In Praise of Apathy

Relatively few Americans vote or participate in politics. A very large percentage of eligible voters do not even register, and large percentages of registered voters don't bother to vote in most elections. This is usually regarded as a bad thing, and the apathy of voters is commonly lamented. The critical view seems to be that things would be better if only citizens participated more. But this is not necessarily so.

One explanation for voter apathy comes from a cost-benefit analysis. It takes time and effort to learn what is going on in politics or to try and influence political events. The time actually spent registering or voting may be trivial, but paying attention to what is going on, let alone getting "involved," is much more demanding. Many citizens feel instinctively that all that effort isn't worth it and that voting or not voting actually doesn't make any difference. The benefits of voting and participation are vastly outweighed by the costs.

Now, there are two respects in which this is clearly true: the cost of politics for the losers is compensated by no benefits whatsoever. The transaction is a dead loss. On the other hand, even the winners may be disappointed. When a politician's promises cannot be trusted, and when the principal political incentive is for politicians merely to do things that sound good or look good in sound bites and short-term memory, it is not surprising that even voters who vote for winners may end up feeling that it isn't worth the effort.

Behind all this, however, we must ask what people could expect from both vast political participation and a responsive government. It sounds like the people who want activist government the most want unending positive benefits from government: agreeable jobs, medical care, education, training, child care, safety, subsidies, transportation, insurance, retirement, art, entertainment, vacations, etc. etc. Political participation would thus mean demanding these things from the government, and a responsive government would mean actually handing them out.

The problem with this is that government itself produces no wealth. It must get the wealth from somewhere else to hand it out. We can always think that "the rich" have all this wealth they don't need and that we are better off spending their wealth on our social needs than letting them spend it on their yachts. When it is pointed out that most of the wealth of the rich goes into investments in business, even the yacht business, and that this is all what creates jobs and wealth for everyone in the first place, this can be dismissed and despised as "trickle-down economics": We would all much rather have government jobs with better benefits and better security than have to work for some selfish capitalist or a faceless corporation in the first place.

Be that as it may, there is only so much wealth that can be gotten out of the rich before the process begins to crush the economy in the private sector. A recession bothers people a lot more than letting the rich keep a little more of their wealth. Consequently, there are serious limits to how much wealth government can take to hand out in social benefits. A European social democracy like France, with persistent 12% unemployment and negative real economic growth (in 1996), seems to have hit that limit. But, on the other hand, there are no limits to how many benefits people can begin to think they are entitled.

When something good is regarded as free, the demand curve begins to go to infinity. This means that obtaining goods by political action is inevitably going to disappoint some, and at some point probably all. If everyone just wants more, then everyone is going to be disappointed when they don't get it. Politics becomes, not just a war of all against all, but a war in which everyone will feel that they have lost. The common metaphor of the economic "pie" being a common possession that must be "distributed" means that there will be no end to bitterness, anger, and frustration about who deserves how much of a share. In the end, as in the Soviet Union, or as is looming in Western Europe, where there has been exactly zero net growth of private sector jobs in the last twenty years, the "pie" is destroyed rather than distributed. By the time that happens, many would actually rather see it destroyed than see their enemies, or "the rich," get too much.

Often, indeed, people don't even know what or who to blame when the limits are reached. That occurs because of the differences between distributing wealth by economic means through the free market and distributing it by political means through taxation and spending. [See "Rent-Seeking, Public Choice, and The Prisoner's Dilemma"] In a market economy, costs are concentrated on producers while benefits are dispersed among consumers. When a company goes bankrupt, the owners lose their investment and the workers lose their jobs, but few know about their discomfiture outside a small circle, while the customers of the company can simply shift over to a more successful competitor. In politics, however, benefits are concentrated on the politically successful, while costs are dispersed, usually, among taxpayers. A mere dollar per American consequently will produce $250,000,000+ to hand out to some pleased recipient of Congressional largess. But then, of course, as everyone wants to be in on the largess, the dollar here and the dollar there begin to add up. If the money is borrowed rather than taxed, that softens the blow; but the five trillion dollar national debt and the twelve trillion dollars in unfunded liabilities for pensions, social security, etc. that now hang over the Federal Government suddenly mean that every one of the 250 million Americans is ultimately liable for a $68,000 bill. That is far cry from the "mere dollar" sort of rhetoric one hears about from the advocates of every pet program. A "mere dollar" for the National Endowment for the Arts and/or Humanities will mean $68,000+ when every worthy cause gets to make the same argument.

Such a system can survive only so long as there actually are enough "apathetic" citizens to fund it without demanding their own "fair share" back. The viability of the system thus, ironically, absolutely depends on apathy. On the other hand, "apathetic" citizens may realize the intrinsic futility of the whole process. They may also be aware that American government was not originally intended to be a means of handing out wealth. In the tradition of John Locke, people like Thomas Jefferson saw government as no more than the means of protecting the liberty and property of citizens: "...a wise and frugal government, which shall restrain men from injuring one another, which shall leave them otherwise free to regulate their own pursuits of industry and improvement, and shall not take from the mouth of labor the bread it has earned. This is the sum of good government." In those terms, citizens need have nothing to do with government unless their liberty or property are threatened by others, or in case the government itself fails to do its job of protecting liberty and property.

A government that passes over into providing positive benefits based on political demands cannot fail but attack liberty and property: the latter because it needs people's property to endow the politically successful, and the former because in the end it will need to compel people to labor when it is not for their own benefit but for the benefit of those who have won political favor. Americans who are therefore not really "apathetic" but merely good Jeffersonians, who intend to "regulate their own pursuits of industry and improvement," may only be in the end aroused from their sensible and natural private life--a.k.a. "apathy"--when they realize that the practice of government has indeed become to "take from the mouth of labor the bread it has earned," when the last clause of the Fifth Amendment ("nor shall private property be taken for public use, without just compensation") provokes only sneers, ridicule, sophistry, and Marxist rhetoric, and when, indeed, government has become a vast system of theft and political looting.

This reckoning can only be delayed by the extent to which people can be persuaded that Jefferson was wrong and that they are entitled to their "fair share" of the presumably boundless Cornucopia of government largess. That deception, however, cannot be sustained indefinitely any more than the economy of the Soviet Union could be. At some point even dispersed costs become prohibitive to productive economic life. Jeffersonians aroused from their privates lives will lose their "apathy," of course, for only so long as it takes to see that they can return to it. They will want to leave in place a government, as Jefferson himself said, that will consist of such powers as could safely fall into the hands of their worst political enemies without posing any real threat. American government never was entirely that harmless, and now the former limitations, such as they were, have quite disappeared.

Creating a truly Jeffersonian government would be an extraordinary determination, almost incomprehensible now in the 20th century. It is much easier now to understand Lenin, who said that the Bolsheviks should simply get political power, even if Marxism did not consider Russia ready for a Communist revolution, then worry about what to do with it. What he and his friends did with it, of course, was terror, slavery, mass murder, and the crippling of the Russian economy for seventy years. But it does pose for us a paradox: how does one have a revolution, which is a great act of political force, to end political power rather than seize it? Jeffersonians in particular must fear the uncertainties implicit in that paradox. We no longer even have the ideal of a Cincinnatus who can take up great power and then happily hand it back, returning to the plow whence he came. But we must have the ideal again, and actual Cincinnati themselves, to restore a Republic worthy of its Founders.

Political Economy

Home Page

Copyright (c) 1997 Kelley L. Ross, Ph.D. All Rights Reserved