Friday, November 23, 2007

Public versus Special Interest

Tibor R. Machan

I find it difficult to listen to political speeches because so many of my own ideas are either completely neglected or are attacked outright. But it is even worse when the ideas aired make no sense at all.

One such nonsensical notion is the repeated juxtaposition of the public and special interests. Politicians of all stripes routinely promise that they will not be captive to special interests and will only serve the interest of the public, of the people. They denounce farmers, labor, business, retired folks, educators, and other groups, claiming that such special interests stand in the way of the public interest, that the lobbyists serving these special groups are trying to impose their agenda against the that of the people.

This kind of rhetoric suggests that the country is composed of two distinct group of constituents, the people, who are all decent and honest and wouldn’t think of ripping anyone off, and all those who belong to special interest groups and corrupt the system. But that suggestion is completely misguided.

Actually, all the people in the country are now members of special interest groups. The mythical people to whom politicians refer, are, in fact, exactly who make up the innumerable special interest groups. These groups of citizens are the ones who hire the lobbyists and send them to various centers of political power so as to try to influence public policy and law to produce benefits for them, mostly at the expense of members of all the other special interest groups. Outside these groups there simply does not exist some large ensemble of benign folks, “the people,” who are the innocent victims of special interest politics.

Maybe I am exaggerating a bit—there could perhaps be a few thousand citizens in the United States of America who have not joined professions or other groups that try to influence politicians to serve them with various perks that must be paid for by other people. But they are entirely negligible. The bulk of Americans belong to groups that have leaders who promise to work hard to make them the special beneficiaries of public policy. Even retired professionals can join the AARP, once called the Americans Association of Retired Persons, an organization that not only uses its sizable numbers to secure various benefits on the private market but to influence public policy by means of supporting various politicians and legislation. (Once I was na├»ve enough to think that one could join such a group without signing up for some kind of political agenda but, alas, I was quickly apprised of the groups massive political efforts and decided against becoming a member.)

There is virtually no way that one can remain above special interest politics in America. That is because it is nearly impossible to disassociate oneself from all groups that lobby for special benefits. The teachers’ retirement program TIAA-Cref, which is as far as I know a massive monopoly—given that in all the colleges and universities where I have taught or even sought employment they were the only retirement program being offered to teachers—even announces in its TV advertisements that they are actively seeking benefits from politicians for their clients. One’s insurance company, one’s automobile club, even one’s frequent flyer group is out there lobbying for various goodies from the government. Indeed, virtually all the companies with which a person does business engage in lobbying efforts, as do unions and professional organizations. So when politicians claim they are not captive to special interests, they are engaging in either self-delusion or blatant deception.

There is but one way that a politician can escape being involved in special interest politics. This is to stick strictly to the principle of the Declaration of Independence which announced that it is to “secure [our] rights” that “governments are instituted among us.” And those are rights to our lives and liberties, not to various benefits, not to so called entitlements. A politician who is devoted to securing everyone’s basic rights is the only kind who is not serving various special interests—and mostly like one who is out of office.

The American Founders understood that the only public interest or public good is the protection of everyone’s individual rights. Once various special groups are singled out for care and attention, their idea becomes corrupted and the system becomes but a vast arena of everyone trying to rip off everyone else by means of political clout. That is also the road to economic ruin, to massive debt, to imposing obligations on the yet unborn, to printing money with nothing to back it up, and so forth.

If you really want politics without special interests, seek out a candidate who is committed to the original vision of the American Founders.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Conservatism’s Legacy

Tibor R. Machan

As Edmund Burke, the most astute conservative of the modern era, put it, “We are afraid to put men to live and trade each on his own private stock of reason, because we suspect that this stock in each man is small, and that the individuals would do better to avail themselves of the general bank of nations and of ages.” In other words, your and my mind just will not suffice to guide us through life, we need “the general bank of nations and of ages,” meaning tradition, custom, and law.

Now there is something here worth paying attention to but the idea also embodies a colossal mistake. Everyone must, in the end, choose between the innumerable traditions, customs, and even laws that he or she faces; that choice cannot be dodged by relying on yet another tradition to guide it. So, in the end, one is going to have to “trade each on his own private stock” with, of course, some help from what one has learned form the rest of humanity.

When Socrates proposed, according to Plato, that reason is a better guide than tradition, he realized that the traditionalist or conservative faced this problem—there are just too many competing traditions and no single super-tradition to use as one’s guide. Reason, then, had to come in. Each of us must use his or her mind to figure things out or we simply rely on the thinking of someone else. And that someone else needs to be monitored so we avoid being misguided.

The alternative to an impossible conservatism isn’t solipsism, making decisions in isolation from others. It does however leave us with the responsibility of needing to double check our ideas, or as Ayn Rand used to say, to “check our premises.” We just haven’t the luxury of avoiding the thinking required to figure things out—we can either take up the task or abdicate.

A clear current illustration of the paradox of conservatism is that in America a conservative tends to be individualist because, after all, the American founders were individualists—those unalienable rights to one’s life, liberty and pursuit of happiness, among others, pretty much affirm individualism in personal, social, and political philosophy. And conservatives in America, the likes of William F. Buckley, Jr., George Will, the late Barry Goldwater and so forth, want to maintain a basic loyalty to this individualism.

The radicals in America, in turn, tend to be those who promote socialism, communitarianism, or some other version of collectivism. They believe that America’s individualist tradition needs to be discarded and replaced with the “progressive” views they embrace. (Never mind for now that this “progressivism” is itself basically quite reactionary, re-elevating government to the all mighty position it had under monarchism.)

In contrast, the conservatives in Russia today are mostly communists who want to preserve the ideas and ideals of the Soviet system that had been the official public philosophy for over seventy years. The radicals there are those who want to embrace capitalism and individualism. They are the ones who promote a revolution in the legal system and public policy.

So it should be evident to any thinking person that conservatism cannot be a reliable guide to how a country should be organized, to its laws, its public policies, its diplomacy, and so forth. At the end of the day only some version of the radical individualism that the American founders advocated can serve as a dependable guide to how the country ought to be governed. Individual citizens must assume the responsibility of gaining a clear understanding of human community life, based on a deeper understanding of human nature and relevant elements of the nature of reality itself. As much as that job can never be finally finished—reality, after all, is dynamic and continues to develop and change—it is still the only source of solid understanding by which problems can be solved in both one’s personal and public life.

Conservatism can only be a cautionary stance, reminding us not to forget what has been tried and learned in the past. But it is individualism, the philosophy that requires us to think for ourselves, that promises the best solutions to our problems.