Saturday, April 12, 2008

A Fallacy of Collectivism

Tibor R. Machan

Be it the gargantuan or minuscule kind, collectives face an insurmountable obstacle in their governance. There simply is no way for everyone in the collective to get proper representation.

Communitarians, for example, who are today’s version of people who believe the tribe is the most fitting group for people, always show their inability to provide all members with proper representation when their leaders and spokesmen keep using the pronoun “we” as they talk of their system and the policies they recommend for it. Even though “we” refers to everyone on the community, the people making use of it are clearly not all but just the self-anointed leaders. “We will pursue peaceful lives,” said by one or two people who have decided to speak for everyone just will not count as a promise from all to do so. “We will take care of everyone” similarly fails to be convincing since only the defenders of communitarianism give voice to the sentiment.

Individualism is unavoidable because when sentences are spoken, they are spoken by individuals not choruses. Sure, now and then the mob is forced to shout out slogan together but these aren’t at all convincing. I recall when I was about 12 years old, all the school children in Budapest had to gather almost every Saturday at a huge place called Heroes’ Plaza where Stalin used to show up on his visits to Hungary. And we are all forced to shout together, “Our dear father Stalin.” But no one believed this nonsense, if was a farce and the only reason we stuck it out for the duration of the parade is that if we bolted, our teachers would dock our grades.

Even in North Korea, where they still force people to come together in these humongous parades, it only appears they are all together, one! The clothing they wear appear the same, all blue denim, but in fact those in charge get to wear silk blue pajamas while the garb of the rest is made of progressively less fancy fabric!

Still, there are people who keep up the propaganda in favor of “the community” and against the individual, spreading the lie that individualism means some kind of isolationism or, as one world famous Canadian critic calls it, “atomism.” (This critic is Charles Taylor, a philosopher from McGill University who quite bizarrely received the highly coveted and hefty Templeton Prize a few months ago!)

Now if communitarianism is so obviously false to the facts of human community life, why is to promoted to avidly by some pretty high level academics in philosophy and politics? Well, I don’t know most of these folks personally but the few I do know seem clearly to be intent upon becoming leaders of the community. In short, they see communitarianism as a means to furthering their own ends, ends that may not be so awful but are, nonetheless, just their ends and few others in the community share them.

Indeed, whenever the public or common or community interest of good is being promoted, one can be reasonably certain that what is really being advocated is that members of the community accept the agenda being pushed by one or two blokes. “The community supports” or “We pursue” means that these leaders support or pursue, nothing more. Yes, they will usually have a few others on their team but hardly ever all those who make up the community. But pretending that they speak for the community can intimidate the rest and remove effective resistance to the alleged will of the group or collective.

Plain fact is human beings are individuals, first and foremost, once they reach adulthood. They have minds of their own and unless these minds are shut down by force or its threat, they tend to think up different goals for them to pursue. A just human community is one in which the goals of all the members can be pursued provided they are peaceful, non-aggressive. All this talk of the community, the public, we and so forth amounts to some people’s efforts to obscure that fact and secure for themselves control over others. Maybe the intent behind it is benign but the outcome is a disaster.

Friday, April 11, 2008

Did '96 Bill Force People to Work?

Tibor R. Machan

As The New York Times would put it, when in 1996 “President Bill Clinton delivered on his pledge to ‘end welfare as we know it’...he signed into law a bill forcing recipients to work and imposing a five-year limit on cash assistance.” Back then this supposedly cruel deed was one “Hillary Rodham Clinton supported.” The Times says that “some accused the Clintons of throwing vulnerable families to the winds in pursuit of centrist votes as Mr. Clinton headed into the final stages of his re-election campaign.”

Now just consider the way The Times words all this. By ending parts of the welfare state, the bill amounted to “forcing recipients to work, etc.” That is like claiming that when one no longer provides support to certain people who become accustomed to getting it, one is “forcing them to fend for themselves.” In fact, of course, it was the government that was forcing all those it taxes to support the recipients in the first place and with the bill in 1996 it finally lessened the load on them. Taxation is what amounts to deploying force against people. Welfare is a form of coercive support. But support should never be coerced but provided only voluntarily by fellow citizens to those who are in need of it.

But for The New York Times--and this is in a news report, not an editorial opinion--withdrawing some of this forced transfer counts as forcing people to work! But nothing forces anyone to work other than the fact that one needs to earn a living, needs to feed and clothe oneself. It is, to put it bluntly, reality that applies the force. It wasn’t Bill Clinton, Congress, or the supportive First Lady.

Here is a good case of journalistic bias which is disguised within a so called straight news report. By wording the “report” as The New York Times did, the newspaper’s editors and writers tried to make it appear that those who aimed for the contraction of the massive welfare system were perpetrating some kind of oppressive action against welfare recipients. But just isn't so.

In the welfare system it is politicians and bureaucrats who are forcibly confiscating funds from citizens, by means of taxation, in behalf of prospective welfare recipients. It may well be true that these welfare recipients are in need of help but what they ought to do is solicit the help, not take part in extorting it, from other people. It is not charity or generosity when government agents zoom down upon us every year on April 15th or so, and forcibly take from us what is no one else’s resource but our own.
If we decide to send some of these resources to needy people, that’s charity, that’s generosity, that’s kindness. But if Congress and the President of the United States hand over the loot they have taken, to welfare recipients, that’s something entirely different--forcible confiscation and redistribution, that what.

Some people tend to think of Robin Hood when they consider the nature of the welfare state but they are mistaken in doing so. What Robin Hood did was to retake resources confiscated in taxes from those who took them and return these to the victims. That part of the legend is rarely acknowledged.

Thus, the government is anything but akin to Robin Hood, quite the opposite--it is the culprit or villain in the legend.

This is something The New York Times might have reported instead of insisting on making it appear that in 1996 Bill Clinton & Co., including the supportive Hillary Rodham Clinton, set out to oppress welfare recipients. Granted, the entire policy may have been a scam to gain Bill Clinton support from American voters who believed that the welfare state needs to be cut back, perhaps even abolished. Given Mrs. Clinton’s belief in “a commander-in-chief of the economy,” I have little doubt that she has no principled objection to such a state and is probably bent on expanding it now that she believes most Americans no longer find much wrong with coercive wealth redistribution.

What The Times ought to have done is gone on record, on the editorial page, arguing that such coercive redistribution is just fine so far as it is concerned, not try to hoodwink readers in a news story into thinking that the force is applied by those who want to cut back welfare rather than those who support it.

Wednesday, April 09, 2008

What’s Self-Interest Anyway?

Tibor R. Machan

There was a quote from one Donna Wall, a Roanoke Rapids, N. C. teacher, in The New York Times the other day which went like this "I'm glad they're interested in something other than their own self-interest and partying." The paper reported that Ms. Wall was commenting “on the rising interest in politics among young people.”

Isn’t it odd that concern for politics is classified as something “other than their own self-interest” by this teacher? One would think, would one not, that politics for citizens in a free country clearly concern one’s self-interest. Would it not be in one’s self-interest to live in a country that promotes justice, protects one’s rights, is governed by people who are competent, indeed enthusiastic, about these matters?

I bet that Ms. Wall misspoke herself. She probably meant to say that she is glad her students aren’t interested in trivial pursuits rather than important issues that in fact matter to them far more than partying. Yet by divorcing the political from what is in one’s self-interest, she is betraying a warped conception of both, politics and self-interest.

Socrates once said to Crito, very wisely, that "Just follow my old recipe, my friend: do yourselves concern yourselves with your own true self-interest; then you will oblige me, and mine and yourself too." What might Socrates, as rendered by his pupil Plato, have meant when he recommended “true self-interest”? It certainly looks like he didn’t think badly of the idea.

Trouble is that in modern intellectual history the human self in the interest of which Socrates advised on should labor is not viewed as it was in ancient Greece. For Socrates, Plato and Aristotle the human self was something honorable, something that had the potential to be morally excellent. So serving the interest of such a being would itself amount to doing something valuable, even admirable.

One important way to serve a human being’s self-interest is, at least for the ancient Greek thinkers, to make sure that the community in which one lives is a just community, a good one, a community that’s fitting for human survival and flourishing. Accordingly, it is very definitely to one’s self-interest to be involved in politics, the discipline by way of which the justice of a community, its institutions, would be secured.

When under the influence of the English philosopher Thomas Hobbes the human self became thought of as a collection of impulses or desires, driven by the passions rather than by reason, things changed dramatically. Desires were seen as short sighted, imprudent, and concerned only with achieving short lived satisfaction. Or, at best, desires aimed only for raw pleasure. So self-interest itself became something unreasonable, something focused on short term satisfaction.

So Ms. Hall was using the concept of self-interest in its modern and highly impoverished sense. Concern for politics for her amounts to something unselfish, not related to one’s best interest but to something else entirely, the public interest.

But the public interest is very difficult to identify. Does it refer to everyone’s benefit in society, the self-interest of all of the citizenry? Is it something more or less? Arguably millions see the public interest to be their own, so they send lobbyists to centers of political power so they induce politicians and bureaucrats to “bring home the bacon.”

The American founders solved the confusion by identifying a limited task of government that amounted to the public interest, namely, the protection if every citizen’s basic, unalienable rights. But surely that public interest is at the same time the interest of each and every citizen, his or her self-interest, actually. So for the Founders there cannot be any conflict between self and public interest—just exactly how Socrates taught.

Ms. Hall needs to learn a bit so her teaching become more sensible and not confuse her students.