Saturday, April 14, 2007

Racism versus “Bigotry”

Tibor R. Machan

In his guest column for The New York Times on Saturday, April 14, 2007, Robert Wright compares the insulting remarks of former radio talk show host Don Imus to the anti-Muslim tirades of conservative columnist Ann Coulter. He appears to be treating these as very much the same kind of thing and concludes that the fault line between blacks and whites won’t be as significant in the future as that between Americans and Muslims. As he put it, “And if anything, I’d say that the second fault line is the more treacherous. America has already done things abroad that are helping to make the ‘clash of civilizations’ thesis a self-fulfilling prophecy. Let’s not make that kind of mistake at home.”

However, when Don Imus insulted the Rutgers University women basketball players, he was uttering what arguably are racial slurs. These are insulting primarily because they attribute character traits to people based on something no one can do anything about, namely, one's membership in a racial group. No one’s race may be rationally held against him or her since anything one cannot make a choice about cannot be morally or otherwise faulted.

In contrast, when Ann Coulter insults radical Muslims, she is uttering what arguably are criticisms or attacks on the self-chosen traits of people of a given faith or viewpoint. Such traits are not something over which individuals can have no choice, so they can be held responsible for them. Such criticisms and verbal attacks are akin to criticizing or attacking Nazis, members of the KKK, Communists, Republicans, Democrats, Libertarians, or Christians. No one is born these but chooses to be a member (at least in his or her adulthood).

So Imus's and Coulter's cases are incomparable. Hostility against radical Muslims as radical Muslims could be misguided but it is of a different category from hostility against blacks as blacks.

Of course, there is a not so hidden controversy beneath the surface here, one that has to do with whether human beings have the freedom to choose their beliefs, their membership in a religious, philosophical, political or other community based on a viewpoint. As a former Roman Catholic, I often hear it said that I cannot depart the faith as a matter of my own free will—I am stuck in it, like it or not. Even citizenship is often regarded something one obtains by virtue of being born in a certain place, although here it is problematic to argue that one cannot shed one’s nationality. Many people switch theirs, as I did mine when I emigrated from Hungary and eventually took up American citizenship by taking an oath before a judge—along with 50 some others—back in 1961 in a court house in Washington, D.C. Yet, some might well argue that here, too, various forces pushed me to become an American citizen and my choice is but an illusion.

Perhaps Mr. Wright is of this outlook and considers one’s religious—or political, ideological, philosophical “membership”—just as unavoidable as one’s membership in a racial or ethnic group. But to argue that issue he would need to do a great deal more than to suggest that Don Imus’s remarks are akin to those of Ann Coulter’s. Because however that issue of choice is ultimately resolved—and it has been an issue since time immemorial—it would be difficult to make it credible that being of a certain race is just like being a member in a religious or political group. That’s because although in today’s technological climate one might conceivably change one’s race and color, that’s more a feature of science fiction than reality, while changes in religious or political affiliation are evident all around us.

And, of course, religious or political (or other) convictions and the ensuing ways of life are open to scrutiny and criticism and can often be rationally attacked. Some call this bigotry but it is only that when done mindlessly, without careful attention to the content of the targeted beliefs. For example, in the book Islamic Imperialism, as in many similar books, the author, Efraim Karsh, finds many objectionable feature of Islam, especially of the radical variety. And, of course, Democrats attack Republicans, libertarians attack socialists, atheists attack theists, all because they find fault with the choice to embrace these religious or political viewpoints.

Mr. Wright was, therefore, wrong in comparing Imus and Coulter. The former did something that’s morally objectionable because he ridiculed people for what they cannot help but be, while the latter has been doing something that could quite easily be justified, attacking a viewpoint no one needs to embrace.

Friday, April 13, 2007

Why Markets Are Dreaded

Tibor R. Machan

In one of those vapid, in-house disputes often published in The New York Review of Books’ letters to the editor sections, we can read now about a disagreement among educational experts under the heading “’Scandals in Higher Education’: An Exchange” (4/26/07). Well, not much of a disagreement because none of the participants gives a quarter to basic challenges to how colleges and universities are funded. They all accept, without question, that it is the business of governments to run most of the country’s colleges and universities, so the disagreement is on mere details.

Indeed, in the exchange it is clear that no one likes markets in higher education. Henry Wasser, who is a former academic dean and VP a The City University of New York, complains that a previous piece in the magazine “ignores the growing and transforming inequalities” that supposedly afflict American higher education. Among these are, of course, “the dominant commercialization of universities in function and psychology,” and “the pervasiveness of the ‘market’ model,” whatever that is supposed to mean in a profession that is dominated by government administration and funding. In response to this the original author of “Scandals,” Andrew Delbanco, replies that he has elsewhere “discussed most of the themes [Wasser] mentions,” among them commercialization and “the rise of ‘market’ values.”

So clearly there is no disagreement about basics—governments ought to run and to fund colleges and universities (by extorting money from citizens via taxes). And markets are a bad thing, however they might make their appearance in higher education.

What is meant by “markets” and why the scare quotes around the term? Markets are arenas wherein people exchange goods and services with one another, once they have freely reached agreement on terms. It is, in other words, a place of voluntary commercial and professional interaction. It is not a place regimented by criminals or by governments. The latter at most stand by to help adjudicate certain disputes, although even there arbitration agencies can often be hired to work out terms of resolution. Markets are free forums of trade and those in markets are free agents dealing on terms they can agree to.

So what’s so terrible about this? Why would Drs. Wasser and Deblanco both be so ready to badmouth markets, make it so clear to readers they are against them by way of placing scare quotes around the term? What is wrong with free exchanges in higher education? Why, in other words, are market values—which are reached via free exchanges—besmirched?

I am not privy to these academicians’ inner thoughts, motives, or feelings but I have spend over 40 years teaching in higher education and, before that, studying there, and I can say without any hesitation that the bulk of those working in the groves love to rook the taxpayer for their pay. They do not want to enter the market place where their income would have to be obtained solely from willing customers. That kind of dealing—such commercialization—offends them, makes them think they are no better sorts than, say, people who sell shoes, cars, life insurance, mutual funds, or kitchen utensils.

No. Let these other blokes cope with the burden of having to convince customers of the value of what they have to offer them. Higher education merchants and professionals must be protected from such burdens. They must have their income expropriated from many unwilling taxpayers; their scholarship and research, unlike that of many in the private sector, must be funded with the loot the government gets to extort from us with complete impunity. They need not sweat the possibility of their customers choosing to go elsewhere for their higher educational services.

Oh, yes, and when someone dares to mention just how vicious their approach is, how it resembles the methods of organized crime in dealing with “customers,” one will very soon hear about how leaving things to the market place will engender the dreaded horrors of “growing and transforming inequalities.” Never mind that inequalities are part of all, including human life, and that the only place they are to be banished is if our basic rights—those listed by the American Founders—are not equally protected by the professionals in government.

If the discussion gets this far with one of these righteous defenders of their—unequal!—professional privilege, one soon hears about everyone’s equal positive rights to whatever is of benefit to them in life. This is one widely hailed doctrine that’s deployed when the enslavement of us all is advocated so as to justify keeping these erudite folks on the dole!

Let’s entrust higher education to markets rather than to this scam.

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Remedying Procrastination

Tibor R. Machan

One problem many of my students—actually, even colleagues—have is that they are procrastinators. So many of them miss deadlines for papers—in class or for journals, conferences, and books—that it’s a wonder they manage to pass courses or get published. Certainly many get to their tasks at the last minute. Thus, even though over the decades I have offered all my students to look over drafts of their papers provided I received them three days prior to the due date, very few of them take advantage of this mostly because they get down to doing their papers at the last moment.
Once I was a procrastinator too. I used to think of ideas to work on and write about but would say, "I’ll get to it later," or as that old song has it, "Manana, manana, manana is good enough for me." But then I wouldn’t get to it because some new thought would crowd out this one and then that got postponed.

In time I got into a bit of panic about this. After all, I was embarking upon an academic career and if you don’t publish, you will perish! One day I was sitting watching the Huntley-Brinkley NBC Nightly News and in the middle of the broadcast I got an idea and, sure enough, was about to postpone doing anything about it. But this time I took a hold of myself and with some trepidation turned off the TV set and went to work on the idea and it turned into a nice little essay that later became part of my doctoral dissertation or something—I no longer recall where exactly it ended up.

What I do remember is that henceforth I virtually never postponed going to work on the idea that I thought of, if I thought it worth working on it in the first place. I would get up in the middle of the night if, while dozing, I thought of something that needed working out. I would carry notepads with me everywhere I went, even in my car, so that if something interesting occurred to me, I’d at least be prepared to make a brief notation that would later bring it back into focus for me.

Of course, none of this guarantees that what one thinks of is actually worth much but that can be dealt with later—editing is always important and sometimes leads to discarding ideas that seemed worthy at first inspection. Still, if one is careful enough in formulating ideas, these will often turn out to have some merit, at least for some purpose.

In time I not only parlayed many of the ideas that I thought up into essays, articles, editorials, papers, and books but started, back in the fall of 1966, to write newspaper columns. At first these appeared mostly in The Santa Ana Register, but later they made it all over the place, including The Chicago Tribune, The Boston Globe, The New York Times, The LA Times, and many other places. Again, not all of them were sterling pieces but most managed to catch the eye of some editor or other and ended up seeing the light of day.

I write this up only because so often I am told that it is amazing how prolific I am. Well, I am not amazed at all. It took some initial discipline, yes, but in time it became a habit, so by now it is nearly routine for me to immediately pick up pen and paper—or its electronic equivalents—and make some kind of notation so I can turn a glimmer of an idea into a substantial product.

Is there a lesson here? Well, yes and no. Certainly the approach I took may not suit everyone. Some folks depend on the Muse, as it were; others require a set time of day to do their writing or whatever creative activity they like to embark upon. But one thing seems to make sense to me based on my own experience: Routinely postponing projects can become a habit and lead to the dreaded trait of procrastination.

Over the years I have shed other habits by means of a bit of concentration or focus, or what some call resolve, and in time found that after some fairly difficult effort the practice I wanted to take up became more of a habit or even character trait. Be this about smoking or drinking or exercise or other kinds of conduct that I decided would be best to cultivate—or to discontinue—the process seems to me not all that difficult, once on puts one’s mind to it.

There is one serious source of procrastination I have not found a remedy for, although it afflicts some good friends of mine: perfectionism. Perfectionists want to produce the Platonic form of whatever they embark upon creating and that is simply not in the cards. They do not wish to take the risk of getting anything even possibly wrong. I don’t know what to advise such folks. Maybe they need to accept that not everything they will do will end up completely flawless.
Kicking My News Addiction

Tibor R. Machan

Many moons ago I was a news addict. I had it coming from TV, radio, via the papers and magazines, and wherever else I could get it. I was a news junkie but I am no more.

First, I am older and don’t want to get all the news, especially since I usually can’t do anything about it. Second, it seems like every news source has adopted the CNN—“crisis news network”—formula. Nearly every item is aimed to put the fear of God in us.

Recently I started to use a treadmill in my garage and while doing so I have experimented with watching CNN, Fox, or some other news channel and the couple or three times I have done so have confirmed to me that there is not so much any news being communicated but mostly scary stories, ones happening someplace where people may be a bit panicked about this or that but there isn’t anything worth watching for you.

Take, for example, Fox’s story about the plastic baby bottles that may, if you heat them to above 100 degrees Fahrenheit, might produce some harmful materials to little children. This took up five minutes and concluded with some doctor saying she would be careful but not alarmed. Then there was the story from London, reporting how the Brits are deploying talking TV cameras that supervise and reprimand people in public places for all kinds of alleged misdeeds. This took up nearly ten minutes with comments from people who liked it and others who thought it couldn’t happen in America where civil liberties are prized far more than in England.

No mention was made at all of the fact that this phenomenon is mostly the result of the expanding public sphere both in England and here, where the government deems itself fully authorized to become everyone’s Nanny and totalitarian police. Within the private sector, in contrast, such measures would be left to those who own the realm and there would be competition between those who deploy the supervisory mode and those who do so minimally or not at all.

Then there was that story from Colorado where a fallen Iraqi war hero was supposed to be getting a memorial, depicting him in full military gear, and some of those who recall the Columbine massacre are protesting this. Once again, no one said anything about how this is an issue because there is once again a public realm in which the controversy arose—were the memorial being planned for a private area, this would be a matter of whoever owns it, not everyone’s business.

But then we are now living not in a free society but in one that adheres to the principles of so called democratic socialism—everything is a matter of public concern and which side has the greater numbers tends to win. Which pretty much shows that the worry about bringing the Brits’ ways over here can be valid because civil liberties have no impact without private property rights. You cannot be free of government meddling when the government has been legally authorized to be in charge of everything. And by now there is very little respect for private property rights in our legal system—the sole effort to establish such respect lies with libertarian organizations such as the Washington, D.C. based Institute of Justice and the Sacramento, CA, based Pacific Legal Foundation. While they have scored some victories both in the court and at the ballot box, the trend isn’t going their way and the country is slowly but surely being socialized in virtually all areas.

If the news had some brains behind it, instead of simply presenting stories that seem to have no other purpose than to scare us out of our wits, we could have some intelligent commentators and analysts who could show us why these scary things are happening. They might communicate to the public that whenever everything in society comes under government jurisdiction, there is no liberty left, no way to escape the Nanny state, no way to dodge the regulators (for which read: regimentors).

Sunday, April 08, 2007

The New Republic, RIP?

Tibor R. Machan

A few weeks ago David Brooks, the conservative columnist at The New York Times, reported on how that venerable liberal magazine, The New Republic, is now moving hard leftward. It used to be a liberal magazine in the tradition of Hubert Humphrey and, more recently, Bill Clinton, not in favor of empowering the federal government but of spreading the responsibility for solving the problems of the country between the private and the public sector. This is classic welfare state politics which, in fact, the Left tends to despise because those on the Left see such a fusion as an obstacle to advancing the statist revolution, one that assigns responsibility for everything in society to the government. Such a view has been promoted in America mostly by the likes of Ralph Nader, the champion of what is called economic democracy or European style social democracy. By the tenets of this position, all significant problems in society need to be addressed politically. And while this today tends to mean some kind of democratic process, in the past it meant simply “government.” (This is why I have always considered the Left’s self-designation as “progressive” such a fraud—in fact it is reactionary, returning to those times when government was in charge of the whole society, as in a monarchy and mercantilism.)

Brooks was right. The New Republic has turned Left in recent weeks—the two or three issues after the change, which saw Martin Peretz relinquishing his strong influence to one Franklin Foer, have a far more socialist tone than those during the last several years have had.

For example, in a review essay of books about Andrew Carnegie and Andrew Mellon, Raritan editor Jackson Lears eagerly works to reinstate Karl Marx as a political economists with “glimmers of analytical insight,” namely, that a free market is harsh on laborers and fails to help those in dire straits. In fact, Marx cared little about laborers as such, only about labor power and believed, as the late Robert Heilbroner, a more honest champion of old Karl, observed, that according Marxist socialism labor belongs to the collective or to society, not the individual laborer. After all, if the means of production are owned by the collective and administered by government and labor power is the major means of production, as Marx had it, it follows that labor power is owned by the collective, not by individuals. (For more on this, see my book, Revising Marxism: A Bourgeois Reassessment [Hamilton Books, 2006].) And as far as the claim that the market will not care about those in dire straits, the book by Michael Tanner, The End of Welfare: Fighting Poverty in Civil Society (Cato Institute, 1996) tells the true story.

The most telling sentence in the review essay, expressing an idea often repeated by Leftists, goes like this: “Since the rise of Reagan, the love feast for laissez-faire has continued uninterrupted, on a scale not seen since the heyday of Carnegie and Mellon. The successors of Samuel Smiles have retaken center stage, preaching a pepped-up version of free-market fundamentalism and recoining the catchphrases of self-help as if for the first time.”

This is such a blatant lie that it is hard to imagine any responsible editor permitting it to appear in a publication. After all, there are now very, very few mainstream politicians who champion anything like laissez-faire economics. And the pundits and academics who supply the thinking for them are nearly all welfare statists, if not out and out democratic socialists who want government to manage wages, prices, imports, the employment relationship, and the rest of the economy. On top of it, the U.S. Supreme Court has invalidated the idea of private property rights in its Kelo v. City of New London, CT, decision in July of 2005 and keeps supporting extensive government regulation of the economy as in its latest 5 to 4 ruling about the governments vast powers to impose CO2 standards for the auto industry.

I am not here concerned about arguing for laissez-faire, which cannot be fully defended in a column. I am concerned with showing how low the system’s opponents must descend intellectually in order to besmirch it, making it appear that the idea is triumphant in America today. It is not. And we are paying a heavy price for this.

It is sad to see The New Republic join the hard Left. It used to be, for a few decades, a fairly reasonable modern liberal voice. Now it will join the shrill voices of The Nation, The Progressive, and Mother Jones, even as the culture itself has little room for genuine defenders of human liberty and its economic corollary, free market capitalism.