Friday, May 11, 2007

Soft Pedalling Coercion

Tibor R. Machan

All those of us who travel by air have probably come across those announcements in airports about how smoking is forbidden. If airports were private facilities, I would have no problem with this. And, in fact, since I don’t smoke, I am not personally put out by those bans, either.

What is, however, very irksome is that most of the announcements pretend to be requests. This is evident from how they end, namely, with “Your cooperation is much appreciated,” “We thank you for your cooperation,” or some such thing. And this clearly is a ruse, since when something is a government mandate, cooperation is irrelevant. Compliance is.

When people cooperate, they do this only voluntarily. They freely take part in an endeavor with others who also do it of their own free will. That’s what cooperation involves. When, however, one is ordered by the police or some other government agency that has the legal option to back its order with force, one has no option but to go along. Otherwise one will be fined and if one resists, one can even be shot. Instead of refusal or cooperation, what one faces is resistance or compliance. And the former can come at a very high price.

At commercial airports, for example, one may not even voice one’s negative opinions about, say, the conduct of the TSA personnel. Not long ago I mumbled something under my breath as one of the more eager-beaver uniformed TSA officials ordered me to remove my sandals—I was annoyed since TSA demands this in some but not in other airports. Sure enough, the official heard my indistinct utterance and wanted to have me repeat it so as to learn whether it was anything critical of TSA. I refused to repeat myself and, fortunately, wasn’t bothered further. But had I said anything at which the TSA official took offense, I could have been barred from boarding my flight.

In any case, why don’t those announcements come right out and order people and stop pretending to be making a civilized request of passengers? Why the “Thank you for your cooperation” when, in fact, the officials care not a whit about our cooperation, only about our compliance?

My suspicion is that this pretense at dealing with passengers as if their cooperation mattered comes from the TSA’s and similar agencies's awareness that all this ordering us about is a bit odd in what is often proclaimed to be a free country. (This is also why some people who support taxation keep insisting that in some convoluted fashion paying taxes is done voluntarily.) I do not have the resources for it but I would be willing to bet a sizable sum that a systematic study of this kind of behavior on the part of government officials would show that they want it both ways, issuing their orders and pretending that those aren’t orders but requests. So as to disguise that they are involved in regimenting millions of supposedly sovereign citizens, these officials and their spin doctors sugarcoat the policy with euphemisms and outright linguistic distortions.

Maybe I am making too much of this but my impression is that this fits the picture of a society slowly but surely transforming itself from being relatively free to one where the population will pretty much be regimented around in most realms of life. If we can be convinced that following orders at the point of the gun amounts cooperation, then the police state implications of these policies might be successfully hidden from us. Never mind that in the process the English language itself is being corrupted.

One reason I tend to be on alert about this kind of government behavior is that where I lived in my childhood, in a communist state, the practice of Orwellian language-corruption was rampant. Slavery was called “freedom,” one party rule was called “democracy,” coerced marches were called “parades,” and so forth. I suppose when you have been through that, you become rather skilled at perceiving similar tendencies even while others may simply dismiss them as innocent misuses of words. I suspect they are anything but.

Monday, May 07, 2007

Hiring Chinese Ball Players

Tibor R. Machan

At times there is near euphoria afoot about China’sgradual entry into the world trade community. Certainly millions ofAmericans must be pleased that millions of Chinese are willing to work forrelatively low wages making sneakers, computer monitors, shirts, shoes andwhatnot.
This euphoria has, however, met with some disappointment.In the business of hiring professional athletes—especially in the field ofbasketball—efforts to hire Chinese players has met up with the reality ofthe official political economy of the People’s Republic of China. It hasbeen found, by scouts, that the Chinese government does not readily permitChinese players to simply hop a plane and leave their native country tostart playing abroad.

When I recently listened to a radio talk show, thosediscussing this hurdle didn’t appear to fully understand what the problemis. Oh, my, how quickly memories fade!

The plain fact of the matter is that in the People’sRepublic of China, which is still officially a socialist countrysupposedly headed toward communism in some indefinite future, human beingsaren’t deemed to be sovereign citizens with rights to their lives, libertyand pursuit of happiness. Not by a long shot. Those living in China are,instead, deemed to belong to the state. So it is strictly speaking onlywith the permission of the state—meaning, of course, the rulers of thecountry, since “the state” is no more than them—that individuals who liveunder the jurisdiction of the Chinese government may leave. The bottomline is that they do not own their own lives, the government does.

Not all that long ago stories of desperate efforts toescape a similar society used to fill some Western newspapers. A good manyEast Germans had tried to scale the Berlin Wall and flee their nativecountry but when they tried, they were often shot and even killed. Whensome na├»ve Western journalists posed the question to East Germanauthorities why they shoot people trying to come West, one official answerthat was prominent went like this: “These people are thieves. They arestealing the labor of the East German state.” And that is, indeed, theproper socialist reply to the question—under socialism individualindependence or sovereignty is unthinkable because everyone is but a cellin the organism that is society as a whole. Just imagine if your left handtried to leave your body and go it on its own! How ridiculous—the handbelongs to the body! Only a defective one would attempt such a thing andit would have to be repaired and returned to its proper place!

Because the government of China wants to square the circle, namely, havea productive and creative economy while also remaining the ruler of thepeople there, this idea so brazenly embraced in East Germany isn’t thesole guide to forging public policy. However, it will readily raise itsugly head when someone whom the government deems to be very important tothe state, perhaps even irreplaceable, wishes to leave. That would be anathlete or artist or someone other who can make “major contributions tothe society.”

The origins of all this can be found in several different types ofsociety. For example, under many feudal systems the monarch was deemed tobe the owner of the realm and there were no citizens, only subjects, inthe country—people subject to the will of the monarch. A bit of this isstill around in the UK, for example. In Marxism the fact that the mostimportant source of productivity, human labor, is owned collectively, bythe society as a whole, also has the implication that people are owned bythe government.

In the last analysis it is this question, “To whom does a person belonganyway?” that was the ideological basis of the Cold War and still remainssomething of a stickler today in how those of us in the West deal withthose in the People ’s Republic of China. Neither side consistentlyupholds its basic position, of course. So it is going to be interesting tosee just where the adjustments will be more radical. Will China becomemore individualist or will the West turn more collectivist?

Sunday, May 06, 2007

America's Government School Woes

Tibor R. Machan

The removal of banners in a high school, which had the words "God" and "Creator" on them, placed there by a school math teacher, have led to a lawsuit against the Poway Unified School District in San Diego. Mostpeople take this to be a confrontation between religion and secularism butit isn't. What it is, however, is a confrontation between government andprivate secondary education.

It is easy to understand that when parents send their children to school,they prefer to have those children exposed to some measure of valueeducation. For some parents this involves having their religion observedand respected at the school. For some it involves some ethicalinstruction. Some want to have a scientific approach to human life taughtto their kids. Among those who want religious teaching in schools,different particular religions are preferred. And even among those whoprefer a secular approach to values different positions may be chosen asthe best way to achieve this end.

All of this is as one would expect it in a pluralistic, diverse freesociety. Alas, that cannot be, despite its reasonableness. Why? Becausewhen governments administer children's education, funded from taxation, avirtual one-size-fits all approach is required, one that is likely toupset many parents who consider that approach wrongheaded. If a government-administered and tax-funded high school has teachers who will stress Christian or Muslim or Jewish values, those who do not share these will very likely object. (Some, of course, have no worry because they consider themselves quite capable of teaching their preferred values at home and thereby counter whatever indoctrination the school may be perpetrating.But not all consider this a good option.)

In a relatively free society, especially one that has a national policy ofnot having government side with any particular form of value-education,religious or otherwise, citizen involvement in religion will be highlydiverse. One need only travel around America a bit to notice the many different types of churches that exist throughout the country's various communities. The last I checked there were 4200 plus different religions in the country, most of them with worshippers who embrace distinct beliefs guiding them and ready to teach their children what they believe. There are, also, quite a few different non-religious organizations that have value-teaching as part of what their membership is being offered from their leadership.

Or take another area of American life where government is largelyforbidden to enter the fray, namely, magazine and newspaper publishing.Here, too, enormous diversity is evident, even if some publicationsdominate while others have small circulations. The principle is the same:where separation between government and a vibrant social or cultural areaexists, the rule is pluralism and diversity as well as considerable peaceand harmony.

Although most Americans take it for granted that education must beprovided by the government, this is by no means proof that it must be so.When decoupling education from government is proposed to them they oftenfind it difficult to think of an alternative but that doesn't mean noalternative exists. Just as some other very important aspects of ourlives, such as religion and journalism, are separated from government,education could be as well. Those who claim that the poor would go withoutschooling fail to consider that schooling can be provided from a greatvariety of sources. Among these could be--and sometimes alreadyare--churches, business firms, research centers, museums, and so forth, a lot of which would emerge only once the government leaves the field.

Of course, radical ideas take time to catch on, even when they makeperfectly good sense. Just consider how tough it is to sell much of theworld on the idea of a constitutional democracy, free trade, and theequality for women. The governmental habit, as I noted many times before,is terribly deeply ingrained in the minds of millions, even in Americawhere the idea of limited government was first embraced officially (thoughnot fully).

Until the idea of the separation of education and government is finallyembraced around the country, there will continue to be such controversiesas we now witness in San Diego where some people want a certain religionin the schools while others do not. So long as schools are part ofgovernment, they will continue to face such basically irresolvableproblems.