Alberto Mingardi  

Kevin Williamson on education and politics

Utilitarianism: beyond victims... What's Wrong with Trade Restri...

literacy.jpg I've grown fonder and fonder of National Review's Kevin D. Williamson. Williamson thinks clearly and writes clearly. He is witty, ironic, linear, and persuasive in his arguments. His latest column is particularly noteworthy.

Williamson, loyal to a version of conservatism that is not particularly popular these days, criticises the imperial presidency, which runs in striking contrast with that parsimonious idea of government dear to the American founders.

I was however a bit surprised by the following bit:

As American society grows less literate and the state of its moral education declines, the American people grow less able to engage their government as intellectually and morally prepared citizens.

Williamson's argument is consistent with a venerable tradition.

In the 19th century, people of a liberal bent tended to support a wider franchise because they maintained that if everybody had a say in decision-making, the quality of decisions would go up. It was easy for kings and aristocrats to send a country to war: they had limited skin in the game, as they tended to observe the battlefield from distance. Let those who are going to die for the king's honour and pride decide; they might prove more aware of the costs of their rulers' decisions.

But a big part of the argument for democracy was in fact an argument for a better informed political discussion. Those who believed in expanding the franchise also believed in popular education and a wider diffusion of political gazette. Democracy and mass literacy should lead us towards saner policies: to become better able to engage the government as intellectually prepared citizens.

Here we are. Does better education really make politics saner?

Of course we lack the counterfactual (what would the modern, interventionist state look like without widespread literacy?).

Still, we are living arguably in the most literate societies in history. Knowledge has never been more easily accessible: all the information you may want is just a click away. And yet politics do not seem to be particularly better than in the past. If anything, the tendency to honour the culture of political leaders that Williamson chastises has increased, not decreased.

I get Williamson's point: he refers not to literacy per se but to the degree of the sophistication of the general public. The public doesn't seem very sophisticated today. But perhaps it never was. Beware of a paradox George Stigler pointed out years ago in a different context: we tend to be upset with the public's taste because we compare the masses of today with the elites of ancient times. In sheer fact, the masses today enjoy a degree of literacy and, thus, of cultural consumption, that only very few people could enjoy, say, three generations ago. Laudatores temporis actii are sobbing because we do not have the fluency in arts of cultivated Athenians, but back then just a tiny slice of the population had any access to culture at all.

Couldn't the situation be even more troublesome? Couldn't it be, paraphrasing Williamson, that as societies grow MORE literate, the people grow LESS able to engage their government as intellectually and morally prepared citizens?

Increases in literacy rates don't seem to guarantee that people engage with their governments in more critical, let alone better, policy making. Perhaps a better educated people has been readier in engaging in transactional relationships, insofar as public policy is concerned: it was more difficult to fool them out of the distribution of government privileges, as they grew more informed of government programs and could better spot benefits and traps. But when it comes to politics, it seems people are still pretty tribal and happy to split between opposing teams, with little regard for the others' arguments. It's like with football fans, whose sense of belonging doesn't decline with increasing education.

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COMMENTS (7 to date)
English Professor writes:

Laudatores temporis acti: I do not expect to find Horace quoted on an econ blog. Well done.

Phil M writes:

I share Williamson's concern that if we are not dedicated "citizens," we will become "subjects." But I just finished Capitalism, Democracy, and Ralph's Pretty Good Grocery, and now I'm not so worried. John Mueller writes: "... apathy, and ignorance seem to be normal, not abnormal, in a democracy, and to a considerable degree the beauty of the form is that it works despite these qualities-or, in some important respects, because of them."

Michael Rulle writes:

I have also enjoyed reading Williamson. The topic you discuss is quite complex.

What is most important is that our government remain consistent with the principles of our Constitution relative to how laws are made and how rights are maintained. While the engaged citizens may be left or right, policies are less important than process (which is not to say policies are not important---for they are the reason we need process).

Fortunately, politicians want to get re-elected and they do respond to public opinion. Also, we tend to overrate the differences between the major policies/parties. While Trump and Obama seem light years apart (they are really only "sound years apart" :-)), that is more of an illusion due to the principles of our constitution---which keeps our laws and policies within a well defined tight range.

I believe we have a citizenry that is quite literate ---even those whose opinions I abhor. It is amazing how our Government (the exception being the 1860s---which was almost preordained to occur) has been as stable as it has for 230 years.

Again, we tend to get caught up in policy differences, which in the grand scheme of things are small potatoes. But our governmental process has remained very stable. This is due to our citizenry's fundamental belief in our founding fathers' vision.

JK Brown writes:

A point I've been pondering of late is from a 1987 lecture by Murray Rothbard. He diverges to offer an opinion as to why so many people were writing/debating economic matters in the mid-19th century. He relates it to the rise of the evangelical pietists with the secular debates migrating from the religious debates.

We don't have major Protestant upheavals these days. We do still have the pietists who seem to have devolved into the early 20th century Progressives. These days we have religious evangelicals in retreat, but the pietists seem to be going strong. Only now they've taken up Marxist piety. Both groups seem to still believe their personal salvation is dependent upon stamping out "sin" in the broader society through big government.

Weir writes:

The democrats in Athens couldn't have had more skin in the game and they were red-hot for war. Likewise the citizen-soldiers swept up in the levee en masse, in Napoleon's nation in arms. So Kant was more wrong than right, and Montesquieu more right than wrong: The natural effect of commerce is to lead to peace. Commerce, not suffrage.

Yet don't teachers keep telling students that commerce somehow causes war? They call it capitalism, and they think they're literate because they read Howard Zinn.

Williamson's talking about cultural literacy. That would involve knowing who Montesquieu is. Everybody and his dog goes to university now, and their profit on it is they know how to deconstruct a celebrity's tweets. They don't know, and can't ever know, even one-one-hundredth of what politicians are so busy tinkering with, which is a huge change from the age of Pericles. He makes the point in his funeral oration that democrats in Athens were hands-off kind of guys amongst themselves, in Athens.

Politicians these days don't see any limit to what they're responsible for. Isn't that the problem? Not the occasional election, but that politicians lower themselves to interfering in the most petty and trivial things inside people's houses and shops?

No American president was more vulgar than Andrew Jackson, or more racist than Woodrow Wilson. If the trend is dogwards, it's because there is no limit now to the discretion granted every EPA official or OSHA bureaucrat.

Massimo writes:

Paine's "Common sense" is said to have been read by half a million people at the time of publication. 20% of US population, maybe 50% of people able to read.

I do not think Rawls TOJ or Nozick ASU have been read by more than 30.000 people, or 0.01% of US population.

"Better education" (actually longer statist schooling) does not imply "a better informed political discussion". They are independent variables. Nock understood it.

Jay writes:


That's not really a fair comparison, Paine's work was maybe 1/50 of the available literature to a given literate person with no TV/Movie options. Compare that to today with millions of available works on your phone and far more alternatives to reading.

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