Tuesday, November 15, 2005

Nanocars and Other Nifty Feats

Tibor R. Machan

My full confidence in Ayn Rand’s judgment waned a bit when she got all gushy about a space shot she was invited by the White House to witness close up, if I recall right. Yes, as a technological feat the shot was a marvel all right. But so was Sputnik, yet I was not tempted at all to celebrate the Soviet’s achievement. Why? Because it was done at the point of a gun. And if anyone ought to know that “Morality ends at the point of a gun,” Ayn Rand should have since she is the one who made the best philosophical case for that very vital notion.

So when I was reading about how some folks have come up with actual, functioning nanocars, tiny as all get out—reportedly made from a single molecule—yet capable of being driven around on some kind of golden highway [THE WEEK, Nov. 5, 2005, p. 19], I was thinking to myself how cool this is, yet how its creation probably came at the expense of the resources of thousands of taxpayers who then had to go without.

Since the news item was very skimpy, giving only the most meager of information (that the research occurred at Rice University, in Houston, TX), I didn’t learn whether it was funded in part by a government grant. (See more at http://www.nanotech-now.com/news.cgi?story_id=12107.) That in itself is disconcerting—we cannot tell who to thank for such innovations because, as I argued in one of my first published papers in political philosophy, “Justice and the Welfare State” (reprinted in The Libertarian Alternative [1974], the first book I edited and had published), the connection between cause and effect in the area of production, creation and what is being produced or created is severed nearly completely, or at least severely distorted, in the welfare state. So while one would wish to give thanks to those who achieve such feats as flying out into space or making nanocars, because the funds needed to pay for the process that made it happen came from the point of the gun, it is nearly impossible to thank anyone. It is as if one were contemplating thanking the Mafia for making contributions to some museum or Renaissance art.

There are, of course, those who believe that taxes do not amount to the confiscation of anything—they are, the preposterous story goes, due being paid to government, dues justly owed. But this is crazy and most officials of the government know it since they are always criticizing one another for “misspending the taxpayers’ dollars.” If it belong to the government, then the taxpayer has no claim on it, not even to have it well spent. After all, if I pay my rent to someone I owe it to, and this person then blows all of it in Las Vegas, I have nothing to beef about. Maybe his or her spouse and children do, but I do not.

The fact that people complain about how “their” money is spend by the government that takes it in taxes suggests strongly whose the money really is. It belongs to the taxpayers but is extorted by the government which, nonetheless, needs to spend it properly because... well, because it doesn’t own it. One may suppose that even an out and out thief might be looked upon with some mercy if the stolen goods are directed to really important things, like feeding starving children or supporting important research projects. So what taxes—one of the remaining anomalies of a supposedly free society—amount to is money belonging to wage, salary, and other earners (as well as others with wealth come by peacefully). They are taken by government at gun point, though with the ever so slightly mitigating circumstance that it promises to spend it in some kind of praiseworthy fashion.

Of course, in our era few political thinkers will be able to complain about such confiscation of our resources since too many among these people are what is called consequentialists, people for whom any action can be justified so long as it produces more desirable results than would have been produced otherwise. (Just think of Kelo v. City of New London, CT.) Since hardly anyone can figure out what you and I and the rest of us would have done had the tax collectors not extorted it from us, and since politicians and bureaucrats always put on display their fabulous plans, of which some actually materialize in time, who can argue with taxation—it does some good, doesn’t it? In any case, prior to the completion of a project no one knows enough to figure whether the intended consequences will be produced and will create more benefit than the taking did harm. (Frederick Bastiat’s famous insight comes to mind here about the difficulty to accounting for something that isn’t seen!)

So, despite wishing to celebrate some of the technical feats achieved with extorted funds, I will not. Yes, I praise the scientists, the technological whizzes (I used to literally stroke my Volvo P1800 for being such a great engineering marvel). But given that they shouldn’t have had most of the funds that enabled them to achieve these feats, I decline the invitation to celebrate.

Sunday, November 13, 2005

Bush’s Censorial Temptation

Tibor R. Machan

Does President Bush believe that by his announcing that critics of the Iraqi war dampen morale among the troops he will have managed to prevent such criticism? Does he believe his words will silence critics and heighten troop morale?

This, however, is America and if Americans share a common trait, it’s rebellion at those who wield power. Well, they used to, anyway—most of them. Because the country was born in revolution.

There is irritating stuff in some criticisms of this war. Too many critics have lost their credibility about chiding government for extending its brute powers. The Left likes big government and wants it to perform innumerable “precautionary” measures in every nook and carry of society. The Left, with its irrational enthusiasm for (even exuberance with) every government program aiming to right the wrongs of society, is hypocritical trying now to rein in government when it comes to this particular (foreign) extension.

Just like back during the Vietnam war, the Left kept complaining that we are all being taxed for something few support. Yet the same could be said about The New Deal, New Frontier, and Great Society. These statists would retort, however, that it’s all good with government intervention, redistribution, expropriation, and regulation. OK, then what’s all the fuss about a little preemptory, precautionary war in Iraq?

Still, Bush should have stayed away from his censorial lament, aired previously by his first Attorney General, John Ashcroft. It wont fly—this is not the Soviet Union (yet). I myself have been laying off the war partly because being steeped in it, the US probably should get more solid, expert advice on how to extricate itself from it. The whole thing was ill conceived, ill commenced, and should at least be well concluded. Fretting now about why this is a botched operation isn’t too useful.

But now that Bush raised the matter so unwisely, let’s see why it is a good thing all around to keep up the critical scrutiny he wishes to discourage if not outright suppress. First, everyone needs to get a very clear idea that the military forces of the United States of America are hired to do the job of defending the country from those who would—or are highly likely about to—launch an attack upon its citizenry. The military (or at least the marines) are not, as one grossly misconceived bumper sticker I saw back in the early 1990s, “The 911 of the World.” It should only be the 911 of Americans and so resist the temptation to go gallivanting about the globe involving itself with nation-building and operation Iraqi or whatever disgusting country’s freedom.

Second, once committed to the war, every bit of brain power and moral fiber is required not to succumb to complacency about it, lest the country turn into the very thing those troops have been sent to reform, a suppliant dictatorship. This is a bad war and it is time those with the know-how put their minds to answering the question of how to undo the damage and leave without provoking further tragedy.

Third, history should benefit from the ill begotten war by being taught that it was far from inevitable, that had wiser counsels been considered it could have been avoided and other policies instituted to help those Iraqis—by no means even so many—who really want to live in a genuinely free country (as distinct from wanting to take hold of power and force everyone to live by one’s creed).

No, Mr. President, it is not a wise thing to tell us all to shut up to suit your likely embarrassment from being in the midst of an impossible situation from which you will not likely emerge with a swell presidential legacy. The troops, by the way, will do just fine. They may even be proud knowing that citizens back home haven’t gone to sleep on their citizenship jobs of taking government to task when that’s justified.