Wednesday, May 07, 2008

Sentimental Reflections

Tibor R. Machan

My job in writing columns, as I see it, is to attempt to work out how the original American experiment could be extended and improved upon and made to serve the purpose of addressing various emerging political-economic problems. I do not confine myself to just this task but it is one of the more pressing ones for me. I guess one reason I took it on is that I experienced what I take to be the direct opposite way of social life when I was young, namely, Soviet style socialism. Having managed to escape it, I decided I would like to make sure there is no chance for it to reassert itself, especially in America.

Well, this task of mine is important and noble enough but there are times that I simply feel very, very sad about how few Americans find the ideas that distinguish their society from others appealing. Instead of championing and practicing initiative, inventiveness, ambition, adventure, enterprise, and the like, it now seems to me that most Americans have become belated dependents, people who care far more about what others should do for them, how the government should take care of them, how their problems should be solved by politicians and bureaucrats, than about maintaining a system of community life that supports human liberty, the kind of liberty that serves as a framework for personal and community initiative and rejects altogether the notion that people are owed a living by their fellows. And this is really a very sad situation.

For the first time in human history the American founders managed to establish a community the basic principles of which acknowledge individual sovereignty. They began rejecting, officially, the idea that inhabitants of human communities are subjects, subservient to the will of some special bunch of people with fancy titles. This was an extraordinary development and sadly by now most people have no appreciation for it. Instead some of the cleverest and most erudite people in America are hard at work to return the country to its former subservient position, whereby governments made all the decisions, whereby elected officials openly brag about wishing to rule, to run everything, and ordinary folks seem willingly to place themselves at the disposal of these would be rulers.

That really is a very sad thing. It doesn’t have to be but it seems very much the way most folks want it. Await for the state to figure out how one should live and provide various securities and guarantees instead of simply make sure our liberties aren’t trampled upon so we can proceed to help ourselves, alone or with the willing cooperation of others. No, this quintessentially American notion, however incompletely realized so far, is no longer even much of a notion. It is actively demeaned, ridiculed by the literati. Snide comments come from the well educated, and even the not so well educated like those in Hollywood, whenever such American ideas and ideals get some airing--as if what the American Founders began were some kind of silly joke instead of the most important and genuine human revolution in history.

It baffles me why this wonderful conception by the Founders and their followers is derided so much by the self-anointed fancy people--artists, professors, social scientists, and others--who see themselves as so superior to those infantile American Founders who thought every individual is a sovereign being, not beholden to anyone but his or her own conscience. Why is this notion so frightening to so many people so that they spend their lives writing books and essays knocking it? Why would such a wonderful thought become the target of so much sophist aced denigration?

This is a very big country and it has innumerable educated folks living off taxpayers in hundreds, even thousands of colleges and universities and instead of showing gratitude for being able to pursue careers they supposedly love, most of these people appear to be bitter, angry and nasty toward the very folks and system of ideas that provide their support. They never turn down a contribution to their institution from a successful entrepreneur and yet they hold these entrepreneurs in near total contempt!

I shall continue to attempt to inject a different idea into the culture, albeit in venues that are less than prominent. Still, I cannot desist, not while I realize that the American experiment is the most noble one in human social and political history. Perhaps I will be able to pave a bit of the way for a few among the next generation to not give up on the effort, to remain vigilant, so that in time the defeatists, the cynics will become the minority and will not rule the publishing houses, magazines, and higher education. It may happen.

Sunday, May 04, 2008

Soros' Follies Again

Tibor R. Machan

In the late 60s I was invited to listen to a fellow Hungarian refugee in Los Angeles discuss communism. I nearly walked out when he began with the refrain about how communism is such a wonderful ideal but, sadly, unattainable in practice. What wonderful ideal? The prospect of a worldwide intelligent ant colony, bound together completely with no individual initiative in play anywhere, all automatically serving humanity--is that some wonderful ideal? It is hell, so far as I can discern.

Well, I tell this story to give you a little idea how it strikes me whenever that famous financier George Soros, himself a Hungarian refugee from the Nazis and Communists, comes out with various political-economic pronouncements. He isn’t by any means someone deluded about the idealism of communism but he does, quite mistakenly, favor a widely regulated pseudo-capitalism.

Soros was interviewed recently in The New York Review of Books and presented his version of the late Karl Popper’s middle way politics, one that’s neither socialist nor capitalist. (Popper was a famous 20th century philosopher of science and political theorist.) As Soros put it,

“Now, we should not go back to a very highly regulated economy because the regulators are imperfect. They’re only human and what is worse, they are bureaucrats. So you have to find the right kind of balance between allowing the markets to do their work, while recognizing that they are imperfect. You need authorities that keep the market under scrutiny and some degree of control. That’s the message that I’m trying to get across.” (TNYRB, 5/15/08, p. 10).

This is a mess. First it tries to build some kind of coherent political-economic idea on the Popperian view that all our knowledge is imperfect, fallible, merely probable; nothing certain. OK but what follows from this? What justification is there for drawing any conclusion at all from such a position since that conclusion will itself only be uncertain, probable, iffy? Second, if the regulators, bureaucrats all of them, are especially imperfect--which is what public choice theory teaches, noting their institutional disorientation as persons-with-power-and-no-rational-restraints--why trust them at all? These “authorities” will only cause trouble and will not help at all with any mishaps in the market place where mishaps tend to be self-correcting, at least over time. (It’s no different in markets from what it is in life: freedom may not work the impossible dream of perfection but it enhances self-responsibility!) Third, of course, “markets” don’t do anything--they are but spheres of human activity, in this case mostly commercial, business or economic, and as such they are homes to innumerable forms of human conduct. No one can possibly control them except to cause them to experience distortions far worse than free men and women ever produce. Finally, how will this “right kind of balance between allowing the markets to do their work” and government regulation come about? Who will do this “allowing”--some king or other “authority” who is wiser than market agents? (This interview is replete with reference to this mythical “authority” that will fix things for us all!)

George Soros no doubt has a knack for global finance--he has proved it big time--although even that applies mainly to highly regulated state financial markets. He has never been tested in a fully free market of money and banking. But this knack gives absolutely no hint of wisdom concerning the broader sphere of political economy, of understanding how human beings think and act as citizens, as friends, as professionals, a vacationers, and as social and economic agents. For instance, while some of us are no doubt ill informed about some matters we ought to know better, it is silly to make a broad generalization that our knowledge is always imperfect. Well, some of if may be but in some other matters we are pretty knowledgeable and certainly this would not be improved upon by having a bunch of “authorities” barge in to mess with our decisions and actions wherever these “authorities” decide to do so.

One can, of course, read Soros’s mentor Karl Popper more generously to mean only that people know well enough but never in some final, timeless fashion. The world is constantly developing, changing, and knowledge will always need to be modified by new information. But nothing from this implies that we need authorities to regulate us--and, oddly, Soros himself seems to realize this when he sees the hazards of bureaucracy. Why he doesn’t draw the right conclusions form that beats me.