Our Lexicon: Rational Apathy vs Activism

The following strategic essay is presented as an educational service of the Downsize DC Foundation
Rational Apathy vs. Activism
by Jim Babka

Is it rational to be apathetic about political activism? If so, how can we activists make taking action a worthy and desirable choice?

“Rational Apathy” is the state of mind for persons who believe that getting involved in political disputes is costly and pointless. But . . .

The phrase “rational apathy” drives current activists crazy. They want to expand their ranks and overwhelm their opposition. They care. They act. To them, apathy is immoral, callous indifference. Activists are enamored with the Burkean notion that,

“The only thing evil needs to prosper is for good men to do nothing.”

By this view, apathy is a heinous sin that leads to destruction. No one has a right to “do nothing” when the world is on fire. People must be made to care. Yet . . .

Everyone is apathetic about something — even activists. We are all limited, finite beings. We’re constrained by a 24-hour day into which we must squeeze work, family, personal stewardship, and sleep. This means that we’re all forced to be apathetic about most things, whether we like it or not.

Most people reading this article are neglecting something important. It could be a challenging relationship, exercise and diet, financial planning, or a long-term goal. You care deeply about these things, but time has gotten the best of you.

Apathy, as we’re considering it here, is the opposite of hopeful action.

We tend to think of apathy as NOT caring. In some cases, this is accurate. But the inactive person may still care. He might even be passionate in his political views. He just won’t act. He believes he’s powerless and that activism is fruitless — maybe even dangerous.
People who contemplate political action ask themselves…

 * Will I succeed?
 * How much time and money will it cost?
 * How will I feel if I fail?
 * What will I gain if I succeed?

I know I’m most willing to accept risks when I’m confident the rewards will be worth it. Sadly, political activism is almost synonymous with disappointment.

And what about the costs? What if you improve the world, but at the cost of your family, or career?

Considered this way, it’s quite rational for people to forgo political activism. The payoff from most other activities will usually be more certain and immediate.

There’s a profitable benefit to lobbying for a federal contract or special privilege. On the flip side, there’s little incentive to fight because the costs are so little when spread out over the entire population. We call that, the Political Interests Paradox.

Even if you defeat the special interests your reward will be puny, because it too will be shared by all taxpayers. Even those who did nothing will gain the same benefit as you.

This is why so many economists claim that apathy is rational, and activism is irrational.  

Rather than resist this notion, the organizer should embrace it for the simple reason that it’s true. It’s reality! Instead of ignoring this fact of life, you must work to change reality by replacing the incentives that make apathy rational.

There are many ways to make activism a worthy and desirable choice. One way involves lowering the costs of opposition. Another involves changing modes of thought that lead to inertia. I find the following three thoughts “hopeful” . . .

1) You only need an Irate, Tireless Minority

“It does not take a majority to prevail…. but rather an irate, tireless minority, keen on setting brushfires of freedom in the minds of men.” – Samuel Adams

You don’t need a majority to prevail. The cost of success is much lower than that. A mere minority can win the battle, if it can employ the correct strategy and tactics. For instance . . .

Once upon a time, troops from civilized nations stood in rows and shot each other, reloaded while still in a line, and did it again. Attrition was the method of success. But then guerrillas came along, hid in the bushes, and attacked from behind trees. They could win with smaller forces and inferior ammunition.

I find it liberating to understand that I don’t need to line up a well-armed, brightly-uniformed majority to win a political battle.

2) As success becomes more likely and more evident, apathy will become less rational and less prevalent. People will gain hope! Victory will be easier to see and it will seem more rational to participate.

AND, last but NOT least…

3) You must begin with an understanding of the complementary problem we’ve already identified, the “Political Interests Paradox” (explained in greater detail on the DownsizeDCFoundation.org blog).

The key is to reverse the problem of “concentrated benefits and dispersed costs.”

As a professional activist, I am committed to tackling these challenges.

And if you like this strategic way of thinking, then I encourage you to spend time at the Downsize DC Foundation blog.

Copyright (c) 2011 by Jim Babka. Permission to distribute this blog post for educational purposes is granted, if done with attribution to the author and the Downsize DC Foundation. Permission to use for commercial purposes is denied.

This message is an educational service of the Downsize DC Foundation. Please share it with others. Please tell your friends that they can receive similar material in the future by subscribing to our free email newsletter, the Downsizer-Dispatch

Jim Babka

Downsize DC Foundation

Copyright (c) 2011 by Jim Babka.
Reprinted with permission from the Downsize DC Foundation