“How far wilt thou abuse our patience? How long shall thy madness out-brave our justice?” — Cicero
We are adrift on an insane sea of political ignorance regarding the role of independent thought, reason and science in public decision-making which madness is killing people.
We should be disgusted with those who through ignorance, bias or stupidity refuse to get vaccinated and refuse to wear masks. They are not only affecting their health, which when there’re hospitalized sorely taxes our health care system and denies others necessary treatment, but the health of innocent others. We are retrogressing in the fight against Covid because of the refusal of the ignorant and obdurate to listen to reason and science.
“A popular government without popular information 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.” — James Madison
When ignorance gains political power, as we see today in states like Texas, Florida and Montana, democracy is endangered. Democracy flourishes only when you have a relatively knowledgeable population that can supply useful social and political knowledge to public deliberation.
Americans are woefully ignorant of politics and government. 64% can’t name the three branches of government. Over 50% can’t name their member of Congress and don’t know that states have two senators. 49% can’t name one purpose of American government. In such a situation, citizens are open to lies and distortions and end up depending on unreliable social media or demagogues for political information.
Political ignorance and ignorance in general are concentrated in the largest and most vocal group opposing mask mandates and vaccinations — Evangelical/fundamentalist Christians. On all measures of political knowledge, they rank the lowest in the county. Not knowing anything on your own makes you susceptible to fanatically following the lead of a strong, authoritarian leader such as Trump.
Being religious doesn’t obviate the need to think independently about political affairs. Going back to the great doctors of the Western Church—Aquinas and Augustine — scholars have advocated for thinking Christians. “The human mind may perceive truth only through thinking.” — Thomas Aquinas
Let us hope with Jefferson that this ignorance will pass with “a little patience we shall see the reign of witches pass over, their spells dissolve, and the people recovering their true sight, restore their government to its true principles.” — Thomas Jefferson
For representative government to work, voters must have political knowledge. Citizens can’t hold government accountable if they don’t know what government is doing or how it functions. Ignorant voters’ decisions harm not just the ignorant voter but, in a democracy, the whole country.
Political ignorance is most manifest today in the popular opposition to public health regulations as contrary to personal freedom. These individuals who prattle on about nothing being allowed to restrict their freedom to do what they want should reflect on the reasons we have a state, government and law in the first place — to promote cooperation and limit behavior that hurts others. These obstinately cretinous individuals fail to realize that regulations actually preserve and increase political freedom. Madison once observed that liberty can be lost if government has too little power. Consider:
1. Regulations are a check against collective ignorance and ignorance is enslaving.
2. Only controlled freedom is true freedom; uncontrolled freedom is chaos.
3. Regulations keep us free from domination by others by protecting us from arbitrary treatment.
4. Regulations free us from uncertainty and subordination to the most powerful.
5. Equality and equity, two bedrocks of freedom, depend on law.
For John Locke, slavery exists in being subject to arbitrary authority while the liberty of political society consists in being subject only to the lawfully constituted and exercised authority of the state.
Laws are needed for public order and to create a stable political community. Law and regulations make freedom possible. Using freedom as an excuse to ignore serious public health measures revels an invincible ignorance of the purpose of government and the reason people unite in a state and enact laws to regulate behavior. Like Thomas Carlyle, “I do not believe in the collective wisdom of individual ignorance.”
Dr. John W. Ray teaches classes in government, political science and political philosophy at Montana Tech. He has made presentations on the relationship of government and law to individual freedom for conferences in Europe, Asia and North America. The views expressed are his own and do not necessarily reflect the views of Montana Tech.