Sunday, March 27, 2011

Jeffrey Friedman on Public Ignorance

Jeffrey Friedman has for some time now managed one of the most exciting journals I have come across: Critical Review. Austrian themes are developed, rational choice theory attacked, and, most importantly, the theory of public ignorance is discussed and analyzed. Jeffrey Friedman is the leader of this movement. The idea is that democracy is incoherent because the public are woefully ignorant of politics and government. Most decisions involving important political questions are made on account of "extremely ill-informed judgments about 'the nature of the times' (prosperity? peace?)" and so leaves democracy open to the "manipulation and manufacture" of public opinion by effective demagogues. For example, it has been shown that close to 90% of voters do not know which party currently controls Congress, or what issues are being discussed, and bills introduced, or the reasons various people have for supporting and/or rejecting them.

This theory is very important for at least two reasons. First of all, it challenges the idea of democratic sovereignty because such an idea "presupposes the existence of a public will." But without well-informed voters, there is no "will" to exercise. And secondly, democratic instrumentalism is also challenged because not only can the outcome no longer be considered good by virtue of its preservation of core democratic principles, but such an appeal to public opinion as a criteria of the public interest is inherently incoherent.

Jeffrey Friedman's arguments are always good, and very subtle. One can read Jeffrey Friedman's movement as a direct attack against democracy. I would like to focus on one issue, however, and that is the issue of the "ideology/public ignorance" continuum. Jeffrey Friedman argues that:

"the alternative to sheer ignorance is reliance on ideology ... to organize one's knowledge. The cognitive elite knows more about politics than the masses, but its superior knowledge is both enabled and "constrained" by the very belief systems, left and right, of which the masses are largely ignorant. ... Ideologies are, in fact, simply more sophisticated heuristics than the primitive judgments of the 'nature of the times' or 'group interests' that guide the mass public."

I think this argument is good. But it introduces a problem to the argument. Ideology cannot be considered knowledge as such. Rather, as Jeffrey Friedman notes, it is simply "a more sophisticated heuristic." This theory is therefore not just one of public ignorance, but instead one of genuine ignorance. The public is ignorant of politics; this much is true. But in our attempt to escape ignorance, and in our search for a means by which we can organize our knowledge, we necessarily become ideological. One is either ignorant or ideological in varying degrees. But one is never truly informed or in possession of knowledge.

I am not sure if Jeffrey Friedman would agree with this, but this is the point I always take away from his articles. Anyway, I attribute my political views to the theory of public ignorance developed by Mr. Friedman. His ideas are very important, and should be read by anyone with an interest in politics and ignorance.

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