Tibor R. Machan
No one is more prone to criticize the various levels and branches of the
US government than I am. My complaints, however, tend to focus on how our
political institutions have departed from the best ideas on which the
country was founded.
When you read most prominent mainstream newspapers and magazines?The New
York Times, The Washington Post, The New Republic, The New York Review of
Books, for example?these too often and sadly aim their criticism exactly
at those principles. It is when America is most American, one might say,
that they pick on her.
Take as an example James Traub?s February 13, 2005, column in The New
York Times Magazine, ?Freedom From Want.? It is a nasty little piece that
calls into question America?s generosity toward those around the globe who
are in dire straits. As the tag line quotes Traub?which pretty much
summarizes the piece??Our closest allies have put world poverty at the top
of their agenda. Why can't Americans do the same??
Well, for starters, our closest allies haven?t put world poverty at the
top of their agenda?it is their governments that have made the decision to
send some of the money they take from their citizens in taxes to help some
of the poor around the globe. This is a totally neglected distinction by
Traub and others: confusing what governments do in the way of forcibly
transferring wealth from their citizens to whoever government officials
think should get the wealth, and what the citizens of a country support
out of their own pockets voluntarily, without being threatened with jail
time if they refuse.
And here in fact Americans as a whole come off as the most generous
people on the face of the earth. I am not talking about the considerable
foreign aid the government of the US is sending abroad, secured through
the extortionist means of taxation (yes, Virginia, taxation is
extortion?you pay or you go to jail). I am talking about the fact, noted
poignantly in a letter to The New York Times Magazine by Carol Adelman,
Senior Fellow at the Hudson Institute, that while the US government sends
$16 billion?still the highest absolute amount?as aid, ?This number,
however, excludes American private giving of more than $43 billion, more
than double the government aid in 2003.?
What was Traub thinking? Why was he ignoring the facts that Adelman
brought to light? What kind of journalist is it who considers only what
the government coercively redistributes as ?giving,? while treating
genuine, voluntary contributions as non-existent?
I think I have a clue here: Someone who is eager to denigrate America and
Americans; someone who is eager to discredit a society in which freedom is
still more important than coercion; someone who would rather have us all
forced to behave as statists like us to behave rather than leave us govern
ourselves. For such a person the virtue of generosity is meaningless
unless it is extracted at the point of a gun, just the opposite of how
generosity ought to work among human beings.
Yes, while I am a fierce critic of US government policies, I confine my
criticism mainly to when that government undermines the principles of
individual rights on which it was founded?the unalienable rights to life,
liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, among others. But in continuing to
sustain a legal and cultural atmosphere of voluntarism, many Americans are
still doing what distinguishes them from the rest of the world, acting
freely to do the right thing.
Whenever you encounter critics of the American system, please look out:
If it is being put down for upholding the principles of individual rights,
the critics are actually being anti-American in the important sense of
that term, namely, turning against America?s central ideal. When the
critic employs the standard of liberty, then he or she is urging America
to be more like what it should be in the first place.