Saturday, November 01, 2008

Selling the Rope...

Tibor R. Machan

Lenin--or was it Marx or Stalin--is said to have observed that "The Capitalists will sell us the rope with which we will hang them." (Attribution is mixed!) What this means is that people who are in business aren’t political philosophers or economist but have an obligation to make their firms prosper. Because of this they tend to overlook certain possibly dire consequences of their professional conduct.

Business isn’t the only profession with this tendency. Doctors don't look into the backgrounds of their patients, nor do teachers of their students. Indeed, most professionals offer their services without looking into the motivation of those with whom they are trading. And nearly all of us do this when we trade--we go to the mall and purchase stuff from people and companies we barely know. Who knows what is the politics of one’s barber, butcher or baker? Very few of us. And at times this can be a serious oversight. We could be supporting terrorists or criminals!

On the other hand, taking great care about the beliefs of those with whom we do business can also amount to a mistake. Suppose you are Jewish and after the fall of the Third Reich you decided never to purchase a German made automobile, figuring that many who would profit from the deal were complicit in the Holocaust. Well, but many were not, as well.

The market place is just that, a place where deals are made and very little else occurs except accidentally or unintentionally. Every deal benefits both sides, or so each side believes, and that’s all that is promised, no more. Because of that, no one can complain unless something really big is at stake that lies hidden behind the deal.

In a small measure it is possible to witness this all around us. Television and movie production firms bank roll projects that present business executives as shysters. Just think of Wall Street or Erin Brockovich. Think of Michael Moore's ventures. A very ironic instance of this is the many volumes published by book companies supporting the idea of corporate social responsibility or stakeholder theory or corporate management, an idea that actually undermines capitalism.

The managers of these companies, you see, have the obligation to work for their owners, investors, shareholders, and so forth. This does not preclude some pro bono work or being considerate of the needs and wants of employees or even various organizations seeking support within their communities. But their duty is, first and foremost, to enhance the economic welfare of their owners by means of the tasks they set out to perform, publishing books.

Nonetheless, many publishers put out books that advocate just the opposite. Instead of serving shareholders, the authors and contributors of these books want companies to serve stakeholders or society. Not just as part of some limited pro bono work but full time.

For instance, Ashgate is a company in England, with outreach worldwide, that recently put out a corporate social responsibility series, edited by one David Crowther of De Montfort University in the UK. Each of the ten volumes is filled with essays that defend or analyze the idea that corporate commerce must be in the service of society, first and foremost. The company seems to be totally oblivious to the fact that its own management may be complicit in violating the very principles advocate in this proudly published series of books.

The reason is, of course, that the managers of the firm are looking at one thing primarily, namely, what kind of publishing will garner the best profits. If it turns out that the type of publishing that does this amounts to bringing out books that actually attack, consider it immoral for, companies serving their owners and investors first and foremost, that’s not their concern, not ordinarily.

Not that it should never be. Once the managers can see that publishing these kinds of books undermines the very principles in line with which they carry on their business, they would be remiss continuing their program, at least without also putting out works that are critical of the Corporate Social Responsibility doctrine.

The division of labor is a good thing, economically, but when it comes to the broader area of political economy, one must become a conscientious citizen, not simply a skilled profit seeker. Perhaps those rope-makers and rope-sellers needed to know this before they went into business with Stalin and Co.
Maybe Herbert’s Projecting

Tibor R. Machan

Bob Herbert, The New York Times' columnist who is obsessed with the topic, claims that Tuesday’s election will be about how much voters are concerned about Senator Obama’s race. Well, I certainly have no concern about the senator’s race and Herbert’s thinking that many voters do suggests this kind of faulty judgment on his, not on their, part.

I bet that what voters have far more concerns about is Senator Obama’s economic philosophy, just as they probably have concerns about McCain's inept running mate and his apparent refusal to plan to scale down and stop that disastrous war in Iraq!

Actually, race is nothing--might as well be concerned with Obama's height or McCain's lack of it or thinning hair. Bob Herbert appears to be projecting instead of reading the electorate correctly. Yes, there will be those who are thinking about the Illinois senator’s race, whatever that actually is (for that itself is quite ambiguous, not to mention irrelevant). But I would bet that many voters reading Bob Herbert’s ridiculous column are more concerned about the kind of race-baiting he is engaging in than about anyone’s race. What, after all, could race have to do with one’s capacity to perform the job in office he or she seeks?

Even if some voters will vote for the senator just because he is “black,” that is itself may not be so much because they are racists but because they believe that by voting for a black candidate, they are taking a stand against the remaining racists across the country. This is too bad but it is not being a racist to do so. It is more like a reaction to many years of racism people have seen against blacks. One might best construe this as a type of defensiveness.

After all, what are those to do who have been witnessing and decrying racism against blacks throughout their lives when finally a black person does run for office? Most do not know whether Senator Obama has the makings of a good president or whether perhaps it is Senator McCain who does. In our time it seems to be the consensus on strategy that no one lays out his or her basic political philosophy so that voters can make a general assessment of the individual's qualifications. Instead candidates provide lists of promises they propose to fulfill at other people’s expense. Which makes them pretty much indistinguishable. So then given the history with racism in the country, it is not all that surprising that race will be, for some, a kind of last resort factor, especially on the part of blacks who have been targeted with racism far more than whites have been.

What actually is really wrong with racism? It is to judge another individual based on something over which he or she has absolutely no say. As Martin Luther King observed in that famous sentence of his, what matters about someone is the content of his or her character, not the color of his or her skin or, indeed, where he was born, whether man or woman, etc. All these factors about people are beyond their capacity to have any control over. They cannot demonstrate someone’s decency, wisdom, skill or the like.

Racism is an insidious lumping together of people based on having in common something utterly irrelevant, who could differ from one another in matters of substance. Which is why racism is prejudice--pre-judgment. It amounts to judging someone prior to knowing the person’s important attributes, based on ones that matter not even a bit. Such collectivist assessment of others goes hand in hand with prejudices based on ethnic membership, gender, or original nationality, factors over which one has no say, once again.

In contrast, judging someone by his or her political affiliation, even religion, is quite different, or at least can be. These are matters people can certainly choose once they have reached maturity. And some such choices could well be objectionable. Not that some of the assessments based on religion or politics cannot be irrational, when done thoughtlessly, but they need not be. What a person believes is something open to evaluation by others because it matters in how one lives, which can be ranked as good or bad or something in between. All this is very different from judging human beings based on their race.

Sure, there are racists voting in America but I bet that most people worry less than Bob Herbert does about a candidates’ race and more about what’s on their minds and what they might do in office.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

What about Wealth Redistribution?

Tibor R. Machan

Ever since Senator Obama’s brief exchange with “Joe the Plumber,” there has been plenty of mention of wealth redistribution in the major media. Then came the recovery of a 2001 interview in which the Senator faulted the framers of the U. S Constitution, and the Founders who authored the Declaration of Independence, for not including a right of everyone to be helped with redistributed wealth. As some have noted, this was all discussed in connection with the Civil Rights legislation which Senator Obama also faulted for its lack of attention to wealth redistribution--maybe reparation, as some have interpreted him. But the central point was more general, clearly.

It is useful, then, to consider just what wealth redistribution is all about. But to do that, we need to consider briefly what wealth is and what amounts to its initial distribution such that some favor its being redistributed.

Wealth is whatever someone owns that he or she and others consider valuable, useful to themselves or others. The ownership, in turn, can arise from working on what is given in nature or by way of earnings from marketable labor, or from gifts and inheritance from those who had earnings in the first place, or from good fortune (as when one wins the lottery or unexpectedly finds oil beneath his land), etc.

There is an ancient dispute about whether such ownership is best regarded as private or as public. At first the dispute was carried on in terms of what type of ownership, private or public, would be most useful or productive. Aristotle gave his defense of private property as follows: “For 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)

The historian Thucydides made a similar point when he spoke about owners of public property. He wrote that “[T]hey devote a very small fraction of the time to the consideration of any public object, most of it to the prosecution of their own objects. Meanwhile, each fancies that no harm will come to his neglect, that it is the business of somebody else to look after this or that for him; and so, by the same notion being entertained by all separately, the common cause imperceptibly decays. (Thucydides, The History of the Peloponnesian War, bk. I, sec. 141).

It was, however, not until the English philosopher John Locke laid out his theory of natural rights that more than a utilitarian case was produced in favor the right to private property. For Locke once someone mixes his or her labor with something in the wilds, that thing stops being public--or God’s--and becomes, as a matter of morality, his or her private property. This is because the work invested is properly rewarded with ownership. Thereafter the owner has the right to hold on to the property, exchange it from something else with willing others, give it as a gift to someone, bequeath it to his or her offspring, and so forth. (As to wealth come by via luck, no one is justified to take it from those who are lucky, it can be inferred, otherwise people themselves could be enslaved with impunity.)

A very important feature of Locke’s idea, however, was that property doesn’t belong to the king, state, or government but to private individuals. It is they who work on elements of the natural world, of what is not owned by anyone else, so they are free to obtain it, hold it, trade it, etc. For others to stop them is wrong, a violation of natural rights.

Many have criticized all these ideas, especially people who hold that everything belongs to everyone together and so wealth may not be freely used and distributed by individuals, only by "the community." But, as Aristotle and Thucydides and many others since them have made clear, this idea is seriously flawed and entirely impractical. It leads to the tragedy of the commons, of people all grabbing what they want from the common wealth and failing to use it productively.

Both for moral reasons--the “first come, first gain” principle--and for practical ones--community ownership leads to wastefulness--the principle of private property rights gained influence in Western societies, in their legal and economic systems. This is one main reason that when Senator Obama suggested that what this country needs is systematic wealth redistribution--routinely taking from private owners their wealth and having governments distribute it to non-owners--many folks took umbrage. This is quite an un-American, anti-free market capitalist idea and sounds more like what is preached by socialists and communalists (even communists).

Of course wealth redistribution is a big part of existing American society but it is usually defended for special reasons, not as a general policy. Senator Obama elevated what seemed to most to be an exception in this country to a central feature of the society. And his opponent, of course, couldn’t effectively criticize him because Republicans have been just as willing to redistribute wealth as Democrats, albeit not advocate it as a systematic feature of the legal system as Senator Obama did.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Adoration of Government Regulation

Tibor R. Machan

On a recent Monday I went to hear a talk by Professor James K. Galbraith, author of the free market basing book, Predator State: How Conservatives Abandoned the Free Market and Why Liberals Should Too. The talk repeated what so many modern liberals have been saying about the current financial fiasco, namely, that it’s all due to the free market, to the late Milton Friedman’s influence, and that deregulation is mostly to blame.

This is not especially novel, given that nearly everything wrong with America is blamed by such modern liberals on, well, the absence of sufficient modern liberalism in the country’s governance. Why not? Champions of the free market make similar claims when trouble arises—modern liberalism is to blame. And I am often among the latter group. I admit—I am much more favorably disposed toward the principles of a fully free society than toward those of a mixed economy (or even fiercer government involvement in the economy).

Let me spend a line or two explaining why I find the hosannas sung to government regulation by the likes of Professor Galbraith so bizarre. First, government regulators are people, no different from those whom they set out to regulate. Second, governments make use of physical force or its threat in order to achieve their goals, while the free market relies on voluntary interaction by market agents. Third, government regulators lack the restraints that market agents face when they carry out their plans in the market place—namely, the need to earn their resources from willing lenders or buyers. Governments can raise their resources through taxation which is collected whether those paying it chose to pay or not. Fourth, government regulators tend to be far removed from the firms and people they regulate, relying on vague, general information instead of local knowledge that market agents use as they make their decisions.

Other differences exists that, in my view, clearly favor market processes as against government regulation—public choice theory (for which Professor James Buchanan received the Nobel Prize and which was left totally out of consideration by Professor Galbraith in his talk), explains them very well. But let me focus on one particular point made by Professor Galbraith in his support of extensive government regulation. He noted that people in the People’s Republic of China prefer buying goods from America because American goods are produced with the benefit of government regulation. So they can be trusted, while those in regions around the globe that lack government regulation are untrustworthy.

This is what is called in logic a non-sequitor because the conclusion does not follow from the premises. Chinese may buy American goods but that could be for innumerable reasons other than that the production processes are regulated by government. Generally American production has a very favorable reputation around the globe. Yes, American goods tend to cost more but that’s because American labor and management is more expensive than labor and management elsewhere. However, one tends to get what one pays for, namely, pretty good products.

American technology is far more advanced than technology elsewhere, which also contributes to the higher quality of American goods. Science and technology in America is top of the line—just count the number of American scientists who have won the Nobel Prize and consider how many foreigners come to study at American technical universities such as MIT and Cal Tech.

Furthermore, even if some of the confidence in American products stems from the fact that there is government regulation in America, it doesn’t follow that government regulation is indispensable. There are plenty of scholars who have found serious flaws in the regulatory process, such as the slowing down of drugs coming on the market because of irrational rules imposed by the Food and Drug Administration, the capture of regulator agencies by the very firms they are supposed to regulate impartially, etc.

In addition, and very importantly, Professor J. C. Smith’s “The Processes of Adjudication and Regulation, A Comparison,” published in a book I helped edit, Rights and Regulation, Ethical, Political, and Economic Issues (Pacific Institute for Public Policy Research, 1983) lays out the case in favor of changing from government regulation to legal adjudication where now the former is deemed to be necessary.

Finally, there is a fundamental injustice involved in most government regulation. This is prior restraint. Burdens are imposed on citizens who are being subjected to government regulation without it having been demonstrated in court that these burdens are deserved. This amounts to treating citizens as if they had been convicted of a crime whereas, in fact, all that can be held against them is that they might possibly do something wrong, injurious, harmful to someone.

The adoration of government regulation is misplaced and belongs with the ancient practice of deference to the monarch who was deemed to be superior in wisdom and virtue to ordinary “subjects.” This paradigm should be tossed. Free men and women deserve better.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

M.A.S.H. and Lessons in “Liberalism”

Tibor R. Machan

Many moons ago, when I would now and then check out the very popular TV comedy show M.A.S.H., I noticed that whenever their rightwing villain Frank Burns (played by the late Larry Linville) acted badly, the good guys, lead by Alan Alda’s character, Hawkeye, had no compunction about physically assaulting him. They set traps that would clearly injure him. It was not enough to ridicule him, show up his views as asinine, no. The writers, directors and actors had no problem at all with hurting him.

A few days ago I decided to check out a new legal drama, “Raising the Bar,” and lo and behold the second show featured one of the extremely politically correct guys--you know, the one with the long hair and oozing with sentiment for the little guy, never mind what made him little or how guilty he or she is--punch out one of the politically incorrect ones--you know, the guy who comments on women’s physical attributes and makes nearly racist or ethnic jokes. Evidently, here too, it mattered none that the offense was confined to words. These words deserved to be punished and punished not with equally painful words but with out and out physical assault.

Interestingly both of these shows appear to be emblematic of the political ideology of contemporary liberalism. If something is objectionable, it deserves to be punished good and hard, never mind that no one was actually made to physically suffer, no one’s rights were violated, nada. In the 1980s there was a wing of feminism that made this feature of modern liberalism quite explicit. The University of Michigan law professor, Catharine A. MacKinnon, wrote a book laying out the position. It was titled Only Words and published by Harvard University Press. The thesis put forth was that pornography and other insults toward women need to be banned or punished, if need be by prison sentences. Never mind that the offense consisted only of words. It needed to be dealt with harshly, with physical force.

I mention this because it is often claimed that the Left in America would never go so far as, say, Hugo Chavez of Venezuela, in dealing with opponents to its ideas and policies. But there is reason to think that the American Left can easily degenerate into using physical force when it encounters opponents. M.A.S.H. indicated as much, as did this episode of Raising the Bar and, of course, Professor MacKinnon’s book.

But, you might say, no one in government, however Left leaning it might be, would ever resort to silencing the opposition, not in America. Well, think again.

A little while ago, when the hysteria about global warming was at its highest pitch, when Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth made the rounds and garnered its Oscar, some “liberal” members Congress--and I have to put quotes around liberal since it so perverts the meaning of that term--tried to institute certain measures against people in business who would make contributions to think tanks and researchers who were skeptical about global warming. Several such organizations were actually named, including the Competitive Enterprise Institute in Washington, D.C., which had received, I believe, some little support from certain corporations. Whatever governmental favors these corporations received--and, mind you, I think no corporation should receive any such favors--were to be withheld from them if they continued their support of global warming skepticism.

This is worth observing when it is widely believed that only those on the “extreme Right” would use coercive force or its threat against their adversaries. Such policies are usually associated with extreme right wingers or fascists, not with extreme Left-wingers or socialists. But this is entirely mistaken.

In fact, both of these wings, Left and Right, believe in using coercive force to try to have others follow their ways. What else does redistribution of wealth or faith based government funded support amount to than the use or threat of extreme physical force (jail, prison, major fines, etc.) against the non-compliant? And if such non-compliance were to be effectively advocated--say by those who support tax dodging or other means of withholding their support of various public policies the government carries out, be it run by the Left or the Right--certainly the attitude exhibited in M.A.S.H., Raising the Bar, and Only Words could triumph right here in our supposedly free society.

When the libertarian considers both the Left and the Right dangerous and immoral, it is for these reasons, among many others. Right and Left do not want to leave it to free men and women whether their ideas of community life will be adopted. No, both Right and Left want to make sure their ideas will triumph, even if its takes depriving people of their basic right to live as they choose so long as they let others do the same.
Why McCain Cannot Attack Obama

Tibor R. Machan

In The Washington Times Wesley Pruden urges Senator McCain to take the bull by the horn and attack Senator Obama on the basis of the latter’s nearly full blown endorsement of the socialist idea of wealth redistribution. This is indeed a position articulated by Senator Obama in a radio interview he gave back in 2001 and, yes, it does mark him as at least a democratic socialist. (There are, Virginia, different types of socialism, even one called “market socialism.”)

Trouble is John McCain has no credibility, as a loyal Republican, to attack Senator Obama along these lines. Republicans and Democrats both sign up for various measures that could count as socialist. Has John McCain renounced the progressive tax? Has he attacked the idea of taxation as a form of wealth confiscation, arguing that it should be given up in a free society in favor of some kind of voluntary system by which to fund the government? Have Republicans abandoned their support for the heavy hand of government in the economy as exemplified by their age old practice of protectionism and handing subsidies to farms and other businesses? are they against government licensing of various professions? are they against government ("public") educational institutions? (All these are defensible mainly from the premises of a version of socialism.)

Of course not. Nearly all governments, other than the type envisioned by libertarians, happily embrace socialist measures. Indeed, the old system of mercantilism that many conservatives look back to with nostalgia is but a different type of socialism, absent its Marxist trappings. Mercantilists champion the heavy hand of government in the economy and everything else, guided by the monarch--and his minions--or some other revered head of state.

Adam Smith himself wasn’t quite the full blown free market advocate some people imagine him to have been. And his defense of the limited free market was based not on individual rights, as would be a defense based on the ideas and ideals of the American Founders, but on the utilitarian notion that with more freedom, the government will be wealthier than with less--this is the point of the title of his famous The Wealth of Nations. It was not that individuals have the right to accumulate wealth as much as they choose and can, provided they do not violate anyone’s rights. This latter is the defense offered of the capitalist, free market system in the spirit of John Locke, not Adam Smith.

In fact, most economists are not pure free market champions since they tend to think that there are market failures which need to be remedied with government intervention. The most prominent such economist was, of course, John Maynard Keynes. In America it was John Kenneth Galbraith, nearly a full blown socialist who worked hard to remake the Democratic party into a socialist one (as his son, James K. Galbraith, is doing now). (Interestingly, there is a parallel in the philosophical relationship between the late Milton Friedman and his son, David Friedman. The former was a committed limited government capitalist while the latter is a committed anarcho-capitalist, someone who denies any justification and need for government!)

In the heat of a campaign, of course, much is said that is only partly meant. Senator Obama is no full blown socialist even though his sympathies lie with an economic system in which wealth is systematically redistributed so as to provide for those who themselves have or make no wealth, never mind why! Senator McCain is certainly no defender of the fully free, capitalist society (as would be the likes of Milton Freidman, Ayn Rand, or Ludwig von Mises). If Senator McCain were to lay into Senator Obama with charges of the latter’s socialism, it would be simple to reply that Senator McCain is nearly as much of a socialist as he is.

So why not stop this name calling and get to the substance, which is whether a free economy is better, in the main, than one that is planned by politicians and bureaucrats. Perhaps this could amount to a topic in the final days of the campaign season that would tell the voters what exactly divides these two candidates.
All This Utter Distortion

Tibor R. Machan

The following letter appeared in my local paper:

"GREENSPAN’S GOOFS It’s nice to see that former Fed chief Alan Greenspan is finally taking the blame for starting the worldwide economic collapse [‘Greenspan,’ Marketplace, Oct. 24]. Former President Ronald Reagan shares in that blame since it was their combined plan to deregulate everything and let the free market ‘take care of itself.’ This has proved that the ‘free market’ without regulations is anarchy."

First, look at the dishonesty: Greenspan did not take blame "for starting the world wide economic collapse." Why should he? He took blame for mistakenly assuming that the self-interest of those running financial institutions would fully coincide with the clients of those institutions and for some of the results of making this assumption. As to Ronald Reagan, he barely managed to deregulate anything at all. His rhetoric was for more individual initiative in the economy and less government involvement but Congress would not budge so nothing much happened.

Then there is the nonsense about the supposedly unregulated free market during the Greenspan and Reagan eras. Government regulation, especially of the financial portions of the American economy, has been in place since the early 1900s. (The very existence of a Federal Reserve [or central] Bank is a regulatory measure that would not be part of a genuine free market!) Regulations were increased enormously during FDR’s ill conceived and ultimately ineffectual New Deal. (The economy recovered because of World War II’s war-time government spending and labor furor.)

Nearly every profession in America, other than the press and the ministry, is highly regulated. Occasionally there is some experimentation with bits and pieces of deregulation but no one escapes all government regulations by the various federal, state, county and municipal bureaucrats who fill government offices throughout the land. The percentage of the wealth in America that has been spent by all these governments has been steadily growing and has never, never substantially subsided.

The other evening I went to hear a fervent champion of government regulations and critics of the free market, Professor James Galbraith, (author of the bizarrely titled book, Predator State: How Conservatives Abandoned the Free Market and Why Liberals Should Too), and in his talk he also kept saying that the free market has failed even while he admitted that there has been no free market in place ever, despite some of the rhetoric supporting such a system. He went after the late Professor Milton Friedman for advocating greater economic freedom but then said that Friedman’s views failed to have a serious impact. And he implicitly admitted that he and his fellow champions of government meddling in the country’s economic affairs have been triumphant beyond expectations both in America and elsewhere (e.g., in China where he has been a consultant to that country’s utterly despicable tyrannical government).

This oft-repeated mantra about how the free market must have been responsible for the current economic fiasco is a colossal distortion probably meant to confused instead of inform. That’s because America has been a mixed economy throughout its existence, with periods of greater dosages of capitalism and greater dosages socialism but always a mixture of the two. When such a system experiences maladies, it is understandable that supporters of one part of the mixture will jump at the chance to blame the other part for the mess. But it would be reassuring if there were just a bit of honesty in the debate.

For example, I have been arguing that the various government interventions in the mortgage industry--Fanny Mae and Freddy Mack were both created and given orders by the federal government to ease the terms of loans for millions of home buyers--have fueled the current mess but I have never argued that Wall Street hasn’t been complicit or that America has had a socialist system which is to be blamed.

Why can’t those championing more government planning and regulation admit that there hasn’t been any free market in place in America for over a century? It is no easy task to assess the soundness of economic theories. There are no controlled experiments that can be conducted, no laboratory tests, only the very messy history that needs to be studied and untangled to learn the needed lessons to avoid similar messes in the future. But only if the students of history will be honest, will not taint the evidence with their wishful thinking, will it be possible to learn from their work.

Monday, October 27, 2008

How Socialist Must One be to be A Socialist?

Tibor R. Machan

In recent days the issue of Senator Obama's alleged socialist leanings has become the focus of considerable attention in the mainstream media. This was provoked by the Senator's rather explicit support of wealth redistribution--which is to say, the policy of politicians and bureaucrats taxing substantial portions of the resources of individuals and deciding to hand it around according to some formula of equality. This is indeed associated with the political economy of socialism and has been used to guide various socialist economies throughout human history, although there have always been widely different degrees of socialism in different human communities, from kibbutzes, communes, nationalist socialist and international socialist systems to small communitarian arrangements.

Full blown socialism amounts to the view that all of humanity is of one piece, one organism. Karl Marx proposed that this organism develops from infancy to full maturity, communism, over human history. Individuals in this conception of socialism are but cells in the organism. There is no private property because there are no private individualism. The wealth is spread just as food is spread throughout the human organism, normally without favor to any part of it.

But no all socialists are full blown, nor view the system along these developmental lines. Some socialists stress that the unity among people is something they must bring about, as a matter of their ethical obligations. And as such the socialism involved can be more or less robust, depending on how diligently the population works to establish socialist institutions and policies.

Now, arguing that Barak Obama is no socialist because there were many features of American society that are already socialist--the progressive income tax, for example, the expansive eminent domain policy recently affirmed by the U. S. Supreme Court, and several other measures recently instituted to bail out banks and other financial companies--is disingenuous. The questions no one raises to him--none of the interviews and debates I am away of indicate this--is how extensively would Senator Obama get the government involved in the American economy, how he views the institution of private property, who does he believe owns the wealth of the country. From his words over the years it seems that he would favor a far more socialist society than American is now, although it is true enough that America (as many other welfare states) is quite socialist already. That is why political economists have been calling it a mixed economy.

The most important issue is whether under Senator Obama's political leadership the country would be directed to be more or less socialist, more or less opposed to individualism, individual rights, private property, and so forth. And the next issue is whether where Senator Obama wants to take the country would be something proper, desirable, just.

The objections people have to socialism are based, after all, on the fact that the system views human beings as part of a collective, of an involuntary team or community, rather than as individuals with independent choices and the right to decided whether they will join some community. As Senator Obama appears to view things, a society is an integrated organism wherein individuals have no rights, no independent choices, certainly not about their productive efforts and the results of these, namely, their resources or wealth. He seems to believe that it is the government--the head of the collective--that ought to be in charge of what the rest of the people ought to do with their lives. Maybe he would accept some input, via a limited democratic approach, from the "cells of the body." But the decision would be made at the top, by the political leaders.

Even though some of America's laws and public policies are somewhat--in certain cases considerably--socialist, the country is still quite far from the total wealth-redistribution idea that socialism endorses. Arguably Senator Obama, just as Senator Hillary Clinton, consider this a liability and want to remedy matters. (Senator Obama explicitly faulted the American Framers back in 2001 for failing to include wealth redistribution as a feature of the U. S. Constitution.)

This is what the current talk about Senator Obama's socialism should be about, not about whether he is a pure, Marxist socialist.