14 June 2011

Saving America from 'Stupid People'

Instead of a political begging letter, today's mail brought me a magazine subscription solicitation. This one, for Backwoods Home Magazine, came with the offer of a book, though it was pitched in vice versa fashion: buy the book Can America Be Saved From Stupid People? and get a year of the magazine free. As the author of the book and publisher of the magazine, Dave Duffy, identifies himself as a "Libertarian writer," I presume that he got my name and address from Reason magazine's mailing list. But the question of stupidity and its threat to the country is one I hear asked across the ideological spectrum. Of course, what one perceives as "stupid" is often determined by ideology, and in ideological conflict one often sees each side denouncing all others as stupid or worse. From what sort of stupidity, then, do we need saving in Duffy's eyes?

Duffy himself admits to making mistakes. Despite his libertarian beliefs, he admits to having voted twice for George W. Bush for President, explaining later that "he convinced me that he was for limiting Government, controlling spending, and protecting Constitutional freedoms, things which are important to Libertarians." By 2006 he had seen the error of his ways and refused to vote Republican. In an article justifying his stance, he refuted Republican apologists who accused "Losertarians" like Duffy of throwing Congress to the Democrats.

I sure am proud of myself for going back to voting for the best candidate, rather than the lesser of two evils, which most voters do every election. I’d like to congratulate Montana Libertarians for also voting for the best candidate. If your vote got the Democrat elected, rather than the Republican, big deal. If it gave the Senate over to the Democrats, rather than Republicans, so what. There’s not a dime’s worth of difference between Democrats and
Republicans, anyway, so what difference does it matter who won. What matters, I think, is that a small number of Libertarians, as well as a small number of other people voting for their third-party candidates, voted for who they thought would do a good job. They acted as individuals, not as members of a flock supporting candidates and political parties who have done nothing election after election but increase the size of Government. Libertarians throwing their votes away? I don’t think so. Libertarians stood up to be counted. We all like to talk about how we want to see Government get out of our lives, but most people vote time and time again for the same political parties who deliver bigger and bigger Government election after election. It’s their votes that didn’t count.

Duffy had written his original essay on "stupid people" some years earlier. Taking a long view, he explains that the American Revolution was the product of a gradual intellectual evolution dating back to the Renaissance that led intelligent people to reject domination by aristocrats and priests. In Duffy's view, the development of capitalism, "whose premise is that individuals should be given maximum freedom to pursue their own happiness," followed directly from the same Enlightenment values. History, he believes, proves that "capitalism, though not perfect, worked best" for everyone. Stupid people, however, are undermining this enlightenment under the manipulating influence of "knave politicians," demagogues who see "profit and political power in pitting the poor and stupid against those who have found a bit of success in the American capitalist system." The knaves get the stupid on their side, in Duffy's account, by "soliciting their greed and laziness" and telling them that "all they have to do is vote goodies for themselves and they will be delivered."

The stupidity of the stupid, Duffy argues, is their failure to understand "how humanity got this far, how we went from a subsistence economy to America’s system of bounty and relative happiness for nearly everyone." Leave aside whether Duffy himself understands this history; the real hole in his analysis is his failure to account for the emergence of a stupid majority, to the point that "for the first time in history stupid people have more political power than anyone else." While he stresses that the founding Enlightenment ideas were the products of a relative few minds, he does assert that those ideas did "take hold among the majority of people." But that claim seems inconsistent with his summary of modern history. His charge, after all, is that the knave politicians exploited people's stupidity, not that the knaves made them stupid. So why, in our enlightened republic, are there so many stupid people in the first place? Public education doesn't seem to be to blame, at least in this particular essay, so Duffy's scenario of intellectual decline seems even more mysterious without the usual scapegoat to account for it. I can only hope to sketch a possible solution to Duffy's difficulty. In other writings, and especially in his magazine, he champions old-fashioned self-reliance. That, arguably, was the ideal our enlightened Founders aspired to as well. But capitalism, which Duffy portrays as the logical extension of Enlightenment values, requires a constant cohort of dependent labor to work as employees. While 19th century thinkers could still delude themselves into thinking that every wage worker would be self-employed someday, that prospect would mean disaster for capitalist ventures. Once a permanent working class in the modern sense becomes necessary, it could well seem counter-productive to instill in them the self-reliant values that would only steer them away from the factory entrance. In this case, a mentality of dependency begins, not with the promises of a knave politician, but from the requirements of a capitalist economy, which thus sows the seeds of its own subversion once workers begin to look for a better deal for dependency, which politicians, knaves or not, are eager to offer.

If I find fault with Duffy's quickie history, does that mean I think him stupid? Not necessarily, since he's arguably right in his most basic point that "the topic of stupid people can no longer be ignored." Representative democracy has a bad habit of flattering ignorance, while democratic ideologues often bristle at any suggestion that anyone might be inadequately prepared to participate responsibly in public life. To the extent that politics serves a clear end or goal, tension is inevitable from the conflicting claims of expertise and self-rule. But the real question of our time may not be what to do about stupid people, but to find out who isn't stupid. My hunch is that it isn't necessarily the people who claim that everyone but them is stupid. Too many Americans of all political persuasions confuse ideology with intelligence and disagreement with idiocy. We act as if we have nothing to learn from anyone else, and many actively resent any suggestion to the contrary as infantilizing, from the right, or hegemonic, from the left. In this context, I have to complement Duffy for some intellectual modesty, because at least he didn't answer his own question. It still remains to be answered by all of us.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

1) Government isn't in my life. At least not on a personal level. But as a member of a democracy, we are all in government's life, so to speak. A very wise man once wrote "A strong people have no reason to fear a strong government". What I see from libertarians and others in this country is that weak people fear a weak government.

2) Stupidity is living in your own sewer. In effect, this is what libertarians endorse. When they whine about government regulations, many of the regulations they whine about are those which regulate who can dump what toxic substances where. They would love to just be able to pollute at will as long as there is profit in it - with no thought to the future of the nation.

Stupidity, in my view, is the inability or unwillingness to look beyond the perimeter of your own, personal life and see how your actions affect others now and will affect others beyond your death. I read once, I don't remember where, a simple statement: "Only fools argue about who owns the cottage while it's burning down around them". I believe our political scene is just about at that point.