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?