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Law School For You: Legal and Political Ignorance

  |   By   |   Paul SamakowOpen link in another window

Ignorance means not knowing.

One of this season’s new evening television programs features character Sheldon Cooper, of The Big Bang Theory fame, as a precocious nine-year old boy.  Sheldon as the adult character is a socially ignorant man who otherwise is a genius.  As a child, in the pilot program Young Sheldon, he is portrayed as a nine-year-old, in high school. In his first class he is seen alienating, matter-of-factly, his classmates and teacher, pointing out their dress and grooming violations.

Sheldon’s social ignorance, displayed as a theme in The Big Bang Theory over and over again, is most humorous.  The real-life legal and political ignorance of most of the American public isn’t humorous, but it is starkly frightening.  Most Americans, according to a recent study (and backed up by similar studies over many decades), are ignorant of many very basic facts about the Constitution and our government.

A recent study conducted by the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg Public Policy Center finds that:

Thirty-seven percent (37%) of Americans could not name a single right protected by the First Amendment;

Only twenty-six percent (26%) of Americans can name all three branches of government;

Thirty-three percent (33%) cannot name any branch of government.

The study is the same as previous studies going back decades, showing widespread ignorance on a wide range of legal and political matters.

Kathleen Hall Jamieson, the Director of the Annenberg Center, said that protecting the rights guaranteed by the Constitution presupposes that we know what they are.  The fact that many don’t is worrisome.

As it relates to political ignorance, many in the media and particularly the comedians on late night television have had a veritable “field day” commenting on the last Presidential election.  Academics have commented that Donald Trump’s effective exploitation of public ignorance led many to start taking the problem more seriously.  In fairness, Americans’ political ignorance long predates Trump, having to look no further back than Obama, who although much more quietly, found ways to manipulate to his advantage.

George Mason University Law Professor Ilya Somin has summarized the state of American political and legal ignorance in many forums.  He says:

Democracy is supposed to be the rule of the people…  In order to rule effectively, the people need political knowledge. If they know little or nothing about government, it becomes difficult to hold political leaders accountable for their performance.  Unfortunately, public knowledge about politics is disturbingly low.  This state of affairs has persisted despite rising education levels, increased availability of information, and even rising IQ scores.

Regarding law, ignorance abounds.  Most people know a commonly understood and core principle of criminal law:  “ignorance of the law is no excuse.”   While true for crimes that are “wrong in their essence,” such as murder, armed robbery, or sexual assault, interestingly, there are circumstances when even absolute violations of a law can be excused solely on the grounds of ignorance.

Many streets have “No Parking” signs.  If we miss a sign, thus being ignorant of the its existence, we nonetheless still get a ticket.  On the other hand, if the local authorities designate northbound Main Street as a no-parking zone, and do nothing to warn or advise or alert us, such as putting up a sign, then ignorance of this law might very well result in the judge ruling “not guilty” in court.

There is no rulebook designated as required reading for the population.  Particularly in the criminal law, there is no place an average citizen can go to learn all of the criminal laws that may apply to conduct.  Indeed, no one even knows how many federal criminal laws there are, much less what they require.

It may be that ignorance of the law is no excuse, but for virtually 100 percent of Americans, ignorance is the reality. Ever hear of a “no-crime” zone?  If it exists, it is only because those breaking laws, either intentionally, or ignorantly, have not been caught.

The concept of ignorance generally has been studied and written about, in particular by Carlo M. Cipolla, a professor of economic history at the University of California, Berkely. He says that ignorance, or stupidity as he calls it, is humanity’s greatest existential threat.  He says stupidity is a fundamental force that threatens us all.

Cipolla authored “five basic laws of human stupidity.”

He says stupid people share several identifying traits:  they are abundant, they are irrational, and they cause problems for others without apparent benefit to themselves, thereby lowering society’s total wellbeing.  Cipolla says that are no defenses against stupidity, and that the only way a society can avoid being crushed by the burden of its idiots is if the non-stupid work even harder to offset the losses of their stupid brethren.

Cipolla’s “laws:”

  1. Always and inevitably everyone underestimates the number of stupid individuals in circulation.
  2. The probability that a certain person be stupid is independent of any other characteristic of that person.
  3. A stupid person is a person who causes losses to another person or to a group of persons while himself deriving no gain and even possibly incurring losses.
  4. Non-stupid people always underestimate the damaging power of stupid individuals. In particular non-stupid people constantly forget that at all times and places and under any circumstances to deal and/or associate with stupid people always turns out to be a costly mistake.
  5. A stupid person is the most dangerous type of person, even more so than a bandit.

So where does all of this ignorance leave us as a society?  First, as the expression goes:  don’t argue with an idiot.  Then, next, perhaps Cipolla is correct, we need to work harder.  Teach your children, to reinforce and cement what they are learning in school, the basics of our government, about the Constitution, and about our nation’s political process.

Finally, concerning the topic of ignorance, H.L. Menken (1880 -1956), an American journalist, satirist, cultural critic and scholar of American English had much to say.

In 1920 he wrote prophetically … as democracy is perfected, the office of the President represents, more and more closely, the inner soul of the people. On some great and glorious day, the plain folks of the land will reach their heart’s desire at last, and the White House will be occupied by a downright fool and complete narcissistic moron.