Monday, May 30, 2005

House Rules

Finding things out has never been easier, at least for people who are already well educated and want to know. Unfortunately, the availability of reliable information does not guarantee that the public will be well informed. Very few take the trouble to educate themselves; and it remains exceedingly difficult and very expensive to convey simple facts to the mass of the population; and that’s true even in the minority of cases where corporations, political parties, and religions aren’t actively promoting ignorance and spreading lies.

I think we routinely overestimate human curiosity. People are fond of trivial novelty, of course, but the real surprises in this world require effort to comprehend. My nephew quotes a line from a song that goes (more or less): “Each household appliance’s another new science;” but an unknown idea is more hateful to most of us than a new fangled telephone is to your grandpa. Heraclitus said, “If one does not expect the unexpected one will not find it out.” If follows, apparently, that one will not find it out. Which partly explains why most of our political debates are fought over obsolete issues that have only an indirect or symbolic relationship to the real problems of the time. At great personal cost, the participants finally learned how to argue about abortion or state’s rights or stem-cell research. It’s just too much to ask that they learn a new game just because the old one is largely irrelevant; and any political agent who tries to alter the stale agenda has to fight not only his opponents but human inertia, which, contrary to Cicero, is the real power against which the Gods themselves struggle in vain.

We pretend that the ideological struggles of the day revolve around technical economic issues or the specifics of constitutional law as if whether prices are set by a governments or cartels is the most important problem with world trade and gridlock in Washington is a consequence of a quarrel over the proper construal of the doctrine of Federalism. Privatization arguments are particularly irrelevant, or so it seems to me, since the enormous corporations that stand to inherit traditional governmental functions are more like states than firms anyhow—the real issue is whether you prefer dirigisme or feudalism since, at least for the time being, a true third way is a very notional option. The great contests of our time are not about the how as much as the for whom, the cui in cui bono. Of course the shills for the various interests have every reason to perfume their advocacy with an incense of academic disinterest; and the people, for their part, would prefer to think that there is a nonpolitical solution to political problems; but over and beyond, or perhaps beneath, these particular motives is the tendency of minds once at rest to remain at rest.

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