After getting a bit lost in downtown Minneapolis we found our University Ave meeting place on a warm spring evening. We sat at a cafe table on the sidewalk as the city got dark around us and had a very full conversation about some of what he described as the “axiomatic” differences between the left and the right. He had majored in Economics and described his political beliefs as Libertarian. He said that while Libertarianism contains elements that are generally considered conservative and liberal, at this time in history he aligns himself more with Republicans because he feels that the Democrat’s agenda is causing more long term harm to a Libertarian vision of our country. He cited the federal government taking charge of more aspects of society – like healthcare – and the erosion of constitutional protection for personal liberties as issues that concerned him.
As an example of what he thought politics should avoid he brought up campaigns to save libraries. He stated that when people value something they recognize its worth by supporting it, and claimed there are lots of private libraries we use all the time, which are actually are very affordable, like Netflix. I said I thought there should be some things that we support for other reasons than them being economically efficient and that not everything that matters to us can be provided by purely economic means. I pointed out that Netflix’s selection is only a certain especially commercially viable spectrum of the history of film and video, and it has no equivalent of a Rare Book Room where resources people use infrequently are kept as important historical records. His response was that even for things like that, which can’t translate directly into economic viability, someone still needs to decide what their value is, and that our political system is not the best agent to make those decisions. I acknowledged that government can be cumbersome, but when I asked him to explain more why he thought government was not qualified to decide what is a valuable aspect of civic society we hit on a contrast of perspective that was really illuminating to me.
He explained that the amount of incentive individuals have to make a well informed political decision is very low and contrasted that with how much incentive a person has to make an informed consumer purchase: when you buy a product you hold full responsibility for whether you bought something of good quality or good value and you are directly aware of whether you made a good choice or not. Whereas with politics even if you are informed your efforts have only a minuscule effect on the outcome and political results have a less immediate effect on your life, therefor it is less apparent whether your efforts were worth it or well considered. In his understanding this makes it so that people simply are less invested in politics because there is very little incentive to put in the work.
This explanation was super interesting to me because it was a totally new angle on the question of why so many people are disengaged with politics – and an explanation that in some way makes more sense to me than my own. I have thought of citizen based politics as being a mechanism that has broken down, and he sees it as being fundamentally too dispersed a mechanism to be effective. I believe that our lack of action is largely because government is more accountable to big money than to citizens, so we don’t feel like our voices are being heard against the boom of big money, and we stop trying to speak up. I still think this is true, but there is something very psychologically insightful about the understanding that politics rarely shows us much direct effect from our actions and therefor it isn’t an arena that offers much reward for being active.
He agreed with me that politicians are beholden to moneyed interests, and that it is a problem, but he believes that the best way to deal with that would be to make the levers of power impotent themselves: meaning take away the government’s power and then each individual’s power would grow in relative strength.
I told him if I imagined a situation where government had less power it would mean that money would be pretty much the main source of power, whereas now government is at least a strong enough body to act as a counterweight to balance against the force of straight capital on certain issues. This became a point we kept disagreeing about because he thinks that since money is beholden to consumers it is really pretty weak, and people have the power to change their situation through where they put their money. As he sees it, the market is more responsive to people than the government is, because you can’t just choose a different government if the one you have isn’t working for you. This seemed ironic to me, and I told him so, since the premise of democratic government is that it is justified by the consent of the citizens and regularly changes according to their vote.
He acknowledged that in a market economy there will always be losers, but said that he believes the things government does to try to fix that inequality are more destructive than the disparity that naturally occurs. He thinks there is so much empirical evidence that government instituted solutions don’t create the socially beneficial results that Liberals intend for them to, and he doesn’t understand why they – we, I, don’t recognize that.