Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Domestic & Foreign Wisdom

Tibor R. Machan

Tod Gitlin chimes in brilliantly on foreign policy for the United States of American when he writes that “For the most part, when the United States has set out, on its own and absent direct provocation, to overthrow a government, and to think that, having installed a new one, it could tinker with the effects and bring about a happy outcome, disaster has been the result. To be sure, the frequently cited counterexamples of Grenada and Panama may, to varying degrees, be conceded. But, again, unilateral American intervention has done considerably more harm than good over the past decades. It is worth revisiting this sorry lineage for a moment not because it tells the whole story of American foreign policy—it does not—but because it underscores some of the profound risks of reckless intervention.” (Todd Gitlin, “On Liberalism and Force,” World Affairs [Summer, 2008], p. 43)

Julian Gough, in turn, supplies the wisdom concerning domestic policies for a free society when he writes: “Capitalism is seen as arrogant, but that is merely the rage of Caliban* on seeing his reflection. The extraordinary thing about capitalism is its humility and refusal to judge. It will give us what we want; it will not force on us what it thinks we need. Often we are disgusted by what we discover that we want--but that reflects on us, not on the servant who brings us our fetish gear and saturated fats. It would bring us organic turnips just as happily. If we cease to desire a product, the product changes or ceases to exist. There is nothing more powerless than a corporation.” (Julian Gough, quoted in THE WEEK, 12 July 2008, p. 10.)

Detractors, such as Noami Klein, in her book The Shock Doctrine, The Rise of Disaster Capitalism (Metropolitan Books, 2007), argues precisely the opposite, blaming virtually all maladies in the world on free market capitalism and its champions (such as, and especially, the later Milton Friedman). Who comes out more credible in this dispute is not my task here to establish. Jonathan Chait, in The New Republic (July 30, 2008) has accomplished figuring that out brilliantly already, showing that Klein fabricated much of her evidence and besmirched the Chicago Boys utterly unfairly, relying on reams of prevarications.

My focus here is the fact that a debate such as this one can actually still be held in the better sectors of the American media. Both World Affairs and The New Republic are competent, well edited publications, with superb writers and editorial policies that bend over backwards not to violate journalistic ethics. And that, I believe, is something to rejoice about.

In the United States of America and in Great Britain there is civilized debate and disputation on vital issues of the day, the month, the year and the decade are widely circulated, with the contributors largely restrained and polite without being at all dull. This form of exploration of important human topics began back in ancient Greece and was carried on in Rome, more or less consistently, although often surrounded by overt violence and intimidation. And, of course, in many parts around the globe today discussions of such vital topics has a hard time being carried out in a civil tongue--the threat of bayonets and bombs is altogether real, should someone in the minority annoy an opponent too severely.

However, the influence of modern classical liberal ideas, especially as regards public affairs, has been to at least compartmentalize the conflicts so that where ideas are discussed, weapons are barred. The progress this exhibits must not be over nor underestimated. A few steps forward can easily be obliterated by a few backwards.

Although some genuine jewels of ideas can thus surface and have a chance of influencing public policy, there is never any guaranteed that the good one’s will triumph. But when a few precious morsels such as the two I quoted above do get some run for their money, I believe we should all cheer and make the most of it. As that saying I have quoted before put it: Notice the good and praise it! It will encourage some more good, I am willing to bet.

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