“The ideas of economists and political philosophers, both when
they are right and when they are wrong, are more powerful than
generally understood. Indeed, the world is ruled by little else.”
John Maynard Keynes (1883-1946)
The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money, 1936
In universities, we were exposed – at times through the lens of prejudicial teachers, but ones with less bias than today – to the writings of political philosophers, from Socrates to Locke to Marx. We glimpsed the ancient Greeks and Romans. We read history and surveyed the Bible. We grazed on the works of economists, like Adam Smith, Jeremy Bentham, John Maynard Keynes and Friedrich Hayek. While most of us did not study these philosophers and economists in detail, they were, at least, unmasked for our inspection. We were taught to think – to reason for ourselves – to determine what principles would help guide us past the Scyllas and the Charybdis’ we were bound to encounter. Today, too much focus in our universities is on issue-specific, special studies that pass as education.
It is the ability to think independently that is critical for democracy. Today, that is at risk. STEM programs help with jobs, but a vibrant democracy depends on a broadly educated electorate. For most older American, the concepts of personal liberty and economic freedom, along with a legacy of democracy and respect for institutions, are deeply ingrained. These beliefs have kept us free and democratic. Yet, youth today seems less critical, less challenging of their teachers. They believe what they hear and read in the mainstream media and on social media. The threat to democracy comes not from coarse, loud-mouthed people like Mr. Trump, but from subtle, cavalier politicians who surreptitiously insinuate themselves into our minds under the guise of doing good. To me, the biggest risk to our country is from within – elitists on both coasts, in the media, academia and in Washington, who use the threat of populism as justification for plutocracy.
Politics is an empirical process. Ours has changed over the past two hundred plus years, adapting to differing conditions and mores. The President is more isolated and more powerful. Congress has not expanded in line with the population growth, and has ceded responsibility to the Executive. Today, the judiciary (at least, those who are not activists) and local government most closely resemble what the Founders envisioned. Politicians, regardless of Party, exude an arrogance that sets them above those they represent. Many are hypocrites, spouting promises, with no intention of upholding them; passing laws, while exempting themselves; beholden to lobbyists and special interests, rather than the people; pledging prudence, but practicing profligacy. They use identity politics, which are counter-productive to assimilation and unity, leading, as they do, toward pluralism – a salad bowl instead of a melting pot.
Beware dogmatism born of ignorance. Like all self-respecting pundits, I see things I like and things I don’t. I have beliefs, and I have doubts. I do not believe climate skeptics are deniers, or that extremists come only from the Right, or that Francis Fukuyama was correct in proclaiming that the fall of the Soviet Union represented the end of history. I do not want to be lectured to by a supercilious Al Gore on climate – a man who made millions, while frightening gullible innocents. I do not want to be instructed on morality by cocky, ethically-challenged late-night hosts, like Jimmy Kimmel and Stephen Colbert. I do not want to be preached to by Barack Obama or Hillary Clinton on civility in politics, when they look upon conservatives as gun-toting, Bible-thumping “deplorables.” I do not want to listen to anti-Trump rants from sanctimonious Ivy League professors, hiding behind ivory towers. I don’t like duplicity or hypocrisy. I don’t like those who invoke identity politics, and I don’t respect those who use public fame to generate private wealth. I do not believe that any country, government, system or political party is perfect, but I do believe ours comes closest. I do like a sense of humor, civility and respect. I also believe that citizens have the responsibility to be conversant on matters of public policy, or, at least within reason, and that they should always exercise their right to vote. While unions have served a useful purpose, in recent times public sector ones have become more interested in preserving jobs and benefits, regardless of the costs to taxpayers. As well, in impeding progress by delaying or denying innovation, they have become advocates for the status quo.
We learn through discussion and debate, not propaganda-filled lectures. Life is a constant learning process. Since the advent of the industrial revolution, science has altered the lens through which we view the world. Religious faith had to be reconciled with Darwin’s findings. What had been certain gave way to doubt. But doubt led to creativity, and to improvements in living standards. Before the Industrial Revolution, our forefathers could predict what life would be like for their descendants. Afterwards, they could not. Today, we cannot foretell how our grandchildren’s lives will differ from ours, but we know they will.
The importance of reading political and economic philosophers, like Hume, Kant, Rousseau, Paine and Ricardo, is not to discover the answer one has long sought, but to provide a base of knowledge, to challenge one’s beliefs, to ensure one can argue cogently. We do not have to be disciples of a particular school of thought, but we should understand why we think as we do. We should be able to debate and defend our positions. Most importantly, we should be prepared for whatever lies ahead, and to ensure the survival of that that which is (and what we hope always will be) most important – freedom.
Authoritarianism emerges from ignorance and propaganda. Ignorance is born when students are encouraged to seek safe places, where they will not be exposed to arguments they find uncomfortable. Consequently, they are uninformed of alternative views. Most professors preach from the same political handbook. In the 2017, (William F.) Buckley Free Speech Survey, 93% of respondents agreed that there is educational value in listening to and understanding views and opinions that are contrary to their own. Yet 30% of the students believe that physical violence can be justified to prevent someone from using “hate” speech or making racially charged comments. A recent op-ed in The New York Times by Professor Clay Routledge of North Dakota State University noted that parental behavior has become “increasingly guarded and safety focused.” He worried that such attitudes, taken to extremes, delay personal independence. He found that “today’s teenagers and young adults are less likely than those in past generations to engage in a range of activities that involve personal independence, such as working for pay, driving, dating and spending time without adult supervision.” In a recent speech, former President George Bush noted: “There are some signs that the intensity of support for democracy itself has waned, especially among the young.” That would be a death knell for freedom.
We learn through reading, experience, mistakes, pain and fear. We do not want to unnecessarily expose children to risk, but if we want future generations to value freedom, as Mr. Routledge concludes, “we need to restore our faith in them.” Learning to handle disappointment and failure is part of growing up.
My advice to the next generation: Read as much and as widely as possible, but don’t rely on social media. Let commonsense be your guide. Remember, no one – parent, teacher, professor, economist, philosopher, pundit or politician – has all the answers. And be humble; we are all fallible.
This article was first published on Thought of the Day.