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Meet the 'Know-Betters,' America's Not-So-Secret Political Party Squeezing the Life Out of You


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.