More years ago than I’ll admit, I was a student in a class of the man who became my mentor, Tom Willett. The course was in economics and public policy, and the early part of the syllabus had us read on the nature of arguing about economics. One line that stuck out to me like nothing else was this: Saying “if you knew what I know you’d agree with me” is poor argumentation. I may know what you know, my professor argued, and yet find a flaw in your logic or add another piece of evidence that leads me to a different conclusion.
The notion that we know enough to know what is in someone else’s best interest is evidence of this fallacy, and I have found over the succeeding decades there are many academics that fall into it. Applied in the political sphere, it takes the form of “why does the public not understand what we are trying to do?” We heard it in President Obama’s State of the Union address last week in his claim that his failure on health care was “not explaining it more clearly to the American people.” It characterizes the thoughts of Thomas Frank in “What’s the Matter With Kansas?, a book that I found alternately patronizing and pathetic, arguing that it must be false consciousness or hypnotizing demagoguery that leads the working class of Kansas, once home of agricultural Wobblies, to now vote consistently conservative.
That meme is now everywhere. David Brooks calls tea partiers anti-intellectual and Frank Rich calls them comatose. Responding to the election of Scott Brown, the BBC carries a column by David Runciman, a British academic political scientist of high birth (how else to describe someone whose Wikipedia entry notes his viscountcy?) that cannot understand why town halls are filled with people repulsed by Democrats health care reform. It’s to help them, dears!
But it is striking that the people who most dislike the whole idea of healthcare reform – the ones who think it is socialist, godless, a step on the road to a police state – are often the ones it seems designed to help.
In Texas, where barely two-thirds of the population have full health insurance and over a fifth of all children have no cover at all, opposition to the legislation is currently running at 87%.
Instead, to many of those who lose out under the existing system, reform still seems like the ultimate betrayal.
Why are so many American voters enraged by attempts to change a horribly inefficient system that leaves them with premiums they often cannot afford?
My friend Marty Andrade tweeted this link with the comment “But I stole this for you,” says the plunderer. “Why do you not take it? Why do you not vote for me?” But it is not so much the politician but the wonk, the analyst who makes such pretty plans, that finds himself exasperated by the failure of the public to appreciate them. No place does this happen more than in academia, particularly in America, where as I’ve argued before the academic does not often travel in either the working class circles or in those the successful businesspeople.
The answer to Prof. Runciman’s question is inside America’s DNA. The founders, writes Prof. Carl Richard, were a deeply suspicious bunch.
The founders’ immersion in ancient history had a profound effect upon their style of though. They developed from the classics a suspicious cast of mind. They learned from the Greeks and Romans to fear conspiracies against liberty. Steeped in a literature whose perpetual theme was the steady encroachment of tyranny on liberty, the founders because virtually obsessed with spotting its approach, so that they might avoid the fate of their classical heroes. It has been said of the American Revolution that never was there a revolution with so little cause. Whatever his faults, George III was hardly Caligula or Nero; however illegitimate, the moderate British taxes were hardly equivalent to the mass executions of the emperors. But since the founders believed that the central lesson of the classics was that every illegitimate power, however small, ended in slavery, they were determined to resist every such power. Even legitimate authority should be exercised sparingly, lest it grow into illegitimate powers. (pp. 118-19)
Doesn’t it seem the same today? When one points out the connection between parts of the Obama agenda and those of European socialists we are told “he’s certainly not one of those!” Of course not. But we called tyranny a level of taxation that many other places just accepted as their lot in life. Our common people believe they deserve explanations, and they are mistrustful most of those who say, “trust us.”
And this is a vital point — a country that has the character to not use government power to plunder a minority for the sake of a majority (or vice versa, as in Saddam’s Iraq) better resists the eventual trials of war, depression, famine, etc. Many Western countries took a sharp left turn after WW2. The US did only a little less so. In both the US and UK a swerve back came from Reagan and Thatcher. I still find the latter more remarkable than the former, but the common culture that ties them owes much to the ancient Greeks and Romans.
Prof. Runciman cites facts and wonders why they fail before the stories that critics of Obamacare have told. Some no doubt do not understand the facts as presented. But presenting them better will not work well in the face of America’s preternatural wariness towards power. It may worry over unemployment but that is something that is ultimately under their control. Government debt, however, appears out of their control and is used towards things we are told to trust. Trust in government is exactly NOT what this country was founded on.