Saturday, July 12, 2008

Foreign Policy Determinism?

Tibor R. Machan
The two Iraqi wars have put the issue of American foreign policy on the agendas of many pundits, writers, intellectuals, and politicians. Why this did not happen when Granada, Panama, Kosovo, and other places were at center stage of actual foreign and military affairs is unclear to me. But somehow the military targeting of Iraq managed to turn a lot of people’s attention to American foreign policy--both the motives for it and its consequences.

In his book, published between the two Iraqi wars, From Wealth to Power (Princeton UP, 1998), current Newsweek International editor--and host of CNN-TV’s very good news magazine program, GPS (Global Public Square)--Fareed Zakaria argued that America has always had an impulse toward expanding its sphere of influence, often through coercive force, rarely only because of the need to defend the country against foreign aggression. And most recently Robert Kagan makes the case, in the new publication World Affairs, A Journal of Ideas and Debate (Spring 2008), that the policy of spreading American influence by aggressive means is by no means an invention of neo-conservatism but some a nearly innate impulse evident throughout the history of the foreign policies of many American administrations.

Both Zakaria and Kagan seem to embrace a form of determinism, Zakaria more directly than Kagan. The fact that America is a prosperous society impels the nation and its governments to be expansionist, even imperialist, in foreign affairs. This is not a matter of choice, nothing that could be otherwise. It is simply the way the world works--big, prosperous countries just aim to grow bigger, even if they do not always succeed with this ambition. Kagan simply claims that contrary to what too many commentators and critics of the George W. Bush administration have argued, the desire to spread democracy by force is a well established tradition evident throughout American history, from the beginning to the present. He believes that the fact that the American Founders believed that the principles sketched in the Declaration of Independence are universal, apply to human community life everywhere, makes the expansionist foreign and military stance unavoidable.

There is, of course, nothing wrong with showing that certain policies, foreign or domestic, are closely linked to a country’s history in view of the principles embraced by its constitution and the convictions of its citizenry (especially its leadership). But does this support the suggestion that these policies are somehow unavoidable?

Certainly the Founders’ choice of first principles wasn’t something they couldn’t help making. Quite the contrary--they chose very deliberately and rejected alternative regimes as they reached their conclusion about what kind of community the United States of America ought to be. Now with that choice came a long series of institutions and policies. At each stage some changes could be made and many have been--throughout America’s political and legal history the big government versus limited government positions have kept battling it out, and this continues to our day. (Initial commitments have considerable but not inevitable influence--one need but think of marriage where “I do” does but need not determine how things will turn out!)

Many foreign--as well as domestic--policy theorists embrace a certain positivist methodology as they “explain” the world. That is, they often have a firm conviction that they need to identify certain natural causes that produce states of affairs and shy away from dwelling about normative matters, namely, what policies ought to be carried. The idea of free human choices that may be judged right and wrong is not deemed scientific enough. So there is a kind of self-fulfilling real political bias in their analysis. Because of this stance, evaluations and proposals are shunted since they involve value judgments, something that too many such thinkers consider mere biases, nothing rationally defensible.

But, in fact, a good deal of foreign and military policy rests on what public policy makers believe should be done, how the country ought to behave abroad (as well as at home). The sooner the leading thinkers in these areas recognize that values are what matter most and need to be rationally explored, the more sensible will the country’s policies become, both abroad and at home.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

The Rights of The Rich

Tibor R. Machan

No, the rich have no special rights, none at all. But since so many people insist on trying to violate the human rights they do have, it is worthwhile mentioning that no one has any moral authority to violate, abrogate, restrict the rights of the rich. Even when they spend their money on what some people believe are trivial pursuits.

This all comes to mind because The New York Times carried an Op Ed column on Thursday, July 10, 2008, written by a professor, Professor Ray D. Madoff of Boston College School of Law attacking the late Leona Helmsley for giving billions of dollars to a charity that cares for dogs. Her argument is that "The charitable deduction constitutes a subsidy from the federal government. The government, in effect, makes itself a partner in every charitable bequest. In Mrs. Helmsley’s case, given that her fortune warranted an estate tax rate of 45 percent, her $8 billion donation for dogs is really a gift of $4.4 billion from her and $3.6 billion from you and me."

This is nonsense, of course. The estate tax is sheer extortion and, in any case, if one gives one's fortune to charity, it doesn't apply. No subsidies were made to the dogs! By recognizing the right of the rich to bequeath their wealth as they see fit, including for some arguably ridiculous causes, nothing is lost to anyone. If Mrs. Helmsley got her money fair and square, in the free market place, it's hers to do with as she sees fit. In no way did her decision to help out dogs hurt us? How, for example, was her decision different from millions of people's decision to keep and care for their dogs and other animals, money that might well be spent by them on something the professor believes is more important? Since it is their money, they get to spend it as they want, no? It's a free country and just as with having to tolerate the silly things other people say and write--e.g., Professor Madoff's Op Ed--so we will just have to tolerate how others choose to peacefully spend their resources, however much we don't like it.

Professor Madoff's idea is similar to that of many politicians, such as Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton, that the money other people earn, inherit, or happen to come by some other legitimate way doesn't really belong to them but to the government. This is sheer socialism, whereby no right to private property exists and needs to be secured by the government in its capacity of the protector of the rights of the citizenry. And we should remember that those rights are equally held by all persons, not excepting the wealthy. Just think, would killing a wealthy person be any less of a violation of the right to life than killing someone poor? Certainly not. Nor would robbing a poor person amount to any more of a rights violation than robbing someone who is rich. These are rights we all have as human beings, not as members of an economic class!

Then there is the bizarre notion, advanced in Professor Madoff's column, that making a charitable contribution to an organization that cares for dogs is something petty, inconsequential. I say this as someone who has for years dispute the idea that animals have rights and finds the recent decision by the Spanish government to "recognize" the rights of great apes absurd. But the fact that animals have no rights does not mean at all that animals do not experience hardship, hunger, pain, even torture and thus do not ever deserve to be provided with care by human beings, especially those who have the wealth to spend on them. In fact, instead of talk about animal rights we should continue with the much more sensible moral position that it is decent to be caring toward animals. From childhood on most of us are taught that cruelty to animals is morally wrong. Any decent human being will refuse to inflict unnecessary pain and hardship on other animals even if it makes sense to use animals in certain situations for various human purposes, such as medical research, transportation, nourishment and so forth. Such use does not amount to wanton cruelty.

The late Mrs. Helmsley, who amassed a large fortune, may well have done something quite admirable by leaving a large amount of her wealth to be used to care for dogs. At any rate, it was her money and she had every right giving it away for this purpose. And so are all of us perfectly within our rights to spend our honestly come by resources for similar purposes. It is scandalous that Professor Madoff would propose otherwise. Nonetheless, the fact that she does advocate such nonsense is just another example of how human rights work--they may be exercised wisely and not so wisely. She accuses the late Mrs. Helmsley of having exercised her rights unwisely and I am accusing her of having done the same when she chose to write her Op Ed piece. In both cases, that is the price of having basic rights and living in a country where they are protected.

Wednesday, July 09, 2008

Property Rights Pluses

Tibor R. Machan

A most controversial feature of the free society is its strict adherence to the principle of private property rights. Indeed, such a society would have few public places, apart from its court houses, police, and military stations. So valued items, including land, water, and even the air mass, would be privately owned, at least to the extent that this is practically possible.

Private property rights, in turn, imply that different individuals and groups would have no authority to make use of property that doesn’t belong to them. Trespass would be forbidden. Any invasive behavior on the part of one’s neighbors would be legally impermissible. Should it occur, that kind of conduct would be subject to severe sanctions.

Apart from the many great benefits of this kind of system--mainly to secure for members of human communities their own, inviolate space or spheres and, thus, their liberty--there would also be the overall benefit of greater care bestowed upon valued resources. No project could be undertaken without the full consent of those whose spheres are needed for it. A dam, for example, could only be built with the consent of all the property owners whose land would be flooded.

This result of the regime of private property rights would be of immense benefit to the environment. No massive projects that make use of forests, lakes, prairies and the like could be undertaken unless all owners agree and make sure that there are no harmful, injurious side effects from them. Thus no one would be authorized to dump waste into the atmosphere--it would amount to the invasion of private property or, if that is not fully feasible, personal assault or property damage. Development would be more measured and reasonable than when it comes from central planners.

Such a system--which can be outlined but the details of which would be evolving within a private property rights legal regime--would most likely contain the greater portion of likely environmental mismanagement and spoilage since the owners would very probably guard what belongs to them against any misuse and squander.

No, there is never any guarantee that all property owners will be prudent and cautious. But this kind of system is more likely to follow what environmentalists call precautionary principles throughout the society. They would have a strong incentive to make sure their property remains valuable, usable, safe, and productive. There could, of course, be some who are negligent and take little care of what belongs to them but the consequences of such lack of care would very quickly boomerang and make itself felt by the negligent property owner, not by the public at large, which is what happens when public authorities mismanage valuable resources.

As Aristotle remarked nearly 3000 years ago, "That which is common to the greatest number has the least care bestowed upon it. Every one thinks chiefly of his own, hardly at all of the common interest; and only when he is himself concerned as an individual. For besides other considerations, everybody is more inclined to neglect the duty which he expects another to fulfill; as in families many attendants are often less useful than a few" (Politics, 1262a30-37). This pretty much explains why environmental problems arose in the first place: the tragedy of the commons.

Unfortunately there is too much bellyaching about the anticipated inequality that can arise from the regime of private property rights, so it is being compromised everywhere and instead of owners being left to deal with what belongs to them, mostly like quite responsibly, public authorities, bureaucrats, are counted upon to manage the realm. And that cannot but lead to widespread neglect. Both the problems of the commons and of public choice--authorities pursuing their own agendas in the name of the public--stand in the way of a sustained concern for conservation, preservation, and sensible use. All because of the envious resentment of many against those who might well parley their own private property into serious wealth.

The naïve idealism of egalitarianism, thus, stands in the way of the best prospects for the environment. Another case of the imaginary perfect being the enemy of the practically good!

Tuesday, July 08, 2008

Regulatory Irony

Tibor R. Machan

Government interference in our lives is most often defended on grounds that the weak, vulnerable, and unprepared in society just cannot be expected to cope with the strong and clever. This is but a code for class warfare talk, of course. Some of us must be assisted in their lives, even if we don't know nor ask for it. The latest rationale being offered for all the meddling is dubbed libertarian paternalism or nudging. It means that even if outright regimentation by government is undesirable, if bureaucrats just gently push us around, provide incentives to do the right thing, that's definitely defensible against objections that invoke the menace of government oppression.

Now all this is pretty bad reasoning since, as I recently argued, one has no assurance that the people doing the nudging will be nudging us the right way and not taking advantage of their position as official, certified nudgers. In short, who will nudge the nudgers, who will do paternalistic duty for the paternalists who are, let us remember, not only not immune to the foibles against which they are meant to guard us but, because of their increased power over people, are more tempted to misbehave?

But there are some other problems with the idea that government regulations do any good. John Stossel showed some of it in his wonderful ABC-TV special, "Are we scaring ourselves to death?" Government regulation shortens people's lives because of its enormous cost from which the poor suffer especially since they can least afford paying for it via taxes (income, property, sales, and the more hidden ones). Furthermore, a consequence of government regulation is, of course, the enormous bureaucracy and red tape that people face in their lives as a result of the various safety and security measures the innumerable federal, state, county and municipal agencies demand from everyone in the market place. Consumer protection is what they call it but it is anything but that.

All this is perhaps a bit easier for me than for many others to grasp because in my early years I lived in the most bureaucratized society conceived by the human mind, in a communist country. Everything our family tried to do needed to be approved, authorized, overseen, permitted, and such by some tentacle of some level or branch of government. And one thing is for sure. Not everyone is equally adept at coping with, let alone resisting, those obstacles to living one life.

Even apart from government--but often because of it--an ordinary person needs to deal with innumerable bureaucratic impediments. I have always been a bit more prepared for this then others because of that nasty training I got back living under the communist regime in Budapest. For the rest of my life I have cultivated a tenacity that has managed to do wonders with the surrounding bureaucracy. Whether it be getting a passport at the post office, reversing some idiotic fee at the bank, obtaining my child's drivers license, or figuring out what went wrong with a payment my employer was supposed to make but went astray en route, I have worked relentlessly not to permit these hurdles to set me back too much.

But can one expect that we are all so well trained in handling these pitfalls? Millions of people are probably tripped up, more or less frequently, by much of the red tape they confront, coming at them under the banner: "We are the government and we are here to help you." These are, of course, the very citizens in whose name the government sold us on their regulatory measures. The powerful, rich, savvy folks, in contrast, are better equipped to deal with all of this. They hire lawyers, human resource experts, and various teams of specialists who help them deal with government regulators, inspectors, planners, and the rest.

It's ironic that it is Ralph Nader who is called a consumer advocate when his own advocacy of all that government meddling helps make millions of ordinary consumers pay through the nose and falter in other ways as they try to deal with the umpteen levels of government that's nudging us about, naturally, all for our own good.

Sunday, July 06, 2008

Building Paradoxes

Tibor R. Machan

Never have I resided in or visited a locale in America where there hasn’t been an active historical preservation society. These are the organizations that impose all sorts of restrictions on property owners about what may or may not be build, renovated, restituted within the borders of what the activist consider to be “their community.” Now and then I even attend planning commission meetings where I live, just to witness the utter, unabashed arrogance of these preservers of architectural history. Members of such committees are invariably convinced that they own everyone’s property and may dictate to all concerned what may be done with what is, after all, supposed to be private property. (Not that these are the only such organizations surrounding communities across the land and, indeed, the globe. The sense of entitlement to butt in where folks ought to have no authority to decide is sadly almost universal.)

Now this is something one can lament forever and it is quite clear, at least to many decent folks, that the tyranny of such groups is intolerable, however much various quirks in the legal system manage to make them legitimate. That’s not what I want to consider here. An aspect of this situation, however, is worth taking not of because it points up just how convoluted is the thinking of advocates of such intrusiveness.

All the while that the preservationists are hell bent on leaving things as they used to be, thus retarding development, some of those very same people insist that all buildings conform to up to date technical standards when it comes to safety, health, and security. Thus the standards laid down by such governmental bodies as the federal agency OSHA--Occupational Safety and Health Administration--and various local bodies that determine the building codes--are also vigorously promoted and imposed on property owners everywhere.

Just exactly how these two equally widely embraced objectives of people who love to meddle in others’ lives can be reconciled has always puzzled me. If you want to preserve what’s old because of its historical significance, how can you insist that it be updated to conform to the latest technological standards? And if that’s not possible, which is going to take precedence? Is it more important for us all--because, after all, these goals are all supposed to serve the public interest, the common good, as opposed to serving private profit, which is what builder of new structures are supposedly committed to--to be as safe as possible or is it more important to enjoy authentic historical structures in our neighborhoods?

Of course, there is no answer to this question because for different people and groups, different objectives could easily be more vital. Some folks ought to live and work in places fully equipped with the most affordable up to date gadgetry, while others may be much better of--pursue their happiness for more effectively--if they embrace the architectural and construction treasures of history. Some like their abode to be a historical exhibition, some a model of the latest and highest options of building technology. And there are, I am sure, all kinds of valid combination of objectives that no group of meddling bureaucrats can even imagine yet have no hesitation about imposing on everyone.

Of course, this is not the only paradox that is inherent in the policy of meddlers. Another one of my favorites is that these folks actually manage to convince themselves of the utterly conceited notion that they alone know what is right and good for all when it comes to planning buildings, neighborhoods, and communities. Does it not occur to them, to quote Abraham Lincoln, that “No man is good enough to govern another man, without that other's consent”?

I guess not. Instead they probably live in the reactionary past when kings and dukes and barons thought they had it all over the rest of humanity when it came to giving direction to human lives. I say bunk to that and hope you will in time agree with me!