Sunday, February 27, 2011

Oh, Don't Mind Them

Ezra Klein makes an interesting point while talking about a political science book from a few years back:

In “Stealth Democracy,” political scientists John R. Hibbing and Elizabeth Theiss-Morse amass a lot of public-opinion data showing two things: First, as Jon Bernstein says above, most people do not pay much attention to American politics, and they do not want to pay much attention to American politics. But that preference leads to another preference: In order for most Americans to tune out of politics and not get ripped off due to their inattention, politicians need to be acting in an honorable, "non-self-interested" way.
Now, I've talked about this before, falling back on the analogy of a Good Shepherd, so I'm not going to spend a lot of time hear re-hashing it.

Instead, I'm going to ask the question - Do we expect this sort of behavior from anyone else? I mean, if you're completely (and perhaps actively) disinterested in the way an auto mechanic goes about things, wouldn't you expect to be cheated? There must be at least a billion web sites devoted to letting people rate and review businesses and service providers, with the express purpose of giving one a place to go for information so they're not conned. It seems to me that if you're going to take the time to count your change at McDonald's, because you're worried that the cashier might not be above pocketing a dollar or two, similar oversight of one's legislators is in order.
[Most Americans] worry -- rightly -- that their disinterest leaves them holding the bag for the favors that powerful interests are getting.
Given that this is the case, and that people don't expect other professions to treat them any differently, why doesn't this simple fact become the impetus for greater interest in the political process? This idea, that people want a government that will look out for them without any sort of reward/punishment structure set up to enforce it, just seems bizarre. But I haven't yet read "Stealth Democracy" myself, so perhaps they explain how this works there. (Although I will admit that part of me is afraid to find out what Hibbing and Theiss-Morse will say about it.)

But it seems to me, on the surface, that people have been willing to abdicate control over the processes of government in favor of a vague hope that the United States is special enough that this won't bite them in the rear end. It seems a fool's wager.

Edited: Hmm... It seems that I'm already starting to recycle my post titles... I'll have to be more careful about that in the future.

1 comment:

JohnMcG said...

Actually, for me anyway, this is how I prefer to model most of my relationships, in both the business and personal spheres.

In short, verify that someone is trustworthy, then trust them. And if they prove untrustworthy pursue a different relationship.

So, before I take my car to a mechanic, I might ask for recommendations and check ratings. But once I drop my car off, I'm not going to micromanage and ask what kind of wrench they're using and whether they're working every minute of the day. If I did, it would defeat a large part of the purpose of hiring a professional.

IMO, I'm not sure the problem is that we focus too little our attention on politics; it's that we focus so much of it in the realm where it's likely to have little impact -- national politics and national elections. Is my time better spent considering my presidential election vote, or making sure a big box retailer isn't stong-arming my community into eminent domain abuses?