Big Head Press

L. Neil Smith's
Number 418, May 20, 2007

" least something useful is getting done around here"


Foundations of Government
by Lady Liberty

Special to The Libertarian Enterprise

The use of a building foundation as a metaphor has been used just about to death, but that's probably because it's both relatively simple and completely appropriate. Let's face the facts: The foundation is integral to the entire structure built above it, and it had better be strong and well made so that subsequent levels don't falter and topple.

Many of us who are politically active would encourage others to do the same. The single most important thing that we can do to make that happen is to do our best to see that they're informed about our particular cause or focus. To that end, we publish information on the Internet and write letters to the editor. We encourage members of the media to pick up their pens or their microphones and report on the matter at hand. We urge our fellow citizens to exercise their freedom and fulfill their obligations to play a real role in government.

We realize, of course, that for our activism to bear real fruit and our tactics to be measured in real successes, we must make a couple of perfectly reasonable assumptions: First, we assume that people can actually hear and understand what we're saying. And second, we assume that they recognize the implications of government action on their own lives.

These assumptions are reasonable because we think that the vast majority of Americans can read and can understand the English language. We believe that they've been taught from the elementary level on up the basics of American civics and citizenship. We're convinced that logic—the very rudiment of disciplines from mathematics to philosophy—is emphasized in schools. We even tend to figure that Americans have some basic knowledge of the most influential of historic events, and that a culture as addicted to television as ours has become will also enjoy despite itself some familiarity with the most publicized of current events. Reasonable assumptions? Perfectly. And also wrong.

We've been working for a couple of hundred years now to build a country that's based on the principles outlined in the Constitution and which respects the non-interference with basic civil liberties as outlined in the Bill of Rights. But we've been drifting away from that relatively solid foundation and building government offshoots willy nilly throughout much of that lengthy time frame. You know it, and I know it. But how can we explain to others that this kind of thing is happening when they've almost literally got no framework within which to have an understanding?

In recent weeks, it was in the news that the Contemporary Art Center of Virginia is about to show a very special and rare piece: one of the few remaining original copies of the Magna Carta. Although the Magna Carta isn't everything that some of us today tend to think it was (it was, for example, promptly repudiated by the king who signed it since he was forced under duress to do so), it also codified for the people the idea that there were some rights the government ought not be able to infringe, that the people should have some form of redress of such wrongs, and it effectively said that even a sovereign isn't above the law.

In fact, the Magna Carta served in no small part as reference material for the Founding Fathers. As a result of the Great Charter's importance in 1215, in 1776, and even today, most of us know at least a little something about it. Or at least I would have thought that that was the case. . . .

A Virginia newspaper columnist went out and about last fall to ask the locals for their thoughts on the Magna Carta. The answers she got aren't pretty. They're pretty funny, but not pretty. A credit card without a limit? A treaty brought over on the Mayflower? Seriously? Her column on the subject is a real eye-opener not least because two Turkish students knew what Americans of a variety of ages didn't.

Kerry Dougherty's column reminded me a good deal of Jay Leno's infamous "Jay Walking" segments. Leno sometimes takes a camera and a microphone to the streets and asks people questions, and shows the most ridiculous answers to his nightly television audience. I can recall one recent Jay Walking question-and-answer session that resulted in being informed that Benjamin Franklin had been president. Just a week or so ago, Leno was asking tourists about the 2008 presidential campaign, already well under way if you agree that intense media coverage makes it so.

Mr. Leno approached a pretty young woman who professed to be a college student. "So," Jay asked her, "has a woman ever run for president?" The woman immediately replied in the negative. Jay looked at the camera, mugged for a moment, and then asked the woman, "Are you sure?" She was. "What about now?" Jay prodded. "Is there a president's wife, maybe, running for president?" You could see the light bulb go off in the young woman's head. "Yes!" she exclaimed. "Laura Bush!"

In a country where education is both compulsory and free, you'd think that at least the bare bones basics would be covered. While I personally consider the Magna Carta and civics to be basic, some others might not. So let's agree to disagree for the moment, and find something we can agree on: Reading and writing. It doesn't get any more basic than that! And the truth is that once a student can read and write—once he knows the very foundation of learning—the world of history, geography, science, philosophy, and much, much more is opened to him between the covers of books or on educational web sites (no, that's not an oxymoron).

Unfortunately, even making the assumption that only a very few Americans aren't fully literate puts us in the wrong once again. A study conducted by the State Education Agency garnered the surprising result that upwards of 36% of Washington DC residents are functionally illiterate. That means they can't even read and write well enough to fill out a simple job application. The national statistics are a little less appalling—about 21%—but still a lamentably high number.

When the Magna Carta was signed in 1215, the vast majority of the common people were illiterate, unable to sign even their name. But over the centuries, great progress was made. By the late 1700's, New England could boast literacy rates of about 90%. Most developed countries followed suit. But those centuries of progress are slowly being reversed, at least in this country. Jay Leno's college student wasn't, perhaps, as much of an exception to the rule as we'd hope. According to Wikipedia's "literacy" entry:

"Literacy among college graduates declined between 1992 and 2003, with less than one-third of all graduates at the highest 'proficient' level in 2003, and less than half of all graduates with advanced degrees at this level."

There are all sorts of reasons that literacy in this country is declining, chief among them an equally declining education system. But an increase in non-English speaking populations and a decrease in parental responsibility, combined with a politically correct emphasis on self-esteem over actual performance, are also significant factors. (For the record, each one of these things are damaging in and of themselves and warrant columns all their own. This essay, though, is more about the effects than the cases.) Whatever the contributing factors to the decline in literacy may be—and there are doubtless still other, less obvious ones—the end result is the same: Not only do children grow up less competent in reading, they grow up less competent in learning. And that, in turn, means they're less competent in many ways that matter all the way around.

We wonder how it is that it's taken so long for so many Americans to understand that there's a problem in Washington (not to mention pretty much everywhere else there's some government entity or another). Sometimes we think that they just don't care, and in some cases, that's true. In other instances, we might assume they're actually complicit in the corruption, and that's sometimes true, too. But the sad reality is that the majority don't know because they don't know enough to find out.

Newspapers can print all the news they like, and people don't, won't, or can't read it. Stories that reporters were once told to write for a sixth grade audience must now be aimed even younger to reach an audience with an even smaller capacity for comprehension. The silly videos on YouTube get millions of hits, but current events or political web sites all too often struggle for an audience. There's room for both, of course, on the World Wide Web, but there's a real lack of an audience of those interested in doing anything that requires actual thought.

In much the same way that many things have contributed to the dumbing down and the disinterest of the American public, so, too, have many things contributed to the out of control growth of government. It's certainly fair to suggest that the behemoth bureaucracy with which we're now saddled has done its share to crumble the original foundation beneath it. But the real cause, the primary reason the government has grown unfettered and accreted power unmolested is the lack of interest and the growing ignorance of the American public.

All is not lost. I played a card game this weekend with teenagers who discussed—and discussed intelligently—the rise and fall of Communism and the parallels to some of the political machinations in America today (don't ask; it's a long story which is actually quite a bit more interesting than you might suspect). But in the main, while it's heartening to hear such informed opinions from those who are the future of this country, it's also fair to say that those teens aren't exactly typical.

If we truly want to effect real and meaningful change, we're doing many of the right things by being activists and educators. But we need to aim our education efforts not just at those we assume will have an interest because, truth be told, they ought to. We need to first ensure they're even capable of having an interest which will only happen if they understand the consequences if they don't. We must have the patience to make those consequences clear for those who don't see them without pushing them away with superiority or with demands so alien to them that the generate the wrong kind of fear.

We need to talk to younger Americans who can't yet vote or who aren't inclined to activism yet themselves so that, when they do reach an age to do so, they will. We have to be absolutely certain that, if our schools won't do it (and many of them aren't), we take it upon ourselves to ensure each student receives at least a rudimentary education that includes reading, writing, and—crucial for the preservation of this country and the restoration of freedom—history and civics.

In short, we need to shore up the very foundations of government—and in this country, that's supposed to be the people—if we intend to make subsequent changes that will restore the foundations of freedom to which we're entitled. Failing to do so will mitigate any other kind of patches or stopgap measures we care to employ, and our republic—like so many others before it—will collapse under the already almost crushing weight of bureaucracy and apathy.

Reference Links:

Magna Carta

What's so great about an old piece of history?

More Than One-third of Washington D.C. Residents Are Functionally Illiterate


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