Thursday, August 07, 2008

A Visit to RFE-RL

Tibor R. Machan

Prague, Czech Republic. In 1953 I was smuggled out of Hungary by a professional "flesh peddler" (as TIME magazine called these extremely helpful people) and landed, for three years, in Munich, Germany. That's because my father was working at Radio Free Europe there, as a director of sports coverage. My stepmother was doing some acting gigs for the Hungarian sector and even I got to do a few lines in various plays that had a character in his teens. I used to hang out a lot at the facilities in the English Garden and befriended a lot of expatriates from the various Iron Curtain countries who helped the effort to inform listeners in those countries about what went on in the world and whatever else they were supposed to be doing. (Prior to leaving Hungary I used to listen to RFE, when I could--because the reception was awful and transmissions were also being blocked by the commies--mostly to hear my dad on the air.)

Later, when I began to think more carefully about political matters, I had some trepidations about whether RFE and similar ventures carried out by the United States government could pass my libertarian test for what amounts to proper public policy. Should American citizens be forced to fund this kind of undertaking--including Voice of America and, later, several others, beaming news and, let's face it, propaganda to victims of Soviet and Soviet bloc oppression? Can this be construed as legitimate foreign policy for a bona fide free society? Why or why not?

But back in the mid-fifties I had no problem accepting RFE as a sound effort, seeing how little information the Soviet satellite countries would allow their citizens to gather from their state run media. There was little doubt in my mind that the Americans and their Western allies were far better, freer countries than those under Soviet rule and whatever reasonable effort was made to thwart the power of the USSR was Ok by me. Of course the big question for me turned out, later, to be what amounted to reasonable in such efforts.

In our time it would appear to be clear enough that there is no longer any plausible rationale for Radio Free Europe and its sister, Radio Liberty. Yet, on my visit to Prague, where I was asked to give a short presentation to the staff about the situation in mid-fifties and what I could recall about RFE then, several folks argued that there are sound reasons to continue what RFE/RL liberty had been and continues to be doing, which is to "provide uncensored news and information to countries where a free press is either banned by the government or not fully established." As a died in the wool "defensivist" on matters of public policy, I have my doubts that such efforts on the part of a government of a free country qualify as proper public policy. A defensivist, you see, holds--following the political science sketched in the Declaration of Independence--that governments are instituted to secure our basic human rights. They are, therefore, only justified in conducting defensive public policies and it is unclear whether broadcasting propaganda, however honest and truthful, into "countries where a free press is either banned by the government or not fully established" qualifies as defensive public policy. Arguably such an effort is more about defending the liberty of those in such countries, not of the citizens of the United States of America whom the government is sworn to serve.

Yet perhaps a more nuanced take on the foreign affairs of a free society would not so readily dismiss what RFE and RL are doing as overstepping the proper authority of a free government. Educating people in countries where people have no chance to encounter discussions of the principles and policies of relatively free societies may arguably amount to an element of defense, given how ignorance about liberty can generate often deadly hostility toward free societies. Moreover, engaging in this kind of educational foreign policy may also be a rather preferable substitute for more militaristic efforts to secure the liberty of citizens of relatively free societies in today's world.

I am not proposing to resolve these matters here but it is worth reflecting on them, I think, since the defensivist foreign policy that's appropriate for free countries can take a variety of forms and, moreover, isn't something to be decided upon a priori. My own experience with RFE was an instructive part of my early life, helping me to come to terms in time with the principles and problems of proper, free governments. I suspect that investing in the peaceful propaganda efforts of which RFE and RL are a part is highly preferable to embarking on various military missions so as to defend liberty for American citizens and also to spread it around the world in ways that do not produce hostility and acrimony.

Monday, August 04, 2008

The Scope of Public Choice Theory

Tibor R. Machan

Prague, Czech Republic. In October 1985 (I think it was) Professor James Buchanan, now at George Mason University’s Department of Economics, received the Nobel Prize in his discipline for his pioneering work—in collaboration with Professor Gordon Tullock—in what came to be called public choice theory. The gist of this theory is that those who work in government, often referred to in the honorific terms as doing “public service,” are, contrary to widespread impression, just as much motivated by personal or self-interest as are people in the market place. In other words, politicians and bureaucrats pursue their own agendas, not those of “the public,” just as people in business do. And from this a number of interesting insights follow about the nature of government policy.

What makes this idea quite credible even at first inspection is that politicians and bureaucrats would have a very hard time, even if they wanted to, to serve the public interest. The reason is that the public is a huge group of individuals with a great variety of different interests and just a few common ones. All those people in centers of power who lobby for support from various branches and divisions of government—those folks so scornfully dismissed as looking out for mere “special interests”—are, in fact, the only ones who can provide politicians and bureaucrats with some clue as to what the public’s interest amounts to. They tell them, actually, about a lot of highly diverse private and special interests, not any kind of public interest at all.

This fact is very important to keep in mind, especially in the midst of political campaigns during which there is an inordinate amount of rhetoric about the special interests versus the public interest, the goals of different people versus the will of the people. Of course, the special interest groups are nothing other than the people, so the will of the people is really nothing else but the sum of the special interests all those nasty lobbyists are promoting.

Even beyond all this, public choice theory also alerts us to the fact that the most recent effort to shore up the case for government meddling in our lives, namely so called libertarian paternalism—or nudging—is infested with the problem that behavior that may be desirable from certain citizens will not be so from others. What the politicians and bureaucrats choose to nudge us to do—which is really a form of insidious manipulation even at its best—is rarely what all of us being so nudged really ought to do. The assumption of one-size-fits-all is blatant and public policies that follow from it must of necessity misfire.

Suppose there is a problem in a society, say, environmental pollution. What everyone ought to do about it is quite impossible to say. One person or family may have to address it one way, another very differently, and so on down the line. To believe, for example, that everyone who owns an SUV ought to get rid of it because of pollution is the height of ignorance and presumption. What one person or one family or one company ought to do to address the problem will be quite different from what another ought to, in light of the different circumstances and needs and possibilities of all these different human agents.

Because this is so, the effort to address the problem by politicians and bureaucrats is invariably going to misfire. Those so called public servants, in short, have no clue at all what needs to be done by you, me, our friends, colleagues, neighbors, and the rest, so they will promote policies they happen to prefer, never mind whether they help solve the problem. They will, as customary, feel the urge to “do something,” even if there is no demonstrable connection between it and any solution to the problem that is supposedly being addressed.

The same goes for those doing the nudging being promoted these days as ways to get us to behave properly. Right conduct is highly contextual. It depends on highly particular conditions that people face. Only those close to us have a decent chance of knowing the best way for us to act, so public servants will necessarily be off base.

Sadly in their eagerness to impose their so called solutions, politicians and bureaucrats are not likely to relinquish their power over us, never mind how misguided they are in doing so.

Sunday, August 03, 2008

Human Rights Were Not Invented

Tibor R. Machan

Professor Lynn Hunt's recently published book is titled Inventing Human Rights and though it is full of very useful information about the emergence of the idea of basic human, individual rights, it also perpetuates, perhaps entirely unconsciously, a very serious error.

Moral and political ideas are not all that different from ones in the various sciences. Based on better and better information about the world, various new concepts need to be formed. Electrons, for example, hadn't been identified until after atoms were. The prefrontal lobe wasn't known until instruments were created that helped to search the brain thoroughly enough to take a comprehensive inventory of its innumerable parts. Initially all that was known is that there is a brain and only gradually did its busy life and large number of attributes and properties come into focus.

In morality something similar happens. From early times it has been clear enough that some kinds of conduct are morally wrong and that some are right. Broadly speaking, whatever promotes the human life of an individual is right, whatever thwarts it wrong. But the details were slow to come to light. Politically, too, the concept of justice was in place quite early in human history—an institution or policy is just if it secures what is deserved among human beings. But this isn't enough to take account of the many details of the idea of justice. In time—starting quite a long time ago, actually—it gradually became clear that human beings have certain rights, based on their nature, which then provided a fuller understanding of justice.

But, of course, there is a problem with all this. Unlike in the physical sciences, in normative spheres there is a great deal of disagreement, some if not most of it stemming from the input from those who want to undermine the very notion of basic norms of human life. So even if at some point human rights had been discovered—not invented—there were many who didn't welcome this fact and mounted all sorts of ways to obscure it. A little of this can also been detected in even the hardest science, such as physics, chemistry or astronomy. But in the area of morality and politics it is far more prevalent since the basis of these areas of focus are more complicated and widely disputed.

One way to undermine a moral concept, of course, is to maintain that it is merely an invention, a fabrication that serves not to help us understand how to lead a human life but merely to further some special interest. Accordingly, for example, Karl Marx and his followers argued that the human right to private property was invented so as to aid the ruling bourgeois classes to obtain and hold control of other people.

Judging by her book I doubt that Professor Hunt had this same agenda up her sleeve. I am sure, however, that the claim that human rights are an invention plays into the hands of those who would just as soon dismiss these rights as being without any basis in facts of reality but simply a concocted myth—or, as Jeremy Bentham characterized them, "nonsense upon stilts."

In the case of Dr. Hunt, who teaches history at UCLA, there is another way that the status of human rights is undermined. She makes a lot of the fact that the Declaration of Independence associates our basic rights with self-evidence. If they were self-evident, as she claims the Founders said they were, then they need not be argued for. A self-evident fact needs no proof. Thus the fact of the existence of the universe needs no proof—any effort to prove it would already acknowledge that it is true. That's why it is a self-evident truth.

What the Declaration states, of course, is that "We hold these truths to be self-evident," not that they are self-evident. And for purposes of a brief, succinct, inspiring announcement—a declaration—that's all that is needed, namely, to treat those truths as if they were (that is, to hold them to be), self-evident. In fact, however, they are anything but. Just as John Locke and all of his followers who have labored long and hard to prove that these rights knew this well and good. The existence of our rights must be demonstrated, shown. It's not enough to assume them.

Dr. Hunt, however, claims that the Founders believed that it is self-evident that we have these rights and proposes that they function, therefore, as religious truths based on faith, not as discoveries—as inventions not as something real. But this will not wash. Over the centuries basic human rights were gradually identified, as a result of a better and better knowledge of human community life and its role in human affairs. So by now we know that all of us have these rights in our communities, apart from some rare cases of crucially incapacitated people. And we can therefore confidently state, for example, that a country in which these rights are not acknowledged and protected fails at being fully just.

It would have been only prudent for Dr. Hunt to have seen the matter along such lines. As it is, she is aiding and abetting those who want to support regimes wherein human rights are violated, left and right. If they are a mere invention, what could be wrong with that?