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Sunday, July 2, 2017

Make America learn again

Instead of learning how the world works, we have to use our ingenuity to get around meaningless man-made rules.

E veryone talks about how we're becoming a knowledge-based society. In fact, despite a flood of new knowledge, in many ways we're becoming more knowledge-averse. Rules and regulations are increasing faster than our knowledge. Instead of learning how the world works, we have to use our ingenuity to get around countless man-made rules.

Theodore Dalrymple over at Takimag discussed how Africans are leaving France and moving back to Africa in order to regain their freedom. Even though they've moved from a liberal democracy to a corrupt dictatorship, they feel freer, Dalrymple says, because there are fewer rules there. If they want to open a business, they open a business, hire whomever they want, and pay what the market will bear. They cannot do that in France. He writes:

We live in societies in which there are islands of license in an ocean of regulation. Perhaps that explains why . . . our entertainments grow ever more coarse, vulgar, and extreme.

Last week a careful and beautifully done study came out showing the effects of minimum wage laws in Seattle. It confirmed what mainstream economists have been saying for years: minimum wage laws cut off the bottom ring of the ladder and drive down employment. Yet who can doubt that the study will be ignored, people will pretend to have discredited it, and more studies commissioned until the politicians get the answer they want?

Rules do more than just harm the economy. In earlier times, people would play with chemicals, fix their own electric wiring and plumbing, and dig ditches on their property. These mundane tasks didn't just teach them practical knowledge; they drove home the point that the physical world has strict rules of its own that supercede those of man.

In most parts of the USA, you are now forbidden to do most of these tasks. The rules of course have their own justifications: safety, coordinated planning, and licensing. But as with minimum wage laws, there's also a huge cost: we're gradually losing our contact with the real laws of the physical world, the ones that will ultimately determine our survival.

Pass reams of legalistic rules to avoid risk, and you merely convert the risk from one form to another: you force people to choose between learning things and risking their careers. You push the risk off from society and onto the individual.

Most of us know these physical laws intellectually, but that's a world of difference between knowing something and experiencing it. Maybe that's why so many people feel such a strong desire to return to nature.

One physical law is that water always finds the lowest point. Everyone knows it, yet last year I saw a construction crew put a drainage pipe at the highest point of a retaining wall instead of at the bottom, where the water would be. The only thing I ever saw come out of that pipe was a chipmunk.

My electrician didn't know how to trace a circuit to find a fault. I had to do it myself after he left—in violation of a slew of strict rules—and I shall certainly deny having done it—but the alternative was to allow my house to burn to the ground. It's one of those rules people have to live by out in the country.*

People like to think that rules have some rational reason behind them, and they'll invent one if necessary. Without practical experience, they might conclude that water can indeed be caught by a perforated pipe at the highest point before it falls, that electrical circuits just need a certificate in order to be safe, and that everything that's legal is also morally right.

If we want to bring back industry, in both senses of the word, to America, we have to get rid of these rules. But that wouldn't be enough. We also need to teach people how to learn. Many people think it's an innate talent, and some people are just born with more of it than others. But science has shown that learning is itself a skill that must be learned.

Unfortunately, what schools teach is how to avoid learning. When I was a kid they talked about how knowledge is already in the encyclopedia; all you needed to know was where the library was and how to look it up. Nowadays, computers have replaced encyclopedias, but the idea is the same.

There's even a growing feeling that knowledge is somehow harmful: some activists actively encourage people to see knowledge as if it were patriarchal, colonialist, or racist. We also see this among members of the management class, who think they don't need to know anything, and it's all about people skills. Young people unwittingly adopt that philosophy, and grow up thinking the most important thing is networking among their friends and brown-nosing the boss (which, as often as not, just costs you the boss's respect).

Experimental psychologists tell us there are two types of knowledge: procedural and propositional. What many people don't realize is that propositional knowledge cannot exist without procedural knowledge.

Once people start to dismiss procedural knowledge as menial or impractical, it's only a matter of time before they dismiss propositional knowledge as well. Gradually we'll find ways of justifying it to ourselves: we don't really need to know all that complicated stuff, we'll say. The computer, the government, or the robot can know it for us.

The truth will be that we won't know much of anything, and sooner or later the robot—or, maybe, the government—will wonder what we're really good for, and we won't have a good answer.

* Not that it makes any difference, but I do keep a copy of the NEC at hand, and I even read it. I might hate rules, but I'm not crazy.

created jul 02, 2017; last edited jul 02 2017, 11:56 am

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The smiley face of political indoctrination

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