#4 Why do you vote how you vote? And how do you know you’re right? Why I don’t vote

Photo Courtesy of Flickr Creative Commons

As 2011 comes to an end, I am reposting some of my favorite pieces of the year. In this post, I make some observations about voting as well as how we struggle to form objective opinions about the things which we vote on, and instead, simplify issues while jumping to ridiculous conclusions about the other side. Originally published November 7

We live in a society that values rational, linear arguments. We like to hear arguments and opposing arguments. Based on those arguments, we form objective opinions. Right? I believe it’s the other way around. I think it is that we have opinions and then we adopt arguments that coincide with what we already believe.

Be honest, if you research an issue, are you seeking the truth however it is? Or are you going in with what you think the truth is, and just looking for things that support what you already think? In most instances, I think this is how we are.

Now let’s say on political issues A, B, and C, I believe a certain way; and I am in a particular political party. Let’s say that on those same issues, you believe the opposite of what I believe. Not surprisingly, you are in a different political party. So we have beliefs, and based on those beliefs, we decide which political party to be a member of. Right?

Wrong. Again, it’s the other way around.

We decide on a political party and then we agree with the major issues of that party. In a post on the fantastic psychology blog You Are Not So Smart, David McRaney dissuced this last wek:

“You are always thinking about how you appear to others, even when there are no others around. In the absence of onlookers, deep in your mind, a mirror reflects back that which you have done, and when you see a person who has behaved in a way which could get you booted from your in-group, the anxiety drives you to seek a re-alignment. But, which came first? Your display or your belief? As a professional, do you feel compelled to wear a suit, or after donning a suit do you conduct yourself in a professional manner? Do you vote Democrat because you champion social programs, or do you champion social programs because you voted Democrat? The research says the latter in both cases.”

I was talking to a couple friends last week who are both in law school. I wanted to get their opinion on a matter. While I would like to think I’m intelligent, I had some specific question to which I knew that they would be far more knowledgeable. They spend hours and hours and hours a week studying legal issues. This past summer, I had to go to the emergency room. The doctor explained what was happening to me, and I believed what he said. I trusted his opinion over my own opinion. Why? Because I know he’s smarter than me on that issue. I think that’s how most of us are. When someone clearly has superior knowledge over an issue, we effectively concede to the master.

But in our times, everyone thinks that he or she is an economist. Everyone seems to think that they have an idea of what the government needs to do to fix the struggling economy.

“The rich need to pay their fair share,” one might argue.

“The government needs to let people have more control over their own money and reduce wasteful spending on social programs,” another will counter.

A couple schools of thought seem to be essentially arguing:

1. Through taxes, the government can create jobs. By putting people to work, the government created jobs are going to be doing work that is beneficial for society while also giving people money that they will then spend which will benefit society further. More people will have opportunity at prosperity and self preservation.

Although some believe something more like this:

2. If we reduce governmental regulations and allow people to keep more of their own money, they will spend and invest that money on various good and services which will necessitate jobs being created to provide those goods and services. So people in those industries will have their own financial capital which they can in turn spend and further boost the economy.

Obviously both of these examples are highly simplified. If you read both, there’s a good chance one sounds awesome and the other sounds greedy or immoral.

So which is better?

I have no idea. And the vast majority of people don’t have a particularly educated guess on the matter either. We just side with whatever our political parties say is best, and then ride that wagon until the wheels fall off.

For people who are economists and who study this, they probably have a better idea. But for people who follow politics, EVERYONE seems to think that he or she is an economist.

So many people get so committed to politics. It’s not that politics are unimportant, but we seem to lose site of the fact that regardless of which parties are in office, at the end of the day, a lot of the same things are going to get accomplished. It’s not like if one party is in power, everything is suddenly going to become awesome; and if they lose it, the opposite will happen.

With the internet, biased newspapers, and 24 hour news channels, for people who take an interest in politics, the amount of time spent studying an issue is limitless. And the more of our time, and the more of our lives we spend studying issues and reinforcing our beliefs, the more defensive we can become over their views.

So we create these false dichotomies about the other side of the political aisle. For example, someone might think, “America is a great nation. I’m a healthy person and I have benefited from this great healthcare system we have. I want all Americans to have this same benefit.”

At the end of the day, I think essentially all Americans would sincerely like other people to be happy. Even people who we don’t know and with whom we will never have any interactions, I think we would still like those individuals to have happy and fulfilled lives.

But we allow ourselves to get so mired in our political dogmatism that when someone disagrees – as in the healthcare example, we assume that people who disagree must be like Ebenezer Scrooge in a Christmas Carol and think that the sick might as well just die and “reduce the surplus population.”

But that’s not how it really is. Everyone wants what’s best. It’s just that there is disagreement on the best way to get there.