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Ignorance in a politicized society

By Christopher Coyle
web posted September 6, 2004

People have many varied interests; it is such a differentiation in the passions and talents of each man and woman which makes a prosperous society based on a division of labor possible as well making such a society infinitely more interesting. However, such interests, as a broad generalization, seemingly do not extent into the realm of politics. Hardly an election cycle passes without a new survey demonstrating the ignorance of citizens on issues pertinent to their lives. A recent New Yorker Magazine book review has only helped to further confirm this. Among its statistics were the facts that "seventy per cent of Americans cannot name their senators or their congressman" while, "forty-nine per cent believe that the President has the power to suspend the Constitution." Even more appalling, as the article pointed out, is the apparent lack of a belief system or a consistent ideology among most American voters. By now, we have grown so accustomed to such facts that we no longer react to it when it confronts us. And yet, such a state of affairs is deeply lamentable.

However, this alone is not the unmitigated disaster that some political commentators try to portray is as. Ignorance would only be of only peripheral significance if voters were apathetic and the extent of political decision-making was very limited, though of course, one would prefer a society whose population is well-versed in the important political and economic issues of the day. Such an interest and corresponding competence on such affairs would allow them to make more informed decisions on those issues that must be decided politically. The true problem, however, is not solely from the general ignorance of the electorate but from its coalescence with a society that increasingly makes all of its questions a political affair. A population ignorant in politics only matters as much as society itself becomes politicized. This is the problem manifesting itself throughout the world today. As we allow democratic government to expand and substitute the private sphere with its own influence, we allow ignorance to play a larger and larger role in the formation of the structures affecting everyone's lives.

Practically speaking, as most people would agree, there are some fundamental issues which can not be removed from political influences, such as, for instance, the protection of fundamental human and property rights from the invasion of others, both foreign and domestic. It is because certain issues have not been able to be separated from the political process that the entire procedure of voting, considering the state of the electorate, must be subject to immense scrutiny. Progressives have always been fond of voting because, unlike wealth for instance, it is equably distributed among the entire population. Each person gets one vote and no more than that. Yet such a policy of equality, just like when it is applied elsewhere, fails to ignore the undeniable fact that people are not equal, except as it refers to the rights of men under the rule of law. Some have become highly successful while others have failed to improve their livelihoods; correspondingly some are highly productive, contributing members of society while others are doing nothing to contribute but rather parasitically and coercively living off those productive members. In reference to our population's political wisdom, knowledge itself is widely dispersed; some people, admittedly a rather small group, have studied political and economic issues rigorously and have become well-learned in its studies, while others, a much larger group, have not bothered to even introduce themselves to the issues fundamental to politics. It can not be equitable for these distinct groups of citizens to have the same voice in elections.

By itself, there is nothing wrong with a person who does not wish to take an interest in politics. Everyone, it cannot be repeated enough, has different things which interest them and they should be allowed to pursue those interests freely and without hindrance; such a state of affairs is simply a free society in action. Yet it becomes extremely dangerous to give anyone the power of the vote when they have no interest in studying the issues pertaining to that privilege. On the other hand, political decisions affect the entire population regardless of one's sentiments, interest in the subject, or in their participation in the determination of its policies. Considering the inability of anyone to opt-out of a coercive political system, efforts must be made to allow everyone to participate. This is one of the dreary conundrums of the entire political process. The only solution to such a problem is to severely limit questions from become politicized in the first place. Unfortunately, with the expansion of the federal government and the welfare state, society is moving in the opposite direction and becoming more, not less, politicized.

The disastrous culmination of this process would be the envelopment of society by politics, so that everything comes to be decided in the political realm, as opposed to the private sector. In a sense, in the attempt to democratize decision-making, we unwittingly subvert democracy itself. As many liberty-minded writers have pointed out before, the free market system itself is essentially a democratic system, and a more ethical one at that. As opposed to political decisions in which a citizen receives one vote in order to determine how to appropriate the resources of others, he is able to earn resources in the market in direct proportion to the benefits he has bestowed upon his fellow man and allocate, or "vote," those resources to the various producers trying to satisfy his wants as he sees fit. The entire process is moral, voluntary, and efficient.

Milton Friedman summed it up perfectly when he said that markets entail "unanimity without conformity" while governments consist of the inverse. It is a process where people control their own lives instead of using their vote in the attempt to control other's lives. It is this process which we should be eager to maintain and expand. Markets allow people to pursue and concentrate on those interests which they are most interested and adept in, and indeed profit from them, thereby avoiding politics if it is not to their liking, or at least keeping their exposure to a minimum. Political decisions can be reduced to their core concerns, limiting ignorance as a problem in community decision-making. It is a situation which would immensely benefit every individual and society as a whole.

Christopher Coyle is the president of The Liberty Coalition at the University of Virginia.

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