Saturday, April 18, 2009

Democracy and Liberty

Tibor R. Machan

If you object to having your liberty and property taken by the majority, some political theorists object claiming that democracy is precisely for such a purpose. But that is not so.

In a free society the purpose of democracy amounts to authorizing some people who have majority support to help update the Constitution. The updating, in turn, is not for the sake of changing it, abolishing its principles and so forth. It is so as to extend constitutional principles to novel areas that could not be anticipated when the constitution was framed. There was no Internet, telephone, iPod, telegraph and so forth yet these are all capable of being used to commit crimes. Lawmakers, those elected to various local, county, state and federal offices, are supposed to figure out how the basic principles of the constitution--presumably a sound document stating how citizens ought to comport themselves toward one another without violating anyone's rights--can be applied to new technology, new science, and so forth.

Instead a great many people think that democracy has to do with imposing their will upon their fellows whether it is allowed or not. But that is just what having our individual rights prohibits. In a free country no one gets to violate rights, not even majorities. Those representing us at various centers of politics aren't there to perpetrate complex forms of larceny, theft, trespass, kidnapping and the like. No one gets to do such a think to free citizens, never mind how many get together claiming they may do so. Otherwise the country stops being a free one altogether.

Of course, countries can be more or less free and so far the United States of America has managed to earn the label "free" in comparison to most others. Yet, when our president shows friendship toward the likes of Hugo Chavez--and past presidents have shown admiration for the likes of Mussolini and Marcos and Pinochet and the like--the time has come to reaffirm our fundamental commitment to principles that flatly reject the political ideas of these sort of leaders. But sadly because the likes of Chavez, including Hitler, have gained majority support in their countries and could then say that the tyranny that they were perpetrating thus had political legitimacy, America too has slid into a kind of democratic despotism, with leaders who make no bones about using their power to conscript the labors and resources of the citizenry for purposes they claim have majority support.

All the funds being borrowed now and devoted to bailing out commercial enterprises that lack market support with funds that future citizens will have to repay--citizens whose vote no one knows and thus lack representation--amount to wrongful taking, plain and simple. And this isn't anything new, either. Funds used to contribute to countries abroad, funds used to subsidies struggling domestic businesses, funds used to support so called public projects that actually benefit only small special interests--all these are illegitimate takings in a genuine free society. And they are all being defended on the basis of democracy. But that is a completely misguided understanding of what democracy must mean for a free people.

The American founders seemed clearly to have in mind establishing a free country, not a democratic despotism. This is made very clear from the Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights which identify the rights of individual citizens and do not authorize small or large majorities to carry out criminal deeds for which individuals would be prosecuted if they committed them. That is why the Founders were revolutionaries--they disbelieved in the superiority of the government. They viewed it, instead, as an agency that's instituted merely to secure individual rights not one, like a monarchy, that would rule those individuals, impose on them unwanted, unchosen burdens.

This is the idea that needs to be recovered in America. This is what held together those people who went on the "tea parties." This is why the cheerleaders of democratic despots, the likes of Nobel Laureate Paul Krugman of Princeton University and The New York Times, found them so objectionable!

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Ancient Turkish-Armenian (and similar) Squabbles

Tibor R. Machan

If it isn't the Croats versus the Serbs, the Irish versus the British, the Hungarians versus the Russians, the Indians versus the Pakistanis, and so on and so forth endlessly, ethnic, national or other groups carping about each other based on ancient misconduct, ill feelings, and awful memories that have virtually nothing to do with people alive today, then it is their diplomatic allies that are being urged to keep the flames of the acrimony burning. Why? Because there are many political theorists who insist that "people belong to their communities"--their nations, ethnic groups, or tribes instead of each individual's life belonging to him or her, independently of the ghosts of their ancestors.

I have brought this up before--the Hungarians, of which I used to be one and may still be so regarded by some zealots, had their truly gruesome conflicts with the Turks many, many moons ago. And for reasons that have made absolutely no sense to me some of them still hold a grudge, as if they had been victims or aggressors despite not being alive anywhere near the time of these conflicts. No matter. For some these feelings of hostility--or friendship--must be kept alive.

Why? Well, I can only guess that it has to do with the ancient idea of tribal loyalty, as if those Hungarians and Turks--or substitute some other warring collectives many moons ago--imposed obligations on today's members to keep up the anger at each other.

I blame for all of this the widespread anti-individualism that has been promoted not only by politicians and others who feed off such warped loyalties but by numerous prominent political theorist--usually called communitarians in our day--who insist that everyone primarily amounts to some kind of eternal team member. That one's identity consists of being a member of some such collective. And, of course, the membership is completely accidental--I certainly didn't volunteer to be born in Hungary and might well have been born in Turkey instead! Or again, substitute some other relentlessly hostile groups.

This is why I consider identity politics such a curse. Who one is has very little to do with the group into which one was born. Sure, it has some meaning for most of us where we got our start in life, who were those near and dear to us back in those formative years. But it should amount to nothing of great significance, given that none of us had a choice in the matter.

Once this group membership is not just accepted as merely a trivial feature of our lives but made a great deal of by leaders and political thinkers, consider how impossible is to git rid of it. It isn't even like one's religion, which if one were to learn that it's insidious, one can abandon. No one can change the fact that he or she was born in Israel rather than in Palestine, in Ireland rather than in Britain, in Mexico rather than in California. These are incontrovertible facts and if one attaches to them obligations of loyalty and fealty, one is eternally stuck. No argument, no enlightenment can make a dent in these alignments. We are simply members of the groups and must bear the burden of their histories, be they nice or naughty or some combination.

President Obama swore during the recent presidential campaign that he would not let the Turks forget about what their ancestors did to Armenians and when he failed to bring up the issue during his recent visit to Turkey, a number of commentators, such as the erudite wordsmith Christopher Hitchens of Vanity Fair magazine, called him out on his breach of his campaign promise.

Well, I say that Obama should never have entered into this messy controversy about a widely contested genocide back in the early 1900s, never mind the emotions of unfortunately too many Turkish and Armenian Americans. Whatever bad deeds were committed were done by people long dead, so I say drop all this already. What matters, especially in America, is the kind of human individual you are, what you have chosen to believe and do in your life, not what your parents and grandparents, et al., believed and did. That is what justice requires!

Sunday, April 12, 2009

What is Fascism?

Tibor R. Machan

Dictionaries aren't decisive about what the central meaning of terms are--they are mostly descriptions of common usage. For definitions of the meaning of important and controversial concepts--as some call them, "essentially contestable" ones--it is necessary to read books or encyclopedia entries. This is how I generally keep reasonably well informed and up to date.

So not long ago I penned a column in which I identified the economic policies of the Obama administration's so far as fascist! In it I said "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."

Among the many comments I received, mostly very complimentary, I also got some that disputed my description of our current trends in political economy. Some of my critics insisted, in fact, that the newspapers in which my columns run should dismiss me because fascism in fact has to do with a system that elevates the nation to an exclusive level of supremacy and not with what I said.

In fact, of course, that would be nationalism, while fascism is indeed mainly what I said it is. One popular on line dictionary states this about what is central to fascism, identifying it as "a governmental system led by a dictator having complete power, forcibly suppressing opposition and criticism, regimenting all industry, commerce, etc., and emphasizing an aggressive nationalism and often racism." So, while nationalism and racism can be elements of fascism, they are only sometimes emphasized in it. And when people use the term to criticize the police or local sheriff, this is just what they have in mind, namely, a strong and unconstrained head or officer of the state! When qualified by the term "economic," it means such a head of state whose power is focused mostly on planning a country's economy just as he or she sees fit.

Fascism, as I tell my students in my political philosophy classes, endorses absolute and arbitrary rule by a charismatic figure--Eva Peron comes to mind as the female of the species. And what these rulers promote differs, although quite a few capitalize on nationalist and racists sentiments so as to gather support from the local population.

The United States of America is what is best described a mixed system, with democratic, fascist, socialist and other elements--not surprisingly, considering the incredible diverse citizenry who send representatives of a great variety of viewpoints to centers of power. Just now the fascist element is strong in Washington, especially where government's relationship to economic affairs across the country is concerned. The signs are not difficult to spot. For the president to induce the firing of a CEO of a major auto company is one. Pouring money into the economy without any constraint is another. Capitalizing so much on personal appeal--so the White House is now constantly posting President Obama's appearances on YouTube and similar web sites in which there is no discussion but presidential propaganda, mainly, reminiscent of the much lengthier speeches of, say, Fidel Castro, Hugo Chavez, and, earlier, Adolph Hitler and Benito Mussolini. These all rely very heavily on oratory and polemical speech, not on analysis or argument, and they include only minimal serious, unscripted discussions with members of the citizenry or a variety of professional economists.

It is interesting that so many Obama supporters are invoking the name of John Maynard Keynes as they promote the current official approach to dealing with the economy because of a little known fact about Keynes. He wrote an introduction to the German translation of his famous about, The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money, in which he said that his ideas were especially applicable to the way a dictatorship is supposed to be governed! As Keynes wrote there, "the theory of aggregated production, which is the point of the following book, nevertheless can be much easier adapted to the conditions of a totalitarian state [eines totalen Staates] than the theory of production and distribution of a given production put forth under conditions of free competition and a large degree of laissez-faire."

So when I say that here we have serious fascist elements to how the American government is handling the current economic fiasco, I have in mind mainly that the President and his team are acting unpredictably, wielding power and being very vague about why they are doing this rather than that, as well as that their economics teacher, Keynes, was in fact sympathetic to economic fascism.