Saturday, February 21, 2009

Charity and Coercion

Tibor R. Machan

If one is concerned for the helpless or homeless or otherwise needy, what is the proper response? Just today someone I deal with nearly every other day told me he saw "Sicko," the Michael Moore "documentary" and was very upset that there are many homeless people who don't seem to receive medical help. Ordinarily this individual isn't very eager to go out and rob Peter to "help" Paul but in such cases he was ready to cheer for government support for those in dire straits.

I was very disappointed by the quality of the thinking exhibited by this individual. Despite our having known each other for over a year and discussing these kinds of issues on innumerable occasions, the emotional response to "Sicko" seems to have clouded my pal's judgment. He offered no discussion of how these folks got themselves into their dire straits; nothing about whether private charities could help; no mention about whether he himself ought perhaps to dip into his own resources instead of advocating expropriating from others, nada. The emergency nature of what "Sicko" depicted--of course, with little discussion of alternatives in the film itself--seems to have blinded my pal to any need for upholding the rights of those whose resources would be raided so as to satisfy his sentiments.

It all brings to mind this great remark by Herbert Spencer: "Sympathy with one in suffering suppresses, for the time being, remembrance of his transgressions….Those whose hardships are set forth in pamphlets and proclamations in sermons and speeches which echo throughout society, are assumed to be all worthy souls, grievously wronged; and none of them are thought of as bearing the penalties of their own misdeeds." (Man versus the State, p. 22) Somehow when sentiments rule, never mind about any prohibition of slavery or involuntary servitude. People who look with great sorrow and outrage at America's history of slavery, as well as slavery around the globe and throughout human history, seem to throw their principles aside and endorse the very thing they supposedly consider so dastardly because they believe that the deplorable conditions of some people's lives need to be remedied no matter what!

Some time ago I wrote an essay in which some of this was discussed at length and the following applies here particularly aptly:

"The virtue of generosity is a character trait that inclines one to extend oneself toward benefiting others in a spontaneous fashion, except for some of its more remote manifestations—i.e., through institutions. Generosity is a virtue when its development and practice is a matter of human choice. As such it requires the presence of a community in which the sovereignty of individuals is granted and respected. That sovereignty, in turn, implies the institution of the right to private property since to make decisive and responsible choices a person needs to act within a determinate realm of nature, a realm—great or small—within which he or she alone governs or chooses what will happen.

"Unless there is widespread voluntary acknowledgment of such sovereignty and suitable conduct that accommodates this, a community must at least have this sovereignty of individual human beings vigorously protected. This is necessary for any virtue to flourish, but especially for generosity because of its involvement with the disposition of what persons own, including their labor, skills, property, time, etc.

"There remains only one point to be covered, rather briefly, namely, whether governments themselves would ever be morally obliged to be generous. Would this not undercut their own rather particular mission of maintaining and preserving justice? Would it not make them into wealth-redistributors and thus instruments of regimentation of human action which would impede the possibility of individual and voluntary social virtuous conduct? Furthermore, if governments need to remain scrupulously fair in the performance of their primary mission, how could they remain fair while also extending themselves generously to­ward some people in society? If the duty of fairness is so vital in government, and if generosity consumes resources and extending it would generally involve favoring some citizens over others, would not all cases of generosity involve some breach of duty?"

Despite all this, it seems that for many people just feeling--former President Clinton's "I feel your pain"--for the helpless or homeless and then advocating government action in behalf of them suffices to feel morally virtuous. Sorry, that just won't do.

Friday, February 20, 2009

Bias at The News Hour

Tibor R. Machan

Often I check out newscasts from several sources, not just in print and on the Internet but also on radio and TV. One place where I check things out fairly regularly is PBS (Public Broadcasting Service) TV's The News Hour with Jim Lehrer, mainly because I am curious how a program funded to a considerable extent from money taken in taxes handles controversial topics. After all, the taxes are taken from all Americans who have a wide variety of viewpoints about the news while The News Hour has limited resources and time and obviously cannot give all these viewpoints an equal chance to be represented.

Not surprisingly, then, nearly all treatments of controversial matters are decidedly biased on this program. And while one can say the same about NBC-TV, ABC-TV, CBS-TV, CNN TV and Fox TV, those are all privately funded and they aren't taking money from people and covering stories in ways these people may very well find seriously objectionable. PBS has an obligation to do a creditable job of representing the wide variety of viewpoints, at least to some extent, while those other privately funded organizations do not other than in a professional sense, as journalists. PBS's responsibility is a political, not only a professional one, because they are funded by all taxpayers!

There is, of course, no doubt about the bias on The News Hour. For example, only two commentators are invited to offer opinions on various issues, David Brooks and Mark Shields, day after day, without a break other than when one goes on vacation. Needless to note, there is a far greater variety of opinions on the various topics in the country than what Brooks and Shields provide. These two represent mainstream conservatism and liberalism, at best, although even there many conservatives and liberals would probably find that their views never see the light of day at all.

But the bias is evident elsewhere, perhaps even more, This is when one of Lehrer's reporters brings in two or three economists, foreign policy experts, educators, business professionals and the like, again mostly lukewarm mainstreamers without a scintilla of a seriously challenging opinion coming from any of them. It is mostly people who would be offered space on the Op Ed pages of The New York Times or The Washington Post. Now and then a Wall Street Journal reporter or editor is invited but rarely.

Even part from the selection of "experts" in the various fields being discussed on the air, there is also the more blatant bias of some of the news reporters. For instance, in a recent report on the way President Obama's stimulus plan is being viewed around Washington, reporter Kwame Holmes made reference to some doubts about this policy by referring to "fears that President Obama's economic plan may not be enough...." He didn't mention fears that the president's plan may be wrongheaded, misguided, overblown, or the like--only that it may "not be enough," thus showing a bias in favor of just one way the plan might be improved, namely, by making the various bailouts even larger than what they are because as they stand they are too little.

In fact, of course, hundreds, even thousands of critics can be found across America's universities and think tanks who do find the plan misguided, wrongheaded, and so forth, as the list of them featured recently in a Cato Institute sponsored advertisement makes abundantly clear.

Has Jim Lehrer ever let anyone on the program who pointed out that President Obama grossly misrepresented whether there exists a consensus among academic economists concerning his stimulus policy? No. No one has appeared on the program, one paid for in part by all Americans, voicing criticism of the Obama policy apart from some Republicans who could then be dismissed as being purely partisan, without any scholarly credentials.

Bias on PBS TV and NPR (Nation Public Radio) abounds, of course, and one could do a doctoral dissertation ferreting it out but in a column I can only call attention to a few cases. Yet they should suffice to indicate that public television is anything but representative to the American public.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

"It's Only Money!"

Tibor R. Machan

How is it you never hear prominent critics of Western materialism and capitalism defending the likes of Bernard Madoff with the exclamation, "It's Only Money!"? If their disdain for money is honest, if they consider it something dirty and unimportant in human life. at least in a decent, exemplary human life, then surely it should be of no great significance that some people like Madoff steal if from people big time.

Indeed, why is it that when there is an economic downturn like now all those folks who urge us to go back to nature--really they mean the the wilds--and who decry all the development that occurs in good times are deafeningly silent? There ought to be triumphant Op Ed pieces in The New York Times, The Washington Post, The New Republic, The Nation, The New York Review of Books or other publications that often publish pieces dubious about our materialist ways. Don't you think? This is just what such folks wanted--the destruction of the automobile, the de-industrialization of the country, the return of workers to labor in their gardens or the woods. What could be better than widespread unemployment to undermine the excessive commercialization of society? Without jobs, people will not be crowding the malls but, more likely, commune with nature in the hundreds of national parks and forest preserved for just the occasions when the rat race of capitalism has subsided?

Oh, but times like these make folks more honest than when it costs them nothing, not even embarrassment, to deride modern materialist society. Still. I would admire the people more if their integrity showed when it may be a bit tough to live by one's professed ideals. It would be admirable to see animal rights advocates out in the wilds defending small prey against the large, show that they are not only against the human use of animals but also against other animals' use of vulnerable animals. Or to have all the critics of modern civilization to step up and publicly applaud all the downsizing going on in Detroit and elsewhere, maybe even lend a hand to those who have become unemployed by, say, hiring them as gardeners or farmers and animal care givers--you know, all those jobs that leave the wilds intact and do not cause urban sprawl.

Alas, this reminds me of that well known quip that there are no atheists in foxholes (which, by the way, is a crock). Integrity, which is keeping in mind and acting on all the right values without ditching some of them when they become inconvenient, is in short supply. It is in extremely short supply with politicians and bureaucrats who are part of an essentially corrupt system, one that lives off the principle that it's perfectly fine to rob Peter in order to benefit Paul (and skim some of it in the process for one's troubles). It also brings to mind those celebrities on late night talk shows who insist on attempting to persuade the audience that they care nothing about money, nothing at all, only their art concerns them! Yes, and I have this bridge you may wish to purchase from me if you believe that bunk.

For all the people out there who are routinely disdainful about money, I call upon you to come to Bernard Madoff's defense--as well as the defense of others who defraud clients and rob banks and otherwise take other people's money without permission--by proclaiming loud and clear, "Hey, it's only money, so what's the big fuss?" I implore all the priests and ministers who keep telling their flock that "the love of money is the root of all evil," to now insist that Bernie Madoff & Co. are not worth fussing about since all they did was take the money, which, as the faithful have been told over and over again, isn't really what's truly worthwhile. (But then why bother about sending around the collection plate?)

Fact is, money represents hard work and some luck in our lives and we use it to obtain the products of other people's hard work and creativity (and a bit of their luck, too) if they are willing to sell them. To scoff at money is no smarter than to denounce theater tickets that get you in to see the show! And when one has it stolen from him, as the Madoffs are willing to do, one has every reason to be outraged. Because money matters!
Bad Deja vue

Tibor R. Machan

I was born on the eve of World War II and once I could think a bit for myself my life was surrounded in Budapest with the disaster of Soviet style socialism. One standard feature of that system is that everything is run or strictly managed by the government. This was even true with the press--what is today the media. And a constant, relentless offering in the state run newspapers included nasty cartoons depicting rapacious, viscous, ugly, gross capitalists. Every day you opened the papers on the editorial page you found some drawing in which American or Western capitalist were caricatured as the scum of the earth. As if they were child molesters or something truly vile, not the usually hard working financial experts, wealth care professionals these people actually were and still are.

Oh, my critics will immediately bring up Enron and this current bunch of crooks with Bernard Madoff on top of the list, followed by Texan billionaire Allen Stanford and of course Enron and the other firms that have deceived clients and customers, as if finance is the sole sanctuary for crooks in a free country. What about all the quacks in medicine, the dead beat professors in higher education, and, of course, the majority of politicians who live off stolen resources and hand out bailouts as if they were being generous benefactors instead of the worst kind of Robin Hoods! (Robin, by the way, actually stole from the taxman and returned the funds to his victims!)

But never mind. What came to mind for me in the last few days is just how the culture in America is slowly taken on the style of Hungarian, Soviet backed statism. Demonize those in finance, as if their profession were no better than that of hit men or bank robbers! From the President all the way to two bit locals who fawn over him these days as if her the Messiah--and perhaps in comparison to George W. Bush this is somewhat forgivable--there is now in America a generalized disdain for Wall Street and all those associate with it. Not that all such professionals are innocent of wrong doings but compared to the vile stuff pulled by people who are being elected to high office they are pretty much small fry.

What is scandalous is the class warfare mentality which I had thought would only flourish in a country ruled by puppets of the Soviet Union, ruled in all phases of life, including journalism and education where one received nothing but nasty anti-capitalist propaganda. Here in the USA there was to be a different attitude afoot. Although of course all professions have their crooks and malpractice is certainly evident on Wall Street, as much as on Main Street, this clearly prejudicial, indiscriminate derision of the community of financial professionals, just brings to mind for me the stuff with which I was bombarded as a kid by the "communist" regime. (They were, of course, just thugs, no more communist that the Mafia is Christian!)

Sure, we still have a reasonably free press, although who knows for how long, judging by the abuse heaped upon global warming skeptics at universities and by many who work in government. I can still write a column like this one, and even one that expresses grave doubts about global warming or the bailout, although the trend may be toward soon silencing the more influential folks like me. (Just read Patrick J. Michaels' Preface to his and Robert C. Balling, Jr.'s just published book, Climate of Extremes [Cato, 2009].) But yes, Virginia, it can happen here and there are signs it may very well, sufficiently to put lovers of liberty on alert!

Oddly, I may sound like a pessimist and in the short run I am. But there will always be bumps on the road to liberty and today we see many of them, although there are areas were freedom does flourish--women and gays are far freer now than before. But when these bumps do occur, it is the business of loyal friends of liberty to make sure no one forgets that freedom is a good thing even while officialdom is trying to besmirch it.
Bailouts versus bailouts

Tibor R. Machan

The current focus on bailouts brings to the fore a widespread confusion. Perhaps it can best be understood by comparing the bailouts many of us who are parents have performed, versus the government's bailout of banks, car companies, etc.

As a parent of three grown children I have on and off been approached by one or another of them asking me to please bail them out of, for example, credit card debts. The sums are not inconsiderable, given my economic standing, but I could usually manage, if only by going into temporary debt myself. Say my child maxed out his or her credit card to the tune of two or three grands. Being something of a pushover parent and not wishing to saddle them with bad debt early in their lives, I would comply with their requests. And I have done this several times, actually.

Each time, however, I would dip into my own savings or borrow on terms my lenders and I could agree on. I would not ransack the homes of my neighbors or friends in these undertakings. I certainly would not even think of using other people's resources without their consent (for instance, that of my my bank). Nor would I gather citizens of my community and use a democratic process to confiscate their wealth.

When you borrow money from other people on mutually agreed to terms, they assume a risk but with full awareness that this is what they are doing. And if they are at all economically savvy, they would make sure the terms insure them against loss and even bring in some profit by way of the going interest money would fetch at the time.

Now this kind of family bailout may have its downsides, of course. First of all it can send very bad signals to your children about the way money needs to be earned. Simply providing them with the bailout can suggest, if only implicitly, that money just grows on trees, at least on family trees. And in time this can come to haunt parents since they will at some point stop earning enough to keep increasing their savings, or have made some unwise investments, or the politicians and bureaucrats in Washington and other centers of economic interference have managed muck up the system so that one's money has come to be nearly worthless.

There are innumerable other ways that the parents (or grandparents) can start becoming less and less capable of doing these bailouts. Hopefully the children are mature enough that they, too, appreciate all this and begin to be more prudent, manage their resources more sensibly and stop needing and asking for bailouts. My own have nearly reached this point although not yet, even though they are now in their late or mid 20s. My idea is, however, what else am I to do with my resources if not first of all provide support for my children, hoping that I will be sensible about it and not send bad signals to them. (Some, by the way, are more eager for bailouts than others!)

When the federal government provides bailouts of the sort it has been doling out recently the situation is very different. And the central, most crucial difference, is that the government has no resources of its own--Mr. Obama and his team do not bail out anyone, nada. They do not go to their savings accounts and dip into these so as to help out failing banks or auto companies. They do not refinance their homes in order to enable them to do these bailouts. What Mr. Obama & Co. do, along with all the politicians and bureaucrats involved in these endeavors, is to place millions of Americans who have no say in the matter into very serious debt, a debt that will have to be paid by imposing confiscatory taxes on them, including their children and grandchildren who aren't even around to have some kind of electoral say about the matter. Mr. Obama & Co. view the country as their firm, a company they own that has resources they can use at their discretion, a company that can assume debt as would one in a free market place, only of course these assumptions are way off.

Sure, maybe the majority of the voters can be taken to have agreed to assume the debts incurred by the Obama team but what about those who didn't? Does democracy really mean one may vote on other people's use of their resources? Then why not on what religions they must subscribe to, what they may think and say? In fact, that's what many people argue, in effect taking it that the United States of America is a huge voluntary cooperative or corporation or commune or something and its political leaders are like conductors of orchestras. They completely ignore that fact that the country was founded on principles of individual rights to one's life, liberty, pursuit of happiness, etc., matters not subject majority rule! They ignore that the whole point of a country such as the US was meant to be--as per the Declaration of Independence--is to make these rights secure, including secure from the majority, not just some British king.

When parents bail out their kids it may not always be wise and prudent but it is honest. When Mr. Obama & Co. do a bailout it is dishonest since they do it always with the resource or future resources of millions of citizens who haven't consented to the policy and whose own purposes are thus just as severely thwarted as if a criminal had burglarized their homes and run away with what they own.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Acknowledging the Merits of Capitalism

Tibor R. Machan

Anyone with but a little knowledge of Marxism, at least Karl's version of it, knows that the old communist wasn't altogether hostile to capitalism. He regarded it as a necessary and indeed beneficial phase of the history of humanity. For Marx this history unfolded comparably to how an individual human being's history unfolds, with an infancy (tribalism), childhood (feudalism), adolescence (capitalism), young adulthood (socialism) and maturity (communism). But in the last analysis capitalism is undesirable, just as adolescence is, though with elements to it that are needed for the species to grow up properly.

One reason most American Leftists are confused is that they fail to see how the goal they all share, the planned economy--despite denying it a lot--requires this capitalist phase. Without it a society cannot advance because under capitalism the means of production develop powerfully so as to be taken over by the government under socialism. For a Marxist socialist to destroy capitalism amounts to killing the goose that lays the golden egg.

One of the flaws of Stalin's version of "communism" was that, well, it wasn't any kind of communism at all. It was in fact a form of fascism, something the late Susan Sontag very perceptively observed (to the consternation of many of her Leftist friends). Sure, Stalin, just as Lenin, invoked a kind of Marxist vocabulary in his rather inept ruminations about political economy. But the actual regime he headed up was a fascist dictatorship.

A very illuminating glimpse of this can be gained from Orlando Figes's The Whisperers: Private Life in Stalin's Russia (2007). The review essay of this book, by Joseph Frank in The New York Review of Books (February 26, 2009) is itself a fascinating read. No one can get through the book, or even the review, without affirming the fundamental viciousness of Stalin's regime, both a moral and political viciousness, that makes sense of why there remain Russians who are nostalgic for it.

What jumped out at me in the review essay is not the central feature of it, or even of the book, but a remark Frank makes about capitalism, one that's rare among Leftists. He observes that "Collaborations with Western left-wing parties during the Popular Front period had already opened the way for books and films to offer a much more alluring image of life in the capitalist West," much more, that is, than that which was presented to Russians by Soviet propaganda. This has produced an attitude favorable to liberalization, albeit not much came of it back then.

It is remarkable how when one considers capitalism in contrast to the Stalinist era--just as if one considers it in contrast to, say, (Cuba's) Castro's or (Venezuela's) Chavez's version of so called socialism (which is, as noted earlier, just a type of fascism)--even authors writing for a Leftist publication such as The New York Review of Books acknowledge that capitalism is superior. Of course, the capitalism they are talking about is actually a kind of welfare state "liberalism." But the essentials of capitalism, its system of private property rights, freedom of expression, democracy and so on, clearly compare favorably to the dictatorial regime that any large scale socialist system requires.

It would be useful if Leftists kept this in mind and instead of insisting on pushing Western welfare states further toward a planned, statist political economy they got on board with all those who want to develop the capitalist system to achieve its best version.

Of course, the concept "capitalism" is used to mean different systems by different people but the basic element of it, one that is acknowledged implicitly in both Figes's book and Frank's review, is its individualist social philosophy. Whatever the details of capitalism, about which there is a good deal of controversy--for example, there are so called left-libertarians who reject its embrace of the business corporation because it involves, they argue (dubiously, in my view), a form of statism--it should be evident by now, both from history and from theory, that the system is far more humane, far more productive, and far more just that all those put in opposition to it.

It is gratifying to read that some who would ordinarily be expected to oppose it actually acknowledge its merits.