Saturday, March 17, 2007

Chavez’s Vision: Latin America’s Coming Nightmare

Tibor R. Machan

In a recent Op Ed for The New York Times, Argentine novelist Luisa Valenzuela, who admits to having no special understanding of politics and is identified as a fiction writer in the "magical realist" tradition, gives a glowing send off to Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez as a great "pan-American hope." In the process Valenzuela engages in a good measure of wishful thinking and pays no attention to the nature of the political vision Chavez is peddling in Latin America. Perhaps a word of warning from someone who has experienced the reality of that vision would be in order.

To start with, Valenzuela does not bother at all to discuss Chavez’s out and out socialist agenda—such as the nationalization of oil companies (a polite word for theft or expropriation), abolition of private property rights, and silencing of philosophical and political opposition, etc. Here is, at some length, her way of embracing this demagogue’s role in the region:

"Unlike the homogenous rallies of Peronist times, the 30,000 people in this crowd [who greeted Chavez with enthusiasm] came from very diverse backgrounds. In Argentina, the economic crisis of December 2001 significantly altered not only our social dynamic but our semantics. We no longer talk about the "pueblo" — which means town or village as well as people. Now we talk about the "gente," which also means people, but with a different nuance, derived as it is from the Latin gens meaning race, clan or breed.

"The new vocabulary transcends distinctions of class: the middle classes have now merged with the poor to demand their rights. Hence many students and professionals were in attendance that day, not necessarily attracted by the figure of President Chávez himself so much as by the anti-imperialist opportunity he symbolized. We Argentines, who once imagined ourselves more sophisticated, or more European, than the citizens of neighboring states, were brought closer to the rest of the continent by our impoverishment, and we find ourselves more open to the idea of pan-Latin American solidarity."

Notice, right away, the characteristic approach whereby 30 thousand Argentines become "we Argentines." Forget about the other several million and never mind that of the 30 thousand a goodly number were arguably (a) fictional, with the numbers embellished by Chavez supporters, and (b) simply curious or out for a public bash, with no serious commitment to Chavez’s agenda. (Anyone who has Argentinean friends and acquaintances could confirm this.)

This approach to dealing with public affairs is significant because it reveals the central trouble with socialism and the vision of communism that is often used to excuse its currently necessary harsh measures: it is a collectivist political ideal, one that logically produces a dictatorship. Even the innocent sounding doctrine of democracy, when it isn’t limited by constitutional provisions for the protection of individual rights, runs this risk but with socialism—or its current American equivalent, communitarianism—the idea is impossible to disguise except for the wishful thinkers among us: people who talk of "we" this and "we" that ultimately mean, whether they admit it or not, "those who agree with me." The rest just has to accept, like it or not, that they are going to be forced into the tribe, the big "we."

Valenzuela is actually not far from being up front about this when she announces, "Now we talk about the ‘gente,’ which also means people, but with a different nuance, derived as it is from the Latin gens meaning race, clan or breed." This pretty much confesses to tribal thinking, whereby the clan is taken to be some homogenous albeit somewhat diverse whole in which individual identities and differences, however, are abolished in favor of what some powerful figures regard as group traits that are supposedly superior to anything an individual might have in mind.

It is, of course, quite silly for Valenzuela to speak of rights in her column, when she says "the middle classes have now merged with the poor to demand their rights." What rights? Demand them from whom? Indeed, the stress of classes, clans, breed, and such brings to mind the most destructive trends in human social thought, whereby human beings are divided into warring groups, the trends that have given us the age old Balkan and Middle Eastern wars.

Of course, while there is plenty of oil flowing, the tribes can get along to some degree—although judging by the Middle East, even that’s doubtful—since the tragedy of the commons can be disguised when free goods are available a plenty. But once the oil is gone, look out! The solidarity Valenzuela holds out for Latin-America under this socialist vision Chavez is peddling will come to a screeching and tragic end.

I wonder how much responsibility the likes of Valenzuela will take for the result. Will they admit to having produced a vision that amounts to no more than the dream Karl Marx has spawned around the world and which ultimately led to the death of over a 100 million human beings East and West?

Thursday, March 15, 2007

Why Victimless Crimes are Wrong

Tibor R. Machan

When the courts refused to let Angel Raich—the California mother of two, suffering from scoliosis, a brain tumor, chronic nausea, and some other maladies—take a doctor prescribed dosage of marijuana, I was outraged. I wrote this in a column which I submitted to, among other places, a web page, I received a rebuke from the editor for not producing an analysis of victimless crimes instead.

Well, a 700 word column just doesn’t suffice to provide a comprehensive analysis of what is wrong with victimless crimes but some words on it may be worth producing if only as a kind of mind-teaser that may prompt some further inquiry on the part of readers. But in response to what was done to Angel Raich, words of outrage were the order of the day!

A crime in a free country amounts to the violation of one’s basic and derivative rights. So that murder is a crime since murderers violate the right to life; and so is vehicular manslaughter, because such conduct, too, violates the right to life but in a less direct, straightforward fashion. The American founders had it right when they stated, in the Declaration of Independence, that “to secure [our] rights, governments are instituted among [us], deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.” Consent to such a government is granted, either explicitly or implicitly, by being part of a community that recognizes our unalienable rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness and where these rights are given legal protection.

In contrast, when someone advocates a disagreeable idea, no one’s rights are being violated; when someone engages in self-destructive conduct, once again the culprit isn’t violating any rights; when someone sells dope to a willing adult buyer, once again no rights are being violated. Consensual interaction can not be rights violating.

But what, you might ask, about vulnerable folks, with weak wills? Here is where the complications arise, which is why the matter isn’t amenable to being treated briefly. If ordinary citizens, human beings, do have free will, as morality and the criminal law assume, they are able, even if with some difficulty, to resist temptations and inducements from others to do what can hurt them. If they refuse to resist, if they decide to take up a bad habit—smoking dope, gambling excessively, hiring hookers—and even get addicted, this is their responsibility to handle. Others may be morally blameworthy for attempting to induce them, tempting them, promoting the bad behavior, but no one has violated their rights in doing this. I can influence others, perhaps, with fancy words, with charisma, and the like but none of this forcibly imposes anything on them, none of it amounts to violating their rights. Even if they are unusually vulnerable, they have the freedom to take measures to protect themselves from my bad influence—they can avoid me, form a support group to keep away from tempting literature I might send their way, and so forth.

Basically, rights violations are unavoidable physical intrusions on (or threats against) other people, so they are criminal—the victim has no choice but become a victim. But tempting people, influencing them, inducing them and such can all be resisted without much trouble except to summon some will power, some diligence, some resolve.

Of course, and here is the rub, the very idea that people have such freedom of will is in much dispute in our time and to make our the case that they do, if they do, is an elaborate task. Just recently The New York Times Magazine ran a long essay by law professor Jeffrey Rosen—“The Trials of Neurolaw”—in which readers learned that a widespread debate is afoot on whether the assumption of free will can be sustained and should be retained in the legal system (and, by implication, in ethics) in the light of current findings in neuroscience.

Nonetheless, within the framework of the American political and legal tradition, animated by the principles laid out in the Declaration of Independence, victimless crimes simply are no proper crimes at all. The people “committing” them may be vicious, evil, acting immorally, and so forth but their doing so does not suffice, in a free society, to make them criminals.

Of course, this is quite moot when it comes to Angel Raich’s case whose consumption of marijuana would amount to taking medicine, not being a drug abuser. So demanding that one defend the rejection of victimless crimes in order to stand up in Raich’s defense is entirely beside the point. Still, on the more general matter of why victimless crimes are bad laws, the essential issue is what such crimes do not violate anyone’s individual rights.
Government Cruelty

Tibor R. Machan

Some of the malfeasance in the world comes not from deliberate malice—malice a forethought, as it’s put in the law—but from stupidity and negligence. Yes, these, too, are mental states riddled with culpability, the culpability of inattention, of obliviousness to what matters, of recklessness, and of oversight. But they are not the sort of evil that involves meanness and cruelty.

Governments throughout human history, however, have been the most guilty of both types of evil. The way those Roman emperors exercised their imperial powers, or feudal monarchs and lords taxed and pillaged the people over whom they ruled (unjustly in the first place), or the armies of various countries imposed brutal force on peasants and merchants who wouldn’t just disappear as they rampaged around the landscape—all this and much, much more has clearly established governments as the worst criminal groups in human history, far worse than the Mafia or any gang in Los Angeles.

Aside from their deliberate, mean-minded viciousness, governments also have perpetrated evils by way of oversight and negligence, as when they impose "public" policies that wreak havoc throughout the land as these rulers, legislatures, bureaucrats, and judges sit about wielding power in Washington and other comfortable centers, leaving the dirty work to the cops. Any even cursory check of what governments have done everywhere, with but the most minimal and negligible exceptions, can show one that this institution has been far more corrupt than helpful in human history.

Yes, the police do at times repel bona fide crime, but even this is marred grossly with how often they embark on harassing, on the orders of "law" makers, "criminals" who do no harm to anyone other than perhaps themselves—prostitutes, johns, gamblers, and, yes, drug offenders and those servicing them. Some actual criminals are convicted in the courts and sent to prison. But even in the so called leader of the free world, the United States of America, about 40 to 50 % of the prison population has no business being there! The injustice of it all is staggering!
When it comes to America’s war on drugs and all the legal paraphernalia surrounding it, we can see that despite some improvements over the last couple of centuries—elimination of slavery, abolition of conscription, institution of various due process provisions—the habits of governments have not gotten much better. This war on drugs is bad enough just in and of itself, of course. There should not be one, period. It is not government’s task in a free society to cope with people’s ill-chosen conduct, including commerce, however much it upsets the sensibilities of some and, indeed, the lives of others. People ought not to be saved from themselves except by the counsel of their family, friends, and neighbors.

But let us just overlook, for a painful moment, how vicious are the war on drugs and all its consequences and focus on the deliberate meanness the mentality that has spawned it inflicts on some people. In California, for example—and it really is just one of many such cases—a women who has been medically judged to require medical marijuana—her doctor reportedly says "marijuana is the only medicine keeping her alive"—has been declared by a federal appeals court "not immune from federal prosecution on drug charges." Angel Raich, a mother of two and suffering from scoliosis, a brain tumor, chronic nausea, and some other maladies, had sued the feds so she could get relief but instead of making an exception for her, the U. S. Supreme Court and other courts have ruled against her.

I am not privy to all the legal technicalities and, frankly, could care less about them—what matters is that here is an individual in demonstrable danger for her life who could get the remedy she needs but the government stubbornly refuses to yield. Why? The three-judge appeals panel, in this latest round, said that the US hasn’t reached the point where "the right to use medical marijuana is ‘fundamental’ and ‘implicit in the concept of ordered liberty’."
Ordered liberty? What a bogus concept! Meaning no liberty but compliance with idiotic, paranoid orders by politicians who, in response to vicious voters without a sense of proportion, want their arbitrary will to be the law of the land.

And some people think government is serving the public interest. My foot.

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Spoiling My Children

Tibor R. Machan

This idea of tough love, I am sick of it. When I was a kid I had plenty
of tough—actually brutal—love cast my way, prompting me to run from home once I got to be of age (couldn’t do it before because the cops would have dragged me back). So I decided a few things then and there.

For one, I wouldn’t have children until I myself grew up. My first was
born when I was 40. And good thing too—by then I had pretty much gotten rid off much of the pent up anger engendered by my own parents who—in their defense—tried to raise kids in the midst of communism, which was no picnic. Also, there was economics. As a first generation American, an immigrant, in other words, I thought it a bad idea to bring kids into the world without funds to support them. So I wanted to be solvent when they were born. Not only that. Because of that miserable system of socialism, still adored by too many people in the Western academic world, my family was poor, as were most people back in Hungary. So I started to work at 11, in a bakery, and haven’t stopped since. Not that it was such a bad thing. But then some of us turn things around pretty good and I learned not to let stuff get to me too much, lest I’d be unhappy all the time.

But I had no desire to put my kids through the hardships I experienced. Certainly, once I had the ability to provide for them and more, I did so. Even now, when they are young adults, I figure what else should I spend my spare change on besides helping them out, provided it’s reasonable. So I do.

Some of my friends warn me that this is bad for my kids. They should struggle for everything. I say, bunk. If I can, I will help out so they
can start with a pleasant life and that is how it has gone and still
goes, partly because I help out. I have tried suggesting to them, firmly,
that my help is temporary and they need to become self-sufficient; but is it necessary to acclimate them to this fact by not giving them goodies
they would like and I can provide? I don’t think so. That idea suggests
that kids need to be trained, not taught. I think they can be taught.

Indeed, I find it odd that so many people have come to believe that doing nice things for one’s kids is something of a liability. Clearly it’s
pleasant for me—I enjoy it when they can live pleasantly with my help. And it seems, too, that there is a time when young people need to be young people, not yet adults. And that’s when they ought to have an abundance of fun. If it can be had, so much the better.

All in all, my idea is that raising kids is done best by providing a good example for them—if you work hard, are responsible, keep your word, are creative, and so forth, as the adult who is most prominent in your kids’ lives they will most likely learn from that, plus a bit of wise counsel. (That's while the basic necessities are taken good care of, of course.) You don’t need to deploy behavior modification techniques, as if they were circus animals that need to be trained all the time.

Come to think of it, the point is that kids have minds and aren’t
passively reacting to the world around them. Sure, it may have been one unavoidable way to raise someone to put him through endless hoops and hurdles, all that tough love stuff. But I bet that if my parents—at least my mother—had not had to deal with the damned commissars and bureaucrats all the time, she, too, would rather have “spoiled” me instead of subject me to all those strictures I now recall somewhat bitterly.

So, I say, spoil the kids, if you can couple it with some decent advice and set an example you aren’t ashamed of. The rest is up to them.
To Blog or Not to Blog

Tibor R. Machan

Yes, I do have a blog but all it contains is copies of columns I send out to various newspapers, magazines and web sites, as well as a few book, movie, and TV recommendations. I do not get into lengthy exchanges on blogs and despite being asked to do so, I think I should stay away from blogs, for the most part. I have nothing against those who do all this blogging but it’s just not my cup of tea.

While columns are something I have done for over forty years, I much prefer longish papers, articles, and books, mainly because in such fare one is able to address the various controversial assumptions on which one’s more particular suggestions and recommendations rest.

For example, when I attack the institution of taxation in a column, all I can do there is engage in a bit of mind-teasing. I might prompt some readers to undertake their own investigation based on the little I can produce in such a brief discussion. In a longer piece, however, I can discuss how taxation was at home in a feudal system; why such a system appeared palatable to so many people and had a long history (which continues, still); how some of its elements linger on in constitutional democracies even though their foundations have disappeared, etc., and so forth.

Or I can consider how when one discusses what public officials should or ought to do, one is assuming that they have free will, otherwise chiding or praising them is groundless—if one cannot do other than what one did, all things being the same, then one isn’t free to do the right thing or the wrong, just what one must. In which case human conduct is no more praise- or blameworthy than is a tornado or earthquake. And this point requires considerable exposition and explanation, impossible to perform in a column, not, especially, with all the heavy hitters today in neuroscience and other technical fields lining up to ridicule free will. One just cannot handle such matters briefly.

Nor can one do much with these topics on blogs except to exchange points one by one, without the possibility to develop a general thesis that can be convincing. As a result, whenever I have yielded to the temptation to blog, I have noticed how quickly some folks lose their cool—including me, come to think of it. (Some people do post my columns on their blogs and the few times I have checked, many respondents have been insulting—there seems to be this widespread desire to inflict pain rather than to help reach some kind of reasoned conclusion.)

Now there are some matters that blogs are very good for. One that comes to mind is conveying rapidly developing information. When that’s of value, blogs are a great resource. They are like an instant newspaper, with unending stories coming at readers all the time. And that is of immense value when, for example, one needs to make accurate, up to date plans or decisions. Getting word about a fire or heavy traffic or the need for some information is achieved much more quickly these days than it used to be. Indeed, the Internet is of unsurpassed use to anyone who wants to communication such information to maximum effect.

Which brings to my mind how both too much good and too much evil is expect from cyberspace. Like all other human inventions, cyber-communication has its pluses and minuses. The minuses will surely bring out alarmists who will gleefully call for government regulation of the Internet—most often invoking helpless children to justify this, as if government has ever managed to be of much use to the vulnerable among us as opposed to using them to gain more power!

So, just because I will not blog, it doesn’t in the slightest follow that others, with different skills and temperaments, shouldn’t. But then this is yet another place where it becomes so very obvious that how people ought to act varies; there are very few universal ethical or practical principles or rules for people, and when some presume to know what others ought to do, let alone to gain power to make them do the right thing, we are all in trouble. The power is most likely to be used, very soon, to perpetrate far greater wrongs than it was meant to correct.