Saturday, April 04, 2009

The Closest to Royalty

Tibor R. Machan

With my regular exercise going full force, mostly so as to manage my pretty awful sciatica, I get to watch the news for about a hour each day now, while I sweat away on my treadmill. During the half our or forty five minutes when I proceed with this to me quite undesirable exercise, I pick and choose from a variety of news sources--CNN Headline, MSNBC, Fox-TV, NBC-TV, CBS-TV or ABC-TV (if it's the right time for the latter's newscasts).

These days what there is a good deal of on most of these outlets is idolatry, the treatment of something or someone as a God, a false God to be sure. Or, as one of the NBC-TV morning news reporters from Washington, DC, put it, "what comes the closest to royalty" in America, the first couple, Michelle and Barack Obama.

And, yes, the couple strikes a good pose and has done pretty well at impressing Europeans many of whom are, after all, still living under royal rule--in Great Britain, Holland, Norway, Denmark, Sweden and Spain, albeit royalty with but a smattering of political clout. Still, somehow the Europeans hang on to the image, at least, of being governed by some god-sent person, someone one can well near worship.

What is puzzling to me, an emigrant from a country that up until the second world war was a royal protectorate or something--with Admiral Horthy as the regent--is why Americans, especially ones who end up being entrusted with news reporting, think so highly of royalty. Why is it any kind of plus for the president and first lady to amount to "what comes closest to royalty," when the birth of the nation involved overthrowing royalty and establishing the nemesis of it, namely, a republic? I consider this a backsliding in our culture, nothing less. Not that we need to be diplomatically ornery toward royalty abroad--diplomacy requires hard swallowing sometimes--but gushing should be out of the question.

But there is something even more amiss with the reception the Obama couple is getting from the Washington press corps. This is that they are so very enchanted with their good looks, their elegance, their beautiful people status. Mind you, I am actually very much in favor of beauty, including on the part of the figureheads of a nation (for in a free society they aren't leaders, only presiding officers). But the mainstream commentators and observers in our culture are supposed to be disdainful toward beauty, including in women. It was the prominent liberal commentator Noami Wolf who wrote the book, The Beauty Myth, which was to be the last liberal, egalitarian word on the role of beauty in a just society--namely, it should have no role, quite the opposite. It is to be scoffed at as irrelevant in human relationships, something one tends to be born with and therefore does not deserve! Yes, that is the official line.

So then why are these folks falling over themselves about the Obama couple's aesthetic and even sex appeal? Isn't that inappropriate? Kind of like hiring people in your university or company on the basis of, among other things, how good looking they are! Sadly it calls to mind just how easily the modern liberals, egalitarians, gave Bill Clinton a pass when he, Commander in Chief of the Armed Forces of the United States of America, was taking advantage of a young--admittedly willing--intern at the White House. No feminist outcry, nada!

I would have nothing much against welcoming good looks on the part of professionals provided it doesn't overshadow competence and other relevant qualifications. Why not prefer the attractive to the not so? Of course. But that's a right we have in choosing friends and associates that egalitarians and liberals tend to want to abolish, demean, or at least a right the exercise of which they find offensive.

So why, when one of their own turns out to be beautiful, don't they remind us of just how irrelevant that's supposed to be and how much more significant it is whether Mr. Obama's policies are doing any good at all in the quest to return the country to economic normalcy? Where is Noami Wolf now?

Friday, April 03, 2009

Some Sense about Advertising, etc.

Tibor R. Machan

John Kenneth Galbraith was a member of Harvard University's economics department as well as ambassador to India for JFK and a outspoken socialist. His debates with his close friend, the late William F. Buckley, Jr., were famous--and he lost all of them!

In his book The Affluent Society (1969?) he included a chapter, "The Dependence Effect," on advertising which has been reprinted all over the places, especially business ethics collections. He argued that corporations create desires in us all for their wares and services and we become hooked to them and thus corporations keep getting prosperous on and on and on. The even more famous Nobel Laureate economist F. A. Hayek wrote a rebuttal to Galbraith's piece, "The non-sequitur of 'The Dependence Effect'." He argued that Galbraith misunderstood desires, thinking them to be decisive in leading to human action. Hayek pointed out that desires can be governed, controlled, ordered, suppressed even. The two essays are featured in a great many books on business ethics and nearly all discussions of advertising.

I believe Hayek was right all along but if one needs proof, I believe our current economic mess provides it in spades. Consider how readily people, bent on tightening their belts, manage to resist ads everywhere. It is so bad that the government is making desperate efforts to bolster consumption, trying to generate, artificially, demands for goods and services that advertisements don't succeed in getting sold. Now, if corporations had all that power by way of advertising, that Galbraith had ascribed to them, how is it that they aren't bringing in customers? How is it that customers all over the country and elsewhere are these days refusing to spend their resources in the market? Advertising may have moved from newspapers to the Internet but there is plenty of it around, yet customers are no budging.

The likely truth of the matter is that the majority of people are quite capable of ordering their desires, of saying "no" to this ad or that, while "yes" to some others. And they do this mostly with an understanding of their economic situation, so that just now most of them, seeing that money is hard to come by, tend to be reticent, hesitant about spending. (Whether the efforts by governments, following certain parts of John Maynard Keynes' economic theory, to beef up demand works is an interesting and very much open question; books abound disputing the idea as well as supporting it, by reference, especially, to historical epochs such as the Great Depression and the ensuing New Deal.)

This also suggests something important about human choice. When people are said to have free will, it is often mistaken to imply that they act helter-skelter, without anyone able to predict anything they will or won't do. But that's not free will but randomness. Free will means one can set oneself on various courses of action, some short range and some quite long--just think of the commitment made when a the bride and groom utter "I do." Surely we can make some predictions as a result of that yet admit that they were free to choose whether to marry.

One reason the Obama administration's stimulus policy may not work out so well is that people aren't forced to respond to stimuli--they can turn away, refuting the underlying assumptions of what it takes to get them out there to buy stuff! Governments tend to wish we were malleable but we aren't, really. This is just one of many reasons governments ought not to be counted on to direct an economic system. The people of that system might not want to comply with The Plan they hatch there in Washington. They may well have other ideas in mind. In a genuine free market--not to shabby facsimile we have had in place for decades on end--the interacting individuals would figure out what is best for them and follow their judgments thus informed. And that would, like Adam Smith suggested, lead to the optimum overall economic benefit of all!

Wednesday, April 01, 2009

Equality is not big deal

Tibor R. Machan

In the fields of political philosophy, theory, and economy much debate occurs about just what is most important for a human community—that is, what, as a community guided by a legal system, should the citizenry be aiming for. The issue comes up, of course, outside of academic disputation, as well. For example, in his inaugural address President Obama stressed that America ought to have some large objective, a grand vision, and he promised that the country will pursue just such a vision. Others, like the American founders, don't stress any such overall objective and focus more on making it possible for citizens to pursue their own diverse visions, their happiness as they understand it. In many countries what is taken to be the overall goal is set by the Bible or the Koran or some other religious text. There are also countries, and have always been, in which the issues is left entirely up to some charismatic leader—he or she is to set the goals to be pursued by all.

In our time one favorite choice of political theorists is equality, especially economic equality. Many of these theorists, working at very prestigious academic institutions, think tanks, or writing for journals, established publishing houses and newspaper, contend that what a country needs to work toward is making all equally well off or, at least, reducing drastic differences in the population’s economic well being. This is evident in America, too, although again, initially, the only kind of equality the country was supposed to strive for is the equal protection of everyone’s basic rights, those laid out in the Declaration of Independence, for example, or the Bill of Rights. Sadly even this limited equality was badly violated with slavery.

Later matters changed, under the influence of prominent thinkers and various political movements, so that by the time of the presidency of Franklin D. Roosevelt the leading political figures endorsed not only the goal of the equal protection of individual rights to life, liberty and property—rights, which if conscientiously protected would make economic inequality pretty much the norm—but massive wealth redistribution so as to make people equally well off by political or legal means.

As an immigrant to America my expectations were based on the earlier idea—I thought that here most of the citizens would be at liberty to seek goals of their own which might or might not lead to economic equality. When I was in college I came across a spirited defense of egalitarianism in one newspaper and responded with a similarly spirited criticism of the idea. I noted that while to some people economic welfare may be a priority, to others it may well be something else—having artistic talents, traveling a good deal, or even gaining the favors of outstanding romantic mates. Certainly to quite a lot of us what is most important, at least at a certain stage of our lives, is to be preferred by potential mates whom we find really appealing. Quite a lot of people lament the fact that they are left behind while others are way ahead in the struggle to find appealing partners!

So perhaps what politicians and bureaucrats should set out to do is to secure equal opportunity or even equal results where these important matters to so many people are concerned. Money—economics—may be of considerable importance but money cannot buy happiness, at least not romantic happiness, for most of us. We would, to speak plainly about this, have to have been born and developed to become aesthetically quite appealing but, alas, there is a widespread unequal distribution of such qualities among the population. (I am willing to bet that if people expressed themselves honestly about this, they would agree that to them finding an appealing mate is more important than being as well of economically as the next person.)

Fact is, about some matters there is just no way to get things arranged politically no matter how hard it is tried. Most efforts to establish economic equality lead to some people having much greater political power than others, power that easily leads to abuse. Moreover, even if for a bit of time economic equality is established, by way of taxation and governmental wealth redistribution, in just a short time the pattern is upset by people making all kinds of different decisions about how they will used their resources.

Instead of aiming for economic equality the task of law and politics should be to make sure that in the quest to achieve whatever goals people have, they do not violate one another’s rights, they do not engage in violence but carry on peacefully, kind of like runners in a marathon race do, knowing well and good that at the end they will not be at the finish line all together.

Monday, March 30, 2009

This is Economic Fascism

Tibor R. Machan

Fascism is a political system in which a country is lead by a charismatic leader who has full power to order things about because he (or she) is taken to know best. Obviously this is a mythical sort of regime, with most of its essential features impossible to come by. No such leader exists, period, but there are many who pretend that they are fully qualified.

President Hugo Chavez of Venezuela is an excellent current case in point. So was Mussolini and Hitler and Stalin and so are Cuba's Fidel Castro and North Korea's Kim Jong-il. Fascism in those countries was and is total, not selective. (In contrast, when Chile was ruled by Pinochet, he left much of the economy to run by itself and exercised fascistic powers elsewhere.)

At least the auto manufacturing sector of the American economy has come under fascistic rule. President Obama and his team have assumed such powers pretty much on their own, without a referendum--indeed polls seem to show that most American disapprove of what they are doing, such as firing the head of GM. (One should ask, who are these people to assume such powers? By what right or authority do they do what no citizen of a free country could do with impunity?)

Is this move on the part of Obama & Co. justified? No. GM ought to suffer the consequences of its bad management, its loss of costumers, and the influence of the union leadership to which most of the workers belong. Big or small, there is no justification for a company to stay in business when it has lost most of its customer base and has become credit unworthy. Indeed, one of the best features of a genuine free economy is that such companies go out of business.

When critics of corporate America, such as Ralph Nader and his associates and co-authors, complain about corporate power, their beef is that the corporations are immune to market forces. They are all wrong, of course, and history has shown just how wrong they are, with companies going bust all over the place and at most periods of time. But when government confiscates the resources of its citizens and makes promises in behalf of millions who have no say in the matter, then such companies can be given a lease on their lives. Maybe the scam will work and some such companies will recover--Chrysler did so about half a century ago. But it is still wrong.

Only a country the economy of which is ruled by a fascist economic tsar has the power to subvert justice and good sense this way. Most genuine democracies would not comply with their leaders, although some have given them the power to become arbitrary rulers. (Hitler came to power democratically, as did Chavez!)

I must say it is very scary to me that this is going on in a country that once had every right to claim to be the leader of the free world. But no fascist system can make such a claim since it stands in direct opposition to liberty. But none of these should be very surprising to Americans. They have seen their federal and state governments act in fascistic fashion, for example, via the war on drugs, the Iraqi war, all kinds of intrusive ordinances throughout the country, and other features that are clear marks of a command economy. Now the chicken are coming home to roost and America is becoming something that would really upset its founders, a monarchy with a monarch who is laying claim to near absolute powers.

Unlike Venezuela, which is now pretty much stuck with Hugo Chavez for an indeterminate period of time and the citizens of which are mostly powerless to change the leadership, America still has periodic elections. Obama can be ousted the next time around if the Republicans can come up with a halfway decent candidate--which, sadly, is unlikely even if possible.

Or Americans can take off their rose colored glasses and begin to see President Obama and his team clearly, as a bunch of power hungry politicians and bureaucrats who have no other answer to the country's troubles than to increase their intrusions in the economy and, who knows, may be other parts as well. (I can easily imagine that if I were more widely read and they became aware of my column, they might go to the lengths of trying to silence me, just as Hugo Chavez has done with his opponents.)

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Brazil's President Lula, Venzuela, and the U.S.A.

Tibor R. Machan

The president of Brazil, Luiz Inacio Lula Da Silva--President Lula for short--was recently interviewed by Fareed Zakaria on the latter's Sunday CNN program, GPS (Global Public Square). In this interview much was discussed in rather vague, geo-political terms, with banalities being the norm rather than the exception. For example, President Lula insisted that in the international community all the different cultural and national political practices and histories must be accorded equal respect, a notion, like multiculturalism, that is at best a gesture, more likely an impossibility and certainly something without much practical prospects.

At one point in the interview, however, President Lula discussed Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez and proposed that Chavez and Barack Obama reach some kind of rapprochement. And one particular proposal he gave voice to is that President Obama "show generosity toward Venezuela," especially now that oil prices are falling and the country's president no longer can afford to persist in its obstreperous ways. President Lula wasn't oblivious to America's own current economic difficulties. Yet he compared Venezuela to a looser in a boxing match, with America being the winner, so that by all the terms of good sportsmanship it is America's role to reach out and embrace Venezuela.

Of course, much of this is quite offensive to anyone who knows well and good that America and president Obama do not literally have the capacity to be generous. Generosity is a moral virtue of individuals who can, if they choose, dip into their own resources--which can include goods and services one may be able to produce--and give those to others whom they deem deserving. Countries can only be generous through the generosity of their citizens--so that, for example, when one calls America a generous country one must mean that the people of America practice the virtue of generosity in their own lives. Or they can have organizations, such as Rotary or the Salvation Army, with voluntarily generous members. But no president of a country can be generous except in his or her personal life. To confiscated resources from the citizens of the country of which one is the president and then give those resources to someone simply isn't being generous. Sure, people often talk that way but it is a mistake and produces a lot of confusion.

There may be various ways in which the president of the United States of America can facilitate better relations with another country--although when that other country's president calls the US "Satan" and is by all reasonable assessment a fascist dictator (see for this Enrique Krauze, "The Shah of Venezuela," The New Republic, April 1, 2009, pp. 29-38)--but generosity simply isn't one of them. Perhaps President Obama should push for foreign aid and similar wealth-redistibutory measures toward Venezuela, although these would have their own moral problems.

More likely, what Obama could do is promote the elimination to all restraints on trade with Venezuela. Yet, again, with Hugo Chavez it is difficult to fathom whatever would induce in him anything but hatred for America. He despises liberal democracies, for example, and he aspires to be the supreme ruler of the Americas. That seems to me difficult to reconcile with the principles of even a relatively free country like the USA.

President Lula seems like a man of good will but he, like so many others who head up governments around the world, seems to be totally oblivious to the idea that it is not he but the citizens of Brazil who are sovereign and that he is a civil servant, period. And of course Hugo Chavez is not just oblivious to what he really is in Venezuela but insists on claiming for himself virtual monarchical powers, as if these were a genuine possibility rather than a fiction from the past.

Sadly, as some have pointed out, America's own civil servants appear to be under the illusion that they are saviours, that their judgments in economic and other spheres must be superior to those of American citizens. (Obama's whole team appears to operate like the owners and managers of a huge corporation, which completely repudiates the idea of a genuine free society!) Maybe America will move toward the European model of social democracy, given that not much movement is actually needed any longer.

Still it is worthwhile to observe and critique the collectivist ideas that are in ascendancy these days, including the notion that President Obama and his administration could by any stretch of the imagination engage in generous conduct toward, say, Venezuela.
For Liberty, 100%

Tibor R. Machan

Over the years as I have learned more and more about how vital liberty is to a good, just human community, I have encountered sizable not just opposition and skepticism but out and out ridicule for holding this position. Of course, there are those, like Venezuela's Hugo Chavez, who are unabashed fascists and make no pretense of any devotion to human freedom. Those like Cuban dictator Fidel Castro and North Korea's Kim Jong-il make no bones about supporting anything but a regime of individual liberty for all its citizens. But within countries like the United States of America there are few political players who do not in some measure claim to be advocates of human freedom, including economic freedom.

Many who advocate the welfare state or some other half way system, in which government has a substantial role managing, regimenting human--especially economic--affairs claim that they are concerned with individual liberty. They often assert that their system is in fact more free than what defenders of the fully, libertarian political idea promote. They will maintain, with a straight face and one must assume very sincerely, that when they promote innumerable forms of government intervention, such as vast economic regulations and wealth redistribution, sometimes even curtailment of the right to free expression such as what is normally associated with the First Amendment to the federal constitution, they are the true defenders of freedom while those advocating a full, uncompromising free society are, in fact, making human liberty vulnerable to abrogation. Thus, as an example, it is sometimes argued that regulating business isn't an intervention in human liberty but a way of support it, to defend it from, for example, big corporations. The same with taxing people's resources!

But then there are those who say without hesitation that an unbridled free system isn't really one that's best for us. They will use terms like "market fundamentalism" by which to indicate that they find the idea of a fully free market system anathema to justice, that freedom is really not right, not if it is the basic standard for justice for all. Such folks sometimes call themselves democratic liberals, or even social democrats, indicating that they have no objection to the curtailment of an individual's right to liberty if that curtailment came about democratically. Market socialists, too, will give support to some measure of freedom of enterprise but will insist that it is best not to take that too far and to promote a regime that keeps society partially socialized. Often such people reserve some area of human social life as in need of total freedom, such as art or religion, but certainly in the area of economics they are eager supporters of extensive government intrusion in people's lives. Now and then you will hear that someone claims to be a libertarian even while championing limiting individual liberty along such lines.

If one is found to be advocating a fully free system, with no compromise on the principle of individual liberty--not in economics, not in the professions, not in education, not in farming, nada--then one is deemed to be an extremist by the self-described levelheaded, moderate folks who supposedly know better than to promote anything as crazy as full freedom for citizens of a just society. No, that would be going too far. (Some even say that full freedom implies defending the right of some to provide for themselves by taking the resources of others, so they are, in fact, the true defenders of liberty.) We need, after all, some governmental interference in how people conduct themselves in their commercial or economic lives, or some other sphere where such people regard it as only civilized and proper that some people will be in charge of how others carry on in their lives. We need some government regulation, don't we? Otherwise chaos will break out, the weak will go unprotected against the powerful, etc., etc., and so forth.

Not all of this can be addressed in a brief discussion but I believe keeping a certain point in mind will at least suggest that there is a fallacy in such partial support for individual liberty, for the denial that the right to liberty requires 100 % protection, with no exceptions, not at any rate as a feature of a just legal order. (We all know that some extremely rare cases can justify limiting liberty, as when you prevent someone you are walking with from stepping into an open whole or drinking a glass of liquid that you happen to know contains poison. But as the saying goes, "hard cases make bad law," so acknowledging some exceptional cases like these does not justify including violations of human liberty on a systematic basis! That is, by the way, what the fuss about government's use of torture is all about--it must not be government's official policy.)

Now, if one were to discuss human slavery, including that which was part of the United States of America not all that long ago, it is generally appreciated that none of it is tolerable in a just legal system. All the ink that columnist Nicholas D. Kristof of The New York Times spills on locating even the tiniest elements of human slavery around the globe and working to abolish it are taken by most people who love justice to be fully justified. Few would dare suggest that Kristof is a freedom fundamentalist, an extremist, for insisting that no slavery at all be tolerated, anywhere, for any reason anyone might cook up. When slaves are set free, finally, the suggestion that they be kept under supervision by local authorities, that their conduct be regulated or regimented since full freedom leads to chaos--all such stuff is clearly off the table and mostly seen as morally obscene.

Well, it is exactly in that spirit that it is obscene to limit economic liberty for anyone. Human beings have a right to liberty and that includes any sphere of, for example their economic, conduct. If they haven't violated another's liberty, if they haven't been shown via due process of law to deserve to have their liberty curtailed or limited, there is no justification for it. And all those who defend the total liberation of people from government interference in their peaceful conduct can say, with no apologies at all, that yes they are free market fundamentalist. I certainly am such a one.