Thursday, January 11, 2007

So Bush Takes Responsibility

by Tibor R. Machan

In his most recent effort to make some sense of America's involvement in the messy war in Iraq, President George W. Bush asserted that "Where mistakes have been made, the responsibility rests with me." So, what about it?

Ordinarily when someone makes a mistake and accepts responsibility for it, what follows is a sincere effort to make amends, to rectify what was done badly, to repair the damage, to compensate those who were harmed by the mistakes made, etc. Just think of your or my mistake of, say, driving our cars into someone else's. Even if this were really just a mistake—not necessarily negligence and certainly not intentional—we would be required to right the wrong we did. This is why we have insurance, although most of them come with a deductible and so the damage would have to be paid for by us. Or the rates would rise.

If we got into more severe jams, taking responsibility for them would amount to even more serious measures.~ Fines, even jail time, often accompany such assignments of responsibility—just think of what is likely to happen to the Enron executives convicted recently.

Is there anything along these lines involved in President Bush's claim that "the responsibility rests with me?" Or do these words have no concrete implications when used by our president? Is he going to resign? Is he going to pay damages to the families whose relatives perished in this insane war?

Maybe what the president's version of accepting responsibility teaches us is that political rhetoric is thoroughly corrupt. Politicians like Mr. Bush do not mean what they say, but rather use words and sentences to pretend to us that they, like the rest of us, are aware of the requirements of morality. But it is just a ruse—it is all pretense, nothing real.

That, in turn, has some vital implications for all of us citizens of the country where these politicians perpetrate their subterfuge: We need to learn not to trust them.

It is not just Mr. Bush, of course, who engages in this type of empty talk. All the Democrats who claim that they are helping out the working people in American by raising the federally mandated minimum wage are in the same boat. They are really not helping anyone at all. When wages are raised artificially, by government edict, the result includes rises in prices as well as loss of jobs for those whose labor isn't worth the mandated price. All of this is bad for workers, the opposite of what promoters of the minimum wage raise claim. But they make the claim because it sounds good, not because it is true. So, once again, trust must suffer and citizens must learn this. If they paid attention, they would. Unfortunately, most people are busy with their lives and haven't the time and skill to double-check all of what the politicians and their cheerleaders in various forums of discussion claim.

Consider, also, California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger's claims that spending huge sums on health insurance for everyone in California is a great idea, that it will improve health care for the citizenry and that it can be paid for without raising taxes. All of this is a ruse, presented not because it is true but because it sounds good. Something for nothing is always a nice fantasy but a fantasy, nonetheless.

In a corrupt political system, one that has departed systematically from the path of limited government—one dedicated to the single just cause governments may pursue, namely, the securing of our rights—politicians routinely engage in prevarication. They must mislead instead of communicate because what they are doing is fraudulent. And if we listen closely to what they say and watch what they do, this becomes evident enough.

President Bush said the responsibility for the mistakes in connection with the war in Iraq rests with him but he will do nothing that would be required if he really meant what he said. If a friend or colleague did this, he or she would earn contempt. It is time these politicians, too, earn the very same from us, namely, contempt.

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

What Makes Arnold Tick

Tibor R. Machan

Several years ago Arnold Schwarzenegger seemed to have embraced the libertarian thinking of the late Milton Friedman. He even contributed some work to Friedman’s famous TV program, Free To Choose, although I cannot recall exactly what that amounted to—an introduction to the DVD version or something.

I never had much hope for Arnie even back then because he never came right out and gave any clear statement of his political thinking. Moreover, although I am weary of reading people from afar, there were signs afoot suggesting that what Arnold Schwarzenegger is most interested in is being liked! Take, for example, the name he gave his famous restaurant in Santa Monica, “Schatzi.” In German it means “little treasure” and is used mainly as a term of endearment toward someone one likes very much—“Mein Schatzi” or “My little treasure.”

When someone is a political powerhouse but there is no real clue to what principles guide his or her conduct, it is difficult to tell what policies he or she is likely to support and oppose. That is when one is tempted to look to other factors to understand and explain the person, and this seems to be called for in the case of the current California governor. No one has a clue as to what he believes, what general ideas he adheres to, what his overall vision is. So then perhaps gaining a clue from his favorite German term is fair game.

But there is more. Consider that his massive spending plan, including the out and out socialist idea of universal health insurance to be paid for by the government, does not call for any rise in taxes. Instead he wants to pay for it by way of floating bonds, which is to say transferring the cost to members of future generations. What is noteworthy about this is that those members do not vote, they aren’t even alive yet, so they aren’t going to be angry at the gov much. And the current citizens of California will be able to continue the status of recipients of apparently free goods, delivered to them by their little treasure. He will, it seems, continue to be liked since the burden of his ill founded ideas will fall on people he will not have to face.

There used to be a famous slogan about taxation—there should be none without representation. Not quite what I would defend but better than how taxes were dealt with in the feudal past—more democratic, which is some progress. But now, as logic would suggest, politicians have become so habituated to promising and trying to deliver "free" goods they need not account for that they are willing to abandon the idea completely. Instead, "Let’s just charge it, so the voters will not have to experience the cost of their benefits."

I, as did the governor, came to America as a refugee, only not from Austria but communist Hungary where health care was provided to all—in dreadful shape, of course, as anything that costs nothing much must be. It was also peddled with the sentimentalist notion that everyone is owed it, which is a crock. Many people don’t want health insurance—I personally know quite a few such people. They’d rather save up for emergencies and do other things with money left over. And some simply haven’t managed to come to afford health insurance, just as they haven’t many other things they want and even need. None of this justifies having the likes of Arnold spread the cost on people who did make the needed effort to afford health insurance. And the idea that some are coerced to pay for the health care of others is criminal!

This dream of universal health insurance is no different from a dream of, say, universal fine dining or splendid vacationing or exquisite leather shoes. Health care workers need to be paid and the money doesn’t grow on trees, so if those who receive the benefits will not pay, someone else must either voluntarily help out or be made to do so. The last is exactly as the communist viewed the situation.

Maybe we ought to get a governor who really opposes tyranny, no matter what the excuse.
Are Workers Commodities?

Tibor R. Machan

In The Washington Monthly magazine, pundit Kevin Drum states—in response to George Will’s point that “The minimum wage should be the same everywhere: $0. Labor is a commodity; governments make messes when they decree commodities’ prices”—that “This, in a nutshell, is the core problem with conservative economics: it views workers as commodities. Naturally it follows from this that we should be free to treat workers like commodities, rather than as human beings.”

For starters, what George Will was actually writing about is labor, not workers. Labor is a commodity, something that may be sold by free men and women on terms they can reach with prospective buyers. And it is workers or their representatives who treat their labor as a commodity—in the form of a service—which they want to trade for wages or salaries. Indeed, all professionals do this—doctors, teachers, athletes, scientists, artists and so forth. In order to make a decent living all of these folks attempt to sell their labor and skill so they can then go out and also buy goods and services—e. g., from dentists, teachers, pundits, dance instructors, attorneys, and the rest.

The marvel of the free market place is just this, namely, that we may seek out the best possible deals for what we have to offer, goods or services. The alternative would be akin to what the Soviets did, namely, have government decide who will do what work and for whom, with no consultation of the workers or anyone else, for that matter, all in the name of abolishing alienation! Such collective decisions are what really amount to the demeaning of workers, treating them as objects instead of men and women with a will of their own.

Free market trade in labor does not for a moment imply that the people who sell or rent their labor—skill, time, etc.—are commodities. No one is buying people in the market place. It is people’s skills and time that are being traded. And the way this is made utterly clear is that the buying has to occur on terms set by the people doing the selling, not on terms set unilaterally by those obtaining the service.

The ruse Mr. Drum is trying to perpetrate is to equate the free market place with slave auction but it will not wash. At a slave auction it is indeed a human being who is being sold by another human being. That is of course completely unjust—one’s life is one’s own, so other people may not—must not—sell it. Indeed, one cannot even sell one’s own life, only one’s skill and time—labor or service.

It is true that sometimes when people want to sell their labor they find it difficult to do so. There may not be any wish for what they have to offer—American Idol demonstrates this in spades! Most of us, also, usually would like higher wages or greater salaries paid for our services than what people in the market place are willing to offer, so we may be displeased with the deals available to us. Yet, many of us carry on with less than most desirable deals because without them we would not be well off at all—we wouldn’t be able to turn around and buy the services from those who offer them to us. And when we want to dramatize our dissatisfaction with the deals that we are able to make, we tend to engage in hyperbole and talk of not being treated like human beings but as commodities (e. g., a la Karl Marx). All the effort we put into developing our skills, making available our time does not appear to be well enough compensated and we are upset about this and besmirch the best economic system available to us all.

Fact is, however, no one has the authority unilaterally to set the terms of a deal—we must discover some mutually satisfactory terms. And while such terms may be satisfactory, they may also be disappointing, given our hopes and even expectations. But to insist that our terms rule the deal is itself unjust—it leaves those with whom we are attempting to strike deals out of the picture. And that really would mean treating them as less than human.

So the folks who belly ache about how people are being treated as commodities got it wrong. And, furthermore, they are the ones who are proposing to ignore the humanity—the basic human rights—of all those whose terms they would rather ignore.

Tuesday, January 09, 2007

Revisiting Libertarian Basics

by Tibor R. Machan

Libertarianism is the political position according to which every adult human individual is sovereign, self-governing, not a subject of government or king or society or even God unless he or she has freely chosen such a status.  The idea arose slowly in human history and was first known as classical liberalism, with such associated ideas as individualism, capitalism, limited government, individual rights to life, liberty and property, etc.  The American founders sketched an early but very influential version in the Declaration of Independence. Libertarianism is the contemporary, purified version of their political stance.

Why would one think that this idea is sound, that government should have minimal powers mostly to "secure" our rights and not to do various other tasks in society? Because adult human beings are responsible to live their lives morally and for this they must be free, un-coerced. In societies, however, other people could pose as adversaries, obstacles to this task, as well as companions, associates, even friends.  To reduce the risk of criminal interference in our lives, government administers the legal system guided by a basic constitution of rights—like the Bill of Rights—that spells out its limited powers. It is a bit like referees making sure competitive games are played by the rules while staying out of the game themselves.

Perhaps the most controversial aspect of this position is that no one may be coercively forced to serve other people, even the most needy. Only voluntary associations are proper, none that involve any subjugation of some people by others, even by the majority, let alone some monarch (king, tsar, etc.) or dictator. No one has a right to other people's services no matter how much such services are needed—that would amount to involuntary servitude. People do not belong to others, even in dire circumstances, unless they have freely joined them in families, fraternities, corporations, partnerships, teams, and other associations.

Another very controversial aspect of libertarianism is the right to private property. Instead of wealth or resources being owned by the government or "the people" collectively, it is individuals who come to own and allocate it in societies. Wealth comes about by way of some luck and much effort. A beautiful woman may be wealthy because others enjoy her beauty and pay her to be in movies or on covers of magazines, but nonetheless the resulting wealth belongs to her, not others. Or someone could invent something people really want or sell the invention to an enterprising third party who will bring it to market and earn much wealth from it.  In all such cases it is those who freely embark on the enterprise, not the government, not their neighbors, not "society," that owns the wealth that arises.

The administrators of the law are elected or selected to be impartial protectors of individual rights, as well as, when need be, adjudicators of disputes; and sometimes to work to develop the basic legal system to meet the challenges of new circumstances. But they are not dictators of what goals people in societies must pursue. In a libertarian society goals are set by individuals and their voluntary associations, not by government—again akin to how in sports referees don't set the aims of the game but make sure those playing do not violate those rules.

Because human individuals are basically creative, innovative, cooperative agents—they have these basic capacities they must exercise to live flourishing lives—the basic laws must focus on protecting their rights domestically and from abroad.  Apart from this, they are free to go about their innumerable highly varied tasks so long as these are pursued peacefully. This, of course, creates the risk that they will not always do the right thing, but empowering government to dictate their aims creates far greater risks, since, as the famous classical liberal Lord Acton noted, "Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely."

Libertarianism presents what its champions argue are the basics of the optimal human political order and as with all best alternatives, its chances are small.  Yet, as with other best alternatives—say, in their professions, marriages, etc.—it is the responsibility of human beings to make a sustained effort to realize it.
A Special New York Times Editorial

Tibor R. Machan

The following is a New York Times editorial that will never be written by the editors there:

“We here at The New York Times want to announce a new policy. This is that we will no longer criticize anyone, nor praise anyone. We will, in other words, hold no one responsible for his or her conduct.
“We institute this policy in light of the columns published recently in our pages arguing that human beings have no free will, that they cannot choose their own conduct. If this is so, as we believe it is—we haven’t published anyone arguing the opposite thesis, as you may have noticed—there can be no choice about what people do. Neither Saddam Hussein, nor George W. Bush, nor Nancy Pelosi nor indeed anyone at all has anything to do with his or her conduct or, as social scientists prefer to call it, behavior.

“It all just happens because it must. As one of the experts made clear whom we mentioned in the discussion we published, namely Mark Hallett—a researcher with the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke—'Free will does exist, but it’s a perception, not a power or a driving force. People experience free will. They have the sense they are free.' As he added, 'The more you scrutinize it, the more you realize you don’t have it.' Which is to say, to be up front about it, free will does not exist at all—it’s an illusion, according Mr. Hallett.

“Accordingly, over the entire history of this newspaper the editors have quite mistakenly blamed many of America’s and indeed the world’s political figures for wrongs they thought have been committed, some of them rather grave ones, such as Hitler’s and Stalin’s—although we have been easier on the second than on the first and we have continued this bias with how we have singled out General Pinochet for criticism but have given other dictators, mostly on the Left, a virtual pass—others less severe, as when we criticized politicians or our own adversaries. And the praise we have heaped upon those we liked was also pointless—they just did as they had to. In every case of blaming or praising, we have been misguided. Of course, we could not be blamed for this either—we just did what we had to do. Everything is exactly as it must be—the world is but a daisy-chain of hard-wired, deterministic forces driving everything relentlessly to proceed as it will. All of our own reporting and analysis throughout the history of the newspaper has come about as a result of impersonal forces, so we cannot be held responsible for any errors that have found themselves into our pages. Nor for the so called achievements for which we have received prizes!

“The very idea of independent journalistic judgment must henceforth be rejected since journalists who have no free minds cannot be held responsible for what they produce, any more than scientists can be required to be objective rather than biased. Nor, of course, are racists ever to be blamed for their prejudices—they cannot help themselves either. Come to think of it, all those who consider what we believe wrong are also blameless—they, too, just think what the impersonal forces of nature force them to think.

“In short, it is really, as Doris Day used to sing, just 'Que sera, sera,' after all. As your columnist said professor Benjamin Libet reported back in the 1970s—although, again, he couldn’t help himself when he did this—when we act, we do so independently of our own minds, so what we do is all just happening to us. We actually do nothing.

“So, again come to think of it, we cannot really say what we will do in the future as we write our editorials—it’ll all just happen, as will everything else in the universe.

“Sad part of it is that even as we appear to write these lines, we aren’t doing it. It is all just unfolding as the impersonal forces of nature and we are but puppets in it all. Still, in so far as we might by some chance have any hand in things, we would like to make clear that in virtue of our conviction that human beings have no free will, we are going to try very hard to abstain from holding anyone responsible for anything, including ourselves.”
Another Crazy FDR “Right”

Tibor R. Machan

Over the last couple of years I have explored FDR’s Second Bill of Rights because recently some heavy hitters in politics and legal theory (e.g., Cass Sunstein) have made a point of championing these ultimately phony rights. With the Democrats back in power in Washington, it is not unreasonable to suppose that securing and expanding FDR’s list of rights—as distinct from those laid out by the American founders in the Declaration of Independence—will once again dominate the federal government’s agenda. Not that Republicans put up much of a fight against the Democrats but the Republicans' version of statism focuses less on wealth redistribution and more on soul craft.

FDR’s list included some lulus, I must say, but among them what’s worth discussion in our day are the so-called economic rights. Take, for example, “The right to adequate protection from the economic fears of old age, sickness, accident and unemployment.” Notice immediately that to secure any such alleged right what would be required is for those who supposedly have them to gain the willing or unwilling services of other people.

Of course, virtually anyone who is getting old could have made the effort to provide for his or her “protection from the economic fears of old age, sickness, accident and unemployment.” But that has nothing to do with rights. Rights are what others must respect and what governments are instituted to secure for us. So it is clear that what FDR’s list involves is involuntary servitude by others who are to provide for us, along with coercion of those not ready to be prudent as the government insists we must be.

FDR wasn’t urging people to make sure they take good care of themselves in their old age, far from it. That would have been an exercise is the sort of leadership that would be just right for Americans, leadership that would have been consistent with the individualism the American founders tried to promote with their list of genuine, bona fide individual rights.

The idea behind those rights is that in human communities what’s most important to gain from other people is their abstention from intrusive conduct, from aggression—assault, murder, kidnapping, robbery, trespass, and other more complicated sorts of invasion. Once the peaceful conditions obtain because no one violates our rights to our lives, liberties, and property, we can go about our various tasks, for better or for worse. We can form families, fraternities, communities, churches, corporations, and teams and by means of these voluntary associations live more or less flourishing lives. The government is merely there to make sure that no one does violence to another, not to take over the tasks that we need to perform.

But tyrannies have always pretended to be there so as to help us out—"We are from the government and we are here to help!" Only then they turn around and use their power to promote goals of their own. Because it is evident to most that their so called help causes more harm than good, those championing such interventionist governments insist they need more resources to get the job of helping us done. And this produces a spiraling of greater and greater power, more and more expansive government involvement. The resulting mess is incalculable but the official remedy is always, "We need more resources and more power."

The sorts of rights FDR and his followers promote are instruments of more or less Draconian tyranny. Because they are peddled as well intentioned efforts to do us good, resistance to them is difficult to articulate without seeming to be mean. But resistance to them is nonetheless imperative—it is a large measure of the vigilance that’s the price of liberty.

When you look at it this way, the prospects for a truly free society appear to be utterly hopeless. (That is just what follows from the famous public choice theory some economists have developed, showing that politicians and bureaucrats simply will not relinquish their power!) But against this pessimism one needs to keep in mind that the very idea that your life is yours, not the king’s or the tsar’s or the collective’s, is revolutionary. And revolutionary ideas, however sound and beneficial, are difficult to spread rapidly.
Assumptions of New Year's Resolutions

by Tibor R. Machan

So, often people think they are free of philosophical assumptions. Many think they are just practical people and look with some disparagement at the heavy thinkers, as if they were useless eggheads. Yet, all of us go around with various assumptions about the world which could use some exploration, analysis, and verification.

Take this business of making New Year's resolutions. It is at least widely held that we could do this, no problem. Of course, some of us think we need no change in our lives and some are too committed to our bad habits and it would be too much trouble to fight them. But most of us think we could, if we wanted to.

Now, behind this conviction lies one of the most controversial ideas in human affairs. This is that people are free to act as they will, that their will is free and not compelled by impersonal forces. In the modern era, especially, although by no means only then, it has been a widely promulgated notion that our actions are fully determined by such forces, some hard-wired in us, some surrounding us in our environments. The idea that we are fully determined to act as we do, to be as we are, is widely championed when people talk of alcoholism, drug or sexual addiction, inherited habits of thought and action, and similar matters that plague us. Genetics is studied often with the explicit goal of finding the genes that make us do this or that, have this or that trait, even produce this or that institutional setup in human affairs. Of course, genes are thought to be responsible for a great many maladies as well as advantageous attributes in people.

Now it is obvious, I think, that if we are fully determined to be and act as we do, talk of making New Year's resolutions, of changing some habit, of reforming ourselves some way is pointless. It's no more than a fairy tale, like ducks composing music or mice reciting poetry. Sure, it can occur to us, but it's all fantasy.

Some determinists have even advanced theories about why we entertain such fairy tales. Why do so many of us believe we have free will? Why are we clinging to such an irrational, unjustified notion—an illusion, actually? And they have produced theories to the effect that such thoughts have certain evolutionary functions, although it is a mystery, then, is it not, why we do not all share them? Just like those atheists who claim that belief in God must have some biological or psychological explanation, determinists think the same about the widespread view that human beings are free to direct their lives as they choose, that they are, in fact, a major cause of what they do.

Those not involved in the age-old debate about these matters, however, tend to assume that people are free to act as they will, that they are not compelled, and that they have a will of their own. Yes, some might consider it a bit strange—after all, most other things in the world happen because something else made them happen, so how is it that we, human beings, aren't simply subject to being pushed and shoved about? But despite these occasional puzzles, most of us are confident enough that individual, moral responsibility is part and parcel of the human condition.

It is not enough, however, to simply assume such a thing. There are too many formidable challenges to the idea—indeed, there have always been, since back when the ancient Greek atomists advocated determinism—and they can put a serious dent in one's confidence in self-determination. Parents, for example, often find attractive the idea that their children suffer from learning disabilities and aren't just lazy or inattentive. Others are told that their upbringing or cultural background has produced in them various feelings and propensities to act one way or another. Those accused of crimes are often defended by their attorneys on the grounds that they couldn't help themselves, have some mental dysfunction, etc., etc.

So I would suggest that even if it appears to be a daunting project, most of us need to consider the issue: are we free or not? Is the assumption that we can just up and resolve to do this or that, change a habit or acquire one, well supported?

It is a good idea, all around, to be grounded in truth rather than falsehood.