Friday, May 30, 2008

Elites, Good and Bad

Tibor R. Machan

Democrats are all bent out of shape about how to think about elites--the group in society that claims to be superior to the rest of us. Senator Obama is dubbed an elitist for saying that many turn to religion out of frustration. Senator Clinton is trying to flee her own elitist legacy, what with an education from various elite institutions. So what is so bad about being a member of the elite?

In many previous ages and even now in many regions of the globe certain people were deemed to be above the rest, as a matter of their birthright. They were and are considered to be part of the natural aristocracy--rulers by excellence! This means that they need accomplish nothing at all to rank high among human beings. The feudal system is rife with this notion, as are many other in which class warfare is afoot.

But there can be aristocrats who deserve their higher standing in society. This would arise from having achieved something worthwhile, such as a great scientific discovery, an engineering or some kind of artistic feat. Such accomplishments would ordinarily gain a person recognition and even standing in a community. And so one could join the aristocracy or elite without the fiction of having inherited it in some mysterious, mythical way.

Trouble is that when the semi-official philosophy in the land is egalitarianism, even this sort of elitism is frowned upon. No one is supposed to be regarded as having higher rank than anyone else--that is one thesis of egalitarianism. And among liberal democrats this philosophy is rampant--nearly everyone gives it lip service even when it is totally absurd (such as the folks do at National Public Radio, which is one of the snootiest organizations in the country).

Many trendy notions contribute to the mess--for example, relativism and subjectivism about values. If what makes something worthwhile is only a matter of a subjective feeling--some simply like it more than other things--there can hardly be any rational reason for attributing to it higher rank than to competing accomplishments. If it is all relative whether one deserves the Nobel Prize in economics or physics, then the idea that the achievements of these people are superior to that of others and the prize is deserved make no sense. Thus, egalitarianism must rule! Everything people do is of equal worth or, indeed, worthless. The very idea of “worth” becomes meaningless since no objective standards are supposed to exist by which to assess what we do in any realm at all.

Post-modernism, which is but a recent version of subjectivism and relativism, also produces this egalitarian outlook. It is all a matter of how you look at it, you see, so how could anything really be a more worthwhile achievement than something else?

Clearly the liberal democratic ethos embraces some of these ways of thinking about the world and about human conduct. For example, all of the poor are equally deserving, never mind how they got to be poor. All of the sick, too, are equally deserving of support, never mind how they got sick (say by accident or because they acted recklessly). No one is a failure in school or at work, only impaired somehow. No one is at fault in a divorce! And so forth and so on.

When these views dominate in a community, such as in the Democratic Party, any type of aristocracy or elitism is a liability and those who wish to flourish--to win votes for example--must reject any thought of earned merit by anyone. That is just what we now witness with Senators Obama and Clinton, a desperate effort to deny any kind of special achievement, even while they both contend, paradoxically, that they deserve to become president of the United States of America because of their superior judgment and character!

Elitism, however, is actually quite all right when it involves earning one’s high rank, in science, the arts, athletics, and in other spheres where human beings set out to triumph. But an ultimately condescending egalitarianism obscures this fact. The phony humility of such egalitarianism aims to deny something entirely unavoidable in human affairs, namely, that some do better than others and thus deserve more! Those will be the accomplished elite and no effort to deny this fact will manage to actually avoid it. Such denial will merely produce confusion and contradiction, neither of which reaps any benefit at all.

Thursday, May 29, 2008

A Socialist America?

Tibor R. Machan

It is becoming increasingly likely that soon the United States of America, which supposedly won the Cold War against the socialist Soviet Union, will become a socialist society. A comparable country would be France, prior to the presidency of Szarkozy.

This is the conclusion to be drawn from what two of the presidential candidates who have a solid prospect to reach the White House have been saying over the last several months. Both, Senators Hillary Rodham Clinton and Barack Hussein Obama have indicated in no uncertain terms that they prefer an economic order in the United States that is regimented by the plans of some folks from above, not by the free choices of individuals from below. She has said that what America needs is “a commander in chief of the economy.” He has decried American capitalism and the profit motive that is its main economic engine. She has taken advice from neo-Marxists Michael Lerner of TIKKUN magazine, he has stated that the greatest influence on his thinking and values was his mother, an avowed socialist and communist sympathizer.

I am not using “socialist” and “communist” as scare terms, only as accurate descriptions of what the two potential nominees of the Democratic Party believe. They are not simply welfare statists, people who believe that along with a substantial free market the country needs to have supportive federal and state governments who provide people with last ditch economic security in the face of the vicissitudes of market forces. No, the two candidates appear to be impatient with such meager measures and want to take the reigns once they enter the White House and shape the country’s economic affairs according to a specific vision. They both believe in the planned economy (with just a bit of hesitation from Senator Obama who has indicated in a few of his speeches and interviews some skepticism about extensive government regulation).

Why are these people champions of socialism? Because, it seems, they believe that economic affairs in a society ought to be completely predictable and risk free. Only a system that guarantees success for everyone--never mind whether his or her work is in demand, whether luck is on his or her side, whether he or she is skilled and talented--would satisfy the criterion of a just socio-economic order for these candidates. And if the spontaneous processes of the free market fail to achieve this goal, then government must enter to regiment the country so that things turn out properly, as envisioned by those seeking such a system of guarantees.

This is what is called utopianism in the field of political economy. Most people know that it is an impossible dream, an ideal that can only be achieve in fantasy, not in reality. The world simply doesn’t work in a way that can provide everyone with economic and related success. To wish for this is comparable to wishing for a marathon race that everyone will win! Impossible. (George Orwell’s Animal Farm shows this nicely!) And to attempt it must then involve massive coercive force. That is just what happened in socialist bloc and why their system failed and left the countries where it was attempted a colossal economic mess form which recovery will take decades.

Unfortunately over the last several decades most Americans have been taught by teachers who pretty much share the two Senators’ economic philosophy. In elementary school students are indoctrinated about all kinds of topics, from sex to the environment, and how government must deal with problems therein. The idea of individual freedom is, turn, nearly completely neglected. In high schools there is very little economic literacy being taught and most students are educated to care about fairness and equality, not about initiative and risk. In colleges and universities there is now very little in the curriculum that reminds students of the most productive but also unsure economic system, namely, capitalism. Instead the dream world of the top down managed economic system is most widely championed.

In the American political arena there is hardly anyone who opposes these trends. Certainly the Republicans cannot be counted on to challenge the socialist vision since in the main they have their own similar moral authoritarian vision to offer. The ideas and ideals of the Founders are nearly cast to the side by all but the small group of libertarians who aren’t at this time a viable political alternative.

Maybe this is a temporary setback. I believe in the long run the free market alternative is going to be triumphant. But for the time being it is losing. So we need to prepare for some pretty awful times.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Libertarianism Isn’t Utopian

Tibor R. Machan

Although it is prudent to be skeptical about the entries found at Wikipedia, the on line encyclopedia offers a sound account of utopias: “Utopia is a term for an ideal society. It has been used to describe both intentional communities that attempted to create an ideal society, and fictional societies portrayed in literature. The term is sometimes used pejoratively, in reference to an unrealistic ideal that is impossible to achieve....”

At a recent conference I directed for Freedom Communications, Inc., the criticism that libertarianism is utopian took center stage. It was advanced by a respectful critic, one who was not disdainful but merely doubtful about the soundness of libertarianism as a viable approach to thinking about public affairs. The gist of the doubtful thesis amounted to the claim that libertarianism is altogether too negative about government, indeed, that libertarians tend to hate politics and all that’s associated with it.

I found myself inspired to reflect upon the critic’s charge, especially since just a few weeks ago I penned a column contending that contemporary politics has become thoroughly corrupt. It is now virtually routine for politicians to be panderers, people who seek to be elected to public office on the basis of offering voters benefits that they will deliver at the expense of others. For virtually every politician the first principle seems to be to promote wealth redistribution, taking from Peter and handing some of what was taken to Paul, while keeping a good bit for politicians and their employees, bureaucrats.

Is this evidence supporting the claim that libertarians hate politicians, consider government all bad? Not quite.

When one considers an institution or profession as having been corrupted, it is generally understood that there could be instances of it that are not corrupted. Corruption means having gone bad, having seriously deteriorated from the proper, legitimate sort. Like a bad apple or rotten tomato, corrupt politics assume that there could be a right sort of the thing.

Libertarianism is a political stance that is well sketched out in the Declaration of Independence, a document that the American Founders--mainly Thomas Jefferson--crafted and signed on July 4, 1776. Seeing that the anniversary of this date is the most significant American holiday being celebrated every year in America, and that’s about to happen this year, it may be useful to quote the few lines that lay out the conception it proposes as to the nature of a proper government: “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 are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. — That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed....”

The libertarian view of government is that this institution has as its purpose to secure the unalienable rights of the citizenry that’s to be served by the government via certain just powers. Government, in turn, becomes corrupt when this purpose is abandoned and others take its place. Politicians, who are supposed to run for offices that contribute to the proper purpose of government, become corrupt when they run for offices that do not contribute to this proper purpose but to others, including coercive wealth redistribution, coercive micromanagement of the lives of the citizenry, coercive regulation of commerce, science, health care and many other aspects of the lives of the citizenry.

Admittedly, this conception of government is not what has been most prominent throughout human history and, indeed, across the globe in our own time. Even in America, where the Declaration was penned and was supposed to guide the drafting of the constitution of the federal government (and even, in time, state governments), the idea is revolutionary. But that isn’t what is vital in this discussion.

What is vital is that for those who see the view sketched in the Declaration as sound, as do most libertarians, government can be understood in positive, benign terms and need by no means be “hated.” Only when governments become corrupted do they become objects of derision, even hatred, mainly because their powers are then utilized for unjust purposes, which is a grave dereliction of their duty.

Think of it like this: Medicine is a wonderful, positive profession but when medical professionals abandon their purpose and utilize their skills--powers--to perpetrate quackery, they have become corrupt and are deserving of criticism, even sanction. That is just what the libertarian thinks about most governments, now or in the past. But the libertarian isn’t deluded into thinking that even the best possible government will be a road to the solution of all social, let alone, personal problems people face in a country. Now that’s utopianism.