Interest, disinterest, and vested interest

Fiscal Conservatism 607

When public decisions are being made, there are (at least) three categories of participants as referenced in the article title.

Interested participants are people who have a small stake in the outcome. For example, a taxpayer would be an interested person when discussing tax policy. Yes, if taxes go up, they will pay more. But the increase to them personally on a tax matter would probably be a few dollars per year. They have an interest but they can make decisions unbiasedly.

On a non-monetary manner, a resident of a town would be an interested participant. As a resident, they would have to live under the rules made by the town, so their vote will affect them, but no more so than every other resident.

A disinterested party would be more like a member of a jury, who knows none of the participants, has no financial interest in the outcome, and has no "super strong" views on the subject matter or holds some other bias that would make them unable to stay disinterested. So if the trial issue involved animal cruelty, they couldn't be a member of PETA or on a police brutality complaint, their sister couldn't be an officer.

Very often, we have participants who have vested interests to one degree or another. In our Kelley's Corner redevelopment boondoggle, several of the participants and speakers own property in the area. Having publicly funded improvements and changes in zoning can create a personal financial windfall for them, so their involvement must be seen in the light of extreme bias.

Likewise, when our town management negotiates with workers through the union collective-bargaining process, both sides have a vested interest in not only reaching an agreement, but making it a generous one. The union members directly benefit from large increases in compensation, and the staff managers benefit directly when their salaries and benefits must keep up with the increases given to their workers.

Our politicians on a state and national level use public programs and funding to polarize voters, turning them from "interested" voters into "vested interest" voters. This can be done financially or emotionally (such as playing up the benefits of 'green' programs to get the support of those often single-issue voters.)

Once a politician uses someone's vested interests to gain their votes, it is no problem to justify their own vested-interest voting (by supporting something, they will likely get reelected, which makes their vote biased.)

I still remember a comment by our President some years back, when he said that once voters know how Obamacare would benefit them personally, they would support it. So if you give things to people, it is reasonable to assume that they will vote for it even though that turns them from interested voters into vested interest voters. I see this as an example of the fundamental problem.

Perhaps this helps explain our $18 Trillion in national debt and our $100 Trillion+ in unfunded liabilities, and why these numbers continue to increase each year. There seems to be few people who will vote against giving themselves (or their constituents) more money.

In the Special Town Meeting warrant, we were told that the company offering to move to Acton for a property tax break would be using green energy when it refurbished its office space. Big deal...yet proponents surely figured that this would be a big plus for our single-issue environmental voters in town.

It is extremely hard for voters with a vested interest to step back and decide not to participate when offered the opportunity to do so, because their personal bias or interest often trumps doing what is right. But I believe that our society should move towards making these biases well known, and finding ways to help people do the right thing, rather than pretending the conflicts don't exist and allowing people to participate when they are morally compromised.

Say what you will about our criminal justice system, but the jury part of it is admirable. The court takes a lot of time on jury selection and weeds out people with various biases. Both sides get to strike any juror they are nervous about. Finding that a single juror was tainted can result in a conviction being overturned.

Imagine the same type of vetting of Town Meeting voters before every article. So when a Kelley's Corner funding article comes up, nobody with a direct financial interest would vote. Speakers with vested interests would clearly be identified, including abutters. The decision would be made by the rest of the citizens based on what was best for the town.

If Town Meeting required both sides of controversial issues to be fairly presented, and strongly discouraged those with vested interests from voting, the system would be a huge improvement over what we do now...and maybe then citizens would support it by showing up.

Now, all we can hope for is a large turnout so those with vested interests are outnumbered by interested voters, and voters can take into account that they almost always get a biased presentation by proponents and should evaluate proposals accordingly.

And when a large percentage of voters at Town Meeting are compromised, should the rest of the voters take that into account when making their decision? I did a study of Town Meeting voters a couple of years ago and found that almost 25% of the voters had a direct financial interest in the outcome of budget votes because they or a spouse worked for the town or school (see That means only 25% of the remaining voters needed to vote in favor of the budget, which is a very low threshold for passage. Perhaps voters need to just say no until such time that the voting process is fair.




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WE would have much more participation from town, if the voting were on line.

Michele Holland