Saturday, April 28, 2007

Egalitarian Pretentiousness

Tibor R. Machan

Though I have told of it before, my brief encounter with the late John Kenneth Galbraith has a repeatable moral. At a small bash in Stanford University’s faculty club I met the inordinately tall Harvard economist/social philosopher and said to him, "Given your passion for equality, would you be willing to swap your Harvard professorship for, say, a year or two at a junior college?" Instead of humoring me with an answer, Galbraith just sneered and turned away in a huff.

Over the years that I have been witnessing well-positioned academics, pundits, and celebrities champion egalitarianism—the economic version of which, by the way, even Karl Marx recognized was a non-starter and must lead to the "socialization of poverty"—I have recalled this episode with Galbraith on numerous occasion. For example, every time I read my copy of The New York Review of Books, which champions egalitarianism in political economy whenever someone broaches the subject—say, by the likes of Kevin Phillips or Thomas Frank—I think of just how snooty a publication that is and how it does not permit into its pages but the most "distinguished" crop of academic and literati figures. (None of my friends, nor I, who have attempted to debate ideas and issues with writers for that magazine, have ever been permitted entry there!)

And there is, of course, Princeton University economist and columnist for The New York Times, Professor Paul Krugman. He has tirelessly wagged his index finger at capitalism, even in its thoroughly watered down and compromised version in today’s America and elsewhere, for failing to promote economic equality. He has demeaned the system’s productivity to no end, besmirched it mercilessly, because supposedly it only raises the overall wealth of the nation without leveling it so everyone is an equal participant in its abundance.

Krugman has bought, hook, line and sinker, into the zero sum conception of economic growth, suggesting repeatedly that when the rich get richer, it must be at the expense of the not so rich. As he put it some time ago, "Although America has higher per capita income than other advanced countries, it turns out that that's mainly because our rich are much richer. And here's a radical thought: if the rich get more, that leaves less for everyone else." That this is balderdash—and an embarrassment, coming from a Princeton University professor of economics—should be evident to anyone who just considers that over the centuries wealth has increased phenomenally without leaving the bulk of humanity behind but, instead, raising the standard of living for nearly all the increasing billions (except the most unfortunate who are left out because of certain natural disasters or medical epidemic, not because others are improving their lives).

OK, let’s leave aside the economic and historical incompetence of the likes of Krugman and focus a moment on their morality, like I tried to get Galbraith do at the little bash at the Stanford faculty club. Why do Krugman & Company, who are enjoying such wealth of prominence in the pages of prestigious publications and at academic institutions—getting their books published far more than many others (who often are far more competent than they) and appearing at conferences everywhere peddling their ideas—never offer to equalize that which they enjoy in such abundance, namely, their professional status? How come Krugman doesn’t offer to bring to Princeton some of the community , junior, and other less than most prestigious college and university economic professors and take their place, at least for a few months or years?
We might as well include among these hypocrites those Hollywood stars and starlets who insist on promoting one or another form of egalitarian public policy, some of whom still think the Soviet economic model was swell except for having been deployed a bit too roughly. Why doesn’t Barbara and Susanne and Tim and Bobby and all the rest swap their various starring roles with singers, actors, actresses, and the rest who are yearning, hoping to rise a few steps above their near-obscure status in the industry?

Of course, there is no sense in anyone desiring that this kind of leveling come about, anytime. And, in fact, in the approximately free, capitalist countries of which American is still the leader—although with likes of George W. Bush at the helm probably not for long—there is a far greater measure of relative economic and professional equality than in any of the top-down managed systems in human history or around the globe. (For if nothing else, in a near-free country like this one, the opportunity to swap positions or to join in with those in higher places is far greater than in any monarchy or socialist paradise like Saudi Arabia or Cuba or North Korea!)

Now and then someone ought to sneak up near a bloke like Professor Krugman and remind him of all this. Such people deserve to be reminded of just how morally two-faced they are, just so some of their hubris might be scaled back a bit now and then.

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Some Benefits of School Privatization

Tibor R. Machan

No one in the mainstream media has, to my knowledge, noted that Virginia Tech University is a state institution. But this is crucial for understanding how VT has dealt with someone who was to all appearances a danger to himself and to others on campus.

In a fully free society, where education is in the private sector, the standards for how various problems are dealt with on campus would be highly diverse. One school could have very stringent conditions for entering its premises, another not so stringent, while a third might be quite permissive. It would be a matter of the administration's decision, based on its concerns, local circumstances, history, wisdom, etc.

As it stands, with the government fully involved in all levels of—including most of higher—education, the principles of public administration, including due process, govern how problems must be dealt with. In particular, no one may be treated in ways that could be construed as discriminatory or intrusive because within the public realm all citizens must be dealt with fairly and deemed innocent unless otherwise legally proven. So to subject anyone to special treatment, based on mere suspicion or even prior behavior, would be legally actionable.

The ACLU and similar organizations would stand up for such persons, as would trial lawyers who sue establishments based on laws, for example, which protect people with disabilities (including mental ones). This is because in the context of how governments are supposed to deal with people, there are innumerable so called civil rights that block efforts to have certain standards applied that are not sanctioned by the courts or thought to be unconstitutional.

In contrast, if you wish to come into my home for dinner and I insist that before you eat you must say grace, no one can bar me from this. You either do so or I may prevent you from joining my family for dinner. But should some government funded and administered establishment insist on such a thing, they would be forbidden to do so. It would be deemed a violation of, say, the right to freedom of religion. Similarly, should a private club, in a fully free society, insist that its members undergo a test for mental instability before they join, nothing could be objected about this. No one is entitled to unconditional membership in the club and those who own and run it may impose their chosen standard for admission, be these either sensible or irrational.

Yet, in our society even private establishment have no legal right to set their own terms—the government has usurped their right to do so. It would be deemed some kind of unjust discrimination and forbidden to set such terms, just as it is forbidden in business relations or university admissions. The only place personal discrimination is not yet banned is in ads published for romantic purposes!

But if a private university, which is the only kind there should be in a free society, wanted to imposed stringent requirements having to do with mental instability, predisposition for violence, history of fascination with guns or whatever the owners and administrators would deem to signal trouble, there would be no legal grounds opposing this. No ACLU could holler "foul" if someone suspicious were more severely scrutinized than others. No due process provisions could be required of the school.

There would, of course, be variations of stringency about these kinds of issues, as well as many others, if the largely one-size-fits-all approach now in place were lifted, as it would be in a fully privatized educational system. And no doubt, some of the terms of admission at some of the schools would be undesirable by reasonable standards. But that's the price of liberty—even in our day some private, especially religions, schools impose requirements that only certain applicants can meet, such as membership in a given church.

Let me be very clear. In our system very, very few institutions are free from government regulations. Even private schools, colleges, and universities are held to all kinds of terms imposed by the government—e.g., when students who attend receive veteran benefits (which, irrationally, are deemed to be subsidies rather than payment for services rendered). What I am suggesting is that a radical change in how education is dealt with today—namely, from treating it as an entitlement governments must provide to recognizing that it must be provided voluntarily, in the free market place—would have as one of its benefits that cases such as the one that gave rise to the Virginia Tech massacre could be prevented more easily than they can be now.

Sunday, April 22, 2007

The Entitlement Trap

Tibor R. Machan

When back in the late 1960s and early 70s there was talk around the country about regarding welfare, health care, old age security, and similar government administered benefits as basic rights each of us have, some objected to this on the grounds that such a policy would obligate the beneficiaries to the government which, then, could insist on all kinds of conditions that needed to be met so as to receive the benefits. “Oh, no,” came the answer from the proponents, “these are basic rights and basic rights do not need to be earned and paid for with any conditions.” (Take a look at Henry Shue, Basic Rights [Princeton, 1980].)

Indeed, if you consider the basic rights identified in the Declaration of Independence, there are no conditions one needs to fulfill for having them other than to be a human being. Common sense, too, testifies to this: If one’s right to life is respected by another, there is no payment, nor even thanks due for this. Yes, one needs to pay for the protection of one’s rights, but not for their respect. If you don’t kill me, realizing that I have the right to my life, you don’t deserve gratitude. It is one’s natural due, not a grant or gift from others. That’s true about basic and even all derivative rights—if someone returns a debt, which by right is due you, you don’t need to be grateful, not the way you would be for a generous gift or favor.

But because entitlements involve more than abstaining from intruding on others—namely, making provisions for them—there has of course always been the urge to set terms for receiving them. “You are entitled to receive unemployment compensation, provided you do this, that and another thing—like look for a job and report on your search to the bureaucracy.” There is a term used now, namely, “means test,” to describe the conditions one must meet to qualify for entitlements. No means tests are required to qualify for the possession of one’s basic individual human rights and whatever is implied by them. If you have the right to laugh or sing or clap your hands, no one may impose some qualification for possessing such rights. But consider that when you have the right to education, health care, or old age security payments, you must jump through a bunch of hoops before these may be obtained from the authorities.

Which again pretty much shows, even without elaborate philosophical argumentation, that there is a great difference between one’s negative individual rights and so called positive rights. The former come one’s way by virtue of one’s humanity alone, while the latter are political grants for which one soon gets to pay dearly. Which is to say, they aren’t really basic rights at all but privileges and grants doled out by those in power. And therein lie their fraudulent nature—unlike basic and derivative negative rights, these entitlements must be paid for and earned by doing what those in power demand.

That, too, makes pretty clear that such entitlements do not belong in a free society but have their home in autocracies, dictatorships, monarchies, welfare states, and similar authoritarian regimes. It is only in such political societies that the kind of power needed for handing out entitlements can exist because only in such societies can people’s labor and other resources be conscripted and expropriated so as to fulfill the entitlements. And in olden days this was often done by invading and conquering foreign countries and looting their labor and resources for the benefit of the invading country’s monarch and subjects. But these days the resources for the entitlements are obtained by means of extorting the people via taxes and other forms of “taking.” In effect, of course, the proud status of citizenship, whereby one is deemed a sovereign, is sacrificed for the sake of turning into a de facto subject of the government, a dependent.

Which then brings up the point that the widespread contemporary public policy of wealth or resource redistribution is really not what its champions so often insist it is, namely, progressive. It is out and out reactionary, driving us all back to the era of feudalism. These socialists and communitarians are by no means taking us forward toward a great new age of humanitarianism. No, they are returning us to the times when some few men and women purportedly ruled us for the sake of certain ideals but in fact ruled so as to impose upon the rest of us their agenda, to deprive us of our basic rights to life, liberty and pursuit of happiness.