Thomas Jefferson and John Adams concurred on the following preference—namely, a natural aristocracy of virtue and talent over the artificial sort of birth and wealth. Talent here is not merely skill, but also knowledge. Hence the two former U.S. presidents agreed that citizens ought to be given a broad basic education in free schools. The corollary is that as a citizenry lapses in virtue and knowledge, decadence will show up in public discourse and consequently public policy. If kept unchecked, the tendency is for the republic to fall.
Therefore, as governor of Virginia, Jefferson proposed a Bill for the More General Diffusion of Knowledge in 1779. His rationale was that because even “those entrusted with power” who seek to protect individual rights can become tyrants, popular education is necessary to render a republic secure. Jefferson’s hope was that by teaching “the people at large” examples of despots in history, the electorate would be more likely to recognize despots in their own time and throw the bastards out on their noses. As for those whom voters put in public offices, Jefferson believed that “laws will be wisely formed, and honestly administered, in proportion as those who form and administer them are wise and honest.” Hence, “those persons, whom nature hath endowed with genius and virtue, should be rendered by liberal education worthy to receive, and able to guard the sacred deposit of the rights of their fellow citizens.” This is why, beginning at around 1900, law schools in the American states began to admit applicants to the undergraduate degree in law (LL.B. or J.D.) who had already earned an undergraduate degree in the liberal arts and sciences. It was not as though the undergraduate degree in law had been promoted to graduate status.
Having had largely self-governing, popularly-elected colonial legislatures for much of the seventeenth century, the nascent American republics would stand on the two pillars of virtue and talent (including knowledge) instilled in the self-governing peoples themselves as well as their elected and appointed public officials. It is said that the only constant is change, as in the extent to which an electorate is virtuous and generally knowledgeable, as well as in the related rise and fall of republics. One notable example is ancient Rome, which went from being a republic to a dictatorship under the purported exigencies of war. Lest the rise and fall of republics seems a bit too dramatic to be considered realistic, I offer the more modest thesis that a decline in virtue and knowledge among an electorate renders the public policy increasingly deficient in dealing with contemporary problems. The matter of climate change is a case in point.
According to a study at Yale in April 2013, Americans’ conviction that global warming was happening had dropped by seven percentage-points to 63 percent over the preceding six months. The unusually cold March—quite a reversal from the previous March—explains the drop, according to the poll’s authors. That the cold may actually have resulted from a loosening in the artic jet-stream southward—like a rubber-band whose elasticity has been compromised—due to more open water in the arctic ocean and thus less temperature differential in the air there would be something that only the 49% of Americans who believe that human activities throwing heat-capturing CO2 into the atmosphere is contributing to global warming might accept.
Lest it be presumed that the scientists might eventually bring the other half around, only 42% of Americans believed at the time that most scientists held that global warming is happening. Thirty-three percent were convinced that “widespread disagreement” exists among scientists. With this assumption, few naysayers are likely to be convinced.
In actuality, a study showed of more than 4,000 articles touching on human-sourced climate change, 97% of the scientists having written the articles conclude that human-caused change was already happening. Less than 3% either rejected the notion or remained undecided. “There is a gaping chasm between the actual consensus and the public perception,” one of the study’s authors remarked. “It’s staggering given the evidence for consensus that less than half of the general public think scientists agree that humans are causing global warming. This is significant,” the author concludes, “because when people understand that scientists agree on global warming, they’re more likely to support policies that take action on it.” Going back to Jefferson and Adams, ignorance among the electorate in a republic can be sufficient to divert enough political will that legislation sufficient to deal with the problems facing that republic is thwarted.
It is likely that some of the apparent ignorance on global warming could actually be partisan aggression. If President Obama favors policies predicated on the assumption that human-sourced global warming is underway, his support could be enough for some Republicans to hold firm in their denial of even other-sourced global warming. In holding knowledge hostage to score cheap partisan points, those citizens are not evincing much virtue. James Madison in particular would say that the partisanship itself should be counted as a vice.
If Jefferson and Adams were correct that a virtuous and knowledgeable citizenry is vital to the continuance of a republic, the extent of ignorance and partisan vice related to global warming in spite of the nearly unanamous scientific conclusion and the huge stakes involved may suggest that the American republics and the grand republic of the Union may be on borrowed time (and money). Moreover, that the ignorance and vice pertains to global warming enlarges the implications to include the continuance of the species. That is to say, a virtuous and educated species may be necessary for its very survival.
Philip Costopoulos, “Jefferson, Adams, and the Natural Aristocracy,” First Things, May 1990.
Yale Project on Climate Change Communication, “Americans’ Global Warming Beliefs and Attitudes in April 2013,” Yale School of Forestry and Environomental Studies, 2013.
John Cook, Dana Nuccitelli, Mark Richardson, et al, “Quantifying the Consensus on Ahthropogenic global warming in the scientific literature,” Environmental Research Letters, 8 (2013) (2), pp.
Tom Zeller, “Scientists Agree (Again): Climate Change Is Happening,” The Huffington Post, May 16, 2013.
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