If Penn students were to be surveyed on the political issue that’s most important to them, what would be the result? I don’t know of any such survey ever having been administered, but it seems likely to me that some social issue or another would pretty easily take the cake: the majority of political Facebook posts I see and political conversations I hear fall under this admittedly very broad umbrella. And it makes sense. People vote based on issues that are close to the heart. LGBT people care about same-sex marriage, marijuana users want to be able to pursue their hobby legally, and gun owners are concerned with firearm rights. The rest of the population tends to have strong opinions about these issues, too, often due to friends and family members who are affected. And they’re somewhat justified, as these issues are indeed important.
However, I’m of the opinion that when we elect our leaders we should be predominantly concerned not with these social issues but with economic ones. That is, we should be concerned with the makeup of our local, state and federal budgets. We should be mindful of the effects of international trade policy. We should formulate opinions regarding social welfare, tax policy, and industrial regulation. And yes, I realize that even just hearing terms like “interest rate” and “trade agreement” is enough to put most people to sleep. These issues aren’t sexy. Rarely do they come with the kind of pathos that’s so often utilized in social policy debates concerning issues like abortion and drugs. However, as voters, there are several reasons why we should disconnect from these emotions on social issues and instead put economic policy at the forefront of our collective conscience.
One problem with social issues is that the vast majority of them directly affect only a relatively small portion of the population. Take, for example, same-sex marriage. As of 2011, approximately 3.5% of Americans were estimated to identify as members of the LGBT community. If we take into account that many LGBT people are closeted, the number of people attracted to the same sex might be as high as 7 or 8%. That’s still less than a tenth of Americans who even have the potential to utilize same-sex marriage should it be legalized. Of course, the family, friends, and associates of the people who choose to get married will be affected in some capacity, but for the vast majority, the effect won’t be life-altering. The same is true for other social issues as well. Many Americans will never own a gun, even if restrictions on them are abolished. Many Americans will never use contraceptives (including abortion), even if access to them is covered by insurance. Many Americans will choose to remain sober their entire lives, even if drugs are legalized and the drinking age is lowered. Economic issues, on the other hand, affect everyone, regardless of social differences like race or sexual orientation or what you do for fun on the weekends. Every person participates in the economy in a multitude of ways. We create products and we consume them. We receive paychecks and welfare checks and student loans. We put money in banks and stock markets. To escape from the economy would require one to become completely self-sufficient, and almost nobody is.
Moreover, the effect that economic policy can have on most of our daily lives is far more profound than that of any singular social issue. The difference between eating and starving is quite a bit more consequential than the difference between smoking pot and not smoking pot, for example. To everyone from industrial capitalists to disability recipients, a thriving economy is the single most important prerequisite for a higher standard of living. When people don’t have money, social issues start to become a lot less relevant. That is, to someone who can barely afford to stay alive, it doesn’t matter whether euthanasia is legal or not. In addition, those living in extreme poverty tend to have less regard for the law than those who can live easily and comfortably while obeying it. If anything, the very fact that many of us college students are able to invest ourselves in non-economic social issues is a reflection of our socioeconomic privilege.
Some social justice enthusiasts might be concerned that by voting for economic policy, social issues will lose the attention they deserve. However, voters spur social change as much by influencing the economy as they do by influencing social policy. For example, there are a few social issues that I haven’t yet discussed which do encompass all or most of society, including criminal justice and educational policy. These are intrinsically linked to economic policy. Crime, for example, tends to decrease when poverty is alleviated, and the government can therefore spend less time and money on law enforcement. Many problems in educational policy are budgetary in nature, and fiscal reforms from both sides of the aisle could potentially mitigate them (e.g. budget reallocations from the right or bolstered funding from the left). Racial inequality in America very often follows economic lines. With the wars in the Middle East winding down, international trade and finance are moving to the forefront of American foreign policy. Immigration both increases economic output and necessitates greater government services. Even among 21st century feminism, perhaps the single most often-cited disparity is economic in nature—that is, the pay gap between men and women. Almost every social issue is either rooted in economics or has significant economic repercussions. Therefore, a vote determined by economic issues is anything but a vote ignoring social ones. Rather, it gets at the root of the illness rather than just the symptoms.
I’d like to clarify that I don’t think economic policy is always inherently more consequential than policy on social issues. I would probably not vote, for example, for a politician who agreed with me on economic issues but wanted to limit freedom of expression or the right to vote at all. Additionally, if electing a certain politician were to be the difference between going to war and remaining in peace, I might let economic issues become a secondary consideration. However, in general, the societal consequences of a politician’s social views is bound to be lesser than the consequences of the same politician’s economic views, and therefore the economics should be taken into account first. I would also like to clarify that my intentions in writing this piece are not selfish in nature.
For full disclosure, I am generally in favor of civil liberties and strong government intervention in the economy, but with this piece I am not attempting to argue for one side or the other. If anything, by heeding my advice and voting on economic lines, fewer people would probably vote along with me; there are far more fiscal conservatives than there are social ones, especially on East Coast university campuses like our own. However, the principle nonetheless remains valid. Economic policy is the key to a greater quality of life for everyone. Ut is only once an optimal socioeconomic balance has been reached that social issues should begin to dominate the political discourse.