Saturday, November 29, 2008

Still Not Figured it Out

Tibor R. Machan

I read a lot of stuff, including editorials and commentaries in scientific journals. Each time there’s a new administration, many of these publications rev up their lobbying for support from the government for whatever are their favorite projects.

So now Nobel Laureate Steven Chu, director of Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, is going on record in the pages of Science News, which happily gave him room to sound off, seeking “investment tax credits so that companies have an incentive to invest in long-term energy research.” One might have hoped that these incentives would be supplied by the market place but now, Dr. Chu is reaching out for government support. If the market fails to provide the incentive but Dr. Chu wishes it would, he needs to advertise his services to market agents, not to government.

Actually, tax credits are simply ways to avoid being extorted the full amount one would usually be. I do not begrudge anyone the opportunity to dodge taxes, however it’s done, but Dr. Chu and his ilk aren’t tax rebels and likely would not champion tax dodging or resistance for other citizens. Only those doing his kind of important work supposedly qualify!

Some of the language in which Dr. Chu advances his case for tax credits is also disturbing. He says “The government has got to allow” these! Why is it self-evident to the likes of Dr. Chu that government is in the business of allowing this and that? Government is our hired agent, at most, and no one in such a position is authorized to about allowing us anything, giving us permission. Citizens in a free country are not allowed this and that by their government any more than are other professionals allowing their clients to do this or that. Even my physician doesn’t allow me but makes clear that some things I might do will help me while others may hurt. Whether I carry on this or that way isn’t something I, as an adult, am allowed by another adult.

Professor Donald Boudreaux, chair of economics at George Mason University, noticed a similar tendency when he sent a letter to The Washington Post recently critical of the phrase one columnist there used regarding why Barrack Obama was elected. He notes that in an Op Ed piece in The Post one Peter Funt “off-handedly mentions that Barack Obama was elected to ‘run the country’ (‘Tapped Out,’ November 29).” And as Professor Boudreaux says, “This familiar phrase is nonsensical.”

Why is it nonsensical to speak of government as “allowing” this or that or of the next president as elected to “run the country”? As I have already hinted, that’s because governments and their officials, like the President, aren’t monarchs who rule us but civil servants who are hired to carry out some specific work for us for which they are well enough paid. The fact that prominent people who write for major newspapers or get interviewed by important magazines treat government as if it were in charge of us all bodes ill for a free country.

It isn’t enough that thousands of politicians and bureaucrats suffer from the delusion that when they enter government they get to rule others. But there are thousands of citizens outside government who speak as if this delusion were acceptable. Yes, often such talk is unselfconscious and those speaking these ways do not seriously endorse the idea of government as our parent or ruler. But the careless use of certain terms in the language can have influence over how we think and act.

Given that for centuries on end governments did suffer from the delusion that their officials legitimately ruled the population, that they were in charge of the rest of us, it is especially important for respected people in the country to discipline themselves when they speak about public policies, public affairs. Such people tend to set the terms of discourse in the country and by now they ought to know well and good that these terms do not include “government allows” or “presidents run,” any more than they include “your highness” or “your majesty.”

This country is not a monarchy and educated folks ought to remember this whenever they sound off.

Friday, November 28, 2008

Individualism Revisited

Tibor R. Machan

When one regards people as mere parts of some group, like a tribe or race, individual guilt versus innocence does not matter. Nor does due process for establishing guilt. What matters is to strengthen one’s own and weaken the opposite group. Individuals as individuals have no significance for people who think only the group is of significance.

Such people think of individuals the way one might think of some small segment of one’s body. Whether to damage this small segment is to be decided based on whether such damage would hurt one’s body as a whole. Sometimes removing such a small part can help, sometimes hurt. What matters to such collectivist type thinking is whether the group gains or loses.

Ironically quite a few thinkers in the West encourage such tribal ways of looking at people. When someone like the Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor asserts that individuals literally belong to their group--rather than to themselves--they pretty much lend credence to the thinking that discounts individuals as such. The implication is that individuals count only because they make some group viable or powerful. We think a little like this when we consider sports teams or a nation’s military. What seems to matter is the group.

Individualism, American style, is the antidote to this kind of thinking about human beings. If one comes to realize that individuals are ends in themselves, not mere tools for the group, the kind of confrontations that take place these days--often involving terrorists who think of people in such communal fashion--are less likely to occur. It takes a total discounting of, for example, a young child as an individual of independent value or significance in order to be able to treat it as disposable, a mere tool in a power game. Never mind that the individual who is being disposed of deserved nothing of the sort of treatment to which he or she is being subjected. That the individual didn’t act aggressively toward anyone doesn’t matter in terms of such group think since no individual is credited with a will of his or her own.

Sadly the individualism that pretty much disarms the group hostilities among us--that discourages thinking of people as but elements of a fortress and sees them independently, to be dealt with on the basis of their individual choices and conduct--is not in vogue among those who address issues of politics and human nature. The way someone like Karl Marx and his followers and admirers--and yes, there are many such people left--view us, namely specie beings, ones whose identity depends totally on their membership in the group (in Marx’s case humanity), any respect for individuals can easily vanish. What counts is how someone bolsters the standing of his or her group.

Of course there is ample opportunity under individualism for people to immerse themselves in groups--corporations, orchestras, football teams, sororities--and appear not to count for much as individuals. But that is only appearance. In free societies one joins such groups for one’s own purposes. The individual’s goals matter first, at least in most cases, while the group comes together so as to serve such interests. The organization of the groups will reflect this and there is always in most free countries the exit option.

But when the group comes first--as in a fighting military unit (although only when made up conscripts)--the individual isn’t free to leave it. This exerts great pressure on individuals to conform, not remain “loyal,” whatever their own convictions about the group’s purposes may be. (In fact, of course, such group think merely anoints some members of the group as superior to the rest.)

Ironically, individualism would seem to encourage just the kind of conditions among human beings that are often used to urge conformity to the group and communal attitudes, namely, peace and harmony. Herding people into groups to which they didn’t chose to belong does not encourage genuine solidarity and loyalty. So it seems that effective group projects actually presuppose that individuals matter most, including their decisions to be members of the group.

Tribal thinking was a mistake, albeit one that could be appreciated since often the survival and flourishing of individuals depends very much on being united with others, forming a solid group. But realizing this should not obscure the fact that the only valid point of the tribe is to provide safety and opportunity for growth to the individuals in it. In the case of human beings the significance of the individual is primary since everything worthwhile comes from individual initiative--science, philosophy, art, entertainment--even while that initiative is enriched when combined with that of others.

Some promote rugged individualism, a perverse idealization of the hermit. Sure, at times total independence can have it uses, fraternity is more natural to human beings. This should not, however, obscure the centrality of the individual in human life.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

No, I am not Mean

Tibor R. Machan

The position of someone who defends human liberty, freedom from coercion among people, is sometimes quite irksome. That's because those who want to coerce others mostly give as their reason that they want to be of help. Virtually every government program funded by taxation, money extorted from citizens, is justified by citing the needs and wants of people who will go without government support if the program is discontinued.

So those of us who prize human liberty above every other social condition will seem, on casual inspection, to lack compassion and generosity. We will be saying "no" to numerous public policies proposed as ways to provide for the helpless or needy. In fact the bulk of those in Western societies who advocate coercive policies that expropriate the labor and resources of citizens say that they do so because they want to eliminate poverty, deprivation, ignorance, illness, and other untoward circumstances people face. Opposing such coercive measures then is taken simply to be mean, hardhearted, and ungenerous.

Nearly all the responses I receive to my criticisms of government coercion accuse me of lacking compassion, of wishing that those in need go unaided, unsupported, be left helpless. But the charge is wrong, very wrong indeed.

Suppose one objects to burglaries, robberies or holdups. And suppose those perpetrating these tend, in the main, to use the loot they take for various helpful purposes. They buy food and furniture and medicine with what they have stolen. And maybe without the stolen resources they would find it troublesome to purchase these things for themselves and their families.

Does opposition to burglaries, robberies, and holdups imply even in the slightest that one is opposed to the would be perpetrator of these crimes getting the benefits the stolen wealth could get them? Does opposition to the violent, aggressive, hostile means of obtaining the means for getting those benefits imply that one begrudges the benefits that can be gained with what was stolen? More drastically, does opposition to rape mean being opposed to sexual satisfaction for those who would rape others?

Of course not. Millions of people oppose crimes that involve taking things from people at gunpoint and the like, yet all these millions do not see anything wrong with the beneficiaries gaining what they need and want. In fact, millions of people who oppose such criminal takings voluntarily contribute to charities, emergency funds, such as the Red Cross or the Salvation Army. Indeed, Americans, specifically, are the most giving citizens in the world, as can be observed whenever some people around the globe are struck with natural disasters.

Most of us who champion a fully free society also support voluntary means for giving aid to those who need it. There is no one in the libertarian movement I know of who opposes such means although they all, without fail, oppose the coercive approach the government uses to help people. Many of us also argue that voluntary means for helping those in need of help are more effective and certainly more ethical than government's coercive ways. Some have researched this thoroughly and have concluded that voluntary help is, overall, superior to coercively supplied help not only because coercion is wrong in itself but also because the voluntary approach tends to support a culture of mutual aid throughout a society.

No, I am not mean. I am personally a frequent contributor to voluntary efforts to lend a hand even while my focus in my writings happens to be mostly on eliminating coercion from human interactions. That may be because I personally grew up in a country that was a police state, where coercion of the citizenry was routine, the norm, and to even argue against it could land one in a gulag. But just because my efforts focus on securing or protecting the right to liberty of all it does not follow that I and those like me fail to be generous, compassionate, helpful, and so forth when such conduct is called for. But we oppose efforts to make such conduct legally mandatory! It is clear to us, also, that mandated charity or compassion has no moral worth at all since it isn't done of one's own free will, a basic requirement of all moral or ethical conduct.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Government Ripoff #3778457

Tibor R. Machan

Yes, that number is a phony and simply suggests the high number of ripoffs perpetrated by the government upon the citizenry. In this case the ripoff consists of government failing to consider inflation when it taxes capital gains. So if in 1995 you bought stocks for $1000.00 and sold it in 2008 for $2000.00, you are still going to be taxed for a $1000.00 capital gains, never mind that the $2000.00 isn't worth what it was originally, inflation having eroded its worth.

But then why would extortionists ever give you a break? Once a system is unjust, dickering about bits and pieces of it is virtually pointless and makes little sense anyway. There is no way to deal justly with stolen goods.

And there is that other matter, one of the triumphs of the American revolution, that has gone south big time. It is the idea of "No taxation without representation." Arguably the revolution began because this idea was violated by the Brits. Never mind. Our current extortionists--for never forget that something like the income tax amounts to flat out extortion, a major source of revenue for organized criminals--borrow against the expected wealth of members of future generations, committing those people to pay back what the current regime borrowed. Yet, of course, those members haven't even been born yet, or are so young that they may not vote. So these folks are being taxed with no one representing their voice in the so called democratic process.

Of course, this policy of taxing the unrepresented is widespread. Airport and hotel taxes are typical cases in point--one is taxed in the locale of the airport or hotel but of course hasn't any voice there at all concerning the disposition of the "revenues" thus collected. Clearly this again violates the idea of no taxation without representation. Another triumph of the American revolution that's routinely betrayed.

But of course the policy of taxation is never a just one, be the taxpayer represented or not. For taxes are nothing but a phantom rent collected by the government for permitting the citizenry to live and work within the realm. That is how taxation made sense in feudal times, where it amounted to rent paid to the owner of the realm for the privilege of living and working there. In effect, everything was owned by the monarch and one who lived in the area had to pay for that privilege. Only the monarch had rights--sometimes dubbed "the divine rights of kings"--and he or she had the authority to issue permits to the subjects who lived within the realm.

It is just this arrangement that was supposed to have been overthrown by means of the American revolution. Sovereignty was supposed to have been taken from the monarch and assigned to individual citizens in accordance with their natural rights to their lives, liberty and property. But today there is little sign of this in America, the so called leader of the free world! So it isn't just that governments tax earnings at their nominal value though they have effectively been made worthless over time by inflation.

The very idea of taxation is a fraud, despite such noble designations of it as "the price we pay for civilization." Because taxation was kept in place after the regime change, from a feudal to a free society--unlike serfdom, for example, as well as in time slavery--today it is the major instrument of tyranny. All these bailouts that amount to committing members of future generations to pay for the widespread irresponsibility of present ones could not be perpetrated without this vicious instrument of coercion. Yet in the mainstream hardly any mention is made of just how inconsistent is the financial foundation of the policy of bailouts and just how predatory is the policy of taxation.

What is even worse is that throughout the academic community, where radical ideas are supposed to be proposed and considered, the notion that taxation is unjust, with or without representation, doesn't even get discussed. Instead

Monday, November 24, 2008

The Miracle of Government Regulation

Tibor R. Machan

Maybe I need some help here. I just cannot get used to how so many people are so confident that government regulators are better people than the rest of us. Not just better but smarter, too. Indeed, whatever virtue we ought to cultivate in our lives, a great many folks appear to believe government regulators have them while the rest of us don't.

Over and over I run across comments from prominent people to the effect, Left, Right and evereywhere, that if only government were to regulate some activity, it would bring far better results than otherwise. I recall listening to former NBC-TV anchor Tom Brokaw once, many moons ago, reporting about some politician who got caught stealing or doing something else criminal and then turning to a story about dolphins somewhere in Florida that were being shown the tourists even though the establishment wasn't regulated by the government. How awful! Then just today I read in The New York Times how some entrepreneurs are offering loan modification as a service for a fee to people who are worried about not being able to continue to pay high mortgages. These persons were referred to as predators, without a scintilla of evidence of any wrong-doing by them. Their crime: They wanted to earn a living off providing this service. Like those greedy umbrella makers who want to make a living off shielding people from the rain!

Of course, perhaps I don't need help at all. Perhaps it is plain that millions of people entrust their lives, property, future, and so forth to government officials--after all they have had these kind of officials running their lives for centuries on end. A king here, a tsar there, a pharaoh at another place, then some tribal chief somewhere else, with all their minions! Throughout human history millions have been ruled, ordered about, used without their consent, and this policy is still being promoted by many political theorists and, of course, editors of elite publications such as The New York Times or The New York Review of Books.

But it is amazing how confidently the idea is advanced that what we all need so as to fix problems that face us is some elite bunch to take over the running of our lives--the bulk of our commercial, scientific, cultural, education, and similar endeavors. Yes, that's the ticket--get some bureaucrat to be in charge, with presumably magic powers, and the credit crisis, the AIDs epidemic, mis-education, inattention, laziness, imprudence, and the like will all be set aright.

What is amazing is that this all means nothing other than the idea that some people using coercive force upon others will fix things. Yes, the solution to our problems in so many areas is nothing else but brute force and its threat. For that is what government does when it regulates everyone, regiments us, takes over the running of our lives. After all, the proper task of government is the reaction to force that is initiated against the citizenry. Protective force, that's what governments are supposed to be good at. That's why when cops make excessive use of force, they are deemed to be engaged in malpractice.

But why are so many confident that if only coercion is deployed in aggressive, entirely non-defensive ways, matters will be improved for sure? Ordinarily we all realize that while using force in self-defense is OK, using it to solve problems that do not involve someone raising and hand and such is verboten. The criminal law acknowledges this in most places. So why then when it comes to public policies do so many people accept it without much protest that officials may deploy force and its threat?

Maybe it is because for thousands of years that was the norm and civilized behavior has only recently made a bit of headway in human community life. That may be the shred of optimism in all this, namely, that humanity is just at the start of expunging brutality, banning violence, when it comes to reaching solutions. One can only hope the long range trend will continue and in time this misplaced trust in government will disappear.
NYT Editorial Prejudices

Tibor R. Machan

In its November 24 editorial, “Return of the Predators,” The New York Times reaffirmed its utter hostility toward and prejudice against those who work in the market place. It appears that given that in the market people strive to profit, there is no way The Times will ever give it credit for anything worthwhile.

This time it is “for profit loan modifiers” who are the targets of The Times’ prejudice. Modifiers are folks who aim to make some money off renegotiating previously made deals between homeowners and mortgage companies. Some of this is done by non-profit agents who, of course, are completely embraced by The Times and all those who demean the free market. That’s because they “work for no fee.”

There are too many levels at which this disdain of market agents is seriously flawed. For one, people who try to earn a profit from providing their skills to clients are by no means greedy monsters, any more than The New York Times reporter who latches on to a hot story before a competing paper grabs it must be some kind of fiend. The profit motive doesn’t create corruption. Moreover, non-profit seekers face their own ethical pitfalls, such as becoming insufferable buttinskies, folks who thrive on running other people’s lives and may even enjoy being depended upon by others who might benefit from some help.

As public choice theorists have demonstrated, the so called public service that motivates many who enter the non-profit market is often nothing but a personal agenda that gives these people their own type of profit or satisfaction. To think of these folks as if they were saints aiming to get nothing out of what they do is delusional. Nor need there be anything amiss with what they do to try and gain something from their non-profit endeavors. The point is that they do try to gain something from it. The pure altruist is rare and, frankly, no all that virtuous, given that his or her claim to be disinterested is usually a lie.

If those at The Times, and the rest of the anti-capitalists, gave the matter a bit more thought than they do, they might acknowledge that the mutual-benefit arrangements that take place in market transactions are normally completely decent ones. Just consider, The Times benefits substantially from all its advertisers and readers, for whom it provides a service or two, if I am not mistaken. How come its profit seeking conduct manages to be above suspicion but not that of the for profit loan modifier? When there is evidence of malpractice in market transactions, it is, as in all other cases of criminal misconduct, necessary to ferret it out, not simply assumed it to be part of such deals as The Times’ editorial writers do.

Taking it as given that when people embark upon profit making, including in the loan-modification industry, they must be doing something shady is like assuming that when people write for a living they must engage in shady conduct like plagiarism or slander. But this is silly and to think that way betrays a deep seated prejudice, not insight or wisdom. It is no different from suspecting all the reporters at The New York Times of professional mal-practice before any evidence of it had been uncovered.

Of course, for profit loan-modifiers are capable of malpractice, of corruption and such, just as are journalists or doctors or teachers. We know well enough from recent history that The New York Times had writers who were guilty of such corruption. But this does not justify suspecting everyone at the paper of the same.

Similarly, because some of those in the for profit lending or modifying industry have engaged in malpractice it does not follow that most do or will. For The Times to alleged that such people are less likely to be honorable than are reporters as they carry on with their work is rank injustice.

Indeed, all those who indict profit makers of being more susceptible of corruption than non-profit professionals need to rethink their view of human nature. By implication they are claiming that all men and women who seek to earn a living at some type of commerce must be inclined toward vice and crime. There is no evidence of this, certainly less than there is for the contention that all those who seek political office and work in government are likely to be crooks.