What You Don’t Know You Know (Or Pretend That You Don’t)

     Most Gentle Readers probably remember Donald Rumsfeld, when he was the Secretary of Defense in the Busy the Younger Administration, talking about “known unknowns” and “unknown unknowns:” gaps in our knowledge that we’re aware of, and others that we’re not. Rumsfeld’s comments were important not only at that time and for those circumstances, but for a great many other times and contexts in which people and organizations attempt to plan their moves.

     I have a different, though at least rhetorically related, subject in mind this morning: knowledge we possess but are unaware of…or, alternately, are unwilling to admit.

     It’s a strange idea, isn’t it? Why would anyone be unaware that he knows something? What sort of knowledge would make the knower unwilling to admit that he knows it? In truth, the mystery is quite superficial. Our knowledge can often be used against us: to make us feel or look guilty.

     The late Barbara Tuchman touched on this in her book The March of Folly. She defined folly succinctly as “knowing better but doing worse,” a neat encapsulation that applies perfectly to a great deal of political foolishness. Governments, in particular, are notable for knowing better but doing worse. Our current inflation woes are a salient example.

     But of course, governments are merely collections of individuals raised to positions of authority. It’s individuals that really know things. It’s individuals that make decisions…even when the decision in question is the result of a majority vote. One of the consequences of allowing certain decisions to be determined by a majority vote is that the responsibility for the decision and what follows from it is diluted by the number of persons who approved it.

     The great Herbert Spencer was particularly incisive in this regard. Here he is commenting on the proper limitation of legislative power:

     I asked one of the members of Parliament whether a majority the House could legitimize murder. He said no. I asked him whether it could sanctify robbery. He thought not. But I could not make him see that if murder and robbery are intrinsically wrong, and not to be made right by the decisions of statesmen, then similarly all actions must be either right or wrong, apart from the authority of the law; and that if the right and wrong the law are not in harmony with this intrinsic right and wrong, the law itself is criminal.

     Here, he quotes an unnamed scribe on the same subject:

     Nevertheless, in the inexplicable universal votings and debatings of these Ages, an idea or rather a dumb presumption to the contrary has gone idly abroad; and at this day, over extensive tracts of the world, poor human beings are to be found, whose practical belief it is that if we “vote” this or that, so this or that will thenceforth be.… Practically, men have come to imagine that the Laws of this Universe, like the laws of constitutional countries, are decided by voting.… It is an idle fancy. The Laws of this Universe, of which if the laws of England are not an exact transcript, they should passionately study to become such, are fixed by the everlasting congruity of things, and are not fixable or changeable by voting!

     Both quotes are from Spencer’s essay series “The Proper Sphere of Government,” which is included in the volume The Man Versus The State.

     Like all immanent and immutable truths, this “should” be “obvious.” Yet men routinely behave as if they believe that “if we ‘vote’ this or that, so this or that will thenceforth be.” Do they believe it – really and sincerely?

     I contend that in the main, they do not.


     As long as I’m quoting, have one from Heinlein:

     Both for practical reasons and for mathematically verifiable moral reasons, authority and responsibility must be equal — else a balancing takes place as surely as current flows between points of unequal potential. To permit irresponsible authority is to sow disaster; to hold a man responsible for anything he does not control is to behave with blind idiocy. The unlimited democracies were unstable because their citizens were not responsible for the fashion in which they exerted their sovereign authority… other than through the tragic logic of history. The unique ‘poll tax’ that we must pay was unheard of. No attempt was made to determine whether a voter was socially responsible to the extent of his literally unlimited authority. If he voted the impossible, the disastrous possible happened instead — and responsibility was then forced on him willy-nilly and destroyed both him and his foundationless temple.

     [From Starship Troopers]

     Americans have cried out repeatedly for relief from the financial and economic burdens loaded upon them by government expenditure. But they invariably scream Don’t take away our freebies! with equal fervor. They want the “entitlements” but not the bills. They want the authority to command massive government spending but not the responsibility for what follows: inflation, ever-rising tax rates, and ultimately the financial exhaustion of the nation.

     The legislators who enact such a policy shrug and say “My constituents voted for it.” The executives who implement the policy shrug and say “The legislature voted for it.” The jurists prefer not to say. What follows is as predictable as the Sun rising in the East. We know it full well, but admitting it would compel us to accept responsibility for it.

     Might this be what Alexander Tytler had in mind?


     What we know but don’t know or won’t admit extends to many subjects, not just the ones measured in currency. We know some obvious things about race, for example. Most of us won’t even speak them aloud, for fear of unpleasant social consequences. We know some obvious things about how “vice” laws corrupt law enforcement, too. But it’s socially unacceptable to say “Legalize it all and let them kill themselves with it.” That would make you sound “hard-hearted.” And we know what H. L. Mencken said about the character of politicians:

     The typical lawmaker of today is a man devoid of principle – a mere counter in a grotesque and knavish game. If the right pressure could be applied to him, he would cheerfully be in favor of polygamy, astrology or cannibalism.

     But we cheerfully vote for this one over that one because of the capital letter after his name, often on the grounds that all we can do is support “the lesser of two evils.” Thus we perpetuate the system, with its built-in dynamics and incentives that inevitably rob private persons of their rights and wealth. We stop short of considering that there might be a third alternative that deserves a moment’s thought. That alternative has an ugly word attached to it: anarchy. We can’t have that!

     It’s time to ask some hard questions, this one most imperatively:

We already have anarchy;
Must we have tyranny as well?

     Hold that thought.


     If you believe the official line:

  • Over 150 million persons voted in the November 2020 elections;
  • 81 million votes were cast to install Joe Biden in the White House;
  • And there was no appreciable vote fraud.

     Given Biden’s history of deceit and corruption, his habit of slandering his political adversaries, his demonstrable physical and mental decline, and his non-campaign, is it imaginable that 81 million persons really believed he would be an acceptable president? Americans in possession of sufficient wit to hold a job could not have imagined any such thing. If 81 million votes were cast for him, who cast them and for what reason? Could that many people have rejected a second term for Donald Trump on account of his tweets?

     It doesn’t wash. Indeed, it seems impossible that over 150 million votes were cast. With President Trump’s best efforts, he barely got a tax-cut bill and three Supreme Court nominees through Congress. The rest of his accomplishments were via executive orders. His supposed co-partisans on Capitol Hill gave him nearly no support on any other initiative. You would think that they regarded him as a threat to their power and perquisites.

     Who would consciously, knowingly grant his consent to be governed by the gaggle of smarmy frauds that occupies Washington D.C.?

     The smarmy frauds are aware that We the Private Persons of America would prefer that they all dissolve into ether and float away. That, of course, is not in their plans. They like power and what it brings them. But they must continue to maintain that government in these United States possesses the consent of the governed, as Thomas Jefferson prescribed. Their principal weapon for maintaining that illusion is the biennial vote tally.

     Keep an eye on the reported vote totals. Regardless of who gets elected, the number of votes we’re told have been cast is a critically important datum. Were it to fall below a certain, undetermined threshold, Americans would realize that “the consent of the governed” no longer exists. The political Establishment must prop that number up by any and every means available.

     After all, without robust vote totals, how could they continue to evade responsibility for their actions? How could they maintain their pretense that they’re only doing what We the People want them to do?


     I have a colleague, somewhat younger than I, who has said on various occasions that “If you don’t vote, you have no right to complain.” Now, this gentleman is reasonably intelligent, a well regarded engineer. But his assertion is utter nonsense – yet no power on Earth could make him see it. (Yes, I tried.) He rejects without a moment’s consideration the rationality of the decisions of millions of others – some of us more intelligent than he – not to participate in a system used to maintain that we consent to be ruled by villains and thieves.

     For some non-participants, it’s a matter of laziness, but for others, it’s about our revulsion at the idea of taking even a shred of responsibility for the blackguards’ dance in our capitals.

     The politicians can’t have it. They need to maintain the illusion that we consent to their capers. Few of them sincerely believe that vote totals are low because it’s difficult to vote. Those totals must be supported to maintain their hegemony – and if they must manufacture the numbers, then so it shall be. The alternative – being held responsible for their depredations – is unthinkable.

     I maintain that we know all this. That millions remain unwilling to admit it is irrelevant. The rest is left as an exercise for my Gentle Readers.

1 comment

    • grumpy on January 27, 2022 at 12:09 PM

    Suggestion. Throw sand in the gears of the election process. Use the write in. Not to elect anyone, just to mess with them. In Arizona where I vote write ins don’t count if the written in person is not a “registered candidate”. But, they have to stop and handle my ballot and verify the candidates status, etc. It’s a great way to mess with them.

    Throw sand in the gears every chance you get.  Now watch people tell me I’m wrong and it doesn’t matter/work.  I’m messing with those people too. 😂

    Good thoughtful piece Fran. Keep em coming.


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