One of the members of the studio audience, Anticant, wrote something in a comment yesterday that deserves some special emphasis and development.
The problem we suffer from in democracies is that while all of us quite rightly believe our own personal lives, careers. and interests are more important than politics, except in times of crisis – i.e. that we are entitled to the pursuit of happiness - a majority of the population who are qualified to vote take no interest whatsoever in what is going on in their own country and the world, and this culpable indifference enables the power-hungry politicians, the super-rich, the bigoted religious loudmouths, and the downright crooks, to wield much more power than they are rightly entitled to.
In a sense, all of this is correct. However, this is one of those instances in which I think that it is important to look at some of the details, and to recognize that there are structural problems here for which individuals are not fully culpable.
These details have to do with the degree to which people devote time and energy to their lives, careers, and interests, as opposed to studying what is going on in our country and in the world.
The fact is, it is rational for a person to study those issues where (1) the consequences of their decision will have the largest impact on their lives, and (2) their decision will have a real-world impact on the outcome of events. It is simply not rational for people to come up with a detailed understanding of what is going on in their country and world events because, even though the impact is huge, the probability that they can have any control on that impact is virtually zero.
I can relate a personal story to illustrate this point.
I am very well of the fact that if I were to devote as much time and energy to studying computers that I spend on studying moral and political issues, that I would be far better off financially than I am today. In fact, I have been told as much – that my career is stalled because I do not eat, drink, and sleep computer programming.
There are people out there who have jobs in which they work on computers, who leave their jobs and go home, where they work on computers in the pursuit of their individual interests, who then take what they learned at home and apply it to their work. These types of people become the best computer programmers, they become recognized as such, and their employment status benefits as a result.
The same is true for the person who studies medicine, law, engineering, or who teaches in a university on any subject. They are experts at what they do because they are so interested in the subject at hand that this is where their brain is at 24 hours each day. They even dream about the subject that they study and where their interests lie.
For those who have a family – for those who have children – they have something else in their lives that demands a great deal of attention. It takes a great deal of time to actually study and be aware of the things that are intimately connected to a child’s life – to not only keep the child safe, but to help the child to become an adult who can thrive in modern society.
My interest happens to be in political and social issues. However, I cannot complain about those who have interests that are different than mine.
Of course, it is not the case that people are devoting time and energy only to their careers and their families. People do waste a great deal of time and money. One of the greatest wastes of time concerns the time they spend watching television – watching intellectually vacuous shows such as American Idol or Survivor. One of the greatest wastes of time, money, and resources is sports – a $300 billion per year industry that accomplishes almost nothing. If we are going to have sporting events, can we not at least have events where competing teams actually try to accomplish something useful?
We can rightfully complain about the person who can name a hundred different athletes, but who cannot name their own representatives to Congress. We can rightfully complain about the person who spends $100 and a full day going to the ball game rather than spending the day learning about the economics of foreign trade.
Yet, even if we got rid of mindless television, sports, and similar wastes of time, it would still be the case that people would be smarter to devote that time and energy to their careers and their families than to devote them to national or international politics. The time and energy they devote to national or international politics will still have almost no impact on how the world the world turns out. That requires the cooperation of a huge number of people who have very little incentive to cooperate. Whereas the time and money they spent on their career and family would have an immediate impact on their well-being and the well-being of those around them.
Where things get truly sinister is where there are people who recognize these facts about private incentives, who then exploit these facts to personal advantage. Special interest groups are great filling people’s heads with useful fictions – fictions that are useful to the people who promulgate them, but not to the people who are ultimately convinced.
What these organizations do is spend millions of dollars getting useful fictions placed where people have their attention. They hire marketing companies to wrap their useful fictions into packages that largely disinterested people can easily digest, then they pay millions of dollars to put that information where disinterested people tend to focus their attention. They can afford to pay millions of dollars because, once they convince enough people of this useful fiction, they will harvest hundreds of billions to billions of dollars as a result.
They promote celebrities whose main claim to fame is their ability to make useful fictions entertaining – talk show radio hosts and Fox News broadcasters who will get these useful fictions in front of the general population.
I am not saying that these broadcasters sell their message to the highest bidder. Rather, the people with the useful fictions to sell know that they can gain a lot of mileage selling their message to these opinion leaders. In addition to spending millions of dollars to put advertising up where the disinterested public will see it, they make sure to get the message into those areas where the substantially ignorant broadcast entertainers who are more interested in ratings than in truth would see it.
In short, there is a problem here that Anticant describes quite accurately. The important part that is missing is the fact that it actually makes no sense for the average person – the career and family minded individual – to do anything different. The career and family minded individual will always be able to find something more profitable (to himself and to his family) to spend his time on than learning the details of the conflict in Georgia, or studying the fine print of the North American Free Trade Agreement and the social and political implications of those provisions. Even if he were to become an expert on any of those things, there is nothing that his expertise would allow him to do about the situation. All he would basically acquire as a result of his efforts is a better understanding of just how screwed up things have become.
Unless he is going to make his career in the state department, this information is about as useless to him as baseball statistics or the standings in this season’s most popular reality shows.
So, is there anything that can be done about this, or all we all doomed?
Well, I think that if there are any solutions to be found, we can do a better job of finding them if we accurately understand the problem. A part of the problem is that we are demanding that people spend time and effort on things that do not interest them and are not useful in achieving things that do interest them.
Desire utilitarianism has another way of describing this problem. The problem is that we are demanding that people devote time and attention to things that do not fulfill their desires directly (interest them) or indirectly (useful). The remedy to this would be to devote time and energy into changing their desires, using social forces such as praise and condemnation.
One of the things that we can do is be less sparing in our praise of people who exhibit traits that we have reason to promote, and less sparing in our criticism of people who exhibit traits that we have reason to inhibit. It is particularly important that we express this praise and condemnation in the presence of children who will carry those values into the next generation.
If anybody here were interested in why I am so contemptible of a national motto and a national pledge that puts atheists (those not ‘under God’) in the same company as those who support rebellion, tyranny, and injustice for all, they can find their answer in the way that the national motto and the national pledge use praise and condemnation to imbed attitudes in young minds that do far more harm than good.