The Problem With the 'People Are Idiots' Meme

Column by Paul Bonneau.

Exclusive to STR

Claire Wolfe recently wrote a column, People Who Don’t Think. I think she needs to rethink this, heh heh.

I have the utmost respect for Claire. I have some of her books, and she’s influenced me tremendously. However, I believe she may have gone down the wrong path with this idea, which I consider to be both politically and personally “suboptimal.” There are better ways to look at the phenomenon she is describing.
My preferred way of looking at it, is to recognize that nobody can know everything there is to know in the world. So, to compensate, we specialize. We have created a division of labor, which is a good thing. What most people have is expertise in some area or areas in which their ability to think and observe is quite evident. Some are excellent mechanics, some great at sales and other forms of personal interaction, some at science, some at growing things, some at teaching. I’m continually amazed at the variety of things people can do.
Outside their area of expertise, on the other hand, their opinions default to some conventional wisdom, or worldview. Part of what goes on with these worldviews is the operation of confirmation bias--much more than occurs in their areas of expertise. This must be so, otherwise (not being open to the evidence) they would not be very expert in their area of expertise! Mark Twain may have been thinking of worldviews when he said, "It ain't what you don't know that gets you into trouble. It's what you know for sure that just ain't so."
Now, if that is true, why do we wonder that people seem like idiots sometimes? Particularly in fields like economics and political philosophy? These are far outside the areas of expertise of most people! Rational ignorance is one reason for this. When most people speak in these areas, it is their worldviews that are really speaking--worldviews that have been manipulated by the ruling class through the government indoctrination camps some people call “public schools,” and through the operations of the Ministry of Propaganda, and other self-serving institutions.
And why do these seem idiotic to us, particularly? Because economics and political philosophy are within our areas of expertise!
Just think of how much work you have done in this area, to get where you are now. Personally, I spent many years working on political campaigns, only to be disappointed at the bastard I helped get into office. I was treasurer for the Libertarian Party of Oregon for a while, learning about what happens inside political parties. I wrote innumerable letters to the editor trying to counter propaganda. I read quite a few studies and books on gun control and education. I read books and articles on economics. I created and ran the Wyoming Liberty Index for years, in the process reading hundreds of bills produced by the Wyoming legislature. I spent literally decades getting where I am now, and no doubt many of you have done similar things. Is it any wonder the average Joe, who has not invested very much time in this area, sounds uninformed about it? How can we reasonably expect him to be otherwise?
The human race is what it is. There is no point, no profit in being frustrated with it. We just have to interact with people the best we can. We can’t effectively and honestly do that, if we disrespect them by thinking them idiots. They are not idiots, they are just outside their area of expertise.
John Taylor Gatto apparently agrees with me: “The shocking possibility that dumb people don’t exist in sufficient numbers to warrant the careers devoted to tending to them will seem incredible to you. Yet that is my proposition: Mass dumbness first had to be imagined; it isn’t real.” I didn’t believe this when I first read it years ago, but I understand what he’s getting at now.
Now, defective worldviews, which are the real problem here, are not perfectly immutable. They tend to break down when events overwhelm us. There are now a lot of people whose worldviews are breaking. The evidence is all around us with Tea Parties and Occupy movements. People are trying to form new worldviews to compensate for a reality that has whacked them like a 2x4 across the nose. Yes, they make missteps, and yes, the ruling class tries to co-opt them and funnel them into “safe” (for the rulers) paths, but this is just the beginning. It’s bound to accelerate as the empire crumbles and the dollar dies. We need to be ready for that, to help people find better worldviews with the aid of our hard-earned expertise, using tools like the Internet. No, we are not going to turn them all into political philosophers--but we don’t need to. To quote Mark Train again, "Education consists mainly of what we have unlearned."
Consider one historical event. I have read several times that people in America in the 1750s and 1760s considered themselves Englishmen and wanted desperately to be accepted by English society. How did this feeling morph into its complete opposite by so many people, in just 20 years, leading to successful armed rebellion? I think it was a shift in worldview. There can be huge, almost impossible-seeming changes to worldviews in a short period of time.
One other huge problem with the “people are idiots” meme that Gatto above alluded to is how seamlessly it feeds into the “people need to be taken care of” meme. He continues, “Once the dumb are wished into existence, they serve valuable functions: as a danger to themselves and others they have to be watched, classified, disciplined, trained, medicated, sterilized, ghettoized, cajoled, coerced, jailed.” If ever there was a meme that supports the state, it is this one.
People do not need to be taken care of! Far from being idiots, people are actually extremely resourceful. We did after all make it to the top of the food chain, somehow--all of us, not just the “experts.” People can learn on their own; children are “learning machines” if you get out of their way. People fix their own problems themselves if you don’t interfere with the process by shielding them from the consequences of their poor choices, thus propping up bad behavior. People can protect themselves by getting a gun and spending a modest amount of time learning how to use it. People can also negotiate with others to do these things.
One final thing wrong with the “people are idiots” meme: When societies are thrown into upheaval, those groups considered snooty intellectuals (e.g., Jews, Armenians, etc.) sometimes end up on the pyre when the less pretentious get thoroughly irritated with them, or when scapegoats are needed. Something to keep in mind, if self-preservation is a concern . . . .
Folks, let’s get off our high horses. Stop falling for divide and rule tactics. Stop looking down on people, and start respectfully and honestly interacting with them and empathizing with them. Don’t expect them to be experts outside their area of expertise. You aren’t either! Just gently explain to them that a worldview based on violence must have something fundamentally wrong with it. (And don’t indulge in frontal attacks! Read Dale Carnegie.) After a while, particularly when their established worldview becomes vulnerable, they may be willing to change it to something more tolerant and less destructive. Something more like freedom.


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Paul Bonneau's picture
Columns on STR: 106


WhiteIndian's picture

"Nobody can know everything there is to know in the world."

Actually, people once knew by 13 or 14 everything they needed to know in the world to get along just fine; they were sovereign individuals.

"Historically, people in non-state societies are relatively autonomous and sovereign. They generate their own subsistence with little or no assistance from outside sources. They bow to no external political leaders." ~Elman Service


"So, to compensate..."

Being that there was nothing for which to compensate, this is city-Statist "just-so" make-believe story, promulgated by agricultural city-Statist worldwide, from Marx to Mises.

"...we specialize. We have created a division of labor..."

Indeed, we have. Specialization and division of labor is one of 5 defining primary characteristics of agricultural city-Statism (civilization.)

"...which is a good thing."

A good thing if you're high on the hierarchy, because it benefits hierarchy.

Libertarians should keep in mind that one of the first specializations after the plowboy was the soldier. In fact, sword and plowshare are both really the same -- catastrophic destruction of Mother Nature and her children.

Division of labor means specialization in violence.

Which suits the purposes of hierarchy just fine.

Thesis #11: Hierarchy is an unnecessary evil.
by Jason Godesky | 21 October 2005

Paul's picture

I suspect even in tribal societies, there was some specialization. Anyway, we have to deal with what is, not with what was. Also, I don't buy your argument that specialization implies hierarchy.

One can over-specialize, that's true. And one can also live in nature and make one's own clothing, weapons and shelter. Most people would probably prefer to stay somewhere between the two extremes, and who's to say they are wrong? How are you going to stop them doing that?

WhiteIndian's picture

You're correct, there was a small amount of specialization: women generally were more the gatherers, men were more the hunters. That's because of body size and other considerations. However, it's not a stark contrast. Men gather and women hunt in forager societies. Anybody could do anything anyone else could do. And all share in chick-raising duties.

Humans are egalitarian, and that includes between the two sexes. The biological evolutionary evidence is low sexual dimorphism -- on the level of penguins, who also share in child-rearing duties.

Also, humans show zero sexual dichromaticism, like their evolutionary, and extremely hierarchical evolutionary cousins, the red ass baboons.

Today we do make-believe sexual dichromaticism; power ties now make red ass baboons out of men.

Also, specialization and hierarchy do go hand-in-hand. In fact, the term "specialization hierarchy" is used frequently in scholarly journal articles.

You ask: "How are you going to stop them doing that?"

I'm not stopping anybody from doing anything, even if what they're doing is wrong (even if it would be morally right to stop them, just like stopping a rape, as Derrick Jensen argues); agricultural civilization always stops itself. It's suicidal. Collapse is inevitable. Joseph Tainter, William Catton, and many others have documented how and why collapse happens with agricultural city-Statism.

Besides, if the collapse happens too fast from actively helping it collapse, there's just that much more chance of it going to full-bore global thermonuclear war. Although the chances of that, I think, are near 100% anyway.

Got a fallout shelter to protect you from the most advanced fruits of 8000 years of CULTure's "progress?"

WhiteIndian's picture

LOL!!! Trade chick-raising and child-rearing above. Such are the vagaries of writing and editing in a wee-little white box online while running a business and doing homeschool, all while stealing a little time to debate with ya'll.

B.R. Merrick's picture

I LOVE JOHN TAYLOR GATTO! And after reading Claire Wolfe's article compared to Bonneau's, I'd have to say that I agree with Gatto and Bonneau. Hell, I've thought plenty of "stupid" thoughts. Sometimes "stupidity" leads to greater wisdom, if you leave individuals alone long enough in their supposed willful ignorance. (And how much of it is truly willful is relative and subjective.)

Anarchy would never work if people weren't -- by an large -- decent, thinking souls.

Paul's picture

That book of Gatto's I quoted from, his "Underground History...", (available there online) is one of the most important books I've read.

This brings up another thought about this meme. The ruling class has been trying its best to dumb the rest of us down for the last hundred years, very similar to the previous practice of keeping books out of the hands of slaves. In other words, we are all the victims of predation by the parasitic class. Looking down on such victims is a bit like sneering at someone confined to a wheelchair.

WhiteIndian's picture

I agree 100% with your statement: "The ruling class has been trying its best to dumb the rest of us down for the last hundred years ... we are all the victims of predation by the parasitic class."

The anthropological term for them is "big men" in the early days of domestication, or "emergent elite."*

Besides plants and animals, humans are too deliberately domesticated. In fact, just like what happens to other animals, human brain size gets smaller.**

Domestication makes animals stupid. Why? Only the stupid are docile enough to live in a zoo cage and actually be able breed. The Wild is deliberately culled.

Yet there are still some of us (often with ADHD) who feel like "hunters in a farmer's world."

It's time to re-Wild.

It's time to start being Wolves instead of Poodles.

* Thesis #10: Emergent elites led the Agricultural Revolution.
by Jason Godesky | 11 October 2005

** Wolves & Dogs
by Jason Godesky | 13 November 2006

Glock27's picture

I can personally vouch for this. My wife worked at a University and in conversation with book salesmen and professors the book companies admitted they were dumbing down the texts because the professors had indicated that the students were having a difficult time in understanding the texts without a dictionary at their side, which dropped their ability to complete the assignment because they were having to look up so many words that it impeeded their progress.

To conclude, do you really and honestly mean what you said in the article above. Woops. I am in June of 2012 and this is piece is 2011. You will never see this.

Mark Davis's picture

Good article Paul. It made me think ;>). It's a good read and you make some excellent points. However, I think Claire was speaking to the phenomenon of people who don't think for themselves, not simply stupid or ignorant, but lacking intellectual curiosity. Claire's example of the women at the door who asked her husband what "we" think is mind boggling to people accustomed to open minded consideration or even those seeking confirmation bias. Although there is likely a high correlation between lower intelligence and low intellectual curiosity, they don't necessarily go hand in hand. The deference to experts, politicians, ministers, books and other sources of knowledge in lieu of thinking for oneself is a frustrating experience at all levels. Even on this board, how often has someone asked a simple question of someone else who is obviously intelligent only to get a long list of quotes and links to articles written by other people, yet no real answer or apparent comprehension?

I also admire your patience Paul; something I should work on.

Paul's picture

Might be more accurate to say I aspire to be patient. :-)

"Claire's example of the women at the door who asked her husband what "we" think is mind boggling"

Well, maybe less than it first seems. Maybe this woman said it ironically, and young Claire didn't pick up on that. Maybe she was rattled about something else when she came to the door, and the question temporarily discombobulated her, so she passed it on to her spouse (a tactic I myself am fond of). Maybe she is one of those people so connected to her spouse that she likes to put everything in terms of "we". Maybe they didn't have a TV and didn't pay attention to what commentators and government boobs were saying about the war. And yes, maybe she was just dumb. But these things are just anecdotal. Anyway this woman (perhaps) not having an opinion about the war is not the same thing as saying she's an idiot. She might also have been an expert cook and mother. One never knows.

It's not people's job to keep up on politics. It's their job to live their life as they see fit. In an anarchist world, few would care about politics above the level of what gossip happens over the backyard fence.

painkilleraz's picture

Apologies my smart phone posted multiple times-

painkilleraz's picture

Apologies my smart phone posted multiple times-

painkilleraz's picture

Paul, this was a tremendous, insightful look at something I am guilty of personally; viewing the world as full of idiots, loving the movie idiocracy as an example, writing as if too idiots. It has been only recently that I realized the truth, just because my worldview differs, does not by default mean those who either do not or cannot believe it, idiots!

Thank you sir, and well written- I would like to communicate with you and possibly collaborate with you if you are ready.

GeoffreyTransom's picture

Terrific article. As someone who spent half my adult (well, pretend-adult) life fulminating against 'idiots', it embarrasses me to say that it took me until my mid-40s to slough off the "people who think stupid things are fuckwits" meme.

In fact I reckon I can attribute this epiphany to one person, and can pin it down to a very specific point in time.

It was - and don't DARE laugh - a Joe Rogan podcast.

Yep: Joe Rogan - stand up comic, drug liberalisation advocate and host of "Fear Factor"... and as I have said before, an example of everything that is RIGHT about the American system (as it used to be) - a guy from the shitty part of Boston who has known genuine hardship, but who persevered and made a good life for himself using nothing but his wits.


In the middle of one of his podcasts, he developed this theme that people were NOT stupid - they were tired, they were stressed, they didn't have the tools necessary to do their own due diligence... and therefore 90% or more of their opinions were simply "shit they heard someone say". And given that tired, stressed people get most of what they hear from the TV... well, no surprise that their opinions reflect this. They outsourced their opinions to a system that was set up to steal from them.

This counts as only my second genuine epiphany: the first epiphany was in an economics lecture given by Prof Ross Parish [RIP] in 1992, which was all about why engineers and others with no understanding of tradeoffs and feedback, will always miscalculate the effects of economic policy. In other words, it was an inoculation against the tendency of economists to become technocrats: engineers and technocrats think along the lines of the naive 'input output' Leontief-style model, rather than the dynamic CGE model of Leontief's PhD student Peter Dixon (who was later my PhD supervisor).

Leontief got the Nobel prize in 1973 for his IO work; Dicko's CGE model was the basis of his PhD under Leontief at Harvard; my PhD was extending a dynamic CGE model to incorporate stochastic simulation; I never submitted my dissertation (more accurately: I haven't submitted YET... you never know, I might bother one day).

AtlasAikido's picture

Many are coming around...
Ron Dominates the Debate
Posted on December 16, 2011 by Lew Rockwell

Xerographica's picture

This is a really great article. If you get a chance I'd be really interested to hear your thoughts on allowing people to directly allocate their taxes. By far the most common critique of this proposal is along the lines of other people being idiots. So, given this article, I figured this proposal would be right up your alley.

Here are a few especially relevant entries from my blog...

Samarami's picture

Just noticed this is from 'way back in December, but after a long week of trucking coast to coast I saw a comment and read your essay without checking the date of the post.

I like your thrust on this, Paul. As I've stated previously, I have family I love dearly who are highly involved with the Ron Paul "movement", and it is a good lesson for me in just what you are saying here: I don't know it all, and it is important I support and respect those I love without necessarily jumping on their band wagon.

You made one statement:

    I have read several times that people in America in the 1750s and 1760s considered themselves Englishmen and wanted desperately to be accepted by English society. How did this feeling morph into its complete opposite by so many people, in just 20 years, leading to successful armed rebellion? I think it was a shift in worldview. There can be huge, almost impossible-seeming changes to worldviews in a short period of time.

I'm not sure the number or percentage of those disloyal to King George was all that great even when the "revolution" began. I suspect many "historians" wanted it to appear that way (that's how "history" comes about), but I think most were still loyal to England and weren't that het-up over getting into a brawl with the red coats. It seems Washington had to virtually enslave numbers of individuals and force them into his fighting forces at the outset of the violence.

The analogy would be us today: you and I and our friends here on STR as compared to our peers "out there in radio land". In the eyes of many of them we belong in the "hate-America-first" camp. With the advent of the Ron Paul movement (many of whose members will be with us some day soon) that percentage may be changing.

But we are definitely in the minority now. And you are correct: people like us need to find a balance in our interchange with them and not pull the "superior knowledge" gambit on them.


Paul's picture

I just revisited this article (June 2013) and noticed a few other comments here. Just to comment on what Sam said about Washington having to enslave his men...

My understanding is that, far from having sympathy for the English, the real reason Washington had to almost enslave his men was because he was a poor general! The war was not to be won against the British Empire by indulging in set pieces with men lined up in a row, as Washington never learned. The smart man, if he wanted to fight the British, stayed in the militia.

It's not to say plenty of people during the Revolution were not loyalists. Certainly there were many. But after the end of the revolution, the predominant opinion was not to climb back into the loving arms of the British Empire. That was a shift of worldview from earlier days, any way you want to look at it. Wars, depressions, and other stark events cause worldviews to change.