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Tuesday, June 29, 2010

We're Missing the Basic Ingredient

Thomas Sowell recently wrote, emphasis mine:
When Adolf Hitler was building up the Nazi movement in the 1920s, leading up to his taking power in the 1930s, he deliberately sought to activate people who did not normally pay much attention to politics. Such people were a valuable addition to his political base, since they were particularly susceptible to Hitler's rhetoric and had far less basis for questioning his assumptions or his conclusions.

"Useful idiots" was the term supposedly coined by V.I. Lenin to describe similarly unthinking supporters of his dictatorship in the Soviet Union.

Put differently, a democracy needs informed citizens if it is to thrive, or ultimately even survive. In our times, American democracy is being dismantled, piece by piece, before our very eyes by the current administration in Washington, and few people seem to be concerned about it.
I must note in passing that I take mild issue with Dr. Sowell's rather loose use of the term "democracy"--the United States is not, at least on paper, a democracy, democracy was virtually an epithet to the Founding Fathers, a system they more or less equated with mob rule--but his fundamental point is absolutely critical: our system of government, to function as intended, relies implicitly on a reasonably informed and thinking citizenry. As I have done before, I point to The Federalist Papers as something of an "exhibit A". This book was written by James Madison, aka "the father of the Constitution," Alexander Hamilton, and John Jay, the first chief justice of the United States Supreme Court, to explain--to sell, in a way--the proposed constitution to the citizens of the state of New York, whose support would be critical in the battle for ratification. It is a document critical to understanding how our government is supposed to work. It was first published, essay by essay, in the newspapers, for the general public. I noted, when I first started reading it, that the authors did such things as make casual reference to the Peloponnesian War and the history of democracy in Athens in making their arguments.

These days? I like to think that I am reasonably intelligent, and I was, on paper at least, an excellent student in our government schools. I am prepared to swear that we never, ever broached the subject of The Federalist Papers when I was in school, and as far as knowing anything about the Peloponnesian War or democracy in Athens, you might as well have been dreaming. Nor were my parents, or even my grandparents, familiar with these documents. I asked. They never heard of them. Neither have the vast majority of people I have asked.

Now, I am prepared to concede that more people are taking an interest in our Constitution now than I have ever seen, and I couldn't help but note, when I got the link from Amazon, that it seems that The Federalist Papers is available in more editions than I have ever seen, so, yes, the situation is improving, but will it improve fast enough?

And then there's economics. I do not, friends, pretend to be an economist. But I do know the difference between a profit and a profit margin, and I do have a grasp of just what a tariff is, and what income taxes are, and what the Fair Tax is, and what a value-added tax is, and the overall effects of each on an economy. This information is not arcane, and it is not hard to find. Any idiot can have this knowledge for the "cost" of checking a few books out of the library and reading them.

My question to you is this: what percentage of the American voting public, do you think, could even begin to discuss those issues reasonably intelligently? I think if you are not unjustifiably optimistic, you will have to say that it is very small--almost vanishingly small. For decades now, the American population at large has simply not concerned itself with the nuts and bolts of government and economics. We do not have an informed citizenry. It will take years, if not decades, to build one. Yes, we appear to have possibly turned a corner, in that more people are becoming aware of the need to do something about this, but it will take time to shift the direction of so massive an object as the American electorate. I am not at all sure that we will be able to change course in time to avoid hitting the iceberg, so to speak, because when it comes right down to it, too many people, if they read at all, prefer to read romance novels, Hollywood gossip, lightweight science fiction and fantasy, and graphic novels rather than anything dealing substantively with issues and ideas. They prefer to escape the issues rather than equip themselves to deal with them.

And then, they will have the audacity to complain about the results they get.

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