Saturday, March 10, 2007

I Outsourced my Haircut

Tibor R. Machan

When I left the US Air Force back in the early 60s, one of the benefits I had to relinquish is the great flat top haircuts I used to be able to get there. The barbers were experts at providing me with those cuts. So what was I going to do?

For about 20 years afterwards I cut my own hair. I didn’t know it back then, but I was being a bad boy as far as many contemporary political pundits and even some economists are concerned, the likes of Ralph Nader, Patrick Buchanan, and Paul Krugman. I took jobs from some Americans and gave them to, well, me! The money that could have gone to the barbers in my neighborhood remained in my pocket for me to spend on something else. The barbers, in turn, had to drum up an extra haircut job, given that I took mine from them.

You might have thought I had reformed in the meantime, seeing all the objections raised against outsourcing throughout the last several years. But no. I am at it again.

Although for quite some time I have been going back to barbers—my hair is now difficult to manage, given how thin it has gotten and how little I care to do the acrobatics needed to cut it in the back—the price some of them charge takes me aback now. Having managed the do it yourself approach for such a long time, shelling out fifteen bucks for a plain cut, and the tip, still jars me. But I understand the principle of supply and demand, so I did not protest. I kept going back to these folks who seemed to me too expensive, given how I had managed the task for nothing but a few lost minutes.

Alas, despite living in one of the most expensive regions of the country, let alone the world, I discovered a barber shop on my way to work that charges only six dollars for the kind of cut I like. And now they are getting my business every three or four weeks, not the people who to my mind charge an arm and a leg.

Yes, I took the job of cutting my hair from some folks who depended on this source of revenue and gave it to some others who also do but charge much less for their work. I went and found some cheap labor from which to benefit! Not only that, the two out of the three barbers in this far less expensive shop are, you guessed it, "foreigners." Maybe even in America illegally! Well, no, I don’t know this for sure except they hardly speak any English at all, apart from such crucial terms as "a trim" and "taper." Still, they do a fine job, indeed mess things up far less frequently than did the more expensive experts in other shops around my neighborhood.
Why have I zero guilt about having outsourced my haircuts? Why don’t I see myself as a nasty, greedy person who is willing to deprive some good American barbers of their income just so he could save, well, almost fifty percent on his haircuts?

Here is why. In obtaining the goods and services of others in the market place, I am looking for the best deal I can find. Indeed, I take this to be a moral responsibility of mine, the practice of the moral virtue of prudence. I do not wish to waste my resources and when I can find something I want for a great price, I’ll jump at the chance. (My children sure appreciate this, seeing how such prudence makes it possible for me to provide them better than if I didn’t watch it with my spending.)
Yes, I care about my own purse and my children’s desires for what I can get for them more than I do for the economic well-being of the barbers who work around town. These barbers aren’t my relatives, or friends, or even close associates, so all I need them for is a good deal. I am sure they are relatives, friends, and associations of some persons who would deal with them differently from how I do. And I, too, have some relatives, friends, and associates around with whom I do not do business only but whom I also wish to help out. So I may not outsource my favorite butcher and restaurateur, given how I have developed a relationship with them that now goes beyond commerce.

The circle of those with whom I do business as well as consider friends is, however, small, quite necessarily so. I do not have time for very many friends. I do, however, have a great many partners in trade. Most of them I tend to treat professionally. So if my doctor moves away because she got a better offer someplace out of reach for me, I don’t think I have been betrayed. She ought to act prudently, too. And if the barbershop where I am getting such a good deal were to move out of range, that too would be quite OK. I may at times be willing to be my brother’s keeper, but not my barber’s keeper. Nor need all those firms that outsource some of their work for a better deal.

Wednesday, March 07, 2007

UN Shows Positive Rights are Bogus

Tibor R. Machan

Even though the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights is a confused mess, in its frequent reports on the state of human rights across the globe the United Nations is inadvertently rejecting the idea of positive rights (which sadly is a substantial portion of that list of supposed rights everyone has). In recent months the UN has reported on widespread human rights violations around the world but in most if not all cases, the violations involved abridgments of basic, negative rights. That is certainly the case in Darfur, where genocide is now rife, and in the various countries where women are oppressed, as another example.
The rights that the UN reports are being violated all over the place, even in the United States of America, are the bona fide, genuine individual rights laid out in the Declaration of Independence. They are distinct from the pseudo rights that amount to entitlements to the work and property of others who do not willingly provide these. Such entitlements include the "right" to a job, "right" to health care, "right" to decent housing, "right" to education and so forth.

The former, genuine rights require that people do not aggressively interfere with others—that no one murders or assaults or otherwise violently or by means of fraud intrudes on other people. Another label for these rights is "freedom" rights. When they are respected and protected, people enjoy freedom from, oppression, brutalization, servitude or slavery.

The so called positive rights, in turn, require that people perform involuntary servitude for others, including the government. For example, the so called right to health care coerces doctors and nurses to work for patients or it coerces some people to pay for the medical care of other people they have not volunteered to help. Such "rights" really are an abuse of the concept, which was originally—starting in the 12th century—a principle identified as involving people respecting each other's independence, each other's sovereignty, their unalienable rights to be free.

When the UN reports on rights violations across the globe, it mostly lists abridgment of negative or freedom rights. That makes sense since those rights can be respected virtually anywhere, any time. There can be no excuse for raping, murdering, assaulting, kidnapping people, no matter what.

In contrast, if someone's so called positive rights are violated—for example, if one didn't get medical care or education or a decent job or housing in a country—this could well be lamentable but it would not amount to violation of one's basic rights. It could even be argued that where such services are lacking for people, there is something amiss. Maybe the country is too poor, too undeveloped, too technologically and economically backward. But these do not have to involve the violation of anyone's rights and where rights are violated, they would be negative or freedom rights so that such violations prevent people from achieving a better life for themselves.

It is argued by some developmental economists and scholars that it is precisely the violation of negative or freedom rights that poses the greatest obstacle to people's well being. When such rights are respected and protected in law, the society can be free and in a free society there is a greater likelihood of advancement of all sorts than in an oppressed society.

But when so called positive rights are enforced—when entitlement programs are being imposed on a population—there is a great deal of curtailment of individual liberty. People are coerced to "help" others which then leads to resentment and rebellion instead of development and creativity.

Even the UN's reports appears to strongly confirm that the only genuine rights we have are negative or freedom rights, those that require others—including the government—to stop interfering with us. No one is entitled to be helped by others who do not volunteer for this. And it seems that recognition of this actually fosters well being.
Need We Condescend to Readers?

Tibor R. Machan

Since the fall of 1966 I have been writing columns for daily newspapers. Most of these were published by one newspaper group owned by a family now in its fifth generation but many have seen the light in various other national dailies from the East to the West Coast. Over the years some of these columns amounted to short essays, as lengthy as 1500 words, but most of them have been of the size one finds on the Op Ed pages of many newspapers, roughly 700 words long.

As such, the most one is able to touch upon is just a few salient points of a topic, rarely address anything in full detail. So I have come to think of these columns as mind teasers, maybe able to attract some readers’ attention and simply suggest how some topic might best to grappled with, at least as I understand it. And some have, frankly, been minor rants, when something in the culture is simply too upsetting not to speak up about.

Of course anyone who puts pen to paper has to have some gall. Why should his ideas merit attention? There have been and continue to be many, many individuals, sometimes of vast learning and brilliance, who chime in an the various topics of interest to people, so to think that one belongs among these is somewhat arrogant. Yet, even to be out there and forge a life for oneself involves a bit of pushiness, doesn't it?

By training I am an academic philosopher, with a Ph D in the field, who has taught university level philosophy courses and written scholarly books and papers on philosophical topics. Thus some of my columns aim to bring to newspaper readers, in an accessible form, what I take to be a valid approach to subjects that have been deemed important in my field. And here is where some editors consider it a bad idea to do this.

Quite often these editors consider what I write a bit highfalutin. They believe my topics—say on free will versus determinism, the nature of justice, or globalization—and my treatment of them are too heady, abstract, over the readers’ heads. And I completely disagree. Not that everyone will have an interest in tackling the topics I dwell on in the terms I find suitable. Of course not. But that’s not the same as to believe that readers are unable to handle these topics the way I present them.
Whenever one comes upon a new group of students in a college or university classroom, one finds that about 80 percent of them need to be brought in kicking and screaming; they are not that interested. Especially after twelve years of public education, where hardly anyone cares about what students want to know but treat them mostly as clay to be shaped, bottles to be filled with what the administrators and teachers insist everyone needs to learn, when these young people come to college, they tend to focus on other matters than academics. So not only must a teacher teach but also to market the subject, ever so gently.

So a skill of teaching has to be to bring topics to the attention of students in terms that are reasonably accessible and only slowly raise the bar, introduce more and more complicated concepts as the development of knowledge of a field requires.

Readers of newspapers aren’t one’s students, of course, but they, too, need some marketing for them to become interested in something that may not be on their minds just at the time when they run across one’s writing. But it isn’t at all that they are ill equipped to grasp what one is writing, or very rarely so. Sure, they may not wish to grapple with a topic, or with a certain way of looking at it. But that’s different. That isn’t as if they were too inept to understand, only not much involved and busy with other matters, probably.

All in all, I do not believe most people have a problem with the level of writing I and other columnists coming out of the academy produce. And of course now and then a columnist is going to make an effort not merely to cater to readers’ existing interests but to introduce topics he or she considers important. And that can easily misfire. Not, however, because readers lack the intelligence but mostly because they have their minds on other matters and don’t want to lend it to those the columnists wishes them to pay attention to.

Sunday, March 04, 2007

My Brief Encounter with Arthur Schlesinger

Tibor R. Machan

Over the several decades during which I have championed the free society I have rarely been part of discussions that included prominent public intellectuals. One exception was the "Sidney Hook Reconsidered: A Centennial Celebration," held at the Graduate School and University of New York, back on October 25 & 26, 2002. I had known Professor Hook for quite a while, interviewed him for Reason magazine (May 1977), and even made a pilot for a proposed political philosophy TV series with him in 1986. So I was included in the group whose members reminisced about Hook, some of them very notable indeed. Nathan Glazer, Cornell West and Arthur Schlesinger took part and I ended up on the dais with Glazer and Schlesinger.

Of course, Schlesinger, who died on February 28, 2007, was a very famous pop historian, widely known for his several books on John F. Kennedy—a president he idolized so much that quite a few other historians criticized him for it. (Schlesinger reportedly welcomed this!) On this occasion Schlesinger, who had been something of a cohort of Sidney Hook in their earlier mutual efforts to disassociate the American Left from communism, set out to lambaste Hook, not to praise him. His presentation came just before mine.

In my own brief reminiscence, prepared before I had any knowledge of what Schlesinger would say, I praised Professor Hook for his rare early prescience vis-à-vis Soviet Communism, noting that he was one of the few on the American Left who saw through all the hullabaloo about the new promise land the USSR was supposed to be. (Anyone who wishes to encounter such a stance toward the Soviets can witness this in the movie, Reds [1981], starring Warren Beatty, about the journalist John Reed who fell hook line and sinker for the myth of the glorious new world the Soviet Union was building!)

When I got to the rostrum and began my talk, as soon as I got to the part about Hook’s perceptiveness about the Soviets Schlesinger stood up from the dais and walked off the elevated stage and, if I recall correctly, out of the auditorium where the conference was being held.

I cannot swear that the reason Schlesinger walked was that he heard me praise Hook. But given how in his own talk Schlesinger chided him severely for having become obsessed with anti-communism and with helping to bring about the McCarthy era, it's a fair assumption that he meant to protest my contrary view. As Schlesinger put it, Hook allowed “anti-communism consume his life to the point that, like Aaron’s rod, it swallowed up nearly everything else.” Yet, Schlesinger himself was among those on the Left who didn’t approve of the Soviet Union but, I guess, not so much that he favored forthright and vigorous anti-communism.

In any case the remarks I had prepared to say at the conference and that turned out to follow Arthur Schlesinger’s repudiated these anti-Hook sentiments from start to finish. As Professor Ronald Radosh observed about the conference in an article for The New York Post (December 12, 2002), “Schlesinger attack[ed] Hook for one of the proudest and most important events in his long career—his organization of serious intellectual opposition to the communist-sponsored Waldorf Conference in 1949” where Hook, a prominent Leftist in the U.S.A., was very pointedly excluded from participation and then, in turn, organized a counter conference. For this Schlesinger apparently couldn’t forgive the man although he himself was part of that counter conference. And since my own remarks praised Hook for his virtually lone, energetic, and ongoing anti-communism while remaining an intellectual on the Left, it appears they didn’t warrant the sanction of the great man that his continued presence might afford.

The episode is sadly of more widespread significance than simply having been an interesting event in my own history. It highlights just how much the most prominent intellectuals in 20th century America—not to mention other Western Countries—have been misguided about what political system to champion. Not only that—something of which even Professor Hook might be somewhat guilty—but a great many of them tolerated the most massive totalitarianism in human history because it was supposedly marching toward the secular promise land of communism.

Many people today wonder why it is that America’s original ideals have so few champions around the globe. Some of the blame should, of course, fall on America’s political leaders who have betrayed those ideals over the years and still do so in spades. But another reason is that the bulk of intellectual—academic, scholarly—energy in America has been and indeed continues to be misspent on pursuing the reckless dreams of various versions of socialism and communism instead of developing further the magnificent political theory of the American founders.