Political Thinking Is Compartmentalized

[A fragment. Concluded it didn’t really fit in the book…]

Our political thinking is exquisitely compartmentalized. And thank goodness for it.

As a rule we do not extend political conclusions very far into other areas of evaluation. And we consider it slightly rude when other people do. We might even say that politics may be premised on considerations drawn from other areas, but almost never the other way around.

Many people say something like this, for example: “It is good that there is free (or at least cheap) public education, because it molds people into citizens with a shared set of understandings.” Yet the same people who say this do not shun or look down upon the products of private education. On the contrary, they continually vote these people into the highest offices.

They evidently do not consider the products of private education to be poorly molded citizens, not in the least. If they did, they would presumably show a bias in favor of candidates who had been publicly educated. If there is any such bias, I don’t see it.

Almost all of the elite among our country’s leadership actually went to private schools – are they bad citizens? No one would think it! (We might fret about an all-Ivy Supreme Court, sure, but that’s much more about class privilege than it is about bad citizenship per se.)

People may also say, “It would be good if there were universal military service, or perhaps universal civilian service, because it would mold young people into citizens with a shared set of experiences, regardless of social station or background.”

Many, at any rate, find this idea appealing (although I certainly do not). Yet these same people do not look at their countrymen, or themselves, and see only half-molded citizens, incomplete and worthy of at least some measure of contempt. No one feels contempt when others fail to live up to this narrowly compartmentalized political ideal. They may bring it up as a matter of convenience in political discussions, but it certainly doesn’t dictate their sociability.

Somehow, the advocates of compulsory national service all manage to forgive this shortcoming in others, who might have served voluntarily, but who did not. Where is the prejudice that we might otherwise predict against these people?

In like manner some might say, “It would be good to raise taxes,” yet exceedingly few people pay any additional taxes voluntarily. That paying taxes is involuntary may be easily demonstrated. First, from the just-mentioned fact that almost no one voluntarily pays more than their due; and second, from the equally obvious fact that almost no one voluntarily pays less than their due: If it really were voluntary, paying less than one’s due would be no big deal.

Is it possible to pay one’s declared measure of taxes voluntarily? Of course. Yet it strains credulity to think that everyone just happens to be doing it, and that everyone’s will just happens to coincide perfectly, down to the penny, with whatever the Internal Revenue Service decrees for that year — a sum which almost no one typically knows in advance. No one’s will is that pliable.

Could you do otherwise, you would. And if tax compliance actions were to cease, does anyone seriously believe that revenue would remain the same? Of course not.

To be clear, I am not demanding that highly politically motivated people cultivate exotic new prejudices. Nor am I calling them out on their hypocrisy, with the expectation that they will be more true to their political principles. I am simply noting that they are perhaps capable of wearing their opinions more lightly than they now imagine. And they have been doing so all along.

It is probably on the whole good that we habitually compartmentalize this way. The alternative may be a totalizing politics, or a totalitarianism pure and simple. Against which ordinary life may be a kind of remedy.

But then, what are these very strong political opinions doing for us? (No: Of course not. I’m not immune from this critique either…)