Saturday, October 18, 2008

On Being Dismissed

Tibor R. Machan

Those who occupy seats of power, whether intellectual or political, can deal with challengers in a variety of ways. Ignoring them is popular—it saves one the trouble of having to deal with the question of whether one’s favored position is morally justified, well founded, intellectually defensible. Just don’t bother and hope the annoying pests will vanish. Dismissing them as inconsequential is nearly the same ploy but here it is evident that those in power are a bit worried because they want to give the impression that their views while being given some voice do not really matter and aren’t worth investigating. Then there is a more decent approach of actually taking up the challengers’ ideas and arguing against them. But this runs the risk of making those ideas seem worthy of discussion, maybe even palatable.

Over the years that I have championed the fully free society—no exceptions, no compromises within the legal framework of the system—I have experienced all these treatments both personally and as a member of the small group of defenders of classical liberalism or libertarianism. For the first part of the several decades involved most intellectuals at the colleges and universities with which I was connected tended to ridicule my views and those of my fellow travelers. I recall how at my undergraduate institution, where I began to go on record with these ideas (in the student and the local newspaper), I was mostly ridiculed by both classmates and some professors, although there are a few who did show some interest and even respect. Then at the graduate schools I attended the fierceness of the rebuke got more intense even though my skill in defending my ideas also improved, which sometimes showed up in my winning over a few adversaries.

Once I managed to go through all the hoops to obtain my degree and even found decent jobs in my discipline, the situation changed once again—many critics began to use the one-upmanship method, while some actually engaged in proper debate. But I found that most of my adversaries preferred star gazing, paying attention only to prominent advocates at the prestigious institutions. Still, I kept holding up my side of the discussion and got published in decent, sometimes even outstanding, journals and that opened some doors to publish books, get included in various readers on ethics and political philosophy. Because in the meanwhile a few professors at very prominent institutions came out with views somewhat similar to mine, defending libertarianism in their own ways, it became a bit more difficult for detractors to simply ridicule or even dismiss my libertarian ideas.

In the general culture, though—outside the academy—libertarianism made some but not very many inroads. By now the view is pretty well known and at times even treated as a legitimate contending alternative answer to how society ought to be organized. Yet there are quite a few among the big players, folks who contribute to major publications, who deploy the more unsavory methods I mentioned above.

For example, in a recent article for the journal World Affairs, Max Boot, who is the Jeane J. Kirkpatrick Senior Fellow for National Security Studies at the Council of Foreign Relations and a policy adviser to the John McCain presidential campaign, proclaims without seeing any need for argument, that “Aside...from a few extreme libertarians, few conservatives would contend that the kind of limited protections envisioned by Teddy Roosevelt—and ultimately brought into being by his cousin, Franklin—were incompatible with free enterprise or personal liberty.”

So, the New Deal is supposed to be acceptable to other than such extremists as libertarians, argues an advisor to Senator John McCain Those who would challenge this view need not be answered! They don’t even deserve a few points countering their skepticism, their conviction, for instance, that the New Deal gave rise to just the sort of irresponsible statism that the country is paying for right now, with financial meltdowns and the saddling of today’s and tomorrow’s taxpayers with inordinate debts. These so called “ultimate safeguards of the capitalist system,” as Boot calls New Deal policies, were just fine, never mind how they did violence of individual liberty and to political prudence.

Ah, but scoring points with such verbal acrobatics seems to be the way to promote a failed policy of welfare statism. One can only wish that in time the ruse will be fully detected and sounder policies, more in line with the American Founders’ ideas of limited government, reasserted. In the meanwhile libertarians must simply push on, not allow such disrespectful, highhanded treatment to deter them.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Sarkozy Is Wrong

Tibor R. Machan

The French president, with a Hungarian father and born in the mid 1950s, recently made headlines by announcing that "Le laisser-faire, c'est fini." This means that free market capitalism is finished.

What is interesting about Sarkozy having said this is that the term “laisser-faire” refers to how the French king was responded to when he asked French farmers “So what do you want?” He was told: “Leave us alone.” Accordingly, laisser-faire came to refer to a system of economics, also defended by Adam Smith and the classical liberal and libertarian political economy tradition, in which the government plays the sole role the American Founders assigned to it, namely, “to secure [our] rights.” Just as referees do at games, government has the important role of making sure the rules are followed and violators are punished. In the case of a society, including its economic system, the rules are that the rights to private property and freedom of contract are strictly respected and protected.

This idea has never, ever been fully implemented but here and there, especially in America, it has gained some inroad in public affairs. Certain compared to the rest of human history and the rest of the globe, America’s economy has often been relatively free. But as with most democracies which may not ban the input of even undemocratic ideas, the best that has been achieved is a mixed economy, one with socialist, capitalist, fascist, theocratic and even communist features, a fully free market never existed in America.

Still, whenever some upheaval with economic implications does occur in America and other mixed economies, defenders of some variation of the ancient regime of mercantilism—which include champions of all kinds of statist economic systems such as socialism, fascism, etc.—quickly announce what Sarkozy said, namely, that free enterprise is now dead, proven to have failed. In the current financial fiasco this is all too evident. Day after day one can read this bunk, in The New York Times, The New Republic, letters to various magazines and newspapers, you name it.
A regular feature of this glee, exhibited by folks who have never shown the slightest sympathy for free enterprise, is to mention that people in the business world are often complicit in promoting statism. But that’s no news at all, of course. Adam Smith already observed it back in the 18th century. As he warned:

“The proposal of any new law or regulation which comes from [businessmen], ought always to be listened to with great precaution, and ought never to be adopted till after having been long and carefully examined, not only with the most scrupulous, but with the most suspicious attention. It comes from an order of men, whose interest is never exactly the same with that of the public, who have generally an interest to deceive and even to oppress the public, and who accordingly have, upon many occasions, both deceived and oppressed it.” The Wealth of Nations, vol. 1, pt. xi, p.10 (at the conclusion of the chapter) (1776).

The bottom line is that in mixed economies it is somewhat difficult to detect the source of economic problems. The chattering classes—many of whose members would love to rule the world since they tend to believe (following the lead of a certain reading of Plato) that only they are qualified to do so—jump at the chance to blame freedom, including free enterprise, since that is the main obstacle to their being in charge.

My simple plea is, do not fall for this ruse. The current—as all human produce—economic fiasco is the fault of statists who routinely distort the natural ways of an economy. (In this case it had to do with massive amounts of easy money doled out in the name of helping the poor, minorities, and so forth.) As usual, such interference results in disaster.

And those who are responsible have no intention to confessing their guilt in making it happen and one effective way to hide that fact is to point the finger at the innocent party, human liberty.

Monday, October 13, 2008

Whistling in the Dark

Tibor R. Machan

It is hardly ever disputed among honest political economists that most Western countries, including the United States, are welfare states or mixed economies. Unlike, say, a fascist or socialist country, in a relatively free society if a substantial number of voting citizens champion a system that undermines the very liberty that makes it possible to have an influence in how the country is governed, the country is going to reflect this fact in its public policies. Under socialism, which is a planned society--especially when it comes to its economic features--or fascism, which is run by some charismatic leader, opponents tend to be officially silenced. The more the system is socialist, the more such silencing takes place. The same with fascism. Unity is crucial for both of these political organizations and when such unity is believed by the leadership to be threatened, dissent is squelched.

But in countries where political participation is deemed to be a basic right, it isn't customary to silence opponents. At most a kind of compromise is achieved among the various political factions. It is very rare that some given political idea succeeds at dominating public policy. Accordingly, a mixed economy is exactly that, a mixture of various conceptions of how the economic affairs of the country ought to be governed. Some parts of the economy will be substantially, maybe even totally free of government regimentation or regulation. Consider the market wherein pottery is being produced, sold, exported, imported, etc. It isn't subject to much government meddling. Or posters or hats. And this could be the case for many other goods and services, although in an integrated economic system regimenting or regulating one sector of the market will tend to have an impact on the rest. What is pretty much guaranteed, especially where no strict constitutional protection of free trade exists, is that there will be no system-wide socialism or capitalism or fascism in play but, instead, all these and some others will somehow coexists and champions of every one will advance and retreat in their respective influence on the country's economy as a whole.

It is, therefore, a foregone conclusion that those who assert that a mixed economy has become fully socialized or is completely laissez-faire are engaging in hyperbole. When a columnist for The New York Time, the author of some book on public policy, or a letter to the editor writer says that the philosophy of free market capitalism has become the ruling ideology of the country and is responsible for our ills, they cannot be telling the truth and they must know that they aren't since no genuine free market system exists. Furthermore, it is inherent in the mixed economy that it is, well, mixed. Perhaps in one or another era one or another part of the mixture can be more pronounced. And, certainly, one or another part of the mixture of a mixed economy could find more vocal champions supporting it. But unless these champions manage to change the basic law of the land that give legal backing to its mixed character, their position will not dominate.

So when it is asserted that the American economy is based on market fundamentalism--or, indeed, on any other pure idea of economic organization--this cannot be right and is very likely done for a purpose other than to say what is in fact the case. As the English linguistic philosophers J. L. Austin argued, there are goals apart from stating the truth that we pursue when we offer various utterances. In his wonderful little book, How to Do Things With Words? Austin identified, among other such goals, the influencing of people's beliefs and even actions. Thus, for example, there are what he called perlocutionary utterances whereby those making the utterance want to make others do certain things they deem to be important. But they want to achieve this influence in a roundabout fashion, not directly, mostly by pretending something that is false, namely, that the welfare state is a well functioning system of political economy.

I am convinced that when opponents of free market capitalism charge that America has been in the grips of market fundamentalism, they don't mean to say anything that's true. Rather they want to influence others to act in certain ways that such utterances are likely to encourage. They want to belittle free market capitalism by associating it with various disagreeable aspects of the American economy, one that is anything but fully capitalist but rather highly regulated, highly interfered with by the various levels of government.

Please do not fall for this trick. A great deal depends on repelling it, especially when perpetrated by prestigious people and prestigious institutions.