Saturday, March 29, 2008

Victimless Crimes

Tibor R. Machan

When I go to movies I sometimes experiment. I decide to see some because of what I call education in cultural anthropology. Not all of these are enjoyable, even interesting but some suggest insights it would be useful to pay attention to.

Trees Lounge is a movie, from some time back, in which probably none of the characters is likable, most of the events are kind of disgusting, and only here and there can a viewer empathize with how problems are managed. Yet, this is not a movie about criminals, nor are there car chases; instead it is a guys version of a chick flick. The bulk of the people, some of them not especially mediocre, do dope on a regular basis and show how that isn’t really all that great for them. There is plenty of drinking, too, which also manages to bring a few people down. But some aren't put out by their habit.

However, one can tell right away that there is no difference at all in the damage done to some buy drinking versus doing dope. Some aren’t harmed by either, others are. Just like in real life--this is nothing if not a naturalist film, with everything just as it is likely to be for quite a few people in real life.

Yet there is a big difference. The drinking done is legal while the dope consumption is not. Of both one could say exactly the same thing, just as the late William F. Buckley, Jr. put it some time ago:

"Drug prohibition has accomplished none of its intended goals. Just like alcohol prohibition, it has created a multi-billion dollar black market, and despite the expenditure of billions of dollars in the prosecution of this war, drugs are available in every city and town in this country, and they’re cheaper than they were just ten or twenty years ago."

But that is not the worse of it. It is patently unjust to treat adult human beings as if they were children or invalids instead of responsible persons, capable--although not always willing--to guide themselves through the maze of temptations life has to offer. Abusing alcohol, gambling, dope, and even such normally healthful pursuits as exercise, adventure, and so forth is avoidable, even when one is addicted--how else do addicts get themselves to clinics? To entrust the government with banning what people need to resist of their own free will is not becoming of a free society.

No one needs maintain that there are no collateral “victims” where people act self-abusively. Yes, no one has to be influenced but many will be. Yet, that too must be handled in a free and just society without violating the sovereignty of abusers. People have to learn to resist bad influences and if governments do not pretend to deal with the matter in their typical paternalistic, nanny like fashion, they have good reason to. They will not be lured into the false security the war on drugs promises. They will make sufficient effort to deal with the matter, given that no one is really coercing anyone to use or abuse dope, just as none is coerced to use or abuse alcohol.

But here is the problem. Once the principle of sovereignty is affirmed in the case of alcohol or drug use and abuse, as a principle it must be applied to all non-aggressive human conduct. How would that square with the thousands of government regulations, professional licensing rules--I hate to call these “laws”? Of course, the implication of the rights to freedom of religion and free speech are no less clear but somehow the sophistry that the latter apply to special activities that need to be kept free serves for many as an excuse to evade that fact.

It is my contention that principled opposition to the war an drugs is now difficult for several reason, one of which is that such opposition would leave no governmental interventions unscathed. But there is also the general disdain today for principles--it is dismissed as ideology (unless it has to do with a politically incorrect evil such as racism or sexism).

At any rate, however, the movie Trees Lounge shows clearly that criminalizing drug abuse is plainly unjust, as well as unfair, especially wherever alcohol abuse is deemed legally untouchable. One can only hope that such lessons from fiction are not lost on the citizenry.

Thursday, March 27, 2008

Hillary, Stalinist?

Tibor R. Machan

Ok, so you think I am way over the top claiming that Hillary Rodham Clinton is a Stalinist. Well, then what do you make of the fact that on March 27th, in a speech she gave in North Carolina, she said as plainly and clearly as one can say such a thing that what America needs is “a commander-in-chief of the economy.”

Now what is the economy? It is people going about doing business, engaging in commerce, earning a living, selling and buying and so forth. To recommend that such a massive sphere of human activities requires a commander-in-chief is scandalous, especially in what is supposed to be a free country.

Can you imagine a commander-in-chief of the arts? The sciences? Of sports? Of religion? Clearly those would amount to offices for which only an out and out dictatorship has any legitimate room. Yet one of the most likely aspirants to the American presidency is advocating just such an office, one she herself wants to hold.

Does this woman not think about what she says? Does she not consider the implications of the words she uses? Everyone keeps saying how smart she is, how well she did in school. Well, so much for what passes for smart these days and what our schools consider doing well.

What else is there to say? Only, perhaps, that word needs to get out immediately, before it is too late, about what kind of political economic ideas this candidate for the American presidency embraces. A commander-in-chief is the top officer in the military, an organization that must act is a fully coordinated, disciplined fashion, with very specific objectives, such as winning battles and wars.

That is not what economics is about. Economics is about people choosing, freely, spontaneously, to interact, on their own initiative and on terms they set among themselves and not ones dictated to them by some tsar!

Hillary Rodham Clinton appears to have absolutely no clue about this, judging by this absurd idea she permitted herself to give voice to in her North Carolina campaign speech. She has no notion, apparently, that a successful human economic system has no room of a Stalin at the helm, a commander-in-chief ordering everyone about. Not even a deity could accomplish such a feat and countries that have tried, such as Mussolini’s Italy, Hitler’s Third Reich, and Stalin’s Soviet Union paid a very dear price for doing so.

If this remark by Mrs. Clinton does not receive extensive scrutiny from all the pundits and commentators in the media, I don’t know what to conclude about this country. Will she get a pass for advocating a command economy? Not even John Maynard Keynes, the architect of 20th century welfare statism, advocating such a thing. Actually, come to think of it, not even Karl Marx did since his idea was that socialism would emerge spontaneously from the revolution by workers.

Nor do contemporary socialists advocate the command economic system, having learned, finally, that it destroys economies everywhere. Instead, contemporary socialists advocate what they dub "market socialism," a system in which most economic activities are left to the choices of the economic agents and just a few political matters are kept as the province of the state.

Just look at Communist China, what with its extensive free market that is the wise, though by no means trouble free, preference of its rulers! The Chinese commies have learned what our American presidential candidate Hillary Rodham Clinton hasn’t managed to learn. So have the rulers of Dubai and Singapore and other regions where there is exists oppressive political rule. Leave the economy alone because if you don’t, there will be havoc.

But Mrs. Clinton hasn’t even acquired the elementary economic knowledge that today’s socialists and communists have. She is still in the fantasy land where some omniscient, omnipotent ruler can direct the affairs of an entire economy, to everyone’s great benefit. What a scandal. What must those in foreign lands who know so much better where such a system leads think of this woman and all the millions of Americans who want her to be president.

It is a truly obscene spectacle.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Libertarianism and Americanism

Tibor R. Machan

Given that in the main the American political system is still the closest to protecting varieties of individual liberty—regarding speech, commerce, religion, due process, etc.—most of those who peddle political ideas want to hitch their wagon to the ideas of the American Founders. Socialists, conservatives, populists, agrarians, and even some communists have laid claim to being the proper carriers of the American political flag. Libertarians, of course, are no different. They hold that it is their political philosophy that most fully realizes the vision first put into practice by the American Founders and Framers.

Why would a socialist think the same thing? Or a conservative or populist, let alone a communist?

Socialists tend to believe that the American Founders advocated egalitarianism, first and foremost. They focus on the paramount idea in that document that “all men are created equal.” Conservatives, in turn, consider their position to be validated by the Founders and Framers in light of how the latter derived their political theory from a study of history and the thoughts of numerous influential political philosophers and theorists. This confirms the conservative notion that to do nation building properly, one must consult tradition, history, and custom, not concoct ideas and ideals de novo. Populists, of course, focus on the democratic elements of the American political tradition, those that relate to how every citizen has a right to influence public policy. Never mind the limits imposed by, say, the Bill of Rights. What counts is mass participation, the “will of the people.” Agrarians will insist that Jefferson & Co. were mostly promoting the special but proper interest of the landed gentry. And communists will argue that the American system is simply a historical precursor to the ideal community in which a nation becomes a family of equals.

Libertarians, like me, insist that the Founders had a more realistic but also optimistic view of human community life than these other advocates do. They hold that listing the basic unalienable rights of every human being serves as a clear reminder of the radical true insight that no one has the proper authority to impose his or her agenda upon others however much these others may mismanage their lives, even threaten to influence some desirable features of culture. The political task is to secure the basic rights of all citizens. Everything else must be achieved without resort to the main instrument of public policy, namely, force. As the libertarian insists, initiating force against others even for purposes that are quite admirable just cannot be reconciled with a proper standard of justice. That standard, which is actually the first ingredient of civilized life, is to interact with one’s fellows voluntarily and rationally, even when one disagrees with them, even if they are recalcitrant, even if they act indecently themselves but they remain peaceful, respectful of the rights of others.

The idea that reference to all human beings being equal should usher in socialism is countered by the recognition that the equality referred to in the Declaration is about the equal possession of the unalienable rights all of us have, not about the equality of our health, welfare, good looks, and such admittedly widely valued matters. And only libertarianism acknowledges this constraint the Founders’ and Framers’ placed on “egalitarianism.”

Some features of the original American political ideas and ideals are clearly improved upon in libertarianism; abolition of any form of involuntary servitude, for example, including slavery, serfdom, taxation, the military draft, or other types of compulsion citizens may supposedly have imposed upon them as they do when they are taken to be subjects of a monarchy. As the libertarian sees it, some of these elements of the original American system are the unfortunate reactionary residue from pre-revolutionary times and not consistent with the fundamental principles laid out in the Declaration, especially the idea of everyone’s unalienable individual rights.

So, I submit, libertarians are indeed the faithful students of the American political tradition, one’s who learned well from their elders and went on to improve on what they have so learned.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Taxation Again

Tibor R. Machan

Instead of all the mud slinging between Senators Hillary Rodham Clinton and Barack Hussein Obama, wouldn’t it be refreshing to have them engage in some serious political discussion? Since April 15 is nearly upon us, many American citizens might appreciate some in-depth exploration of the nature of taxation. The federal income tax, in particular, would deserve thoughtful examination. Senator John McCain could also enter the fray, me thinks.

Why don’t these politicians, who are aspiring to the U. S. presidency--the presidency of a supposedly free country--spend a bit of their energy and time discussing with voters how a robust system of confiscatory taxation can be reconciled with the basic principles of the country laid out in the Declaration of Independence. In this revolutionary statement of a radical political philosophy--wherein we learn that human beings are equal in having unalienable rights to, among others, their lives, liberty, and pursuit of happiness--it seems pretty clear that a government’s confiscation of one’s resources would amount to a violation of several of these rights.

Take life, for example. What does one’s life consist of? Much of it is spent, of course, trying to earn a living so as to support one’s various needs and wants, including the housing, feeding, clothing, and education of one’s offspring. Having an unalienable right to one’s life means, unless I am utterly amiss in my grasp of the English language and of how the American founders used it, that one may not lose one’s life and its fruits to other people unless one freely gives them away. Confiscatory taxation is not a case of having one’s resources contributed freely, not by even the most post-modern interpretation of the words in play.

Then again, take liberty. What is this liberty? It has to do with one’s not having anyone else, including government, dictate to one what one will do, how one will act, what course of conduct one will undertake. None, since the right to liberty, too, is unalienable, that is to say incapable of being lost unless one’s humanity has vanished somehow. Confiscatory taxation once again cannot be made consistent with the principle that one has this unalienable right to one’s liberty for such taxation coerces one to hand over a goodly part of one’s earnings to people one hasn’t freely chosen to receive them. (And let’s leave aside the sophistry of claiming that taxation is ultimately voluntary or that majority vote may void one’s unalienable rights!)

As to the pursuit of happiness, that too is supposed to be one’s unalienable right, yet when some get the legal power to force one to devote resources to goals one has not chosen to pursue, that right, too, is very evidently violated.

It bears remembering, also, that these are just a few among the “certain unalienable rights.” Indeed, human beings have unalienable rights to do anything that’s peaceful, that does not violate someone else’s rights. Even the Bill of Rights attests to this, in its inclusion of the Ninth Amendment among the principles it lists. It clearly refers to rights we all have that are not enumerated in the Constitution. So, to use some simple examples, we all have the right to laugh, sing, have parties in our back yards, and so forth, even though these rights are no listed--since they would take volumes to list--in the Constitution.

Yes, reference is made in the Constitution to taxation but that is an unfortunate mistake, inconsistency actually, since taxation is not part of a free country properly understood, any more than serfdom is, or involuntary servitude. One might wonder, well then how are the proper functions of government to be funded, if not by means of the extortionist scheme of taxation? Actually, there can be valid alternatives to taxation, ones no involving coercion, confiscation, extortion, although these are not studied now because so many people accept taxation is legitimate. That used to be the case with slavery, too, for centuries--alternatives to it were not studied in ancient Egypt and Greece or elsewhere because influential people complacently accepted the practice. As they now accept taxation. But that does not make it right!

As a very brief hint, the legal services governments provide can be funded by a contract fee--anyone who enters into a contract would need to pay a fee so it would gain legal backing. Given the enormous popularity of freely entered into contracts, and given that one need not make use of them if one can get by with a handshake, the method would provide ample resources to fund government’s proper functions.

Wouldn’t it be just swell if those pursuing the presidency of a supposedly free country would raise issues like this one? No, instead they dwell on whether one’s crazy minister speaks for one in matters of race or whether one has actually encounter sniper fire when landing in some foreign land (where one probably shouldn’t have landed in the first place)?

It is shameful how the right topics are evaded and trivial ones substituted during this and most other political campaigns.

Monday, March 24, 2008

John Adams, the HBO Series

Tibor R. Machan*

The HBO program, John Adams, is proving to be a much needed antidote to how most Americans are educated about the beginning of their country. It is to all appearances a meticulously crafted docudrama. The acting sizzles, the design is riveting, and the direction must have been superb.

It is also nice to know, from a short program, “The Making of John Adams,” that HBO is also running now, that the author of the novel on which the program is based, David Willis McCullough, fully approves of the result. It is more usual to find authors whose works Hollywood translates into film complaining of how the work was butchered in the process. Readers of the book also appear to find the filmed version very satisfactory.

My own interests lead me to be very attentive to the segment titled “Independence,” where the founders hashed out just what they wanted to communicate to the domestic and world population concerning what they were embarking upon and why. It was gratifying to hear some of the characters make it abundantly clear that the Declaration of Independence they forged, mostly at the hands of Thomas Jefferson, is indeed a thoroughly revolutionary statement about the nature of human community life, the relationship between government and the citizenry. (To hear Abigail Adams read out laud these ideas to the Adams children served as a reminder of how home schooling, recently targeted by California for near abolition, can be far superior to what government “school” provide to children.)

And the issue of the abomination of slavery was introduced with no hesitation, showing that for many of the founders the creation of a nation that could withstand attacks from around the globe was a priority despite the fact that they found slavery morally intolerable and had they found a way, they would probably have abolished it. But the newly formed Southern states would hear none of that and without them the venture would appear to have failed.

For me the only lapse involved the failure to feature one of the most essential elements of the Declaration, namely, its theory of government. Immediately after the very famous statement, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal; that they are endowed, by their Creator, with certain unalienable rights; that among these rights are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” this theory of the nature of government is given a nice succinct statement: “That to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed….”

Clearly, the producers could not include the entire Declaration of Independence in the program and had to be selective but to omit this part and the discussions surrounding it is not easily excused. It is in this sentence that we find one of the most radical elements of the American revolution, namely, the confinement of the scope of governmental power to specific and limited tasks and no more. “To secure these rights” is the only just purpose of government, period. Only that which contributes to the achievement of this purposes is justifiable. That is what makes sense of the idea that follows, namely, “that whenever any form of government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the right of the people to alter or abolish it….”

In a cynical, dark moment while watching this segment of John Adams, I gave some credibility to my fear that perhaps the producers realized that this idea of the limited scope of governmental responsibilities may have rubbed many in Hollywood and elsewhere the wrong way. After all, many in tinsel town are great friends of the growth of governmental power, of the expansion of the scope of what government is supposed to do in human communities, at the hands of the likes of Hillary Rodham Clinton, et al. So perhaps they deliberately meant to exclude this theory of strictly limited government!

But, of course, I am not privy to the thinking of those who fashioned the program and, in fact, many other aspects of limited government theory, for example, the unalienability of our basic rights, clearly imply what these lines of the Declaration make explicit.

In any case, for one like me, a refugee to America who has always found the Declaration to be the most inspiring of the original documents, more so even than the Bill of Rights, HBO’s John Adams is a breath of badly needed fresh air. I hope it is shown over and over in the schools across the country so a most neglected aspect of early education might gain center stage for millions of young Americans.
*Machan is the author of, among other works, Human Rights and Human Liberties, A Radical Reconsideration of the American Political Tradition (1975).