Tuesday, January 20, 2004

Is plain democracy so important?

Freedom News Service

Ever since Iraq was invaded, those who championed the policy have issued calls for democracy there. Indeed, both Afghanistan and Iraq are supposed to be moved toward democracy now.
This democracy crusade is not new, of course. Woodrow Wilson was the president who made such a great deal about America "making the world safe for democracy." This was a big turning point in how the American government saw itself in the world.
The earlier ideal, laid out in President George Washington’s farewell address, was for the country not to get entangled in foreign affairs. And that really follows the principles of the Founders who saw government established so as to secure the rights of the citizens being served by it, not as a crusading force either at home or abroad. If we do have the rights listed in the Declaration of Independence and referred to in the Constitution, these are liberty rights, meaning they signify what we are free to do. The purpose of the law then would be to protect our liberty, to defend us from aggression, not to embark upon crusades even for the best of ideas.
It isn’t all that clear anyway that democracy is an idea that is all that great, in and of itself. As Fareed Zakaria, editor of Newsweek International, argues in his book, "The Future of Freedom," democracy without a constitution of liberty is often just as tyrannical as are dictatorships or theocracies. "Illiberal democracies," as Zakaria calls them, have the rather unsurprising danger of simply becoming regimes of mob rule. And they can last for just a short time, as it was made so tragically obvious when Hitler was elected democratically to become Germany’s Fuehrer.
Yet, somehow the call for democracy keeps ringing in American diplomatic circles, as well as on the editorial and op-ed pages of many newspapers, without any mention that an unrestricted democracy is a very oppressive system. If all that characterizes a country is that its citizens have the right to vote, and to vote on any subject matter whatever, it is clear enough that any majority – and that usually means the majority of those who are politically involved – can subdue the rest of the society, use it for its ends, deprive it of freedom of speech, religion, trade or most anything else.
So, for example, in Iraq a mere democracy isn’t going to be of much help in ridding that country of some of its worst elements under Saddam Hussein. Sure, there may be a shift of power – the majority Shiites may take over from the minority Sunnis and, later perhaps, vice versa. As Dan Murphy of The Christian Science Monitor reported on The New Republic online, "Hussein worked assiduously to divide Sunni, the national minority who benefited most from his rule, and Shiites, the majority sect who were ruthlessly suppressed during his reign." Now, it turns out, the two sides have many leaders who do not like Americans being in that country. One may wonder why they agree so much on this.
Probably one reason is that if Americans have much to say about how Iraq will shape up as a legal order, neither the Sunnis nor the Shiites will have a chance to be in full charge. So, naturally, both sides agree that the Americans must leave ASAP. But not because Americans are some oppressive, brutal occupying power but because Americans, if they had it their way, would probably exert their influence to make Iraq religiously tolerant, for example.
Not that there might not be other reasons why the American government wants to have a strong say in how Iraq emerges from the current chaos, for better or for worse. But this feature of the American influence is especially unwelcome to those whose idea of democracy is to bring about the overpowering of some other group.
This is one more reason to be skeptical about America’s foreign excursions. Although constitutional democracy – understood in its liberal fashion, namely a constitutional system of individual rights for everyone, including all women and members of all faiths – can be a good idea, the kind of "blank check" democracy that nearly everyone is talking about (with the unqualified use of the term) is worse than useless. It can give people the false impression that something good is being done by the U.S. government (since most take democracy to mean the American limited version), thus making it appear there is something really wonderful about "making the world safe for democracy." It’s a dangerous illusion.

Tibor Machan is a professor of business ethics and Western Civilization at Chapman University in Orange, Calif., and author of "The Passion for Liberty" (Rowman & Littlefield). He advises Freedom Communications, parent company of this newspaper. E-mail him at Machan@chapman.edu
Budget cuts and sad stories

Freedom News Service

Few, I imagine, are more aware of the consequences of poverty than I am. Coming here from abroad as a kid and leaving the home of a brutal father, I started off penniless, working as a short-order cook and lived at first in what used to be called a ghetto in Cleveland.
Slowly I got myself out of this spot, first by working at better jobs, then by enlisting (since the U.S. Army would have conscripted me), and later by going to college at night and eventually full time, while working 30 hours a week as a draftsman and at other jobs all through my undergraduate and graduate studies.
I was no less interested in finding the right mate and beginning a family than are most other people, but I clearly had no means for this. Not until I was 40 did I finally have the financial base that made it possible to raise a child. This was when I realized that my chosen career had reasonable prospects.
Why do I dwell on all this personal stuff in a column that's not supposed to be a confessional? Because I need to contrast how some people embark upon family life with how others do, especially given the complaints aired by many young parents in light of the impending budget cuts in California, cuts that will reduce or completely eliminate certain programs that subsidize parenting for millions. Yes, these programs are out-and-out subsidies to people who shouldn't have embarked on raising children.
Some of them, of course, were promptly paraded before us on television news, and I was privy to such an offering on the San Jose ABC-TV affiliate. The broadcast featured one young mother nearly in tears about the fact that the support she is getting now from the California government could well be reduced. Another held her baby in her arms while complaining about a similar fate. And the reporter was, naturally, intoning with earnest concern -- learned, no doubt, from Peter Jennings, who is a master at such body and ordinary language -- about how the projected cuts in funding for various programs will harm thousands of children. And Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger was, of course, featured prominently as the bad guy who is insisting on some measure of fiscal responsibility in California on the backs of these unfortunate parents and children.
No one, as you might expect, said anything about why at least some of these parents and children are facing possible dire straits. No one said anything about irresponsible parenting. No one aired even a murmur about how many of these parents embarked upon putting children into the world without serious preparation for taking care of them, expecting simply to just dump the kids on the rest of society. These irresponsible parents not only engage in out-and-out malpractice, but they have no compunction about demanding that government force the rest of us to fund their morally vile conduct.
There are alternatives, of course, including, first, to wait to have kids until one can afford raising them. In cases where such efforts didn't manage to produce sufficient support, the parents could appeal to voluntary charity. That would require, in most cases, admitting that one has acted badly and approaching various organizations with the appropriate contrition and make a frank plea for support of their children. In some cases these parents, if one can call them by that honorable term, should probably give their children up for adoption -- they have proved, after all, by their thoughtlessness, that they are unprepared to be parents.
In no case have these parents and their sentimental backers any moral justification for expecting others in the society to be forced to take care of the children the parents alone have brought into the world.
No, no such line of commentary came from anyone, nor did any of the questions reporters posed to the various parties intimate anything along such lines. Instead, it was pretty much taken for granted by all who chimed in that when people who are unprepared nonetheless decide to have children, the state ought to force the rest of us to assume responsibility whether or not we choose to do so. In other words, the rest of us, some of whom have chosen not to have children, some who chose to have them with reasonable preparations for bringing them up, are to be forced into involuntary servitude, partial slavery actually, because these so-called parents have acted irresponsibly.
I am not concerned here whether the budget cuts are wise or not. I do know, however, that many of the parents who complain have no one to blame but themselves. Yes, there are some who did everything they could and still ended up needing help. They ought to appeal to us to help them, not enlist the government to coerce us to serve them. The others, the irresponsible ones, should admit their irresponsibility and seek help and forgiveness, not demand to be taken care of.

Tibor Machan is a professor of business ethics and Western Civilization at Chapman University in Orange, Calif., and author of "The Passion for Liberty" (Rowman & Littlefield). He advises Freedom Communications, parent company of this newspaper. E-mail him at Machan@chapman.edu
Democrats, poverty and rich bashing

Freedom News Service

Witnessing the scramble among Democratic presidential hopefuls to appeal to voters in states about to have primaries is not a pleasant experience. What has come to be the main theme of these candidates is the refrain that whoever isn't rich, whoever has had a brush with poverty, must want and is fully entitled to have governments engage in massive, relentless wealth redistribution. This is a pitiful and disgusting message to put out in America, the country to which the poor of the world used to -- and often still -- flock precisely to escape poverty through hard work, entrepreneurship and ingenuity.
One can only hope that even those who are poor will repudiate such condescension from the politicians who think their job description is first and foremost to take from Peter and hand it to Paul. One can only hope that voters will eventually realize that the promises made to them by Gephardt, Dean, Edwards, Lieberman and the rest, pertaining to how they will be Santa Claus to everyone based on a vigorous tax-and-spend policy, should be rejected. Perhaps voters will realize that such wealth redistribution is precisely what will ultimately lead to widespread impoverishment, not enrichment, which is the real goal of most people who are poor.
It doesn't take a genius to figure that no wealth is created when you do what nearly all of the Democratic presidential hopefuls want to do, namely reshuffle existing wealth, from those who have it (either from having earned it or having lucked into it), to those who lack it. Wealth transfers like that do not create anything. What they produce is resentment and attitudes of class warfare, instead of a sense of achievement and overall prosperity. That the Democratic candidates actually believe that what Americans who lack wealth want is to have such wealth taken at gun point from those who have it and hand it over to them -- though not before a sizable bureaucracy skims off a goodly portion -- testifies to how little they think of the people whose votes they desire.
Of course, those very voters may not have sufficient self-respect and self-confidence to rebuff these candidates and deny them their votes. Many of the poor and even not so poor have accepted the phony idea that to get rich requires stealing from those who have more than they do. Many Americans have indeed reverted to a zero-sum idea of economic progress, one that ruled the world before the emergence of capitalism.
This view had tied all wealth accumulation to conquest. Leaders of countries relied not on vigorous production, free trade and commerce to generate wealth, but on invasion, murder and robbery. It was only after the likes of the Scottish economic genius Adam Smith taught the world that wealth comes from the freedom to work and trade, not from the coercive policies, that prosperity began to reach nearly everyone in Western societies.
Now the Democrats and their reactionary academic gurus are peddling the notion that what will make people rich is, once again, raiding the wealth of those who are already rich. More taxation, they scream, not more production and free trade. These pathetic people are counting on voters to be motivated not from an honest desire to become prosperous -- one that would incline a person to work harder, to invest wisely, and to save prudently. No, they hope that voters are motivated from rank envy, the desire to bring down those who have it better than they. And to fuel this envy, these vile politicians are preaching class warfare and zero-sum political economy.
Perhaps a great many Americans have become so corrupt in their hearts and minds that they will reward these politicians with their support. Perhaps the spirit of American capitalism, consisting mainly of the intention to produce and compete for customers, has been eclipsed by such reactionary economic hogwash. If that is so, the Democrats who try to appeal to such obsolete ideas about political economy will triumph.
Sadly, there is no serious opposition to their vile pitch from Republicans. The GOP today is openly intent on out-promising the Democrats and on winning by an appeal to a no-less disgusting human motive, namely imperial political conquest. So, we aren't likely to see any development in the next few years that will really bring serious prosperity to the poor or anyone else.
Still, it is worth noting just how low politicians are when they want to achieve power. They do not hesitate in the slightest about going to the people and counting on their ignorance and worst attitude.

Tibor Machan is a professor of business ethics and Western Civilization at Chapman University in Orange, Calif., and author of "The Passion for Liberty" (Rowman & Littlefield). He advises Freedom Communications, parent company of this newspaper. E-mail him at Machan@chapman.edu
Space triumphs -- marred

Freedom News Service

Imagine your neighbor throwing a party to show off a new boat, flower garden or remodeled kitchen. Pick your item, and imagine the triumph in your neighbor's eyes, voice and body language. You would be a spoilsport to rain on his parade with negative or derisive comments. What a mean thing that would be!
But imagine you discovered that your neighbor had financed his new addition by first raiding his other neighbor's savings account. His fabulous new addition no longer looks so fabulous to you. And, you conclude, it is quite perverse that it looks fabulous to him. Sure, it is still a wonder -- what a thing to create, buy or build. But it cannot be denied that the means by which the fellow got the thing done, namely robbing his other neighbor, cast a serious cloud over the end result.
That's how I see all the fabulous achievements of NASA, including some of the government's space exploration. It is actually worse than that. Since most of those who take part in these ventures are completely oblivious to the venality of how these projects get off the ground -- how the funding is secured; how it deprives millions of citizens of wealth from which they might have produced their own more or less fabulous creations -- I am appalled at the viciousness of these celebrations and also at the rank moral ignorance of those who go about the celebration without a clue as to its source.
It would be more honest if some of the folks who came on TV to proclaim the wonders of these achievements at least toasted the extortionist scheme that provided them with the funding. At least we would learn that these folks are aware of what they are doing; that they are vicious but not stupid. Instead, however, they go about their celebrations blithely, as if nothing untoward had been involved in how it came about.
I am no Luddite. I am not someone who thinks great leaps of technology, including space exploration, demonstrate the sin of hubris on the part of the human race. No, that's not it. In a way, I envy those ignorant scientists and technologists who can stand and cheer when a brilliant payload lands on Mars and sends back stunning pictures that tell us stuff we could make use of. It isn't even necessary in these cases to produce immediate utilitarian results -- the feats in and of themselves, like those of other human adventures, are often sufficient to cause delight for most people.
However, when one knows that these feats are produced on the backs of millions of tax payers -- folks from whom wealth is confiscated at the point of a gun, and who might well have had vital objectives to pursue with the aid of their wealth -- there is no way to take part in all the hoopla. In fact, witnessing the morally blind pride exhibited by the scientists, engineers and administrators is quite painful for me. I must deny myself the joy I know I would feel if the accomplishments had not been fueled by blood money.
But perhaps I am odd. When I run across the so-called marvels of past civilizations in Europe and elsewhere, such as the palaces, cathedrals, pyramids, great walls and magnificent monuments, I find it difficult not to reflect on the deliberate, utterly avoidable human devastation that it took to get many of these artifacts produced. I always ask myself how things would have gone had all those people who were conscripted to labor on all these wondrous creations had the chance to choose their own projects.
I realize, of course, they would probably have squandered a good deal of their lives and resources, but then I recall that their conscripted labor and resources also went to waste a good deal of the time -- in the service of wars of conquest, subjugation or confiscation, or of idolatry and frivolity. And then I recall, too, that while perhaps some of these products of forced labor, just as the recent Mars landing of the unmanned spacecraft, were wonderful and even helpful, we will never know how it would have gone had individuals been left free to determine to what end to devote their labors and resources.
Of course, it is also worth keeping in mind that many of the fabulous achievements resulting from conscripted mass labor created environmental destruction, too, which the less grandiose, more modest voluntary projects of individuals and small groups of freely united humans tended to avoid. (Just think of TVA, the Interstate Highway System, the massive canal projects and damns around the globe.)
But, yes, some of these projects are wonderful. They are only made not so by the fact that their creation violated the most elementary principle of civilized human association, freedom of choice.

Tibor Machan is a professor of business ethics and Western Civilization at Chapman University in Orange, Calif., and author of "The Passion for Liberty" (Rowman & Littlefield). He advises Freedom Communications, parent company of this newspaper. E-mail him at Machan@chapman.edu