Tuesday, February 05, 2008

Naiveté at Business Week

Tibor R. Machan

Why do some reporters never manage to become educated in the areas they cover? Consider, for example, a recent piece in Business Week, “Food Fight over Calorie Counts” (2/11/08).

The fight is supposed to be between public health officials and the restaurant industry. As to the latter, the report, written by one Michael Orey, leaves little doubt about the reporter’s position: the industry is fighting to keep up its opportunity to sell us food without much health benefits, food that lacks nutrition, food that makes us fat. In contrast, for Mr. Orey all public health officials are “desperate to combat an epidemic of obesity.” In short, they are the heroes, even saints, in the story!

I don’t know how Mr. Orey knows what motivates public health officials but I do know a bit about public choice theory. This is the idea, rewarded with the Nobel Prize in economic science back in the mid 80s, that those in government are motivated no differently from those outside. They too want to advance their own agenda, including keeping and expanding the scope of their jobs.

One need not even turn to this somewhat technical field in economics to see Mr. Orey’s naiveté. Most people know about the way government bureaucrats, especially, try very hard to make themselves important, to become indispensable parts of all our lives. Everywhere government bureaucrats tend to be bent on creating obstacles to commerce, technology, and industry and their rationale--their professed motivation--is mostly a concern for the public interest.

In fact, however, the first concern of most government bureaucrats would be just exactly what the first concern of other human beings happens to be, namely, to make a decent living, to advance in their careers, to produce services that will be needed and well paid for. The difference is that government bureaucrats are paid from public funds and this liberates them from the need to reach a voluntary agreement with those for whom they provide their service. Instead, they mostly impose their service on us whether we want it or not.

In my neighborhood we had a good example of this recently. We had those horrible fires, followed by intermittent rains. The rains were feared by some because they could have, at their worst, produced mudslides. Because of this danger, county officials embarked upon what can only be considered fanatical alarmism--they sent out dozens of emails, daily, made phone calls to local residents, instituted voluntary and mandatory evacuations and did everything in their power to make themselves our saviors.

Needless to say, very little if anything happened that required all this panic. But the fact that there was just a chance that something could have happened sufficed for the county bureaucracy to go into action big time. At whose expense? Well, the taxpayers’. And taxpayers have no choice about whether they to receive this service--they get it whether they want it.

The government bureaucrat’s blessing is a vision of the worst case scenario--something really bad that might happen, never mind what is the probability of it happening. In my neighborhood, for example, only some of the residents are exposed to any real danger when the rains come, even after fires. The rest of us are far away from hills and slopes so there is very little chance of us suffering damage or harm. But when one does not have to worry about cost but mainly about possible public rebuke--being called to account for a failure to anticipate the worst--then alarmism triumphs.

Business Week’s reporters ought to know better than to assume that public health officials are all aiming to do nothing but “combat an epidemic of obesity,” especially when no such epidemic is in evidence and when, moreover, it really isn’t the proper task of a public official to reform the eating habits of the citizenry. Business Week’s writers might, at the least, mention that there is serious skepticism afoot about what really motivates government bureaucrats.

Instead while the restaurant industry is depicted mainly as intent upon cashing in on people’s culinary and nutritional imprudence, government bureaucrats are presented as saints. Come on, let’s get real.

Monday, February 04, 2008

The Scam of Shared Prosperity

Tibor R. Machan

When I was about 12 years old, I was taking a class in my Hungarian elementary school on Marxist economics. One day we were being told about Marx’s famous goal for the communist paradise he envisioned for us all: “From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs.”

As most kids back in Budapest, I didn’t pay much attention to these lessons since they were nothing but pure propaganda for the ruling communists who ran the country. But I did happen to be listening to this particular presentation and once the “teacher” was done, I didn’t have the good sense to resist raising my hand to ask a question: “What if my pal here next to me and I both start the week with a fixed amount of money but he purchases some wood and builds a nice table while I buy some wine and drink myself under a table? Will he have to share with me whatever he can earn when he sells his product?”

As I recall, I was severely rebuked for my counterrevolutionary remark and shortly thereafter I was sent to a technical school where one would prepare for physical labor, not for entering a gymnasium where education is more theoretical, abstract. I was deemed too reactionary and a serious risk for infecting the intelligentsia with heresies. In time I managed to escape from the communist hellhole, of course, and land in America where I have been told freedom reigns and people’s property is not confiscated to be involuntarily and indiscriminately distributed among all.

Alas, this morning I was reminded once again that my hope of coming to a genuinely free country turned out to be more of a dream than a real prospect. One of the most prominent presidential hopefuls has penned an article for The Wall Street Journal, titled, “My Plan for Shared Prosperity.” Its author, Mrs. Hillary Clinton, makes no secret of her plan for massive wealth redistribution should she get the chance to implement her ideas. As she puts it, “My measure of economic success will never be a single, dry statistic. Rather, success means an economy that allows those at the bottom to work their way into the middle class, without pushing anyone out. It means leaving people better off when I finish than when I start. In short, success means an economy that shares its prosperity with all.”

Now a genuinely free economy “allows” those at the bottom to attempt to work their way up, to become economically better off, although there is no guarantee that this will happen. That’s because whether one’s work gains one wealth depends on whether enough people want to pay for it. In a free country no one has the authority to force others to purchase one’s wares or services. It is all done by means of voluntary exchange. And the result can well be unequal wealth across the society. And there is also the problem that some folks simply don’t want to do the work to gain much wealth.

Yet, when one compares the economic history of largely free market societies with those planned by bureaucrats and politicians, one finds, in the main, that there is far more prosperity and even equality in the former than the latter. More importantly, the opportunity to seek economic improvement is not squashed by rigid state planning or fixed socio-economic classification. No. Instead, as one can expect from the condition of freedom in all areas of life, there is a great deal of variety and volatility and mobility. The bottom line is that a free country will probably not be one with “an economy that shares its prosperity with all.”

Of course, Mrs. Clinton isn’t much interested in freedom, only in regimentation for the country to meet her standards of economic success. This is revealed in how she talks of “an economy that shares its prosperity.” She doesn’t appear to grasp that it is not economies that are prosperous, nor engage in sharing anything with anyone. That is what people are and do. And for Mrs. Clinton to get her way, she will have to order the level of prosperity that people will be allowed to attain and force people to share their resources with others, like it or not.

I suppose the idea of a free society is a hard sell, when too many folks like to live off the work of their fellows. But it would perhaps be of some value if our politicians, like Mrs. Clinton, read Orwell’s little fable, Animal Farm, and learned what happens when a country places forced equality ahead of liberty for its citizenry.

Sunday, February 03, 2008

Why Altruism is Prominent

Tibor R. Machan

The most popular ethical viewpoint clearly seems to be altruism. What does altruism amount to? As one philosopher, W. G. Maclagan, put it in an article in The Philosophical Quarterly several years ago, “‘Altruism’ [is] assuming a duty to relieve the distress and promote the happiness of our fellows....Altruism is to ... maintain quite simply that a man may and should discount altogether his own pleasure or happiness as such when he is deciding what course of action to pursue.” Altruism means selflessness, unselfishness, and self-sacrifice.

In most novels, movies, sermons, or political speeches, altruism is treated as virtually the same thing as morality or ethics. To be ethical is, as many who talk about ethics or depict ethical people, identical to being altruistic.

On the other hand, people are rarely altruistic in their daily lives. Sure, off and on they lend a hand to others, even to total strangers. This is usually in some emergency, when others are in dire straits or just could use a leg up. But in their normal doings most people concern themselves with getting ahead in their lives, with trying to benefit themselves and their intimates in their careers, family affairs, neighborhoods, and so forth. To all appearances people act more like moderate egoists; they are mostly focused on what will further their best interests. As they carry on at work, on the road, in the grocery store, and in the broader economy, most of them are not altruistic at all.

Does this mean there is a lot of hypocrisy afoot? Not necessarily. When most of us think about how other people should act, most of us quite naturally praise them when they do what helps us. We want others to be altruistic, naturally, since this promotes their care for us, or so it may appear.

Of course, most of us do not want others to meddle in our lives even as we praise them if they intend to help us out. But many also know that the road to hell is paved with good intentions, so it is also popular to insist that people take care of themselves and only help others when special needs arise.

What seems to mislead us into thinking that altruism is the dominant, even the correct, ethical position is that most discussions of how people should act concerns what they do in their interactions with others. And in these interactions what seems to matter most to whoever discusses ethics is what people do for other people.

Yet, as the late W. D. Falk, a philosopher from the University of North Carolina, pointed out in several of his writings on ethics, by focusing on how people talk about ethics we are mislead about what really concerns and guides them in their conduct. (See W. D. Falk, “Morality, self, and others,” eds. Hector-Neri Castaneda and George Nakhnikian, eds., Morality and the Language of Conduct, Wayne State University. 1963). Falk shows that while most of us voice views that are altruistic, we actually act much more egoistically, much more involved with how best to live our lives, to succeed as the people who we are.

Altruism is, so to speak, the more noisily championed moral stance. It is given a great deal of lip service and quite naturally because of what so many people often focus on when they discuss ethics with other people and in public forums, namely, on how others should act. But in their private and even social lives, where they have much greater influence and impact than elsewhere, most people are not altruists at all.

So there is a decisive and perhaps understandable disconnect between the ethics most people practice and the ethics they propound. As in most cases, such a disconnect between practice and theory is unhealthy. Unfortunately those who discuss morality and ethics professionally, namely, most philosophers and theologians, are fully complicit in perpetuating the disconnect. They promote altruism without making it clear that this could very well be a mistake, that a proper ethics for human beings does not require self-sacrifice, selflessness and so forth but a sensible focus on one’s own success in life as a human being.