The Remedy to a Misinformed Populace Is to Inform Them
During an otherwise quiet September morning some years ago, I received a curious call from then-California Gov. Jerry Brown’s legislative team. We had just finished the legislative session, and this junior staffer was deciding on whether to recommend the governor sign or veto a bill sitting on his desk. I knew the drill after working in Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Department of Finance and having written several recommendations myself.
The staffer called me in my capacity as a policy consultant for the Senate Republican Caucus, since I provided analyses for them on all legislation passing through the Senate Environmental Quality Committee. It was my responsibility to make rational arguments buttressing a free-market approach to environmental problems and push back on increasingly obtrusive and ineffective command and control solutions.
How, he asked, could several Republican senators vote against a seemingly unobjectionable bill with no registered opposition? I looked up my final analysis and plainly addressed the measure’s flaws and negative consequences, which were obvious to me, but mysterious to him. I suggested he consider similar environmental bills the governor had previously signed and if they were fulfilling their legislative mandate or just making it harder to do business in California. I answered a few of his clarifying questions and directed him to research he wouldn’t find in the regular committee analysis. I told him to call me if he had any more questions.
In my decades-long experience in policy and politics, I have found that there are a considerable number of government staffers in many jurisdictions throughout the state with significant institutional knowledge who are simply naive, if not willfully ignorant, of foundational constitutional, free-market, and limited government principles. They have never taken the time to read anything by Thomas Sowell, Milton Friedman, Walter Williams, Ayn Rand, Friedrich Hayek, Henry Hazlitt, or Leonard Read, for starters.
Most of their news intake was from legacy media sources, and they wouldn’t be familiar with The Wall Street Journal’s editorial page, Reason magazine, National Review Online, Townhall, or my educational nonprofit, the California Policy Center. These staffers cannot articulate a balanced or fair debate, because many of them have never even heard the opposing arguments.
I would estimate there are few government staffers who have actually read the entire Declaration of Independence, Constitution, and Federalist Papers despite their Advanced Placement U.S. History class in high school or political science degree at an esteemed university.
Of course, there are those who have come from Republican households, had a conservative roommate in college, or would listen to Rush Limbaugh during their commute. From time to time, they may be willing to weigh in on the difficult issues of the day with some consideration of conservative principles when it works in their favor. However, when confronted with situations that would remotely challenge their big government biases, a vast majority of legislative staffers would rather present caricatures of opinions of half the country than argue on the substance.
Surprisingly, my new acquaintance in the governor’s office called back. So did a few of his colleagues. They were legitimately interested in opposing arguments they had never encountered in the Capitol, their education, or the media. It was eye-opening and shocking to some, while others downplayed my concerns and went on their merry way. Notably, a few of the bills we had reviewed during those calls were quietly vetoed without fanfare.
“I know of no safe depository of the ultimate powers of society but the people themselves and if we think them not enlightened enough to exercise their control with a wholesome discretion, the remedy is not to take it from them, but to inform them.”
Jefferson stated that we all possess certain viewpoints or biases based on our life experiences, and no one is immune to “the same passions for party, for power, and the privileges of their corps.” None of us have a monopoly on information or perspectives, and there are a lot of unknowns in life.
Yet, my life is decidedly richer and I can overcome more challenges when I seek out information from a variety of trusted sources rather than argue purely from a hardened ideological or philosophical position. As such, I seek only the truth. When I encounter a meritorious argument different from my convictions, I’m bound to adjust my position accordingly and not feel less for it.
This op-ed originally appeared in The Epoch Times.
Lance Christensen is vice president of education policy and government affairs at California Policy Center.