Saturday, April 16, 2005

Column on Corruption of American Politics

Why American Politics Has Gone Nuts

Tibor R. Machan

Have you noticed? There doesn?t appear to be any room for civil discourse
in politics these days. There is no issue about which the disputing
parties merely argue?the other side just has to be vicious, lying,
deceiving, cheating, wishing simply to hurt some people, moved by
mendacity while we are, of course, pure of heart. There isn?t a discussion
of the merits, the pros and the cons, only of who is evil, who is not.

Take the social security reform issue. Bush supporters see their
opponents as caring nothing about the upcoming plight of young people,
while his opponents must be uncaring toward old people. That seems to be
the essence of it now. Or the war in Iraq. It isn?t about whether the
policy is sound, but what Bush and Cheney must be gaining from it, or why
opponents must all be Saddamites, lovers of a tyrant.

Well, I have an idea why things have gotten to be so acrimonious in
American politics. It concerns the utter corruption of the nature of
American government.

When America?s founders embarked upon establishing the country, they laid
out a vision about its basic ideals and ideas. They so stated this in the
Declaration of Independence. The country was to be based on certain
fundamental principles about human nature, namely, that everyone has,
simply as a human being, certain unalienable rights?to life, liberty, and
the pursuit of happiness, among others?and that it is government?s
function to secure these rights. The rest is all details?important ones,
admittedly, but details nonetheless. It?s about how to do this basic task,
not about what is to be done. That latter issue had been largely
settled?government was supposed to deal with crime and foreign aggression,
little else. For this it has to have certain powers which were spelled out
in the Constitution but otherwise it was the people?you, I, and everyone
else in the country who was to be free to do what he or she chooses and
all our problems were to be solved by us, not the government, which had
its task set: keeping the peace.

Now, admittedly, this is to look at the matter a bit simply. But still
the picture is basically right. The Founders wanted a free country with a
government of strictly limited powers for the purpose of securing our
rights to be free to do what we needed to do in our highly diverse lives.

Already back then it was clear that America is a country with a highly
diverse citizenry. In 1798 a young man, J. M. Holley, wrote to his brother
that ?the diversity of dress, manners, & customs is greater in America,
than in any other country in the world, the reason of which, is very
obvious. It is considered as a country where people enjoy liberty and
independence; of course, persons from allmost every nation in the world,
come here as to an assylum from oppression; Each brings with him
prejudices in favor of the habits of his own countrymen....? (Quoted in
?Endpaper,? The New York Times Book Review, November 5, 1995, p. 46).

So what is national politics to be about in such a place? It is, to quote
that failed presidential candidate Michael Dukakis, to be ?about
competence,? that?s all. Who are to administer the system best? It wasn?t
to be about whether the country is to go Right or Left or Christian or
Muslim or socialist or capitalist. None of that was to be debated because
that debate was over once the fundamentals were laid out and country had
been founded.

Alas, this is now all gone. The party politics we have is not about
fielding candidates for a specific job but about whether America will have
this or that kind of government?big, small, democratic, welfare statist,
liberal, conservative or whatever.

It wasn?t supposed to be this way at all. But because now the dispute is
about what kind of country we should have, party politics has degenerated
into combat, with hostile camps peddling their respective conceptions of
society and dismissing opponents as enemies instead of treating them as
contestants. And that is not what American politics set out to be, not in
its essence.

Column on A Vision of Harmony

A Vision, Partly Fulfilled

Tibor R. Machan

When a kid I was deliberately taught to denigrate Jews. My father was a
virulent anti-Semite, my mother a milder one but both shared this
widespread bigotry in Hungary and, indeed, much of Europe. It took a while
for me to get enlightened, mainly, first, by noticing how ridiculous his
hostility to Jews made my father. For example, he beat me up for liking a
Jewish jazz pianist and he claimed Jewish bankers made sure Hollywood
movie stars looked Jewish so Jews get a good reputation. And then by
meeting Jewish school mates in my first American high school who turned
out to be pretty much like all other kids, a diverse lot, plain and
simple. So, I quickly turned against my parents on this one.

Later, when I came to the USA, I joined the Air Force in 1958 and roomed
with a black airman named Ivan, who turned out to be a really smart young
man and read even more books than I did. So that pretty much did it for
any temptation I might have had to join some other fellow airmen in their

Ever since I grew up this way I have had this deep-seated, somewhat
sentimental hope that all this racial antagonism would just disappear. In
grad school I even moderated a dispute between the UC Santa Barbara Black
Student Union and the SDS, during the late sixties, having gotten this
reputation of not sharing anyone?s prejudices too much.

When I lived in Alabama for ten years I had a chance, on and off, to
study local racism up close?once a hospital orderly was wheeling me to an
X-ray room and made a hasty racial slur against a clerk who checked me in
and when I called him on it he turned red faced, saying, ?Oh, I am sorry,
I am a racist.? Wow, that was a revealing confession.

A few days ago I completed a blues cruise, something I had wanted to take
part in for years but only now got to do, at last, and among the many
pleasures of it I had the wonderful experience of spending three days with
an incredibly racially, ethnically and otherwise?for example,
age-wise?mixed crowd. I have never seen black and white and men and women
and kids and grown-ups and the rest have so much peaceful, rollicking fun
together. There were umpteen mixed couples?African American men with
Caucasian women and vice versa, blonds with tall Indians from India,
Native American women with black men, and on and on, you name it and the
group included them. Dancing and jumping and swaying about, just having a
grand time of it, with blues bands that had white bassists and black
keyboarders and black and while male and female singers and so on and so

Both audience and performers showed not a moment?s notice of this
cultural diversity but I, of course, whose business is to think about such
stuff?maybe a bit obsessively, if you ask me?noticed only too well. And
not only did I notice but I was struck how nicely it flowed, how there was
nothing acrimonious, nothing suspicious, just all good will and the thrill
of the music.

No, I have no grand conclusions I can draw from all this?so I will not
contend that we need more blues venues so we will all get along with one
another or anything of that sort. It may even have been just this
particular group of blues enthusiasts. I wasn?t there to do a study of it
all. But I did experience a mellow joyfulness with how it all felt and
frankly yearned, also, for more of such genuine, unforced harmony among
human beings. It seemed just right and I wished for more of it, elsewhere.

At the various universities where I have taught there has been all this
fuss about diversity and, yet, most often one finds few mixed race
couples, not even too many young men and women of different races or
ethnic groups hanging out with each other. So it is tempting for me to
think, there really is no substitute for spontaneous harmony, for bringing
all these different people together not by corralling them by government
edict or even university policy but, well, because it just turns out that
way sometimes. Maybe if it just turned out that way more often and there
were no threats and fines and rebukes waiting to induce us to get along,
we might actually get along a lot more.

But maybe I am just hoping against hope. In any case, I am sure glad I
took part in an event that exhibited and illustrated that there really is
no inherent basis for a racial divide, none at all, not as people are in
their natural, unconstrained ways.

Column on Creeping Censorship

Creeping Censorship

Tibor R. Machan

In 1927 the US Senate nationalized the electromagnetic spectrum?then
called the ether?which are the airwaves where radio and TV signals travel.
They made this socialist move because of sheer impatience?the Navy asked
the Department of Justice to allocate property rights in the medium but
instead the Senate nationalized it.

Ever since then, the medium has been treated as belonging to us all,
regulated ?for us? by the feds. In fact, of course, the feds pretty much
regulated the medium for the few firms that had gotten a foothold in the
broadcast industry so that for decades thereafter ABC, CBS and NBC formed
an oligopoly and could nearly completely control entry into the field. For
a long while, in fact, if someone wanted to enter broadcasting, one would
be required to go to Washington, DC, and make a case to the FCC that no
other radio or television broadcaster would be ?harmed??lose listeners and
viewers?by this entry into the market. Can you imagine?if you wish to open
a restaurant, you need to demonstrate to a bunch of bureaucrats that other
restaurants will not lose customers? Insane, yet it was the law.

Worse than even this, the nationalization of the airwaves resulted in
government censorship, the complete circumvention of the First Amendment
of the US Constitution, on the grounds of, ?Well, this is public property,
after all, and thus it must be managed for the public by the government.?
Like the roads or anything else government has laid claim to and is thus
empowered to manage.

Accordingly, the principles of individual rights are voided, just as they
are when it comes to a public park or beach where local governments can
regulate who gets to be able to make use of it, when, and for what
purpose. All of this is directly in contradiction to the principles of a
genuine free society.

But until now the policy of government management of speech had been
confined to public properties, mainly?there are rules about advertising,
about having to place public service messages on the air and so forth, and
there is, famously, the ban on the use of indecent words and images. Now,
however, we learn that Senator Ted Stevens (R-Alaska), Representative Joe
Barton (R-Texas), and the new FCC Chair, Kevin Martin, all want to extend
censorship to cable TV (something one must pay for and does not use the
public airwaves) and even to satellite radio, according to the reports I
have been reading.

This is how it goes: First the principles of individual liberty are
abrogated in the name of having to manage the public sphere. That sphere,
of course, keeps getting bigger and bigger?all the public education
facilities, for example, are included, which means that one of the most
vital sources of intellectual debate and exploration operates under
government management, resulting, for example, in the travesty of official
political correctness policies across the country.

Next, once the idea of individual rights has been gradually eroded this
way, it no longer needs to be a public sphere for it to come under
government supervision. Thus we see the push for the ugly creeping
censorship that now faces us.

Sadly, the one organization that is alert to it, the American Civil
Liberties Union, is mounting a resistance with bad arguments?the ACLU is
talking about how ?indecency? cannot be defined, as if that were the main
reason against the proposed policy. Yet even if ?indecency? were perfectly
definable?just as if ?pornography? were?it would not authorize anyone at
all to ban it. Free men and women must self-regulate these matters.
Parents must deal with such hazards vis-à-vis their children, let alone
themselves, not a bunch of politicians and bureaucrats who have no basic
right to tell us what to watch, what to say, what to read or anything.

Let me tell you, this is really scary. And there isn?t even any allusion
to terrorism here, so the folks pushing for this censorship are evidently
very confident that they have worn us all down in our resistance to the
creeping expansion of government power. I wish we could prove them wrong.

Column on Why Liberty Doesn't Fare Well Enough

Why Freedom Doesn?t Sell Well

Tibor R. Machan

At a conference I attended with many friends of the free society hours on
end were spent on discussing why freedom doesn?t manage to catch on
better?why so many people refuse to embrace the idea of a fully free
society. Several famous luminaries, including the Nobel Laureate Milton
Friedman, lamented this fact. Dr. Friedman even suggested that his famous
book, Capitalism and Freedom, published back in 1962, was something of a
failure because it didn?t manage to move the country more rapidly toward
scaling down government and increasing individual liberty or expanding the
scope of the private sector. That is what winning the fight for liberty
would come to, in practical terms, even if in the intellectual realm the
fight has been largely successful (especially since the collapse of the
Soviet Union and the embarrassing records of such countries as North Korea
and Cuba, or even Germany and France, as far as enabling people to
flourish in their lives).

In one session there was a lot of consternation about making the case for
freedom more solid by showing more clearly how efficient freedom is, how
much more one can achieve of what one wants when one is free, compared to
when one is partially?and especially completely?regimented by governments.
And here is where the problem seems to lie, as far as I understand the

First of all, even if one were to deploy the most outstanding arguments
and demonstrations to show that freedom is superior to its more or less
Draconian alternatives, this will never guarantee victory. Even the famous
eternal vigilance, paid as its price, will not make freedom triumph if
people do not want it. And they may not want it for many reasons, even
when upon considering the case for it they cannot come up with sound
objections. Human beings do not always choose what is best for them?no one
can reasonably deny this when we look around and see so many making a mess
of their lives when they certainly do not have to do so. Given the
likelihood that many folks are not at their best, including when it comes
to thinking and acting with regard to their political situations, this
should not be terribly surprising. So, it is clear that even when the case
for liberty is a very solid one, that doesn?t mean everyone will make the
effort to help establish a regime of freedom instead of one of more or
less tyranny. There simply are too many people who want to take shortcuts,
refuse to take responsibility for their own conduct and believe they can
get away with this?and sadly often do?by calling upon the government to
force others to shoulder burdens they ought to assume.

Second, is the most widely circulated case for liberty as good as we can
get? That case is mostly put in terms of how effective a free society is,
how efficient its institutions are to get people what they want out of
life, especially prosperity. The problem is, however, that while this
point is well supported, it doesn?t manage to clinch it for liberty.

Liberty is, after all, a condition that people can use for good or for
ill. And even when they use it for good, if they cannot show that it is
for good they are using it, they will often he defenseless against critics
who chide them. Just consider how many people and organizations chide us
all for being prosperous, for striving to do well in life. Unless wanting
to do well in life is itself defended, shown to be a superior objective,
the fact the liberty enhances this goal just will not make it evident
enough that liberty is of great merit.

In the end, liberty needs a moral defense. It needs to be shown not only
that individual freedom makes it possible to attain what we want,
including our economic prosperity. First, it needs to be stressed that
individual human beings require a decisive role in their own lives,
whatever the results. Second, it is vital to demonstrate that the goal of
flourishing, the pursuit of one?s own happiness?including economic
success?is a good, worthy cause.

Yes, it is, but many, many people deny this and the mere efficiency of
liberty doesn?t counter their objections and doubts.

Column on Criticizing America

America Bashing Continues

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.

Column on Dissing Liberating Technologies

Machan is R. C. Hoiles Professor of business ethics at Chapman University,
Orange, CA. He is research fellow at the Hoover Institution and advises
Freedom Communications, Inc., on libertarian issues.

----- Original Message -----

Tuesday, March 29, 2005 8:32:23 AM
Tibor's Forum
From: Tibor R. Machan
Subject: Column on Dissing Liberating Technologies
To: Columns

Dissing Liberating Technology

Tibor R. Machan

The phenomenon is recurring, so you might think why bother with it again.
But as with many other matters, when they recur, it is good to pay them
renewed heed.

I noticed in a recent issue of Newsweek Magazine that some editor decided
to report on a bunch of people who had recently met at a conference and
demonstrated much trepidation about bloggers. In fact it was a group of
mainstream journalists showing their concern that they may be losing their
audience, now that blogging has become big throughout the world wide web.
But instead of saying outright, ?We are worried about our jobs,? the
journalists whose concerns were reported couched their beef in terms of
politics and social justice. The problem you see is, some of them cried:
most bloggers are white and male. So, clearly, the forum is biased in the
most horrible way: it discriminates against minorities. Or perhaps not.

I don?t know if this complaint has any merit to it?the piece in Newsweek
gave no solid evidence. Moreover it didn?t mention at all what
significance there could be to the absence of minorities from the blog
world. Maybe members of these minorities do not want to be on the Internet
much, just as I do not want to mess with digital cameras, even though it
is the rage (Circuit City people tell me they sell 90 digital to one old
fashioned camera).

More importantly, nothing in the Newsweek piece mentioned the incredibly
wide range of viewpoints in the blogging community (to which I, by the
way, do not belong other than to check some out when I am asked to). From
what I am aware of, there appears to be great diversity among bloggers of
just the kind that should matter to people, namely, diverse ethical,
religious, political, economic and related perspectives. Why care about
the rest? Why is it so important to track whether women, blacks, those of
Italian or Hungarian background choose to blog? What should matter, if
anything, is whether people with different things to say take advantage of
the medium.

All the fuss about blogging isn?t everything that?s being done to diss
liberating technology. The March 20th issue of The New York Times Magazine
published a missive, ?Bad Connections,? by Christine Rosen?a fellow at the
Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington?complaining that cell phones
and such ?have put us out of touch with the manners and mores of public
life.? All in all, this lament, coming it as it must from someone who
finds individualism naughty and collectivism nice, is in line with the
know-nothing tradition of anti-technology. Ms. Rosen in fact begins her
belly-aching by recalling the invention of the mirror in the 16th Century
and noting how it has spawned egotism and vanity (forgetting that it also
helps dentistry, as an example, as well as safe driving).

And that is just the point: most inventions can be used well or badly.
There is no guarantee that no one will abuse something that was invented
to be helpful. In the case of cell phones and computers there are
innumerable ways they can be made to serve perfectly good ends as well as
lousy ones?just consider how emailing and instant messaging can keep
families in far better touch than having to write letters and wait for the
mail to deliver them and how smut has spread by it all, as well. I noticed
some of this with my own children who were quite adapt, early in their
lives, at typing and even spelling, not to mention the right use of words,
because they began using email and IM when quite young.

Ms. Rosen, of course?coming as she does from a mainstream ethics center
that is guided by the altruism and self-denial ethics that academic ethics
has been promulgating for centuries?doesn?t like that being called on
one?s mobile phone in public may make a person feel a bit self-important.
My-my, that is just intolerable. (Never mind that much of the
psychological and pedagogical profession is concerned with instilling
greater self-esteem in young people, encouraging them all to be feeling
better about themselves.)

I say to technological innovation, bring it all on! We will do fine
sorting out the good and bad uses of it without the churlishness of the
likes of the people Newsweek chose to report on or Christine Rosen?s nay
saying. Just because the manners and mores of olden times may become
somewhat moot, it doesn?t follow that new manners and mores of merit will
not be forthcoming.