Discover more from Vancouver Needs More Housing
Appeal to self-interest rather than altruism
If 20% of voters are truly altruistic, that's not enough to win elections
I attended a webinar by Paul Kershaw of Generation Squeeze a while back. Towards the end, he mentioned that he'd been campaigning for ten years on this issue without making much progress. What struck me was that his presentation emphasized the inequity of the housing shortage - a huge windfall for homeowners (who tend to be older and wealthier) at the expense of renters (who tend to be younger and poorer).
The trouble is, as Joseph Heath puts it, it’s difficult to win elections by appealing to people’s altruism. Writing about Olivia Chow’s campaign in the 2014 Toronto mayoral race:
The problem with Chow’s position is that, for the average voter, she is making a pitch that relies for its appeal entirely upon the voter’s moral concern for the welfare of others. She has not announced any major policies that will improve the welfare of the median voter. Her pitch is not “vote for me, and I’ll make your life better,” it’s “vote for me, and I’ll make you feel better, by making some poor person’s life better.” Now I don’t want to dispute the moral sentiment here, I just want to suggest that appealing to people’s altruism does not provide a very strong basis for building an electoral majority.
… Again, there’s nothing wrong with a lunch program. It’s just that you don’t win elections by promising to give other people free lunches. For the average person, life in Toronto sucks in innumerable ways. Traffic is a nightmare, public transit is crappy and overpriced, housing is too expensive, air quality is terrible, schools are underfunded and there is practically no busing, programs are oversubscribed, daycares are all full, you have to shovel your own snow, and it’s practically impossible to get out of town on weekends. If you want to become the mayor, you need to be able to say to the average voter, “this is how I’m going to make your life suck a bit less.” And at the end of a four year term, you need to be able to say “this is how I made your life better.” If you can’t, people will get angry, and will elect someone like Rob Ford, who at least promises to cut their taxes.
Watching the housing panel at the Liberal convention this past weekend, it seemed to me that there was a lot of emphasis on altruism, providing non-market housing to lower-income households, rather than on building more housing, period, using the Rental Construction Financing Initiative (long-term low-interest loans for purpose-built rental housing) and the recently announced $4B Housing Accelerator Fund (incentives for municipalities to allow more housing, e.g. funding for infrastructure upgrades). I also thought it was a bit strange to talk about Harper, rather than observing that Covid resulted in a lot more people suddenly working from home and needing more space.
George Washington makes a similar observation about the primacy of self-interest:
A small knowledge of human nature will convince us, that, with far the greatest part of mankind, interest is the governing principle; and that, almost, every man is more or less, under its influence. Motives of public virtue may for a time, or in particular instances, actuate men to the observance of a conduct purely disinterested; but they are not of themselves sufficient to produce persevering conformity to the refined dictates and obligations of social duty. Few men are capable of making a continual sacrifice of all views of private interest, or advantage, to the common good. It is vain to exclaim against the depravity of human nature on this account; the fact is so, the experience of every age and nation has proved it and we must in a great measure, change the constitution of man, before we can make it otherwise. No institution, not built on the presumptive truth of these maxims can succeed.