Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Kosovo and Secession

Tibor R. Machan

Reportedly the Russian government opposes Kosovo’s secession from Serbia, as expected, because it fears the move would fuel Chechnya’s similar goals vis-à-vis Russia. Is Kosovo’s secessionist endeavor perhaps even similar to what those in the American South had attempted and over which some claim the Civil War had been fought?

Actually, there is only a little resemblance. Southerners who wanted to secede made a serious mistake, one that rendered their secessionist design unacceptable. They wanted to secede without freeing the slaves they held. In effect, they wanted to secede while kidnapping millions of people. This may not have been the reason their secession was opposed and why the war broke out--although clearly in contributed to it--but in point of fact it made their secession morally and mostly likely legally impossible to tolerate.

The population of Kosovo has no slaves and so the secession there isn’t plagued by such serious moral problems. Of course, when a region has had a diverse population, there isn’t likely to be universal consent to any kind of secession. Even if the majority agrees, there is likely to be many others who will be forced to go along with something they do not desire. Which suggests that the entire issue of secession could use some serious reflection.

Exactly what does legitimate secession involve? Unlike when individuals resign from a club or divorce, where a clean break is possible--although not all that simple, especially where children are involved--when large groups of people who hold property in a region wish to discontinue political association with others the dynamics can be expected to be very complicated. The complications may actually point to some basic problems with the entire notion of “a nation.”

Whenever nations are viewed analogously to clubs or corporations, the problem of making decisions for all those involved arises. Clubs and corporations are not very difficult to leave--the exit option, as economists refer to it, is or ought to be open (unless binding long term commitments have been forged). Clubs, corporations, churches, and similar human associations are usually freely, voluntarily joined, at least in regions where classical liberalism has been influential.

Nations are different since people are simply born into them and rarely make explicitly, nor even implicit decisions to be part of them. This despite the classical liberal idea of the consent of the governed. (Some would, of course, construe that idea in strictly individualist terms but, arguably, others who see it more along democratic lines, even as the American Founders understood it, have a case, too.)

So when nations are broken up by their citizens, matters can get very problematic. Much of a nation’s history, its institutions, buildings, monuments, ruins, relics, etc., are deemed to belong to all of the population. Tearing these apart is going to be upsetting, notably for people who think in collective, especially tribal terms. And millions of people do just that--they often see themselves as literally a part of some collective group rather than as individuals, along lines that ants are parts of an ant colony or a bee of a bee hive.

There has been some serious thought about all this in political theoretical circles but not enough and not recently, I believe, to have produced workable insights. Even in America, too many see themselves primarily as citizens of cities, counties, states and the nation instead of freely choosing, independent individuals. The history of thinking about one’s membership in political associations has tended to be collectivist--people too readily speak about what China did or does, what Kentucky has decided, what are England’s intentions, and so forth, even though strictly speaking China, Kentucky, or England isn’t some conscious entity doing, deciding, or intending anything at all. Some people in these places do, decide, or intend, and others are commonly simply swept along.

Kosovo is a region of the world where this topic is now a very live one but there are many others--Sri Lanka, Spain, Russia, are just a few among them. A sober exploration and dialogue of what is and should be involved in secession would be very desirable.

Monday, February 18, 2008

Employment Blues Revisited

Tibor R. Machan

Even though making lots of money is often derided by politicians, they do routinely champion employment security. Exactly why it is fine to want the latter but not the former is quite unclear to me. There are some theories about this, though.

Some believe that making lots of money suggests that it is important to be able to live well, while a job merely allows you to survive rather than making very much of this life, trying to enjoy it fully, to be happy and prosperous until it is over. Being rich, then, is thought to be crass, lowly, while barely surviving, near poverty, is deemed more noble because it's more modest. Others figure that rich bashing stems from having a misguided zero-sum view of economics: if I get rich, someone must get poor. So, profit-making always involves making some poor bloke worse off than before. As the French poet Charles Baudelair said, "Commerce is vile because it is the worse kind of egoism," which to him meant getting ahead at other people's expense.

The first of these ideas can only be dealt with by way of ethics: it is there that we consider whether flourishing in life is to be regarded as an honorable objective and, once accomplished, something to be proud of. The second is both a philosophical and an economic issue: does wealth creation involve making others worse off than they otherwise would be? One philosophical issue is whether creating wealth is even possible, or are we stuck with just taking from here and putting it there, the famous zero sum game. The economic question is how has it happened that as the population of the world increased, the greater portion of people have been living better, at least economically. The stuff we need and want has not been reduced by way of entrepreneurship and mass production--that is, by the increase of the free flow of commerce, of enrichment. Instead commerce has managed to improve everyone's economic well being, even if not at the same speed.

Unfortunately, since government is so heavily involved in economic matters, there can be little calm in the discussion of these topics. Politicians have too much of a stake in scaring us to death about our future so that we will vote them into office where they will then pretend to turn things the way they ought to be. A Pat Buchanan or Ralph Nader cannot produce a sensible, reasonable discussion of the matter. Neither can a Hillary Clinton, a John McCain, or even a Barack Obama. And the news organizations also benefit most from disseminating "news" that create panic in our hearts. Even in scholarly circles these days there is too much partisanship, ever since Marx has convinced many in that community that everything is political, it's all related to power.

To make a living requires work but if one believes that to have a job means for someone else to lose one, this can only lead to bad blood between people. Oddly enough, it is in business that such a view is not usually shared, whereas those who focus on governmental affairs tend to view matters more akin to combat. This is why from politicians the refrain doesn't focus on productivity but on fairness, sharing prosperity, as Mrs. Clinton says, not on making it.

In business the idea is that commerce enhances everyone's well being, with losses coming only to those who misjudge the marketplace. Since forcing people to share is going to discourage them from working hard, it is better not to stress sharing and fairness but wealth and profit. Not only does everyone have a basic right to seek riches but this actually tends to produce more wealth for everyone who will but make the effort to work for it.
Unfortunately, we are now at a point where too many folks really think that they are owed a job, especially job security, never mind that this logically entails forcing customers to keep purchasing what one produces whether or not they want it. It would be encouraging to see some prominent commentators on C-SPAN or CNN making the point and for a few articulate politicians to affirm the plain truth: what would give us the greatest shot at job security isn't taking from the rich and spreading it around but making more wealth, training ourselves to anticipate future market changes, not expecting people to be forced to patronize our goods and services whether they want what they are being provided.

Job security comes from sustained, unimpeded productivity, not from trying to guarantee employment on the backs of some mythical job-manufacturers forced into service by the government.

Sunday, February 17, 2008

Might've Guessed: Grisham likes Hillary

Tibor R. Machan

Of the very few John Grisham legal thrillers I have read, the only one I liked was The Firm. It was also a pretty decent movie, made good mostly by Gene Hackman's character and acting.

What I didn't like about the few other Grisham books I tried to read was their relentless business bashing. The Pelican Brief comes to mind. And that while corporations are picked as targets by making them all seem vicious, governments and their policies get completely off the hook. So I have stopped reading him despite my almost fanatical devotion to court room dramas, of which I like the works of Steve Martini, Scott Thurow, J. F. Freedman, Lee Gruenfeld, John T. Lescroart, Lisa Scottoline and, especially, Philip Friedman. I grew up reading Hungarian translations of Erle Stanley Gardner's Perry Mason books and have never gotten tired of the drama that surrounds criminal trials.

What I find difficult to take is stereotyping in any fiction, but especially the court room variety. If lawyers are treated as if they were all really sleazy, or corporate managers as if they were all greedy, or professors depicted as if they were all saints, well this ruins a story for me from the start and I will stop reading it. I managed to start a couple of Grisham's books because, well, I didn't know about his anti-capitalist mentality.

My son tells me I should just put up with it since there is hardly any contemporary fiction, including TV drama and movies, that doesn't rely on such types. Well, I have managed to find some, so I remain hopeful. (I don't think the TV program Law & Order uses them much.)

My suspicion about Grisham has once again been confirmed. Reading the The New York Times Book Review I came upon an item reporting that John has endorsed Hillary for president, with all kinds of accolades: "she is a very warm, authentic person," and when you meet her, "you are taken with her warmth and humor and authenticity." Not a word, of course, about the fact that Grisham and Clinton share an anti-capitalist, anti-market ideology! But that is what I suspect makes him like her for the top political job. From up there she can exercise power and impose all her famous ideals and ideas that she so warmly and authentically believes we all must follow even if quite unwillingly.

You may not always be able to judge someone by the friends he or she keeps but in this instance there is good reason to think that the alliance between the famous court room novelist and the famous politician has to do with their shared political economic viewpoint. And this gives me yet another reason for thinking that if a Democrat must be the country's next president, Barack Obama is probably a safer bet than that fiercely Leftist ideologue, Hillary Clinton.

Mind you, I am not eager to throw around the label "ideologue." It suggests mindless, simplistic adherence to some set of ideas and is often used, say by Princeton economics professor Paul Kurgman in his columns for The New York Times, to besmirch people whose arguments one doesn't wish to address. But in the case of Mrs. Clinton the label seems to me to fit since her embrace of socialist public policies are never defended, never justified in her lectures to voters. She seems to have a faith in socialism, having gotten initiated by her mentor neo-Marxist Michael Lerner, the editor of TIKKUN magazine. (Once, very long time ago, Clinton was an admirer of Ayn Rand's novels and even supported Barry Goldwater for a while. Lerner appears to have been the person who led her to switch to the extreme Left.)

I am glad that Grisham's support of Clinton is out in the open. His unabashed opposition of capitalism should alert voters that when they vote for Clinton, they are voting for anything but a free economy.