Saturday, January 10, 2009

Inexcusable: Terrorism

Tibor R. Machan

In discussing the Arab-Israeli conflict one often comes across disturbing defenses of anti-Israeli policies by such organizations as Hamas and Hezbollah. One such line of defense I have encountered, for which even some of my colleagues in philosophy have shown sympathy, is that given the desperate situation of Arabs, say in the Gaza strip, one must accept their resort of terrorism, including, of course, the indiscriminate murder of people, many of them children and thus indisputably innocent of anything that might plausible justify killing them. And often this line of defense is put in terms of what Israel has done to Arab citizens in Gaza, placed them into desperate situations by cutting off the flow of supplies, starving them, etc.

Without going into the whether the claims against Israel are true or accurate, of who is ultimately responsible for the conditions in Gaza, it is crucial to realize that even if those claims were all true, they would fail to justify terrorism, the murder of innocent people for political purposes and the like. Say I am starving and say I believe that this has been caused by various adults around my neighborhood. Would my situation justify my recklessly lobbing bombs around the homes in this neighborhood, never mind who is being killed by what I am doing? Am I justified in my state of desperation to inflict violence on those who have had nothing to do with what I am experiencing? No, not at all. All one might say is that I have completely lost control over myself and am now simply flaying about madly, caring nothing about the consequences, about whether any remnant of justice attends to my conduct. And in that case I need to be pacified!

It is one thing to show some understanding of the dastardly conduct of certain people in dire straits. It is something else entirely to claim that this conduct is just or justified. And over the last decades it is difficult to deny that on the whole, apart from the early terrorist actions of certain Israelis, the overwhelming majority of indiscriminate, often suicide, killings have been done by anti-Israeli partisans.

For some reason that escapes me, quite a few people who would ordinarily be appalled at deeds of cruelty toward the innocent seem to find what these anti-Israeli parties are doing acceptable. I cannot see that the fact that Israeli policies are imperfect, disputable, sometimes over the top, serve in the slightest to give these anti-Israeli policies unobjectionable or even OK on balance.

Again, I hasten to say that a full grasp of what is happening between Arabs and Israelis escapes me, albeit I seriously doubt that anyone has that grasp, given how it is tied up with a very long history, many religious convictions based on faith, and, most of all, collectivist or tribal thinking. Some of the arguments that are propounded by many who contribute to the debate, especially on the anti-Israeli side seem, also, to be linked to manufactured historical events and religious claims that are wholly unprovable.

At times simply abstaining from forming any conclusions about these matters is acceptable. But that is nearly impossible to do in a democracy where one is called upon to approve or disapprove policies of one’s government vis-à-vis foreign governments. Even if the entire situation in, for example, the Middle East is basically irrational and beyond hope of sorting out fully, one is simply left with a need to have some attitude so as to be able to assess with some measure of competence what one’s government is doing (even in circumstances that are tainted with confusion and a history of mistakes).

I am certainly only in the process of coming to grips with the issues, not by any stretch of the imagination at the point of having formed a fixed, stable position on them all. But just as Socrates, who confessed not to know very much at all, continued to search, along with all of his pupils, for what is true, perhaps some attentive if incomplete reflections on the Arab-Israeli situation can help advance not only one’s understanding but the eventual resolution of the troubles.

Thursday, January 08, 2009

Keynes' Problem

Tibor R. Machan

From the frying pan into the fire, the saying goes, and it applies well to the way John Maynard Keynes suggested we deal with economic uncertainty and to the advice his followers are now foisting upon Barrack Obama.

An assumption of some prominent economic theorists involves that we can pretty much calculate how the future will turn out and, therefore, tell the difference between very risky and not so risky investments. This, however, does not hold true when arbitrary forces enter the market place. And the most important such force is government action. This is because governments act by way of mandates, or outright force, not voluntary agreements.

Sure, even with a system of voluntary agreements as the foundation of the economy nothing is completely certain--after all, who can tell what the weather will be, or if there will be an earthquake or something else that has serious economic consequences quite apart from human decisions which are, themselves, often unreasonable and, thus, unpredictable. But only government can try to go against widespread human choices that mainly determine the economy since only government can impose its decisions by force, without the consent of the governed. And when it does so, the reasonable, albeit not absolute, certainty of how the future is going to turn out is completely undermined.

In the face of economic upheavals it is widely believed that most people will reduce their spending, including their risk-taking. While this is not a bad assumption, it doesn't tell the full story. After all, those who specialize in wealth management will be aware of the assumption and will often go counter to it so as to gain a bit from the widespread caution. Second guessing human behavior is one skill in which wealth managers specialize. And they will often figure out just what the government is likely to do, too. But then governments will impose their might to counter the effect of the managers' manauverings. And so it goes.

Keynes wanted to put a stop to all the guesswork that goes into economic thinking by advising that government spend when ordinary folks would act cautiously and save. Since Keynes believed that economic prosperity is mainly a function of spending money, of an aggressive consumerism, he found it disturbing that "the possession of actual money lulls our disquietude," so people refuse to do the spending that would keep the economy healthy and instead put their money away for later use (which, by the way, still doesn't mean it will be idle).

One of Keynes's contemporary followers, Robert Skidelsky, wrote that "There was only one sure way to get an increase in spending in the face of an extreme private-sector reluctance to spend, and that was for the government to spend the money itself. Spend on pyramids, spend on hospitals, but spend it must." As Skidelsky noted, "This, in a nutshell, was Keynes's economics." And he added, "His purpose, as he say it, was not to destroy capitalism but to save it from itself."

Capitalism, of course, is not saved by Keynesian economics but contradicted by it. The reason is that capitalism requires full respect for the voluntary exchanges in a free market place. When government prevents this from happening, capitalism is sacrificed. And how might Keynes' proposal prevent the voluntary exchanges of the free market place? By taxing and borrowing--without proper collateral--and similar policies that counter what people would do of their own free choices. The people want to save, so expropriate their money and use it to fund projects the people don't choose to fund. Build pyramids no one wants, spend on hospitals even if most people are healthy, spend like mad even if most people are pleased enough with what they have and therefore choose not to spend so much for the time being.

So the Keynesan remedy to occasional dips in economic activity is to put a gun to people's heads and force them to spend. And it sounds plausible, when you remove from it the criminal factor and one other thing: government stupidity. Even if it were not a blatant violation of peoples' basic rights to expropriate their money, the assumption that governments will know how to spend it so as to boost economic activity is completely off. This is the fallacy of thinking of government as some kind of God, some Supreme Being who knows better than ordinary mortals what to do, how to spend resources, when to save and when not to do so. This monumental--what F. A. Hayek, Keynes's friend and critic called "the fatal"--conceit is the age old idea that the state is supreme. And this is the theory that is now being championed by Barack Obama & Co.

Monday, January 05, 2009

Israel, Hamas, and I

Tibor R. Machan

When one is bombarded with information about events the history of which is ancient and so complex that hardly anyone commenting makes sense of them, it is very tough to judge. That’s how it is with me and the current upheaval between Israel and Hamas.

The news reports at the beginning said Israel took military action after hundreds of missiles were being launched at it from Gaza. So to rid the Gaza strip of the missile launchers, Israel began to target various areas from which the missiles were being launched, presumably centers where Hamas had most of its personnel and equipment located. Further reports, especially on CNN International, observed that Israel’s response to the initiation of aggression by Hamas was disproportionate to what Hamas did to Israel. Still, as with most fights, this one had to start with someone throwing the first punch, as it were, and that seems to have been Hamas this last time. (Last time Hamas supposedly kidnapped some Israeli soldiers, another situation that was bizarre from the start.)

The Israelis claim that all they want is for the missile launching to stop and Hamas spokesmen on CNN say they will only stop of Israel stops its aggression! But this is confused since Hamas clearly started the launching of missiles out of the Gaza strip and isn’t even disputing this. So how could Israel be the aggressor? To aggress is to begin a fight, not to respond to one being initiated.

As I was watching report after report on CNN, while attending a conference—and getting no sleep--in Mexico, I noticed that the reporters of this news network kept repeating the claim, made by Hamas leaders and others who support Hamas and oppose Israel, that Israel is targeting innocent civilians. Yet it is nearly impossible to tell who is a civilian in the Gaza conflict, judging by the footage showing various groups of young people and adults shooting whatever weapons they have at hand and throwing rocks in the direction of the border between Israel and the strip.

Unfortunately the reports fail to include any discussion of how one is to tell the difference between Hamas civilians and Hamas militia. I have never seen any footage showing Hamas soldiers, if they exist; Israel, however, does distinguish between its civilians and its army by way of their garb.

After about five days of the hostilities CNN’s reporters had some Gaza government officials on the air and posed some pointed questions about who is the victim and who the aggressor. It was immediately clear that the official wanted at all cost to dodge the issue of who had started the current hostilities. When the CNN reporter asked about Israel officials’ claim about the missiles that had been launched at Israel and to which Israel was supposedly responding, the spokesman was so obviously evasive that I couldn’t believe it. Who sent this person to speak for Hamas? He replied to the CNN reporter by saying “I have always been known as an opponent of violence.” So what? Why is that an answer to “Israelis say they are responding to your aggression, so what is your answer to them?”

When one is bombarded with selective, nearly haphazard information about events around the globe, events that are one’s only source of understanding who is doing what to whom and how is it all justified, there is not much one can do but listen very carefully and determine who is making logical mistakes--who is equivocating, who is being evasive and vague, who is being clear and answers relevant questions directly, without obfuscation.

By that criterion I have to say that my provisional assessment of what is reported from the Middle East leaves me with the impression that Israel is less responsible for the recent mess than Hamas. That’s as well as I can do with the immediate information at hand. Maybe more detail, more history will lead me to alter what I think about the matter but for now I am pretty sure that Hamas is the bad guy here, while Israel, as so often in history, is the victim.

As my mother, who lives in Europe and went through the mid-century disasters there, said to me a while ago, “Why don’t they leave those people live in peace?” Frankly, I am mystified myself. And it is also puzzling why so many Western academics seem to get on board with the anti-Israel stance. No, I don’t call it anti-Semitism because I don’t know the motivation behind their position. I do know that they nearly always favor Israel’s enemies and consider America’s official pro-Israel stance something wrongheaded, based not on considerations of justice but on the so called influence of the Jewish Lobby.

I don’t care about any lobby. I am only concerned that when fights break out, those who start them be identified, and that their reasons and motives be objectively evaluated. That is the only way I personally can make some bit of sense of these kinds of situations of which I receive such spotty information unless I become a specialist and for that I would need to return to school and get a graduate degree in Middle Eastern studies.