Saturday, June 07, 2008

Is it Progress?

Tibor R. Machan

One of the very first novels, read in Hungarian translation back in Budapest when I was about 10 years old, was Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn. Tom Sawyer followed and then quite a few of Zane Grey’s, Max Brand’s and Earl Stanley Gardner’s works, all of which I read for entertainment as well as to get a whiff of American culture. This was shortly after WW II ended and there was a chance, and lots of hope, that the Americans, not the Soviets, would come to Hungary to run the post-war show. Alas, Yalta killed that.

Though Huck Finn was indeed a very entertaining novel, it also left a lasting impression about some of America’s troubles in its first century. But there was, also, much hope expressed in the book and by the time I managed to be smuggled out of the communist hell whole Hungary had become after 1948, my mistaken understanding was that there was no racial divide in the country. Once I arrived here, midyear 1956, just before Budapest exploded and the Soviet grip began to loosen a bit—only to harden soon again—I was quite surprised to learn that the country had still suffered from a racial crisis. The few months I spend going to American high school in Germany gave little hint of this because the school, including the track team and band I had joined, gave l no evidence of segregation and racism, quite the contrary. My best friend at the school was black and the band, too, was fully integrated so I didn’t have much of a clue how backward race relations were stateside.

My first American school was West Philly high where whites were in a small minority and my claim to fame was that I was asked to try out for the virtually completely black football team as the kicker! (I didn’t make it since I kicked like a soccer player.) And later, when I enlisted country in the US Air Force and lived with a very tall and intellectual black airman named, of all things, Ivan, the race issue once gain didn’t surface for me—Ivan was a great room mate.

In time, however, I became aware that no all was quiet in race relations in America but it mostly baffled me, as did much of the injustice I have witnessed in my personal life as well as in my new country. It was always a mixed bag, though, since most of what I encountered personally seemed quite peaceful and friendly between members of the two races and bad news came from the public sector, mostly. Still, it was sad, given the potential I saw in the country for the elimination of such acrimonious human relations. As I became more and more involved in political theory and focused more and more on social and economic affairs, I also grew restless about this and in time I learned that the whole issue of racism was an immense but unnecessary flaw in America. More and more I was looking for signs of improvement everywhere, especially on the personal front. So whenever I witnessed an interracial friendship, romance or marriage, I felt a strong pang of pleasure. So nice to notice sins that the cancer was abating! I often choked up from a feeling of hope and relief, brought on by the realization that people were breaking through the barriers, that it wasn’t all whites and blacks in America who took part in the acrimony that gave the free society its main low grade.

So you might think that I would be joining all those who are hailing Senator Barack Obama’s ascendance to the Democratic candidacy in this presidential election year. And, yes, to some extend it does bring a measure of satisfaction.

Unfortunately this satisfaction is overshadowed by the fact that Senator Obama is one of the major American politicians who stands against America’s founding principles of individualism, of everyone’s right to his or her life, liberty and pursuit of happiness. Indeed, the leftist political economic public policies the Senator is hoping to press upon us all in this country nearly totally undermine the mostly symbolic victory his candidacy achieved on the racial front. If anything, what would have been true progress is had a black individual with full commitment to those principled risen to prominence on the political front. If someone, who embraced the principles of limited government, one devoted to securing our rights, made it to the front of the line that would have been progress and worth real celebration.

But what Senator Obama shows is that black or white, American political culture is in a thoroughly reactionary mood. It is embarking on embracing servitude, dependence not on private but public, official masters who promise to deliver to millions the impossible dream of full security from life by means of an ever expanding welfare state. Being so associated with the ancient regime, whereby government—be it king, emperor, tsar or the representatives of a majority of voters—takes over the realms and engages in widespread paternalistic care taking, Senator Obama does not represent progress, never mind what his race is.

Tuesday, June 03, 2008

No Foreign Music In America?

Tibor R. Machan

Since some people want to make Americans buy only American farm or other products, the question is why they don’t advocate keeping out of the country all those foreign musicians, opera singers, orchestras, bands, conductors, actors, directors, and all kinds of other non-natives who peddle their trade and wares on our shores. I recall that, for a while at least, Canadian universities had a policy of not hiring teachers from America because, well, there are far more American teachers qualified for the positions in that country and the graduates there would have had to compete in a demanding market. But that is just what is the case with many artists, as well as doctors and scientists--they are taking jobs that might be taken by Americans.

Of course the idea is obscene. Yet that is just what protectionism relating to farming or car making or any other profession or industry amounts to. Globalization means no trade restrictions between countries, none! The labor or professional market place as well as any other should be completely free of government interference except when it comes to explicit, avowed, declared enemies of the country. But don’t even suggest this to Senators Obama and Clinton!

Anyone who whines about cultural dilution is, of course, way too late--for centuries on end such dilution has been going on big time. Professor Tyler Cowen of George Mason University has made this abundantly evident in his great book, Creative Destruction (Princeton University Press, 2004). He showed that in no area does purity prevail, none, not in folk music, not in folk dance, not in cuisine, not anywhere. Indeed, the bulk of artistic creativity--or, indeed, fashion and style--consists of mixing traditions and then remixing them and on and on with the process so pervasive that no one can trace the result to any specific region of the globe, to any “people”.

Very sadly often the call for purity is but a disguised form of hateful prejudice. One of my close relatives who still lives in the country from which I hail used to whine about how foreign elements are destroying the country’s artistic and related heritage. Of course, this was but a disguise because what was really so offensive to this individual was that there were a good many Jewish professionals, artists, intellectuals, and educators in the country that some wished belonged to them alone!

Mind you, there is no harm in wanting to be within familiar surroundings now and then. I recall once my family took a brief trip to the German city of Augsburg while I was working in Lugano, Switzerland, and as we arrived in midtown we noticed how tall, like we were, people there are as compared with folks in Ticino, which is the Italian sector of Switzerland where Lugano is located. And one of us exclaimed that this was a welcome feeling, being among people who were tall like us. And why not? Unless one makes this into some kind of crusade against the not-so-tall, unless one punishes one’s children for falling in love or wishing to marry such a not-so-tall individual, there is no harm in the feeling of comfort among those similar to oneself.

Indeed, in personal relations people quite freely, unapologetically show preferences like this, based on features in people with which they are more comfortable than with others. So long as one’s reason and intelligence kick in and one refuses to extend such mere preferences into some kind of doctrine of specialness or purity, no harm, no foul.

People who come from Germany may well prefer German music, literature, or poetry, whereas ones from Poland or Italy or Syria may be drawn, at least quite often, toward what makes them feel at home. Doing this as a matter of principle is, of course, nuts--one shuts out a great deal of human creativity when one sticks one’s head in the sand along these lines. But settling into familiar surroundings can be a very pleasant experience for most of us.

And for some of us a more cosmopolitan taste feels better since we come from various places that are huge cultural, artistic, and architectural melting pots. Fact is, the world has room for all these varieties of preferences and likes and so long as they are pursued in a civilized, peaceful fashion and nothing deep is made of them so that hostilities strike root, that’s just as things should be.
Harry Reid’s "Voluntary" Taxation

Tibor R. Machan

On the Web Site,, to which someone guided me, Senator Harry Reid of Nevada defended the idea that taxation in America, especially the federal income tax, is voluntary. His basic argument was, believe it or not, that elsewhere in the world people lack the many loopholes we enjoy here. (These, by the way, are the loopholes Senator Reid and his fellows in the Senate are constantly promising to close!) So while the Senator’s case that taxation is voluntary rests on there being loopholes in the system, he is vehemently opposed to those loopholes. Which means that even in his own twisted terms, the Senator does not really believe in the voluntariness of taxation only in that it isn’t so bad here as elsewhere.

But let’s rewind a bit. Does the fact that taxation in American includes many loopholes make it voluntary? This is like claiming that when one is put in jail and there happen to be several escape routes from it through which a few prisoners can break out, the prisoners are there of their own free will! Well, Senator Reid & Co., a dysfunctional prison is still a prison and a tax system that isn’t as harsh as the worst is still a coercive system.

Some people used to defend slavery on the grounds that slaves were often treated well by their masters and that if they were not slaves, their lives would face many obstacles they do not face as slaves. But this does not justify slavery one bit. Life is often harsh for free men and women but this is no excuse for enslaving them even by relatively nice masters.

Voluntary payments are available only when not making them does not land one in trouble with the law. Maybe the trouble in which not paying taxes lands people in America isn’t as severe as in some other regions of the world. But that doesn’t make taxation voluntary. Voluntary means no adverse consequences are imposed by government on those who refuse or fail to pay, period.

What taxation resembles most closely is organized criminal extortion. And this is because that is exactly what taxation amounts to in its customary home, namely, a feudal system. In such a system the monarch or some minions of the monarch, who are all in fact criminals by civilized standards, collect payments from the people because they live and work in the realm that is deemed to belong to the monarch. Even in such systems the power of the monarch can be restricted somewhat and the extracted payment need not be onerous. Just as in our country people aren’t entirely incapacitated because of taxation, in feudal systems many people were and are willing to put up with what the monarch extorts from them, either in forced payment or in forced labor.

Furthermore most of us would rather live in America, with its extortionist tax policies, rather than on some desert island where no one is bothering to take away one’s resources. That’s because despite the vicious nature of taxation, clearly things could be worse. Just as in personal matters of violence there are degrees of severity, so with the violence done by governments. Where I used to live as a child, in communist Hungary, matters were far worse and for some far worse than for me even there. The place was still a tyranny!

None of this makes taxation a proper public policy, any more than some type of relatively mild slavery, such as serfdom, is morally acceptable. Human beings ought to be completely free from each other’s intrusiveness, even when that isn’t very likely to happen. Just as with fitness, the fitter the better, so with liberty, the freer the better.

What a truly free country ought to have is a system for funding law enforcement, maintenance, and administration paid for by way of voluntary fees, just as everything else in a free society is paid for. Of course, the fees one would pay could be imperative for most because law and order are so valuable. And as with, say, long term health or auto insurance, nearly everyone would very likely pay up! A contract fee, for example, a bit like a sales tax, could do the job, especially when one figures that we are here discussing funding the legal system of a genuinely free country, one the strictly limited government of which sticks to its task of securing the rights of the citizenry. But one could still opt out and just rely on a hand shake an so avoid the fee!

In any case, taxation is anything but voluntary, even if in different places it can be more or less unjustly intrusive. But, of course, Senator Harry Reid would not admit this and chooses, instead, to concoct an incoherent story to live with his complicity in the injustice of the institution.

Monday, June 02, 2008

Hijacking Individual Rights

Tibor R. Machan

When John Locke identified, in serious and reasonable detailed ways, the nature of human political liberty--as a natural right of every human being--for a good bit political thinkers in the West were in awe. What a notion--it is not governments that are sovereign but individuals persons! Much of the political universe went topsy-turvy for a while. Law books were reworked, myths about inherited titles got busted. A revolution was spawned, with the Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights in America as its most significant consequence.

But all this was, of course, a bit too good to be true. Very soon a bunch of prominent thinkers--apologists of the state--began to undermine Locke’s discovery. Jeremy Bentham, for example, ridiculed the idea of natural, unalienable--in his work Anarchical Fallacies he wrote that “Natural rights is simple nonsense: natural and imprescriptible [that is, unalienable] rights, rhetorical nonsense — nonsense upon stilts.” Bentham was an extreme empiricist and since natural rights is a normative idea, an idea about how we ought to related to each other, he scoffed at it, regarded it unfounded in observable fact.

Henceforth Locke’s natural rights, including the right to life or liberty, became less and less respected by political thinkers. One result was that instead of the original negative version, as Locke laid it out--a prohibition against invaders--various critics began to defend so called positive rights.

The Lockean idea of the right to liberty implied that no one may intrude upon anyone--it was supposed to be a “No trespass” sign. Only if invited are others admitted into one’s life and one’s property--“person and estate,” in Locke’s language. But with that idea becoming less and less well respected, all hell broke loose and nowadays rights are being peddled as entitlements to what others did or owned. This is the origin of today’s dominant doctrine of welfare rights--people believe that others may be forced to work for them, to pay for what they need and want, that they have a right to other’s lives and property. Ergo, the triumph of the welfare state, not of the fully free society sketched so well in the Declaration of Independence.

Of course there are many who accept what Locke discovered and reject the fiction of positive or welfare rights, unearned entitlements. Their view accords well with moral philosophy as well as common sense.

Why would others have any claim on one’s life and property if both of these belong to oneself? And why would they not belong to oneself? One’s life is certainly not anyone else’s and what comes from the productive activities of this life, namely, one’s property, doesn’t belong to anyone else either. The only legitimate way other people can come to share one’s life and property is if their owner willingly parts with them. I may choose to work for someone, as an act of generosity or in return for payment; I may choose to share my resources with others, again as a gift or in exchange for something they might be willing to do for me or give me.

But this excellent idea turned out to be radical and still seems quite unfamiliar, even odd, to millions across the globe. They hold on to the ancient fiction that people belong to some tribe, nation, ethnic group, clan, society, state, nation or some other band. The fact that such a position means really nothing more fancy than that some other people get to rule you, that not you but others own you, that you are a subject or even slave of others, doesn’t sink in for too many folks because there is always some kind of sophisticated story--narrative, in today’s language--provided to justify it. You belong to the community! We are together and you must subjugate yourself to the greater whole, and so forth and so on. That deceptive term “we” manages to hoodwink millions into letting a few self-anointed leaders run the show, take hold of people’s labor and resources and use these as they see fit. And if you don’t comply, even simply refuse to agree, you are dubbed some kind of anti-social cretin.

People have free will--despite what so many thinkers now want to claim, namely, that we are moved about by impersonal forces--and they can think up lots of pseudo-justifications to make us all into their peons. They can persuade themselves that when they think of something that appeals to them, they are authorized to coerce us all to support the idea, never mind about our plans, goals, hopes, and aspirations.

This is how a very good idea, the unalienable individual rights of everyone, got to be perverted and corrupted into the idea that your life and works don’t really belong to you at all but to “us,” meaning, the few who perpetrate the ruse.
The Big Lie Again

Tibor R. Machan

Just to make it clear that association with prestigious institutions does not guarantee veracity, Professor Eric Foner, DeWitt Clinton Professor of History at Columbia University, has chimed in with yet another distortion of reality, one that several prominent folks have been perpetrating over the last few years. I am thinking, for example, of Paul Krugman, Princeton University economist and columnist for The New York Times.

Both of these folks have been repeating the claim that ideas favoring the free market are widely championed in America. Foner wrote this in The New York Times Sunday Book Review recently: “Arthur Schlesinger Jr., ‘The Politics of Upheaval: 1935-1936’ [is a book the presidential candidates ought to read] because it demonstrates how the marriage of engaged social movements and an activist government can promote the common good even in the most dire economic circumstances, and offers and alternative vision of the market fundamentalism that now dominates American politics.”

I have dealt extensively with the myth of government’s capacity to promote the “public” good and how that idea tends to mean the agenda of people who differ from what most others like to promote. In the American political tradition the public good comes to nothing less or more than securing everyone’s fundamental, unalienable individual rights!

What jumps out at a reader in the quote from Foner is the out and out myth he is peddling, namely, that “market fundamentalism dominates American politics.” If you doubt me, just listen to Senators Obama, Clinton, and McCain and notice how little confidence each of these major contemporary political figures shows for the free market. The current Congress has no interest in free markets either. Instead it keeps supporting farm subsidies and numerous protectionist measures. Liberal Democrats, in turn, are openly hostile to free trade--notice how both Senators Obama and Clinton keep hammering away at NAFTA (which, by the way, Bill Clinton supported), a measure that gives at least lip service in favor of the free market. (Not that even NAFTA fully endorses economic freedom!)

Why on earth is it so necessary for Professor Foner and his ilk to peddle this big lie, namely, that the free market is favored in America these days? No one but Congressman Ron Paul treated it as a good thing and his vote totals did not come close to suggesting that the idea dominates American politics. So why the lie?

I believe that enemies of the free market are worried that any problems in the American or indeed world economy might be laid at the feet of the real culprit, the mixed economy or welfare state. Because it is welfare states that in fact dominate politics nearly everywhere, including in America. The mixed economy is an uneasy combination of extensive government economic intervention and pockets of free market activity.

American political opinion, pace Professor Foner, has been swinging back and forth between more or less extensive government interventionism. That is what has dominated American politics, what with all the regulatory agencies, minimum wage measures, eminent domain policies, subsidies, protection from foreign competition, etc., etc.

But if one can convince people that economic problems stem not from this mess of the mixed economy but from market fundamentalism, they may decide to try even more interventionism, more government regulation, more central planning exactly as advocated by Senators Obama and Clinton and not at all vigorously opposed by Senator McCain.

The Big Lie! It was once associated with Plato’s Republic, where the philosopher king was required, in the imaginary perfect state, to mislead the public for its very own good! Maybe Professor Foner shares this idea: Lie to the American public about what kind of economic philosophy is dominant so they will then accept the opposite idea, namely, socialism.

In fact, however, this lie is of no help to anyone, not even Professor Foner (since his reputation is seriously sullied from perpetrating it).

Sunday, June 01, 2008

“Supposed Universal Values”

Tibor R. Machan

Professor of history Sean Pollock at Wright State University, in Dayton, Ohio, recently wrote about Senator John McCain’s foreign policy views in a letter to the Sunday New York Times Magazine. He asked, I think rhetorically, “Does McCain not see that by intervening militarily in foreign countries and by justifying such intervention in terms of supposed universal values, America stands in the tradition of imperial powers whose policies and practices have tended to engender the kinds of insurgent movements he fears?” I focus on this here because the question raises some important issues.

One is whether when people like Senator McCain support military intervention, do they in fact invoke “supposed universal values” in support of their position? I don’t know but if former Federal Reserve chief Alan Greenspan--certainly familiar with the Bush administration--is to be believed, the war in Iraq has little to do with any such values. It has to do with oil. Or perhaps with some obscure UN resolution. Or maybe the support for McCain’s position comes from the United Nation’s covenant of “the responsibility of protect” against tyrants and/or natural disasters.

Certainly if there are universal values, ones all people ought to embrace and governments in any country should protect, it does not follow that foreign governments must intervene when they are being violated. These governments are, let’s remember, public servants of their own citizenry, not of the populations of foreign countries. Nothing at all about there being universal values requires intervention of any kind. If I believe that my neighbor ought to show tenderness toward his children and he doesn’t, I am not authorized to meddle in his family life. Perhaps I am justified in thinking badly of him, even of trying to encourage him in various civilized ways to change his ways. But no intervention is supported by such universal values.

Professor Pollock shows disdainfulness toward universal values, otherwise why did he say “supposed.” Maybe he wants to guard against the tendency he ascribes to Senator McCain by his skepticism. Yet, this tendency to intervene by someone who holds such universal values does not follow from holding such values. This is especially true of liberal democratic countries that are committed to the principle of freedom of choice. Unless another country is aggressing against its neighbors--or there is strong reason that it will do so imminently--no justification exists to intervene. Furthermore, not all intervention in support of such values, when justified on the grounds that apply--not merely that there are such universal values--amounts to imperialism. But I’ll leave that point aside here.

When, for example, a country is ruled by brutal thugs and the bulk of the citizenry is desirous of outside help intervention is not at all imperialistic. But even then the help must come only if the citizens of the country capable of giving it approve. Otherwise help must come from volunteers since the legal duty of a country’s government and military is to provide protection to its citizenry, not to citizens of other countries.

A liberal country’s foreign policy must not amount to aggression, not even to humanitarian intervention. Force must only be used in defense of the country itself, or of a friendly ally. That is what the government officials of a liberal country swear to when taking office, to protect the constitution of the country, meaning, to protect its integrity and citizenry from those who would attack or seriously threaten them.

None of this denies that there are some, perhaps just a few, essential, universal values every society should follow, ones that all governments should protect in their society. Senator McCain’s belief in military intervention need have nothing at all to do with his embrace of universal values such as human rights for all. As a senator in a free society he is sworn to secure rights for those who elected him not for people abroad. But this does not mean those people abroad do not possess those rights just as citizens at home do.

It is a logical fallacy, which has some very deleterious results when committed, to think that the existence of universal values implies that one must become the police that should provide the protection of those values. Something else is needed for this to happen, namely, to become properly authorized to give that protection.
Marx Was Partly Right

Tibor R. Machan

Most literate people know that first on the list in Karl Marx & Frederick Engels' Communist Manifesto of what needed changing to achieve socialism is the abolition of the right to private property. This follows, of course, from the very idea of socialism, which sees humanity or society as an organic body, akin to a termite colony. Individuals no longer exist in such a system, so privacy and private property must go, too.

Marx also made a prediction that in modern democracies there wouldn’t be a need for violent revolutions because the citizenry will get rid of the legal protection of private property through the electoral process. Too many people will get fed up with the volatility of freedom, including the free market place, and gradually achieve socialism by voting in politicians who will eliminate the obstacle of legally protected private property rights to central planning.

Marx thought that central planning would serve society well but he based this idea on his confidence that human nature will change. Instead of people wanting to achieve various goals of their own, they will in time come to aim only for the public good. He believed that once matured, “the human essence is the true collectivity of man.” The new man, then, will not be like you and me or anyone today.

This is an important element of socialism and central planning because only if it is true will the theory of public choice, which completely undermines confidence in central planning, be avoided. Public choice theory addresses human being as they are now, not as they would turn out to be in Marx’s vision of a socialist society. If Marx is wrong and human nature will not change, then public choice theory shows that central planners will make a mess of things, not help out at all. Central planners, being ordinary humans, will aim at fulfilling their own agendas, not some vague public purpose.

A unified, one-size-fits-all public purpose makes sense within the context of the Marxian idea of the new man, one who cares nothing for himself or herself, only for the whole society. This is like people in a team or orchestra who are not focused on their own private agendas but that of the group. It works fine in small organizations which human beings join voluntarily because they do in fact promise to fulfill their own goals, only with the aid of other people. But in Karl Marx’s picture no need for voluntary joining exists. People will be born as socialists, by their very nature.

Because the Marxian idea is a myth--history is not driving us toward socialism and the new man--the socialism aimed for by Marx and his followers has to be brought about coercively, by brute force--see Stalin or Hugo Chavez, as examples. This is even so when people elect politicians whom they entrust with public service because those people, of course, haven’t a clue how to achieve some mythical comprehensive public good. So even when elected by majorities, as Max thought they would be in democracies, promoters of socialism will be thoroughly stymied by their own unavoidable ignorance of what really benefits us. We are not all the same; indeed humanity as it actually is consists of a huge variety of individuals with an equally huge variety of different ways of attaining their best interests. No central planners can achieve this, ever.

But Marx did have it right that in their impatience and frustration with the free market, people will attempt the impossible. (Marx, of course, didn’t think socialism is impossible.) Consider, for example, environmental issues. Many are panicked about how well protected private property rights leave much of the environment uncared for--e. g., rain forests, the polar bear, etc., etc. So they then wish to entrust the care to politicians and planners. They envision some kind of supreme plan that will bring about a healthy ecosystem. But no one really knows what that is and planners are just as prone to mismanage it all as individuals, only the scope of their mismanagement is far greater, so the damage they do is huge. (In fact most of the current environmental mess is due to government central planners who built ridiculously huge projects using government's power to violate private property rights, as in the case of the TVA and the many humongous dams around the globe.)

Impatience is what produces all this. It is true that with a regime of legally protected private property rights no grand scheme is in the offing. Yet that impossible dream motivates too many people, however futile it is from the start. The only real prospect is the piecemeal, strict private property approach and that is what encourages--though it does not guarantee--the responsible use of the environment.

Just as the perfect is the enemy of the good, so the myth of guaranteed environmental health is the enemy of a reasonably healthy one. Too bad, but Marx did have a point about people’s impatience. Yet certainly it isn’t going to lead to any socialist utopia.