Principles Against Interests

Should you sup­port poli­cies that go against your per­sonal pref­er­ences? For exam­ple, if you hap­pen to like opera or clas­si­cal music, would it be wrong to oppose gov­ern­ment fund­ing of the arts? I hap­pen to be just the sort of opera lover who doesn’t like that his favorite art form suck­les heav­ily at the gov­ern­ment teat. (A side note: It has been heart­en­ing to see the Metropolitan Opera exper­i­ment with new ways of get­ting opera to the masses—like live HD broad­casts of mat­inée per­for­mances at movie theaters—to make it more rel­e­vant and more likely to sur­vive with­out gov­ern­ment fund­ing in the future.) If gov­ern­ment sup­port for opera were cut, I would be dis­mayed because opera would be less avail­able than it is right now, but deep down I would be pleased. I don’t want to sub­si­dize music I don’t enjoy (I’m look­ing at you, Mr. Death Metal), and I don’t expect oth­ers to pay for my music, either.

Eric Morris, a UCLA trans­porta­tion scholar who writes for the Freakonomics blog, points to him­self and Randal O’Toole as exam­ples of peo­ple who oppose poli­cies that align with their per­sonal pref­er­ences. Both of them are train enthu­si­asts: the sorts of fel­lows who play Sid Meier’s Railroad Tycoon and have model train tracks in their base­ments. Despite their pref­er­ences, they both oppose gov­ern­ment sup­port for high speed rail in the U.S. O’Toole, a senior fel­low at the Cato Institute who inspires strong feel­ings in the plan­ning com­mu­nity, points to his train love to explain that no, he doesn’t just hate trains. Instead, he explains his oppo­si­tion to fund­ing for rail projects this way: “I don’t expect tax­pay­ers to sub­si­dize these pref­er­ences any more than if I liked hot-​​air bal­loons or midget submarines.”

Morris goes on to raise the ques­tion of prin­ci­ples ver­sus preferences:

Is sup­port­ing poli­cies that go com­pletely counter to one’s own per­sonal pref­er­ences to be admired or abhorred? Some might find it eccen­tric, and it cer­tainly is a minor­ity trait. My expe­ri­ence has been that most peo­ple in this world assume that oth­ers share their likes, and if they don’t, they will do so with just a lit­tle per­sua­sion. In some cases this may be true. But regard­less, this is cer­tainly a con­ve­nient out­look because it means there is a happy coin­ci­dence: the best path to doing self­less good for oth­ers just hap­pens to be pro­mot­ing pub­lic poli­cies that cater to one’s own self-​​interest.

To be hon­est, I’d never quite thought of the pos­si­bil­ity that sup­port­ing poli­cies that go counter to one’s per­sonal pref­er­ences might be abhor­rent. On the con­trary, I find it admirable, and a sign that the sup­port is well-​​thought-​​out and that the pol­icy prob­a­bly deserves a closer look. After all, it’s a rar­ity for some­one to oppose his own pref­er­ences, because arriv­ing at such a posi­tion  involves (a) admit­ting that  one’s pref­er­ences are a lit­tle off and (b) poten­tially depriv­ing one­self of the plea­sure that would come from see­ing one’s pref­er­ences come to fruition. I sup­pose it’s pos­si­ble that some­one might be knee-​​jerk anti-​​preference, but that pos­si­bil­ity seems slim. Am I unusual in think­ing that way?

2 thoughts on “Principles Against Interests

  1. I just don’t think that sup­port­ing poli­cies that sup­port a per­sonal inter­est nec­es­sar­ily fol­lows from hav­ing a per­sonal inter­est. The idea of what one should do ver­sus the idea of what one’s gov­ern­ment should do I think are ratio­nally sep­a­rate, although one may inform the other. For instance, if I don’t like opera, I may be dis­in­clined to sup­port poli­cies pro­mot­ing opera. But I don’t think it’d be strange whether I ulti­mately decided to sup­port or not sup­port such poli­cies. Even if it isn’t for me, that doesn’t mean I don’t see a pub­lic good cre­ated by such poli­cies. I don’t give change to home­less peo­ple, but I sup­port wel­fare and sim­i­lar pro­grams; I don’t care for the visual arts, but I sup­port poli­cies that encour­age their devel­op­ment; I like hav­ing money, but I sup­port income tax­a­tion that takes away my money. I don’t think there’s any­thing admirable or abhor­rent or even note­wor­thy about these views — I just don’t see them as nec­es­sar­ily in oppo­si­tion of each other.

    I think my only reac­tion to some­one sup­port­ing poli­cies con­trary to a per­sonal inter­est would be to be sus­pi­cious. For instance: opera. The posited views make me won­der: 1) does your inter­est in opera extend to a belief that oth­ers should be inter­ested in opera? 2) does your inter­est in opera extend to a belief that opera should be avail­able? 3) does your view on gov­ern­ment sub­si­diza­tion of opera remain if it meant opera would be dis­con­tin­ued ver­sus less avail­able? I would ask these ques­tions because I think there is the poten­tial for the views to be incon­sis­tent and poorly founded (as with my own views), and I would want to ver­ify that they are not poorly founded. Which isn’t to say that I think they are, since I’m sure you’ve con­sid­ered the views with care, but I think addi­tional speci­ficity will some­times elim­i­nate appar­ent inconsistency.

  2. When gov­ern­ment becomes the tool by which I use the labor of oth­ers to cre­ate the world as I see it, then gov­ern­ment is no longer just. Government’s proper role is to pro­tect the cit­i­zenry from coer­cion, and to sup­port poli­cies that sim­ply cater to one’s tastes because it’s for the “com­mon good,” is not only immoral but also a bit megalomanic.

    Where do such poli­cies stop? What is the thresh­old that deter­mines when a pref­er­ence is for the sup­posed com­mon good? Do 100 peo­ple have to like it? 1,000? There is no pos­si­ble stan­dard, thus it reduced to whim and fancy. Whim and fancy make poor stan­dards of law.

    No, to be able to sup­port pol­icy that goes against one’s pref­er­ences is not only admirable, but the only moral course, because it demon­strates that the prin­ci­ple that all humans are free to pur­sue their own ratio­nal self-​​interest actu­ally mat­ters. Government’s medium of action is force, and by what right can we threaten someone’s liveli­hood if they don’t want to sup­port opera, for exam­ple? (If you don’t pay your taxes, you will have seri­ous trou­bles, and taxes sup­port opera).

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