Call
    October 30, 2004 at 12:40 am

    Larry, I did not say fascism is worse than socialism or vice versa. I was just pointing out that calling them polar opposites was within reason. I’m not a scholar on these (or any, really) issues. Other participants here can address them far more authoritatively than me. But as I understand it, fascism rose up as a reaction against and an alternative to socialism, which was gaining popularity. It is about the preservation of nation, the preservation of culture, the preservation of class in opposition to the internationalist, modernist, classless ideals of socialism.

    Adam, These are complex issues, but from my reading, I’ll stick by my characterization. Wasn’t the “Night of Long Knives” Hitler’s attempt to rid the party of left-leaners? And I understand it, the party came to power by forming a coalition with the conservative party, in opposition to the socialists — unions and strikes were outlawed when the Nazis took over. And I don’t think the fact that the Nazi’s nationalized certain industries indicates a sympathy for socialism. (I’m only talking about Nazism because I know little about Franco’s regime in Spain, or Mussolini.)

  53. Greg Call
    October 30, 2004 at 12:46 am

    Here’s an entry that compares Nazism and socialism directly: Nazism#Nazism_and_socialism

    Larry, I think your identification of socialism with communism is also problematic. Just as Nazism is not a perfect example of fascism, Stalinist communism is not a perfect example of socialism.

  54. Greg Call
    October 30, 2004 at 12:47 am
  55. Larry
    October 30, 2004 at 12:49 am


    After reading your original blog about the evil of voting one’s own self-interest vs. the public good I have a question. Who or what determines the public good?
    If you talk about equality there can be no question where my self-interest woul lie. If I can take equality away from, or deny it to someone, then the time will come when the same can happen to me. If I make it universal then I am protected.
    However, when you allow special status to a class or group because of past wrongs you have not corrected the problem. You have merely delayed the inevitable conflict that will occur when the tables are turned.
    As far as economics are concerned the same principles apply. If I use faulty, short term arguments to justify my position and don’t use universal principles, then I am not acting in my best interest.
    If I act under the principle that I want to preserve the future for my children and grandchildren then my self-interest is to ensure that everyone else is treated the same way so that my progeny is protected.
    When we create differences artificially we ensure that class warfare continues. Thus our present dilemma.
    If we all voted for a flat tax or a value added tax (where the rich would pay more because they buy more expensive items), for example, everyone would benefit, loopholes would cease and special privilege done away. Government spending could be monitored more accurately because revenues could be tracked and people would not be forced to lie on their taxes in order to squeeze a few more dollars out for their family.
    Please let me vote my best interest because I want to protect yours too.
    Just some thoughts on a night when there is no baseball and hockey doesn’t exist any more.

  56. October 30, 2004 at 12:51 am

    Is it time to invoke Meldrum’s Corollary to Godwin’s Law in this thread? :P

  57. Larry
    October 30, 2004 at 1:00 am


    I think I need reading glasses. You are right. I thought I had read (speed reading gone awry) that the influence of communism was greater that nazism. Can’t find it now. I’ll try to be more careful next time. Thanks.

  58. Larry
    October 30, 2004 at 1:07 am


    Back to your point on the origins of fascism, communism and nazism. It’s true they all had different underpinnings but what difference does it make when the results are the same?
    This could lead to a fascinating discussion on the worst form of government in the world – except for all the rest – democracy. And then, maybe, to what would constitute a “Zion society”.

  59. Larry
    October 30, 2004 at 1:09 am


    You are speaking to the great unwashed here. If Greg claims ignorance then the depth of my understanding would be looking up to see the bottom.
    Enlighten me on your comments.

  60. October 30, 2004 at 1:18 am

    My apologies for not explaining or providing a source.

    Godwin’s Law says: As an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler approaches one.

    Meldrum’s Corollary says: As a drawn-out online argument grows longer, the probability of someone picking up on typos or punctuation errors in order to score points approaches one.


  61. Rob Briggs
    October 30, 2004 at 1:19 am

    The Fascist’s focus on the power of the state means that they intervene considerably in business & economic matters.

    Yet Fascism does not call for the elimination of all private property as the Communists did. Certainly it was not a matter of fundamental political dogma among the Fascists as it was among the Communists.

    In allowing aspects of a free market economy into China, the Chinese Communists seem to be an exception. But then, they apostatized long ago from the true Marxist path.

  62. Larry
    October 30, 2004 at 1:33 am


    Good point, but what was the effect on the individual versus the state. One was made subservient to the other, was it not? The end result in all these cases is “the state rules”, including in Communist China.
    China may use the dialectic movement in an apparent move towards capitalism but who will be willing to give up power? What is going to happen to all those unhappy bachelors they have raised for over a generation while killing off their daughters. They may appear to have moved off the totalitarian bandwagon but I think we are in for a surprise in a few more years. I hope I’m wrong.

  63. Larry
    October 30, 2004 at 1:40 am


    Well done!

  64. Rob Briggs
    October 30, 2004 at 1:54 am

    Larry: “Good point, but what was the effect on the individual versus the state. One was made subservient to the other, was it not? The end result in all these cases is “the state rules”, including in Communist China.”

    In states of the totalitarian left or right, the state wins, the individual loses.

    No doubt about it.

    Perhaps I was misinterpreting but I thot you might have been privileging the Fascist Right over the Communist Left.

    I’d say they’re slightly different versions of the same kind of hell.

  65. Larry
    October 30, 2004 at 2:39 am

    Now we are on the same page. That’s the point I’ve been trying to make. There is no difference.
    On a political continuum from totalitarian state to anarchy they occupy the same space. We are in the middle, I believe, not wanting too much gov’t but wanting enough to ensure life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
    Have a good night Rob. And Jack and Greg, if you are still there, the same to you.

  66. Bill
    October 30, 2004 at 2:59 am

    Danithew —

    I think most of the serious flat tax plans that have been bandied about recently are fixed at 17%. That was what Steve Forbes was talking about in 1996. (I don’t remember the specifics of Jerry Brown’s proposals in 92, but he got a lot of momentum in the primaries, proving that the flat tax is not an exclusively conservative issue) That 17% still might not be enough despite all the benefits of simplifying the code (in Russia, for instance, after they established a flat tax, revenues increased significantly, because there was less of an incentive to evade). And depending on what the personal exemptions were, it would probably still be more regressive than what we have now, although far less regressive than a national sales tax. The only regressive tax I favor at the moment is another big hike in gasoline taxes.

  67. Matt Evans
    October 30, 2004 at 8:59 am

    Hi Larry,

    You asked After reading your original blog about the evil of voting one’s own self-interest vs. the public good I have a question. Who or what determines the public good?

    We’re charged individually and collectively with figuring out what laws are best for the public good. King Mosiah gave some excellent counsel in the Book of Mormon at the time the Nephites institued a democratic government, but he didn’t give many specifics. He basically just said that we should elect leaders who will use God’s laws as a guide. He also said that it’s not common for the righteous to choose what’s wrong, that it is common for the unrighteous to choose what’s wrong, and that if the voice of a people chooses what’s wrong, God’s wrath will hang over them. In Helaman 5:2, Mormon wrote that because Nephite laws were established by the voice of the people, and those who chose evil outnumbered those who chose good, their laws had become corrupted and they were ripening for destruction. The only advice we can confidently give is to be righteous so we can see clearly.

    There are some general political principles we can deduce from the scriptures and gospel, but I don’t have time to go into that here. I’ll write a post about it in the near future.

  68. Larry
    October 30, 2004 at 10:31 am

    Very good. I look forward to it.
    A quick comment though. Look at D&C 19:2 as well. When we talk in terms of the public good vs the self-interest of the individual, I’m not sure it changes under either scenario. Remember w/o agency of the individual there is no existence. He cannot surrender that and remain happy or free.
    You are right on the general principles and those are the ones that apply in both environments. The reason it doesn’t work now is the same reason that Nephite disease was always present when they prospered: power and control – not genuine self interest. ( Think about the constant threat they faced from inside their own families etc. when the wicked ruled).

  69. October 31, 2004 at 2:06 pm

    One thing a state does is make large amounts of wealth possible. Steve Forbes as a citizen of Albania can not make the same amount of money as Steve Forbes, born in the USA.

    Michael Jordan, basketball star makes a large amount of money because of the size of the market that was pre-established, compared to Michael Jordan, field hockey star.

    Cher, the singer, makes a fair amount more than Charro did before she moved to the USA, because the market size differs so.

    Singh, M.D. who moved to America makes 50x what Singh, M.D. who remained in India makes, in part due to the market (and, in part, due to successful monopoly practices of the AMA — Milton Friendman’s doctorial thesis touched on that, it is a steady theme of economics research).

    (This is a gross simplifcation of the theory of rents and markets).

    The result is that in return for establishing and preserving the American market entity, the government is entitled to a proportionately greater amount of tax revenue from those who prosper from it. If the ABA were to close 75% of the law schools in order to drive up the income of lawyers (the bottom 90% of them who make a great deal less than the top 20% from the top 50 schools), the government would be justified in taxing lawyers more in order to recapture some of the money generated by systematic biases in the government created and maintained market.

    Interesting stuff, taxation and environments created by governments.

    One of the greatest failings of some political groups is to completely miss the value that government regulation creates and maintains. They need to get out more, to places like Albania, to appreciate it.

  70. Jack
    October 31, 2004 at 3:49 pm

    Ethesis, I think it’s a little more give and take than that. Yes the government maintains an enviroment wherein the market can thrive, but without the market the government itself would not thrive.

  71. Larry
    October 31, 2004 at 6:22 pm


    Yep, the gov’t can create monopolies like the ABA and AMA but wasn’t his argument for allowing that to prevent fraud and provide for public confidence in the service being provided. His argument falls apart in practice, but it at least gives the appearance of competence and professional conduct.

  72. Larry
    October 31, 2004 at 7:44 pm


    May I suggest the following article as worth reading: Marion G. Romney, “The Perfect Law of Liberty,� Ensign, Nov. 1981, p43. It might provide some fodder for your next blog. I look forward to reading it.

  73. November 1, 2004 at 12:02 pm


    You asked for some examples of frivolous expenditures. What I consider frivolous is any project the government should not be involved in. For me I believe that the government has a very minimal role in our society. They should provide a framework by which the private sector can build on.

    Many of the projects that I would consider frivolous do have some legitimate purposes but I think that they could be better instituted. They would include but are not limited to: Welfare, Healthcare, Social Security, National Endowment for the Arts, farming subsidies (including tobacco), etc. There is a strong and healthy debate over the principles involved here. Is it the government’s responsibility to provide these things free of charge (not counting taxes)? Are our citizens guaranteed these privileges as rights? I say no, and those programs to me are frivolous. I believe there are better ways to encourage positive results for many of these social concerns but it is not the government’s responsibility for many of them, or at least to the involvement that they are. Once we decide what the government’s full range of responsibility is we can distribute the budget accordingly. This should allow us to reduce government programs and their costs and likewise reduce the required taxes to accommodate such a large budget.

  74. Jeremiah J.
    November 1, 2004 at 3:35 pm

    Some nice comments here, but I wish we could erase the off-topic (and very redundant, in the whole scheme of TimesandSeasons) discussion comments, though. A few points, from someone who sympathizes with at least the kinds of observations in the Kansas book:

    1. It does indeed seem condescending to claim that all poor Christians voting for Bush are doing so because they are duped into screwing themselves economically. However, notice that the frustration is with a certain kind of single issue voting. Frank does not seem to be arguing that these poor people are stupid mysogynists and homophobes (an argument that is sometimes heard), rather he seems to be arguing that their sincerely held views on abortion and gay rights cause them to ignore other issues which really affect them. But it really is an important and live question what Christians have gained from being increasingly allied with the Republican party for the past few decades. Pat Robertson has gone from a movement activist concerned mainly with “moral” isues like abortion to a partisan Republican who approves of Schwartzenegger. What has he and those who follow him (many of whom are poor and have not done well with Bush) got to show for their strong support for Republicans?

    On the other side, one might ask Frank: why do you think that abortion is so unimportant that I should switch from one corporate party to another, in the pursuit of uncertain economic gains? The ethics of voting are enormously complex, and Frank is giving some of the difficult issues short shrift. He could just as well ask (as I do) why the Democratic party is so monolithic and extreme on the issue of abortion, even though it seems hurt them politically to be so.

    2. It does seems strange to hold up self-interest as a final arbiter of smart or ethical voting (if that’s what Frank and others are doing). For one thing, it would make political discourse virtually impossible. No one ever claims “please support policy X, for the sole reason that is benefits me and only me!” That kind of argument is almost incomprehensible, unless it is coupled with some kind of claim about what I deserve, or how benefits to me also contribute to the common good. But this kind of coupling is in fact how most people argue, and probably should argue (because each of us is probably best equipped to talk about the challenges and needs which confront us in our concrete situations, rather than everyone in the abstract). Farm groups tend to put forward arguments why ‘pro-farm’ policies help everyone, or at least give farmers their due. Unions, business leaders, women’s groups, and leaders of ethnic and racial groups do the same. I see nothing wrong with this kind of discourse and this kind of politics. It might be accurately described as ‘self-interested’, but it does not argue from self-interest.

    But it should at least raise an eyebrow when we find, for example, the most extreme pro-management views among the lowest paid employees in meat processing plants, or the most supply-side, regressive taxation views among those who are barely making it. This is not because it is wrong to support policies which don’t directly benefit you, but because it seems to signal (though it does not conclusively prove) that people could be adopting an ideology which justifies the dominance of others. We can argue whether the pro-management or supply-side views are really best for the country from the perspective of sound policy analysis, but it seems unlikely that the poor and uneducated in general have arrived at these views through genuine lived experience or sound, informed analysis. Does this kind of thing happen? It seems to; the best concrete example I can think of now is not from the U.S. unfortunately. In Latin America, the strongest supporters of the pro-business right wing dictatorships were the small business owners who were barely making it. Those who benefitted (big business, the rich) most from these dictatorships were less monolithic in their support for the regimes.

    3. It’s not elitist or condescending to note that sometimes people support policies which undercut their explict aims. For example: most Americans believe that taxation is unfair, and that this unfairness favors the rich. And yet some of the least popular forms of taxation are the most progressive (e.g. the estate tax). We could have a discussion (not on this thread!) about whether the tax system unfairly benefits the rich. But there should be little disagreement about whether people are sometimes confused about which policies best promote their aims.

    Interestingly though, with many of these “cultural” or “social” issues, the policy is identical to the effect (a ban on abortion, gay marriage) and thus it is almost impossible to get confused between what you want and how to get there.

  75. Bill
    November 1, 2004 at 4:29 pm

    Re: point 2, comment 74 —

    From Oct 21 NY Review of Books review of Robert Paxton’s Anatomy of Fascism (by Adrian Lyttelton):

    “Fascist ‘anti-capitalism’ was not just pseudo-revolutionary rhetoric, or a nostalgic vision of a pre-industrial craft and rural economy. Fascism expressed a consistent preference for ‘national production’ over international finance, and for an organized and politically mobilized economy over the free market. ‘Productivism and an appeal to innovation and managerial engineering,’ Charles S. Maier has written, ‘constituted the modern message that Fascists and Nazis conveyed to the Italian and German economic elites.’ In the developed fascist economy, industrialists lost much of their freedom to make decisions, although one can certainly agree with Paxton that they were not too unhappy about this, since they kept their profits and were assured of a docile labor force whose wages stayed low. Only the small businessmen who had been conspicuous among fascism’s ealy supporters were radically disappointed. The hierarchical organization of cartels and producers’ associations under state supervision tended to favor the larger firms.”

  76. Jeremiah J.
    November 1, 2004 at 8:06 pm

    Fascinating quote, Bill. Do you think that the early support of fascism by the small business owners was ideological, in the sense that they adopted the interests and worldviews of a class they aspired to enter? Or, did they have good reasons to believe that fascism would be better for small business than probable alternatives? Those questions seem to be central to the question of ideology which Frank’s book hints at.

  77. Jack
    November 2, 2004 at 12:46 am

    When you have to cart a wheel barrel full of money to the market just to buy a loaf of bread, ANY ideology promising productivity becomes attractive in a pragmatic sense.

  78. November 2, 2004 at 9:51 pm

    Ethesis, I think it’s a little more give and take than that. Yes the government maintains an enviroment wherein the market can thrive, but without the market the government itself would not thrive.

    Surely. I was just giving a very rough take on the concept.

    I’d quote from P. J. O. (Eat the Rich, etc.) except he sacrifices accuracy in economics for humor any time there is a hint of a conflict.

  79. November 6, 2004 at 11:13 am

    BTW, to put the entire concept of self-interest in context, I thought I’d quote from a journal I sometimes read that was summarizing from a text book for modern students:

    Self-Interest, Altruism, and the Common Good

    Whose interests do people care about? In a famous statement from The Wealth of Nations, written in 1776, Adam Smith declared, “It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest.�[1]

    Many people coming after Smith have interpreted these words in a special way. They have assumed that if people in an exchange economy just follow their own self-interest, acting in the way that most benefits them as individuals, the goal of societal well-being will follow automatically. Many economists of the 20th century read Smith’s words out of context and saw them as clever proof that there is no need to for people to think “benevolently� about each other or about society as a whole. This has been used as an ethical justification for following unfettered economic self-interest.

    Adam Smith, among others, would have disagreed with this extreme view. (His other most notable work, The Theory of Moral Sentiments, addressed at great length the need to take into account the welfare of others). Exchange may fail to promote social well-being for a number of reasons. People may be badly informed. The situation may entail positive and negative externalities not taken into account in individual self-interested decisions. And, as also pointed out by all major philosophical and religious teachings, purely self-interested decisions are often at odds with basic ethical concerns.

    Interesting perspective on self-interest and not. Final excerpt:

    More and more, economists are realizing that a well-functioning economy cannot rely only on self-interest; it also depends on a culture that includes taking into account the common good. Without such values as honesty, for example, even the simplest transaction would require elaborate safeguards or policing.

    If everyone in business cheated whenever they thought they could get away with it, business would grind to a halt. If everyone in the government took bribes, meaningful governance would disappear. In addition, people have to learn to work together to overcome problems of externalities. In regard to children or the ill, who cannot take care of themselves through market exchange, some “benevolence� is obviously in order as well. Self-interest may indeed, in some cases, serve the common good, but it cannot be the only motor for an economy that serves the well-being goals of the society. Indeed, self-interest alone cannot even be efficient. Imagine if you were afraid to put down your money before having in your hands the merchandise you wished to purchase—and the merchant was afraid that as soon as you had what you wanted you would run out of the store without paying. Such a situation would require police in every store—but what if the police also operated with no ethic of honesty?

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