Is Ignorance Bliss?

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      Joe Fetz emails:

The more that I learn about economics and political philosophy the more I feel powerless to change what is going on. In fact, it is almost depressing to know the truth of the world around you while also knowing that everybody else around you is completely clueless. I am certainly not a smart man, but I do my best to attempt to educate people with my own knowledge, but it is like beating myself in the head with an old boot. Sometimes I almost wish that I was still ignorant and just going through life just like everybody else.

My question is: Do you ever feel like this? Like maybe you might be happier if you didn’t know what is really going on?

Joe, it is a very tall order to change the world. You are not the only one that has felt despair. Remember, the great economist Ludwig von Mises wrote:

Occasionally I entertained the hope that my writings would bear practical fruit and show the way for policy. Constantly I have been looking for evidence of a change in ideology. But…I have come to realize that my theories explain the degeneration of a great civilization; they do not prevent it. I set out to be a reformer, but only became the historian of decline.

But as Mises taught, the world is a very complex place, and in the sphere of political and social change it is very difficult to understand how all factors will play out. Strong men willing to advance the ideas of liberty can have an impact. Murray Rothbard, Lew Rockwell and Ron Paul through their consistent advocacy of liberty have beyond question delivered the message of the importance of liberty to a far greater audience than could have ever been imagined just 40 years ago.

That said, as you point out, the overwhelming majority are clueless and easily swayed by demagogues. Thus, it would be foolish to think that the battle for liberty is anywhere close to being won. In fact, it is downright scary as to what direction the masses may be led and what this will mean for our freedoms.

Frustration at being unable to convert all the boobsie overnight is a sign of looking at the battle in the wrong way. The battle should be fun and exciting. Just like a good chess game or a one-on-one basketball game can be fun. Two of the greatest promoters of liberty, Rothbard and H.L. Mencken had fun poking at the interventionists.

It is not difficult to imagine the twinkle in the eye of Mencken when he wrote:

Every decent man is ashamed of the government he lives under.

or when he wrote:

A national political campaign is better than the best circus ever heard of, with a mass baptism and a couple of hangings thrown in.

And we must never forget the famous Rothbard laugh. I personally remember him chuckling when he relayed the story of a report in the news that some NYC government agency wanted to make NYC prettier by banning hot dog carts.

And think of the fun Rothbard must have had by infiltrating the Maoist wing of a Leninist-Trotskyite party:

Rothbard was a battler. He never stopped. Read his writings in The Libertarian Forum and The Rothbard Rockwell Report. I am guessing, he loved the battle, itself. He loved to bash the enemy. Indeed, what Rothbard wrote about Mencken most assuredly applied to Rothbard himself:

Any man who is an individualist and a libertarian in this day and age has a difficult row to hoe. He finds himself in a world marked, if not dominated, by folly, fraud, and tyranny. He has, if he is a reflecting man, three possible courses of action open to him: (1) he may retire from the social and political world into his private occupation: in the case of Mencken’s early partner, George Jean Nathan, he can retire into a world of purely esthetic contemplation; (2) he can set about to try to change the world for the better, or at least to formulate and propagate his views with such an ultimate hope in mind; or, (3) he can stay in the world, enjoying himself immensely at this spectacle of folly. To take this third route requires a special type of personality with a special type of judgment about the world. He must, on the one hand, be an individualist with a serene and unquenchable sense of self-confidence; he must be supremely "inner-directed" with no inner shame or quaking at going against the judgment of the herd. He must, secondly, have a supreme zest for enjoying life and the spectacle it affords; he must be an individualist who cares deeply about liberty and individual excellence, but who can – from that same dedication to truth and liberty – enjoy and lampoon a society that has turned its back on the best that it can achieve. And he must, thirdly, be deeply pessimistic about any possibility of changing and reforming the ideas and actions of the vast majority of his fellow-men. He must believe that boobus Americanus is doomed to be boobus Americanus forevermore….A serene and confident individualist, dedicated to competence and excellence and deeply devoted to liberty, but convinced that the bulk of his fellows were beyond repair, Mencken carved out a role unique in American history: he sailed joyously into the fray, slashing and cutting happily into the buncombe and folly he saw all around him, puncturing the balloons of pomposity, gaily cleansing the Augean stables of cant, hypocrisy, absurdity, and cliché, "heaving," as he once put it, "the dead cat into the temple" to show bemused worshippers of the inane that he would not be struck dead on the spot. And in the course of this task, rarely undertaken in any age, a task performed purely for his own enjoyment, he exercised an enormous liberating force upon the best minds of a whole generation.

On a personal level when we discuss economics, politics and philosophy, we must seek to tie our opponents up in knots. Don’t battle them with long oratory. If they are thinkers, give them a book. But if they are boobs, counter them with questions. If they are in favor of the minimum wage, ask them why it shouldn’t be at $500 per hour then? Ask them why they think the laws of supply and demand don’t work for wages? If they are against gold as money because "You can’t eat gold," ask them if eating money is something that should be essential to a money.

The Socratic method is very powerful against the unthinking masses. They haven’t thought out their positions, so the right questions can cause them to get so backed into a corner that they may even realize the absurdity of their position. Naturally, the more you practice the Socratic method, the better you get at. It is truly fencing against an unarmed man.

On an even more personal level, the more you know about how the economy works and what the future may hold, the better off you are.

To know that accelerating price inflation may be coming, that the Federal Reserve causes the business cycle by its money manipulations, that the ever growing police state may result in serious infringements on our liberties is all very valuable knowledge. It means we can prepare for what is coming. Ignorance of these possibilities is not bliss, it is extremely dangerous.

Jews in Germany and Austria died because they were ignorant of the political situation developing around them. Sigmund Freud and Ludwig von Mises, because they were not ignorant of the environment, were able to flee and survive.

The more you know and correctly understand the developing situation the better off you are. Knowledge is power. Ignorance is mental blindness.

Reprinted with permission from Economic Policy Journal.

2012 Economic Policy Journal