be a bookworm—save the world

So how am I coming along with my liberal education, you ask?

You may recall from an earlier post that I put a high value on liberal education, and have been persuaded by the writings of Mortimer J. Adler and Robert M. Hutchins that only with such an education can one be a truly free citizen, and that only a society made up of such citizens can itself be called free, whatever might happen to be in its constitution.

As the Greater Depression deepens around us, we hear increasing calls for governments to “do something”. Is Greece defaulting on its debts? Yes. Do something! Governments themselves encourage this way of thinking by pointing fingers at each other and warning they must do something. Fix this!

In the much smaller and more localized depression of the 1890s in the United States, the Democratic president Grover Cleveland was also subjected to pressure to “do something”. He resisted such pressure, being of an outlook that the American economy was not really the government’s business.

He was probably the last president to hold such a view. The financial panic of 1907 led the U.S. government to centralize control of banking and the money supply with the creation of the Federal Reserve in 1913. The two world wars occasioned massive interventions in the economy, in which the federal government commandeered resources and factories, creating all the enabling legislation and vastly expanding its bureaucracy in order to manage its new provinces. The Cold War and then 9/11 allowed the government to go on a permanent war footing, with all the appropriation of resources and curtailment of freedoms that entails.

Canada has been less militaristic (although there we are in Afghanistan and Libya, among other places), but our governments have also grown vastly. Income tax, introduced as a temporary measure to defray the costs of World War I, has massively increased, but the government spends much more than even this, financing the remainder with debt. More and more of us are directly dependent on government for employment, contracts, or welfare.

Dependent and docile. We remain passive unless things really start going wrong, and then we yell. But what good is such yelling?

I’m interested by the “Occupy” movement that has people camping out in cities in amorphous protest. The Wall Street location of the original suggests that the issue is essentially economic justice. This is a reasonable and very interesting topic—but how much do the protesters, or those interviewing them, or any of us, know about it? What is economic justice? Is there such a thing? Does it mean something more than “you have lots, I don’t, give me some”?

I’m saying that a meaningful discussion of this topic can occur only among those who are liberally educated. Close to 0% of the population is competent to talk about it or think about it. We don’t have the education. Yes, we’re lawyers and managers and dentists, but training in those fields does not make us competent to discuss ideas meaningfully. Yes, we can see when greedy, powerful opportunists are able to lay their hands on large amounts of easy wealth at others’ expense. And I assume that some of them will be scapegoated in due course.

But that’s all it will be: scapegoating, demonizing, and emotional outbursts. With no wide comprehension of the ideas involved, it can’t really go anywhere else. We won’t be anywhere near discussing root causes or engaging in a true controversy: the discussion of legitimately differing points of view. There will be chaos, violence, and misery; what there won’t be is comprehension.

Lacking a liberal education myself, I can’t even promote it as effectively as I’d like to. I feel that all I can do is try to soldier on with gaining one as best I can on my own.

With the indispensable help of books, of course. The volumes I’ve got on the go right now that I regard as part of my liberal education are:

  • Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides, Aristophanes, volume 5 of the Britannica Great Books
  • Democracy in America by Alexis de Tocqueville
  • The Idea of Love by Robert G. Hazo
  • A Study of History 3: The Growths of Civilizations by Arnold J. Toynbee

It’s quite a pile, but I love it.

My fear is that when revolution comes and the existing world political-economic order is swept aside in the next few years, it will be done once again by the Mussolinis and Hitlers and Maos. It will be a convulsion of the uneducated, actuated by envy and revenge, and not guided, as it should be, by ideas.

Maybe the Marx Brothers said it best:

Zeppo and Chico have gotten into some kind of a jam.
Zeppo: We’ve got to think!
Chico: Nah, we already tried that.

Maybe I will after all make a try at working these things through. Maybe I’ll look at what “economic justice” might be in an upcoming post.

Meanwhile, I’ll keep reading.

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