Chris Freiman addresses new objections to political abstention. Because participating in politics is not an effective way to do good, Freiman argues that we actually have a moral duty to disengage from politics and instead take direct action to make the world a better place.
Is abstaining from politics permissible? Is it impossible to ignore politics? Why should we care about the quality of someone’s vote if it doesn’t matter anyway?
00:07 Aaron Powell: Welcome to Free Thoughts. I’m Aaron Powell.
00:09 Aaron Powell: And I’m Trevor Burrus.
00:11 Aaron Powell: Joining us today is Christopher Freiman. He’s Associate Professor of Philosophy at the College of William and Mary. His new book is called Why It’s Okay To Ignore Politics. Welcome back to Free Thoughts, Chris.
00:22 Chris Freiman: Thanks for having me again.
00:25 Aaron Powell: Trevor and I have spent now 363 episodes of this show talking about politics and particularly why politics controls too much of our lives and what we can do about it, so it seems odd that you would make the case… You’re not directing it at us, but in general, why you would make the case that it’s okay to ignore politics. Like have Trevor and I missed something? Should we just shut this show down and talk about, say, super heroes instead?
00:53 Chris Freiman: Maybe, maybe. I hadn’t thought of this, actually, when I wrote the book, but this might end up being the last episode ever, if I come up with a persuasive enough argument, so we’ll have to see. So that lots reasons, it’s okay to ignore politics. We might have reasons to engage with politics, we could talk about some of those, but I think for the typical person, it’s not obligatory to keep track of politics or to vote or to be politically active. I think there are a number of reasons for this. One is just it tends to make us miserable, so we spend lots and lots of time watching the news or looking at our Facebook feed where we’re reading about politics, and it just infuriates us.
01:33 Chris Freiman: I talk about some of the evidence in the book, but tens of millions of Americans report that they feel stressed from politics, they have anxiety about politics, and the strange thing is, it’s not as though keeping track of politics enables us to do good in the world, so it’s not as though we’re enduring all this stress and anxiety but for a really good cause, say we could help lots of people with this information. It turns out that, for example, it’s well known that your vote is extraordinarily unlikely to make a difference, so your political activity is very unlikely to be consequential, so we’re putting ourselves through all this misery for virtually nothing, and so you’d be happier, I think so.
02:22 Chris Freiman: I don’t know, I don’t know about you two, Trevor and Aaron, if you’re miserable as a result of talking politics hundreds of times, but I think for many people, it does make them miserable, but they do it out of a sense of maybe like a grim sense of duty, like I have to do this, but I question why. If you don’t think that you’ll actually be able to do good in the world as a result of the attention that you pay to politics, the political participation that you engage in, I say disengage from it and spend the time and resources you would have spent on politics on something else that’s going to do more good.
02:58 Trevor Burrus: But is your thesis aggregatable? I mean, this is almost like a Kantian question when I know you’re not a Kantian, but if everyone ignored politics, that might be a bad thing, or the people who decided to not ignore politics might be more venal and self‐interested and evil, so maybe it’s important to participate in politics to make sure that the people who have bad motives don’t take over.
03:25 Chris Freiman: Right, so there are a couple of ways we could interpret this style of objection. One objection is that… And this is an objection that I sometimes get when I make my argument in favor of ignoring politics, say, look, I don’t care so much if you, a single individual, abstains from politics, but don’t write a book about it, because then this is going to cause lots and lots of people to drop out of politics, and this would be really bad, this is one interpretation of that argument. I’m unpersuaded by this argument, although I like it because it’s very flattering, because it presumes that I will be extremely influential, that my book is going to sell lots of copies and I’m going to change millions of minds. I would love it if that were to happen, I’m not convinced that’s going to happen, so I don’t think there’s a huge worry that I, Chris Freiman, will unravel American democracy.
04:15 Chris Freiman: If it started, when the second edition comes around, if I have sold millions of copies and that has happened, then maybe I’ll recant some of the stuff that I said, but I think we’re safe for now. A second version of this and, Trevor, I think this is more of the Kantian style of objection that you have in mind, is not so much that I as a single individual will unravel the practice of voting for everyone, but this is just a test of whether or not abstaining from politics is permissible. So you say, well, yeah, it’s true that you as a single individual won’t have a difference, but if everyone were to follow your advice, it would be really bad. And this shows that there’s something wrong with abstaining, whether or not people will actually abstain as a result of your argument.
05:02 Chris Freiman: And I think a successful rebuttal to this objection was made a while back by Geoff Brennan and Loren Lomasky, and they basically argue that this kind of universalization or generalization objection simply proves too much, it would show that too many things are wrong, when in fact these sorts of things are perfectly permissible. So you might think of voting as a kind of temporary occupation, you say, I’m going to research my vote, I’m going to de‐bias my vote, and I’m going to cast my vote and I’ll spend some time doing this. It’s a short‐term sort of occupation. Say, well, if nobody does that, it would be really bad, but that might be true.
05:42 Chris Freiman: However, you could make that style of argument against long‐term occupations as well, so somebody says, you’re not a farmer, and it would be really bad if nobody was farming, we would starve to death. And I say, yeah, that’s true, but I don’t think that obliges me as a particular individual to engage in farming. So the mere fact that it would be bad if no one farmed doesn’t imply that I as a single individual on the margin have to farm. And I think a similar reply works for voting, so maybe it would be terrible if nobody voted, but that no more obliges me to be a voter than the fact it would be terrible if no one farmed obliges me to be a farmer.
06:26 Aaron Powell: But isn’t it the case that we have mechanisms to prevent the nobody farming, the individual choices not become a farmer turning into nobody farming, which would then be bad, so if… Which is market prices. We have this mechanism that says, if we need this thing and there’s a bunch of providers of it, the price they can each charge, that competition drives down the price, but if there were very few farmers and we really needed them, we’d be willing to pay a lot of money, which might then convince you to give up being a philosophy professor and become a farmer. Is there something that would be a similar corrective in voting, so we don’t end up in a slippery slope of going down to total non‐participation?
07:12 Chris Freiman: I think there is, and Brennan and Lomasky make this point, so I give credit to them for this point. They say, look, as more and more people drop out and stop voting, what this does is actually increase the power of an individual vote. So to take the most extreme case, suppose everybody stopped voting. Well, then I would have very powerful reasons to vote, because my vote would dictate the outcome of the election. And so it actually does seem as though there’s a similar mechanism, so as few and fewer people vote, an individual vote becomes more valuable, which presumably would draw more people back into voting, in the same way that if salaries for farming became very high, it would draw more people into farming. I would have to be paid a lot of money to farm, to induce me to leave philosophy for farming. It would take a lot of money. But there is a similar sort of corrective in the case of voting, which is the power of your vote becomes amplified when more people drop out.
08:08 Aaron Powell: I think narrow Trevor’s Kantian objection to one that I have heard directed at me. So I don’t vote, I consider myself a principled non‐voter, and I have made in the past arguments similar to the ones that you make in this book, at least saying that you shouldn’t feel obligated to vote. And one of the objections that I hear from people is that I, Aaron Powell, am a advocate of a very minority political viewpoint, libertarianism is not widely shared in the American electorate, and this argument about abstaining from politics is also quite popular among libertarians, you’re making it, Jason Brennan has made it. Libertarians frequently are the ones saying you don’t have an obligation to vote. And so is it essentially a self‐defeating position that we desperately want the political system to change, we want it to change in ways that there is not yet a critical mass for, and we are telling the very people who we most need to have on our team to get the world we want it to be, to abstain from trying to change it.
09:21 Chris Freiman: So I think my reply to this comes back to the earlier point about influence. So I think if it were the case that what I was in fact doing in making these argument and in writing this book was causing a lot of people who would say vote well, or move the American political system in a better direction, and that this actually has a negative impact, then I would say, yeah, that’s a problem. And what you said, if I’m that influential, where I’m causing, I don’t know, thousands, tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands of people to drop out, that could be a problem. But as I said, I don’t think I am all that influential. Here’s another reason to think I’m not all that influential. So people will object to my argument on these grounds. They say, maybe you don’t have to vote, but don’t tell people not to vote, because this will cause these very bad consequences. And I ask them, okay, have I persuaded you not to vote? And they almost always go, no, I am still going to vote. So I fear that I am just not that persuasive, but again, if it were the case that this argument against voting or against this idea that we have an obligation to vote was causing lots and lots of potentially good voters to drop out, and this had a meaningful and negative impact on the American political system, that would be bad.
10:47 Chris Freiman: And so maybe people who are super influential should be telling people to vote, but not just to vote, but vote well, vote with information, vote without bias and so on. But I also think that’s compatible with saying you as a particular individual on the margin need not vote, simply because your individual vote is going to be so inconsequential, it’s not going to make a difference to anything.
11:12 Trevor Burrus: What do you mean by politics, in the sense that we’ve been talking about voting right now, and of course, politics is bigger than just voting, and some people would argue that politics is everything, the personal is political. We see this, I think, from the left a lot, that the way you behave in the workplace, how you treat other people is political, so in some sense, it’s not only impossible to ignore politics, it’s immoral to not regard yourself as a cog in a machine of power, even when you’re not in the voting booth. So how are we delineating the definition here of politics?
11:47 Chris Freiman: So what I have in mind is primarily attempts to influence the formal political process, so voting is the most straightforward case, but I also have in mind things like phone banking protests and so on, I wouldn’t… So for my purposes, I wouldn’t call something like community engagement or providing direct help to people in need of it, I wouldn’t count that as political. I mean, so we could just say, well, by definition any time you’re going out into the community and trying to make it better you’re doing something political. I’d say, oh, okay, I’ll grant you the term. But my view is that it is at a minimum permissible and perhaps even obligatory, and we could get to the obligatory claim later if you want, but it’s at least permissible to say, no, I’m not going to vote, I’m not going to attend protests, I’m not going to put one of those signs in my front yard broadcasting who I am voting for. I’m going to ignore that stuff, and I’m going to allocate the effort that I would have allocated to formal political participation to other sorts of things.
12:48 Chris Freiman: In particular, maybe you spend that time working overtime, and you take the extra income that you earned as a result of working overtime and donate it to effective charities like the Against Malaria Foundation. I think at a minimum that’s permissible, ’cause maybe it’s obligatory, but you’re actually doing more good for the world in that case. And again, maybe we’d count that as political, I’m disinclined to do that, but I would say if you want to count that as political, that’s fine. What I care about more is that you understand it’s not obligatory to vote or to protest, and it’s perfectly fine to spend that time doing other things that provide more help.
13:25 Aaron Powell: Much of the beginning of the book is spent setting out the case that we don’t know as much about politics as we think we do; we tend to overestimate, in fact, our degree of knowledge by a pretty substantial amount, that learning enough to pick the correct side or the correct choice on an issue requires much more time than we might anticipate because there’s so many unknowns and there’s so much information you need. So you’re making the case that we don’t have enough information to vote well, and therefore most of us should not do it, right?
14:03 Chris Freiman: That’s right. So I think most of us don’t have the information, and now from this, we might conclude that we should in fact spend a lot of time acquiring that information, but the problem with that is that comes with an opportunity cost. So all of the time that you spend informing yourself is time spent or is time not spent on other endeavors that do more good. So one reason why I think we know less than we think we know is because, I mean, just think about the number of policy issues that are relevant to deciding which candidate to vote for: Gun control, immigration, abortion, criminal justice, racial justice, all of these things.
14:47 Chris Freiman: And I think it’s very likely that one candidate is going to be better with respect to some of these issues than the other candidate, and one reason for thinking about this or for thinking that this is true, is just because these policy platforms that presidential candidates have are not really internally connected. They’re not unified in the way that you might think they are, so you would say people who support school vouchers also tend to support abortion restrictions and fairly easy access to guns, whereas people who oppose school vouchers also tend to oppose what we might think of as easy access to guns and oppose abortion restrictions. And you think to yourself, huh, what do guns, school vouchers and abortion have to do with each other? In terms of the empirical evidence, in terms of the moral arguments, I think the answer is not a whole lot.
15:46 Chris Freiman: These issues are just separate from one another, and so it’s strange that they cluster in this way, and we could talk about why they cluster. I think it has to do with just aligning yourself with a particular partisan team. And you say, okay, given that these issues that are relevant to casting a vote are just totally different, it’s quite plausible that one candidate is better on education, the other candidate’s better on immigration, the other candidate’s better on drug prohibition, the other candidate’s better on criminal justice, whatever the case may be. So you say, okay, well, then if one’s better than the other on these dimensions and the other’s better on those dimensions, which dimension is more important, how much better along these dimensions are they.
16:26 Chris Freiman: It’s very, very hard to make that sort of calculation. And you could sit down and roll up your sleeves and spend a lot of time trying to think about that and acquire information and make sure that you’re processing this information in a biased way, in an unbiased way. But that’s hard, that takes a lot of time. So it’s not just sitting back drinking a beer and watching the presidential debates, it takes work. And my thought is, well, why are you putting all this work to cast an informed and debiased vote that really won’t make a difference? Wouldn’t it be better to spend that time doing something that actually will make a difference to people’s lives, that will result in people getting fed who otherwise wouldn’t get fed, or sheltered who otherwise wouldn’t get sheltered.
17:09 Aaron Powell: Is there a tension, though, there with the conversation we had at the beginning of the episode about the ineffectiveness of your vote, that if my vote doesn’t matter, then it doesn’t matter how I cast it, and so it wouldn’t seem to matter then if I cast it based on sufficient or quality information, or I cast it based on fantasies in my head, lack of information, stuff I read in a QAnon message forum or so on. Why should we care about the quality of the vote if the vote doesn’t matter in the first place?
17:43 Chris Freiman: So I think that’s a fair point, so I think it is sort of a strange implication, so you think, well, okay, if you’re going to cast a vote but it’s inconsequential, it might be better to cast a cheap bad vote if that frees up resources for you to do good elsewhere than spend spend tons and tons of time casting a good vote. So I think that’s a fair point. But the worry here is that if we want to argue that maybe you have some sort of consequentialist duty to to vote, so the idea is that, well, so one argument is at least in certain states, so a handful of key swing states, the odds of your vote making a difference are not so low as to be virtually nothing, so maybe you have a 1 in 10 million chance.
18:24 Chris Freiman: So you say, okay, maybe in a handful of states you could make a plausible consequentialist argument for voting, that you could actually do a lot of good. But for that argument to go through, it’s not enough to just go to the polls and cast a random vote. You would actually have to do research to figure out whether you’re voting for the candidate that’s more likely to increase social welfare or something like that. But I think in the case of casting an inconsequential vote, like a vote in California or something like that, I actually think, yeah, like then it’s hard to see why it really matters if you’re casting an informed vote. I can see maybe expressive reasons not to cast a totally terrible vote.
19:08 Chris Freiman: So in the same way that I use this example, like it would be wrong to boo a great humanitarian, even though it doesn’t actually make a difference. It’s like it expresses something about you if you’re booing this great humanitarian. If you’re casting a bad vote, it might say something negative about you and your character, even if it doesn’t really make a difference.
19:30 Trevor Burrus: So we’ve been talking a lot about voting, but your book is why it’s okay to ignore politics, and that seems like a different set of questions, not so much for being inconsequential as a vote, which we can definitely conceive. But what about the kind of stuff… So this show, for example, and what Aaron and I do professionally, that we believe that it’s important that we have these conversations with people like you about issues that matter, and we hope that people listen to this show and then become engaged in the ideas, and more than even voting we hope that they, when they’re having drinks with their friends in the bar, that they remember this thing that they heard on this podcast, and so, you know, I’m not sure that’s absolutely true, you know, that, say, sweatshop laws or child labor laws are a good thing, and that we have this percolating downstream effect because we’re engaging in some sort of politics, and so are our listeners. That seems like the possibility of having more of an effect than voting, since we’re talking about… And maybe that that’s the kind of thing you should be doing more, but that’s definitely not ignoring politics.
20:37 Chris Freiman: Right, so this show might be an exception. So you have a large audience, and so this show does have the possibility of influencing a lot of people and changing their behavior, and so it might be different for you and Aaron than for just a typical citizen on the margin who lacks this forum. So by analogy, I think if you have a decent chance of, say, becoming a senator, then it’s… My argument probably isn’t going to apply to you. I think if you think you can have this influence and it’s going to be a good influence, then you have pretty strong reasons to engage with politics. But I also think there are benefits to a show like this that go beyond the influence that you might have on people’s behavior. I think discussing politics and expanding your intellectual horizons, these are just intrinsically valuable things, or at least for many sorts of people, this is just something that we find enjoyable, we like engaging with arguments from the other side and critically reflecting on our own beliefs. So I think sometimes engaging with politics can be a good thing, in the same way that just kind of any philosophical debate can be a good thing, because we find it enjoyable and edifying and so forth.
21:51 Trevor Burrus: Does your argument apply to… We’re talking about candidates and trying to figure out all the different bundles of things that a candidate might stand for, gun control, abortion rights, environmental regulation, whatever, but does it apply in situations where people might be thinking, listening to us now as we’re recording two months before the American presidential or six weeks before the American presidential election, that, sure, like normal times, absolutely, when you had, say, Bob Dole versus Bill Clinton, trying to figure out what those two people stood for might not be worth your time, but right now it doesn’t really matter that you don’t understand what Donald Trump stands for on a given issue. You just have to look at the man and understand that he’s unacceptable. Or someone can make the same argument for Joe Biden. So this is not about researching your vote, this is just about noticing character and voting him out, so it is absolutely paramount now that you do not ignore politics. Does that change in some environments, does your general thesis?
22:51 Chris Freiman: I actually do agree with that. So here’s the concession that I will make to voting. I think if you live in a swing state or a state where there’s maybe a non‐trivial chance that your vote will make a difference to the outcome, then you should in fact vote for Joe Biden for the sorts of reasons that you mentioned. I think you don’t really have to get into the policy details to see Donald Trump as a uniquely terrible president, a threat to liberal democratic values. I think this is an easy case to know the value difference between candidates. So I think in this election, you don’t need to do all of the deep debiasing or researching, you can go out and vote for Joe Biden, I think that’s the right thing to do.
23:40 Chris Freiman: But so that also, though, like you said, that doesn’t generalize to all other cases, so we might have other elections where you say, well, the value difference between the candidates is not so clear, and then I think you do have to do more work and then the opportunity cost starts piling up. And one worry that I have is that we do tend to see every election as an easy one, where it’s the apocalypse if the out party wins, and so it’s really urgent that you vote for the in party candidate. And I think we have to be on guard against that tendency as a general rule, but I will concede that in this election, vote for Joe Biden.
24:21 Trevor Burrus: For the purposes of, our Cato Institute does not endorse Joe Biden or Donald Trump for president, but Chris, you can say whatever you want.
24:30 Aaron Powell: A counter to that swing state argument that I have heard is to base it in, I guess, call it solidarity, that you have… It’s a luxury to not have to participate in the political process, it’s a sign of privilege. And there are people out there who need to do the dirty work of, say, holding their nose and voting for someone they don’t like because the other guy is even worse. And so on the one hand, we might be, those of us to abstain from voting, because I live in Virginia, where we know what Virginia is going to look like in November, there’s not much of a possibility of it surprising anyone in the outcome of its vote. So I could be free‐riding off of them, taking advantage of the work that they’re doing, but also there’s a solidarity sense of recognizing that they are taking on a burden, and so I am going to take on a burden too so that they know that they’re not alone.
25:30 Chris Freiman: Yes, I think that’s an important argument. So you talk about this kind of idea of free‐riding, if you allow other people to do the work to ensure that the world is a more just place and there’s less suffering in the world, it seems like you have an obligation to do some work yourself. I find that plausible, but I also think it’s the case that you can do your fair share and you can sort of act in solidarity with people who are voting well without casting your own vote. And this is an argument that Jason Brennan makes in The Ethics of Voting, and I think it’s correct, which is just voting is one way of promoting justice and the common good, but it’s not the only way. So maybe you do it by voting, maybe you do your fair share by voting, but you could do it in other sorts of ways. You can do it with direct community engagement, you can do it by working overtime and donating to effective charities and so on.
26:23 Chris Freiman: So an analogy that I like to give, and this is a trivial analogy, but I think it gets the point across, is to a picnic. So if Trevor brings lemonade to the picnic and you drink it, it seems like you have to reciprocate with a contribution of your own to the picnic. But this doesn’t require you to bring more lemonade; in fact, it might actually be a bad idea for you to bring more lemonade because you’ve got plenty of lemonade. So what maybe you have to do is bring napkins and paper plates or something like that, so you have to make some sort of contribution to the picnic, but it doesn’t have to be the same contribution that other people are making. And as I said, it might even be inefficient for you to make the same sort of contribution.
27:05 Chris Freiman: And so think we can make an analogous argument about justice in general. So voting is one way to contribute to a more just world, but it’s not the only way. And in fact, given that so many people are voting, your contribution to justice via the vote is trivial, so you can actually have more of an impact, you can do more good, you can bring the world closer to the ideal of justice by abstaining from voting and pursuing justice in other sorts of ways.
27:34 Aaron Powell: Should members of oppressed groups such as, say, blacks in America during the Jim Crow era, ignore politics or refrain from participating in it? I mean, doesn’t telling people to ignore politics risk reifying like social and economic hierarchies, so we effectively remove changing those hierarchies from political consideration?
27:55 Chris Freiman: So I think that’s an important point. And so I think, though, that’s a case where political activism was, in fact, effective at reforming the system. And so I think, so my question is, for a particular individual on the margin, what is the most effective use of your time and resources to, say, advance racial justice. And so it could be the case that we need sufficiently many people engaged in the political system to make that happen, but it could be the case, given, let’s say there are sufficiently many people who are engaged in political activism to make that happen, for you as a particular individual on the margin, you could do more to advance the end of, say, racial justice by reallocating your effort to non‐political concerns.
28:40 Chris Freiman: So not to belabor the earlier analogy, but we could say it is critical to feed people, that we have sufficiently many farmers. But you might say, okay, supposing that we do have sufficiently many farmers, then this frees me up to, say, try to help people get fed in another way. So we say like, well, okay, we’ve got enough farmers, so maybe what I’m going to do to ensure that people get fed is donate money to a food bank or something like that. And similarly, you might say, look, we do need sufficiently many people engaged in political activism to reform structural injustice. But if it is the case that there are enough people engaged in that activism, this frees up an individual on the margin to pursue other more effective non‐political means of advancing the same end.
29:24 Trevor Burrus: You’ve mentioned a couple of times that your book is called Why It’s Okay To Ignore Politics. So it doesn’t say Why You Must Ignore Politics, but you have mentioned a couple of times that there might be an obligatory aspect of this, that sometimes it might be obligatory either to not vote or in some broader sense ignore politics. When might it be obligatory?
29:47 Chris Freiman: Well, so this I take it is going to be one of the more controversial claims that I make in the book. I do it in the… I sneak it in in the concluding chapter, and I don’t know how convincing it will be, but I think it’s right that in many cases, it is obligatory. So I’ll start by giving you a thought experiment, as philosophers often do. Imagine that, I don’t know, you’re coming home from a hike or something like that, where you have bottles of water, and you have a spare bottle of water. It’s your bottle, you own it. But as you’re walking home with this spare bottle of water, you come across two people, each of whom request that bottle. The first one has messy hair and would like your bottle of water to slick back their hair and make their hair look stylish. The other one is dying of thirst, and that’s why they want your water, to prevent dying of thirst.
30:44 Chris Freiman: So okay, assuming that you are going to give that bottle of water to one of them, it seems to me obligatory to give it to the person who’s dying of thirst as opposed to the person who has messy hair. And it seems like the reason it’s obligatory to give it to the person who’s dying is because you could just alleviate so much more suffering that way, by preventing that person from dying, as opposed to preventing the other person from having messy hair. So you think, okay, from all else equal, it seems obligatory to allocate my help in a way that does lots of good as opposed to only a little bit of good. If you buy that, maybe you don’t buy that, but if you buy that, and you say, okay, well, look, time and effort allocated to politics does virtually no good, maybe it even does harm, but even if it does good, it’s very, very little.
31:33 Chris Freiman: But if you took all that time that you might spend researching, debiasing, voting, all that stuff, if you just say, look, I’m just going to work overtime, and I’m going to, say, invest that money wisely, and then at the end of my life, you’ll have tens of thousands of dollars as a result, and these tens of thousands of dollars, if donated wisely, could save a dozen lives, and I’m just making up the numbers, but this gets the idea of it. You say, okay, if the choice then is over the course of my lifetime, political engagement comes at the cost of a dozen lives saved for the sake of essentially zero benefit, it seems like you’ve kind of done something wrong, in the same way that you would do something wrong if you gave the bottle of water to the person with messy hair, as opposed to the person who’s dying. It’s just you didn’t allocate your resources in a way that alleviated a lot of preventable suffering, and so if you buy the water case, I hope you would buy the political case.
32:34 Aaron Powell: Does that make your theory too demanding, though? I mean, most of us spend huge portions of our lives doing all kinds of things that don’t create tangible benefits for anyone else. I’m really excited for the new Cyberpunk video game to come out in November, and I plan to dedicate a lot of hours to playing that, and that’s hours that I could have spent becoming a better voter, but it’s also hours I could have spent working overtime in order to give money to malaria relief, and so does… If we take your argument against putting time into politics, does that argument also mean that we should give up all of our hobbies and all of the trivial activities that bring us but, say, no one else happiness?
33:15 Chris Freiman: Right. So we might be obligated to do that, but I don’t want to have to say that for the sake of this argument. So the argument that I want to make, and this is a view that’s been defended by other philosophers, they defend what they call a conditional obligation of effective altruism. The idea here is, in so far as you provide help, you ought to provide the most effective form of help, but it’s a thesis about the quality of help that you provide rather than the quantity. So the idea here is that in the water case, we say, okay, maybe you don’t have to give up all of your water, but you’re going to give up this one bottle of water, say, okay, given that you’re going to give up this one bottle of water, you should allocate it to the use that’s going to relieve the most suffering.
34:03 Chris Freiman: So you say, okay, given that you’re going to spend I don’t know how many hours people spend on politics, let’s say you’re going to spend dozens of hours on politics in the next few weeks, say, okay, all I’m asking, I’m not asking you to spend any more time on malaria relief, all I’m asking you is to spend the time that you would have spent on politics and spend that on malaria relief, and so we can have an independent debate about the quantity of help that you’re obligated to provide, so maybe there’s a model for us to watch movies and play video games and things like that, but I want to remain agnostic on that for this argument. I just want to say in so far as you’re allocating resources to politics in the service of making the world a better place, just reallocate those resources.
34:50 Chris Freiman: And so maybe the idea is that, like you said, it’s too demanding to ask people to spend 80% of their time helping others. And say, okay, what I want to say here is consistent with that, maybe when we have to spend 10% of our time helping others, my thesis is that for that 10%, you have to help others in a way that alleviates suffering effectively as opposed to ineffectively.
35:14 Trevor Burrus: If we’re ignoring politics, should we also be ditching political opinions and just be blank slates whenever you’re at a dinner party and politics comes up, and you should just basically plead I don’t know, as a matter of some sort of obligation, possibly?
35:32 Chris Freiman: That’s an interesting question. I don’t know if we have to become total agnostics about political questions, but I think it would probably be healthy if we were more self‐skeptical. So one thing I worry a lot about, even more so than that information question, is the problem of political bias. So even when we get information, we’re inclined to process it in a biased way, and there’s of course the familiar analogy between political partisans and sports fans. So I am a die‐hard Philadelphia Eagles fan, and actually, Aaron, am I remembering correctly, I want to say you’re an Eagles fan. Am I correct in this?
36:10 Aaron Powell: Oh, no, I am not.
36:12 Chris Freiman: Why did I think that?
36:13 Aaron Powell: My colleague, Natalie Dowzicky, is. I think Eagles fans are just people looking for excuses to throw batteries at people.
36:20 Chris Freiman: Oh, dear. We might have to cut this, we might have to cut this short, then.
36:24 Aaron Powell: I’m just saying, it’s disappointing that as a moral philosopher, you somehow ended up as an Eagles fan. I’d think all of your training would have talked you out of it.
36:33 Chris Freiman: I’m reeling. I don’t know if I can continue in this interview now. Well, okay, well, with that on the table, so yeah, say I’m a diehard Eagles fan. I don’t throw batteries, although we can get into the snowball Santa incident, if you want, it’s complicated. It’s more complicated than it seems, but maybe we don’t want to get into that. But so I’m a diehard Eagles fan, and so I process information about the Eagles and their rivals in a biased way, so I am more inclined to seek out and accept information that tells me that Carson Wentz is a better quarterback than Dak Prescott, although after the first game, I don’t even know if I can stand by that opinion, I don’t know. But so you say, okay, I get the information, but I’m biased in the way that I process it, and political partisans are very much the same, so you can give them information, but they process it in a way that makes their side look good and the other side looks bad.
37:26 Chris Freiman: And so I think… Self‐skepticism is healthy, so you could say, look, I acknowledge that I’m susceptible to this bias, and so even though I do feel strongly that my team, whether it’s your sports team or your political team, is the right one, is the best one, I feel strongly about that. I also know that I’m susceptible to this sort of bias, and so I should take a step back and be more open to the possibility that my view is wrong.
37:53 Trevor Burrus: If you’re the kind of person who listens to this podcast, it’s kind of interesting, we kind of talked about it before, but it’s like this episode, it’s not about how we’re stopping this podcast or you should stop listening to this podcast, but you probably are a more politically informed person than otherwise, or at least I would hope so. Now, in this situation, is there a normative claim for someone like that, for someone like our listeners, that they may not… Your book has said it’s okay to ignore politics, they may not have to ignore politics, but maybe they should reallocate their time, even their political attention. So for example, local elections, school board elections, things where maybe they’re spending too much time wondering about who’s going to be president, while in the background, unions and other organized groups are controlling the school board elections. So maybe the missive here is that they should spend more time on other things, some of which might be political too, but on a more local level. Is that a possible conclusion here?
38:52 Chris Freiman: I think that’s fair. So I think for one, the information problem is probably not quite as devastating on the local level, and for some… If we’re talking super local, you could say, you know, I don’t know, you see a pothole or something like that, that should be fixed, you say, okay, that’s a pretty easy case of what ought to be done. But even in these sorts of cases that you mention about the school board or so on, I think it’s somewhat easier to acquire the relevant sort of information. And so you might say, well, if you really want to use politics as a means of making the world a better place, it’s just not going to happen if you’re talking about voting in a national scale election. But if you got really involved at the local level, you probably could make a difference and you could probably have more confidence that the difference is a good one rather than a bad one.
39:43 Chris Freiman: Although I would say even then, and this is perhaps, I guess, a question of how seriously you take this conditional duty of effective altruism, I would still say you could probably alleviate a lot more suffering spending the time you would spend on local issues, again, working overtime and donating the extra income to the Against Malaria Foundation. But if you don’t want to go that far, you don’t want to go that far with me, I would say it’s probably better to disengage from national scale politics and do more local stuff where you have a higher chance of making a positive change.
40:16 Trevor Burrus: Is it possible… Are we talking about… Are we attacking politics in a broader sense, we’re saying if you live in a political world, and maybe this is more true now in America, where everything seems political, and if you live in that world, then it is okay to ignore politics in that world. But we also look at politics that makes us worse, as you pointed out, and Aaron and I have talked about extensively, politics has a really bad effect on people’s personalities in many situations, so maybe we’re trying to get a world with less politics or fewer political issues and things that dominate our lives. If that is a good goal, can we get there by ignoring it, or do we have to engage politically to try and get to the world where politics matters less?
41:09 Chris Freiman: That’s a good question. I’m inclined to believe if we paid less attention to politics, that might help, maybe not zero, but less attention, I think that would help. And like you said, there’s just all this evidence now the politics makes us worse people, so some of this stuff on polarization is really frightening about… I don’t know the numbers exactly, but it’s something like 15% to 18% of partisans think that it would be a good thing if large numbers of the out party just died. That’s really troubling. And so this is not to say, so sometimes I think people have this tendency to think, well, what this view implies is like we should accept all political opinions equally. I’m like, no, that’s not true. I think that there are certain political views that are intolerably bad, I think that that’s right, but I also think that it’s possible to have deep political disagreements in good faith, and people just have different visions of how to make the world a better place. But the problem is now, yeah, we’re wishing death upon our political enemies, we discriminate against them with respect to employment and distributing scholarships, so there’s information on signals of political affiliation and applicants for scholarships, people want to discriminate on the basis of that.
42:27 Chris Freiman: So politics is swallowing up all these things in our lives, just as hatred of the out party is rising. And I think that this is really unhealthy, and I think if we took a step back and like, okay, politics matters. We have to figure out a way to live together peacefully and productively and fairly, and that’s important, but it doesn’t have to infiltrate every single dimension of our life, it doesn’t have to infiltrate our TV preferences or our grocery store preferences, or our beliefs about wearing masks in the midst of a pandemic. I think that would probably make the political atmosphere somewhat less combative if we made it less of this holy war and more of how do we live together in a productive way and get on with our lives.
43:16 Aaron Powell: You’re a utilitarian, so you view moral questions, what’s the right thing to do in the context of how much happiness they create. And as we’ve been discussing, politics doesn’t seem to create a lot of happiness. It makes us miserable, it consumes a lot of time, it makes us dislike each other, and yet it just seems to keep growing. So not only are those of us who say I’m not going to participate told that we are doing something wrong, or in fact bad people, failing to live up to our obligations as citizens and so on, we are frowned upon, but it seems like everyone says, yes, politics is really bad, and I hate the other guys, and TV news, is it too shrill and unprincipled, and Twitter is toxic because of political arguments. And yet the solution to that, what everyone wants is more of it, right? Well, that means that you need to participate even more in it, and we need to give government even more power to fix all of these problems. And so if politics is so bad, and so many of us recognize it, what’s the appeal? Like, why are we even having this conversation? Because it feels like if there was anything else in our lives that was that consistently toxic, more of us would have kind of already come to the conclusions that you have and said, this isn’t worth my time, I’m going to walk away from it.
44:48 Chris Freiman: Well, before I answer that, since you brought utilitarianism into it, can I ask you what do you find more distasteful, my utilitarianism or my rooting for the Eagles, which strikes you as more offensive?
44:58 Aaron Powell: I think the two are just necessarily linked, they explain each other.
45:03 Chris Freiman: They’re both just evidence of my flawed character.
45:08 Aaron Powell: Right, mistaken views breed more mistaken views.
45:10 Chris Freiman: Okay, fair enough.
45:11 Trevor Burrus: A virtue ethicist would not root for the Eagles.
45:14 Aaron Powell: Yes, that’s… So yeah, we can…
45:16 Chris Freiman: That’s probably right. So, yes, so I have this line in the book that I just… It’s for my son, who was five years old at the time, which I just thought was great, where he says, why does grandpa watch the news when he hates the news? And I thought like, yeah, there it is. Why do people watch the news and yet they hate the news and it enrages them. I think part of the explanation is that we get… We kind of enjoy maybe this kind of righteous indignation. And I think part of it is we also like beating up on the other side. So we get this kind of moral outrage, but there’s a kind of perverse pleasure we get into it where we say, look, my team is fighting for what’s good and what’s just, and look how terrible the other team is, and it’s this kind of partisan warfare. And my hunch is that this is part of why we continue paying attention to politics and participating in politics, you know, it kind of makes us miserable. It’s like we’re a part of this fight. It’s like good versus evil. And the other side is really evil, and we get a kind of satisfaction from pointing out how terrible they are.
46:38 Aaron Powell: Thank you for listening. If you enjoy Free Thoughts, make sure to rate and review us in Apple Podcasts or in your favorite podcast app. Free Thoughts is produced by Landry Ayres. If you’d like to learn more about libertarianism, visit us on the web at www.libertarianism.org.