Blackadder’s Lair

The home of many a cunning plan

On Learning to See: What is not Heard

A while back I was talking with a friend of mine and I mentioned that I favored getting rid of the Department of Education. He seemed taken aback. “How could you be against Education!” I explained that I wasn’t against education, just against having a federal Department of Education, and the conversation went on from there.

Now I mention this not because I think the Department of Education is a bad idea (I do, but that’s a separate issue). Rather, I bring the conversation up because it seems emblematic of the way in which our minds play tricks on us when it comes to thinking about social policy. What I said was “I’m against the Department of Education.” But for whatever reason, my friend didn’t hear the words “the Department of.” What he heard was “I’m against education.”

There was another example of this during one of last year’s Republican Presidential debates. Ron Paul, in the course of one of his answers, mentioned that he favored getting rid of the Department of Homeland Security. The moderator seemed incredulous. “You would eliminate the Department of Homeland Security in the midst of a war, sir?” But if one thinks that the DHS isn’t making us safer, that it has simply added an extra layer of bureaucracy onto an already bloated system, etc., then the fact that we are in the midst of a war makes it more urgent to correct the problem, not less. But the moderator didn’t hear Paul say he opposed the Department of Homeland Security. What he heard was that he opposed homeland security.

This is an important point, because when it comes to government, names are given to programs and institutions for propagandistic purposes. Now a name is not a description. The Holy Roman Empire was neither holy, nor Roman, nor an empire, there are neither grapes nor nuts in Grape-Nuts, and the fact that a man’s name is Armstrong does not tell you how much he can bench-press. Yet people often unconsciously assume that the Department of Education must improve education, that the Environmental Protection Agency must protect the environment, that gun control laws must actually control guns, and so forth. If we want to be clear headed about issues of social policy, we need to remember that just because something sounds good does not mean that it actually does good, and if someone opposes the Happiness Act, it’s probably not because he is against happiness.

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February 3, 2008 - Posted by | Law, Seeing

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