A popular government without popular information, or the means of acquiring it, is but a Prologue to a Farce or a Tragedy; or perhaps both. Knowledge will forever govern ignorance. And a people who mean to be their own Governors must arm themselves with the Power that knowledge gives.
“Where does chocolate milk come from?” the Innovation Center for U.S. Dairy asked 1,000 American adults this April. Seven percent of American adults believe that chocolate milk comes from brown cows. “Responses came from all 50 states, and the regional response breakdown was fairly even, with a slight uptick (approx. 10% higher) in the South” spokeswoman Lisa McComb confirmed to HuffPost.
Granted seven percent is not alot, but any adults thinking chocolate milk comes from brown cows is too many. However, George Mason University law Professor Ilya Somin, points out in the Washington Post, there are worse examples of ignorance: ” the 25 percent who don’t know the earth orbits the sun, the 66 percent who can’t name the three branches of government, and – my personal favorite – the 80 percent who support mandatory labeling of food containing DNA.” Prof. Ilya discusses this in his book Democracy and Political Ignorance: Why Smaller Government Is Smarter (Second Edition)
An effective American society requires people not to be stupid. Thankfully, Prof. Somin says that ignorance isn’t the same as stupidity. Sometimes, he writes, it is a rational behavior based on conservation of knowledge and attention. “We all have limited time, energy, and attention,” he says, “and so can learn only a small fraction of all the information out there. It makes sense for us to focus on that which is likely to be useful or interesting. For many people, large swathes of basic political and scientific facts don’t qualify.”
So what do you focus on as useful or interesting? The latest in sports scores or what’s on TV? what your friends are saying on social media? That is fine if that is not the only thing you do. But we may want to recall that the rising cost of ever more spectacular gladiatorial games, borne by Roman emperors and therefore the state, has also been posited as a theory for the decline of the Roman Empire. Cicero explicitly recognized this towards the end of the Republic: ‘the judgement and wishes of the Roman people about public affairs can be most clearly expressed in three places: public assemblies, elections, and at plays or gladiatorial shows’. He challenged a political opponent: ‘Give yourself to the people. Entrust yourself to the Games. Are you terrified of not being applauded?’ So how far are we from deciding the truth based upon American gladiatorial games?
Howard Beal would know. In the movie Network, Beale, the anchorman for the UBS Evening News, struggles to accept the ramifications of the social ailments and depravity existing in the world. His producers exploit him for high ratings and avoid giving him the psychiatric assistance that some (especially his companion Max Schumacher) think he needs. The image of Beale in a beige coat with his wet hair plastered to his head, standing up during the middle of his newscast saying, “I’m as mad as hell, and I’m not going to take this anymore!” earns great ratings. Beale’s career as “The Mad Prophet of the Airwaves” concludes with a threat to kill himself on TV. Beal apologizes to his viewers, telling them he “ran out of bullshit.” Viewers respond positively and he is given his own show where he can say whatever he likes. The movie ends with Beal’s murder on national television and a voice over proclaims him “the first known instance of a man who was killed because he had lousy ratings.”
Admit it. You would be watching as you sipped your chocolate milk and wondered how something that delicious existed…