October 25, 2004

How Far We've Fallen?

Are Americans dumber than we used to be?

I mean, Americans as a whole?

Jeff Jacoby wonders about it.

He writes:

Somin suggests that widespread political ignorance may be, in one sense, "rational": Since no individual's vote is ever likely to be decisive, no voter has an incentive to work hard at acquiring enough knowledge to make an informed choice. But by that argument, voters shouldn't bother showing up on Election Day, either. Many don't, of course, and we hear endlessly about the need to increase voter turnout. But more alarming than the tens of millions of non-voting adults are the tens of millions of adults who do vote despite knowing next to nothing about the candidates and the issues.

It was not ever thus. A century and a half ago, ordinary Americans grappled with public controversies at a level of sophistication that would be unthinkable today.

In 1858, tens of thousands of Illinois voters, many unschooled, crowded fairgrounds and public squares to watch Democratic Senator Stephen Douglas debate his Republican challenger, former congressman Abraham Lincoln. The topics they wrestled with were among the weightiest in US history -- the expansion of slavery, the authority of the Supreme Court, the limits of popular sovereignty. The candidates spoke not for 90 seconds at a time, but for 90 minutes at a time. There were no spin doctors, no instant polls, no TV talking heads -- only thoughtful candidates and serious voters and the clash of ideas in the public arena.

The dumbing-down of our politics is no small thing. "If a nation expects to be ignorant and free, in a state of civilization," Thomas Jefferson wrote in 1816, "it expects what never was and never will be." Widespread political ignorance poses a potentially lethal threat to our democratic freedoms. If we were smarter, we'd be worried.

Of course, politics was a big hunk of the entertainment available back then, too.

And (he says, listening to a woman bloviating about the military on C-SPAN), the way the media dumbs down the news, perhaps it's understandable.

Posted by Mitch at October 25, 2004 04:47 AM | TrackBack

Well, let's see: We've universally dumbed down our educational curricula, from kindergarten to graduate work; we've allowed (allowed? Hell - insisted) popular culture to to sink to Howard Stern/Jerry Springer levels almost across-the-board; we've allowed the Left to remove concepts like "morality" from the arena of "serious" public discourse.

So, yes. We've fallen quite far.

Posted by: ccwbass at October 25, 2004 03:56 AM

The Unheavenly City

Back in the 1960s, a conservative sociologist named Edward Stanfield wrote a book on urban policy called The Unheavenly City. It was influenced, he told me, by the Austrian School, as shown by his analysis of social classes according to time horizons.

The more upper-class people are, he said, the more they care about their posterity and their society. Even if they have no children, they're future oriented. These people are the opposite of the Keynesians and their "in the long run we're all dead." Like Mises, they uphold the good and true, for the long term.

These are the savers and investors, the entrepreneurs and producers who make a capitalist economy hum. They're also the generous givers, people who make charitable contributions to preserve what's right, and change what's not, over the long term.

Further down the class scale, said Banfield, people are more present-oriented. And at the lower end, they are more likely to be on welfare or criminals. Those on the dole have little concern for tomorrow. As to the outlaws, when they want money, there's no thought of working for it. They grab your wallet.

One of the worst effects of the welfare state, Banfield showed, is to skew all of society's time horizons towards the lower class. Thanks to redistribution and giveaways, there is far less preparation for the future: too many people feel that the government will take care of them, and the Fed's inflation generates a live-for-the-moment attitude as well.

All this is, needless to say, extremely damaging for individuals, nations, and civilization in general. Those who can postpone consumption for the future are mature and prosperous; those who must have it now, no matter what the consequences, are childish and poor. We know where America is headed.

That puts an even greater burden on the responsible and farsighted. The struggle to push back statism, restore the free market, and rebuild a responsible society is a long-term one. It requires people who understand the value of ideas and their effect on our future.

(By the Ludwig von Mises Institute)

Posted by: Sharpshooter at October 25, 2004 01:49 PM