Mises Daily

Home | Library | Rational Indifference

Rational Indifference

December 7, 2002

America returned from Thanksgiving holiday oblivious that Washington is still whipped up into frenzy about the War on Terror, the prospects for another attack on the homeland, the creation of a new homeland-security department, and the impending war.

What's odd is that these people are convinced that everyone else in the country is as hysterical as they are, following every twist and turn in the on-again-off-again war, glued to the newspaper's details about the new department, hanging on every new terror war.

No way. My visit to my extended family in Texas has convinced me of what I've suspected for a long time: no one outside the Beltway really cares about or even notices much of what consumes the Beltway people from day to day, not even concerning big issues like terrorism and national security. Okay, some Manhattan residents care because they were hit by terror the last time – not that anyone there believes that the feds are going to be able to prevent the next attack.

As for the rest of the country, using Texas as a proxy, nothing. Not a word. In answer to a question about a poll showing plummeting regard for US foreign policy, Bush said that his terror war is about "freedom and doing my obligation to make sure our children can grow up in a free and safe society."

Now, this is clearly a goal everyone shares. Every day parents work to make sure their children are safe and grow up in freedom. Is there a living soul who actually believes that Bush is playing any role in ensuring safety and freedom for our children? If so, wouldn't they constantly be expressing gratitude as versus completely ignoring such statements?

Instead, the issues dominating the central Texas town in which I spent a week run as follows: too little rainfall, the merits of a new bridge downtown, the prospects for the local high-school football team, the modernizing tendencies of the new pastor of First Baptist, the produce selection at the new grocery store, the local real estate market, and the upcoming tour of homes.

Within my family, the major issues were the glories of my Mom's new Dell computer and her free-standing turkey roaster (success!). My own cloverleaf yeast rolls were a bigger deal than the prospect of war in the Persian Gulf.

In fact, not once, not once, in seven days of visiting with friends and relatives in all directions – and these are politically minded people, well educated, and unusually attentive to public affairs – did anyone provide an expression of thanks concerning Bush's efforts. In fact, national politics didn't come up at all. Once, someone mentioned Bush's wife's suits. Other than that, nothing. It wasn't quite taboo; it just wasn't on the radar screen. This is the first time in 20 years that issues of politics and government were completely absent from discussion.

My nephew came close to raising a political issue over. He is on a high-school debate team, and the subject is what the government ought to do about providing care for the insane (an idea akin to suggesting that the blind lead the blind). But this is a debate that could have taken place in the 19th century as much as the 21st century. It has no unique bearing on current-day controversies or realities. The topic was raised in the same way a boy would discuss his science project.

Now, whether you oppose or support what is going on in Washington, one has to admit it is important, and probably ought to be discussed. Bush is proposing a state of permanent war. He has created a fascistic monstrosity in the form of the Department of Homeland Security that aggressively shreds Constitutional safeguards of civil liberties. The U.S. is preparing to obliterate a poor, defenseless country in the Persian Gulf in order to grab its oil fields for government-connected corporations. Columnists on the left and right have raised alarm bells about the Nazification of America, and no one cares. Is this a good thing or bad thing?

It is both. On the one hand, the indifference of the public is a sign of resistance to our DC masters. All the nonsense about how 9-11 "unified" the country, brought everyone together in the new realization of the importance of civic uplift and the state, is mostly mythical. There is no gratitude shown toward the political, and, in fact, there seems to be less civic unity and nationalist fervor than ever. The government has failed to shore up the public image of itself and its power ambitions, as polls are increasingly showing.

The patriotism in Texas, Bush's home state, is for Texas and for institutions close to home. The Texas flag is far more commonly flown than the national flag. This has always been true, and it is true now. It seems that the common judgment in this land so far away from Washington, a place where the sense of being on a frontier is still quite intense, the goings-on in Congress just seem to have no bearing on their lives.

On the downside, does public indifference grant Washington something of a license to reconstruct the county in ways of which people are unaware when they should be aware? Quite possibly. And yet from the perspective of the state, an indifferent public can be compared to a bear that is neither violent nor tame but merely asleep.

What about government surveillance powers and the shredding of the 4th amendment? Doesn't anyone care about that? The typical Texan doesn't believe that the government would ever go after him personally, or that the national government really has the power to do so should it want to. All the talk of the impending doom of essential liberties seems like an abstraction. That thing called the federal government is an eternity away, an institution that collects taxes and other dumb things but otherwise has little impact on anyone's lives.

Even more of an abstraction is concern for the fate of innocents abroad to be killed by U.S. bombs. I recall in the early days of my political enlightenment (1979ish), the Soviets invaded Afghanistan, committing every manner of atrocity on a daily basis. I remember thinking: how can the Russian people sit by as their sons engage in a massacre against this innocent country next door? What must it be like to live daily with the knowledge that one's own government is both totalitarian at home and militarily imperialist outside the borders? Why don't people do something to stop the insanity?

Why indeed. Now I think I know the process by which a population comes to tolerate despotic foreign rule. It must be a universal process. First, the government establishes precedents in small ways and steadily tightens the grip. Second, it uses a crisis as a way of dramatically stepping up what used to be the exception and making it the rule. Third, the government disempowers the people by foreclosing all opportunities for those who do care to do anything about the problem. Eventually, people come to shut out unpleasant information and focus on other things.

What would libertarians have these people to do? Must they become intensely concerned for their future and throw themselves into the political battle? Anyone under the age of 60 in Texas who is concerned about liberty is conditioned to support the Republicans, the party of low taxes and small government. But it is the Republicans who are doing this to us! What is the politically active person supposed to do? Back more Republicans? Toil away in the vineyards of the Libertarian Party?

Another traditional option would be to let your president know your views. But the Bush administration is notoriously aloof to outside opinion. Consider the Iraq War. There is a massive and international antiwar movement alive and growing. But how does it affect the Bush administration, which has all the guns? The White House spokesman doesn't even bother to address the arguments of the opposition. You have to be Brent Scowcroft writing in the Wall Street Journal to merit so much as a public denunciation.

What else can a person do? Write a letter to a Congressman and get a form letter back? Bother your friends and neighbors with your political opinions and cause them to think of you as a fanatic oddly interested in irrelevant things? Collect petitions; participate in rallies, sport bumper stickers? None of these options hold out promise of success.

So from the average person's point of view, there is really nothing that can be done about the current state of affairs. As Paul Gottfried says, the power elite are running things and everyone else is disenfranchised and disempowered, so instead people just go on with their lives. Indifference is the only civilized option, or so it would seem. Such is the way average people have come to think about American liberty and the rise of tyranny in our time. The public doesn't consist of "willing executioners" so much as indifferent spectators to the demise of freedom and the slaughter of innocents abroad.

And yet, in a quiet and potentially revolutionary way, these Texans are involved in activities that constitute a threat to the regime. They are refusing to believe, refusing to show gratitude, refusing to be drawn in. Instead, they are raising families, faithfully attending church, passing on solid values to their children, turning off their televisions, and doggedly pursuing normalcy and bourgeois life rather than becoming part of the frenzy that Washington and the media is demanding from all of us.

Where DC demands our first loyalties, the loyalties of the Texas middle class are with family and friends. Where DC demands all authority, the bourgeoisie in Texas is dismissive of such demands as the ranting of the political class. Where DC insists on the supremacy of the nation state, most Americans, it would appear, still believe in the supremacy of individual, family, kinfolk, and faith.

So long as this is the case, the battle to save our freedoms is not won but neither has it been lost. The bear is hibernating, and no one knows what it will do if it is poked on to too great an extent. The uncertainty alone works as a kind of restraint on power.

Note: The views expressed on Mises.org are not necessarily those of the Mises Institute.

Follow Mises Institute