Thursday, March 25, 2004

interest universalism

This article by Alex Troy skewers a proposal by Yale Law professor Dale Ackerman. Ackerman proposes a special political education program for adults where the adults would be paid by tax money for attending classes. Troy adequately addresses the public-policy issues here. What strikes me is the blatant example of interest universalism, a term I just made up.

Interest universalism is a form of subjectivist thinking where one believe that ones subjective interests and preferences are or ought to be universal. Examples of this are extremely common: doctors who think everyone ought to know first aid, firemen who think everyone ought to know how to use a fire extinguisher, policemen who think everyone ought to know how to defend themselves, lawyers who think everyone ought to know how to talk to police, political activists who think everyone ought to be involved in politics, business people who think everyone ought to follow the stock market, biologists who think everyone ought to know evolutionary theory, physicists who think everyone ought to know basic mechanics, auto mechanics who think everyone ought to know how to change spark plugs, programmers who think everyone ought to know how to write simple programs.

It isn't possible for everyone to know everything folks. That's the genius of civilization: specialization. The great value of cities is that they allow concentrated specialization (and economies of scale). Political hacks and hobbyists get frustrated that more people aren't involved in politics. Implicit in their complaints are two false assumptions: that people have a special responsibility to involve themselves in politics and that the extra people would be on their side. For the second, it is unlikely that if you could increase the percentage of people involved in politics that the overall ratios of opinions would change. For the first, it is just not the case that of all the things people have to deal with, politics is fundamentally the most important. Knowing how to stop arterial bleeding is important too. Working at your church is important. Knowing how to change your own spark plugs is important. Just because something is especially important to you, that doesn't mean it should be especially important to everyone.

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