Wednesday, December 12, 2007

The Attack on Good Luck

Tibor R. Machan

Over the last few years a controversy has been brewing about the death tax. While a great many people whom it doesn’t effect support it, some who would pay huge sums in this unjust policy do as well. Bill Gates and Warren Buffet both are on record in favor of hefty taxes on estates that could otherwise benefit family members, offspring of the wealthy.

Now Hillary Clinton has jumped on the bandwagon and this really should be no surprise. Although her line of defense is kind of weird--“The estate tax has been historically part of our very fundamental belief that we should have a meritocracy, that we do not want a system--where we expect people to make it on their own--to be, over time, dominated by inherited wealth.” She continued, speaking in the characteristic fashion of royalty (that uses “we” without actually consulting anyone included), saying that “What we do believe that people should have to get out there and make their way, to a great extent.”

Two points need to be made in response to this. One is that those who earned the wealth may not be coerced into using it in ways they do not choose. Wealthy people like Gates and Buffet have every right to give away all they have earned, so their freedom and property rights are not at all violated by abolishing the death tax. If they don’t want to have their kids get their wealth, they can do with it was they choose. But those who would like their wealth to go to their offspring and others in their surviving families ought not to be prevented from doing so. They, too, have the right to private property, the greatest principle in defense of freedom of choice, a bulwark against statism and populism which amount to nothing less than confiscation.

Another point worth raising is that we are all subject to the vagaries of good and bad luck. Some of us are born with talents and these talents may well give us a leg up when it comes to competing with others in the market place. Tall people have advantages that short ones lack. Healthy people are clearly luckier than those with inherited medical problems. There simply is no end to the inequalities of fortune and misfortune in human life. Those who wish to even things out voluntarily are, of course, quite free to make that effort. No one, however, has the moral and should have the legal authority to forcibly fiddle with the advantages and disadvantages people have in their lives. In a society of free men and women this issue must be left to the free choices of the people involved. And, in fact, America, which still tends to be more in line with the idea of economic laissez-faire--though only barely by now--has more economic equality than do other countries because when governments are entrusted with equalization, look out! Bias and cronyism are sure to dominate, which is far worse than some “unfair” economic advantages or disadvantages due to inheritance and other sources not directly related to merit.

It is, furthermore, very odd to see Hillary Clinton suddenly champion meritocracy when, in fact, the history of her own type of democratic politics--populism--has been precisely to reject it and embrace government wealth redistribution based on what politicians and bureaucrats deem to be fair.

Bill Gates and Warren Buffet need not worry--no one would prevent them from allocating their wealth as they choose should the inheritance tax disappear. What would stop is the government taxing the wealth and using it in line with the vision of its ideological leaders instead of the choices of those who would otherwise have the authority to use it as they see fit because wealthy parents decided to leave it to them to make the decision.

Sadly, the death tax and similar schemes of extortion that enable politicians and bureaucrats to allocate funds they certainly haven’t earned--talk about meritocracy--appeals to the envy of many people who simply refuse to live with how nature and human decisions distribute wealth in the country. This envy then is used by the likes of Hillary Clinton to grab power for themselves, economic power they certain didn’t earn. Moreover, this is also a source of the expansion of economic statism whereby individuals are deprived of their right to choose how to allocate the fruits of their labor.

Let’s leave the wealth and the luck to those who have it without violating anyone’s rights. It may not always work out to everyone’s satisfaction but it will certainly be far superior to giving the power to the likes of Hillary Clinton.

Monday, December 10, 2007

Consumerism and Christmas

Tibor R. Machan

You all may recall that after 9/11 Osama bin Laden explained his orchestration of the terrorist deed that murdered some 3000 innocent human beings as payback for America’s materialism. (His anti-materialist rant is routine--a good discussion of his views may be found here:

Yet as the writer of the above piece notes, anti-materialism is a common theme among most religions. Of course! The idea that what life is all about is preparation for an after-life, a spiritual life that is superior to the mundane life we can lead here on earth, is central to most religions.

In the West, however, many religions have made peace with the mundane elements of human existence so there tends to be a less avid denunciation of materialism, which is how the idea of being seriously concerned with living prosperously here on earth is usually designated. After all, the Christian God is both human and divine, in the person of Jesus, for example. Destruction of life is generally deemed to be a sin for Christians, whereas, as bin Laden himself has noted, the love of death is central in his version of Islam. As one account has it, “This originated at the Battle of Qadisiyya in the year 636, when the commander of the Muslim forces, Khalid ibn Al-Walid, sent an emissary with a message from Caliph Abu Bakr to the Persian commander, Khosru. The message stated: ‘You [Khosru and his people] should convert to Islam, and then you will be safe, for if you don't, you should know that I have come to you with an army of men that love death, as you love life’.” This account is widely recited in contemporary Muslim sermons, newspapers, and textbooks.

Yet despite the Western theological tradition’s more friendly attitude toward the mundane, nearly every Christmas leaders of Christian denominations tend to revert to the original, anti-life doctrines by condemning materialism or, actually, commercialism. This year the latest Pope, Benedict XVI, lamented what he called the “materialist” approach to celebrating Christmas. He referred in his proclamation to “the dead-end streets of consumerism,” according to newspaper reports, chiding people everywhere for what the report calls “being caught up with consumerist pursuits.”

Ironically, the Pope issued his proclamations form St. Peter’s Square at the Vatican. If you have ever visited the Vatican, as I and millions of others have, you would know it to be one of the West’s if not the world’s most opulent places. And as to consumerism, the gift shop dominates the entrance to the Vatican, where one can spend great sums of money on various small or sizable trinkets. Commerce flourishes there, believe me, as the Vatican cashes in on the desire of many of the visitors to take way some reminder of their having been to that historically and theologically significant place.

Of course, even apart from the Vatican, the Roman Catholic Church, as well as others within Christianity, often excel in ostentatious display of riches--one need but go to high mass, indeed, on Christmas Eve, to witness this.

An why not? That is how human beings tend to celebrate what they value highly. By honoring the occasion with gift-giving. And gift-giving necessarily involves commerce--most of us aren’t skilled at the crafts that it takes to create the various gifts we wish to bestow upon those we love and cherish. I personally bought airline tickets for some of my family members, a computer for another, in part because I have no airplane in which to fly them where they would like to go or no factory and expertise to make a modern, up to date computer. To obtain these gifts, I rely, as do billions of others, on commerce.

So why then would the Pope besmirch consumerism and commerce? Beats me. (And remember, also, that “materialism” is ultimately a nonsense term--nothing we purchase is simply material but embodies the creative intelligence--indeed the creative spirit--of many human beings!) So, I urge the Pope to change his message and to have a more generous understanding of all of us who make use of commerce in our celebration of Christmas!

Sunday, December 09, 2007

Are Values Universal?

Tibor R. Machan

A frequent claim by erudite people is that the values on which America was founded--individual rights, rule of law, due process--are obsolete. They have been superseded by more recent ways of seeing things, of understanding people and their world.

This point is made especially concerning America’s roughly free enterprise, capitalist economic system. Some refer to them as “voodoo economics,” suggesting that they are old fashioned, outmoded, in need of being discarded by now. The right to private property, a basic principle the American Founders referred to in their writings and the framers included in the Fifth Amendment, is also dismissed along these lines, sometimes by very prominent thinkers in prestigious academic institutions.

At other times the point is pressed that although some of the ideas or principles of the American Founders had merit, they were in serious need of being updated, improved upon--so, for example, whereas the Founders believed in the right to life and liberty, Franklin D. Roosevelt wisely updated these with his idea of Four Freedoms, including the freedom to obtain support from others whether or not they wish to provide it--the entitlement doctrine that’s become the basis of the welfare state--which unambiguously overrules the right to liberty.

Yet, all the while some of the very same people who urge upon us this view also offer fierce criticism of early practices, laws, and customs. They will condemn slavery and the subjugation of women unhesitatingly and not accept the idea of, well, those were okay back then but not now. Favoring the upper classes, for example, is condemned, as is keeping the poor in their wretched conditions. Torture, which was routine in the Middle Ages, often comes in for chiding, never mind that back then it was widely accepted, as was corporeal punishment, child labor, and similar practices widely disapproved of.

Is it possible to have it both ways? Are some principles universal, so we can invoke them to judge the conduct of people in any age, while others are not, so that while back then it was OK to act that way but now it isn’t? If so, how do we tell the difference?

To put it differently, when is invoking the idea that is was a different era and thus OK to do some things we now know to be wrong merely an excuse? How can we avoid cherry picking the conduct we want to disapprove of in any and all eras versus the conduct we are going to condemn only for certain times and places?

The idea is not merely academic by any means. It is of considerable practical importance. There are many people who claim that various ideas and ideals advocated should not be applied to certain countries, such as Cuba, North Korea, or Venezuela. They are different places and thus what is proper in the West or the U.S.A. may not be proper there at all. Yes, freedom of speech is a good idea here in America, some will say, but in the Venezuela being ruled by Hugo Chavez it is inapplicable. How women are treated in Iran is fine there but not here.

Examples can be heaped upon examples of such cultural, ethical, and political relativism which is proclaimed side by side some very earnest absolutism. Democracy is good for every society--or is it? But if it is, does that also mean that driving on the right side of the road is the right way or can that vary from country to country--or continent to continent?

Most of us confront these issues only in our college philosophy or ethics courses and once that’s done, we rarely give the matter much thought. Yet it is really the very stuff of international diplomacy, of globalization, of how the World Court should decide cases and so forth. Maybe the issue is directly relevant even to how we deal with our next door neighbors. Should we judge their conduct as we judge our own? Do our principles of decency, justice, and such reach beyond our front doors? And if so, why not farther away, to the other side of the globe?

I am only raising the matter here because despite the abstract nature of the concern, it will certainly come up in our lives, including in the coming presidential elections. Is mandatory universal health care something right for us in America, in Canada, anywhere, or quite wrong however much other countries experiment with it? Should social security become voluntary, as it has in certain countries? Should religion be central our political system as it is in various places around the globe, or should we stick to separation of church and state and maybe even advocate it for others?

Now and then it bears reflecting on these matters; so however troubling it may be, it is worth admitting that the issue is actually quite central to human life anywhere.