Knowing For Yourself, Revisited: Government Version

Knowing For Yourself, Revisited: Government Version

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841a2a92b333bc9f5664cc62afc0b225B: Have you ever wondered why it is that politicians, experts, and other demagogues have so much influence?  Some light may be cast on this if we consider another question: how much influence would they have if their fans and followers didn’t just swallow everything they said, but thought out answers themselves?

It’s easy, perhaps even natural, to believe what other people say without reservation, especially when they punctuate their remarks with sentimentality, emotion, or some declaration that asserts their authority on the matter (even though none of these things actually boost the logical strength of what they’re saying).  Just about everybody does this from the time that they’re born.  Whatever an adult (or even an only slightly older child may suffice) has said something to a child, it is believed; so trusting and gullible is he at such a tender age, in fact, that he must be specifically trained to NOT trust certain people, like strangers and others who may “lie in wait” to deceive.

By the time people become adults, however, many are still content to let other people do the thinking for them: if ever there is a question about science, statistics, ethics, politics, etc., these people let those who have thought about it a lot longer than they have make decisions for them.  With people like this, all a demagogue needs to do to thrive is tell them things they want to hear – say, by making a bunch of empty promises about how life is going to be better for them if they give him their support; i.e., all they need to do is give him some kind of authority and he’ll take care of everything for them.

A: Um, who cares?

B: You may want to care, since this is essentially the way some dictators got power in the past.  It’s pretty much exactly how Hitler got power, and it was also a tactic common to some ancient kings, who undoubtedly got their people and armies to support their conquests by similar arguments: they somehow convinced them that it was necessary for them to go to war, or that life would somehow be so much better because of it, and the people fell for it like an egg from a tall chicken.  Because their people were such suckers, some terrible acts were perpetrated, culminating in disasters such as World War II.

A: What am I supposed to do, buddy?  Know everything?

B: Well obviously that’s not reasonable, but wouldn’t it make some sense, before you go throwing your undivided and unquestioning support behind some supposedly important cause, that you might find out for yourself what you’re getting into first?

A: And that’s just what I’m saying: how?

B: Let’s take the case of Hitler, whom I mentioned a moment ago.  In essence, he came to power because he promised a whole bunch of good things to people, who at the time were, or recently had been, miserable.  How could those people have reacted differently?  If they would have inquired into the matter of how he was actually going to fulfill those promises, perhaps they would have seen that he could not have done it except at the expense of some remarkably high costs.  Sure, he could give them some hope for a few years, but once they went to war, it was the beginning of the end.  In fact, it’s debatable that things would have become progressively worse anyway even had they never gone to war, just because of the high-maintenance nature of the socialistic government they had.

Communist Russia was presented with basically the same situation, when the 1917 revolution promised great times of a sort coming up in the future, after deposing the archaic and incompetent Romanov dynasty.  But after somehow surviving the Purges of the ‘30s and the devastation of World War II, the communist government machine finally puttered to a stop in 1991, no longer able to reasonably support itself, the cost endured in the meantime being about as much as any people has ever had to bear.  How could this have been avoided?  After all, the great communist theorists of the 19th century such as Karl Marx seemed to have the whole thing figured out already.  But looking back on the long bread lines now, doesn’t it seem reasonable that the people should have foreseen that the restriction of so much freedom would have had such an adverse effect on their happiness, let alone their productivity, and therefore also on the economy?

I’m no historian, and I’m certainly not blaming the respective public masses for what transpired in Nazi Germany and Communist Russia.  I don’t know what the circumstances were in those places and times, and perhaps it isn’t reasonable to think that those people had the wherewithal or the proper information or wisdom to prevent those regimes from taking power.  But this is what history is for; we learn from our past mistakes.  We have access to all the historical information we need to make our own decisions about what causes we should support, instead of blindly following crowds or experts.

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