Saturday, January 21, 2012

Is Ignorance Bliss?

Joe Fetz emails:
The more that I learn about economics and political philosophy the more I feel powerless to change what is going on.  In fact, it is almost depressing to know the truth of the world around you while also knowing that everybody else around you is completely clueless.  I am certainly not a smart man, but I do my best to attempt to educate people with my own knowledge, but it is like beating myself in the head with an old boot.  Sometimes I almost wish that I was still ignorant and just going through life just like everybody else. 
My question is:  Do you ever feel like this?  Like maybe you might be happier if you didn't know what is really going on?
Joe, it is a very tall order to change the world. You are not the only one that has felt despair. Remember, the great economist Ludwig von Mises wrote:
Occasionally I entertained the hope that my writings would bear practical fruit and show the way for policy. Constantly I have been looking for evidence of a change in ideology. But...I have come to realize that my theories explain the degeneration of a great civilization; they do not prevent it. I set out to be a reformer, but only became the historian of decline.
But as Mises taught, the world is a very complex place, and in the sphere of political and social change it is very difficult to understand how all  factors will play out. Strong men willing to advance the ideas of liberty can have an impact. Murray Rothbard, Lew Rockwell and Ron Paul through their consistent advocacy of liberty have beyond question delivered the message of the importance of liberty to a  far greater audience than could have ever been imagined just 40 years ago.

That said, as you point out, the overwhelming majority are clueless and easily swayed by demagogues. Thus, it would be foolish to think that the battle for liberty is anywhere close to being won. In fact, it is downright scary as to what direction the masses may be led and what this will mean for our freedoms.

Frustration at being unable to convert all the boobsie overnight is a sign of looking at the battle in the wrong way. The battle should be fun and exciting. Just like a good chess game or a one-on-one basketball game can be fun. Two of the greatest promoters of liberty, Rothbard and H.L. Mencken had fun poking at the interventionists.

It is not difficult to imagine the twinkle in the eye of Mencken when he wrote:
Every decent man is ashamed of the government he lives under.
or when he wrote:
A national political campaign is better than the best circus ever heard of, with a mass baptism and a couple of hangings thrown in.
And we must never forget the famous Rothbard laugh. I personally remember him chuckling when he relayed the story of a report in the news that some NYC government agency wanted to make NYC prettier by banning hot dog carts.

And think of the fun Rothbard must have had by infiltrating  the Maoist wing of a Leninist-Trotskyite party:

Rothbard was a battler. He never stopped. Read his writings in The Libertarian Forum and The Rothbard Rockwell Report. I am guessing, he loved the battle, itself. He loved to bash the enemy. Indeed, what Rothbard wrote about Mencken most assuredly applied to Rothbard himself:
Any man who is an individualist and a libertarian in this day and age has a difficult row to hoe. He finds himself in a world marked, if not dominated, by folly, fraud, and tyranny. He has, if he is a reflecting man, three possible courses of action open to him: (1) he may retire from the social and political world into his private occupation: in the case of Mencken's early partner, George Jean Nathan, he can retire into a world of purely esthetic contemplation; (2) he can set about to try to change the world for the better, or at least to formulate and propagate his views with such an ultimate hope in mind; or, (3) he can stay in the world, enjoying himself immensely at this spectacle of folly. To take this third route requires a special type of personality with a special type of judgment about the world. He must, on the one hand, be an individualist with a serene and unquenchable sense of self-confidence; he must be supremely "inner-directed" with no inner shame or quaking at going against the judgment of the herd. He must, secondly, have a supreme zest for enjoying life and the spectacle it affords; he must be an individualist who cares deeply about liberty and individual excellence, but who can Рfrom that same dedication to truth and liberty Рenjoy and lampoon a society that has turned its back on the best that it can achieve. And he must, thirdly, be deeply pessimistic about any possibility of changing and reforming the ideas and actions of the vast majority of his fellow-men. He must believe that boobus Americanus is doomed to be boobus Americanus forevermore....A serene and confident individualist, dedicated to competence and excellence and deeply devoted to liberty, but convinced that the bulk of his fellows were beyond repair, Mencken carved out a role unique in American history: he sailed joyously into the fray, slashing and cutting happily into the buncombe and folly he saw all around him, puncturing the balloons of pomposity, gaily cleansing the Augean stables of cant, hypocrisy, absurdity, and clich̩, "heaving," as he once put it, "the dead cat into the temple" to show bemused worshippers of the inane that he would not be struck dead on the spot. And in the course of this task, rarely undertaken in any age, a task performed purely for his own enjoyment, he exercised an enormous liberating force upon the best minds of a whole generation.
On a personal level when we discuss economics, politics and philosophy, we must seek to tie our opponents up in knots. Don't battle them with long oratory. If they are thinkers, give them a book. But if they are boobs, counter them with questions. If they are in favor of the minimum wage, ask them why it shouldn't be at $500 per hour then? Ask them why they think the laws of supply and demand don't work for wages? If they are against gold as money because "You can't eat gold," ask them if eating money is something that should be essential to a money.

The Socratic method is very powerful against the unthinking masses. They haven't thought out their positions, so the right questions can cause them to get so backed into a corner that they may even realize the absurdity of their position. Naturally, the more you practice the Socratic method, the better you get at. It is truly fencing against an unarmed man.

On an even more personal level, the more you know about how the economy works and what the future may hold, the better off you are.

To know that accelerating price inflation may be coming, that the Federal Reserve causes the business cycle by its money manipulations, that the ever growing police state may result in serious infringements on our liberties is all very valuable knowledge. It means we can  prepare for what is coming. Ignorance of these possibilities is not bliss, it is extremely dangerous.

Jews in Germany and Austria died because they were ignorant of the political situation developing around them. Sigmund Freud and Ludwig von Mises, because they were not ignorant of the environment, were able to flee and survive.

The more you know and correctly understand the developing situation the better off you are. Knowledge is power. Ignorance is mental blindness.


  1. Interesting post. I have had to come to grips with the same issue. In researching the origins of capitalism and modern liberty, I realized it was an accident. Until roughly the 1600's, everyone in the world thought that God determined who became wealthy and who was poor.

    Kings increased their wealth by attacking other kings and stealing their wealth, but that could happen only because God approved and enabled one king to win. God determined the outcome of warfare, not men or strategy.

    The "honorable" ways to gain wealth were getting loot in war, kidnapping for ransom, taking bribes as a government official or bribing state officials for favors. Commerce was scum.

    Then the Dutch Republic came rebelled against Spain. They couldn't get anyone to be their prince because everyone feared the super power Spain, so they had to do without a king. They set up a republic ruled by wealthy businessmen. They were devout protestants, so they reorganized their laws and institutions to conform to Biblical principles. In the process they protected property and liberty and made the old "honorable" ways of getting wealth illegal.

    But they didn't do that to make themselves or their nation wealthier. They didn't believe they could do that. They thought God determined wealth and poverty. They did it because they thought it was the right thing to do. And they thought that if they pleased God he might bless them.

    When the Dutch succeeded against the predictions of the smartest guys around, and Spain declined, everyone wanted to know why and economics was born.

    So you see, modern liberty and wealth that goes with it is based on Christian principles. Liberty in the West has declined in direct proportion to the decline of traditional Christianity. The ability to create wealth declines with a lag.

    Some countries have bucked the trend, such as China and other Asian countries. They have done so by adopting limited amounts of liberty, but as we have seen they hit a brick wall in terms of development at some point because they can't make the leap to traditional Christianity.

    The Dutch didn't change until they were plunged into a horrible crisis. For them it was the reformation and the attempt by the king of Spain to murder everyone in the Netherlands. China and Russia didn't change without mass starvation or the threat of it.

    Nations don't change until they face horrible crises.

    But individuals can change. So I make it my goal to bring along as many individuals as possible with me. The goal is to help others prosper in desperate times as the world falls apart around us.

  2. It's funny you bring up the Socratic method. This is what I tell my girlfriend to do when she gets into political or economic conversations with her friends or colleagues. She has heard me for years railing against the government and in favor of anarchocapitalism but she doesn't study the info so it's her explanatory powers are not strong. But when she sticks to questions she simply exposes their ignorance and wins without having to fire off any shots.

    Another example of this was on Facebook recently. Somewhat commented on a friends page that was discussing abortion. He said that he favored life but was against government legislating morality. So I asked him how consistent he stuck to this principle. Does he favor all drugs being legalized? How about prostitution or polygamy? He replied that there is a fine line on matters of legislating morality. Then he conceded that he did not hold consistent to this view and laughed at himself. I love to try and engage those who I sense I can wake up but I also enjoy tying people up in knots with questions when they are hopeless. As a salesman I guess asking questions just comes natural to me.

  3. Well said Robert..with some great examples!

    There have been many times in my life that I've contemplated similar questions to Joe's.

    Why me?

    Then one day, there was a line in a movie that really struck me:

    "Knowing is not a burden, it's a gift."

    The line had nothing to do with understanding economics, but a light went off in my mind. And when I think about it, it's true.

    Living by the principles of austrian economics and libertarianism has reaped many benefits for myself and those around me. Being able to take advantage of bubbles (and their bursting) is wonderful on a personal level.

    But there is a void that's still tough to deal with...I *hate* seeing the Average Joe suffer because he doesn't understand. Bubble after bubble, he repeatedly gets taken to the cleaners.

    I do everything I can to shed light, but one person only has so much influence.

    For example, during the real estate bubble, I warned real estate agents that I was close with about the impending collapse. All I received as a response was silence. Even when you explain what the Fed does (in detail) it doesn't seem to matter.

    That's the tough part.

    Nevertheless, I still talk to those with open minds. The closed-minded I just let go (that took some practice at first). And finally put trust that when an idea's time has come, the fruits will bear in ways that are totally unexpected.

    1. If you want to wake up someone on the Federal Reserve, i use a simple method that goes like this:

      Pull a federal reserve note out of your wallet.
      Ask your friend or who ever to read the top 3 words "FEDERAL RESERVE NOTE".
      Ask your fiend why it has the word "NOTE" on the top of an FRN.
      The reply is always the same, "I don't know".
      Answer: It is not money, it is debt, as in a promise to pay back.
      Then you say, why should the privately owned Federal Reserve loan us money at Interest when we can loan ourselves the money? Because we are being ripped of by the Bankers.

  4. Joe:
    And you disparage your own expertise?
    I admire your humility, but your self-assessment is like, lousy!!!
    An inspiring post! Thanks!

    1. To be honest, I think that most people's self-assessments are pretty lousy, I just usually err on the side of caution with regard to myself. I have been and always will be my own worst critic.

      Also, it isn't that I disparage my own expertise, it is that I realize that it is not a static thing, rather it progresses over time. I have, more than I wish to admit, looked back on my own past statements, actions or thoughts and simply cringed. However, I've also looked back and wondered, "Wow! How'd I come up with that?" Yet, I always still have the drive to improve upon myself, as well as share what I know with anybody that will listen.

      I've been fortunate that some people actually do listen and are receptive. That's probably the thing that keeps me doing what I do.

  5. Every smart libertarian faces exactly this.

    We spend most of our time being right about virtually every issue, correctly reading the writing on the wall to predict future outcomes of government policy in relation to economics, society, and war, and never having it recognized, even by friends. Having to watch in impotent rage when policy makers and pundits that got it wrong suffer no damage to their standing, and indeed continue to be promoted by the MSM, while libertarians that are on record as making successful predictions are ignored.

    I think Robert gives good advice. We have to enjoy the fight and have a cheerful attitude about it. Being angry or despondent about the situation(admittedly horribly unjust) not only gives us a negative mindset that makes it harder to convince others, but is literally bad for ones health.

    Joe Fetz, I am one that recognizes and affirms that you are one of the awakened. Don't worry about the opinions of those still asleep.

  6. This is one of the best and uplifting articles I have read at this blog. I have been depressed recently as I viewed the debate spectacle Monday where Ron Paul was booed for his Golden Rule and the crown cheered at the arrogant and blood thirsty comments of Dr. Paul's 3 rivals. The latest polls show Dr. Paul in last place in S.C. and although I have contributed a maximum to his campaign and contributed to his super Pacs and brochures to the point of fiscal pain it all appears for naught. I have exhausted my breath in support for Austrian and libertarian ideals and gained random support but mostly blank stares. I was in the second course of action and about to retreat to the first course,i.e. withdraw, become apathetic and even consider expatriating. Then I see I missed the third course and I have regained a purpose. I think I will surely enjoy the unfolding comedy that describes our government, world economy and the boobosie that populates that stage. We are right they are wrong and we can't really change them to prevent their self-destruction. The U.S. doesn't deserve Dr. Paul, Murray Rothbard, and Von Mises but bless them for trying.

  7. I'm bookmarking this. Every so often I get that feeling of dread or that things will never improve.

    Then I remember where I was before Ron Paul, and where the liberty movement was in in 2008 after his campaign. Compared to now, we're really making progress.

    Onward and upward, may we always enjoy the ride.

  8. Thanks for that wisdom.

  9. Yes, it is discouraging and there are some days I feel like moving to another country and ignoring politics altogether. ;-)

    Ron Paul said: "We as a group now have a greater moral responsibility to act than those who live in ignorance. Once you become knowledgeable you have an obligation to do something about it."

    Ignorance is not bliss. We all have to accept responsibility for our thoughts and actions - yes, even for our ignorance.

  10. Fine column, Bob. Very helpful, the perspectives from Mises and Rothbard.

    The Machine is getting desperate. How else do you explain militarized police, chemical spraying (ridiculous here in San Diego two weeks ago), ever-present electronic spying, and potential deployment of the military, with authority of indefinite detention, in the homeland? The masters expect slaves to be happy and ever-more productive in these conditions?

    The good news is that these tough economic times are waking people up. And, many of these folks are using the Internet to find out the truth. The Machine cannot live in sunlight, and requires darkness. Darkness is gone with the advent of the Internet.

    The money for The Machine is drying up; that is why the Euro is in danger of failing, and with it the sovereign bonds and bank stocks held by the masters of The Machine.

    I just hope that The Machine keels over, having seized up from lack of funds and having to operate in sunlight, before too many innocents are sacrificed.

    P.S. -- what is the magic drink that gave Rothbard his joie de vivre? I would love to take path three, but just do not have his jdv.

  11. What a great article. I sympathize fully with Joe and the idea of using the Socratic method of dialectics is a great idea. Thanks for the great article.

  12. And you shall know the truth: and the truth shall make you free. (John 8:32)

    I believe Austrian economics is a part of the truth.

  13. Mr. Wenzel put it succinctly. I think many libertarians feel this way, Joe. I know I do, even with my own family. The moral climate of our fellows, including family members, is what often leads me to despair. Believing in freedom and morality, paradoxically, can lead to strained or dissolved relationships between people we care about. This is what affects me on a most personal level. As Charlotte Iserbyt said, the American public might "wake up" when six-packs of beer are extremely expensive: because that is an example of what the American people care about.

  14. Great post Robert, as always! I too am a fan of the Socratic method--here is a blog I did with a ton of sample Socratic questions:

  15. I want to be put back in the matrix sometimes. Cypher

  16. Robert, thanks for this post. I'm reading this in the wake of the South Carolina primary results. It's hard to believe that the Republicans in South Carolina would vote up the war-monger-global warming opportunist-adulterer Newt Gingrich.

    At least being out of the matrix can help me and my family prepare for the future. I don't know if we'll ever see true liberty in our lifetime, but my life will be well lived to promote the cause.

    Thanks again.

  17. This is exactly what I needed to hear today. My feelings echo so many other comments here. Anger and despair can become overwhelming at times. While you know you're not the only one, it's still encouraging to get confirmation. My wife and I discussed this just yesterday. I said jokingly, "I wish I had taken the blue pill."

    We've also considered expatriation, but the thought of leaving family behind, depriving them of the chance to see our children grow up, makes it a non-starter. With this knowledge I can better focus my energy. Thank you Joe and Bob.

  18. Hi Joe & everyone.

    Joe, we’ve all been there. Here’s some things I found helpful:

    1) “How I Found Freedom in an Unfree World” by Harry Browne. Harry Browne was a prominent libertarian and at one time a libertarian candidate for President. You can buy an electronic version from his widow (I believe) here:

    Very highly recommended. You will undoubtedly find that some sections go over material (such as Austrian economics) that you already know very well and do so in an a very basic way. The book could also have been a good deal shorter and have used a good editor. However, I found it well worthwhile for the other material, and in particular, the sections on what might be termed “personal outlook” or philosophy. There are also some good suggestions for further reading such as David Seabury’s excellent “The Art of Selfishness”.

    2) “How to Advance Liberty” by Leonard Read. It’s online at You can probably google your way to a pdf as well.

    3) I also recommend skimming through Leonard Read’s many books (available free online at The books are by and large collections of articles (usually with very helpful summaries in the table of contents). It doesn’t take too long to pick out those articles you might find of interest. Very humane fellow. I found his stuff very helpful.

    4) The thing I found perhaps the most difficult to come to terms with is what libertarian thought and ethics imply about everyone else who is not a libertarian – either because they have not been prompted to ask the questions about the standard “story” that ultimately lead them to libertarianism or because they have actively rejected libertarianism. It’s certainly useful to recall that you did not always think the way you do now. More fundamentally, however, the point is this: a degree of alienation from the group is the price of individual autonomy. It can be no other way. This point is made in “Without Guilt and Justice: From Decidophobia to Autonomy” by Walter Kaufman (one of the most prominent 20th century translators and interpreters of Nietzsche, apparently), which I am currently reading. Although I am happy to be reading it, I will be even happier when I am done. It is not really an easy read (although it is not long). It’s also not libertarian per se but rather individualist.

    5) If you haven’t read The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged, you might want to. They deal not only with the tension between the individual and the state but also between the individual and the group or collective in an informal sense.