Saturday, November 25, 2006

For What Should We Thank Bill Gates?

Tibor R. Machan

When a few days ago PBS's Charlie Rose had Bill Gates back on his show, it was Thanksgiving and Rose began with noting how much Bill Gates had to be thankful for and how we should thank him “because of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation which has given a lot to education and global health.” During the entire interview the focus was mostly on this feature of Gate’s—and Warren Buffett’s—life, namely, their charitable endeavors.

Of course, there was some discussion about technology in general, computers, and so forth, but the one topic completely ignored was Bill Gates’ contribution to commerce—to serving his customers well, to creating thousands and more jobs around the world, to investing in new technology and the like. In short, it was as if Bill Gates were nothing but a philanthropist and computer guru, totally removed from the economics of the field in which he has been such an enormous success. The idea that perhaps Gates deserves thanks from us because he makes and sells very desirable merchandise simply never came to Charlie Rose’s mind—nor to Bill Gates’, oddly enough.

As I was watching and listening very closely to the interview I was baffled by why both interviewer and interviewee so assiduously avoided talking about making money and focused only on giving it away—as if one could do the latter without the former. It occurred to me that perhaps Charlie Rose thought nothing of such feats at all and Gates has been instructed by spin doctors to avoid making any mention of his commercial achievements. Or perhaps the producers of the show waved off any such discussion, fearing that viewers of PBS programs would be offended if the subject matter of making money got any attention.

Bill Gates would hardly be of public significance if he hadn’t made a great deal of money from his creativity and diligence, his business savvy. None of his talk of “giving back” would be of much significance if what he gave back amounted to no more than, say, a bit of volunteering at a homeless shelter or making the kind of contributions most of us can make to various charities and other worthy causes. Bill Gate matters mostly because of his technical and entrepreneurial genius which then enabled him to be a philanthropist.. But that issue seems to be taboo, at least during an hour long interview on Charlie Rose’s prestigious PBS program. Why?

My guess is that part of it is that Bill Gates would much rather be liked than being admired for what he actually accomplished in his career. He has become a celebrity. Perhaps enough people in his industry show him professional respect so he can parade for the rest of us his goody two shoes persona. Assuming that he sincerely wants to spend a good deal of the money he has made to help out the unfortunate around the globe, even there it would be of some interest whether giving away the bulk of his wealth is a better way to do this than making more money by, say, building new research facilities and manufacturing plants and providing steady jobs for the poor in Africa. Maybe the example of Mother Theresa has influenced Gates—the lady, after all, did very little of permanent significance for those whom she helped, given that she, too, just gave away mostly perishable goods and did not focus mainly on helping the poor help themselves.

Or maybe the customary guilt that sadly afflicts so many honest wealthy people around the world is at the bottom of Gates’ failure to acknowledge his own true achievements, figuring that he is just one of the lucky ones and doesn’t deserve any pride at all in what he has done. I don’t know Bill Gates but to find out about why he is disclaiming any credit for what should in point of fact gain him the most of it would be worth making some effort to find him and ask him some questions if one were permitted to do so. Maybe we would discover that in his private thoughts he is well aware of why he really counts for something to us all in his life and that the kind of stuff he gets singled out for on Charlie Rose is but a sideshow, one that may or may not be of some serious help (since it might in fact lead mostly to people becoming dependent upon others for their well being).

Don’t please misunderstand—emergency help to those who need it is often crucial and many of us do our own share to provide a bit of it when the occasion for it arises. But even the meager emergency support to the unfortunate many of us provide would be impossible if we didn’t work hard at our professions and earn a decent living. That, not giving things away, is the crucial issue to keep in mind, especially when it comes to a creative entrepreneur like Bill Gates.

Friday, November 24, 2006

A Most Civil Adversary and Comrade

Tibor R. Machan

When Milton Friedman, the Nobel Laureate economists, leader of the Chicago School of Economics, a husband to Rose and devoted father of their two children and friend of VIPs as well as not so VIPs died the other week, I couldn’t find my voice because of how little I could really say at first about such a fine individual and how many others there are who would want to express their grief and convey some of their memories in public. I wasn’t a very close associate, nor intimate friend, only someone who now and then would have the privilege of having Uncle Milty in my life, sometimes as a kind of mentor, sometimes as celebrity intellectual, and at others as a critic, even a severe one at that. My own reflections here will focus on his style of intellectual exchange more than on other aspects of this wonderful man’s contribution to our culture.

When I began my involvement with the libertarian movement in America, I was brought in by reading the novelist-philosopher Ayn Rand but then quickly discovered that beside this stimulating thinker there were several others who had been making significant contributions to the study of the free society. One of them was the economist Milton Friedman, who was, among other things, a founder of the Mt. Pelerin Society, the international association of classical liberal intellectuals founded back in the late 1940s as a rather humble antidote to the massive more or less extreme Left Wing academic, intellectual, and literary movement across the West.

Ludwig von Mises, F. A. Hayek, James Buchanan, Fritz Machlup, and Friedman were just some of the very learned people who felt the need to go on the philosophical offensive against those who in the name of what classical liberals believed is a pure fantasy, namely, the socialist ideal, one they knew was leading countries astray on numerous fronts but most especially economically. Younger enlistees like me had to immerse ourselves in the works of these and many other defenders of the right to individual liberty and the free market society men and women required so as to flourish because, well, those championing statism were, tragically, a vast group and quite learned to boot. But their values and analyses of human affairs were seriously askew, this we quickly realized, especially those of us who had a solid taste of socialism and would-be communism shoved down our throats back behind the Iron Curtain early in our lives. (Rand, von Mises, von Hayek, Thomas Szasz, and others in the classical liberal group had themselves experienced either fascism, socialism or both for part of theirs.)

In time I tried to make some contribution to the literature, as well as to efforts to spread the ideas about liberty throughout the media. One of these was helping to found Reason Magazine as a serious, dependable monthly publication containing accessible yet in depth analyses of society from the libertarian perspective. One of the features of the magazine was to be lengthy, probing interviews with important thinkers from several sides of the intellectual spectrum. These included Nathaniel Branden, Thomas Szasz, Yale Brozen, Bill Niskanan, Bill Buckley, Nicholas von Hoffman, Sidney Hook, F. A. Hayek, Yale Brozen, et al, and, also, Professor Milton Friedman.

I was teaching at a small place in Western New York and drove, in the middle of February, 1974, to Chicago to meet and interview Uncle Milty at his apartment. I had along Professor Ralph Raico and we were joined also by one of Dr. Friedman’s students, Joe Cobb, and the interview commenced. It went on for several hours and when we finished we were exhausted from a most exhilarating exchange with a very intellectually agile and superbly educated scholar.

In the course of the interview we argued a good deal, exploring various approaches that one might take to understanding human affairs and the best economic system that would serve people anywhere and everywhere. While in broad agreement, there were certain matters on which there were some differences among us and I, especially, had a very intense exchange with our interviewee on the topic of whether it is possible for people to know what is right versus wrong ethical conduct. One of the most memorable points made by Friedman was this: "I think that the crucial question that anybody who believes in freedom has to ask himself is whether to let another man be free to sin. If you really know what sin is, if you could be absolutely certain that you had the revealed truth, then you could not let another man sin. You have to stop him." "Interview with Milton Friedman," Reason, December 1974, p. 5. He, of course, held that no one could know when another sinned or did something morally wrong. I disagreed with this and we went a few rounds before moving on to other topics.

Over the years that I have taught and written quite extensively on the subject of business ethics, I have always presented my students with one of Uncle Milty’s most widely reprinted and relatively nonacademic essays from 1961, one that appeared in The New York Times Magazine, addressing the topic of corporate moral responsibility. His essay put on record one of the most uncompromising defenses of economic liberty, rejecting the notion popularized by Ralph Nader and John Kenneth Galbraith, among others, that business corporations must serve various social purposes and not the goals of those who own them. Although here, too, I was not in full agreement with him, Dr. Friedman held that managers must serve no other goals at all but those the owners designate—which is mostly to pursue the prosperity of the enterprise, or profit—and to do otherwise is to betray a trust the owners extend to managers who voluntarily come to work for them. (Uncle Milty told me and some others at Chapman University, on the occasion of the unveiling of his bust some years ago on the promenade of the campus, that, ironically, this essay of his brought him more royalties that any other piece he wrote in his long career.)

A few years later I had the good fortune of spending a year at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University where Dr. Friedman had just started as a Senior Fellow. During my year there I was working on a project about government regulation of business and my approach focused on the ethical dimensions of this by now well entrenched institution—in particular, how it violates certain elements of due process by imposing burdens on people in business who haven’t been proven to have done anything wrong. My way of looking at the practice did not please Uncle Milty at all—he preferred straightforward, ethically neutral economic studies, nothing that involved moral or even political evaluations which he thought could not be well grounded. I was firmly rebuked by him when my work saw the light of day and it was eventually published without his support.

Yet, for some reason Milton Friedman seemed to find some of my contributions to the struggle against statism worthwhile. So in time he and I would exchange views, in person or by mail or at some conference. At one of the latter—which he himself directed at the Silverado Ranch in Napa Valley, with the support of the Canadian free market think tank, the Fraser Institute—we spend three intense days discussing numerous aspects of the free society. We did, also, revisit our earlier debate and things become quite agitated when I once again argued that moral knowledge is possible to human beings and he disagreed, calling this a view that lacks humility. When I noted that his claim was itself pregnant with moral overtones, something of a mini-volcanic eruption occurred. But very soon after the conference I received a copy of the Hungarian translation of one of Uncle Milty’s books, on price theory, with a wonderful note saying that despite our differences, what matters most is to keep up the good fight.

Of course, these were minor encounters compared to the many in Dr. Friedman’s intellectual career but what they taught me with considerable poignancy is how important it is to keep one’s disputations civilized, how to keep one’s emotions in check as one examines even the most emotional topics in human affairs. Not only in my rare encounters with him but in all his writing and public appearances—in his many Newsweek columns, on Meet the Press, in the PBS broadcast of Friedman’s wonderful program Free to Choose, and everywhere else—there was exemplary conduct on display, the kind that too many who take part in public disputation nowadays seem to have cast aside in favor of character assassination, speculation about motivation, and imputation of ill will.

When Friedman produced Free to Choose (1980), by the way, something important emerged in how the design of the show compared with one that John Kenneth Galbraith did a little earlier, Age of Uncertainty (1977). Both of the programs focused on economics and both prominently featured the views of their hosts. However, whereas Friedman ended each installment with a half hour of debate, inviting several adversaries to challenge him, leaving the resolution of the disputes ultimately to the audience, Galbraith pointedly did not and closed with yet another reiteration of his position. (This, incidentally, prompted some at the Hoover Institution to produce a series of rebuttals to Galbraith in both book and media formats.) The episode reminded me of an exchange I once had with a prominent neo-Marxist sociologist at U C Santa Barbara. I asked him why those on the Left had the tendency to use their class room as a bully pulpit and he answered, “Well, we are revolutionaries and for us teaching is always something in the service of the revolution.”

I do not believe too many public intellectuals and academics can reach the level of decency attained by Dr. Milton Friedman. Luckily for us he left a large paper—and media—trail and millions here and abroad will be able to learn from it and maybe improve the quality of intellectual life everywhere.

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Market Blues

by Tibor R. Machan

The free market economy is the most suited to human commercial affairs, there is no reasonable doubt about this. But a free market leaves some people with various laments that then tempt them to undermine this great institution.

When we do all our production and consumption in a free market, we are able to do well as well as badly as producers and consumers, even as we do not violate any principles of the market economy. Freedom of trade, the right to private property, and other elements of free market economic affairs can remain fully intact, yet people in the market place can do many things badly or well. People can shop carefully, prudently, efficiently, attentively and so forth. But they can also shop recklessly, inefficiently, inattentively, and so forth.

Shopping, for instance, can be impulsive, overindulgent and out-and-out stupid, and all this is perfectly compatible with the principles of the free market. Those involved in the commercial transactions aren't going to focus on helping people improve themselves as market agents. Stupid buyers will find eager sellers to please them just as careful buyers will. It isn't generally the task of buyers and sellers to watch over one another's judgments, so often these judgments will guide the behavior of either with no attention to their quality. Sometimes market behavior can be out-and-out immoral, yet so long as no theft or assault or some other violation of anyone's rights is involved, there will not be much remedy of these in the market place.

Of course, market agents do pay attention to each others' judgments and conduct and often act in reaction to finding these flawed, but only later, after transactions have transpired. I find someone in the market who acts badly and later I might avoid such a person, or I find someone who is sharp and sensible and then return for further market relationships, but this is not guaranteed. Often convenience is the primary value being sought, aside from just getting what one wants from others.

But when one steps back and thinks about markets, one may lament all this—how come there are no systematic discouragements against bad, albeit peaceful, conduct in markets? Why are people not stopped from buying stuff they should not buy, or selling stuff others should not purchase? Why are there so many ways people can easily go wrong as they navigate the marketplace?

So there is then the temptation to want to do something, anything, to remedy matters. Apart from people who want to impose their ways on the rest of us or simply want to control others, there are those who just wish for things to turn out better then they can sometimes turn out in the marketplace where people are free to do a lot of things well or badly.

They wish people would act more sensibly, more prudently, more efficiently and so forth and they realize, also, that this wish is fully justified, at least in general terms. They can also see around them individuals who aren't being stopped in the free market from
carrying on badly. And they wish they were stopped somehow.

So they then support government measures that promise to regulate human conduct in the marketplace. Never mind that such regulation is fraught with hazards, much greater ones than the conduct of free people in the marketplace, given that it always involves some measure of some people coercing other people in various ways. Never mind that the knowledge to fix things that may go awry in the free market is rarely if ever possessed by those who would set out to set things aright. Never mind that getting government involved here will encourage it to be involved there and at yet another place, so that temporary and petty tyrannies turn into massive and institutionalized ones. The mere wish to do something about the clearly undeniable prospects of some misconduct in free markets gives aid and comfort to those who would ruin it all in a vain effort to improve matters.

And there is the plain fact that making improvements on market misconduct is always open to people in peaceful ways, ones that do not involve undermining the free market. One can try to influence others to act better but, of course, this takes a bit of courage and initiative. Farming it out to government tends to suit the lazy way toward remedying matters and has the tremendous liability of contributing to the destruction of the greatest human institutions, the free society.

Monday, November 20, 2006

Leftist Hypocrisy #2342

by Tibor R. Machan

I admit it up front—I want to be published in The New York Review of Books, even if only by means of a letter to the editor. I have been reading the magazine ever since it started and often I have something to say about what appears in its pages. Now and then, actually, I have started very civil discussions with some of the authors. Many to whom I send a comment have answered and in some cases we have carried on email correspondence for some time.

But The New York Review of Books, unlike The Nation, The New Republic, The New York Times, National Review, The Claremont Review of Books, Mother Jones, and numerous other publications Left or Right to which I have sent letters to the editor, will not budge. I simply don't get admitted within its hallowed pages.

Well, in the very recent past one of the most frequently published authors from TNYRB, Tony Judt, got bumped from a talk he was to give at the Polish Consulate in New York City and the whole bunch of his fellow authors from that magazine have been bellyaching about this big-time. Apparently what he wanted to talk about was deemed unwanted by his hosts, so they uninvited him. But now all his pals are in a tizzy about it and there have been angry letters from them in TNYRB about this, sounding very much like the authors believe that Mr. Judt has some kind of natural or constitutional right to speak wherever he wishes to speak.

Hey, let's consider this for a moment. Mr. Judt is not wanted at the Polish Consulate, which is not some public square in the United States of America but, effectively, a private one, belonging to the Polish government. He definitely has no natural or constitutional right to sound off there, any more than he would in the Consulate of some other country or, indeed, on any terrain that doesn't belong to him or those who want to hear him.

Indeed, this is not much different from my case—I would like to sound off in TNYRB and have sent them many letters over the years (having subscribed very early to the magazine). I do not send them hate mail, nothing uncivil, only some brief missives arguing a point or making a criticism of some point made in the publication. Yet, I am excluded from those pages regularly, even while some of their authors find what I say worthy of a response when I send them the comment.

Now that is the nature of a free press. You don't get to publish in a forum where you aren't wanted. It is not your right. Newspapers and magazines and web sites belong to people and unless those people invite or permit you to sound off there, you don't get to. Not even if you are Tony Judt, friend of the editors of and of many contributors to TNYRB.

But then this is not really all that novel a phenomenon. Those on the Left regularly make use of concepts of freedom, whether deployed legitimately or not, when their agenda is at issue—while happily excluding from discussions in their forums anyone who isn't on their side.

The Left and, especially its communist wing back in the 50s were notoriously lopsided in their defense of individual rights to free expression—they insisted on it in the United States of America and other places in the West (sometimes quite wrong-headedly, as when they protested blacklists by private parties which they later eagerly employed themselves toward racists and others they didn't like much) while making no protests at all when the Soviets ran a state-owned press and publishing industry and barred anyone not toeing the party line from them.

No, The New York Review of Books is not a commie outfit and often it publishes letters protesting violations of free speech rights across the globe, be it by right- or left-wing governments. But they have a problem. They fail to understand that not every forum is subject to the constitutional protection of freedom of speech. Like my home or the Polish Consulate in New York City, for example, which are not available to their pals to peddle their ideology. Just as the pages of TNYRB aren't to me if they don't choose to have me in there.

Sunday, November 19, 2006

Bush’s Disgraceful War

Tibor R. Machan

One of the saddest things about the George W. Bush years is how America’s reputation as a relatively peaceable society has become discredited. Sure, the U. S. A. has been involved in dubious military ventures throughout its history but not until now has there been a deliberate effort to embark upon a total military transformation of another country by the U. S. A. The effort has been utterly incoherent—a kind of forcing, coercing another country to conform to the ideals of the leaders of the U. S. A., ideals that are actually quite far removed from those of the founders of the American Republic. Sure, some have welcomed this—for example a good many Kurds—but on the whole no one seems to have benefited much and the citizens of the U. S. A., whom our government is supposed to serve, haven't for sure.

When George W. Bush talks of how America is fighting for freedom in the Middle East, he does not mean fighting for the freedom of the individuals of the people living in this region of the world. That’s evident from the fact that what Iraq is now and is likely to become in the near future is nothing like a country in which the principles of the U. S. Declaration of Independence will be even remotely approximated. Iraq is rife with violent public religious conflicts, more murderous today than yesterday, and virtually impervious to becoming civilized. That is to say, there is no evidence at all that a significant percentage of the population in Iraq is interested in setting aside their religious differences and confining their disagreements to civilized debates. There just is no evidence of such a prospect, not because Iraqis are incapable of living in a liberal democratic society but because the chosen priorities of the people are evidently quite different from such civilized, peaceful coexistence.

Secretary of State Rice keeps saying it is insulting to those in the Middle East to claim they aren’t prepared to live in a democracy and that would be so if it meant that Middle Easterners are somehow innately incapable of doing so. But that isn’t the case. The real problem is that too many of them do not value liberal democracy. They value imposing their religion on everyone else in their country. They are interested in nothing like peaceful coexistence of the sort familiar to Americans and other Westerners, with some attending this church, some another, and others yet another, etc., and so forth, with none insisting that those who do not share their faith be liquidated.

Now such folks are simply not willing, never mind able, to live democratically or freely. They have too many criminal inclinations they just don’t want to relinquish. And to fail to appreciate this is a kind of self-imposed blindness. It is a very costly blindness to boot, having already produced deaths that really are all in vein, however much Bush & Co. keep shouting—whistling in the dark—pretending it isn’t so. And that isn’t the only cost of this disgusting war, this abomination of American foreign policy.

A country once thought to be a beacon of the free world is now perceived by many as but a big bully. Its own form of government, a highly intrusive, meddlesome welfare state, is being exported to a region of the world that cannot afford such a system and whose population doesn’t seem to be interested in it at all. Its president is trying to sell others on the wisdom of trying to secure a kind of national freedom that only Machiavelli could appreciate and only for a country that has at least something of a unified citizenry. (For Machiavelli “freedom” meant the absence of foreign domination.) But because Iraq is a totally artificial hodgepodge of a county, such freedom makes no sense there at all. Under a dictatorship it could be intact, albeit as a function of massive state brutality but once the dictatorship has been abolished, there is nothing there to amount to a country, whom our government is supposed to serve, sort of like recent Yugoslavia. So the freedom of Iraq is a fantasy and it is this fantasy for which thousands of American soldiers and many more Iraqis have died and more are being slated to die.

In all my years as a naturalized citizen of the United States of America I have had laments and criticism of the country based on its failure to live up to its promise of a fully free society. But I have never been disgusted by its leadership as I am now. Bush needs to be sent on his way in total disgrace, as someone who has managed to destroy any remnant of America’s reputation as a bona fide free society and an example to the world of how such a society’s government should comport itself.