Saturday, September 23, 2006

Willie Nelson, Public Enemy?

by Tibor R. Machan

In the midst of the U. S. A. going nearly broke from the Iraq War,
the War on Terror, and a rupturing corporate and personal welfare
state, I cannot imagine something much more pointless and wasteful
than the war on drugs. In my own neck of the woods several busts have
occurred recently, bringing to "justice" cultivators of various
patches of marijuana in various swanky neighborhoods, at huge cost to
law enforcement organizations, which is to say, to the citizenry that
funds them. But that is not really the worst of it.

Willie Nelson, the singer -- who looks to me to be about as harmless
a soul on the entertainment-celebrity roster as one can imagine --
has recently been busted for having and using some pot on his tour
bus. That, by all accounts, is the reality and the symbol of the
worst aspects of this utterly insane undertaking, the war on drugs.

The man was doing no one any harm -- he could have been sipping a
beer, chewing tobacco, or having a martini but, instead, his choice
of drugs was one that happens, quite irrationally, to seriously
offend influential elements of the voting public and politicians.
This new prohibition is, of course, no more sensible, nor any more in
accord with principles of a just human community -- which is supposed
to leave us free of out of control, offended meddlesome folks -- than
was the previous nationwide prohibition of alcohol that finally had
to be scrapped because of the bona fide crime it spawned throughout
the country. In the case of Mr. Nelson, though, there is something
else that this insane, immoral war illustrates.

American prisons are filled with such harmless drug offenders! I was
recently visiting one of those, in Lompoc, California, and some 70%
of the inmates are there for having been convicted of drug-related
offenses. Some are users, some are "pushers" or dealers, some are
probably more involved on the enforcement side of the industry
(which, being illegal, cannot count on the official police to provide
any remedy for the commercial malfeasance that plagues many

All this is happening in what President George W. Bush and his pals
so proudly call a free country, indeed, as they would have it, the
only country on the face of the globe truly involved in spreading
liberty to all. What a crock that is and how hypocritical it must
come off to most observant foreigners, including, sadly, the worst of
them whose hatred of America and its professed system, a free
capitalist society, is very likely fed by it.

Also, since the U. S. A. has more prisoners than nearly any country
around the world, and since that's something people tend to find
disturbing about a society, namely, its huge prison population --
given that this suggests widespread serious criminal activity in the
place -- the proclamation by our leaders that we are a bastion of
liberty can only be most embarrassing and self-defeating.

Of course, free men and women can become criminals. No one should
expect a free society to be a utopia. Yet, it does reflect badly on
the U. S. A. to have so many of its citizens turn to crime. And when
looked at without a careful consideration of what counts as crime in
the country, this bodes ill for the very idea of a free society --
makes it look like freedom and crime go hand in hand. So the very
objective that supposedly animates Bush & Co. in the Iraqi war --
spreading freedom to the world's enslaved and oppressed -- can seem
rather pointless and even counterproductive, given this association
of what is deemed a free society and the proclivity to crime by so
many of its citizens.

Yet, of course, the crimes these citizens have a proclivity for are
phony crimes -- it is as if eating hot dogs were a crime, or dancing,
or watching professional sports on TV. No wonder the prisons are full
-- prisoners occupy them who have been put there unjustly, without
any good reason.

The statistics do not, of course, show this. But if one extrapolates
from the prison I visited to all the rest, it looks like the criminal
element in the country is but a fraction of those who are officially
deemed to be criminals.

I do wish Willie Nelson could generate a revolution from his own
perfectly unjust and vile arrest on the charge of indulging in the
use of marijuana. We need this war on drugs ended, immediately. Maybe
that would not only improve our reputation abroad but could divert
the misused monies funding it to something worthwhile -- for example,
tax reduction.
Hungary's Malaise

by Tibor R. Machan

Shortly after Hungary set off the fall of Soviet-style socialism in
1989, when that country's rulers allowed visitors from what then was
East Germany to leave without any hindrance for West Germany, my
mother, who had lived there for all of her life before being allowed
to leave in 1975, made some interesting predictions. The decision by
the Hungarian rulers was the first step toward the dismantling of the
Soviet Empire. But my mother thought it wouldn't necessarily lead to

Her idea came back to me during the last few days when Prime Minister
Ference Gyurcsany, identified by some as "the golden boy" of
Hungary's Socialist Party, got himself into serious trouble with many
Hungarians for having admitted, in a leaked interview, that during
the election which got him his current job he was lying about the
country's economy "morning, evening and night." Given that this was
said in a recording that captured his own voice, Gyurcsany could not
and never did deny that he made that statement.

What my mother said to me back after the fall of the Soviet-style
socialists was that unless all those who were part of the old,
communist regime were put in jail, the country would eventually be
retaken by the former bosses because there was no group of classical
liberal leaders ready to lead the country away from its dismal
socialist past. She was confident that without such a group of new
leaders, with genuinely new ideas, Hungary would slowly return to its
old socialist ways.

What my mother said seemed to me to echo the more scholarly
reflections of Professor Janos Kornai, in his book Road to the Free
Market Economy: Shifting from a Socialist System the Example of
Hungary (Viking, 1990).

What Kornai focused on, in particular, is the temptation faced by the
newly reconstituted but unreconstructed socialists -- who were
welcomed by the post-Soviet regime to take part in Hungary's
political affairs -- to produce a nominal free market system that is,
in reality, merely a bit different from the old socialist economy. In
short, they would attempt to forge a powerful welfare state,
promising to provide all the impossible perks of the old regime, only
without the accompanying totalitarian politics. Kornai warned that
this is going to be impossible and will simply lead to economic
collapse. As the saying goes, you cannot squeeze blood out of a
turnip. A broken economy like that produced under Soviet-style
socialism simply cannot sustain the burdens of a welfare state. Why?

Because where there is no wealth, one simply cannot steal much. While
Kornai was too polite to put it just this way, the plain fact is that
a welfare state depends on there being enough wealthy people from
whom the government can steal so as to provide the perks the
politicians are always tempted to promise to the voters.

Hungarians are arguably experiencing the consequences of not heeding
Kornai's advice, and of failing to come up with a genuine free market
political leadership. Instead, for more than two decades, the country
has been trying to make do with a hodge-podge post-Soviet regime that
fails to actually give up the socialist dream. While a country such
as the United States of America can get away with such a hodge-podge
system, since its basic infrastructure has for many decades provided
reasonably firm protection to basic classical liberal institutions --
e.g., the right to private property, freedom of contract, civil
liberties, etc. -- in Hungary there is no comparable history to fall
back upon. So once the barrel has been scraped, there is nothing more
left to steal. There are no rich companies, rich individuals, rich
investors and so on who could be conscripted to come up with the
funds to sustain the welfare state.

Given this reality, what else can a socialist do but lie, lie and lie
some more? And once the citizens of the country discover this -- and
that's one benefit of having left the Soviet-style system behind,
namely, great openness about what politicians are doing -- the regime
will meet with considerable opposition. And this is how the PM is
urged to resign. He is refusing to do so but it is difficult to see
where he can go now. The jig is up, as the saying goes.

There is no socialist miracle. Unless the country generates some
solid non-socialist leadership and who persuade the citizenry to have
some patience while the economy recovers, prospects for peace and
prosperity are dim.
Puritanism at the UN

by Tibor R. Machan

Iran's president, Mahmud Ahmadinejad, gave a pretty vapid talk at the
UN, intimating but rarely naming names of those he deemed guilty --
but there was a moment when his true outlook managed to surface. I
was watching him give his speech and the translator relayed one of
his sentences in which Ahmadinejad attacks all those who perpetrated
"injustice, violence and decadence."

Of course, no one wants injustice and few want violence, especially
the kind that is initiated as distinct from being used in
self-defense. But what about this outburst at decadence?

A couple of matters come to mind about that right away. First, there
is H.L. Mencken’s famous quip, "A Puritan is someone who's afraid
that somewhere, somehow, somebody might be happy!" That is just what
can be expected from a death-loving leader. What really is wrong with
the Americans and those who like them is that they export pleasure --
some of it perhaps ignoble, admittedly, but most of it simply good
fun -- around the globe.

When people learn about this way of life, they tend to respond
positively. And they begin to reject the leadership of those who are
intent on imposing nothing but drudgery on all those they presume to
lead. If it isn't your duty to suffer all the time, why would you
tolerate a bunch of leaders who insist that you be subjected to their
orders, their regimentation, their demands for sacrifices from you?
So American "decadence" is clearly hazardous to the health of these

But there is something else about this lament about how American and
its friends spread decadence. Sadly, even the leadership in America
and Co. have some problem responding to the charge in appropriate
fashion, namely, admitting it and standing up for pleasure. In much
of the West a compromises has been reached between the official
doctrine that human life must mainly include sacrifice and drudgery
and that it may also involve some measure of pleasure and happiness.
The former position is still the widely propounded one, even among
intellectuals who ought to know better. In our very own time a whole
slew of them are writing books denouncing happiness, claiming it
isn't good for us -- indeed, paradoxically, that it makes us unhappy.
(Dan Gilbert of Columbia University is a forceful voice championing
these ideas.)

And religions throughout the West promote this notion quite
vociferously, although in most there is room made for mundane
pleasure and happiness as well. However, these are not openly
advocated, promoted. Only in the marketplace, which has never been
favored either by most of the clergy or the bulk of the
intellectuals, are pleasure and happiness approved. Sometimes this
is true also in self-help psychology books but not so boldly just
now, what with so many academic psychologists pooh-poohing it all
recently. There is still a bit of the "happy ending" mentality in
Hollywood and in the pulp fiction industry but these are deemed, by
most of the literati, gauche and pedestrian. The highfalutin' among
us don't speak up for the anti-Puritan school of thought.

So, the Iranian president did something smart. And here he is
following the lead of Osama bin Laden and the host of others who
claim to speak for Islam and the Arab world. That is, he hit the West
where the West has trouble standing up for itself. Will George W.
Bush say, openly, that it is quite OK, indeed, grand, to seek
happiness in life, even some substantial pleasure? Will others,
especially in the academy, defend "the good life," meaning a life
that is enjoyable, fun, satisfying?

No, sadly, they will not. So the charge leveled by President
Ahmadinejad will probably go unanswered. Which means all those of us
who do actually look forward to enjoying our lives will remain
intellectually defenseless unless we ourselves are confident about
our righteous path. We need to realize that there is absolutely no
conflict between benevolence toward our fellow human beings,
generosity toward those in dire straits, and a healthy dosage of
personal joy in life.

Of all people, Oprah Winfrey had it right, speaking in Baltimore on
04/10/06 at a fund raiser, when she recounted a little story: "I was
coming back from Africa on one of my trips, ... I had taken one of my
wealthy friends with me. She said, 'Don't you just feel guilty? Don't
you just feel terrible?' I said, 'No, I don't. I do not know how my
being destitute is going to help them.' Then I said when we got home,
'I'm going home to sleep on my Pratesi sheets right now and I'll feel
good about it.'"
Thursday, September 21, 2006

Tibor R. Machan

A wonderful aspect of a free, capitalist society is that nearly everything is privately owned. That applies to churches -- they are owned by the order, such as Roman Catholics, Methodists, Baptists, Moonies, Muslims, Hindus, and all the some 4200 different religious groups (that's the number of how many different religious groups exist in the USA now []) -- or by their congregations. Because a free society has no state religion, various religious groups are not involved in politically squaring off against one another. Sure, there are some political aspects of some religious orders, but in the main their affairs are left to the social and private realms of our lives.

In countries where government and religion are closely linked, efforts to rule the public square are among the ambitions of most religious groups. Just consider Jerusalem, which is constantly being fought over, both politically and physically. Arguably, whenever some religious group wins the political fight in a country, the rights of those who do not belong to this group are seriously jeopardized. Exclusion of those not among the ruling sect from public policy decision-making is routine. Efforts to gain political power by those religious groups which don't enjoy it is often the source of major upheavals.

But it also goes beyond the borders of such countries, as is evident in the current controversy over Pope Benedict's comments in which he quoted certain texts critical of Islam. In a free society -- and even in partially free ones like the USA or Canada -- such remarks may attract critical attention in various forums of disputation such as magazines, newspapers, books, conferences, university seminars and the like. Normally, though, no one is going to take to the streets, and no one is going to offer threats of violent or legal action against those with whom one is debating even very serious issue.

What leads to this substantially peaceful approach to religious disagreement and dispute is the institution of private property rights. One can gather together with one's fellow faithful and keep dissidents away or insist on peaceful terms should they be allowed to enter. Dissidents, heretics, and the like do not have free entry to sacred grounds -- they are privately held and maintained. Although in most cases church entry is not barred to non-believer visitors, it is clear that they are allowed in only if they act in a respectful and civilized manner.

Look at the places around the globe where religion permeates everything, especially the public square -- meaning politics. Everyone has the idea that everything is open to his or her influence. Everyone believes that other people's most private affairs -- their beliefs, faith, religious practices, ornaments, sacred texts -- are fair game for anyone to bother about. No one can be kept out and if one is a member of a minority faith, persecution is nearly certain. If groups are roughly the same size, they often perpetrate continual violence against one another, as in India and Pakistan.

Of course, this is partly due to the tribalism which runs rampant in such societies. Individual rights are ignored; what matters is solidarity and loyalty to some group. The groups craving such loyalty are willing to do nearly anything to stay on top, to rule the realm.

Roman Catholics in the West and elsewhere used to be like this, of course, willing to deploy whatever means would work so as to be dominant in some country, to determine what the laws were, what public policies -- which pretty much means involvement in every social and private matter important to people -- should prevail. Dissidents, heretics, unbelievers would experience vicious reprisals. Other religions would follow suit -- it was very often a matter of them versus us, based on the sacred texts and idols that were to be worshipped.

It is a remarkable achievement of the classical liberal political tradition to have begun to restrain this kind of conduct on the part of religious -- and, indeed, other -- groups. The American founders and framers, especially, established major obstacles to religious groups taking over everyone's life in society. They were to be kept within their own realms and whatever proselytizing they did had to be confined to the peaceful, civilized means of advocacy, sermonizing and preaching.

Sure, there are exceptions in the U.S. today, and various religions try to butt into the lives of everyone with trying to get gay marriages, contraception, abortion and other practices legally banned based on their particular doctrines. (One reason some religions try very hard to pass themselves off as scientifically based or condemn secular views as faith based is that this way the distinction between what is religious and what is not may be obscured.)

In any case, in a fully free society religion would be barred from the public square and that is a very good thing indeed. This doesn't ban religious views, doesn't keep these views from guiding people's personal conduct but it reduces their frequently acrimonious impact on politics.
Friday, September 22, 2006

Tibor R. Machan

There are small signs showing that many, many people even in this relatively free society are wedded to statism -- the belief that the government is the head of society, which is itself a sort of organism. Those of us not part of the government are, in turn, its subjects, subservient to it.

According to the political philosophy of the American founders and many of the framers, government is not the head of society. Instead it is instituted or established to perform a specific function, not very different from how other professionals such as educators, scientists, doctors, and so forth are. In a complex, modern society all these have grown into nearly permanent agencies. But none of them is authorized to rule us, only to perform services for which we employ them. In other words, the relationship between citizens and government is akin to that between clients and professionals, fully voluntary and with both parties enjoying equal legal status.

However, this idea is far from truly embraced even in the United States of America, let alone around the world. One way one can notice this is by observing how often people talk of how the government "permits" this, or "allows" that, or "lets" us do something else. "Permissions" are given by superiors, not equals; or by those who own some domain, such as their home or place of business. You need permission to enter or use these because someone else own them.

But government in a free society doesn't own anything except some properties needed for it to do its job of securing our rights. So when it comes to, say, writing a book or speaking our minds or traveling or doing our work, these are not "permitted" or "allowed." These are done because we have a right to do them, not because Uncle Sam gives us permission or "lets" us do them.

Yet a great many supposedly free citizens speak as though they were subjects, as if there were a monarchy in force and what people in the country do required the permission of the monarch -- king, tsar, pharaoh, or some similar ruler or even dictator. Even the welfare state aspires to such status, what with all of its regulatory agencies that issue licenses and permits and the like to citizens. The old governmental habit simply continues in substantial force, never mind that strictly speaking it was always a ruse, unfounded in anything like justice. Indeed, all talk about kings and such, His or Her Majesty and similar titles of status were always a sign of some people having managed to pull the wool over the eyes of millions of others, or simply subdue them by brute force. None of it was ever just and true. It was always on the order of some myth, not unlike talk about fairies or witches or mediums. All these are make-believe, even though some sadly give them credence.

The same is true of the idea that governments are in charge of us, give us permission to live and work, allow us to act this way or that. No. The reality is that governments are our hired agencies which have a specific job to do, not unlike our dentists or plumbers. Folks we hire to do perfectly honorable tasks do not rule over, but rather enter into voluntary relations with, us. And that's how governments need to be understood if indeed human beings are free and responsible adults, not wards of the state.

Unfortunately too much history has passed by during which the deception that there are natural rulers who get to run the lives of others has gone only mildly challenged. Too many places around the globe still smother under the influence of that despicable idea. And with the emergence of democracies the myth continues, based on the misguided notion that when lots of us get together and agree, we may run roughshod over the rest.

But whether it is one king or a million, none has the just authority to rule others. Here it is vital to remember the idea so well expressed by Abraham Lincoln: "No man is good enough to govern another man without that other's consent." And that means, among other things, that what we do which does not intrude on other people is something we need no permission to do. This is so even if it isn't the wisest or most prudent of things for us to do -- that's our business and no supervisor is part of the deal, not if we are free human beings, citizens, rather than subjects.