Saturday, November 29, 2008

Still Not Figured it Out

Tibor R. Machan

I read a lot of stuff, including editorials and commentaries in scientific journals. Each time there’s a new administration, many of these publications rev up their lobbying for support from the government for whatever are their favorite projects.

So now Nobel Laureate Steven Chu, director of Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, is going on record in the pages of Science News, which happily gave him room to sound off, seeking “investment tax credits so that companies have an incentive to invest in long-term energy research.” One might have hoped that these incentives would be supplied by the market place but now, Dr. Chu is reaching out for government support. If the market fails to provide the incentive but Dr. Chu wishes it would, he needs to advertise his services to market agents, not to government.

Actually, tax credits are simply ways to avoid being extorted the full amount one would usually be. I do not begrudge anyone the opportunity to dodge taxes, however it’s done, but Dr. Chu and his ilk aren’t tax rebels and likely would not champion tax dodging or resistance for other citizens. Only those doing his kind of important work supposedly qualify!

Some of the language in which Dr. Chu advances his case for tax credits is also disturbing. He says “The government has got to allow” these! Why is it self-evident to the likes of Dr. Chu that government is in the business of allowing this and that? Government is our hired agent, at most, and no one in such a position is authorized to about allowing us anything, giving us permission. Citizens in a free country are not allowed this and that by their government any more than are other professionals allowing their clients to do this or that. Even my physician doesn’t allow me but makes clear that some things I might do will help me while others may hurt. Whether I carry on this or that way isn’t something I, as an adult, am allowed by another adult.

Professor Donald Boudreaux, chair of economics at George Mason University, noticed a similar tendency when he sent a letter to The Washington Post recently critical of the phrase one columnist there used regarding why Barrack Obama was elected. He notes that in an Op Ed piece in The Post one Peter Funt “off-handedly mentions that Barack Obama was elected to ‘run the country’ (‘Tapped Out,’ November 29).” And as Professor Boudreaux says, “This familiar phrase is nonsensical.”

Why is it nonsensical to speak of government as “allowing” this or that or of the next president as elected to “run the country”? As I have already hinted, that’s because governments and their officials, like the President, aren’t monarchs who rule us but civil servants who are hired to carry out some specific work for us for which they are well enough paid. The fact that prominent people who write for major newspapers or get interviewed by important magazines treat government as if it were in charge of us all bodes ill for a free country.

It isn’t enough that thousands of politicians and bureaucrats suffer from the delusion that when they enter government they get to rule others. But there are thousands of citizens outside government who speak as if this delusion were acceptable. Yes, often such talk is unselfconscious and those speaking these ways do not seriously endorse the idea of government as our parent or ruler. But the careless use of certain terms in the language can have influence over how we think and act.

Given that for centuries on end governments did suffer from the delusion that their officials legitimately ruled the population, that they were in charge of the rest of us, it is especially important for respected people in the country to discipline themselves when they speak about public policies, public affairs. Such people tend to set the terms of discourse in the country and by now they ought to know well and good that these terms do not include “government allows” or “presidents run,” any more than they include “your highness” or “your majesty.”

This country is not a monarchy and educated folks ought to remember this whenever they sound off.

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