At Civitas’ poll luncheon yesterday, several people asked why North Carolina voters say they disagree with the direction our state is headed in, yet continue to vote the same old politicians into office. Citing Walter Williams’ column, “Stupid, Ignorant or Biased?” one attendee wondered whether voters are just plain stupid. Or, as former FDR adviser (and alleged Soviet agent) Harry Hopkins once quipped, “Tax and tax, spend and spend, elect and elect, because the people are too damn dumb to know the difference.”
So are the people really that dumb? Another way of asking this question is, “What are the limits of reason?” Or, even more to the point for an organization like Civitas, “What are the limits of public policy?” If the people really are so dumb that they are moved more by desire and passion, or force and fraud (as Hobbes puts it), than by prudent discourse, then the endeavor of influencing public opinion via public policy is doomed – or, at the very least, misguided. In short, if the people are that “dumb,” then they are not moved by public policy – but only by rhetoric, or as we call it nowadays, ideology, or even, propaganda.
Of course, if this is the case, then the question becomes whether all “the people” are the same? More precisely, is there a distinction – based on reason – between the many and the few? And, if that is the case, then is public policy really just the province of the few? To simplify things quite a bit, in the modern technocratic state (as envisioned by FDR, Hopkins and others) the few are those experts who have obtained the knowledge necessary to rule on behalf of the people. If this is the case, then public policy – in its purest form (see the work, for instance, of the CFR or of Rand) – exists to influence this group of people. Another alternative, suggested by Plato and clarified for modern readers by Leo Strauss, is that the few aren’t very interested in public policy at all. In any case, neither theory seems to permit that public policy is much good at influencing “public opinion.”