Friday, January 14, 2005

Column on Governments and Disasters

Disasters and Governments

Tibor R. Machan

I have resisted writing about tsunami because, well, it is such a
horrible catastrophe that it seemed tacky to rush in a write about it.
Now, closer to home, we have the much smaller scale but to some people no
less disastrous events of the recent heavy rains in Southern California.

One of my colleagues sent me a post this time saying, Â?You might consider
doing a column on the recent mudslides in La Conchita [Ventura County]
that appear to have taken as many as 20 lives--three children.Â? He want on
to observe that Â?Authorities pleaded with people to leave, citing the
imminent threat posed by the mountain, which had slid several times
before. They chose to stay.Â?

In light of this, my colleague asks, Â?What is the proper balance between
a paternalistic state and individual liberty? Does the State have a
responsibility to warn peopleÂ?if that?Â?as many people feel it failed to do
in Indonesia? Or should it literally remove people from their homesÂ?as
they did in Florida prior to the Hurricane and forbade them from returning
until it was Â?safe.Â? Similarly, the Coast Guard has a right to move people
from their boats if they feel the crafts are unsafe. I know where you will
come down, but I think it worthy of comment, because the theme cuts across
so many public policy areas (seat belts, smoking, motorcycle helmet
laws)Â?as you well know.Â?

Let me get to the principle at issue first. In a free society it isnÂ?t
the role of government to get involved in such matters. Governments have
as their task to secure our rights and whatever needs to be done to do
this properly. As to disaster aversion, warning or relief, there should
and probably would be private alert groups, subscribed to by businesses
and individuals, not much different from how people buy insurance even
when they do not get to use it. Or how they buy security systems for their
homes and cars. The task of government is to keep the peace, etc., not to
solve our problems with rain, earthquake and such.

Of course, this is a Â?best world scenario,Â? which isn't likely to emerge
since people are too willing to fall prey to the temptation to take short
cuts, to try to make use of governmentsÂ? strong arm methods to address
problems, even if this means dragging others in and burdening them with
the costs.

All too many folks who purchase homes in high risk areas expect to be
bailed out not by their own expensive insuranceÂ?which might then
discourage them to buy thereÂ?but by government enforced
wealth-redistribution methods. (One bloke on the Los Angeles CBS all news
radio station, KNX, a member of their staff, who lost everything in La
Conchita, admitted that he knew the risks but had hopes that he could
dodge them!)

In our world, where so many millions of people relinquish their
responsibility for their own actions and lives, leaving it to
othersÂ?bureaucrats, politicians, police, the Coast Guard, etc.Â?to bail
them out, all one can do is hope that some of these disasters, which
governments simply cannot prevent and from which governments cannot rescue
people, will teach some hard lessons that will in time be utilized.

Even the tsunami catastrophe appears to have been preventable, had the
benefits of modern technology been put to proper use. There are in the
Pacific Ocean ample preparations afoot for just such disasters but they
were not deployed in the Indian Ocean. Nor were communication networks in
place to alert people in the various coastal regions when, in fact, just a
bit of warning, once the tsunami commenced, could have prevented the death
of thousands.

Where the idea of individual responsibility more firmly ingrained in the
minds of people around the globe, and proper sanctions in place when such
responsibilities are neglectedÂ?when homes are badly built, on infirm
grounds, or resorts badly secured against impending natural
calamitiesÂ?many of the horrors we have been witnessing of late would
probably have been averted. Instead, things are left to be dealt with by
othersÂ?by people in government who are no miracle makers and whose
attention is by no means focused on othersÂ? interests.

Wednesday, January 12, 2005

Column on the "danger" of too many choices

The Issue of Choice

Tibor R. Machan

Barry Schwartz, a professor of psychology at Swarthmore
College, is the author of The Paradox of Choice: Why More
Is Less (2003), has once again penned an Op Ed piece for The New York
Times, his second in so many years, reiterating his theme that too much
choice is bad for people. This time he has jumped on the bandwagon of the
opponents of any measure of Social Security privatization, in part because
he thinks people are best off with fewer choices. As Schwartz puts it,

There is now accumulating evidence that choice isn't always good. Whether
people are choosing jam in a grocery store, essay topics in a college
class, or even potential partners in an evening of "speed dating," the
more options they have, the less likely they are to make a choice. In
other words, increasing options induces people to opt out of choosing
altogether, and this comes into play when people decide how to invest
their money for retirement.

When the good professor first aired this in an Op Ed in The Times, I
contacted him to explain that the plentitude of selections do not have the
purpose of providing each person with more and more of them. Rather, they
are to serve all the variety of people who would take advantage of all the

Consider this. You go to the supermarket which is brimming with
selections. Are they all to serve you? Surely not. Many of us patronize
two or three isles or sections, hardly ever even looking at the rest. But
the store accommodates thousands of customers and the greater the
selection, the more all these customers are accommodated.

Now consider some measure of privatization of Social SecurityÂ?an idea
that is now so watered down, by the Bush Administration itself, that the
Â?choicesÂ? involved are like those given by parents to toddlers, fiercely
Â?guided,Â? we might say. There are millions and millions of people who are
coerced to be part of the Social Security Ponzi scheme (named after 1920s
financial charlatan Charles Ponzi) and the system is not far from
bankruptcy. The returns on what one must put into it are about twice as
low than what one is likely to reap from investing in the stock market.
(Schwartz complains about this point, claiming there is no guarantee the
market will pay this; but then there is no guarantee in anything,
including any government scheme.) So, with a small percentage of what is
confiscated from us now at our disposal to investÂ?but in a great variety
of ways that the multitude of us is likely to utilizeÂ?there is a chance
that some of the money will not be wasted as it is routinely now.
VoilaÂ?bankruptcy at least postponed!

The idea of choice here is that of all the people involved, some set of
options will suit some of them, some will suit others. They need not all
cope with the task of choosing from every option thatÂ?s out there, as per
SchwartzÂ?s scenario.

The professorÂ?s evidence for the harmfulness of choiceÂ?or that people get
stymied with too many selections facing themÂ?is entirely misleading.
Anytime we choose, we do so selectively, from a small fraction of all the
alternatives that exist. But the more alternatives do exist, the more
people are being well served.

The problem, of course, is the professorÂ?s failure to appreciate human
nature. People are, as human beings, individuals, with very different
needs, objectives, goals, preferences, and wants. Sure, there are some
basic needs we all have, but those tend to be very general ones and can be
satisfied in a variety of ways. We all need food and clothing and
transportation but not the same kind by any means.

We also can use putting away for our old age, at least many of us can,
but exactly how we ought to do this will vary. Some may need to start to
do so early in life, some only later. Some, whose services are widely and
steadily wanted and who are good at keeping up the work may need not worry
about this at all, not in the systematic fashion that involves insurance

Unfortunately too many people are like Professor SchwartzÂ?they do not see
just how important individual differences are and even fail to see that
similar needs can be satisfied in a great variety of ways. So they keep
insisting on the one-size-fits all approach, which tends to support
various coercive public policies, all in the name of helping us out.

Column on Pride in one's Heritage (sans typo)

What Should we be Proud of?

Tibor R. Machan

In our local paper itÂ?s big news and I donÂ?t like it. I am talking about
how Santa Ana mayor Miguel Pulido, who moved to Orange County from Mexico
City, is proud of his heritage. He tells it up front: Â?I am very proud of
my heritage and my backgroundÂ?Â? although he adds that Â?sometimes it is

In fact, although Pulido isnÂ?t gung ho about his hailing from Mexico, it
is noted about him that when someone in school called him Â?Mike,Â? he
insisted on being called Â?Miguel.Â? OK, you are the boss about your nameÂ?I
myself have fully manufactured the pronunciation of my last name but for
opposite reasons. I wanted to become an American as much as I could,
without wishing at all to hide where I came from. (So Â?Machan,Â? while
sounding nothing like it in Hungarian, now sounds Â?McCannÂ? in English,
whereas Â?TiborÂ? is out and out Hungarian.)

But why the fuss? Well, I am always hoping people will take language
seriously and Â?being proud of somethingÂ? very much suggests that you had
something to do with bringing it about. Like the firm you built or
painting you created or novel you wrote, provided, indeed, that they have
merit, are worthy achievements.

But what then with such expressions, Â?I am very proud of my daughterÂ?s
achievementsÂ?? Well, yes, what about them?

Here the trick is that many parents firmly believe they mold their
children into who they are, especially when they turn out to be pretty
good people. But is this really a good idea? Are our children fashioned by
us? Are they our creations, like one of our paintings or poems? Are they
sculpted by us?

I am very hesitant to sanction this kind of understanding of parenting,
including my own. Sure, parents do have an influence on their kids, good
and bad. But that goes only so far. It is a distinctive attribute of human
beings that they are substantially self-made. They have free will and
within certain limits they take over their own development pretty early in
their lives. Parents know this only too well, as they often observe their
own offspring turning out to be very different from what they had hoped
and worked for them to become. No doubt, there are all sorts of subtle
influences they do exert, probably mainly by setting an example for how to
be a human being, for good or for ill. But in time even that is largely up
to the child, whether to pay attention to the parentsÂ? way of doing things
or to, say, some rock or movie starÂ?s. Or they will become captivatedÂ?an
interesting term(!)Â?by a scientist, an accountant or drug dealer. It is
all really not very predictable and that is, indeed, what makes human
beings so interesting and scaryÂ?you never quite know what they will choose
to do and be.

So, the expression Â?I am very proud of youÂ? is a bit fishy. Perhaps it
should be rephrased to Â?I am very glad about how you turned our or who you
have chosen to become.Â? A mouthful but more to the point, I think.

So what about being proud of Â?my heritage and my backgroundÂ?? I, for
instance, was born and raised in Hungary and my background includes two
fanatical athletic parents, one of whom happened to be an avid supporter
of the Nazis and a virulent anti-Semite.

Now, I suppose if the mayor should be proud of his heritage, I ought to
be ashamed of at least part of mine. But thatÂ?s nonsenseÂ?I feel absolutely
no shame for my fatherÂ?s vices, nor for the virtues of my mother or
grandparents, whatever they were. Fact is, we can, strictly speaking, only
be proud of what we have done, of who we are not what we are. I am a male,
Caucasian, hailing from Hungary, 6Â? 2Â?, etc., and so forth. None of this
is anything I am or should be proud of. I like some of it, yesÂ?some of
what I picked up from Hungary, like their cooking, the gypsy music they
played a lot, and many more subtle things I am pleased about. But then I
Â?picked upÂ? a lot of stuff since then, the blues, jazz, the English novel,
American court room drama and you name itÂ?but none of it is anything I
achieved, so none of it makes or should make me proud. What makes me proud
has to do with whatever worthy stuff I have created, achieved, thatÂ?s all.
Same with what I feel shame for, my own failings.

I do think if we stuck to this for what we are proud and ashamed of, we
could come closer to avoiding all that ethnic and racial pride and hatred
that has wrought such hell on earth upon the human race.