Wednesday, July 04, 2007

Is it altruism or simple decency?

Tibor R. Machan

Changing planes at Heathrow is a bit of a hassle since Terminal I (I think) where flights from the USA disembark is a very long walk to Terminal II, where you catch flights to all parts of Europe. On my way to a conference in Florence in May, I landed there and, in error, went to wait for my luggage which, however, had been checked through to Milan. I have a malady with my left thigh and so I sat watching the conveyor belt until I figured out my bag wasn’t going to come. I then got up and walked the tunnels to Terminal II.

When I got there to check in I realized I was missing my wallet. I had my passport but no wallet, no money, no credit cards, no driver’s license, nada. I checked with Virgin Airlines to make sure I hadn’t left it on the plane but to no avail—folks there weren’t too helpful, saying the plane had been cleaned already for its next flight and nothing turned up. I schlepped back to Terminal I to—well, I wasn’t sure to do what but I thought it might be thereabouts, somewhere. I went to every stop I made once I got off the plane and finally ended up at lost and found. They hadn’t seen hide or hair of my wallet.

Next to lost and found stood a currency exchange booth and I went there to see if I could finagle some kind of advance of money, based on my passport alone, but, of course, there was no deal. But just as I was about to walk away, a man, about 6 feet tall, black, in some kind of ordinary uniform I cannot now recall more about, walked by and turned to me with a huge grin, handed me my wallet and asked, “Is this what you are looking for?” Boy, was I! I couldn’t believe it. I thanked him profusely, reeling from the shock that I could be so lucky. When he left me standing there agape I finally collected myself and looked inside the wallet—everything I had there was still intact, nothing was missing. And I had about four hundred Euros and three hundred dollars! Nothing was missing!

Actually, I am still quite incredulous about this. I only wish I had my wits about me and asked the man if he would accept some sum as a token of my gratitude but he disappeared too fast and I was too stunned to think of it while he was still there. But later, of course, I thought about what happened here.

Now there is a prominent ethical theory, the opposite of what many economists hold, to the effect that there are a great many decent people who are altruists. What is that, you may ask? Well, my favorite source for identifying altruism is the philosopher W. G. Maclagan, who is his paper “Self and Others: A Defense of Altruism” (Philosophical Quarterly, 4 [1954]) tells us that “‘Altruism’ [is] assuming a duty to relieve the distress and promote the happiness of our fellows....Altruism is to ... maintain quite simply that a man may and should discount altogether his own pleasure or happiness as such when he is deciding what course of action to pursue (pp. 109-110).” And that is quite right. Altruism is a system of ethics, one of the several candidates for a general answer to the question, “How should one conduct oneself in life?” And it bodes ill for any conduct that aims to make oneself happy, fulfilled, or satisfied—none of that qualifies as ethical if altruism is right.

My benefactor, of course, didn’t tell me the ethics he practiced but I doubt he was an altruist. My take is that he was a decent person, period, who, probably in line with his other duties as an Heathrow air terminal personnel, picked up my wallet at the baggage area, where I had been sitting and where it evidently slipped out of my shallow jacket pocket, and did the right thing, acted generously, properly. He probably never even thought of digging into the thing to see how much money and how many credit cards it contained. He just did the right thing as a matter of his character, from second nature. An altruist isn’t like that. Such a person is totally, relentlessly devoted to serving others, not to doing what his professional ethics requires of him or her.

But what of the economist’s idea that nothing we do is benevolent, everything amounts to serving our interests?

Well, that too is off base. My benefactor clearly did something that mainly served my interest, although if it was his job, very likely his own, as well. Quite often folks do benevolent things, help others, even strangers, simply because that the sort of people they are, that is their moral character. Sure, over all it is to their interest—or, rather, of benefit to them as human beings—to act kindly, considerately. But they don’t do it by engaging in some kind of cost-benefit analysis, a calculus of sorts. It is, rather, second nature for them, for most of us, to be helpful when we can be.

At any rate, I have silently thanked the man at Heathrow Airport for really, really, saving me from a heap of trouble. Thanks again!
The Best Laid Plans…

Tibor R. Machan

Wimbledon is my favorite sporting event. I enjoy tennis very much and this particular tournament is the most exciting one for me. One reason tennis suits me so well is that it seems to me the most individualistic while least violent of sports. But never mind about that now.

This year Wimbledon has been plagued by relentless rain—several matches have run for days on end because of this, more so than ever before, we are told by those who keep track of such matters. And this is no small thing for many of the players and their entourage. After all, they will have to have spent a good deal of money on just staying around, whether they are winners or losers. The rain will have inconvenienced—no, burdened—nearly everyone involved.

But think: this is an event that is planned with the full cooperation of all the participants. Yet, a bad spell of weather can wreak havoc with the plans.

There may be another lesson here for all those who fantasize about planning a country’s economic and other affairs. Not only are the unforeseeable factors like weather an obstacle to such planning. But in the case of a country’s economy a great many who are part of the plan have little interest in cooperating with the planners, quite the contrary.

Government planning is coercive—it interferes with a great many of the people’s own plans, desires, wishes, wants, intentions. And it does so quite illegitimately—in the ethical, not legal sense of that idea. After all, government regulations, apart from some purely judicial matters, amounts to a form of prior restraint. People’s conduct is being commandeered without their having done anything wrong. (Only in journalism is this explicitly forbidden in America, at least, yet it ought to be in the case of the conduct of all professionals. Just think about professional licensing—which imposes heavy burdens on people who have not been proven to have done anything to deserve such burdens!)

As a result, the bulk of government planning is likely to be resisted by a great many in a country’s population. Such resistance will manifest itself by way of extensive efforts by people in all walks of life to dodge the will of the planners—in big business usually by way of extensive legal departments. (Note to Ralph Nader & Co.: Imposing government regulation helps support big business, since small business is ill equipped to cope with the expenses needed to cope with the regulators.)

So, not only does the world itself undermine the efforts of government planners and regulators, via all the unforeseeable obstacles that will stand in the way of the plans; there is also the fact that, unlike at Wimbledon and many other private sector events, most of those for whom the plans are concocted have no devotion to making it work out right.

But of course, fantasists aren’t bothered by such elementary realities. They, following the lead of an arguably crude interpretation of Plato’s Republic, imagine a perfect system, removed from time and space—those annoying obstacles to utopia—and proceed to seek the power to impose their vision on the rest. Too many intellectuals have tended to follow this lead in understanding politics until, at least, the classical liberals realized that a spontaneous order is the only one that’s rational to hope for. Any other “order” simply ushers in what the brilliant Austrian economists Ludwig von Mises dubbed “planned chaos.”

I am not a pessimist by nature, so I think there may in the long run be progress toward accepting the impossibility of regimenting human affairs from above. After all, history does bear out the observation that efforts to promote a more or less free society has been reasonably successful and fruitful—in a kind of two steps ahead, one step behind way. Still, the lessons indicating the merits of not trying to force plans on us all from centers of political power are not being learned rapidly enough and many will be victimized before they are widely and fully grasped!

Sunday, July 01, 2007

Let’s Revisit Taxation

Tibor R. Machan

Nice thing about having one’s writing published is one receives criticism—which is also the bad thing about it. Some criticisms are thoughtful and report one’s position accurately, others are thoughtless rants and usually distort what one has written.

Around April 15th I usually write something about the nature of taxation. I remind readers that the institution had its home in feudalism in which the monarch owned the realm and collected taxes as payments of rent from those living and working within his or her dominion. Once, however, monarchy is abolished, as it should be everywhere, taxation no longer has any legitimacy. This is just how serfdom vanished once the system that legitimized it was overthrown, as it clearly should have been in light of the fact of an individual’s unalienable right to his or her life, liberty and property.

OK, I laid out this in a recent column and someone addressed it in a blog as follows:

“I read once again in Tibor Machan's column … that taxes are theft because they depend on the police power of the state to collect.

”Hogwash. I'm a citizen of my town and county and state and country.~ The taxes are the bill for the undertaking of those entities of which I am a member.~ One of the principles for which I have high regard is the injunction to be responsible.~ One sign of responsibility is that very paying of the bills I have accumulated, including those accumulated in my name by organizations of which I am a member.

”Thus the state's bills are my responsibility.~ I've always felt a certain pride as I've finished my tax returns and realized what my contribution was going to be for the country this year. Yes, I read the fine print and use Schedule A and narrow my taxes to no more than they should be.~ But that's why the~ laws are as they are.”

First, I do not regard, nor do I call, taxation “theft.” Rather I consider it extortion: “You may live and work here, provided you pay!” That is the Mafia’s way of obtaining resources! And government’s.

Second, a bill must be paid, in a free society, when all parties agree to the terms of exchange but not when one party unilaterally sets the terms and the others must comply, never mind their consent. If, for example, I deliver some very nice stuff to your home, leave it on your front porch, I have no right to demand payment for it. You need to have reached agreeable terms of trade with me before that may happen. And this is clearly not what government does. Instead, government provides citizens with services and goods whether or not they contracted for them and then sets the prices for these unilaterally—or quasi-democratically—and collects them at the point of a gun or its clear-cut threat.

The state’s bills are not my responsibility unless I freely, voluntarily incurred them, which most of us do not.

Of course this does leave us with a challenge: How are we to fund those services and goods that we do freely accept from those who administer the legal order? Whatever the correct answer to this, extortion—taxation—is not it. Some way must be found to eliminate taxation just as serfdom has been eliminated. Neither can be part of a bona fide free country.

One idea that makes good sense, suggested once by Ayn Rand –and elaborated by me in a longish paper in my edited book, The Libertarian Reader (1983)—is to charge fees for all contracts. These instruments are ubiquitous in a free country, with its more or less complex economic system. Yet they can be avoided, too, if the parties have full trust in each other. Because few would make the mistake of resting their transactions with the umpteen strangers with whom they do business on such trust, the contract fees that would be charged—so that the contracts can be backed by a proper legal order—would pay for the few proper services of a strictly limited government.

Unfortunately, this option is rarely explored in the hundreds of public finance departments at colleges and universities. That’s because of the prominence of the obsolete and immoral institution of taxation. But its prominence does not entail its propriety by a long shot.
What the Fourth of July means

Sunday, July 1, 2007

Since that first Independence Day, too many Americans have become ... dependent. Is it too late to reverse the trend?


One way to appreciate the meaning of the Fourth of July is to reflect on what nearly every one of the Republican and Democratic presidential hopefuls focuses on in interviews and speeches. Apart from Texas Rep. Ron Paul, who is openly libertarian while running as a Republican, all the rest are embarking upon the standard Santa Claus theme of presidential politics.

In other words, they are promising to create more entitlements for us, telling us that if they become president, we will be getting more goodies from the federal government. Universal health care, higher minimum wages, subsidies for this industry and that, protection from foreign competitors and from immigrants – you name it, free goods and services, that's what they all promise us.

Sadly, they did not invent this Santa Claus ethos.

The bulk of the American public now appears to view politics primarily as a way to gain goodies at other people's expense. This is their hope, to elect someone who will favor the special interest group of which they are a member. Be one a farmer, small-business owner, member of a union, educator or entertainer, the hope is that whoever will take office once Bush departs will favor those like oneself with various precious benefits.

And since governments do not produce anything – the idea behind a proper government is that it stands guard against criminals and foreign invaders – the substance of this hope is that one can induce politicians to take from some citizens and hand over the loot to the favored ones. Since, of course, there is only so much looting that can be done without hitting the bottom of the barrel, it's all a crap shoot, in the end.

This is definitely the classic win-lose scenario, not the win-win kind we experience in the free marketplace. Yet, despite this evident truth, the politicians continue to overpromise, and most voters hope they will be the lucky ones who will get something for nothing. Moreover, they all shamelessly call the loot "the public interest." But, to quote novelist Mark Helprin, "You can always make a case for the public interest if you are willing to exclude from common equity those whose rights you seek to abridge."

The Fourth of July, instead, celebrates a drastically different kind of political idea. The crux of it is that government is instituted so as to secure everyone's basic rights – to life, liberty, the pursuit of happiness, and whatever follows from these. The founders realized that that is the only true public interest.

The Declaration of Independence – the ideas and ideals of which are supposed to be the focus of the celebration on the Fourth of July – made no other promise to the people of the United States of America.

At the time, however, the promise the Declaration did make – namely, that the basic rights of all citizens will be secured, and government will stick to that task instead of meddling in people's lives like the former royal masters did – was very welcome. At the time most Americans remembered how rapacious and corrupt a government is that has nearly complete power over their lives.

Monarchies, of course, were just the kind of governments that presumed to be in charge of everything within their dominion, within their realm of official authority. So monarchies had to go.

Those who wrote the Declaration of Independence put the idea of monarchy to rest, buried it, in fact, because they realized it was based on a vicious misunderstanding of human nature. It rested on the notion that some people are good enough to govern others without their consent. This idea of innate elitism was supposed to be abandoned in America. Lincoln put the point in crystal-clear terms: "No man is good enough to govern another man, without that other's consent."

Instead the notion emerged, based on some of the most revolutionary political thinking in human history, that each person has certain unalienable rights, and only by respecting those rights may others, including governments, interact with them.

This kind of human equality – not equal entitlements to other people's hard work but to being equally free from other people's intrusiveness – marked the distinctiveness of the American political revolution. And this idea had, for a good while, guided much of the thinking in the country, so much so that some pretty awful institutions, such as slavery, the subjugation of women, and, in time, even conscription, would be abolished.

Unfortunately, the old, reactionary notion resurfaced that government is not merely the guardian of human liberties but the nanny of us all – or even worse, our spiritual and economic tsar. Not enough Americans were vigilant enough in their loyalty to the ideals of the Declaration. Since there were compromises with those ideals from the start, instead of eradicating the older statist ideas that still lingered on, they built them up, so that by the time Franklin D. Roosevelt and his crew took the helm about 75 years ago, the entire system started to return to the old ways whereby government became ruler instead of guardian.

And today this is evident enough in how politicians approach their campaigns, namely, by promising to rule us and divvy up various privileges that the rulers have come to command. The idea of liberty is never even heard anymore. From Obama to Hillary, from Giuliani to McCain, all we get are schemes, plans and visions of how to provide us with goodies that we will not have to work for but can obtain by having government steal it from other people.

All this is no surprise, of course, if one considers that throughout most of human history a great deal of wealth was not created by those who held it but confiscated from those who created it, too often at the point of a sword or gun. Conquest was the way to abundance. The upper classes looted the lower classes, and one country's thugs conquered those of another and took what they could. That is how riches were achieved – the win-lose way.

Thousands of years saw little else but this kind of human relations, with the great majority of people living in poverty and a few living at their expense. This mindset is not easy to give up, so despite the fact that in a genuine free society wealth is created in the win-win fashion – with all earning and exchanging the results so everyone gets nearly exactly what he or she can bargain for – there is still this idea that we can all benefit by robbing a bunch of Peters and handing the loot over to a bunch of Pauls.

The Fourth of July is supposed to be celebrating the repudiation of this kind of social-economic life. It is supposed to celebrate the revolutionary – really, truly revolutionary – idea that peaceful exchange and interaction are the most efficient means to human flourishing. And for this the only job government needs to perform is to be a referee, to stand ready to adjudicate some of the expected misunderstandings, to resist the criminal inclinations that flare up, and to defend the citizenry from those abroad who refuse to play by the rules of peaceful commerce.

I am not optimistic for the near future, but it seems to me that the message of the Declaration of Independence is too good, too sound, too right on the money to be lost on us for long and that in time it will resurface as the dominant political message not only in this country but everywhere. And, indeed, it does seem to be finding a favorable reception in some parts of the globe where the ways of looting and corruption have produced misery all around.

Slowly but surely, it seems to me, the ideas and ideals of the Fourth of July will triumph again.
Guilt Mongering Galore

Tibor R. Machan

In my youth I got a substantial dose of guilt mongering, mostly through the religion in which I was brought up. No, I was not raised Jewish but Jews are by no means the only ones who are inundated with feelings of guilt from the outset of their lives.

Nor is it only religious upbringing that has stood firmly for the policy of making us all feel guilty for, well, nearly anything that we might enjoy in life. Today, for example, it tends to be the environmental movement that preaches the misanthropic doctrine of our fundamental corruption. In the past the doctrine of original sin was the main vehicle for the idea. Guilt mongering seems to be a borderless movement, given how culture after culture makes itself notable for decrying the human animal in large measure for our desire to enjoy our lives.

Somehow, paradoxically, it is all right to aim for eternal bliss but not for just a few decades of it here on earth. If it feels good, well it must be something bad, seems to be the basic point championed in so many circles, religious, secular, ethical, political, psychological—well, actually, perhaps in clinical psychology happiness is still being affirmed as something proper to desire, although even there the latest trend, judging by recent books on the topic, seems to be to demean our aspirations to be happy.

Another paradox is that even though the bulk of the intellectual community has tossed the idea of free will—not for good reasons but because of the widespread perpetration of the fallacy of unjustified extrapolation or, what I have dubbed “the blow up fallacy”—guilt hasn’t been under fire. Yet, without free will, how can there be guilt? Dumb animals, as they used to be called, feel no guilt because, well, they couldn’t have done better than they did, whereas people can choose badly and that can leave its mark.

But even with free will, is it really the case that we choose so badly, so often? Is our so called materialism really such a terrible thing about us or is it but a very natural desire to fare well in life? (And notice, it isn’t really materialism to desire fine or even useful stuff. None of it is just material but mostly imaginatively and usefully shaped matter.)

Maybe what I would like to place on record is an affirmation of enjoying life instead of promoting, endlessly and with such zeal, the feeling of guilt in our lives. This self-flagellation has gone on long enough. It is time to call a halt to it and to demote all those who are its cheerleaders. Why do those who preach our essential guilt get to hold the moral high ground? Why are they tolerated for the finger wagging, yet mostly arbitrary, accusers who they are?

The Al Gores and Jeremy Rifkins and Ralph Naders, with all their little helpers, just will not rest until we have all surrendered to them and gotten in line to renounce pleasure and joy, little and great, in human affairs. Their erudition, the learning that they have amassed seemingly so as to appear unanswerable when they accuse, works only because most folks are hard at work making an effort to live instead of finding reasons to affirm this effort and to defend it. But defend it we must, lest the misanthropes will triumph yet again.

A very nice aspect of modernity, something so many grave people despise about it, is that it can actually help people live a flourishing life on many fronts. Human beings are multifaceted, what with aesthetic, philosophic, economic, medical, culinary, familial, athletic, artistic, and many other dimensions to their lives. After, at last, the modern era ushered in the preconditions for serious creativity on all fronts—by way of the affirmation of individual rights, limited government, free markets, etc., and so forth, we can now actually strive to live long, well, and largely fulfilled.

But this objective must be defended because there are just too many people who are dead set on thwarting the aspirations, if only by attempting to make us feel guilty for having them in the first place. Please gather up the wherewithal to resist their efforts.