Guest Post on what is more important

A guest post by Camryn Brown:

Given that multiple political parties have policies with which I agree, how do I decide which one to vote for?

Or “How do I prioritize by political opinions?”

Generally, I prefer very small government in both the social and economic spheres. Put another way, I believe in government that plays only a limited and judicious role in both your personal and financial lives. Faced with a hypothetical (yet all too common) choice between a socially liberal and economically big government party and a socially conservative and economically small government party, which would I choose?

I would choose the economically small government party every time. There are three reasons.

  1. Politicians have more impact on the economy than they do on society. So it’s more important that they get the economics right.
  2. When the economy is going well, society tends to the liberal. So my social objectives are more easily advanced when my economic ones are.
  3. Economic big governments naturally become social interventionists, one way or another. So, they should be avoided.

Let’s discuss each reason in turn after a pause for definitions. For the purposes of this essay, I define social policy as policy concerning interaction between members of society e.g. policies on gender, sexual orientation, marriage and family structure, discrimination, and so on. Social welfare policy falls into economic policy because it’s about the economic well being of people not interactions between people. Social and economic policy certainly interact, but it is necessary to draw a line somewhere for the sake of argument.

First, the limited social impact of politicians.

  • Humans are consciously social creatures. We spend our lives pondering morality and fairness and applying our social mores in our interactions with others. We are highly confident in what we think is right and wrong and we love talking about it. Thus, as new ideas are raised and debated, society tends to change its views quickly. In New Zealand, homosexual conduct was illegal until 1987 and yet we now have marriage equality. These changes are consolidated and codified by the laws that politicians pass, but they are not created by those laws. Indeed, the laws are a reaction to a society that has already changed. That change happened through social interaction, not political action.
  • In contrast, humans are not consciously economic creatures. We don’t tend to think or talk about economics as much as we do social issues (e.g. most reality TV is about social interaction, very little is about economic interaction). We respond strongly to incentives, but often in a subconscious manner. Many of those incentives spring from “the people” (aka. the market, which is just a name for the economic interaction of people) but many are politically created for various ends (some good, some bad). Thus, the economic laws that politicians set do have an immediate, ongoing effect on us all and we tend to habituate to them and barely ever consciously revisit them.
  • Thus, it makes sense to vote for the party that agrees with me in the area that has the most potential to positively or negatively impact well being. That’s the economy. I acknowledge that this view must be frustrating for some, especially those personally impacted – as homosexuals wishing to marry recently were – but this brings me to my next point.

Second, a good economy leads to a liberal society.

  • Prosperous societies tend to the liberal.
  • When people are economically comfortable as a result of their own skill and effort, they feel good about that. It builds self esteem. Therefore, people have less motivation to seek self esteem elsewhere, which too often involves considering others to be inferior on the basis of their gender, race, sexuality and so on. Discrimination is a cheap and artificial boost to self esteem, but one that people tend to turn to when they can’t get themselves ahead on their own merits.
  • On the opposite side of this same coin, typically we’re only as liberal as we can afford to be. At a macro level, an example of this would be in the industrialization of the UK. The greater use of capital provided an alternative route to prosperity that quickly led to an acknowledgement of the immorality of slavery. The northern US followed suit as it industrialized whereas the south, remaining agricultural, tried to hang on. 

Third, economically big governments tend to have to intervene socially.

  • Economic help tends to come with strings attached, or at least it should if it is not to eventually fail. For example, it’s not possible to provide welfare without social strings attached unless you’re willing for the cost to spiral out of control as people make increasing poor personal choices or even actively victimise themselves. Any brief reading of Theodore Dalrymple illustrates this better than I could. 
  • Therefore, when government is seen as the solution, it tends to be applied to *every* problem.
  • Thus, economic interventionists tend to disbelieve my first point and act as if they can control social behaviour instead of simply react to it.

In short, it makes most sense to vote for politicians with which you agree in the economic sphere irrespective of whether you agree with them socially. The social policies they promote won’t impact society much and will probably fall into line with society in one or two elections anyway. The economic policies they promote will have impact and this can speed up the social change anyhow.

Do you agree, disagree or partially agree?

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