Monday, January 2, 2012

Safe For Passivity

When I've spoken with people who feel that it's important to "get the money out of politics," it doesn't normally take very long to maneuver them into getting to the actual point - protecting voters they view as less sophisticated than themselves from harmful political messages and candidates. While I understand the intent, I think an effort to do something that perhaps we don't really want to do - namely making representative democracy safe for people for whom representative democracy is most demonstrably unsafe.

If "government of the people, by the people and for the people, shall not perish from the earth;" at some level the people are going to have to be active participants in their government. Apathy and passivity just aren't good things to have in a republic. I, for my part, am of the school that says that incentives matter - the more you give people a reason (or, quite frankly the necessity) to be active participants in their government, they more active, engaged and educated they become. When you dial back the need, people re-purpose the time they would have spent on other pursuits, and it becomes hard to get that time back later.

It sucks, because the extra effort that I'm asking that people expend in keeping up with government translates to a direct hit to their standard of living - either they have less time to work, or they have less leisure time. And when you look at people who have enough money that they can simple buy their way out of having to make that choice, it all becomes a pretty in-your-face reminder of how unequal our society has become. But I don't really see any other viable way around it. It's tempting to limit people's ability to participate, either directly or by proxy. But then will come an enforcement mechanism, and that enforcement mechanism will be VERY powerful - after all, it will have a high level of control over what messages are available to the public. If it becomes captured by one faction or another, the sorts of issues that we're dealing with now will seem like child's play.

Our government now is driven by lobbying for a very simple reason. Lobbyists promise money to get messages out. And our society has shifted from evaluating the content and the origin of a message to evaluating the ubiquity and slickness of a message, and so more money buys more effective messaging. But just because someone can put up the biggest, splashiest billboard doesn't mean that I should simply do as it says. And that, in the end, is how to remove the money from politics. Enough of the public has to be involved enough that one can't simply shout one's way to victory, regardless of the message. It won't be a sure thing. There's no reasonable way to get complete participation, but I suppose it's like vaccines. Get enough people onboard, and herd immunity will take care of the rest.

It certainly can't hurt.


Keifus said...

I dunno man, pretty much everyone knows advertising is bullshit, and yet, there's no place to hide from all the marketing. Presumably it works, but in sufficiently cynical moods, I'd be willing to believe that it works better on sellers than purchasers. Surely there's data of some kind.

the more you give people a reason (or, quite frankly the necessity) to be active participants in their government, the more active, engaged and educated they become

Maybe that's what Marie Antoinette meant with the "Let them eat cake" line...

Keifus said...

P.S. Just read this Taibbi column. According to his citation anyway, the big money candidate wins like 94% of the time. Maybe you argue causation/correlation and all, but I think it's a reasonable hypothesis that the cash matters.

Even if the advertising doesn't really convince, it's probably enough that they believe it does. There's the "objective" news, as well as the candidates themselves, that are more compelled to serve the people who actually pay them.

Aaron said...

You're right. The cash matters. But I'm not sure that it HAS to matter. I mean, I'm pretty sure that elections are bought and sold. But are we, the public, the sellers in that transaction? Were we more active, money would matter less, I think.