Shortly after becoming engaged, my lovely wife and I visited Budapest, where one day we ventured out to the grand central market. Although we both have ancestors who fled Hungary when the Soviets crushed the 1956 uprising, neither of us speaks Hungarian. When shopkeepers only knew a little English, we would sometimes try her German or my Spanish, but the merchants usually knew only a bit of those as well. Years of language education served us no better than elementary English did.
I recalled this vignette after reading Kevin Williamson’s March column on rational ignorance, politics, and (of course) Donald Trump. As Williamson reminds us, ignorance is often a rational response to our finitude. Because our time and minds are limited, not learning things is often quite reasonable.
Thus, while learning French is a good thing, he declares that not learning it is rational, since “there are other uses of my time and resources that better serve my overall ends in life.” While I would like to be a multilingual scholar and man of the world who reads Cicero and Nietzsche in the original languages, I have allowed those skills to atrophy. English is the current lingua franca and there are many excellent translations available.
The same reasoning may be applied to politics. For most people the effort required to understand politics and policy is disproportionate to their ability to influence them. Unless one enjoys that sort of thing, it is rational to ignore politics, or to align with a party that seems to generally fit one’s views, even if one does not understand all the issues. And people who mostly care about only a few issues may align with interest groups, and follow their lead in supporting a party.
Even political junkies do this. The passionate and informed health-care policy wonk may ignore nuclear power plant regulations, or trade policy in Southeast Asia, or legal debates over Chevron deference. These are important issues, but we are finite beings, and not even a devoted genius could hope to master all of public policy. And many of those who do follow politics are paying attention only for daily hits of rage.
We are all rationally ignorant of many things, even those relating to our interests and passions. But it is one thing for a guitar player to not understand the physics of circuit design in a tube amplifier; it is another for a free citizen to not know the basics of the government he or she is part of. The former is rational ignorance, the latter is abdication. The difference is self-rule. In the United States, the people are the sovereign. We are not meant to simply be servants and consumers of government, but its masters.
Thus, the problem of public ignorance is not just that of politicians exploiting it—for instance, to strip away constitutional rights. It also raises the question of who we are. There is something servile about free men and women declining to participate in governing themselves. While we cannot learn all the details of policy in every domain, we can at least understand the basics, and basis, of our government. To abandon this is not like neglecting to keep up foreign language skills, or some other worthy but peripheral endeavor. Rather, it is to abandon our identity as free, self-governing citizens, and instead to become subjects.
Self-government depends upon virtue as well as knowledge. Our nation’s founders offered a multitude of warnings about need for citizens to cultivate the virtues necessary to self-government in a democratic republic. Without denigrating the private sphere, or ignoring the darker side of human nature, they nonetheless hoped republican virtue would flourish and promote the common good.
However, our cultural arbiters mercilessly mock the ways in which ordinary persons try to make themselves fit for self-government, such as the private institutions and associations that nurture the virtues that blossom into concern for the public good. For instance, the disdain our cultural elite has cultivated for small-town life and suburbia is directed as much at their virtues as their vices. The suburban husband and father might be the most ridiculed figure in our entertainment culture. Adolescent humor, fantasy, and rebellion are the currency of entertainment today, and have been for some time.
There has been a concerted, and all-too-successful, effort against bourgeoisie churchgoing, morals, and self-improvement (which used to be exemplified by the popularity of collections of classical books and middlebrow magazines like the mid-century Time). The communities, norms, and activities that provide guidance and fulfillment to most people have been derided as repressive, hypocritical, boring, and oh so gauche.
Government action cannot restore the habits and associations that make self-government possible. For instance, norms of stable family life, with children being raised by biological parents who are married to each other, cannot be reestablished by fiat. It will help if government stops attacking these cultural foundations of self-government, but the damage to them will have to be repaired culturally. Voting cannot save us. Indeed, by itself, voting is only the most marginal form of civic participation. In a debased culture, votes hardly matter, for politics will follow the culture. If we improve the culture, the politics may follow.
However, there are no certainties in a free society. Attempts at renewal may fail, and such failure may be made more likely by the potential for rational ignorance to produce a tragedy of the commons. In a corrupt, selfish society, it may seem rational for responsible people to embrace a quietist ignorance of politics, but this only exacerbates the political problem.
To take a local example, the city of St. Louis, at the behest of the abortion lobby, passed a law that regulates the hiring and firing of religious ministers working for religious institutions, including churches. Resisting such attempts requires that the virtues developed in private life be brought into public life in pursuit of the common good. Those who retreat into private life will find that, although they have no interest in politics, politics is interested in them. The price of freedom and self-government is the responsibility of self-government.