By Ryan McMaken
The Drudge Report today posts at the top of the page this headline: "GALLUP: 32% 'NEVER HEARD OF' SCALIA..."
Generally, the purpose of posting a headline like this is to create outrage and perhaps smugness over how ignorant those other people are. "Why, this country is doomed because people don't keep up with the important political issues of the day!"
But why should most people know who Scalia was? Supreme Court justices have immense power over the lives of ordinary citizens, but ordinary citizens have virtually no power whatsoever in the selection process of federal judges, or in their retention. In other words, from a practical point of view, it's nearly as important for an ordinary person to keep track of SCOTUS judges as it is for them to know the exact distance of the Moon from the Earth. It affects them, but there's nothing they can do about it.
Thus, it's only rational to not know anything about Scalia or the details of his rulings, appointment, or activities. Not only that, but the Court deliberately tries to hide itself from public view with its baseless and authoritarian prohibition of cameras in the Supreme Court chambers. Certainly — the Court's thinking goes — the taxpayers have no right to see what it is they're paying for.
So, given there are only so many hours in the day and so many things a person can keep track of — and the fact that the Court deliberately hides information about itself — it's nonsensical to loftily look down on those who rationally remain ignorant about the court and its activities.
Moreover, taxpayers, citizens, and consumers have no mechanism for knowing if a SCOTUS judge is doing a good job or a bad job. The judges are completely removed from any mechanism that allowed consumers to know if the court's "product" is of any value to them. Certainly, the media bombards them with notion of what they should think about this or that decision, but how should such a decision be measured?
In Man, Economy, and State, Murray Rothbard examined the problem of evaluating political actors like judges:
Many critics of the market, while willing to concede the expertise of the capitalist-entrepreneurs, bewail the prevailing ignorance of consumers, which prevents them from gaining the utility ex post that they expected to have ex ante...Professor Ludwig von Mises has keenly pointed out the paradoxical position of so many “progressives” who insist that consumers are too ignorant or incompetent to buy products intelligently, while at the same time touting the virtues of democracy, where the same people vote for politicians whom they do not know and for policies that they hardly understand.
This is true for any level of government, but the US Supreme Court takes this to an extreme end. With a local mayor, planning commission, or judge, it is much easier to comprehend how exactly a political decision or act will affect one's plans. One's proposed apartment building is rejected by local planners? Well, we can understand the implications of that rather easily, and apply it to a specific situation. The Mayor wants to raise local taxes for parks? It doesn't take a PhD to figure out how that will affect us on both the taxation side and spending side. And, one can often have some effect on the outcome in cases like these.
But what of a Supreme Court decision made by people we'll never see or meet, the implications of which often require abstract study to understand. Moreover, if we don't like the decision there is nothing we can do about it. The judges will serve in office until they die or retire, and their replacements will be decided by far-off presidents who will make decisions based on consulting with powerful national interest groups over which an ordinary person also has no influence whatsoever. And, of course, one's single vote has only the most microscopic chance of ever affecting the outcome of a presidential election.
So, why should ordinary people know who Scalia is?
If we want people to take an interest in matters of public affairs, they must have a chance of actually influencing the outcome and having a say in decisions. Otherwise, why should they care? Influence can often be obtained at relatively low cost at the local level. For example, it's rather easy to get a meeting with one's state senator in a medium-sized US state. You can probably even get a meeting without spending a dime. Good luck getting a meeting with your US Senator. You'll be lucky to meet a low level staffer. Unless, of course, you write a $10,000 check to a PAC first.
At the same time, the media relentlessly tells us that national politics is all that really matters. The national level, however, is precisely the level at which ordinary people are most powerless and irrelevant. So, for most of us, knowing who Antonin Scalia was is essentially a waste of time.
This article was originally published at The Mises Institute.