Saturday, October 25, 2008

Ethics in Panic

Tibor R. Machan

Some people I have known for ages, who have held firm, as I have, to the conviction that only those public policies are worth one’s support that champion liberty above everything else, appear to me to be shaking their heads just now. They are even talking about how their earlier position may be some kind of idealism or utopianism in need of moderation.

But support for the free society is not idealism or utopianism. It’s the recognition that men and women live best if their communities are governed by the principles of individual rights, to life, liberty, private property, and by the complete renunciation of coercive force among people.

The perfect is, indeed, the enemy of the good and aiming for perfection, some kind of final answer, in human affairs is a mistake—maybe once time ends that will be reasonable to seek but while history is still in process, the best answers will always just be the most up to date, never the last.

Anyway, the current economic fiasco has shaken some people’s confidence in the soundness of the free society. To me that’s akin to being shaken in one’s conviction in an honest and loving marriage because, well, they are rare. Free markets do not produce the mess that we are witnessing. Free market champions have forecast this mess for over a century, making the point that the more we permit government to attempt to direct the economy, the more we are inviting catastrophe, just as this has happened elsewhere. The apparent exceptions occur where for a while some nearly free good, like oil or agricultural abundance, made it possible to be wealthy without free minds and free markets. Even a prison can flourish if supplied with innumerable valuables no one needs to think about and work for.

But that is not the normal state of things in human communities. So the principle that men and women must be free of government regimentation—which is, if you think about it, the regimentation of some men and women of all the rest of them—must not be compromised, let alone abandoned. For a while it is possible to fake reality, to have a measure of economic prosperity without freedom but in time that comes to a screeching halt. Trying to live off money that is borrowed without collateral, without the realistic prospect of paying it back, and with the groundless hope that yet unborn generations will simply take on the debt without protest, is a blueprint for economic disaster. And to try to cope with the disaster with more of the same is catastrophic.

But panic tends to test people’s resolve. Integrity is tough to maintain when the fruits of years and years of economic malpractice become unavoidable anymore. This is true, of course, in all cases of doing violence of good sense, to decency, to virtue, to justice. Such accommodating, “pragmatic” ways tend mainly to beget even worse malpractice.

An when one witnesses the few VIPs in one’s community—who gave at least lip service to the principles of the free market cave in before a bunch of bullies in Washington (and, yes, California Representative Henry Waxman, in front of whom Alan Greenspan betrayed his supposedly free market ideas, is the fiercest bully on the Hill)—no wonder that one’s resolve is weakened. That’s especially so when one’s confidence in liberty is mostly based on common sense, something that tends to become brittle when facing the ill effects of misguided political economy.

It is interesting that many people haven’t a clue as to what alternative to the free market they should support but announce simply that something needs to be done in Washington, the very place where all of this got started to go south. It is as if when a medical charlatan makes a royal mess of one’s health one insisted to going back to that quack for emergency treatment!

No. The answer is to ride this out with as little reliance on the policies that brought it all about, namely, government meddling in the economy. Let the referees of the game learn to do their proper job, then let the athletes resume play free of bureaucratic interference, instead of making things worse by inserting themselves even more into something they know nothing about.

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