Friday, December 19, 2008

My Fine Wealth Redistribution

Tibor R. Machan

So Barack Obama got elected president of the United States of America, allegedly the freest country in the world and in human history, partly on the promise that he will redistribute a goodly portion of our wealth, yours and mine and everyone else’s. But why on earth does that make him a deserving individual? Why, in other words, is that a good thing? First, why is it a good thing that this wealth is to be redistributed? And then why is he and his team of politicians and bureaucrats the ones who should do this redistribution?

I was writing out some checks this morning, some to pay bills to compensate various people for the work they have been doing for me, and some as contributions to various causes--like Robert Paul Wolff’s fund to help black South African graduate students, and like the Institute for Justice, etc., and so forth. In short, I was doing some wealth redistribution, all on my own without any need for help from the likes of Obama & Co. Every month I do this, some of it via the Internet, not even needing to write checks, merely clicking some icon and sending off the electronic payment with the utmost efficiency, the money to be removed from my checking account and provided to those I have selected to receive it.

But I am not deemed smart or wise enough to carry off this task of wealth redistribution for nearly 50% of my wealth, not by a long shot. The local politicians hit me up for some $2K for my property taxes which they then will distribute according to their standards of what is important to finance with it; then of course every payday I have substantial sums extorted from me by various governments, through my employer (who is forced to be complicit in this extortion), and later, this coming April 15th or thereabouts, some more of my wealth will be expropriated from me all because I am not deemed smart and good enough to know how much of my own wealth should be distributed, what I should purchase with it and to whom I should contribute some of it as a gift.

If you consider it this way, the whole idea of wealth redistribution is a colossal insult to--and assault against--all of us citizens of the United States of America. Why should Mr. Obama and his cohorts be the ones to redistribute a substantial portion of my and your and everyone else’s wealth? Why not, say, the local bank robber or pick pocket or embezzler? What actually is the difference between Obama & Co. and all those unsavory characters such that if the latter attempt to do this wealth redistribution, they get prosecuted and convicted of criminal conduct but when the latter proceed to do it they are paid a salary for doing so?

Oh, you may say, it is democracy that makes the difference. A majority of voting Americans have elected Obama &Co., so they are now authorized to confiscate a goodly part of my and your and everyone else’s wealth and proceed to redistribute it as they in their ways choose to do. But why is this OK? How is it that these voting Americans may authorize these folks to engage in these dastardly deeds that would send other people to prison if they were caught doing them?

Surely these voting Americans may not authorize Obama & Co., to engage in murder or assault or even racial and sexual discrimination, not to mention banning the religious practices and free expression of Americans. So if they aren’t authorized to do those things--presumably because doing such things is vicious, criminal conduct--why do they get to extort funds from us and spend them as they see fit? What is the difference? Need? No, what people need they have to secure peacefully, from ones with whom they do trade or from the charity of their fellows, not by means of the threat of force as government obtains the portion of wealth it expropriates from us so as to engage in wealth redistribution.

It seems to me certain beyond any reasonable doubt that Obama & Co. are no better qualified to redistribute a substantial portion of my and your and everyone else’s wealth than we ourselves are. And, furthermore, even if they by some magic did possess greater virtue and wisdom in the wealth-redistribution department, that still does not authorize them to do it. As Abraham Lincoln so poignantly noted, “no man is good enough to govern another man, without that other’s consent.” And the redistribution of wealth politicians such as Barack Obama & Co., are embarking upon certainly isn’t done with the consent of those who own that wealth and from whom it will be confiscated.

So neither is there good reason to think these people are more qualified to do the wealth redistribution than we all are, nor, certainly, do they have any moral authority to confiscate the funds they are set to redistribute!
Against USA, Inc.

Tibor R. Machan

Just as in much of human political history the grossest error was to see society as the household of some leader--pharaoh, monarch, tsar, or dictator--in our era the mistake is to see society as a company or corporation that needs a CEO. Although in much of the West the political idea of monarchy, a country lead by one individual with various measures of powers--absolute to limited--has been traded in for democracy--one lead by and for all of the people--this has not proven to be a sufficient improvement.

The very idea of society as a purposeful organization, like a corporation, is the big mistake of contemporary politics. It shows up well during the current transition from the Bush to the Obama administration, what with the parade of appointments of officers who are supposed to run various aspects of USA, Inc. The spectacle reminds one of that famous Monty Python episode, “The Ministry of Silly Walks.” Intentionally or not, the renown British comedy troupe showed how absurd it is to view government as the management team of the great variety of elements of a society.

The basic lesson implicit in the sketch and in much of human political history is that society is not an organization set up to pursue some goal such as scientific progress, prosperity, artistic development, physical fitness, worship of God, etc. Societies are, instead, settings for the members to pursue their great variety of purposes in ways that are mutually harmonious, that make it possible for everyone to pursue peaceful goals that are, however, extremely different from one another.

This is one reason some of us cringe whenever there is talk of how a country requires a leader! It does not, since a country isn’t headed anywhere and no expertise of getting it there, the role of a leader, is relevant to its government. Instead, a country, properly understood, is a realm within which innumerably varied goals may be pursued by millions of different people in different peaceful arrangements--as individuals, families, clubs, corporations, teams, etc., etc. Once it is understood that adult human beings have a right to their lives, to their liberty, and to their acquisition of property (valued stuff), it becomes more and more evident that thinking of society as some purposeful organization is a gross mistake.

Just consider all these secretaries of this and secretaries of that, and their innumerable deputies and such, that president-elect Obama is appointing--what are they all for? To help him take the country down some road to a destination that he imagines was chosen by the people who voted him into office. With a private firm, profit or non-profit, this is an acceptable way to understand the role of the president or CEO and his or her management team. Those who set up such a firm have come together aiming for some goal--helping the poor or sick or making cars for profit and similar familiar pursuits. So the president or CEO has a well enough defined job to carry out.

But a society isn’t anything like that. The people didn’t come together to aim for any common goal. (This is what is so misconceived about the idea of the public interest or the common good other than in some minimal way, comparable to how referees at a game may be said to pursue the common good of upholding the rules but without by any means being players.) The political mission in a society is precisely to provide a framework within which all the disparate factions--those individuals, clubs, companies, etc. mentioned earlier--are free to work for what they want to accomplish.

Sadly, most of those doing this will regard their chosen goal to be politically very important, maybe even superior to all the others being pursued. But this is a mistake. Here is where equality is an important aspect of a truly free society--everyone’s peaceful objective is equally politically worthy of pursuit and the job of government is to secure the equal right of all to do what they want.

But if so, then politics doesn’t really call for all these secretaries of this and secretaries of that, as it may be proper in a business corporation or some other purposeful organization. It calls for a competent team of peacekeepers, nothing else. And the only element of democracy in such an organization is that the keeping of the peace, the securing of rights, is for all members of the community.

Government, even if democratic--meaning one that serves everyone in society--is to be limited in its scope. That scope is to secure our rights, just as the American Founders envisioned it.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Barack Obama and Professional Ethics

Tibor R. Machan

President elect Obama told us, during his appointment of several financial regulators, that even while the best regulators are being selected, “everybody from CEOs to shareholders to investors are going have to be asking themselves not only is this profitable, not only whether this will boost my bonus but is it right.” This remark is quite revealing. It pits the professional responsibility of CEOs, for example, against their responsibility to consider what is right.

When a professional such as a teacher or doctor or, yes, a financial manager sets out to do his or her job, it’s assumed that that job is a morally justified undertaking. So doctors who set out to cure patients, teachers who try to educate their students, and financial managers who attempt to make money for their clients are supposedly doing what is right. It isn’t that they do what their profession requires and in addition they must also do what is right. There is no such “in addition” except in so far as they have other responsibilities, as parents, friends, citizens, and so forth. But in their capacity as the professionals they are, what is right amounts to performing well at work.

Imagine if it were not like that. Imagine that what is the right thing to do is something other than fulfilling their professional obligations. What would that additional right thing be? Would it be something that conflicts with their professional responsibilities? Should a doctor care for his or her patients and then do what is right? What would that be? Should a CEO work hard to make the firm he or she manages succeed in the market place and then take time out to do what is right? What would such extra “doing what is right” amount to?

Actually, professional ethics guides the CEO--and the doctor and teacher and plumber and farmer--to act properly and that amounts to nothing else than fulfilling the proper tasks of their profession. That is what doing the right thing means for professionals. Sadly, when it comes to CEOs and other professionals in the financial industry--and indeed in any other profit making endeavor--many people believe that there is a conflict between doing what the profession requires and doing what is right. For example, many attorneys hold that when they do their work on the job that’s one thing but when they do pro bono work, that’s doing what is right. But why would this be the case?

The problem is that many people see ethics or morality in terms of sacrifice, of unselfishness, and of course all professionals carry out their work as a matter of their self-interest, their self-expression even. No one embarks upon a career (unless perhaps if they are monks) for unselfish reasons. Parents, too, send their children to college so they can develop themselves and find a line of work that will be self-fulfilling.

In teaching or medicine this is fine enough since those professions appear to require service from the professionals. As if doctors or teachers did their work purely as a matter of serving others. The pay they receive, the living they make from that work, tends to be overlooked. Of course, the pay is rarely all that such professionals seek from doing their work--they tend, also, to gain other rewards (often called in-kind compensation), such as the joy of the work, the satisfaction that comes from what they accomplish, and so forth. Even those involved in what seem to be service professions--nurses, fire fighters, and so on--seek to find satisfaction from the work they do. It is often indirect satisfaction--they find the work they do worthwhile and that gives them satisfaction.

The point is that few professionals are doing their work from altruistic motives even when they benefit others with what they do.

In the financial industries, in markets, it is mostly quite obvious that professionals are after financial or economic success. And there is nothing wrong with that except that many moralists, folks who advance ideas about how people ought to act in their lives, do not see what such professionals do as moral or ethical. Quite the contrary. So they are viewed as professionals who must not only heed their professional responsibilities but also what is right, something mysteriously different and even more important.

What people who go corrupt in various professions do is to violate either ordinary human morality or their professional ethics. But if they do not do violence to either, then they are doing what is right. Their professional tasks are what is the right thing for them to do. In other words, there is no conflict between seeking success in the market place and doing what is right, not unless one is violating the ethics of one’s profession.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Missing Xmas Commercialism

Tibor R. Machan

Some lessons are learned at great expense and just how healthy Xmas commercialism is seems to be one of them.

For decades editorialists, pundits, and other commentators have implored us all to stop all this commercialism during Christmas holidays. The holidays have become too commercial! People just focus on purchasing goodies instead of on the spirituality of Christmas. And so on and so forth the relentless blather went on and on, year after year, even in the midst of the reports on how good or bad have been holiday retails sales. This hypocrisy could be hidden from the consciousness of a great many people for a good while but now it is no longer possible to disguise it.

Fact is, what is most missing from Christmas this year is, yes, the healthy commercialism that has been part of it over the last several decades. The absence of such healthy commercialism is having some disastrous impact on the lives of millions of people across not just America but the world. Because so many of us react to the current economic fiasco by imposing restraint on our commercial activities, millions of people are going to have to experience severe economic contraction in their lives. Minimum of gifts, modest dinners, limited travel, brief vacations and similar tightening of belts characterizes this year’s commercialism and everyone is quite understandably upset about it all. Maybe a few fanatics are pleased and even propound the doctrine of austerity. Some even urge the embrace at these times of the impending poverty for all too many people around the world. (It needs to be noted that even at the best of times there are folks who advocate self-denial, asceticism, a vow of poverty.)

But most sane people recognize at last that it is not a good thing for commerce to be leaving our midst. They realize that all that talk of the evils of commercialism tends to be just a lot of words and very few human beings really commit to abandoning the malls--or the Internet--for good! The decline of commerce is indeed lamented nationwide for its impact on millions whose livelihood came from a robust economy.

Not that there are no cautionary lessons from the current mess. Too many people went way over their actual, real budgetary limits and yielded to fantasies of riches that in time came a cropper. For some it was outright greed, the unwillingness to contain oneself and the reckless indulgence in acquiring that which one had no business to attempt to acquire. Like spoiled children whose parents refuse to say “no” when asked for more and more goodies even while the household budget is clearly being strained, millions of adults pursued their imagined limits instead of remaining within the limits of reason. (I have some personal history of my own that testifies to this fact.)

It is even arguable that the tendency of many people to go overboard with buying bigger and better and more fancy--in homes, cars, vacations, gadgets, furniture, clothing, and the rest--is related to the false ideal of austerity. Just as sexual promiscuity and debauchery are very probably related to teachings of unnatural sexual self-denial, so overindulgence in acquisition is likely related to a senseless profession of the virtue of poverty. Instead of a sensible middle way, of a prudent approach, too many religions and philosophies preach at us about how evil we are for having wants at all, for desiring to be well off, for wishing to enjoy a good measure of abundance. It is understandable that with such a state of mind many people would just cast caution to the wind and become reckless instead of prudent.

It is even possible that the current economic fiasco is largely due to the failure of the leadership in our culture--of writers, pundits, public philosophers, politicians and the rest--to counsel moderation instead of self-denial and sacrifice. When prospects seem promising it is not natural to accept this counsel and the temptation to overreach will not be resisted. Sensible caution, prudence instead of sacrifice, would, however, be something most people could live with, I submit.

During these times of involuntary self-denial maybe the lesson will be learned that healthy commercialism is no vice, nothing to chide. After all, part of Christmas includes the giving of gifts, not just the receiving of them. And both are very much dependent on commerce.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

On Government Regulations Again

Tibor R. Machan

A recent New York Times carried an item that's of some general political philosophical interest bearing on the nature of a free society’s system of laws. In particular it relates to the discussion of whether public policy matters ought to be addressed pragmatically--that is, issue by issue, with no regard for general principles--or based on some system of ideas.

In "The Week in News" there was a report on something one Elizabeth Kolbert wrote on the New Yorker Web site concerning how Barack Obama's choice for new energy secretary, Steven Chu, once "established the country's first refrigerator-efficiency standards" back in California, in the face of industry opposition, and how the decision is now judged a roaring success. "The following decade, standards were imposed for refrigerators nationwide. Since then, the size of the average American refrigerator has increased by more than 10 percent, while the price, in inflation-adjusted dollars, has been cut in half. Meanwhile, energy has dropped by two-thirds." Ergo, it might be suggested, government imposition of standards (and, more generally, government regulation) is a jolly good thing!

Perhaps pragmatists would find this a decisive argument in favor of government regulations--or at least quite a few of such regulations. But I am not a pragmatist. I tend to approach the issue of whether government regulations are proper in a principled fashion, even if in some cases such regulations are arguably helpful. (Actually, once the law mandates refrigerator-efficiency standards, it is impossible to say how things would have turned out without this mandate! An there is that famous fallacy, post hoc, ergo propter hoc, that this line of argument commits!)

In any case, as far as I understand law and politics, whether government regulation is sound policy isn’t a matter of a few successes. It is more one of whether the general policy of the government regulating the economy is a good idea. There are several grounds to oppose it; mainly because it amounts to the insidious practice of prior restraint, namely, of limiting people’s liberty before they have done anything to deserve it. (This also is a telling objections to various precautionary public policies advocated by environmentalists--they limit liberty without having proven anyone’s culpability!)

In certain areas, of course, hardly anyone would be tempted to use such arguments. Take the case of torture! Surely some cases of torture yield desirable results--victims confess and in turn lives are saved. But, as observed by that famous ancient Greek sage, Aristotle, “one swallow does not a springtime make.” Even robberies could on rare occasions produce overall beneficial results--nay, even rape might--but they nonetheless ought to be prohibited.

Opposition to government regulation should not be based on some imagined absolutism, namely, that each instance of it will necessarily result in regrettable consequences. No opposition to this and any other coercive public policy ought to rest on grounds of its injustice, on its perpetration of prior restraint! In broader terms, government regulations treat people as if they were experimental tools that may be used as decided by government officials. Something seems (though hasn’t been proven) to be hazardous, so then those doing it may be forced to desist. This attitude, of enforced paternalism toward adults, is wrong even if once in a while acting on it will produce good results.

The debate is an old one, actually. Are there principles of human conduct in terms of which people should desist from, say, lying, cheating, misrepresentation, aggression, violence, and so forth? Or can the issue only be handled piecemeal--is this particular case of lying or cheating or stealing or using violence or, yes, rape good or bad, never mind any general principles?

Those who claim there are principles that ought to guide our actions even when ignoring them would appear convenient, practical, useful, etc., are often labeled ideologues, mindless dogmatists who want to act without thinking. But this is entirely unfair. The thinking went into the formulation of the principles--indeed, if we had to think through piece by piece every action we take, we would be paralyzed. Over centuries and centuries of human living, some principles have been identified as very worthy of being obeyed, including the principles that without a criminal conviction, no one ought to be treated as a convict, as subject to other people’s will.