Saturday, October 29, 2005

Welcoming Troubles in Washington

Tibor R. Machan

Now and then my pen dries up, as it were, and I rake my brain for something I should write. But actually the problem isn’t that. It's rather that columnists or pundits are mostly expected to chime in with complaints about public affairs and I am actually a bit satisfied just now.

I mean with things falling apart in and near the White House, I am hard put to be upset. Indeed, I find it a relief. After all, it confirms my long held view that making politics such a vital part of our lives is a very big mistake. Most of these people, after all, just aren’t that smart and these upheavals may remind them of it themselves.

I thought this when our former president, Bill Clinton, saw things falling apart around him in Washington in his second term. I didn’t even wish to learn who was right, who wrong—frankly it didn’t matter to me and I didn’t think it mattered for the country. What mattered is that so many people in the capitol were bogged down good and hard and this may well have slowed them down a bit in the most insidious thing they keep doing all of the time, namely, thinking about and embarking upon meddling in our lives without any good cause.

That is one reason I favor political gridlock—in Washington, Sacramento, or wherever it’s possible to bring it about. I am convinced that most politicians and bureaucrats are relentlessly bent on meddling. They see it as their job, even as their life calling. Yes, they believe it is a wonderful thing—it gives them a sense of achievement if they find yet another issue they can stick their fingers into.

Mind you, they aren’t all that different from everyone else except their “work” usually involves interfering with the peaceful conduct of other people. And they do not even consider this insidious. Instead they are proud of it. Like those insufferable schoolmarms when we I was young, who just had to hover and find something to complain and wag their fingers about! (And it didn’t need to be a schoolmarm, only it usually was since elementary and high schools were swarming with such ladies, at least in my days.)

The real difference is that in the private sector when people get antsy, they mostly do something productive. They become entrepreneurial. Although even there we can find many bureaucratic types whose jobs involve bothering other people and who feel satisfaction with this because they think they are being helpful, serving some good cause.

At all the universities where I have taught, I could put my fingers on this when I learned of yet another set of forms one had to fill out, or yet another committee that had been formed to consider something largely superfluous. In the private sector, however, there is often a disincentive by way of the extra cost this imposes on a firm or private individuals, so they tend to be on the lookout for what amounts only to make-work. And make-work in private industry is more readily identified as such, whereas in government it is mostly welcome—people take pride in coming up with it, mistaking it for something valuable.

I was lucky to learn about this early in my life, when I was a draftsman in the US Air Force, working at Andrews AFB near Washington, DC. Following each Christmas, we suddenly found ourselves working overtime and I could tell we had no objective reason for this. After asking around, I was told, without the slightest embarrassment, that the reason was to make up for Christmas spending. And given that this was a typical government organization, no one seemed to mind—the money was, after all, coming from taxes.
There was also that regular routine of make-work at the end of a fiscal period, just before the new budget had to be submitted. We had to make up costly projects so that nothing would be left in the budget and we could ask for more.

Again, while the temptation to do this—often with the utmost earnestness since people who like their jobs naturally like to think of more things to do in it—exists everywhere, it is greatest in government since money can be ordered up without having to earn it.

Well, see, I did find something to lament when, actually, I wanted simply to say that if I were expected to write about all the fine things in my life, I would have a lot more to say. That’s because I follow diligently the prescription of a Seventh Day Adventist bumper sticker I saw many years ago driving about in the Deep South: “Notice the good and praise it!”

Friday, October 28, 2005

Never Mind How Much Worse Things Could Get

Tibor R. Machan

Ever since F. A. Hayek wrote his deservedly famous book, The Road to Serfdom in 1944, there has been a not negligible difficulty with criticizing the welfare state. Hayek’s own famous teacher, Ludwig von Mises, articulated the same menace Hayek did early in the 20th Century as well as in a talk in 1950, now part of his book of essays, Planning for Freedom (1952). As von Mises put it,

The middle-of-the-road policy is not an economic system that can last. It is a method for the realization of socialism by installments. Many people object. They stress the fact that most of the laws which aim at planning or at expropriation by means of progressive taxation have left some loopholes which offer to private enterprise a margin within which it can go on. That such loopholes still exist and that thanks to them this country is still a free country is certainly true. But this loopholes capitalism is not a lasting system. It is a respite. Powerful forces are at work to close these loopholes. From day to day the field in which private enterprise is free to operate is narrowed down. Of course, this outcome is not inevitable. The trend can be reversed as was the case with many other trends in history. ... What we need is neither anti-socialism nor anti-communism but an open positive endorsement of that system to which we owe all the wealth that distinguishes our age from the comparatively straitened conditions of ages gone by.

What could be wrong with saying this? It is largely true, in the sense that there is a greater likelihood of a country moving from a middle-of-the-road policy—which is what the welfare state is (or as contemporary Europeans often call it, The Third Way)—all the way to an authoritarian or totalitarian regime. So with the middle-of-the-road regime in place, it certainly is a shorter and simpler road to serfdom than if a country were a fully free, laissez-faire capitalist system.

Trouble is, this isn’t all or even the main thing that’s wrong with the welfare state. By fretting a bit too much about how such a state can lead to something worse, the evils of the welfare state itself tend to be overlooked or at least de-emphasized. Everyone is concerned about how bad it will be later, few people note that the welfare state is already a big enough mess, so we should stop it already, never mind how bad it can get later.

Welfare states are ones in which government is legally authorized—in the case of the USA largely because of perverse interpretations of the US Constitution by legislatures and courts—to administer selective coercion against the citizenry, in the name of innumerable worthy goals. But no big deal, it is tempting to think, that people in the various professions are subjected to relentless government regulation (a form of unjust prior restraint however you look at it) and innumerable other abuses. What matters most, it’s suggested, is how this can lead to far worse coercion.

Not true. If I slap you around a bit because I believe you don’t do what I want you to, although you haven’t raise a finger against me, this in itself is vicious enough, never mind that I could do worse by beating you with a baseball bat. Even if I contain myself all of the time and just keep on slapping you and others, it doesn’t make what I am doing justified simply because I am not taking matters farther.

Welfare states may never get worse, in fact, because too many people often tolerate some mistreatment but will not allow things to get worse. And welfare states admittedly do not use concentration camps, so if the only problem is how bad things can get because of what they may lead to, it can look like so long as the system is contained, no big problem exists. (Of course, for those in jail for victimless crimes, sometimes for 30 years on end, one would be hard put convincing them of this.) In a welfare state one usually has one’s right to freedom of expression protected and officials of the government are more restrained in how and to what degree of brutality they wield their powers. Civil liberties, such as the right to vote, to get a speedy trial, and so on get some protection, although often very unevenly. The ACLU, for example, goes to the aid of artists, political activists, educators and such but rarely lifts a finger when people in the business world are harassed, oppressed, and subjected to discriminatory treatment (such as piling on more and more regulations of the entire business community when a few bad apples are identified).

Sure, a problem with the less Draconian evils of the welfare state is partly that they could habituate people to accept coercion from governments, making the march toward a dictatorship more probable. However, that’s not the biggest problem. It is far more serious that the welfare state is a lingering political, moral, and economic malady already—it violates individual rights all over the place and people suffer from that plenty, never mind how much worse it all could get.
Pitfalls of Predictions

Tibor R. Machan

Many moons ago I listened to a lecture by an eminent economists who was predicting that with the unruly intrusiveness of the American federal and state governments, there would soon be a devastating economic downturn. The welfare state, he argued, can only last so long, after which there will definitely be a comeuppance.

That, actually, was also the teaching of one of the most famous free market economists of the 20th century, Ludwig von Mises, the leader of the Austrian School of economics. But he wasn’t alone—quite a lot of others in the discipline fancied themselves to be seers, forecasters short and long range. Be they of the Austrian, Marxist or neo-classical schools, they usually hold to a certain understanding of human nature, containing with various built in tendencies or inclinations, as well as to laws of history or the economic system, so they believe they can, with sufficient data on their hands, tells us what’s about to happen both in the overall economic system and in some cases also with individual human agents.

Of course, all social scientists who contend that such predictions can be made hedge their bets. They do so by way of the undeniable fact that none of us has command over all of the necessary information that would enable one to make a certain prediction—a bit like the weatherman. The most the bulk of them claim they can offer is pretty good estimates or probabilities. To be certain, they would need to know all the relevant facts and no one is so positioned; ergo, one can always provide an excuse for a bad prediction.

Problem is that the initial assumption of such forecasting and predicting is highly dubious. People aren’t robots hard wired to behave in predictable ways within any kind of environment. Their economic decisions often vary from person to person. Indeed, even a given individual can carry on differently in completely similar circumstances—how he or she will act is more often up to the individual than to any kind of fixed factors on which the people in the social sciences can base their clairvoyance.

One consequence of this is that while the social scientists build fixed models of the micro and macro world on which they base what they expect to happen—given even a reasonably clear anticipation of the circumstances people will face—actual human beings come up with surprising decisions in the face of these circumstances. That’s probably because they vary in the degree of attention they pay to them. Perhaps, also, when after a slew of bad policies have lead an economic system to the brink of disaster, many people will finally perk up and take notice of this and change their conduct and policies. So the dire predictions won’t come true because people will often change their old ways to new ones. Moreover, the dire predictions themselves can have the result that people will alter their conduct, having sometimes learned finally what is likely to happen if they carry on as before.

All this isn’t so only when it comes to how the economy works. Back in the early 70s, Paul Ehrlich, the famous Stanford University biologist, wrote the book The Population Bomb (1971), in which he made the prediction that in five years or so the vegetation of the globe will have shrunk to intolerable levels. But it didn’t happen. (Later Ehrlich made a bet with the late Julian Simon about whether certain vital resources would disappear, a bet Simon won because the resources didn’t disappear.)

I am not sure why exactly Ehrlich’s expectations turned out to be wrong but I would bet it had at least a little bit to do with how people began to change their thinking and acting upon learning of the dire warnings. Not perhaps everything—quite possibly Ehrlich made some very bad calculations.

The same with the eminent economists who kept saying that the welfare state cannot but degenerate into a dictatorship. People are likely to carry on negligently, recklessly for a long time but then pull back and take the needed measures to forestall the disastrous results that have been so confidently predicted. Or not—for sometimes the logic of what they did in the past will simply yield consequences that they try to avoid too late in the game.

Still, I think it makes sense not to be too trusting of the social scientists' way of thinking about people, as if we were simply more complicated versions of some classical physical system that can be predicted if known well enough. People will probably keep surprising us, for better and for worse—that, in fact, is one way they are different from the rest of the stuff in the world.

Tuesday, October 25, 2005

Column on School Employment at Will

School Employment at Will

Tibor R. Machan

Arnold Schwarzenegger and his supporters have managed to get several
items on the November 8 California ballot, including the proposal to
extend the trial period for government primary and secondary education
teachers to five years rather than the current two before they receive
tenure. Well, actually, they do not receive ?tenure? in the sense of full
job security but after two years they can only be let go by meeting
various ?due process? requirements?e.g., showing they are incompetent or
have broken some laws.

Ordinary employment situations rarely involve tenure, even in this
restricted fashion. If you hire someone to mow your lawn, clean your home,
handle your tax returns, or flip hamburgers at your fast food restaurant,
you can simply discontinue the relationship if you want to. You need not
demonstrate good reasons for this, although you may get some resistance if
you don?t?complaints, a bad reputation as an employer, etc. Or you can
negotiate an employment agreement that spells out the conditions under
which you may be let go, even conditions under which you may leave. It all
depends on what the contract says.

The policy of tenure, to which a great many government educational
institutions?as well as quite a few private ones that need to follow suit
so as to be able to compete?involves getting substantial job security
after a probationary period. The tenure at universities and colleges
usually amounts to job security provided the entire institution is
experiencing an economic down turn. (In state universities and colleges,
of course, this is usually met with raising taxes, thus meeting the
economic pressure, although even that can come to an end eventually.) Only
if one commits a crime or grossly misbehaves will tenure provide no
protection of one?s teaching position. But it usually takes seven years to
achieve tenure.

The traditional argument for tenure, especially at state higher education
institutions, had been that it will protect professors with controversial
ideas from arbitrary treatment from the administration. At elementary and
high schools this traditional justification is virtually completely moot.
Here the reasoning tends to be that given the low pay of teachers, they
will at least receive job security and thus have a pretty good reason to
carry on properly, even excel, at their profession.

Problem is that there?s an imbalance involved in teachers receiving
tenure, even of the moderate sort that guarantees due process when and if
they are to be dismissed. Think about it for a moment?why must the school
provide due process when a teacher is let go but the teacher who wants to
leave can do so at will? If, in other words, schools are forced by law to
show cause for letting a teacher go, why isn?t a teacher required, by law,
to show cause for wanting to leave?

When I recently posed this question to some who support the existing
tenure system of California?s public elementary and high schools, the
question wasn?t even understood. Yet it is plain?if one side in the
employment relationship must show cause for discontinuing that
relationship, surely it is only fair that the other side should do so as
well. Otherwise we have a case of blatant unjust discrimination!

Of course, how the employment relationship should be structured should
actually be left to the agreement that employees and employers reach among
themselves. That is how adult men and women should comport themselves in a
free society. If, then, teachers can negotiate a tenure-like contract, as
well as being able to leave anytime they wish, so be it. If not, so be it

You may think, well the bargaining situation is quite uneven. School
administrators have a lot more clout than teachers, so teachers cannot be
expected to negotiate a favorable employment agreement. But this is
completely wrong.

The institutional clout of school administrators is matched virtually
fully by the clout of school teachers?by means of their unions. These
unions enjoy even more clout than in justice they should have, given that
governments have rules that mandate from employers the very conditions
that should be left up to the bargaining process to settle. For example,
many unions are authorized, in law, to bargain for employees who are
non-members. Non-members of many unions, especially public service unions,
are required to pay dues. (This varies some from state to state!)

There is also the injustice that governments have largely eliminated the
choice educational customers have, the choice that customers of
department, grocery, or shoe stores take for granted. They are, instead,
virtual monopolies. So their unions have even more clout than those in the
private sector where if a firm is struck, customers can shop at another
firm. (Indeed, the whole notion of public service unionization is an
anomaly in a free society.)

Alas, in our day certain people have come to take their special, unjust
privileges for granted, so much so that even to bring up the issue of this
injustice strikes them as bizarre. But that is no excuse for intelligent
citizens to let the matter pass.

Column on Helping People in Dire Straits

Kids aren?t A Resource

Tibor R. Machan

At times I watch BBC World News because it covers more international
issues than even CNN. So the other night I was watching and there was a
report on the AIDS epidemic in Africa. The report gave some harrowing
information as well as quotations from people trying to raise funds to
combat AIDS.

At one point the announcer read a quote from one AIDS worker to the
effect that it is especially vital that the children be saved. The reason,
I heard her quoting the AIDS worker, is that ?children are the future of

I have heard similar remarks being made when people discuss helping
children in various ways, educational, medical, economic, etc. Children
seem to be of concern because without them, the future of some country or
region of the world, or some important project is in jeopardy.

I have children and over their lifetime I have had ample opportunity to
provide for them in many different ways. But I must admit that my reason
was never, ever that they are needed for the future of America, the world,
or the Western Hemisphere or, indeed, my own future. My idea has always
been that as children of mine, I have signed on freely to give them
support so they can flourish in their lives a bit more and better than
they would without my support. In short, I was concerned with them, not
with what they might be good for.

The kind of thinking that lies behind wanting to give aid and support to
children because they are needed for the future of a country or science or
the arts seems to me to get it completely backwards. That?s because human
beings, as some moral philosophers have made abundantly clear, are ends in
themselves. That means their lives are for them, not some resource for
some other purpose.

Human beings, indeed, should never be thought of as instruments for the
advancement of something else, not unless that something else is chosen by
them as their own goal. People are important not because they make
contributions to something apart from them?sciences, the arts, politics,
business, the environment or whatever. They are important in and of
themselves. They matter as the individual persons they are.

Of course people make contributions to many projects throughout their
lives and whoever values those projects will welcome and encourage this.
But what makes those people worth supporting and helping when they are in
special need is not that they make such contributions. It is that they are
human individuals, like us, with lives and goals of their own.

If one generously supports the effort to combat AIDS in Africa or
anywhere else, one has no justification for demanding that some special
goal be advanced by those being helped. Generosity, charity, or
philanthropy are not the same thing as business whereby one expects to
gain returns from one?s investments. And even in business the gains depend
upon what those with whom we deal choose to exchange for what we choose to
exchange. It must all be voluntary otherwise it is bad business. But in
generous, charitable or philanthropic acts the point isn?t to derive
benefits for oneself or for something one supports, say, a cause or a
project. Such acts have to do with benefiting the recipients. And they
need not come up with something in return. Otherwise it is not generosity
at all that?s involved.

To think that the reason to help those afflicted with AIDS or any other
malady is to further some goal for which they can be useful is to
dehumanize these individuals, think of them as tools or instruments for
something more important than they are. Not that there is anything wrong
with advancing certain causes by supporting those who can help in this
task. But that?s not the point of helping people, not when they are in
dire straits, not when they are experiencing some emergency they aren?t
able to handle on their own.

Children with AIDS need help as the individuals who they are, not as
means to some other ends. That is why one ought to give emergency support
to them, not to advance some geopolitical or cultural objective. Thinking
of them as means to various goals is to fail to fully appreciate their
humanity. People, to put it bluntly, aren?t our or anyone else?s resources
but their own.

Sunday, October 23, 2005

Column on Prestige versus Excellence

Prestige versus Excellence

Tibor R. Machan

Not unlike most of us, I tend to take it for granted that the prestigious
institutions in our world are also those with the best people in them, be
this in the arts, sciences, business, education, think tanks, whatever.
For example, just to focus on my own specialty, Harvard University,
Princeton, Yale, Stanford, Oxford, Cambridge and the rest?surely those who
teach and do research and scholarship there are the best in their fields.
That?s where the Noble Prizes go; that?s where all the political stars get
their training; that?s where all the endowment money goes, and so forth.
So who could doubt that this is also where excellence will be found?

Over the years, as I have done my tenure at various academic institutions
and scholarly think tanks, I have not really questioned the above
assumption. I figured I am small potatoes compared to those giants?or if
not, I was just not lucky enough, or held the wrong ideas on everything,
so I didn?t manage to gain entrance there. (In any case, I don?t much fret
my own positioning so long as I got to do what I wanted, write the books,
articles, and papers I want, teach reasonably good students and lecture to
interested audiences.)

Over the last several years, however, as I have been invited to give
talks to various organizations?think tanks, universities, colleges and so
forth?I have noticed that some of what goes on at these is much better
than what comes out of those very prestigious places. The papers are often
clearer and make more significant points than those written by the stars;
the talks are more enthusiastic, better delivered and the questions from
the audience tend to be really super. The same happens with journals and
other publications?those from highly reputed places do not compare very
favorably with those with lesser reputations.

So, at one point it occurred to me that perhaps I?ve been looking at this
all wrong. I simply took it for granted that whatever the prestige, it
must be the direct result of excellence but now I think there is reason to
doubt this.

Consider that the overall quality of our culture is not all that
outstanding. To start with, the voting population appears to be made up of
a great many chumps?people who arrive at their political convictions with
little serious thought, elect politicians to office who are really quite
pathetic and totally inept, stand for utterly confusing and out and out
vile public policies, and, on the whole, tend to be a very unprincipled,
morally dubious lot. There are scandals left and right in places where
what is wanted is responsible, creative conduct. World affairs are not in
good shape, so the diplomats and bureaucrats who handle it all cannot be
said to be doing a commendable job. The economy is teeter tottering all
the time, with little sustained confidence from those who tend to
understand such matters.

There is the world of the arts, too, where very little truly magnificent
work is in the offing at the prominent museums and concert halls. Not that
everything is bad?indeed, there is good stuff but not, for example, on the
best seller lists, interestingly enough, nor among the works selected for
review in the prestigious publications. Museums aren?t exactly filled with
riveting works, either, and the serious music coming our way tends to be
more very bizarre than very good. Poetry, the novel, you name it?there?s
little to be awed by in our highfalutin forums.

Now if the culture in which we live is generally in rather lamentable,
faltering shape, maybe these prestigious institutions are not really where
excellence is going to be located. Maybe, just maybe, some of the best
work is done in universities, think tanks, and other institutions that are
not on the star lists and the impacts of which aren?t allowed to be very
significant. (Maybe even the best acting isn?t done by the most renown
stars in Hollywood and Broadway but, instead, by unheralded ones at out of
the way theaters and studios.)

To check all this out one would need to do a very rigorous, elaborate and
expensive study, but, of course, only the prestigious institutions can
afford to do that. So, for the time being, I merely raise the possibility:
things may in fact be quite topsy-turvy in our world and what is held in
awe is really not what deserves it most. So I urge you to check this out
in your own world, where you know things best, and see if there is
something to what has occurred to me.