In the 1850s there was an active political movement that became known as the “Know-Nothings,” because they considered themselves semi-secret, and members, when questioned about the group, were supposed to say “I know nothing.” Of course, a secret political party doesn’t have much effect, and quickly the Know-Nothings were pretty overt about telling everyone around them that they knew nothing, over and over again.
It seems to me there’s a semi-secret political party at work in the U.S. now: the People Who Know Better.
I started to think about them when I was writing the first of my recent articles on mass transit. Also, they show up a lot talking about Amtrak: they say “we should have a train system as good as Europe”; they want to spend billions on “high speed” rail that will change transcontinental trips from five hours on a plane into days on a “high speed” train. But the Know-Betters know what we really need, and if we’re silly enough to not want it, they’re perfectly happy to shove it down out throats.
Mass transit in Denver has the smell of Know-Betters.
It’s being supported by a tax, as well as fares, and the tax certainly applies to people like me for whom mass transit is simply not workable. They have many different justifications, like traffic congestion and carbon emissions. But traffic congestion doesn’t get better, and it turns out that the mass transit system, per passenger mile, doesn’t do much for carbon emissions.
The problem there is population density: during a business day, Manhattan has a population density of more than 170,000 per square mile. The whole of New York City has 27,000 per square mile. As a result, a mass transit system there has a big population and short distances to travel, and works reasonably well.
But the Know-Betters would never come to the conclusion that conditions in places like Colorado simply aren’t suited for wide-scale mass transit.
Instead, the Know-Betters have decided that we should use government to impose greater population density, with utopian city plans that push people into small, “walkable” communities with mass transit hubs.
And if people prefer to live on half-acre lots with lawns and space between houses, well, they Know Better.
Not that the Know-Betters are exclusively hiding out in liberal circles. We had a major flood of Know-Betters in the early 20th century, when People Who Knew Better decided that alcohol was so evil we had a (relatively short-lived, thankfully) period in which alcohol consumption in the U.S. was prohibited by the Constitution.
Of course, what we got out of that was a dozen years of the rise of organized crime (although the union movement and the existence of Democrat machines in major cities certainly helped that along), and a whole culture of laws that people didn’t like, so they avoided them.
Oddly, a whole lot of the Know Betters were happily connected with reputable bootleggers who connected them with good-quality hooch. See, Prohibition was really for the lower classes who couldn’t be trusted with alcohol.
The other day, I was accidentally listening to Bill O’Reilly talking about the danger to kids of marijuana combined with smart phones. The people talking with him had difficulty even figuring out the connection, but Bill is one of the most aggressive Know-Betters, at least on the purported right, and he’s been on a marijuana crusade for a good long time. When presented with any counter-argument, he basically shouts down his opponent, saying it’s just “common sense.”
Now, we’ve had legal marijuana in Colorado for at least a couple of years, and civilization hasn’t collapsed. The biggest result right now is that housing prices in Colorado are booming, at least in part because — according to real estate sources here — between 60,000 and 100,000 thousand people a year are moving to Colorado where they can do dope as they damn well please. But Bill O’Reilly Knows Better, and we Coloradans must be forced to do what we’re told.
You may have spotted some of these Know-Betters in your town. They know that women are always happier as stay-at-home moms, that someone has to fix what kids eat at lunch, and that the EPA should have control of every body of water larger than a spilled glass.
I keep finding myself coming back to a passage from Thomas Jefferson that I put up on Tatler a long while ago. Here’s Jefferson:
“Men by their constitutions are naturally divided into two parties: 1. Those who fear and distrust the people, and wish to draw all powers from them into the hands of the higher classes. 2. Those who identify themselves with the people, have confidence in them, cherish and consider them as the most honest and safe, although not the most wise depositary of the public interests. In every country these two parties exist, and in every one where they are free to think, speak, and write, they will declare themselves. Call them, therefore, Liberals and Serviles, Jacobins and Ultras, Whigs and Tories, Republicans and Federalists, Aristocrats and Democrats, or by whatever name you please, they are the same parties still and pursue the same object. The last one of Aristocrats and Democrats is the true one expressing the essence of all.”
— Thomas Jefferson (Letter to Henry Lee, 1824)
All the terms Jefferson proposes have been attached to groups by now, usually inconsistently. But I think Jefferson has a point: there are always people who think they Know Better, and they are therefore entitled to rule the rest of us. Call them Monarchists, perhaps.
It seems to me the essential political need of our time is identifying the Know-Betters, the Monarchists, for who they are, and stopping them.