Friday, October 10, 2008

Not everyone should vote!

Tibor R. Machan

Back in 1992 I wrote a column for The Chicago Tribune that is even more pertinent now, with the recent publication of George Mason University economist Professor Bryan Caplan's book, The Myth of the Rational Voter (Princeton University Press, 2007). Here is the gist of it, only slightly edited.

From various celebrities to the radio announcer at the station to which I listen, everyone urged me to vote this coming November. But, in fact, it isn't always such a good idea to vote.

I did, actually, fill out my absentee ballot but decided not to vote in a bunch of the races I had a chance to make a choice. I did record my choices on most of the ballot measures. When it came, however, to the folks who wanted to be judges and members of city council and such, I decided I had no idea what they stood for and voting for them would just be irresponsible.

And I bet that is so with nearly all of us--many of the people we have a chance to vote for or against are unknown to us. This is especially so when it comes to their ideas on the various issues they will have to address once in office. That is very troubling, since these days politicians address nearly every issue under the sun. Government isn't limited to keeping the peace so one could keep abreast of its activities fairly simply. No, in Congress the men and women serving must decide about everything from how many tanks should go to NATO forces to what percentage of alcohol must be in imported beer. Municipal, county, state and federal authorities have their noses into millions of issues and very few citizens they serve have even a clue as to how they will decide on them. It would take innumerable full time jobs to keep tabs on today's issues facing Congress, the state assembly, the county supervisors, and the city council.

So those who urge us all to vote need to temper their enthusiasm with a little dosage of reality. Most of us are ignorant about the issues and, moreover, this is unavoidable. We cannot possible keep up and still have a life of our own. As a result, if we were to listen to the counsel of all those celebrities, it would guarantee that our representatives would get elected by a bunch of ignoramuses. Come to think of it, isn't that just what we witness in the various centers of power? Isn't that one of the reasons political discourse is so inept, sinks so low, is so full of character assassination and void of substance in most regions?

It is plainly impossible these days to educate the public about all of what politicians and their appointed bureaucrats need to know to do the right thing. When folks must make decisions for so many people, on so many issues, there is no way to do the right thing--one will necessarily wrong many of the people affected. Even having a general political vision is insufficient, mainly because those who hold office vote not so much in line with some political philosophy but as they believe the various vested interests in their districts would like them to.

One reason the American Founders wanted a limited government is that they were aware of how much of a war of all against all the politics of a democracy could become unless democracy is severely checked. Government was supposed to secure our rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness and elections were to decide only who we hire to do this job. By now, however, the job has gotten way out of hand -- politicians and bureaucrats have taken over supervision of nearly all parts of our lives. And the people are completely divided as to what they want from them. It all depends where their vested interest lies and what kind of coalitions they can arrange.

Yet, there is no way they can actually learn which proposal their politicians can vote for or against will do them the most good. So what is left? To vote ignorantly, based on vague impressions, style, feel, sex appeal, etc. Or to refrain from voting.

In such a climate it is no wonder that people begin to yearn for a simplified process, one whereby perhaps a great leader provides us with political guidance. In some areas the only virtue left to democracy is how it slows down political power. Even that is unappreciated by many people (consider how when a bunch of "world leaders" come together to sign some treaty they need to face the agony of selling the deal to their people; and then they are badgered about it by the less democratic of the parties).
I say, vote only if you have a clue. Otherwise do not vote and then, perhaps, the selection process will gain from the fact that the few who vote do have a clue. But, of course, the real answer is to reduce the scope of what politicians can vote on and keep them worried about just a few matters, mostly how best to defend our individual rights
Another Lesson in Freedom

Tibor R. Machan

When I became seriously interested in the free market I began, also, to encounter a good deal of criticism of that system, mainly because the critics mindlessly blamed the great depression on it. But looking at it more carefully I learned that by the time of the Great Depression there was nearly nothing left of laissez-faire capitalism in America. Sure, compared to some other countries there was more capitalism here than elsewhere but compared to a dead drunk someone who only staggers around a bit from booze seems nearly sober. Sadly, America was never "sober," never a completely free market economy and after the populist political economic influences of the early 1900s only the momentum of the remnants of a free economy was in evidence. Contrary to widespread myth, FDR did not rescue the country from the government induced Great Depression--it was the Second World War that exerted the greatest remedial influence.

One thing critics of capitalism kept repeating since the New Deal is that nothing like the Great Depression and the economic mess surrounding it can happen now since government stepped in with all its regulations and safety measures. Now, the mantra went, it just cannot happen here any more.

When the current economic slide began to be undeniable, defenders of the welfare state, of extensive government intervention in the market place, started to blame it all on market fundamentalism, on the "ridiculous confidence" shown in the free market system. Of course, this was a ruse and continues to be, as put out by the politicians who keep this way adding fuel to the fire they set in the first place. They keep repeating the lie that deregulation caused the current fiasco when, in fact, the main culprit is the easy credit policy demanded of banks and other lending institutions so as to "level the playing field" for everyone. (Of course, if by "deregulation" is meant taking off the legal protection of contracts and property rights, then, yes, "deregulation" is reponsible!) Instead of enabling minorities and groups whose members had experienced injustices and economic setbacks in the past, by means of freeing up the economy as fully as possible, the political class tended, in the main, to embrace the idea that handouts, special breaks and privileges, including easy credit, would be the proper way to "help." It never is, of course, but it can postpone the chicken coming home to roost. For a while by stealing from Peter so as to support Paul, which can appear to be effective but, in time, Peter will not take it anymore.

These elementary lessons of the vitality of freedom--in this case vis-à-vis economic health--keep being rejected and even outright distorted by statists around America and the world. Because it isn’t simple to trace out the chain of causation when disaster finally hits, many people keep repeating and get some mileage out of their anti-market message. (A perfect example is Naomi Klein’s The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism [Metropolitan Books], which is a vicious, irresponsible attack on the late Milton Friedman and his defense of the free market and which gained equally devastating reviews in both the libertarian Reason and center left The New Republic.)

What is really sad is that nearly all those who have been most instrumental in precipitating the current economic fiasco are walking around telling lies with virtual total immunity. It is very much like all those Soviet communists who got off scot-free after the fall of the USSR and are continuing to mess things up for Russia and the former Soviet colonies with their influence on how history is understood there and how public policy is forged.

Instead of going after the political criminals, a great many pundits and academicians are slandering freedom and keep asking for more of the same, namely, government meddling. The famous bailouts, for example, were perpetrated by those folks but despite their total failure, the perpetrators are still running around trying to manage the economy. The chorus of those who understand how ineffectual the government measures are and how much they make tings worse is too small and hardly gain a hearing in the mainstream forums where the problems are being talked about.

I know what I must do in the light of all this. I must continue to try to educate folks to the superior value of human liberty and how it is the only hope for bringing about recovery. Maybe you can help me.

Monday, October 06, 2008

Academic Conundrums

Tibor R. Machan

After I entered college, somewhat late in my life, I searched for a discipline I would be able to be devoted to. Took me a couple of years but my very first inclination had proved to be right--I became smitten by philosophy. One reason was that I didn't detect any orthodoxy in the field, not at least as taught where I first took courses in it. Not that I liked the idea that no philosophy could be correct, not by a long shot. But I liked that none was officially embraced, like Marxism was in my native country at the time. I have never regretted entering this discipline despite the many frustrations that I have encountered there.

My eventual choice was to defend something fairly ordinary, namely, that the world exists independently of how we feel about, perceive it, wish for it to be, etc. Even in ethics and politics I concluded there are right answers, though this is not as simple an idea as it may appear at first. To this day I enjoy taking part in various Socratic discussions--nearly free-for-all exchanges--inside or outside the halls of Ivy. But I admit that sometimes it is frustrating to take seriously what fellow academicians defend, or give voice to. Yet that is just what those who sign up for an academic career must accept, a lot of frustrating, even bizarre ideas being aired by one's colleagues.

At a couple of recent gatherings, for example, there were several notions circulated that just didn't seem to me to make any sense. For example, some of my colleagues from the natural sciences argued that time is unreal or, perhaps more accurately, that times is something different for those belonging to different cultures. (No wonder, I suppose, that many participants came "late" to the event and we started about 20 minutes "later" than scheduled!) In the course of the discussion it was even proposed that "everyone is right," meaning, I take it, that no right and wrong can be found about anything at all--which I take to imply that this idea, too, is neither right nor wrong. And that is quite difficult to make sense of for me.

Another notion that got aired, quite seriously, is that what counts as bona fide, genuine art is entirely flexible and certainly changes from one era to another. So standards of art would, for some of my colleagues, amount to something very temporary. (Does this invalidate the idea of timelessly worthy works? Or works that are artistically excellent in any period of human history, like the classics?) The only problem with this idea, as some even admitted, is that there would be no way to distinguish genuine art from trash. Ah, but I guess this is philosophically appealing to some, even while in matters of politics diversity is mostly frowned upon. (Many academics love diversity on the surface but when it comes to substantive diversity they disapprove--is liberalism a sound political idea, socialism, capitalism, or affirmative action or the minimum wage law?) Yet if everyone is right, then surely nothing can be politically correct, either.

When I teach undergraduate courses I sometimes imagine what my frosh students must go through as they try to explain to their relatives what is happening in college while visiting home on their Thanksgiving holiday. Of course, teachers don't often wholly convey their own ideas in their class rooms, especially if these ideas can only be fully appreciated by those who have a good sense of the history of a discipline. But students do not encounter their professors only in the classroom and if they come to some of faculty seminars and report back home what they hear there, this could land them in some emotional difficulties. Unless their relatives understand that university education is a kind of smorgasbord where many ideas are explored and none is required to be believed, only mastered.

Yet this idea, what is probably the meaning of a liberal education, is not all that widely understood by parents and relatives who have been away from college and university classrooms for decades. One can only hope that however perplexing the ideas of some professors may be, students have enough confidence in their own minds that they will think things over before they accept the more incredible ones. Yes, there are some serious issues to be explored about time but, yes, time is real--so show up for class when it begins!