Monday, August 28, 2006

The United Nations' Lack of Legitimacy

by Tibor R. Machan

In 1972 I was not rehired at the Department of Philosophy of the California State University, Bakersfield, even though I fulfilled the promise of finishing my dissertation and obtained my PhD as I was told I would have to so as to be reappointed. I was mystified -- I had a good publication record, my teaching went quite well as a beginner. So what was up?

I had a friend in the office. She checked out the secret records they could still keep on people back then and learned that those records contained something totally irrelevant to my qualifications. I had written a letter to the editor of the local paper, The Bakersfield Californian, in which I argued that the United Nations is mostly a coercive international organization that lacks any moral or even political legitimacy. Turns out, this letter made it into my records -- and through the grapevine I heard it was deemed an embarrassment by the dean and my department chairman. Cal State Bakersfield was just starting up in 1970, and academic freedom wasn't their priority. Looking good in the community and to the politicians in Sacramento -- that was what counted most.

Adding to my shortcomings was my public lecture to the faculty and students, "The Schools Ain't What They Used to Be, and Never Was," a critique of government involvement in the education process. Again, academic freedom is fine if you are a racist, a Nazi, or a communist, but attack American public education and it flies out the window. Or at least that seemed to be the case at Cal State Bakersfield.

Why bring up this ancient history? Because some 34 years after having shot myself in the foot by daring to call the UN illegitimate, I read in -- of all places! -- The New Republic the following lines penned by Martin Peretz, the editor in chief: "Since so few of the states in the United Nations operate through [democratic] processes, there is little legitimacy in the United Nations at all, particularly on extreme questions like force." Wow. Was I prescient or what?

Of course anyone with but the most minimal sense of genuine political correctness -- which means, some care about justice, freedom and human rights -- would know that the UN is nothing but a Tower of Babel in which countries that are out and out tyrannies have "representatives" sitting next to the representatives of countries that are at least moderately democratic and free. So the discussion of any issue must take seriously the input from a bunch of thugs and murderers. Plato, who in his most famous dialog, The Republic, knew what to do with such people when they crashed a civilized discussion, would find my and Mr. Peretz's stance more than respectable.

Well, never mind the personal end of the matter. It is, however, scandalous how much credibility the mainstream media accords to the United Nations, how much money the organization receives from various governments which in turn blithely extort it from their citizens, and for absolutely nothing worthwhile at all. The place would be a joke if it didn't spend millions of dollars on nearly completely useless endeavors while supplying its staff with the most wonderful perks one can think of -- their kids get private education, they always fly first class, etc., and so forth. But the joke becomes most unfunny when one considers the extent to which the UN has sabotaged the efforts of the United States and other relatively free countries to defend themselves and support the poorer, less free countries in bootstrapping themselves up to a reasonable standard of living (see Eric Shawn's The U.N. exposed: How the United Nations Sabotages America's Security and Fails the World [2006]).

Why, on might wonder, would any decent human being support such an institution? Well, marketing may explain it a little -- the UN is great at advertising itself as the most humanitarian organization on earth. All those cute cards they send around showing off how helpful they are, never mind that the world hasn't gotten even a tad better because of all this humanitarianism (quite the contrary if you judge, for example, by reading William Easterly's thorough examination of the history of foreign aid, White Man's Burden: Why the West's Efforts to Aid the Rest Have Done So Much Ill And So Little Good [2006]).

Let me just conclude by noting that so long as the media and thousands of educated people at most of our universities take an organization like the UN seriously, give it any credibility at all, and consider it legitimate, we are in serious trouble in the world. I am not a pessimist but sometimes maybe I ought to be.
Obesity -- Nature vs. Nurture (again)

by Tibor R. Machan

A letter by Professor of Public Health David L. Katz in The New York Times Magazine (August 27, 2006) suggests that instead of genetic or other inborn factors (nature), we should look more to environmental ones (nurture) when it comes to trying to understand obesity. As he puts the point, "While there may be insights about obesity to be gained from peering through a microscope, there is also the risk of missing the big picture. The obvious causes of epidemic obesity are all around us. Any theory the diverts our attention from them may do more harm than good."

So once again we see the age old battle between two kinds of determinism, inherited versus environmental factors. But there is another option that needs to be added. This is personal responsibility.

We are all saddled with aspects of ourselves that we had nothing to do with, and we all face elements in our environment we cannot control. But there are also choices we can make, given who and what we are and the world in which we live. The very idea that we should look more to environmental factors than to our hard wiring suggest that we have a choice. This also suggests that no one has to eat fast foods, or clear his or her plate, or go on various binges. Some of us may find it more difficult to resist temptations than others, but so what? Tall people have different challenges from short ones but both need to meet those challenges they face.

As a teacher of ethics, I find it disturbing that so many educated people opt for removing individual responsibility from the picture as they try to understand human affairs. Are they actually proposing that those who ruined Enron couldn't really help themselves? Or that those who muck up government and public affairs around the globe -- the war lords, dictators, Prime Ministers, and presidents -- just cannot help what they are doing? What about the guards who abuse prisoners, child molesters, plagiarists and all the others who perpetrate malpractice in various personal, social and public affairs?

It is not that the scientist who propose theories that explain everything that we do as something we have to do aren't conscientious folks, but I believe they miss something central, even about their own work. After all, they often criticize each other for getting things wrong and the general public for failing to heed their good advice. But all of that implies that we can make choices in our lives, that we could do better than we have, and that this is mostly up to us, not exclusively to innate propensities and environmental influences.

Which is to say, there is something extremely puzzling about people -- scientists, researchers, philosophers -- proposing that we are simply being moved about by forces over which we have no control, yet becoming upset that we do not take their teachings seriously enough. Surely, if they are right about our fundamental passivity in life, the fact that we fail to pay them heed should also simply be explained as, well, something about which no one can do anything. Que sera, sera -- what will be will be -- and moaning and groaning about it is pointless, even illogical.

But then even pointing this out is hopeless and useless. All the complaining by physicians and public health officials about the circulation of bad food, of lack of nutrition in the marketplace -- which, by the way, is a crock, since anyone who wants to eat nutritiously can do so, no problem -- can have no impact. Things will just happen as they must, so why worry?

Some kind of balance needs to be found between factors impacting our well-being over which we have no control (because of our hard wiring and because of influences from around us), and the factors that are within our control, our will power. If these latter play no role in our lives, well, complaining about those others is equally ineffectual.

Yet the very fact that people like Yale's Professor Katz can produce a letter of warning about how we deal with obesity, and that The New York Times Magazine's editors can decide to publish such a letter, and that I can decide to sit down and pen a column on it all -- these and zillions of other facts pretty much prove that we do have some control over our lives and the main task is, really, how best to exercise it instead of excusing everything by reference to things we cannot control.
Is America Selfish?

by Tibor R. Machan

Yes, "Is American Selfish?" is an annoying question since America isn't some individual who could be selfish. But the question arose during one of Neil Cavuto's sessions, on Fox TV News, of yet another daisy chain of people blurting out ideas, interrupting each other while doing so, rarely able to finish a sentence before a fellow panelist or Cavuto himself interrupts, and carrying on in similar difficult to follow ways. I must say I rarely check out the program and only because someone I know -- Jim Rogers, author of Investment Biker and Adventure Capitalist, among other books -- is a member of this unruly assembly.

It was a brief exchange between Jim and another panelist, a woman whose name I cannot recall, that pricked my ears on this occasion of my checking out the program. The discussion, if you can call it that, dealt with China and the lady was saying, "China only cares about China." She went on to complain that China is only interested in profit, China is not even playing fair on several economic fronts, to which Jim replied by saying, something long the lines of, "Is America not just as selfish?"

The suggestion was, if I may risk offering an interpretation, that America is a country with economic policies that serve its interest and it should be no surprise that China does exactly the same thing. Just how a country can have economic or any other policies that serve its interest is something of a mystery for me since, as I have already hinted, I do not think countries, societies, communities and the like can have interests. Only individual human beings can, although sometimes individuals do unite with others to form an organization that can advance its members' goals and interests. But referring to the interest of a corporation or university or sports club is always simply a shorthand reference to the aggregate interests of the membership.

No group of people, simply as a group, can have interests since what an interest really amounts to is either (a) what one is concerned about, (b) what one wants or prefers, (c) what is actually, really to one's benefit, or (d) some combination of all of these. Only living beings -- which includes even plants and animals -- can have interests, and humans can have very complex ones, due to their highly developed nature. But America as a nation has no interests other than what the American Founders assigned to it because they believed that those interests are shared by all human beings; namely, the securing of the rights of all persons being served by the government. And surely that is not what Jim and his fellow panelists were talking about.

Of course, the American government does promote certain goals in dealing with China and all other countries. Yet this is just the problem. In selecting what goals to promote, the American government must, of necessity, set priorities and these will very often serve the interests of only some, even very few, of the citizenry. There is no way that all of us can be well served when governments set these priorities since we have a great variety of interests, we some 250 million individuals who make up America.

So whose interests are the US government promoting? Whose are China? What on earth could the self-interest of a government amount to when it is divorced, as it must be with such huge countries, from the interests of individuals whom it is supposed to serve? America has no self; you and I do. That is to say, we have personalities, character, preferences, desires, goals, values, aspirations, hopes, and so forth. Of all of these, the government can, by its very nature, satisfy nearly none! At its best, a government can do just one thing: namely, protect our basic rights from criminals and foreign aggressors. Anything else governments do must of necessity serve some specific individual or individuals' interests.

I have a friend who jokes a lot and he recently told me "I do want everyone to be like me; it's, after all, the best way to be, why else would I be the way I am?" I suppose the panelists on Cavuto on Business actually subscribe to my friend's idea, in all seriousness, and simply take it that if the government does serve their interests, it must be serving everyone's interests. And these being folks who are investors and other business professionals, all the talk about China's and America's self-interest most likely refers to China's and America's public policies that help out the business community.

It is not all that unusual to think that that's all that a country's self-interest amounts to but it is just wrong. There are millions, and in China billions, whose interests the government knows and does nothing about. What the governments of these countries tend to do, however different they are from each other, is to promote some collection of special interests, mainly those which the politically powerful deem important.
Why all that Cursing?

by Tibor R. Machan

Is everyone getting more and more mad, angry with the world? Judging by the popularity of HBO's Deadwood and Lucky Louie, I would have to conclude that that's just right.

How could such offerings otherwise be so well received? On those few occasions when I have watched these shows, mostly at friends' homes, the volume of swearing -- in particular the uttering of every variety of the word "f**k" -- has been immense. Sentence after sentence produced by the writers for their characters on Deadwood, for instance, contained the term, so much so that when my friends were watching with subtitles, so as to comprehend the dialog better, these didn't even manage to reproduce all the uses of "f**k." I assume it was too much even for them!

I looked at the Lucky Louie pilot and it had great promise. An exchange between a little girl and her father was hilarious. Yet the next scene featured two adult males who simply wouldn't stop cursing. Not just once or twice during an exchange but each time one opened his mouth.

What is it with these folks? I am certainly no prude and curse now and then freely, with no inhibitions. But that's now and then when I feel upset or angry or disgusted, not always! And that is my experience with nearly everyone I know well, where talk flows freely, no holds are barred.

Do I not realize that these HBO programs are fiction? Of course, I know. But I dispute that the aim of fiction is to present humanity in a disgusting light. For clearly all these people -- and they are nearly all of them on Deadwood and Lucky Louie except for small kids -- are a pathetic lot, what with their relentless profanity, their unstoppable cursing. At least they seem very angry with their lives, with nearly everything surrounding them. Why else would they be made to produced all this foul language?

I don't normally lament the state of our culture. In my estimation there has always been a mixture of good and bad in most cultures -- the arts, manners, fashion and such usually mixed it up so that no era is exempt from its share of the ugly and nasty, nor the beautiful and swell. Yes, there are vacillations and in some years the muck is in greater supply than in others. Thus, all that grunge stuff of the 80s (or whatever decade it was) pretty much consigned those years to the pits for me, along with the "music" of the likes of Nirvana. But if one digs hard enough one will unearth plenty of disgusting stuff in any era and it is only because of the therapeutic properties of nostalgia that most people overlook this fact. (Those good old days look so much better in retrospect than they actually were, mainly because we manage to forget about all the worries we had about our future back then, worries that injected a goodly dose of misery in what now looks so good!)

So, please don't get me wrong. I am not arguing the case for how awful things are today as opposed to what they were back then! No. (I suspect certain old people incline to think that way because they project their own impending doom on to the rest of the world!) My only point is that these shows are peculiar, as far as I can tell -- and I have been a cultural detective for a long time, so I have some qualifications for saying this -- for containing an inordinate amount of swearing. Somehow by this means they also manage to preclude anyone who is genuinely likable in their cast of characters, at least if what I have seen is representative of what they usually offer up to viewers.

Quite coincidentally, just as I checked out these shows, I was also resuming my reading of Tom Wolfe's I am Charlotte Simmons and on page 35 Wolfe produces some insightful observations on the use of "f**k," mostly, however, by college undergraduates. (It is worth checking out what he says if only for the variety of modalities in which the term can be deployed.) But in Wolfe's fiction "f**k" is a term mostly used by the immature who wish to fake some measure of maturity yet only have this pathetic device whereby to do so, namely, cursing. In Deadwood and Lucky Louie, however, everyone but infants indulges. I am clueless, I admit, why the writers and HBO think all this is so precious.
Environmental What Ifs

by Tibor R. Machan

One of the most dangerous trends today, as far as our right to liberty is concerned, is the environmental movement. I am not talking about their worries, of which some are surely justified. But like so many zealous people, environmentalists tend, in the main, to urge greater government powers and invasion of individual rights, especially the right to private property, in support of dealing with their concerns.

But if we think about this a bit, it becomes clear that the greatest friend of the environment, including endangered species, is the principle of private property rights. One way to appreciate this fact is by considering what would have happened if in the past the principle had been firmly adhered to.

For one, road building would have been curtailed. Indeed, all transportation that had expanded by leaps and bounds relied on the taking of private property, something that the U.S. Constitution permits if it concerns some public use. Had it been strictly implemented, the takings clause of the Constitution would never have permitted the violation of the right to private property since "public use," properly understood in a free country, means only whatever is required for the administration of the legal system, such as a court house or police -- or military -- station. Every other purpose would have had to be achieved without violating anyone's property rights.

This constraint would have required virtually all road and rail building, as well as all building of dams, sports stadiums and similar massive projects, to be carried out on a relatively smaller scale than what government sponsored projects that violate private property rights involve. Sure, some of them could have been carried out by the benign means of purchasing land from those who owned them. But the cost in many cases would have been prohibitive and would probably have induced those embarking on these projects to pursue alternatives.

Take, for example, the expansion of the use of the automobile and of airplanes. Without the government's power to take land so as to build, for example, the Interstate Highway system and huge airports, some alternative modes of transportation might have developed because entrepreneurs would have sought out less expensive ways to proceed with their projects.

Counterfactual history is always highly speculative but not impossible. It is often the stuff of science fiction, as when an author imagines what would have happened had Hitler won World War II or had we had to go without penicillin. In one's personal life, too, one can speculate, often enough, about what might have happened had one driven more carefully when one had an accident or stayed in school instead of rushed into family life.

The exercise I am recommending shouldn't be all that different from such "rational reconstruction." In other words, had the political system that held sway in a country been more strictly consistent with the principles of justice, including the principle of private property rights, we would probably not face many of the environmental problems we do face now.

Consider, as another case in point, pollution. One of the main causes of it is dumping -- manufacturing firms or even individuals disposing of their waste without respecting private property rights and legal authorities failing to step in when this happens. Those "negative externalities" that so many refer to as they badmouth capitalism would be, in fact, systematically prohibited in a fully free, capitalist economic system because they involve the violation of private property rights. Instead of reasoning on the basis of some pseudo-utilitarian calculation, according to which it is OK to violate our rights if only some great project is helped by it, a strict adherence to a system of individual rights would have served as a powerful restraint against irrational development, namely, development that encroached upon the rights of people who did not want the kind of development in question.

So what's the lesson here? I suggest that it is "better late than never." If one wishes to organize human communities sensibly and justly, respecting and protecting individual, including private property, rights is still the right approach.
Wishful Thinking From Mr. Lind

Tibor R. Machan

In the August 16th issue of the Financial Times Michael Lind, senior fellow at the New America Foundation and author of The American Way of Strategy (OUP, October 2006), penned a piece titled “The Unmourned End of Libertarian Politics.” Immediately you could tell something fishy is going to be presented to you here because it is one of the most obvious facts of recent American politics that the libertarians have had hardly any role in it.

Certainly the Libertarian Party’s role in American politics has been minimal. At most the LP has managed, quite valuably in my view, to place the libertarian agenda on the front burner of various radio programs and community meetings. But as far as having an impact on legislative and judicial offerings around the country, the LP hasn’t done much.

So what might Lind be yapping about? Possibly that there have been some politicians around the country who have signed on to a few libertarian ideas and have mixed these in with various conservative or modern liberal ones as they fashioned laws and public policies. But here, too, the influence has been sporadic, rarely principled, mostly of the catch-as-catch-can or pragmatic variety. Lind tells us that “The libertarians launched a massive intellectual and rhetorical assault on modern government from the 1970s onward. Their formidable forces included influential economists such as Milton Friedman, the Nobel Prize winner, and Martin Feldstein, who chaired Ronald Reagan’s Council of Economic Advisers; think-tanks such as the Cato Institute; and affluent pressure groups such as the Club for Growth and Americans for Tax Reform, whose leader, Grover Norquist, famously said that government should be shrunk until it can be drowned in a bathtub.” Yet the story he tells is completely out of proportion.

The bulk of the 20th century has been dominated by welfare statism and neither libertarians nor socialists have had a decisive role in turning things their way. Both in the circles of academic political theory, where John Rawls and his epigone rule and still exert the major influence, and as far as public policies are concerned, the welfare state has been the norm. Yes, the libertarians have had more representation in the academy, they have managed to publish more books and magazines, contribute more than before to mainstream scholarly forums. But little of this has managed to influence laws and public policies.

On the other hand, as far as the dominant ideas being discussed at conferences, in books and journals addressing political economy and theory, including prospective public policies, libertarianism has been making headway. Not enough to satisfy most libertarians—although many share the late Ayn Rand’s view that “It’s earlier than you think,” meaning the time hasn’t yet come for these radical ideas to take root. After all, they have only been placed on the agenda of philosophical and related exploration within the last 300 years—that is, indeed, what made it the American Revolution, namely, that the ideas of the American Founders turned over many centuries of statist thinking, for the first time as an official public statement by leaders of a powerful country. But following that statement, in the Declaration of Independence, those ideas had to struggle, experience much opposition, and the reactionaries on both the Left and the Right have made serious gains recovering their dominance. It is not easy for human beings to follow through with even the best of ideas when they have been used to living under the influence of bad ones for centuries on end.

One thing, however, that suggests that libertarianism has been making gains is precisely the sort of piece penned by Michael Lind. Hoping that he will be able to burry libertarianism before it really gets going, he declares it dead in the water. But, of course, this is his wishful thinking. Around the globe, in China, India, the former Soviet colonies, Africa and elsewhere, classical liberal/libertarian ideas are in ascendance. In Georgia, for example, the former head of state of Estonia, who is an avid libertarian, is advising the new government. In the sphere of environmentalism there are experiments with free market solutions in India and China. Privatization is being seriously considered throughout the globe.

This must be disturbing to serious reactionaries like Mr. Lind, who would just as soon return us all to an era where everything had been under government supervision, regulation, prohibition and initiative, with individuals having to fall in line with the thinking of the elite. (On this score, of course, Left and Right are on the same page!)

Of course, if what Lind is trying to say is that libertarianism is struggling, that is advances two steps only to be taken a step and a half back soon afterwards, he is right. And what exactly is going to develop is not something he or anyone else can know—it is really up to us. The price of liberty is eternal vigilance and, of course, there is no guarantee that such vigilance will be forthcoming. Yet neither is the pessimism Lind urges upon libertarians warranted. Their ideas, after all, are really the best around.
Gunter Grass and Collective Guilt

Tibor R. Machan

The famous Nobel Laureate in literature, Gunter Grass, whose book The Tin Drum made him world renown as Germany’s most prominent postwar novelist, had one major obsession: How all of Germany must be held guilty for the Holocaust. The Tin Drum itself harps on that theme and he has continued to focus his attention on morally castigating all Germans, not only those
who had a hand in the atrocities and murder of millions of Jews and others during the brief history of The Third Reich.

The other day, however it came to light, from the horses mouth itself, that Grass was actually somewhat complicit in sustaining The Third Reich. In his late teens he joined the Waffen SS, the combat wing of Hitler’s elite force. He had hidden this fact and indeed had lied about it, claiming that he had done something far less menacing during this time of his life. But in his forthcoming autobiography he fesses up to his past and admits his guilt.

Several European intellectuals and political figures
have come down hard on Grass, including demanding that he return some of the honors he had received over the year, even the Nobel Prize, but others have come to his defense. Among those are Salmon Rushdie and John Irving, both novelists. Rushdie, whose book The Satanic Verses had prompted a contract on his life by some Islamic leaders, claming that it contained blasphemous materials, said that Grass’s work was “not undone” by the new revelation and what he had done was but a “youthful mistake.” Rushdie told BBC Radio 4’s Today program that while he was disappointed in Grass, “We don’t not read the work of Ezra Pound, a Nazi sympathizer as an adult,” suggesting that Gunter Grass case is even less morally objectionable that Pound’s given his age at the time he joined the Waffen SS.

This incidence brings to mind Kurt Waldheim, the Austrian politician, whose past also included, in his very early 20s, cooperation with the Nazis. But there is, I submit, a difference in Grass’s case, mainly because of his insistence through most of his life in the collective guilt of Germans as far as the Holocaust is concerned. Grass has put himself forth all along as a severe moralizer concerning Germany and the Third Reich. And
given that he has been insisting on this theme of collective guilt, questions can naturally be raised about the role that theme has had in his way of dealing with his own complicity.

One thing that the thesis of collective guilt can help with is to obscure individual responsibility. If we were all guilty, it makes no difference how involved one has been in the crime, how much of a role one has had in perpetrating wrongs. The wrong is “our fault,” not anyone’s in particular.

Of course, in fact if one has been complicit, one will have to bear an appropriate measure of guilt and this will likely seep through all the muddled notions of collective guilt despite one’s efforts to submerge oneself within the collective and thereby escape personal responsibility. Arguably—although one would have to know the case more intimately than most of us will ever know this one—Grass’s decades long harping on the guilt of the German people served, in part, to lighten his own feeling of

Rushdie may be right that an artist’s work can continue to have merit despite that artist’s moral flaws. It does, of course, depend upon the nature of the art itself. A novelist who dwells mainly on moral topics could lose his or her moral authority by being a hypocrite and the works may have to be read with this in mind. So what applies to Pound, a poet, may not apply equally to Grass, the novelist.

In any case, there is something morally amiss about someone who has been denying individual guilt and stressing the collective variety who then turns out to be morally responsible and admits it to boot, thus testifying against his own previous theory that it was all a matter of the blameworthiness of the German people, not of the individual Germans and others who brought about the mass murders and genocide.

It would be instructive for Grass to enter into this
discussion in some detail, to work through just what role his focus on collective guilt may have had in hiding his own.
It Begins with the Poor and Sick

Tibor R. Machan

Philosopher types, indeed intellectuals, are often accused of dealing too much in abstractions. As if anyone could escape dealing in abstractions—that is how we think, abstractly, after all. But the idea is really that some of us dwell too much on principles, theories and don’t get down to real, actual facts. If we did get down to the nitty-gritty we would realize that these abstractions aren’t all that valuable. So in the spirit of getting down to particular and hard facts, here is a little bitsy of a story that will show that those theorists are often well anchored in reality. But the story first needs a bit of history, told by the on line encyclopedia, Wikepedia:

“The Grafton saxophone was a plastic saxophone manufactured by the Grafton company from the late-1940s until the mid-1950s. Graftons are now collectors' items. Its most notable player was Charlie Parker. The Grafton saxophone that Parker couldn't pawn to support his heroin addiction was sold at the Christie's auction house in London in September 1994 for £93,500 sterling. The buyer was the mayor of Parker's home town, Kansas City, Kansas.”

How quaint, no? Only in this little story lies a big point. This is that governments simply cannot be counted on to stick to what is mentioned when their wide powers are defended by their intellectual cheerleaders, the thousands of statist intellectuals around the world.

Those folks, you will recall, always ask for more than minimal government, the kind the American founders designated to “secure our rights,” on the grounds that the poor, the sick, and the children surely need it. Who would help these unfortunates other than the benevolent state?
And, yes, that is one gripping story—some neglected kid or other infirm individual is left helpless by free men and women and then the government steps in with all its compassion and generosity and bails out the poor ones. Never mind that in fact the poor ones have been bailed out aplenty by those free men and women throughout the history of the relatively limited government prior to the emergence of what in time became FDR’s expanded state. There have always been ample numbers of voluntary agencies stepping up where genuine support was justified—I noted this in my book, Generosity (1998).
But that historical fact doesn’t seem to impress the cheerleaders of expanded state power. They keep bringing up the poor, sick, and orphaned so as to induce in the rest of us support for their dream society, the all powerful welfare state.
The story about the plastic saxophone illustrates very nicely, though, just how readily those in government abandon a commitment to confining their activism to helping those in dire straits. There is no way to justify the Mayor of Kansas City’s extravagance of using £93,500 sterling of taxpayers funds to buy a piece of nostalgia many in Kansas City were not interested in spending their resources on.
The fact is that no sooner does government get the power to take from Peter and do favors for Paul, those favors will far exceed stepping in as the last, badly needed provider of bona fide help. No, those abstract principles of the public choice theorists—Nobel Laureate James Buchanan and his partner Gordon Tullock—kick in immediately and the politicians, like the mayor of Kansas City, start spending tax funds for a personal agenda of their own. Yes, some of this could arise from generosity, from aesthetics, or some other benevolent motive. But it is mostly a matter of the politician’s preferences and tastes and has nothing at all to do with fulfilling any desperate need or some supposed public interest.
So, yes philosophers and other theorists seem not to be talking directly about actual cases but those principles they work out, like the folks who came up with public choice theory, apply in the real world good and hard. And the plastic saxophone case is just one of millions in which the principle is clearly, unambiguously demonstrated and confirmed.