Saturday, February 28, 2009

Obama & Special Interests

Tibor R. Machan

In his weekend radio address of February 28, 2009, President Obama once again talked about how he isn’t captive to any special interest group. As he put it, "The system we have now might work for the powerful and well-connected interests that have run Washington for far too long, but I don't. I work for the American people," Obama declared. "I didn't come here to do the same thing we've been doing or to take small steps forward, I came to provide the sweeping change that this country demanded when it went to the polls in November."

Commenting on the $787 billion spending bill he insists on calling an “economic stimulus package” —despite the fact that no one knows now whether the funds will in fact stimulate any kind of economic growth—Mr. Obama said "I know these steps won't sit well with the special interests and lobbyists who are invested in the old way of doing business, and I know they're gearing up for a fight as we speak." Then he added a flat out threat: "My message to them is this: So am I."

Yet consider this for just a moment. Who are all these (mean, vicious) special interests? And who are all the (honorable, virtuous) American people? Lo and behold they are the very same citizens of the country! Yes these special interest groups are composed of Americans who are represented by experts at approaching the government for various types of support. They are farmers, artists, merchants small and large, teachers, steel workers, auto workers, bankers, brokers, dentists, doctors, and so on and so forth. That is who all these nasty, vicious special interest groups are made up of, the same folks who are so noble and innocent, The People!

The plain, unadorned fact is that so long as the various governments across the country, municipal, country, state, or federal—it makes no difference—have funds to dole out, there will be experts with the skill to navigate the corridors of power with the aim of bringing home to their clients what the government has to offer. Millions and millions of Americans—the American People—are among these greedy special interest groups.

Now I cannot for a moment believe that President Obama is unaware of what I just wrote! He has been in government, he has taught law, he is familiar with all kinds of theories of public affairs—he didn’t just step off some Martian spaceship without a clue as to how it goes with all this public affairs stuff. He knows well and good that everyone is out there trying to get the goodies, let us not be na├»ve. And to attempt to convince his audiences across the country that there is some large mass of citizens who are The People, standing over against all those gangs who are the special interest groups, is totally disingenuous, President Obama knows better, so why is he talking like this?

Maybe our new president is simply making an attempt at plain old demagoguery, pretending that there are some few really nasty folks out there who have managed to capture the government, the politicians and the bureaucracy, while the rest of us innocent, vulnerable citizens are being abused by these few. But that cannot be right—as I said, Mr. Obama wasn’t born yesterday. He has been in the thick of politics for years; he knows the underlying system that makes the game possible—tax people as far as you can without them revolting, then make it appear you are giving back what you took from them with your special understanding of the people’s needs. Of course, as this process unfolds, the politicians and their supporters—yes, Mr. Obama is supported by a lot of special interest groups—work diligently to get in on the take.

Maybe a man such as Mr. Obama can convinced himself that he is above this game, that his intentions are all commendable and that only his critics are evil monsters. But I don’t believe this is true and even doubt that every moment of the day he can deceive himself to believe it either.
It's Wrong To Soak the Rich

Tibor R. Machan

Someone asked me why I defend the rich and I told him I don't, not in particular. I defend individual rights, and since the rich have the same rights we all have, I also defend them, especially when they are targeted for systematic rights violation as they often are by governments. I also defend the tall, beautiful, talented, short, scientists, scholars, athletes--well, you get the point. I defend individual human rights, period, and these can use all the defense that can be mustered in their support since individual human rights, not the rights of the rich or tall or pretty, are under constant assault by those who think when you do well in life, you are fair game for being assaulted, having your goods and services expropriated or conscripted. (See my book, Individuals and Their Rights [1989] for the long story!)

In fact, no one is fair game for that, not anyone. It is ridiculous, morally obscene, to believe the rich can be ripped off and urge the resulting public policies from this idea. If the rich are rich honestly, if they got their wealth through good fortune and work and other people's voluntary patronage, no one has any right to take their riches, not even democratically, no way.

Yes, it is counterproductive, too, to do so but that's not the central issue. The central issue is that the rich are human beings with their unalienable individual rights, including the right to their lives, liberties, and property. John Locke was right--to deprive someone of his or her property is to invade his or her life, no matter how much of it there is. (The only exception Locke allowed is in a state of total natural chaos, like a major earthquake or flood or the like, in which case some might gain an unjust monopoly by sheer accident.)

Frankly it has always been a puzzle to me that people want to rip off others who have more than they do. After all, if the stuff is theirs, how dare anyone do so? Why not rip off one's extra kidney or eye or why not attempt to make the beautiful ugly so they don't gain extra advantages? It is clearly rank envy to believe that such actions or policies are acceptable.

When people are luckier than I am, so much the better for them--many are (for example, all those who get published in books, magazines, newspapers, etc. where I'd love to see my work appear). (Oddly, the supporters of wealth redistribution aren't all that eager to part with their own advantages, such as prestigious appointments at Harvard or Princeton University or important book contracts with Oxford or Stanford University Press!)

Something infects people when they think of other people's economic advantages, although now and then it goes further than that. But somehow when a baseball player garners enormous wealth from playing ball--yes, playing!--it seems to be fine for most. Why? Maybe because they can see the player do what he gets payed for, whereas the rich of Wall Street or of the banking industry earn their wealth behind closed office doors. (And don't talk to me about crooks--there are plenty of those in any field of work, including baseball!)

There is just one thing I can think of that may make all this envy, all this zero-sum game thinking, slightly understandable. This is that not too long ago in history the rich--the monarchs and their minions--were nearly all crooks. They ripped off the peasants, they confiscated wealth through taxation (because they viewed others as working on "their" land, in "their" country). Since much of human history witnessed gaining wealth by illicit means--and sadly a good many still do so--millions still think that all wealth must be gained that way. Wrong. And to treat all the rich as if they got rich by robbing people is rank injustice.

Sadly even in America, the supposed leader of the free world, with its institutions of supposedly largely free enterprise and free markets, people still don't get it. Wealth, unless it is stolen, doesn't grow on trees but must be produced, created, earned. Sure a bit of it is a matter of luck--like that of the beautiful model who cashes in by adorning the covers of Vogue or Harper's Bazaar. But we all benefit from some luck, just as we suffer from some misfortune, rich or not alike.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

A Country Isn't a Club

Tibor R. Machan

A fundamental flaw in President Obama's thinking is that he views America as a club or team that we all joined for some common purpose. But a country isn't a club, nor a team. People are born into a country, they do not join one, although of course they do indicate their preference to live in it when they remain there. But a club, like the Rotary or Kiwanis or Elk club, is an organization intentionally set up for some purpose that those who join consider important and want to support.

A country is, in contrast, a place wherein citizens can undertake innumerable and highly diverse task, pursue a huge variety of different goals, have enormously different purposes, just so long as they do not encroach upon others, do not violate other people's right to do likewise. Even your neighbor is not a fellow club member but an independent citizen whose company can only be enjoyed if he or she chooses to join in some common venture with you but who is normally free to do as he or she wants. In a free country, especially, citizens may not be conscripted to contribute to goals that are not their own. The Amish or Roma Catholics, or scientist and artists and farmers and steel workers--all these folks have different agendas and in a free society that's exactly right. And a free society is what is right for human beings, not some dictatorship or totalitarian regime.

Of course, there are times when citizens of a country may have to unite for a while to achieve some truly common goal, such as defending the country from aggressors from outside. And different regions of a country will at times emergencies that effect them all that all those in such regions will have to contend with, often together so that they manage it effectively. But this isn't the norm. Rather in a free country the routine is that all varieties of goals are pursued by all varieties of individuals and voluntary groups.

The president in a free country isn't someone who leads everyone toward some common end since in a free country the ends of citizens vary enormously. What the president and his administration exist for is to make sure conditions are proper for this great variety of endeavors the citizenry undertakes. If this is forgotten, the citizenry start being treated like members of a military, they get to be regimented about for purposes they did not consent to pursue. This is done through all kinds of coercive means--the main one being taxation. Others include government regulations and public policies that everyone is required to support.

In totalitarian countries it is the norm that everyone must submit to such regimentation, regulation, and dictation but in a free country that is entirely out of order. And the trouble with totalitarian regimes is precisely that they fail to appreciate the individuality and diversity of the citizenry. Just recall the pictures from North Korea, the old Soviet Union, and the Third Reich where millions of citizens are all dressed up in the same way and made to march together to give a clear indication that they are understood to be part of the same team, the same club, lead by some dictator toward the same goal.

How can someone like President Obama be so misguided about this? After all, one of the worst legacies of America is slavery, where millions of individuals were violated, deprived of the chance to choose their own goals in their lives, to take charge of it, to be sovereign citizens. That is the condition that millions of black Americans remember as their ancestors' lot and they of all Americans should completely reject the idea that they belong to some club that is being directed by a leader.

Mr. Obama is the presiding officer of the administration of America's laws, not some Fuhrer to drive us all to go in a direction of his choosing or even of the choosing of a majority of Americans. Yes, many Americans fail to resist being drafted into this club but they are wrong. They should realize that others can have very different ideas as to what goals to pursue and not thwart them in this effort.

Alas, the collectivist vision is still a powerful, has been throughout human history, starting with when men and women operated in tribes or clans, when that was necessary for bare survival. But those times are gone and in our day the individuality of everyone should take precedence and not be subjugated to some common purpose.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Ideology Again

Tibor R. Machan

Perusing the Sunday New York Times will almost guarantee running across the term "ideology" in various commentaries and news analyses. In her essay in Week in Review, titled "Cutting Slack Is So Old School," Sheryl Gay Stolberg invokes the term as follows: she reports that Newt Gingrich's view is that "the minority party has the right, even obligation, to stick to its ideological principles." And she says Ronald Reagan "swept into office as one of the most ideologically driven candidates in modern history." In neither case does she provide a clue as what work the term "ideology" does as she uses it. Nor is there some way to discern this by the context, say, by seeing a contrast between ideology and something else. It seems to be used derisively, though, that's evident, since it is applied only to those whose ideas Ms. Stolberg finds objectionable, ones that fail to give support to President Barack Obama during his honeymoon period. She quotes 82 year old former Virginia Senator John Warner saying that Mr. Obama "must be given the opportunity to exercise leadership of his own choosing consistent with the will of the people who put him in office."

Let me now bother with the particulars here--for instance, is the president to "be given the opportunity to exercise leadership of his own choosing" by those who consider the enormous stimulus package utterly disastrous for the country? Never mind that millions of young people are being put into debt with no opportunity for them to have a say about it all. But I guess that would be to think ideologically, whatever that is supposed to mean.

It looks like the use of "ideology" serves to obscure whether someone's principles of politics or economics are well supported by history and theory and simply involves indicting principles one doesn't consider sound. For President Obama the right ideology, then, is John Maynard Keynes' idea that creating artificial, government driven demand for work projects is a sound approach to public policy. For his critics the right ideology is that such infusion of phony money is far worse a "cure" than the disease it aims to remedy. But both ides, then are ideologically driven and Obama's are ideological principles no less than are the principles of those who find his views unsound. So what then does it add to call them "ideological"?

There was a time, a century or so ago, when many intellectuals used "ideology" to impugn the honesty of someone's ideas, implying with the use of that term that the ideas were mere rationalizations, invented, consciously or subconsciously, so as to give them the appearance of seriousness. Just as a rationalization is a corrupted reason, so ideology is corrupted philosophy, or so it was widely believed.

But this view about ideology was founded on a very complicated and highly dubious philosophy, worked out by the likes of Hegel and Marx, so it soon fell into disrepute. After a while "ideology" came to mean, instead, "simplified philosophy" and lost its critical bite apart from that. Since most of us lack the time and patience to always lay out our full case for the positions we hold, nearly all of us are mainly ideologically driven. Our principles, too, are ideological ones, be they those of Barack Obama or Ronald Reagan, since those in public office simply have no time and opportunity to develop the foundations of their thinking. Some choose to buttress this with claims to being pragmatic or flexible, as if these didn't involve elaborate theoretical foundations in order to given them solid footing.

So it looks like "ideology" is a term of derision that has lost its conceptual foundations and now is used merely to express one's emotional dislike of certain ideas. They are ideological principles if one doesn't approve of them but genuine principles if one does. Maybe calling attention to this fact will in time stop the pointless use of the term.