Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Why McCain Cannot Attack Obama

Tibor R. Machan

In The Washington Times Wesley Pruden urges Senator McCain to take the bull by the horn and attack Senator Obama on the basis of the latter’s nearly full blown endorsement of the socialist idea of wealth redistribution. This is indeed a position articulated by Senator Obama in a radio interview he gave back in 2001 and, yes, it does mark him as at least a democratic socialist. (There are, Virginia, different types of socialism, even one called “market socialism.”)

Trouble is John McCain has no credibility, as a loyal Republican, to attack Senator Obama along these lines. Republicans and Democrats both sign up for various measures that could count as socialist. Has John McCain renounced the progressive tax? Has he attacked the idea of taxation as a form of wealth confiscation, arguing that it should be given up in a free society in favor of some kind of voluntary system by which to fund the government? Have Republicans abandoned their support for the heavy hand of government in the economy as exemplified by their age old practice of protectionism and handing subsidies to farms and other businesses? are they against government licensing of various professions? are they against government ("public") educational institutions? (All these are defensible mainly from the premises of a version of socialism.)

Of course not. Nearly all governments, other than the type envisioned by libertarians, happily embrace socialist measures. Indeed, the old system of mercantilism that many conservatives look back to with nostalgia is but a different type of socialism, absent its Marxist trappings. Mercantilists champion the heavy hand of government in the economy and everything else, guided by the monarch--and his minions--or some other revered head of state.

Adam Smith himself wasn’t quite the full blown free market advocate some people imagine him to have been. And his defense of the limited free market was based not on individual rights, as would be a defense based on the ideas and ideals of the American Founders, but on the utilitarian notion that with more freedom, the government will be wealthier than with less--this is the point of the title of his famous The Wealth of Nations. It was not that individuals have the right to accumulate wealth as much as they choose and can, provided they do not violate anyone’s rights. This latter is the defense offered of the capitalist, free market system in the spirit of John Locke, not Adam Smith.

In fact, most economists are not pure free market champions since they tend to think that there are market failures which need to be remedied with government intervention. The most prominent such economist was, of course, John Maynard Keynes. In America it was John Kenneth Galbraith, nearly a full blown socialist who worked hard to remake the Democratic party into a socialist one (as his son, James K. Galbraith, is doing now). (Interestingly, there is a parallel in the philosophical relationship between the late Milton Friedman and his son, David Friedman. The former was a committed limited government capitalist while the latter is a committed anarcho-capitalist, someone who denies any justification and need for government!)

In the heat of a campaign, of course, much is said that is only partly meant. Senator Obama is no full blown socialist even though his sympathies lie with an economic system in which wealth is systematically redistributed so as to provide for those who themselves have or make no wealth, never mind why! Senator McCain is certainly no defender of the fully free, capitalist society (as would be the likes of Milton Freidman, Ayn Rand, or Ludwig von Mises). If Senator McCain were to lay into Senator Obama with charges of the latter’s socialism, it would be simple to reply that Senator McCain is nearly as much of a socialist as he is.

So why not stop this name calling and get to the substance, which is whether a free economy is better, in the main, than one that is planned by politicians and bureaucrats. Perhaps this could amount to a topic in the final days of the campaign season that would tell the voters what exactly divides these two candidates.

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