In praise of apathy

By David Bardallis
web posted October 11, 1999

"If all the folks in the United States would do the few simple things they know they ought to do, most of our big problems would take care of themselves." --Calvin Coolidge

Politicians and pundits--even those of a "conservative" bent--are forever lamenting the "apathy" of the American people, particularly following nationally hyped elections in which a small minority of eligible voters makes it to the polls to elect one mediocrity to office over his equally uninspiring rival.

Are Americans apathetic about politics? And if so, is this a bad thing?

Let's start with a definition of politics. Disraeli called it a "career of plundering and blundering." Orwell said it was "a mass of lies, evasions, folly, hatred, and schizophrenia." Jefferson considered it "a torment." My personal favorite definition, as offered by Marx (Groucho, not Karl), is "The art of looking for trouble, finding it everywhere, diagnosing it wrongly, and applying unsuitable remedies."

This latter definition seems to especially fit modern politics, with its constant "crises" that perpetually require the government to "do something"--that something usually being passing more laws, usurping more power, eroding more freedom, and creating more problems. In any case, if politics and politicians are universally held in such low esteem--as the above and other, more recent definitions would suggest--the question becomes why should Americans care about them?

In all of the grandstanding and handwringing about voter apathy that one finds in the public square of newspapers, television, and radio, the question of why anyone should care is seldom, if ever, asked. The old saying goes that children should be seen and not heard, and considering the behavior of our politicians, it's a wonder there are any adults at all left listening to them.

The simple fact of the matter is that Americans are too busy taking care of themselves. There are bills to pay, children to raise, jobs to do, and (to be honest) fun to be had. And for most of us, there are not enough hours in the day for all of these things.

Nevertheless, Americans are often told that "we" are the government, and that if "we" don't like something the government is doing, "we" should change it. But here is a quick mental exercise. Would you rather spend your time writing a letter to your congressman with the knowledge that your letter will be opened by a college intern, relegated to an undifferentiated pile, and answered with a form letter--or would you rather shop for that new sofa, wash your SUV, play catch with your kids, work around the house, read a good book, or--heaven forbid--enjoy a football game in the local park? The answer seems obvious.

To borrow an economic term, the opportunity cost of paying too much attention to politics and politicians can be quite high. As government has grown beyond all constitutional restraint and stuck its nose into every nook and cranny of our lives, trying to keep track of its comings and goings has become a full-time job. Add to that the fact that politicians, bureaucrats, and other minions of the state almost never say what they mean--or if they do, they only mean it for as long as it takes for them to say it: It soon becomes clear that the average "apathetic" American could easily remain awake 24 hours a day just trying to decipher what's going on in the government, much less seeking to "change" it.

In any event, the "change" that bemoaners of apathy most often refer to involves little more than voting for this or that candidate who promises, categorically and unequivocally, to maybe, if the stars are right, think about casting a vote here or there for slowing the exponential growth of government. Even if candidates for political office could be taken seriously, how much can they do in the age of the EPA, OSHA, BATF, FDA, SEC, IRS, DEA, FDIC, CIA, FBI, NSA, HUD, NASA, ADA, and all the other agencies filled with unelected bureaucrats? Let's face it: Today, most "laws" aren't even made by people you can vote for or against. They are promulgated by legions of career "civil servants" who populate the innumerable executive agencies created by previous acts of Congress--acts that will never come up for review.

"The personal is the political," was the radical feminists' battle cry in the 1970s, and they seem to have finally gotten their wish. Today's government officials, elected or unelected, strive to politicize every aspect of life, from whether and where we can smoke to the permissible size of our toilet tanks. Meanwhile, life goes on in its myriad, intricate ways. And while it is true that the "The price of liberty is eternal vigilance," the price of spending our lives worrying about politics is to have no lives at all.

Am I suggesting that Americans pay no attention whatsoever to what their "leaders" are doing? Not at all. Those reprobates most certainly need watching. What I am suggesting is that life is far too short to attach much gravity to the ridiculous edicts that continually spew forth from Washington and our respective state and local centers of political effluvium. I am suggesting that when Americans fail to show up for an election, it is not necessarily because they aren't concerned about the future of their country. They have just wisely recognized that encouraging the same clowns responsible for the mess their country is in is not a productive exercise. Better to spend time pursuing happiness--whether through working, being with family and friends, or simply enjoying a beautiful autumn day.

To borrow from Patrick Henry, "If this be apathy, make the most of it!"

David Bardallis can be reached at

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