Saturday, November 08, 2008

Democracy, When It Suits Me

Tibor R. Machan

Back in the 1970s I think it was, California had one of those referenda on whether to slap huge taxes on oil companies and the thing lost. The person who was an avid supporter—maybe even the main organizer—of the effort, Bill Press, was very unhappy with the result. If I recall correctly, he alleged that the election was rigged, that Big Oil bought off the voters, etc., etc. Press didn't simply accept that his side lost.

Democracy has this about it: most people don't much like being subjected to a vote when it comes to their basic beliefs and conduct. If Big Oil really owes huge bucks to the rest of us, it shouldn't be a matter of a vote whether it will pay up. Indeed, a great many matters on which people get to vote should not be subject to a vote at all. A system of limited government means, among other things, that government doesn't get to intervene with our lives, even when a majority of the voters would prefer that it did. Notice, for example, that no referenda are acceptable about whether Catholics, Methodists, Jews, Moonies and other faithful are free to practice their faith. The First Amendment to the U. S. Constitution, combined with the doctrine of incorporation that applies the amendments to the whole country, rules out voting on people's religious practices. Or what they may publish in their newspapers.

Sadly, however, democracy today is taken to apply to nearly everything else. Voting on whether one may elect to die with the aid of a willing assistant? It is no one's business but the parties who are directly involved and thus voting on the issue is in essence like voting on whether some of us should be enslaved!

This is how it is with California's recent vote on whether gay marriages should be banned. It is no one's business apart from the couple's whether they should get married. Sure, tradition promotes only heterosexual marriages but tradition is no guide since it is all over the place, proposing this here and that there. So long as gays marrying each other forces no one to do anything—and, yes, there are problems with that since once married, the government requires others to treat the couple in certain ways no one should be forced to treat them—it is no one's proper authority to prohibit it.

Because with marriage come various legal privileges that others must provide, the matter isn't all that simple. We aren't just talking about the freedom of gays to marry, to do what they choose to do without compelling others to do anything. Married couples have mandated privileges at work, in renting their homes or apartments, and so on.

So when it comes to the right of gays to marry it turns out that is not all that's involved. That right would appear, at first sight, to simply establish a freedom from interference but, in fact, it also establishes entitlements. People who believe that gays are breaking God's law, for example, will have to fork out support for gay married couples unless there is a ban of the kind that passed in California. Yet, of course, the mandated support for gays is matched by mandated support for heterosexuals. Bottom line: both gays and bigots have rights, including the right of disassociation!

Yet, that should be dealt with apart from the marriage issue. Should people receive legally mandated benefits from being married? No. Anyone has the right to marry and that's it. Others may not be imposed upon by this and one reason there may be resistance to gay marriage is that it requires those who object to it to provide it with certain kinds of support, not simply to tolerate it.

More generally, though, people have all kinds of rights to act one or another way and no one ought to have the legal authority to interfere. To make it possible to vote on such issues—like whether one must take sensitivity classes at a university (another California law)—is already to pervert democracy, which must be limited to issues that do not involve rights violations (like who will be the president or the local sheriff).

The illiberal kind of democracy now running amok everywhere is likely to destroy democracy where it is quite justified. After all, unlimited democracy can be used against itself and has been in many instances that even saw dictators come to power "democratically." In the California case gays should have no obstacles placed before them when they want to marry but should also not demand that their critics be required to support them.

Friday, November 07, 2008

American Commissars

Tibor R. Machan

Back in 1859 Abraham Lincoln noted that “All this [the economic success of America] is not the result of accident. It has a philosophical cause. Without the Constitution and the Union, we could not have attained the result; but even these are not the primary cause of our great prosperity. There is something back of these, entwining itself more closely about the human heart. That something, is the principle of ‘Liberty to all’—the principle that clears the path to all—gives hope to all—and, by consequence, enterprise, and industry to all.” In a related vein, Lincoln also said that “No man is good enough to govern another man, without that other’s consent.”

However much actual public policy may have departed from these strong moral convictions, it was at least acceptable back then to openly declare them.

In contrast, what many very prominent public thinkers proclaim these days has a rather different ring to it. At a recent presentation of his ideas, the political economist James K. Galbraith made no secret of his enthusiasm for the state’s regulation of American citizens. He spoke with open nostalgia about the times when he was in Washington making rules for people to follow. (And I am convinced he is looking forward to be asked by the next US president to return to his favorite job as an economic regulator.)

Another famous American public thinker, a Nobel Laureate no less, MIT’s Professor Robert Solow, pontificated along similar lines in a recent review he penned, in The New York Review of Books, of Peter Gosselin’s book, High Wire: The Precarious Financial Lives of American Families (Basic Books, 2008). The review essay abounds in paragraph after paragraph of elitist proclamations about how government ought to regulate people’s lives because that is the best way for them to be insured against various disasters. No need to go into the details here—the theme is a very familiar one, especially in the pages of TNYRB. The following passage should, however, give one a very clear flavor of the thinking behind these elitist notions:

“The standard argument for leaving all the responsibilities and decisions to the individual in the free market is that, in appropriate circumstances, that is the route, and maybe the only practical route, to economic ‘efficiency’.”

There is more but that is no relevant here. My reason for focusing on these ideas is not so much to dispute them from the viewpoint of sound political economy but to examine them as instances of rank and immoral political elitism. Galbraith, Solow, et al., are the kind of people who take it as unquestioningly given that they are entitled to regiment the society in line with their superior vision. Never mind the consent of the governed, never mind “liberty to all.” Such notions appear to strike these people as primitive and no account needs to be taken of those who might protest being nudged about, regulated, regimented by these high minded intellects, the government’s eager chevaliers.

When at a recent presentation of his views I challenged Professor Galbraith to address the argument of public choice theorists—that school of economists who contend that government regulators are entirely unsuited to be entrusted with regulating us, with exercising the power of government so as to set things right in society—he simply ignored the question. It was evidently beneath him to pay heed to those who express skepticism about the suitability of the likes of Solow and Galbraith as paternalistic regulators who use the vague notion of the public interest as their excuse to govern other people.

I don’t know about you, dear reader, but I am baffled why there are such people, especially in America, how they manage to convince themselves that they may govern others without those others’ consent. I remember similar but rougher versions of these people, back in communist Hungary, the commissars who unhesitatingly ordered us about, knowing full well that their authority arose from sheer power, period. Sadly, the likes of Solow and Galbraith probably imagine themselves more sophisticated than those commissars. But, of course, they are every bit the same.
Obama, Franken & Socialism

Tibor R. Machan

The race in Minnesota was still too close to call on Friday, November 7th but the fact that Senator Obama, who had by than become president elect of the United States, made a strong plea for electing Mr. Franken is a significant and distressing clue to what we are in for over the next several years. Senator Obama sent this message to Minnesota voters:
“I will say that your candidate in Minnesota, Al Franken, is going to be an important part of a coalition that brings about change. He’s really, I think, in this to fight for working families. I’m looking forward to seeing him serve in the Senate.
“And if people are looking for fundamental change over the next eight years, then I think an Obama-Biden ticket, Al Franken in the Senate, is going to be the best answer for working families all across the state.”
Al Franken would indeed strive for fundamental change in America’s system of political economy. “Fundamental” means that the change would amount to completely, basically altering America’s political system. This is also what was suggested in the interview that came to light late in the presidential campaign, one given by Senator Obama in 2001, where he complained about the Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights because these did not include a basic right to have the wealth redistributed throughout the country. He also expressed dismay with the legal reforms brought about by the Civil Rights legislation of the 1960s, lamenting the fact that the rights enacted as laws of the land did not include the fundamental human right to be provided with economic support.
After Senator Obama had his brief exchange with “Joe the Plumber,” a debate ensued about just how fundamental a change his doctrine of wealth redistribution would amount to. It was noted by some commentators that holding this doctrine does not make one a socialist. And that is strictly speaking right--advocates of the welfare state, Europe’s Third Way, the mixed economy, and similar hybrid systems of political economy aren’t full blown supporters of socialist systems akin to those in Cuba, North Korea or the former Soviet Union. To become such a full blown socialist, one would have to embrace the idea of the public ownership of the major means of production and of the view of human beings as cells in the larger, more important organism of society or humanity.

But one can come pretty close to this kind of a socialist by wanting to bring about fundamental change in America’s partial capitalist system, one that embraces, at least rhetorically, the basic right of everyone to private property, to freedom of contract, freedom of association, etc. Wanting to change from this kind of system to one that promotes wealth redistribution as a basic feature of society does come very close to embracing the basic tenets of socialism. The idea that it’s the public that owns the country’s wealth, and that government has the role of allocating this wealth among us, may not be soviet socialism but it is very likely a so called democratic version of that system. The difference is that under soviet socialism the strong central government runs the economy according to a blueprint whereas under democratic socialism the government runs the economy in line with what the majority of the voters decide.

In practice, however, the difference is not great. The democratic process isn’t equipped to provide detailed guidelines for managing the economy. At most it can send presumably skilled representatives who will take up that task but then they will carry on pretty much as would the planners in the soviet system.

I remember when Mr. Franken was doing some of his comedy routines for Saturday Night Live and recall how I could detect a very strong tendency toward egalitarian, socialist, and even communist principles. No one made much of it then, given his role as a comic. But anyone who is aware of alternative systems of political economy could tell well enough which way Mr. Franken was politically inclined.

America is, of course, a mixed economy but it does appear that with the leadership of Barack Obama and the help of the likes of Al Franken it will be guided away from virtually all of its capitalist features and head decisively toward socialism.

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

How Big a Change?

Tibor R. Machan

Supporters of Barack Obama regard his election as promising significant change. If what they mean is that America has elected someone resident who is widely taken to be black or African American, the change is culturally significant, yes. But is it politically?

Senator Obama does appear to openly champion certain ideas that few others on the national scene have in American political history. Yes, there have been some who have promoted wealth redistribution, and one or two has actually run for president, none has come even close to winning such high office.

Senator Obama’s wealth distribution ideas are important because they challenge a basic tenet of America’s founding documents, both philosophical and legal. In the Declaration of Independence everyone is said to have an unalienable right to his or her life and liberty, as well as to pursuing his or her own happiness. Of course, never has American political reality fully implemented this idea but lip service has been paid to it all along. No major candidate has explicitly challenged the Declaration’s ideas, especially the one about one’s right to liberty. When one advocates wealth redistribution by the federal government, one is challenging the idea that a person has a right to liberty—the liberty to obtain and use wealth as one sees proper is contradicted by it. Put generally, in line with the philosophy of the Founders it is individual citizens who get to distribute their wealth as they want to. Senator Obama, in contrast, openly advocates that government be the wealth distributor in society, not individual citizens and groups of them (in their various interactions).
But the Senator may bring one change that Americans ought to welcome a great deal, namely, put an end to America’s foreign military adventurism. However, wealth redistribution by government is no great novelty since the practice has been going on in American forever. Indeed, America has been, like so many other countries in the so called free world, a mixed system, combining elements of several theories of political economy, socialist, fascist, capitalist, etc.

Contrary to what some prominent but sadly untrustworthy historians of the American economy claim, America has never had a capitalist economy. So Barack Obama’s views are not at all far off the beaten path. His view is the more direct and unabashed articulation of the theory that the government exists in part to take wealth from some people even though they came by it honestly, and transfer it, with or without their consent, to others whom officials in the government decide should have it. That idea has thus far been anathema to America’s official economic philosophy—the exceptions had been just that, exceptions. Now it has ascended to a dominant position in the rhetoric of American public policy.

Does this mean that all the talk of change is but empty rhetoric? That can only be judged by those who know Barack Obama far better than I do. Some of his history, some of what he has said in the past, would point to his wanting to make America into more of a democratic socialist system—the government gets to decided how resources are distributed in the country, nominally based on the voting majority’s priorities. Never mind private property rights or freedom of trade. Yet, as noted already, this has been the reality for a long time. The novelty is its promising to become official public policy.

The fact that Barack Obama is “black,” an African American, also adds a novelty, a change, if you will, but this one is more cultural than political. Had it been a black candidate who defends capitalism the novelty would be the same but the policy implications of it would be none. That indeed is the idea of a color blind political legal system, that a government official’s color, race, ethnicity, etc., matters not a whit.

Culturally, though, Barack Obama’s election has considerable significance since it challenges in no uncertain terms the widely repeated charge that all Americans are racists. (This is not hyperbole—several contributors to The New York Review of Books repeat this every year.) But I do not believe that is what Senator Obama and his supporters had in mind when they talked about making changes in Washington, D.C.

In either case, however, the substance of public policy in the country is not likely to change much at all. We will remain a mixed system, a welfare state, with various factions or groups of Americans aiming to have their government officials transfer wealth to them out of the pockets of those who legitimately own it.