Do We Want More Political Engagement?

by Benjamin Studebaker

We often hear it said by those of us who are inclined to take a keen interest in politics and the various affairs of the state that people who do not pay attention are doing something bad, something immoral or unethical, that they have a duty to pay more attention, to participate in politics more. But is that truly what we want, or merely what we think we want?

When someone says that those who do not pay attention to politics should pay more attention, there are two potential reasons that this engagement could be deemed desirable:

  1. The Good of the Participant–it is good for a person’s character for said person to pay close attention to political affairs.
  2. The Good of the State–it is to the benefit of society for people to pay more attention to political affairs.

I should like to discuss each of these reasons in turn to investigate their value.

The Good of the Participant:

Every person with an interest, an occupation, a passion of some kind, tends to think that everyone who does not engage in similar behaviour is missing out on something. Those who like music will often say that everyone should learn to play an instrument for their own benefit. Those who like mathematics will say that everyone should study it regardless of occupational preference for their own good. So too, will those of us with political inclinations also claim to know what is good for others and say that everyone ought to share our interest, that it would make people better if they did so.

These kinds of arguments make several errors that stack upon one another:

  1. They assume that other people are similar to the self. In fact, what one person finds interesting often bores another, and vice versa. My benefiting from a given activity does nothing to establish that you will benefit from the same activity.
  2. They are paternalist and diminish the liberty and autonomy of those to whom they are directed.
  3. In sum, they claim knowledge of other people for which they have no supporting evidence as well as authority to dictate the behaviour of others on the basis of said baseless knowledge.

Most people do not take a keen interest in politics and do not pay much attention. They instead busy their times with other activities and interests–employment, parenting, and their various corresponding hobbies or fascinations that they hold in politics’ stead. Those of us who are interested in politics often benefit mightily from these other activities (a society of political theorists like myself would, among other things, starve to death). That brings us to our second justification.

The Good of the State:

There is already reason to doubt that a society of political aficionados would be provide a good quality of life on the sheer basis that so much of the work of operating an efficient society is non-political in character and requires individuals of completely different dispositions. It is often the case that these dispositions are just not compatible with the political disposition. Few lovers of politics would be happy to take jobs doing work that does not permit or utilise much of the thinking inherent to political work or thought? In addition to this, however, I have another concern.

The desire to see others engage more with politics is usually not a reaction to the absence of political interaction, but instead the presence of a negative political interaction. If you find that, for instance, 87% of people do not know what the fiscal cliff is, is the frustration really from the simple fact that they do not know, or does it instead come from the fact that they nonetheless have opinions on what should be done, that they voted, that they will nonetheless act politically without having put in the time to have a well-informed political view? Your average doctor does not begrudge the general public their ignorance of medical knowledge until that ignorance obstructs his work–a patient who has an irrational fear of vaccinations will vex a doctor, but the average person’s lack of intimate knowledge of obscure diseases is of no concern.

So I propose it is with politics–we are not bothered truly by the fact that people do not know, we are bothered by the fact that they presume to act without knowledge. This seems to us to disrespect and denigrate the work we have done to become informed. It is, from out point of view, an unethical shortcut. More importantly, it interferes with our work. People who pay attention to politics know many political facts that should influence decisions, facts that the general public often does not know or chooses to disbelieve. This impedes our political knowledge from coming to its proper use.

This notion of respect for the work of others and for the expertise of others, which our modern society increasingly disregards, is not new. The Greek philosopher Plato speaks of it in The Republic. It is this concept that Plato calls justice:

And the individual will be acknowledged by us to be just in the same way in which the State is just? That follows, of course. We cannot but remember that the justice of the State consisted in each of the three classes doing the work of its own class? We are not very likely to have forgotten, he said. We must recollect that the individual in whom the several qualities of his nature do their own work will be just, and will do his own work? Yes, he said, we must remember that too. And ought not the rational principle, which is wise, and has the care of the whole soul, to rule, and the passionate or spirited principle to be the subject and ally? Certainly.

We would do well to pay this idea a little more heed, to respect the work and expertise of others without interfering in their work, and to demand the same from them. After all, what we really want from those who do not engage with politics is not that they assume our role–we value and respect their work, their expertise, their talents. What we really want is for them not to interfere in our work, not to engage in politics without having gone to the trouble of learning the art, and that can be achieved much more easily by barring those without expertise from engaging in political work, as we bar those without medical expertise from pracitising medicine, than it can by demanding that those without the political nature take up its practise.