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One-Third of Americans Don't Know Who Scalia Was

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02/16/2016

The Drudge Report today posts at the top of the page this headline: "GALLUP: 32% 'NEVER HEARD OF' SCALIA..."

Generally, the purpose of posting a headline like this is to create outrage and perhaps smugness over how ignorant those other people are. "Why, this country is doomed because people don't keep up with the important political issues of the day!" 

But why should most people know who Scalia was? Supreme Court justices have immense power over the lives of ordinary citizens, but ordinary citizens have virtually no power whatsoever in the selection process of federal judges, or in their retention. In other words, from a practical point of view, it's nearly as important for an ordinary person to keep track of SCOTUS judges as it is for them to know the exact distance of the Moon from the Earth. It affects them, but there's nothing they can do about it. 

Thus, it's only rational to not know anything about Scalia or the details of his rulings, appointment, or activities. Not only that, but the Court deliberately tries to hide itself from public view with its baseless and authoritarian prohibition of cameras in the Supreme Court chambers. Certainly — the Court's thinking goes — the taxpayers have no right to see what it is they're paying for. 

So, given there are only so many hours in the day and so many things a person can keep track of — and the fact that the Court deliberately hides information about itself — it's nonsensical to loftily look down on those who rationally remain ignorant about the court and its activities. 

Moreover, taxpayers, citizens, and consumers have no mechanism for knowing if a SCOTUS judge is doing a good job or a bad job. The judges are completely removed from any mechanism that allowed consumers to know if the court's "product" is of any value to them. Certainly, the media bombards them with notion of what they should think about this or that decision, but how should such a decision be measured? 

In Man, Economy, and State, Murray Rothbard examined the problem of evaluating political actors like judges:

Many critics of the market, while willing to concede the expertise of the capitalist-entrepreneurs, bewail the prevailing ignorance of consumers, which prevents them from gaining the utility ex post that they expected to have ex ante...Professor Ludwig von Mises has keenly pointed out the paradoxical position of so many “progressives” who insist that consumers are too ignorant or incompetent to buy products intelligently, while at the same time touting the virtues of democracy, where the same people vote for politicians whom they do not know and for policies that they hardly understand.

In fact, the truth is precisely the reverse of the popular ideology. Consumers are not omniscient, but they do have direct tests by which to acquire their knowledge. They buy a certain brand of breakfast food and they don’t like it; so they don’t buy it again. They buy a certain type of automobile and they do like its performance; so they buy another one. In both cases, they tell their friends of this newly won knowledge. Other consumers patronize consumers’ research organizations, which can warn or advise them in advance. But, in all cases, the consumers have the direct test of results to guide them. And the firm that satisfies the consumers expands and prospers, while the firm that fails to satisfy them goes out of business.

On the other hand, voting for politicians and public policies is a completely different matter. Here there are no direct tests of success or failure whatever, neither profits and losses nor enjoyable or unsatisfying consumption... [I]n political situations, the minute influence that any one person has on the results, as well as the seeming remoteness of the actions, induces people to lose interest in political problems or argumentation. Lacking the direct test of success or failure, the voter tends to turn, not to those politicians whose measures have the best chance of success, but to those with the ability to “sell” their propaganda. 

It is ironic that those writers who complain of the wiles and lures of advertising do not direct their criticism at the advertising of political campaigns, where their charges would be relevant.

This is true for any level of government, but the US Supreme Court takes this to an extreme end. With a local mayor, planning commission, or judge, it is much easier to comprehend how exactly a political decision or act will affect one's plans. One's proposed apartment building is rejected by local planners? Well, we can understand the implications of that rather easily, and apply it to a specific situation. The Mayor wants to raise local taxes for parks? It doesn't take a PhD to figure out how that will affect us on both the taxation side and spending side. And, one can often have some effect on the outcome in cases like these. 

But what of a Supreme Court decision made by people we'll never see or meet, the implications of which often require abstract study to understand. Moreover, if we don't like the decision there is nothing we can do about it. The judges will serve in office until they die or retire, and their replacements will be decided by far-off presidents who will make decisions based on consulting with powerful national interest groups over which an ordinary person also has no influence whatsoever. And, of course, one's single vote has only the most microscopic chance of ever affecting the outcome of a presidential election. 

So, why should ordinary people know who Scalia is? 

If we want people to take an interest in matters of public affairs, they must have a chance of actually influencing the outcome and having a say in decisions. Otherwise, why should they care? Influence can often be obtained at relatively low cost at the local level. For example, it's rather easy to get a meeting with one's state senator in a medium-sized US state. You can probably even get a meeting without spending a dime. Good luck getting a meeting with your US Senator. You'll be lucky to meet a low level staffer. Unless, of course, you write a $10,000 check to a PAC first. 

At the same time, the media relentlessly tells us that national politics is all that really matters. The national level, however, is precisely the level at which ordinary people are most powerless and irrelevant.  So, for most of us, knowing who Antonin Scalia was is essentially a waste of time. 

Ryan McMaken (@ryanmcmaken) is a senior editor at the Mises Institute. Send him your article submissions for Mises Wire and The Austrian, but read article guidelines first. Ryan has degrees in economics and political science from the University of Colorado, and was the economist for the Colorado Division of Housing from 2009 to 2014. He is the author of Commie Cowboys: The Bourgeoisie and the Nation-State in the Western Genre.

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