Thursday, February 11, 2010

Three years too late

I've been toying with an idea since my very first FEE lecture, which explained the various duties in a market: what the supplier is supposed to do, what the regulator is supposed to do, what's supposed to happen for everything to work like it should, and I've been wondering, what is the duty of the consumer in a free market? Is there anything the consumer is supposed to do to be the best consumer possible, or does The Invisible Hand guide everything into place regardless? This question leaked into my perception of government as well. What did I need to do to be a good citizen, to make my government tolerable? Was there anything more than voting and being politically aware? Daniel Webster said "Whatever makes men good Christians makes them good citizens" and that made infinite sense to me, but I needed to quantify that somehow.

Parenthetically, I think it's a generally agreed upon reality that we are mostly a culture based on reception and privileges and rights, and less on service and responsibility. Which is not to say we're political and economic couch potatoes -- I think our enormous privilege has taught us how to be good citizens, if only through positive reinforcement -- but that, as a culture, we have been largely unconcerned with what we're supposed to be doing besides voting and activism and buying our food from local farms. You know. We don't really ask if we're as informed as we could possibly, and we mostly except businesses and media and politicians to cater to us, instead of trying our hand at being proactive. I want to know more than what I'm merely told. I want to be responsible. I want to know I did all that I was supposed to do. Parenthetical over.

Originally only wealthy white landowners were allowed to vote, and the justification, whether it was just or not, was that they were the only ones educated enough to make informed political decisions. Without educated voters, democracy kills itself, just because the majority doesn't know any better. JKF said that "The ignorance of one voter in a democracy impairs the security of all." This is why the Federalists railed so hard for representative government, so afraid of pure democracy and making sure the will of the people was carefully balanced by a strong central government. Maybe it's too strong now. Maybe the will of the people is too weak now. Maybe it's because the scope of information a citizen needs to know is too large for "the people" to be an effective counter balance. We have jobs, lives, people to care about, and it leaves so little time to know what one is supposed to know. If information is indeed the currency of democracy, as Thomas Jefferson said it was, there's a lot of counterfeit currency floating around, and I just don't see how it's humanly possible to know what one needs to know in order to be a good citizen.

This is the distinction between a democracy and a republic. The distinction has seemed so pointless in modern times, when our Information Age made it easier than ever to know enough of what was going on to be more directly involved. But maybe the distinction is still worth making? In a republic representative call the shots, make the decisions, do the government-y things, and they are elected by people who trust them to know all they need to know about government. In a republic, the representatives know everything about politics so you don't have to. You only need to know about your representatives, not the whole exhaustive body of our political system. You don't need to keep tabs on ever back door bureaucrat because your representative is supposed to do that for you. Because he's representing you. It's his full time job. In a democracy, every little bit of governmental business is your business, because you, along with the rest of the majority, eeeeh, people are the government. You must know your stuff. The government, and your ability to be an effective citizen, depends on it.

Either way, it's a staggering responsibility. And this is how politics became a game of trickery, because when people are not stepping up to this responsibility and doing the leg work to know what they need to know, it's so easy to fool them. Lie to them. Manipulate them. And it's an endless cycle every democracy inflicts on itself when it fails to be vigilant and do the homework. Is it so very wrong that I have so little patience for people who are politically ignorant? This is society, civilization we're talking about, and misinformation is too dangerous to be careless over.

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