Friday, May 02, 2008

No Miracle at All

Tibor R. Machan

For 20 years I drove a little Volvo P 1800 and I enjoyed the car immensely. It served me and my family very well. At times I would pat it and silently thank the engineers who designed it and the entire team of producers who made it. I was emotional about it, actually. What a nice thing to have and how wonderful to benefit from the works of these people, as well as from the socio-economic system that enabled me to purchase the car.

This morning I was checking out the news on my TV and watched some devastations wrought by this thing many people admiringly refer to as “nature”--actually, the wilds--in various parts of the country, particularly in Texas, where tornadoes reeked havoc and destruction. There was only one known fatality from several of these storms and the announcer mentioned how this was such a miracle. As I heard this piece of information announced, I was looking at aerial views of the regions where the tornadoes struck and it occurred to me that the fact that few injuries occurred was not at all a miracle, not by a long shot.

What is most responsible for the lack of widespread injury and death in these regions? Well, that widely detested element of human society, namely, technological and economic development. You know, those developers who always get derided for producing rows of homes and other structures throughout the country. And all those who manufacture the materials from which these are built. And science and technology in general, all of that is what produces “the miracle” the TV announcer was talking about.

Whenever one learns about earthquakes and other destructive acts of nature in far away regions of the globe, and learns of all the human casualties these produce, it is important to consider how little developed these regions are? How much has science and technology influenced the living conditions in these human habitats? The plain fact is that in most of the regions where acts of nature bring devastation and huge human casualties, development is meager and people live much “closer to nature,” to the wilds, than they do in most regions of America. Even rescue efforts are far more effective in societies with advanced technologies than where people are living “close to nature.”

Whenever I encounter environmentalists who decry the extensive development throughout advanced civilizations, especially America, I focus in on what they are actually favoring as an alternative. Going back to nature. Going back to eras when medicine was primitive, when food supplies barely sustained the small populations, when engineering and building were all at their beginning and the political economic conditions made progress virtually impossible. Even the fact that these environmentalists--for instance Alan Weisman in his disgusting book, The World Without Us (2007)--keep taking full advantage of modern science and technology--by, for example, using the publishing industry’s tools to propagate their vicious message--clearly suggests that there is something very wrong with what they advocate. Just consider all the technology it took to get Al Gore’s “An Inconvenient Truth” on thousands of movie and TV screens across the world! Back to nature my foot!

So you can imagine why I found the spectacle of the television anchor and reporter babbling, about the miracle of the minimal human casualty from the tornadoes, so offensive. The offended are, of course, all those folks who have made the buildings, roads, bridges, etc., sturdy enough to keep the devastation to the minimum. But, as the saying goes, “No good deed ever goes unpunished.” The punishment here is, of course, the utter failure to give credit where credit is due!

I am planning to buck this shameful trend, though. I am planning to drive my SUV today and say a not so silent thanks to the company that produced it so that I can roam about safely doing my errands. And if one of these technology, engineering. or marketing folks happens to be reading my missives, I want it known that I am very, very grateful indeed.
Egalitarianism Redux

Tibor R. Machan

Just to demonstrate that there is but little difference between Democrats and Republicans, President George W. Bush plans to sign a piece of legislation that aims to deny certain unavoidable facts of reality so as to satisfy the sentiment of fairness. As reported by Amy Harmon in the May 2nd issue of The New York Times, “Democrats and Republicans alike cited anecdotes and polls illustrating that people feel they should not be penalized because they happened to be born at higher risk for a given disease.” So, we are told by Representative Louise M. Slaughter, Democrat of New York, who first proposed the legislation, that “People know we all have bad genes, and we are all potential victims of genetic discrimination.” The measure passed the House on Thursday 414-to-1 and in the Senate 95-to-0 the week before.

Just to be clear what this means, insurance companies will be prohibited from taking into considerations their clients’ potential for illness when they sell them a policy. They must pluck out their eyes and ears and numb their brains and pretend that everyone is risk free, thus proceed to waste the resources of their owners, the investors and shareholders who have decided to earn some income from underwriting policies for clients who want to insure themselves.

Genetics is, of course, a crucial fact of life and health is by no means the only feature of it that it influences. For example, genetics pretty much determines one’s height, eye color, and many other physical attributes, not the least of which is one’s aesthetic--and, yes, sex--appeal. Yes, to a very large extent genetic differences influence who is going to appeal to whom, sexually, even romantically. That famous “chemistry” that so many folks care about and which figures so heavily in the match making industry is mostly determined by people’s genes.

If the bipartisan legislation that the president intends to sign into law makes sense, then surely it should immediately be followed by legislation that prohibits us all from considering the looks of our dates and potential mates. The law might begin by banning the use of photographs on all those Internet dating sites
Indeed, the law ought to follow the egalitarian spirit of that famous Kurt Vonnegut’s play, “Harrison Bergeron,” in which differences of physical appearance are all abolished. And it should make us all get used to abandoning considerations of looks and other favorable differences between people from the earliest age. Parents must be penalized for being delighted when their babies look cute! Certainly all beauty contest must be forbidden. Modeling must certainly be banned. Casting directors in Hollywood must not consider the appearance of the actors and actresses they select to play parts in movies.

But we can all go beyond this. For example, all books must have the same cover as they are sold in bookstores or on line. Reviewers must avoid mentioning the qualities of the books or movies they review since this can definitely lead to selectivity from potential readers or viewers, something that promotes that insidious practice of differentiation.

None of this is to say that those with inherited medical disadvantages should not attempt to find good deals in the insurance market or that insurance companies should not find some way to ease their burdens. In a genuine free market of health care that would be a natural development. What it does make evident is that trying to use the law and government to deny facts of reality is absurd. Throughout nature there are differences; the same is true of human societies.

The late and brilliant Murray N. Rothbard, with whom I do not always agree, penned a very good book on all this. Perhaps members of Congress ought to be required to read his Egalitarianism as a Revolt Against Nature and Other Essays (1977).

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Should We Elect a Problem Solver?

Tibor R. Machan

In his long interview with Chris Wallace on Fox TV on Sunday April 27, Senator Obama asserted that “The American people, what they are looking for is somebody who can solve their problems.”

Wow, have I been wrong all these decades. I thought what the American people were looking for is someone who will protect the Constitution of the United States. Isn’t that what the president swears to when he or she is inaugurated? Does that entail that the president is to set about solving our problems?

I have a bunch of problems. I buy too much stuff, so much at times I haven’t enough funds to cover it. I also have periodic sinus infections. And my neighbor has a huge weed--looks like a regular tree--that blocks the view from my living room and he will not cut it down. And I also have nagging sciatica, as well as a numb left thigh, both of which make it difficult for me to get about.

Oh, but there is more. Sometimes it gets very hot up here in the canyon, where I live, and not even air conditioning cools down my place and I detest working while I am sweating like a horse. And there is no one I know hereabouts with whom I can have an occasional beer or go out to the movies. It’s a bummer all around--so many problems (I’ve only just started the list).

So, I take it, if and when Senator Obama gets to be president--or indeed, anyone else--my problems will be solved for me. Hurrah! I can’t wait. But then I really don’t believe he or anyone else can solve my or anyone else’s problems, actually, since he has to solve his own problems and he doesn’t know me and he lacks the skills needed to even begin to help Americans solve theirs.

Furthermore, if some of the work done by various political economists, for which one has received the Nobel Prize, tells it like it is, politicians and bureaucrats are not really even inclined to try to solve our problems, no matter what they profess. They have agendas of their own, or so public choice theory tells us, which will occupy their attention quite fully throughout their tenure. And that makes very good sense--these folks are much more familiar with their own problems, with what concerns them, with what they would like to accomplish, than with the problems of the American citizenry.

You see, public choice theory teaches us that just as anyone else in society, so politicians and bureaucrats are pretty much bent on furthering the goals they have rather than other people’s goals. Those goals may well be fine and dandy, don’t get me wrong. But when politicians and bureaucrats attend to them, they do so with funds and resources that are not their own and so the ordinary restraints of prudence that tend to guide private citizens and groups of them are easily overlooked. In short, these government folks are spending other people’s money to further the goals they favor and know enough about to help to achieve. So they are naturally more likely to solve their own problems, further their own aims, than those of the American people, and also to overspend in the process.

Then there is the additional problem that the American people are a highly diverse and immense lot, with a great many different problems they would like solved. They are, therefore, less likely to be helped out by people far removed from their lives, living in Washington, DC, for example, or some state capitol. And when the American people do receive some help from these folks, it is usually some special group that benefits, not at all the entire public. These special groups--often called special interests--may be helped out by politicians and bureaucrats so as to secure their political support but not because of brotherly love, fraternity, or some other fellow feeling. And the help is very likely to stop once the political payoffs have been delivered.

What Senator Obama and all the others aspiring to political office should learn is that the American Founders had a very good idea when they identified the function of government to be the protection of our unalienable rights, nothing more. This is the way to restrain politicians to working on what they have at least a chance to succeed at. That is the wisdom in the idea of limited government. But this wisdom doesn’t even come up any longer during election campaigning, not from the media, not from the candidates, and, sadly, not even much from the American people.
Revisiting Anti-Americanism

Tibor R. Machan

From the time I was a kid and read a lot of American fiction in Hungarian translations, I had a great fondness for what I took to be the American spirit of individualism and love for life. Zane Grey was my favorite, but I was also very fond of Erle Stanley Gardner’s numerous Perry Mason novels. Then there was Mark Twain, Max Brand, and a host of others, although I was also an avid reader of the German tax evader, Karl May, who wrote numerous novels about the American West as well as the Arab world.

When in time I finally reached these shores, I had no illusions that American was just what these fictitious works depicted. But inspired by the fictional renditions I certainly started out with a favorable attitude toward this country. Not that I was unaware of problems, including some very dark patches of history. But all in all, compared to the places I was familiar with, such as communist Hungary, Nazi Germany, the Soviet bloc in general, what America had to offer both actually and in its promise--by means of the crux of its political and legal systems--certainly very much appealed to me.

I came here when Ike, Dwight D. Eisenhower, was president and followed his 1956 contest with Adlai Stevenson and while my sophistication left much to be desired, I liked Ike more than his rival, mainly because even then I noticed that those supporting Stevenson had a good deal of underlying hostility toward what I took to be central to America, namely its essential individualism and largely free socio-economic system. Compared to other places with which I was familiar America seemed to me to be quite a humane, just, and free society.

Ever since then I had my eyes and ears on those Americans who seemed to me to dislike the country precisely for the reasons I saw so much promise in it. When I entered college and, later, the world of university education, I noticed to my dismay that a great many educators were rather avidly opposed to the country that I found so basically sound, though by no means perfect. Over the years that I have mingled with the higher education crowd I found more and more evidence of a steady hostility among people teaching college and university students, doing research in the humanities, and in the social sciences. To them one could add many journalists and entertainers, I began to realize, and I have dedicated part of my life to studying whether they had a case against America that I was missing and to refuting their allegations which I saw to be essentially groundless.

Just the other day I was perusing the Sunday, April 27, 2008, New York Times and ran across a very typical example of the attitude that I have found so distressing. In an essay titled “The Short End of the Longer Life,” penned by one Kevin Sack in the Week in Review section, reporting on various life expectancy and longevity statistics, I ran across the following opening sentence: “Throughout the 20th century, it was an American birthright that each generations would live longer than the last.” This very same point was then used as a blurb later in the piece, indicating that not only the writer but the editor found the idea valid. But is it?

Are Americans really thinking of a growing life expectancy as a birthright? Do they believe that just because they are born, they have a right to expect to live long? The piece gave no evidence of this at all. The numbers had nothing to do with such a finding. No, this was merely a snide little put down of Americans, contending that they are stupid enough to have come to see a statistical trend as a natural necessity, even a right! If that were true, it would, in fact, indicate that Americans are silly. But nothing in the piece serves to demonstrate it and the only explanation I can think of is that both writer and editor simply wanted to demean Americans.

Why? Why is there this need by so many elite organizations, individuals, institutions to put down a country that is not only comparatively the best for its citizenry but is in fact best for the very people making such snide unfounded observations? Go figure!
Obama, A Plus & A Minus

Tibor R. Machan

In his hour long interview with Chris Wallace, on Fox TV (4/27), one I managed to sit through all the way--yes, it was a chore, given how much of it was empty rhetoric--Senator Obama advanced one promising idea and also revealed a rather disturbing tendency.

At one point Mr. Wallace asked whether if he became president Senator Obama could forge any kind of link between himself and Republicans in Congress. To my mild gratification the Senator responded by noting that what he has learned from Republicans over the years is that government regulation of the economy isn’t the desirable policy that many liberal democrats have taken it to be over several decades.

This is not only a hopeful sign but also differentiates the Senator from his rival, Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton, who has been promoting the idea of “a commander in chief of the American economy.” This idea, which suggests a heavily micromanaged economic system that entails nothing but trouble in its ancient and recent history, would pretty much doom America’s relatively productive, innovative, and flexible economy. It is just that idea that brought the Soviet Union’s economy to its knees and is a great threat to all those countries that are only escaping the destructive results by the temporary availability of cheap oil. Without that windfall these countries, like Venezuela, would be extremely impoverished. (And even with oil they aren’t soaring!)

So it is a good sign that at least one of the Democratic candidates who may ascend to the U. S. presidency isn’t hell bent on turning America into a command economy. Of course, this could be nothing more than a ploy, as so many promises of politicians turn out to be. But it is something.

On the other hand, Senator Obama exhibited a tendency to speak in the manner of a monarch. He was constantly using the royal “we” in his answers to Mr. Wallace, as if he spoke not for himself, reported not his own thoughts and conduct, but represented some group or club or family. I couldn’t hear him say one “I did this,” or “I believe that.” It was always, “We went there,” “We want to do this,” etc. What does this suggest?

For one, it seems that Senator Obama does not prefer taking responsibility for anything, either in his campaign for the nomination or as a possible winner of either the Democratic nomination or the general election. Or does it mean that he is trying to appear very humble, not seeming to take credit for anything? But this is pretty much the same thing. Refusing to take credit also implies the refusal to accept responsibility.

The constant use of “we” could also signal a more fundamental stance by Senator Obama. It could mean that he rejects even the slightest association with American individualism, that he is an ideologically committed communitarian who has in his own mind merged himself with whatever variety of communities he belongs to.

If I am asked about a project I am involved in and I always answer with a “we,” this could be appropriate if the project is actually that of a group, say a band or orchestra or corporation, of which I am a part. Such voluntary associations often pursue goals that all of the members share and nearly everything done could well be a cooperative effort. Except why one has joined the group in the first place.

But there was nothing of this in Senator Obama’s replies to Chris Wallace, quite the contrary. Instead he was being asked about his views, his comments on the campaign trail, his plans for the future, his opinions on various geopolitical matters and every single time what came back was “We think,” “We did,” etc. I was getting more and more eager to learn who was being included in “we,” so that when the Senator uses the term one could identify who all is behind the thoughts and actions being discussed. But, sadly, Mr. Wallace didn’t seem to want to go there, to ask, “Who is the ‘we’, Senator, you keep referring to?”

Whatever the ultimate explanation for Senator Obama’s constant use of “we,” it isn’t a comforting sign from anyone, including a politician. Anyone aspiring to high office ought at least to accept the fact that he or she will be in charge of some important decisions and policies and cannot escape accountability by some kind of verbal subterfuge.