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Pittsburgh Tribune-Review: “Politics & ‘involvement'”

In my Pittsburgh Tribune-Review column for April 9th, 2008, I dissented from the commonly held notion that the greater is people’s involvement in politics the better. You can read my dissent beneath the fold.

Politics & ‘involvement’

The political juggernaut that is Barack Obama is getting oodles of oohs and aahs. His candidacy is praised for “inspiring” hordes of people — especially young people — to “get involved” for the first time in politics.

I don’t doubt that Sen. Obama’s soaring (if vapid) rhetoric stirs many people to become more involved with politics. But I greet this greater involvement in politics not with joy but with distress.

The notion that greater involvement in politics is noble and beneficial stems from several delusions. The first of these delusions is that all time devoted to politics would be used less productively in nonpolitical pursuits.

But each of us can use his time in many different ways. For you to spend one hour baking bread means that you don’t use that hour doing any one of countless other things that you might otherwise have done had you not baked bread. In short, even if you were given free of charge all the bread-making ingredients, baking bread would not be costless to you; it would require that you spend an hour of your time at that task and, hence, not on whatever else it is you might have done.

Of course, just because baking bread isn’t costless doesn’t mean it’s not worthwhile. Perhaps the value of whatever else you could have done with that hour is lower than is the value of the bread you produce. If so, spending your hour baking bread was smart. But if not, the time you spend baking bread was spent unwisely.

So it is with time devoted to politics. The person who, say, volunteers to work for a political campaign necessarily takes time away from activities such as studying, working for a private employer or helping parents out around the house. As with baking bread, it might be true that spending time on politics is the best use of someone’s time — but it is far from being necessarily true.

It’s a mistake to applaud greater involvement in politics as if such involvement is by its very nature the best use of people’s time and effort. A more serious delusion is that politics is the only — or, at least, the most noble — venue for each of us to get “involved” with our fellow humans.

In fact, though, we are involved even when we pay no attention to politics. We care for our families, support our friends, work at jobs that produce goods and services for millions of people and are active members of churches and clubs. Each of us is intensely involved, daily.

Indeed, we are involved better and more fully when we act privately (that is, outside of government) than when we act politically.

Acting privately, none of us intrudes without invitation into other people’s affairs. I might volunteer my opinion to my friend that he drinks too much but my friend can ignore me if he chooses. I have no way to force him to live as I believe he should live. For me, then, to become as involved as possible with my friend, I must strive to share my concerns with him in ways most likely to resonate with him.

Good friends and close family members are involved in each other’s lives truly and deeply. Our friends and loved ones are not faceless abstractions (“drinkers” or “smokers” or “workers”). Each is an individual with unique desires and complexities. To share friendship or love with someone is to learn, understand and generally respect these individual characteristics.

Regardless of what any silver-tongued politician says, no stranger feels our pain or can otherwise be involved with us in ways remotely as real as are the ways that our friends and loved ones are involved with us.

Similarly in our commercial relationships. The manager of the local Wal-Mart might not know you personally (which makes him, in this regard, no different from your state’s governor or the president). But he plays a role in your life only if you personally (rather than “you” as a citizen of a political jurisdiction) explicitly choose.

If he stocks his store’s shelves with products that appeal to you and prices them reasonably, he involves himself with you in a way that is mutually advantageous. If he fails to offer bargains that attract you, you need not be involved with him — and he cannot force himself to be involved with you.

If he wants to be involved with you, he must offer you attractive deals. Unlike a politician, he hasn’t the power to become involved in your life simply because a sufficiently large number of other people voted to give him the power to do so.

Let’s reject the superficial notion that being “involved” politically is either the only or the best way for each of us to be involved constructively with the world around us.


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