Thursday, April 23, 2009

To Blame or Not to Blame

Tibor R. Machan

Most people will readily find fault in others and blame them for it. But doing so assumes these others could have done otherwise, acted properly, ethically.

Blaming and praising presuppose that people are largely in control of their own actions and when these actions go astray, they are responsible for it. Bernie Madoff, for instance, didn't have to bilk his clients but chose to do so. Nor did congress have to promote home ownership for all those who couldn't afford the mortgage. Nor did all those who took out easy loans have to do this--they chose to get what appeared to them a free ride. Misconduct by human beings isn't some affliction but a matter of choice, albeit a bad one.

If all this is wrong then what we have is lamentable, never blameworthy, conduct, sort of how most of us deal with the rain that ruined our picnic. Or with the dog that bit the postman. We blame no one in such cases but merely lament what happened. Even if there are some, very few, higher animals that engage in moral reflection--is this right, is that wrong, etc.--it is only people whose lives are enmeshed in an ocean of moral choices.

The data concerning this issue is always mixed because neither a deterministic nor self-responsible account of how people should be understood is obviously true or false. No one is observed as a free agent, nor as one being pushed around by impersonal forces. The issue can only be resolved by using the method of comparative analysis--is the free will hypothesis or the determinist one more consistent with observable facts?

Resolving this conflict requires comprehensive investigation by specialists in a great variety of disciplines. Ordinarily most of us rely on evidence from our own case but this evidence tends to be tainted by our preconceptions. It doesn't have to be but it often is, probably because people like to come off smelling like roses! Self blame doesn't come easy to anyone since it suggests that one's credentials as a good guy would be undermined. This despite the fact that one swallow does not make a springtime, Aristotle's way of reminding us that rare cases don't capture what is generally true.

Nonetheless, few will fess up to being negligent or sloppy or otherwise at fault as their conduct is placed under scrutiny. If I am late for a meeting it is very tempting to blame it on the weather or traffic or something else I have no control over. But should I receive praise for, say, my work, most of the time I am very happy to take the credit. Yet this implies that I could have failed instead. Helpless in one case, in charge in another.

Even public policy is influenced by the schizophrenia. Many influential people explain away criminal conduct by completely abandoning free will as something spooky, something that just does not fit with how the world works. Accordingly, many such folks are at work trying to influence the legal system and purge it of notions that suggest that defendants could help it when they did something wrong. (A huge amount of money was recently donated to a team of neuroscientists at UC Santa Barbara whose project is to help revise the criminal law, to purge it of the idea that people can be culpable.)

However, when these people are criticized, critics are generally regarded as guilty of something, some oversight or stubbornness or narrow mindedness. And the critics mostly assume that those who don't agree with them are wrong and should change their minds. Throughout the political arena and the academy criticism of this kind abounds. What many forget is that it also implies, among other things, that those being criticized could have done otherwise, that they are free agents and not robots being pushed around by their genes or environment! Someone who criticizes is committed, at least implicitly, to the view that those being criticized might have acted differently from how they did. Yet, a good many commentators see most people as unfree, thus not deserving of any kind of criticism. This is the issue addressed so artfully in West Side Story: "Gee, Officer Krupke, we're very upset; We never had the love that ev'ry child oughta get. We ain't no delinquents, We're misunderstood. Deep down inside us there is good!"

The dissident, who insists on assigning blame for misconduct is, oddly, deemed to be fully blameworthy for failing to see the light! Of course one cannot have it both ways--with the poor being blameless while the well off are free and thus blameworthy for disagreeing about whether the poor might need to shape up on their own. The well of and the not so well off are both in the same boat concerning whether they are free to choose or determined by forces over which they lack control.

Such a contradictory outlook very likely stems from wishing to gain political support, including votes, rather than from wanting to face the facts of the matter helpfully.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Is Government Preparing Us for Censorship?

Tibor R. Machan

In a series of articles on climate change the villain is gradually being identified as, you should have guessed it, freedom of thought!

One Jon Gertner of The New York Times Magazine wrote the other day that “What makes CRED’s work [the Center for Research on Environmental Decisions] especially relevant ... is that various human attitudes and responses--How can there be global warming when we had a frigid January? What’s in it for me if I change the way I live?--can make the climate problem worse by leaving it unacknowledged or unaddressed. Apathetic and hostile responses to climate change, in other words, produce a feedback loop and reinforce the process of global warming (4/19/09).”

The idea that thought and speech are major obstacles to doing what is right isn’t new at all. As recently as the 1980s the one liberty that liberal statists could be counted on defending, at least in the United States of America, is the one spelled out in the First Amendment to the Constitution. Alas, this was challenged some time ago by Professor Catharine A. MacKinnon of the University of Michigan school of law, in her short but prominently published book, Only Words (Harvard University Press, 1983). In it the good professor argued that words do not deserve the legal protection afforded them by the Constitution since insults and put downs, including jokes, can injure people good and hard. And such injuries should not be protected. The victims would have to pay too high a price for the fact that the law treats such injuries as “only words.”

We have heard a good deal lately about how President Barack Obama is a pragmatists, how he eschews ideology. The most sensible rendition of this sound bite is that he refuses to be bound by principles and when it comes to something as vital as containing climate change, why not toss the First Amendment and censor those who show skepticism? Professor MacKinnon wasn’t recommending tossing the principle underlying the First Amendment, only suggesting that we should not be ideological about our embrace of it. Maybe the same should be expected from President Obama when it comes to a central elements of his political agenda, namely, to contain pollution.

This pragmatism isn’t across the board for Mr. Obama, of course. As with all loyal pragmatists he, too, is willing to stick to a select few principles and refuse to give them up even in times of emergency. Consider, for example, that according the Obama & Co. there is never any excuse for using torture! I will not speculate on why in that instance pragmatism is inadequate--various suggestions present themselves and some of them aren’t pretty at all. Suffice it to note that Mr. Obama seems to be perfectly willing to toss jettison the principles of the free market--the right to private property, the right to enter into binding contracts, the right to due process. And here we have evidence that like minded folks, too, appear not to be very worried about banning certain kinds of inconvenient conduct such as speaking out against the doctrine--the ideology?--of climate change.

We should be prepared, I believe, for some movement in this direction. Apathy toward climate change isn’t tolerable, nor is skepticism. Leaving the climate problem unacknowledged or unaddressed would also count as something we ought not to tolerate--so if I speak out against recycling, for example, maybe I ought to be muzzled since not doing so will “produce a feedback loop and reinforce the process of global warming.”

Just as Professor MacKinnon’s abandoning of the First Amendment seemed to her fully justified, given how that Amendment made it possible to insult and intimidate women, so it should come as no big surprise to anyone that laws will be passed that prohibit global warming skepticism. Such dangerous conduct on the part of citizens must be arrested, or so some of the climate change fanatics could well believe now, quite seriously.
“Tempered by Government?”

Tibor R. Machan

There must be some enormous carrot stimulating the proponents of a closely monitored and extensively regulated American economy. I reach this conclusion because day after day I run into essays, columns, commentaries on TV and radio, in which there is a constantly repeated and concerted effort to discredit free market capitalism.

The latest of these I have run across is a review in The New York Times Sunday Book Review, April 19, 2009, where one Louis Uchitelle states that the authors of the book he is reviewing, titled Animal Spirits, How Human Psychology Drives the Economy, and Why It Matters for Global Capitalism (Princeton University Press, 2009) and written by George A. Akerlot and Robert J. Shiller, “challenge the reigning free-market ideology of the past 30 years or so....” He concludes the review--a gushing one for sure--by urging the authors of the book to “push hard” in the direction of “revamping economic theory to deal with a market system that, quite irrationally, failed to govern itself.”

Neither the reviewer nor the authors give any proof that we have all been under the spell of laissez-faire capitalism. They just assert this as taking even a miniscule peak around the country could easily confirm their idea. Yet, it’s just the opposite they could confirm.

As a rather quick refutation of this idea, that we have all been in the grips of free market fundamentalism--a claim made the famous Princeton Conomist, Paul Krugman in one of his columns for The New York Times--let us recall a point made by the late Milton Friedman at the 2002 Mt. Pelerin Society meetings in Chattanooga, Tennessee. In that talk Friedman reported that “In 1946, there were 9,000 pages in the federal register [which lists all the federal government regulations]. Today there are over 80,000 pages. The situation is the same in most western countries....” So why then go on repeating this myth of a supposed orthodoxy of a fully free market place in America, one that was in full force as the 2008-2009 economic fiasco transpired?

It’s not very difficult to ascertain that no free market system has been in place in America, ever, and that whatever elements of it did manage to find themselves part of the American system have by now been squashed good and hard. Oh, the legacy of FDR’s New Deal!

These authors and reviewers must be counting on their readers’ total ignorance of economic history. I suspect that promulgating the myth that it was a free marketplace that brought about the economic mess serve the purpose of disguising the real culprit, namely, the extensive forcible government intervention in peoples’ economic affairs in America and elsewhere. Among other things, if one can persuade people that it was “a market system that, quite irrationally, failed to govern itself,” whatever minor traces of capitalism can be found in the American economy will come under extensive government regimentation--or at least state nudging (a term used by New Deal enthusiast, Cass Sunstein, who used to be President Obama’s colleague at the University of Chicago School of Law and just recently moved to Harvard where he was picked to help President Obama to re-regulate the country).

For the umpteenth time, the free market didn’t do it. Moreover, it couldn’t have done it. That’s because there hasn’t ever been one in the country. And what elements of such a system could be found over the last 40 years, they have been pretty much abolished.

In plain terms, then, since there hasn’t been a free market in America over its entire history, it cannot be the case that such a market failed to “govern itself.” What America has been all during its economic history is a mixed system, with admittedly significant elements of capitalism, socialism, fascism and the like being tried by the statists in our capitols and promoted by their academic and journalistic cheerleaders, the likes of Paul Krugman, Louis Uchitelle and many, many others who probably sit and wait so as to get the nice government job of running other people’s economic lives!

In any case, book reviewer Uchitelle doesn’t by any means fail to disclose his agenda. He says outright that what we needs is to temper the market by the government. The fact that his involves coercing citizens all over the place, deploying prior restraint on all the agents in the marketplace under the benign-sounding rallying cry of “precaution,” does not make even a dent in the faith of these people in government’s purity of motives and their incredible conceit that they, instead of the millions of those in the market, can run things just fine!

Also, there’s no evidence that critics of laissez-faire have read public choice theorists who have shown that government regulators are every bit as tempted to misbehave as are those they are supposed to regulate--indeed more so.

We should heed the counsel of Oliver Cromwell, who wrote that "It will be found an unjust and unwise jealousy to deny a man the liberty he hath by nature upon a supposition that he may abuse it."