Saturday, October 04, 2008

The Futility of Egalitarianism

Tibor R. Machan

The ancient Greek myth of Procrustes’ bed has it that the bed had the attribute of being exactly as long as anyone who lay down on it. Procrustes didn't disclose to his guests his scheme that those who lay down on this extraordinary bed got manipulated so that if they were too short for the bed they had their legs chopped off and if too long, the legs got forcibly stretched. This, it appears, is where the expression “one size fits all” originated.

Egalitarianism is the political view whereby everyone must be subject to equal benefits and burdens, as a matter of public policy. Arguably the mess with the current loan defaults originated with this idea, namely, that all citizens, never mind their particular circumstances, must be treated as if they were the same, as if they could handle mortgages of the same size, purchase equally fancy homes, etc.

For egalitarianism to have a ghost of a chance it would have to be true that fundamentally, in their essence, all human beings are the same and only various accidents render them different. Public policy, in turn, is supposed to be aimed at erasing the differences, forcing us all into the same Procrustean bed.

One area where the idiocy of this doctrine shows up good and hard is in athletics. Mr. Michael Phelps, for example, won 8 gold swimming medals at the 2008 Olympics because he was very, very different from the rest of us, indeed even from other champion swimmers. Phelps is a giant, with huge hands and feet, and so his chances for winning the races for which he prepares are far better than anyone else’s. And he is of course just one example of such extraordinary talent. Roger Federer in tennis may be another, as used to be Pete Sampras and Bjorn Borg, among a few others in tennis, and thousands of other athletes throughout history.

It turns out that a recent study (published in the September 2nd issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences) has shown that matters are even more anti-egalitarian in human affairs. The study identified a gene variant that actually significantly extends people’s lives. Those lacking the gene live shorter lives, those with it live longer ones (on average and apart from accidental deaths). And this is just the way it is--as the article reporting on this in Science News says, “Life’s just not fair.” But there are diehards who will refuse to accept this and insist on remaking us all to fit their dream-world of universal human equality. And from that stem a hole lot of difficulties in public affairs. The most important result is a government that takes it as its task to force people to conform to various models deemed to serve the futile egalitarian goal. Perhaps the most drastic examples of this result were Hitler’s Nazi Germany, Stalin’s Soviet Union and Mao's Red China. In each the government assumed the role of coercing everyone--well, not actually everyone since the leaders were exempted--to fit certain models of proper humanity. We still see remnants of this while looking at those insane parades in North Korea which symbolize the total absence of human individuality!

Certainly in both systems individuality was banned. That means, of course, that individual liberty was also banned since when men and women have their right to liberty respected and protected, they embark on vastly different pursuits! Dissent in such systems is regarded a form of mental illness and dissidents are locked up for fear that they will infest the rest with crazy notions like personal distinctiveness, with the possibility of excellence as well as failure.

But it turns out that that’s just what the study of genetics helps us further to appreciate, namely, that we are by nature very different human beings. Yes, there is our humanity which is universal (excepting some truly crucial incapacities), but one central aspect of our humanity is that we are also very different from one another. This is so clearly evident from just observing our friends, family, neighbors, and the various historical periods that exhibit human variations that the egalitarian effort to deny its centrality and eradicate it should both be given up as hopeless, futile efforts.

There is much more to be explored about this issue, of course, but one thing seems indisputable: the unfortunately prominent egalitarian doctrine--especially in the academy and among public officials--has produced and continues to produce some devastating public policies, Draconian and less so. That should be enough to turn us away from it for good.

Friday, October 03, 2008

Once Again, They Lie

Tibor R. Machan

Anytime I run across some piece of writing that contains the assertions that the world, especially the United States, has been in the grips of market fundamentalism or the doctrine of laissez-faire capitalism, I tend to drop everything and pen a firm response. It's a lie, nothing less. Take the case of Ryan Blitstein who has written, in the course of a review of a book in the magazine, that "America now faces the blowback from 40 years of political dominance by right-wing market utopians, who championed extreme industry deregulation only to increase government's size and power." Mr. Blitstein blames this on the late Professor Milton Friedman, the Nobel Prize winning economist who did, indeed, champion the free market capitalist economic system.

But Friedman was anything but very influential in his efforts. Indeed, over the years that he has argued for freedom as against government planning and direction of the economy--through the various ways that is done and advocated by believers of the wisdom and virtue of government officials--the various political groups that have governed have been less and less committed to free market capitalism. And Blitstein acknowledges this but then still insists that what is at fault is the free market. Never mind that he himself admits that no such things has existed since the New Deal at least, if not since the establishment of the Federal Reserve system around the turn of the century.

Blitstein keeps talking about hypocrisy but the only hypocrisy that he can identify occurred among politicians and champions of greater and greater scope for government involvement in the market place. Friedman and other supporters of the free market, such as Ludwig von Mises, F. A. Hayek, James Buchanan, and even Alan Greenspan--who has always supported the free market but was willing to try to work with the politically more palatable mixed economy--never endorsed big government, certainly not a government with the humongous scope of authority that most politicians champion. All the free market advocates I have run across over my 45 years of interest in political economy have been severely critical of the provisions of the welfare state and the impossible mixture of capitalism and socialism. They have repeatedly warned about what will happen in time if this kind of public policy is continued.

Of course, there are ways to postpone the inevitable, mostly by printing money and placing the burden of the nation's debt on yet unborn future generations (who are not here to protest and to vote their interest). But in time one simply cannot get blood out of a turnip, nor even fake to be able to do so. Politicians, of course, keep promising that they will do just that because that is how they gain office, by fooling their constituents into thinking that they are magicians. With more and more government involvement which produces worse and worse public policies and economic consequences, the politicians and their cheerleaders simply postpone the fiasco that we are now experiencing. But, sadly, most voters keep thinking, these politicians can perform miracles just by wishing to do so.

One group in society that hasn't faced up to its systematic malpractice is the liars who keep blaming the mess on human liberty--if you do not treat people like children are treated by their nannies, they will cause havoc. Well, some will, and there will be some havoc. But if you leave it all for government to fix, the havoc will be of fare greater scope than anything that market failures, so called, tend to create. Markets are, in fact, self-correcting pretty soon after the mistakes made in them come to light. Enron is a good example of this. But when the market is undermined and politicians pretend to be able to square the circle, then all hell breaks loose.

People like Bryan Blitstein are the ones who are mostly responsible for Americans failure to learn economic realities. But they will not fess up to this, not unless they are repeatedly called on their intellectual misconduct.

Wednesday, October 01, 2008

What Politicians Should Say

Tibor R. Machan

Here is what members of Congress should tell the voting public:

"Ladies and Gentleman, you asked for it and now you have got it, good and hard. The bulk of you want both, a healthy economy and provisions for the needy. The former requires economic discipline or, in personal terms, the strict practice of the virtue of prudence. The latter demands giving those who cannot afford homes, loans, etc., and so forth a substantial break. These folks need to be provided, at taxpayers' expense, with financial support—low interest loans, forgiven debts, insubstantial collateral, and the illusions that they can live the plush life but not earn enough to afford it.

"You may think that $700 billion is a big amount of money to pay for the public policy that combines sound economics with extensive support for those who otherwise would be left without the means to live well. It is not, when you think in terms of a country with 350 million people. While many are well to do, quite a few are not. Yet the policy makers and their cheerleaders in the think tanks and universities all demand everyone be living a satisfactory life. Egalitarianism is, in fact, the dominant political philosophy at universities, think tanks, and among the punditry. The top political philosophers, such as Martha Nussbaum, Amartya Sen, Peter Singer, Peter Unger are all convinced that justice demands that everyone live pretty much as if he or she had plenty resources from which to fund the good life, at least economically. Elected politicians follow the lead of these prominent thinkers by promising to help everyone who needs it with ample government support. And they are eagerly elected and then pass laws that try to square the economic circle by having a country that promotes equal conditions for everyone while also maintaining constant economic growth and development.

"But this is really impossible. In order to have everyone live more or less equally well—with roughly the same benefits in health care, vacations, education, amenities and so forth—those who are luckier and more hardworking than the rest must also be taxed far more severely than the rest which, in turn, discourages their eagerness for continuing to add to their wealth. In other words, combining the philosophy of socialism with that of capitalism is expensive and produces the kind of economic fiascoes we are facing today. However, most Americans asked for this when they voted into office the likes of Barney Frank who firmly believe in the mixed economy.

"We just ask you please not to belly ache so much since the bulk of you are surely getting exactly what you wanted. True, what you wanted amounts to the impossible—a smoothly functioning economy along with an egalitarian society. But people often want to have their cake and eat it as well, and these days it seems most Americans fall into this group. They want small government but also want the government to fund all kinds of projects they favor, such as farm subsidies or guaranteed health insurance. You want better paid teachers but also lower taxes. So why would it surprise you that as a group Americans want to balance the budget but also provide those who want it with cheap credit? You want a lean and mean federal budget but also wish for higher federal deposit insurance backed by taxpayers who may have to come up with the funds if the deposit holders will not pay what they owe.

"So we are simply puzzled about why you think the government is acting irresponsibly when, in fact, most of the voters insist government doing just that when you cast your ballot and elect your representative. You want to find someone to blame for all this, someone on Wall Street or in Washington but, mainly, it is you all who are to blame, collectively as well as individually. You want to live like a king but pay like a pauper. That, dear citizen, is not possible and leads to just what you are witnessing now. And there is no way out but to bit the bullet."

Sunday, September 28, 2008

The Importance of Individualism

Tibor R. Machan

Over the last several weeks I have run across numerous efforts by different political thinkers and activists to discredit individualism. Some have argued that the idea of the individual is a myth created for us by our society. Others have pressed the idea that the individual is a solitary being whose life is awful, lonely and dangerous, so no one ought to champion individualism, the social philosophy which assigns prime importance of human individuals. Others have argued that we are all but cells in the larger body of society or some community, with no independence or will of our own.

At a conference I attended a while back participants were asked to read a book in which the reality of the individual was flatly denied by a scholar who argued for a new version of Karl Marx's socialism. The individual, the book’s author maintained, is a mere social construct with no ultimate reality. (Marx, you might recall, maintained that individualism was an ideology invented to serve the ruling class!) And at an opening frosh seminar at my university one professor read a paper in which he defended the idea that the individual is a figment of our imagination put into our minds by various social forces that benefit from believing in such a thing despite its unreality.

Why, you may wonder, is there so much trepidation about individualism, about the notion that individual human beings do in fact exist and are, indeed, the most important aspect of human communities? This is, in fact, the message of America’s most important philosophical document, the Declaration of Independence. Individual rights which, if they exist, identify one’s realm of personal authority which may not be undermined, are the center piece of the American political tradition. So if one wishes to undermine American ideas and ideals—admittedly not fully realized in American history—it makes sense to target individualism first and foremost. Those who reject American exceptionalism, the view that there is something novel and uniquely valuable about the ideas underpinning American society, also zero in on individualism. They draw on all kinds of disciplines, such as sociology, psychology, and even neurobiology, in their efforts to demean the American individualist outlook. Often they resort to distorting individualism, caricaturing it, in order to besmirch it and thereby undermine any admiration people might have for American institutions and traditions.

One very crucial problem with all this individualism bashing is that it is all done by, you guessed it, individuals. The scholars, political theorists, psychologists and sociologists who weigh in against individualism are, of course, individuals. So what is it they are after with their relentless criticism?

My hypothesis is that the critics want to rob individuals—you, me and all the rest—of the authority over their lives and property. By abolishing the individual person, they are then able to dismiss the wants, desires, purposes, goals, and values of other individuals. In other words, individualism-bashing amounts to a quest for power by some individuals over other individuals. For those who say that it is the community that matters most—or, as a recent piece of writing put it, who elevate society over the individual—really have nothing with which to replace the central role of individuals since communities, societies, countries, and even families are all composed of individuals.

So the most reasonable interpretation of the anti-individualist position, in my view, is that some individuals, by pretending to speak for the group, society, community, or humanity aim to rule the rest of us. No doubt sometimes this is motivated by a belief that if these individuals had the power over us, many problems would be solved, much good would be achieved. No doubt, too, some of the problems of people in various societies do stem from the misconduct of some individuals that others could at times remedy.

Yet, this is not going to be achieved by placing certain other individuals in positions of power. Only when individuals act to invade the lives of their fellows may power be exercised in order to defend against the invaders. As to complaints about how various people think or behave apart from such invasive conduct, they must be dealt with through persuasion and not the wielding of power.

It is always wise to be on guard when people demean individuals and individualism. They are most likely up to no good when they do so. Their claim that we should not take ourselves, individuals all, so seriously but instead serve the group amounts to a plea for the power of some individuals over others, nothing more.