Friday, November 07, 2008

American Commissars

Tibor R. Machan

Back in 1859 Abraham Lincoln noted that “All this [the economic success of America] is not the result of accident. It has a philosophical cause. Without the Constitution and the Union, we could not have attained the result; but even these are not the primary cause of our great prosperity. There is something back of these, entwining itself more closely about the human heart. That something, is the principle of ‘Liberty to all’—the principle that clears the path to all—gives hope to all—and, by consequence, enterprise, and industry to all.” In a related vein, Lincoln also said that “No man is good enough to govern another man, without that other’s consent.”

However much actual public policy may have departed from these strong moral convictions, it was at least acceptable back then to openly declare them.

In contrast, what many very prominent public thinkers proclaim these days has a rather different ring to it. At a recent presentation of his ideas, the political economist James K. Galbraith made no secret of his enthusiasm for the state’s regulation of American citizens. He spoke with open nostalgia about the times when he was in Washington making rules for people to follow. (And I am convinced he is looking forward to be asked by the next US president to return to his favorite job as an economic regulator.)

Another famous American public thinker, a Nobel Laureate no less, MIT’s Professor Robert Solow, pontificated along similar lines in a recent review he penned, in The New York Review of Books, of Peter Gosselin’s book, High Wire: The Precarious Financial Lives of American Families (Basic Books, 2008). The review essay abounds in paragraph after paragraph of elitist proclamations about how government ought to regulate people’s lives because that is the best way for them to be insured against various disasters. No need to go into the details here—the theme is a very familiar one, especially in the pages of TNYRB. The following passage should, however, give one a very clear flavor of the thinking behind these elitist notions:

“The standard argument for leaving all the responsibilities and decisions to the individual in the free market is that, in appropriate circumstances, that is the route, and maybe the only practical route, to economic ‘efficiency’.”

There is more but that is no relevant here. My reason for focusing on these ideas is not so much to dispute them from the viewpoint of sound political economy but to examine them as instances of rank and immoral political elitism. Galbraith, Solow, et al., are the kind of people who take it as unquestioningly given that they are entitled to regiment the society in line with their superior vision. Never mind the consent of the governed, never mind “liberty to all.” Such notions appear to strike these people as primitive and no account needs to be taken of those who might protest being nudged about, regulated, regimented by these high minded intellects, the government’s eager chevaliers.

When at a recent presentation of his views I challenged Professor Galbraith to address the argument of public choice theorists—that school of economists who contend that government regulators are entirely unsuited to be entrusted with regulating us, with exercising the power of government so as to set things right in society—he simply ignored the question. It was evidently beneath him to pay heed to those who express skepticism about the suitability of the likes of Solow and Galbraith as paternalistic regulators who use the vague notion of the public interest as their excuse to govern other people.

I don’t know about you, dear reader, but I am baffled why there are such people, especially in America, how they manage to convince themselves that they may govern others without those others’ consent. I remember similar but rougher versions of these people, back in communist Hungary, the commissars who unhesitatingly ordered us about, knowing full well that their authority arose from sheer power, period. Sadly, the likes of Solow and Galbraith probably imagine themselves more sophisticated than those commissars. But, of course, they are every bit the same.

No comments: