Friday, February 01, 2008

Elections Equal Theft Facilitation

Tibor R. Machan

Unless elections are confined to selecting administrators of a legal system, they are mostly about mutual theft facilitation. You elect someone to office so he or she will garner the resources of others and transfer them to you or your favorites in the community. And since there is never enough to go around and there is always more and more that people want, the process amounts to a mad dash to be first in line at the government’s treasury. And while there is never enough to go around, there is always the ploy of borrowing against the wealth of future generations, who aren’t around to protest much, needless to note. No taxation without representation in your dreams!

A clear case in point is my neighbor down the street. She works in one the local community district, I am told. For the last few weeks there has appeared on her fence facing out toward the street a sign endorsing a referendum that supports, you guessed right, added funds for community colleges. No other measure is given support on this neighbor’s fence but this one that serves a special interest, certainly not the public interest that defenders of the welfare state constantly invoke when they condemn those who are skeptical about their type of government.

This sign, that I see every time I leave my home or come back to it, is at least implicitly honest. My neighbor makes no bones about wanting the political process to advance her agenda. As to others, never mind that. “Let them take care of theirs, I’ll look out for mine” seems to be the operative motto here.

The underlying hope would seem to be that enough people will be fooled into thinking that supporting her agenda is a matter of the public interest, so she will come out on top and her institution will get the support, not others that are also using the political process to seek it.

In a recent letter responding to one of my columns I was chided for failing to consider the public interest, for being too much of an individualist instead of a citizens promoting the public good. This because I advocate that government ought to focus primarily if not exclusively on protecting the rights of individuals and not on handing out so called entitlements to members of various groups.

But what too many folks today consider the public interest really isn’t at all to the benefit of the public but mostly to special groups or even specific individuals. This war of innumerable groups of people against all the others¾one reminiscent of the war of all against all discussed by the English philosophy Thomas Hobbes as part of the state of nature (the state prior to the establishment of civil society)¾is the norm for contemporary politics. So when Barack Obama recently spoke in Kansas, he said outright that he will do right by the citizens of Kansas¾at the expense, of course, of all the rest of the citizens of America. Just like my neighbor hopes from her local government, Senator Obama was promising to deliver the bacon to those whose votes he was seeking at others’ expense.

The public interest my foot! The welfare state, which pretends to take care of all, is but a mad dash to promise and seem eager to deliver to everyone benefits for which others are going to pay. It is plainly fraudulent¾it cannot be done. But sadly millions of people, when elections roll around and when Congress and various state assemblies are in session, get their hopes up that they will be the winners in the effort to get others to pay for what they want.

Of course, the result is the tragedy of the commons: resources are depleted good and hard and the country goes into greater and greater debt and various groups of people are angry at the rest who prevented them from getting what they believe they are entitled to.

The idea of a free society is that one must rely on one’s works and good fortune and, now and then, on the kindness of friends and neighbors, in order to get on with one’s life, not on theft-facilitators. The idea of our society, in contrast, is for everyone to try, each election, to rip off everyone else.

Thursday, January 31, 2008

An Elementary Fallacy!

Tibor R. Machan

Among the publications in which my columns sometimes make an appearance, Free Inquiry is a favorite. Although it is primarily a forum for discussions of secular humanism and connected issues, there is plenty of room there to bring up interesting topics and argue one's case, provided one's civil about it all.

I am in distinguished company, indeed, with Richard Dawkins, Nat Hantoff, Peter Singer and Christopher Hitchens, among others but I cannot recall that Paul Kurtz, the chair of the Center for Inquiry which publishes Free Inquiry magazine, ever replied to any of these other columnists in the very same issue in which their column appeared. Evidently I got to him. (My column argued that fairness is a minor virtue, in contrast to what post-Rawlsian defenders of the welfare state firmly maintain.)

But what is most interesting to me in this exchange is contained in the following sentence: "[Machan] escaped from communist Hungary; as a result, he has rebelled against taxation and believes fervently in the free market."

It needs to be kept in mind that Dr. Kurtz is a Professor of Philosophy Emeritus and in that discipline logic figures as a central method for reaching an understanding on all matters. Indeed, on of the messages of secular humanists is that people ought to deploy logic and reason, including science, not faith and mysticism as they go about trying to figure out how the world works.

Among the first lessons one learns in an elementary logic course is that there are various informal fallacies that too many people commit as they go about thinking things through. For example, the fallacy of begging the question or ad hominem or the genetic fallacy. One would not expect anyone in the discipline to commit any of these and similar fallacies. Yet Dr. Kurtz manages to do just that when he claims that I hold my views on taxation and the free market "as a result" of my having "escaped communist Hungary." It is where I come from, what happened to me, the circumstances of my early life that produced in me my views, not my careful reasoning, study, analysis, and such, all those methods that secular humanist advise we use when considering, for example, such issues as evolution, abortion, the existence of God, intelligent design and so forth. No. Dr. Kurtz chooses, instead, to treat my views as some kind of affliction that comes to people who escape from communist Hungary or similar tyrannies.

This is sad. I would have loved to see some argument against my views, not having the dismissed on such flimsy grounds. The entire episode reminds me of when back in my graduate school days someone invited me to a talk given in Los Angeles by a Hungarian refugee. I decided to go even though I put very little stock on shared cultural background when it comes to learning things from people. Those I regard as accidents, something one has no control over, whereas one's thinking, reasoning are something a person must choose to carry out. Focusing on evidence and steps in arguments is a free act but having come from Hungary is, well, an incidental aspect of one's history. Yes, it can supply one with experiences that can be useful in reaching conclusions about various matters but those experiences will not get one very far all by themselves, with careful research, comparisons with the experiences of others, etc.

Sure enough, the young man I went to hear spoke about Hungary's communist experience in ways totally alien to how I came to reflect on them. He advanced the view that communism is a wonderful ideal, a beautiful dream but, alas, it's too bad that it is unattainable in practice because human beings just aren't good enough to handle its demanding ethics and politics. I completely reject this notion, as my book Marxism Revisited, A Bourgeois Reconsideration (Hamilton Books, 2006) make abundantly clear. The point here is simply to note that background does not determined what one will think about anything.

My opposition to taxation rests on my ethics which rejects taking something from one person so as to support another, without the former's consent. Also, taxation is an institution, like serfdom, that belongs in feudal orders, not in free societies. But I have addressed these matter at great length in my various writings.

It is disappointing that Dr. Kurtz resorts to committing an elementary fallacy, explaining someone's ideas by reference to his or her history, instead of criticizing them on the basis of the argument advanced in their support. (Indeed, my arguments were scarcely addressed by Dr. Kurtz in his reply!)

Sunday, January 27, 2008

Do the Clintons Deploy the Race Card?

Tibor R. Machan

Elections do not interest me a great deal. Not because they cannot ever be important but because my own focus is on political principles, not personalities or emotional hot buttons. Moreover, these days no one running for anything articulates truly sound ideas on political economy. Among the candidates for president only Ron Paul, whose chances of winning the Republican nomination are practically nil, shows interest in the principles of the free society and even his message has been recast so that now his ads on California radio stations, for example, make him sound like one of the Pat Buchanan nationalists who is concerned mainly with illegal aliens.)

The notion that one must vote for someone, anyone, just to vote, never mind that everyone running advocates bad ideas, bad policies, is completely off the wall. That really amounts to throwing away one’s vote--a kind of electoral littering. Better to wait for a time when perhaps some sensible people, with sensible ideas, become candidates.

Nonetheless, sometimes when a candidate has no concern for sound principles but only for winning elections, the lack of a political vision becomes significant. For example, one of my neighbors who works for a community college has a sign up advocating that we all vote for a measure that would deliver additional funds to the college district. There seems to be no other political agenda on this neighbor’s mind but one that amounts to ripping off others so as to gain benefits.

Anyway, lack of political principles can easily lead a candidate to stress other types of generalities, such as racial sentiments. Hillary and, especially, Bill Clinton appear to be in this fix now, trying to find some general issues apart from basic political ideas that will attract voters. Lacking any unifying idea of what this country is about--freedom, equality, order, spirituality, whatever--it seems like the Clintons are now putting their money on broad racial or sexual sentiments. Because Barack Obama is black, they can invoke, as Bill Clinton has done recently in South Carolina, the names of discredited or scary black leaders like Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton, thus linking the Senator with these men’s one-sided leadership, the kind that folks with racial bias will certainly be alarmed by.

Because of this the Clintons have recently become targets of the criticism of some liberal democrats who do not want their party to return to the era when it got all too comfortably in bed with racists. Even as a mere, pragmatic tactic this approach no longer carries any punch. The bulk of Americans, as Obama said after his South Carolina victory, just don’t much care now about the race of the candidates.

But then where else are the Clintons--who do not advance any kind of coherent system of ideas (perhaps because the one they may well have, namely Hillary’s “it takes a village” socialism, is too offensive to mention)--going to find common ground with enough voters, apart from forging a community with people who are prejudiced? Without an idea or vision of what kind of political system they are going to support when in office, the only thing they seem to be able to offer now, in a crunch, is that they, unlike their black opponent, will not favor only blacks. This even though Senator Obama has been rather careful to distance himself from any notion of black solidarity as his strategy for winning races.

One can unite voters on the basis of several common factors. One, the right sort, is a political vision. Another, an insidious one, is racial prejudice or apprehension. Another objectionable one is class hatred.

In South Carolina this last had no foundation at all. Indeed, class divisions are a phony device for separating Americans, even though many politicians give it a try. (What upsets people about class is when people are deemed to have been born into it, as a matter of a birthright. Merely being richer than others doesn’t cut it since riches can fast disappear and wealth can be earned and, in any case, most people want to become rich.)

I doubt, by the way, that too many in the Clinton camp are out and out racists. But I do think that out of desperation, and in the absence of a coherent political philosophy, many will at least be tempted to invoke the race card--subtly but still!