Mechanics and Statesmen

by Benjamin Studebaker

I have spent a lot of time in academic institutions the last several years. There is a level of insularity to such places, of being in a kind of bubble. Being in places in which most everyone around you shares interests that are similar to your own has a distorting effect on the mind. I often hear students complaining about the limits of conversation outside the hallowed halls, of having to talk small or explain their work to “general readers”. There is a certain level of incredulity to these accounts. We forget the extent to which our specializations are niche when we are surrounded for extended periods by others who share them. We know, on some level, that we are oddballs, that most people do not share our idiosyncrasies and predilections, but we nonetheless often find ourselves projecting our interests onto people who not only do not share them, but find the subjects that amuse us thoroughly boring. There is a group of people out there, a group that comprises most of the human species writ large, that not only does not read this blog or blogs like it, but cannot so much as comprehend what anyone would find interesting or worthwhile about such things. They are the disinterested, the apathetic, the politically indifferent. Confronted by these individuals, we rationalize our eccentricity by disparaging and devaluing them, by implying that it is in some “immoral” not to share the political or philosophical inclination. This piece I dedicate to the indifferent, to those who will never read it, and I write it in their defense.

People are not apathetic about politics because there is something wrong with them, because they are bad people, or stupid, or ignorant. Instead, I say that political apathy is absolutely crucial, that the vast majority of us should have this trait and may even be better for it. This is not to say that I think politics really is unimportant–this blog would be a mighty large waste of time if that were my view–but to say that in the ideal society, most people will not have to participate in or care about politics unless they wish to.

How might this be possible? Modern industrial society is built first and foremost on a single principle, one whose utility is widely recognized almost universally, except, most peculiarly, in the political arena–division of labor. We rightly recognize that it is perfectly legitimate for a novelist not to want to have to also be a doctor, and vice versa. Novel writing and medicine are two different skills that require two different sets of interests and capacities. Stephen Hawking would be a horrifying artist, and Pablo Picasso would be an abysmal physicist. The advantage of modern industrial society is that each of us is free to pursue what we like and are talented at. We do not have to be self-sufficient jacks of all trades. I can drive a car without knowing the first thing about how the internal combustion engine works, I can buy bread without knowing anything about agriculture or breadmaking, I can take in a basketball game or a movie without being able to run the triangle or do cinematography. Not only do I not have to know these things, but I do not have to so much as care about them. And were I to try to do them all, to be a “natural man” and live the transcendentalist, self-sufficient dream, I would find everything in my world to be bleaker and poorer for the lack of specialization and interest that would be in so much of it. Pablo Picasso’s car would be inefficient, filthy, and poorly crafted. Stephen Hawking’s movie would be lifeless, robotic, and visually dull. Not only would the work be inferior, but there would be much frustration and little satisfaction gained in the effort.

The great failure of modern democracy is that in order for it to operate best, every citizen not only can participate, but must. Our government is like a movie made by a bunch of people with no interest in movies, no experience in making them, and no artistic genius of any kind. We have not yet found a way to construct a modern industrial state that itself abides by the principle of division of labor without producing tyrannies of the worst kind. But this is not to say that it is necessarily impossible–the work of the political theorist is not yet finished. So when we the politically inclined see problems with our states that we rightly identify stem from voter ignorance and apathy, the critique is not of those voters but of ourselves and the imperfect system we have constructed that does not fully suit their natures, needs, or wants. If in order to get good government the people have to run the state themselves, with all the variabilities in skill and inclination they contain among them, they are still much worse off than if they get good government without having to give it any thought  or energy themselves. It is not the people’s fault that the system demands more from them than they can give, it is the system’s fault for attempting to substantiate norms of engagement that are repulsive to most citizens by nature, and we political theorists, as the authors and maintenance crew for the system, ought to look more frequently in the mirror. We project onto the people our own likeness, one that they do not share.

There is a Seinfeld metaphor for all of this–we political people are often too much like Tony the mechanic. Remember Tony?

Tony is Jerry’s mechanic. He holds disdain for Jerry because he feels that Jerry does not take an interest in his car, that he is not sufficiently committed to making it run as well as it should and could. Says Tony:

Huh. I don’t understand you. It’s your own car we’re talking about. You know you wrote the wrong mileage down on the form? You barely know the car. You don’t know the mileage, you don’t know the tire pressure. When was the last time you even checked the washer fluid?

Jerry, tired of being disparaged and condescended to, decides to take the car to another repair shop and Tony, despairing at the car’s likely fate in the hands of an inferior mechanic, steals it. We may not understand how most people could not be interested in politics and statecraft given how much these things influence their lives, any more than Tony understands how Jerry could care so little about the workings of his own car, but rather than disparage and deride, we should recognize that these other people have many essential and wonderful skills that are entirely foreign to us, that they have interests we fail to share. It is our job to design systems to accommodate real people with diverse interests and skills, not imaginary professional legislators in some universal kingdom of ends. Tony’s job as a mechanic exists precisely because interest in cars and skill at fixing them is not universal. Those of us who take a special interest in politics have a special role to play in the running of the state, but we are not entitled to devalue those who make equal contributions to society in a myriad of other ways.