Friday, June 05, 2009

Catering to Altruists

Tibor R. Machan

In a speech presumably addressing “the Muslim world,” President Obama tried to be quite critical of American culture while making hardly any mention of some of the Muslim World’s outrageously immoral legacy. Let me for now not focus on how accommodating Obama managed to be toward the Muslin countries, many of which make no bones about being, for example, officially misogynous and awfully crude about punishing so called criminals. Nor is it worth discussing now how Muslim countries treat homosexuals. While America the terrible, the one Obama appears to believe is in constant, relentless need to apologize for itself, is always put on the defensive, the Muslim world seems to be getting a pass from Mr. Obama even regarding its most barbaric practices. It is really annoying to have the president of the United States of America carry on this way.

In this speech Obama said that as president of the USA it is his duty “to fight against negative stereotypes of Islam wherever they appear” and that “Just as Muslims do not fit a crude stereotype, America is not the crude stereotype of a self-interested empire.”

But wait just a minute. Sometimes stereotypes are actually accurate, especially when they are about people in a very homogenous society. It was not altogether insulting when during the Third Reich people formed a very unfavorable image of Germans as such. Sure there were exceptions but as a rule the Germans were then a very disagreeable, ugly lot. Sitting by and even taking active part while 6 million Jews are being exterminated by one’s leader--Fuehrer--lends itself to people thinking badly of you, of all of you, in fact. So sometimes stereotyping makes very good sense.

Just think of how often the early European immigrants to the Americas are now seen as vicious invaders who treated the natives with nearly universal brutality. Is that some “crude stereotype”? Or maybe it is in fact the truth, generally, with only occasional significant exceptions?

Then consider, also, what Obama thinks is a nasty stereotype of America, “a self-interested empire.” To start with, empires have no selves--they are not individual human beings, no collective entities. Empires consist of some rather few rulers in a country, ones who take advantage of their position to bully others around the world. Often this bullying is anything but self-interested--most often it is perpetrated as an intensely altruistic mission, one aiming to export only good thing to other lands. It is usually such altruism that leads to the policy of building empires, even if some elements of empire building do flow from a country’s rulers’ interest to benefit themselves.

Then there is the plain fact that America is not being stereotyped when understood as a country that welcomes a certain kind of self-interest on the part of its citizenry. After all, the American Founders were very fond of everyone’s right to the pursuit of happiness, something that can properly be regarded as selfish. I for one make no secret of my desire to live a happy life and, thus, to be significantly selfish, though not to the point of intruding upon my fellows, ripping them off, demanding that they live for me, something many altruists appear not to mind doing.

That, by the way, is what’s so disingenuous about altruists--they advocate that other people think not of themselves first but of them! Just a pretense at generosity, then, not the genuine article which is actually the feature of those who seek happiness and are glad that so do others!

When I was ready to escape Europe, especially communism, a major reason was that in the West and in America, especially, there appeared to be a public policy afoot based on the belief in everyone’s basic right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness--all rather selfish things, if you ask me. A country that makes this its official public policy rather than some phony “ask not what you can do for yourself but what you can do for your country,” is truly user-friendly for its population. And so I gladly accept that stereotype about America, despite our current president’s cavalier belittling of this aspect of the country.

Finally, for now, why is it the president’s job to fight against negative stereotypes of Islam or America or anyone else? Is the president our moral guide? Is he our parent whose job is to cultivate ethics in their children? Not at all--he is the presiding officer of the federal government, period.

It is pathetic how perverse an idea of political leadership guides this new president. He should back off already.

Thursday, June 04, 2009

Politics as Fantasy

Tibor R. Machan

It began with Socrates and his pupil Plato who in that world famous dialogue, Republic, set out to discuss human excellence. In the process Socrates used an analogy, the perfect or ideal society. It was easier to study than the individual human soul. (We do this when studying chemistry, for example, and we use huge plastic balls to stand in for atoms and such, tiny entities we cannot study directly.)

One point Socrates is supposed to have made, according to Plato, is that this ideal society they sketched wasn't meant to be some blueprint for people to try to implement. It was more like a model and was supposed to play the same role, as a means to emphasize what's important to keep in mind as one thinks about politics. For example, while Socrates spoke of a philosopher king, that was to stress the importance of human reason in forging policy not the need for some actual super-person, a king.

But that point has been widely misunderstood for centuries--and indeed there is some ambiguity in the dialogue, so disputation on it is to be expected. Too many folks have taken Socrates and Plato to have wanted us all to strive to implement an ideal society. Since, however, their purpose wasn't that at all but ultimately to sketch how human beings should live, what should guide their conduct--namely, careful thought one would carry out sometime (maybe way) before the conduct in question--the numerous attempts to implement the ideal society had to fail.

Indeed, some very sophisticated students of Plato's works defend the position that the main teaching of the Republic is that politics can have only a limited function in making life good for people. What they need to do is to direct themselves--their own lives and those of their fellows who will consult them--thoughtfully and not wait for some king or government to figure things out. The capacity of politics to do good is very minimal by this account.

If this is indeed the teaching of Socrates and Plato, it oddly anticipates the teaching of the American Founders. They also believed that human happiness or success in life must be an individual and social but not primarily or even mainly a political feat. Which is why they wrote that government's role is to secure our rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of our happiness, nothing more than that. But this lesson has been rejected by too many people since time immemorial. They keep seeking total salvation from politics and we are back to this again, with the leadership of President Barack Obama. He apparently shares the ideas of The New Republic magazine's erudite modern liberal columnist, Leon Wieseltier, who just recently wrote that "contrary to what [Americans] have been taught for many years, government is a jewel of human association and an heirloom of human reason; that government, though it may do ill, does good; that a lot of the good that government does only it can do; that the size of government must be fitted to the size of its tasks, and so, for a polity such as ours, big government is the only government...etc."

This kind of thinking is extremely hazardous. It exemplifies the valuable but often forgotten cliche, "The perfect is the enemy of the good." It does this with nearly the same tendencies in matters of politics as did the efforts of Hitler, Stalin, Mussolini and a host of others throughout human history who wanted to implement the prefect plan.

By aiming to do everything for us, by pretending to have the answer to innumerable questions, Mr. Obama is facilitating the ruin of the great project of the Founders, as well as of Socrates and Plato, namely, to restrain oneself when assigning tasks to governments, to bureaucrats, to politicians and to all their eager beaver little helpers at prestigious universities and publications.

Not unless we return to heed to teachings of those folks who knew how limited the capacity of politics is for improving on human life will we have a good chance at a decent life and society.

Sunday, May 31, 2009

Is Judge Sotomayor's Tolerance of Bias Shocking?

Tibor R. Machan

Just after President Obama selected her as his nominee for the seat opened on the U. S. Supreme Court by the retirement of Justice David Suiter, some statements came to light that seemed to call into question Judge Sotomayor's loyalty to judicial impartiality.
As reported all over the media, the judge made the point once, in 2001 speaking at the University of California at Berkeley, that the ethnicity and sex of a judge "may and will make a difference in our judging." No, she didn't say it should or it is a good thing that it will but that it will, in fact, make a difference. She had also said, that "I would hope that a wise Latina woman with the richness of her experiences would more often than not reach a better conclusion than a white male who hasn't lived that life."

Of course, such an attitude about making decisions on the U. S. Supreme Court--or, indeed, on any court of law--is objectionable or would be if someone where to champion being seriously swayed that way in applying the law of the land. Yet, is it objectionable if one states that one's sex or ethnicity is going to make a difference?

Many people in the fields studying human judgment hold this view. Recently a guest speaker at Chapman University's research center in experimental economics, Dr. Gerd Gigerenzer, gave a talk titled "Homo Heuristicus: Why Biased Minds Make Better Inferences" in which he argued that not only is bias inescapable but it's a good thing from the point of view of epistemological efficiency. In plain terms this means that human beings are better off when quite often they rely on their biases as they judge the world and their fellows around them. Part of why this may be so is that it's impossible to know all the relevant information pertaining to an issue; so relying on certain habits of mind formed by one's past experiences--which gave one a bias or prejudice, though not necessarily an irrational one--is unavoidable and valuable. It is a mistake to believe, this thesis suggests, that anyone can be totally impartial when making significant judgments about the world.

So when Judge Sotomayor tells us, in the spirit of full disclosure and based on what contemporary psychology and epistemology teach, that someone with extensive experience of a culture and the people in it is probably more likely to reach more reliable--"better"--conclusions than someone who is utterly unfamiliar with these, she is saying something pretty simple and true. Yes, it may sound to some like excusing some kind of ethnic bias but it need by no means amount to that. And in the case of Judge Sotomayor, who in the very same talk she gave at UC Berkeley Law School--used to be called Boalt Hall--also insisted that every effort should be made to leave one's personal (including political) preferences outside the court room, making mention of what appears on any fair reading a simple attestation of a fact should not be taken as a grievous professional fault.

A scholar I respect a great deal compared the admission of bias on the part of Judge Sotomayor to such an admission by other professionals whose skill is vital to the performance of their tasks. This scholar noted that if Judge Sotomayor were a brain surgeon or some other medical specialist, there would be no mention of empathy as any sort of professional qualification.

Yet even in the field of medicine we are often concerned with "bedside manners"--which boils down to what are called people skills--on the part of healthcare professionals. I can personally testify that when a doctor who is working to improve one's health treats a patient with total indifference, as if the patient were some kind of inanimate object rolling by on a conveyor belt instead of a human being with concerns and fears and such, this is not welcome and I can only assume that in the evaluation of such a professional it would make a difference--though by no means substitute for professional, skill, competence, or excellence.

I am no expert on who is or is not qualified to sit on the U. S. Supreme Court but I suspect that some of the reservations I have encountered in the media--voiced by various conservative commentators and even legal theorists--is something of a reach. I would be much happier if the dispute about Judge Sotomayor focused on her legal proficiency and not on her perhaps not to well expressed concern about showing a deep understanding of those standing before judges across the legal landscape.
Do All of us Expect to be Millionaires?

Tibor R. Machan

Sunday is the day when even profit making broadcasters must do service or pro bono work. And this mostly consists of broadcasting programs misleadingly labelled "public affairs." (I say this because none of these programs is actually about what matters to everyone, to the public, but only to one or another special interest group and, mostly to bureaucrats and their groupies.)

On May 30th there was such a program on ABC-TV's Los Angeles station, KABC, called "ABC7 Presents: California's Financial Crisis." I took in some of this but, believe me, it is only worth your time and effort if you need to write and talk about such things professionally. Sure, just a bit of it would probably benefit some viewers since they would witness just how inept most of these folks are. That might lead them to start reassessing their own willingness to rely on such people to give leadership to anything that's of concern to them. They show no skills that would indicate any such qualification, I assure you.

But some of what these folks say can serve as points of reference as one embarks on learning about how government is administered. What kind of thinking goes on in the minds of such folks? And does such thinking give any indication that they will be wise and virtuous enough to be California's rulers? (Yes, I said "rulers" because that is what they do vis-a-vis the rest of us, lay down and enforce thousands of rules they pretend will set things right.)

Take, for example, some comments made by Laura Chick, California's Inspector General. But before I get to that, just consider this woman's title: Inspector General! Is that an office anyone ought to hold in a genuinely free country? I think the answer isn't difficult to arrive at.

Ms. Chick was laying out her very original insight that greed is the source of our troubles. Then she added this gem about what brought on the current financial mess: "We all were planning to become millionaires." No data provided, not even some unofficial survey about what people want when it comes to their economic lives. Nada, just an unsupported, reckless announcement about us all.

Sure, there may be some people whose aim in life is to turn into millionaires, most likely, however, the bulk of those who do become millionaires--and I do know one or two such people--did not and still do not have being a millionaire as their goal. They wanted to do well professionally, running a business or working in an interesting field, and the matter of their anticipated earnings and wealth came later. For those who are in the wealth care profession, professionals in business, garnering a good return on the investments they make for their clients and for themselves does occupy a major focus of attention but even most of these folks tend to have numerous other aims in life, relating to family, friends, various causes they want to see flourish, etc.

It is not the case that most people are consumed with greed or, indeed, any other vice, even if virtually all of us dip into some vices throughout our lives but only out of neglect or bad judgment, not as a devotion, as Mr. Chick and her types appear to suggest. But maybe the reason they so readily ascribe greed to us all is that their idea of greed isn't being obsessive about acquiring great wealth at virtually any expense, including their integrity. No the idea of greed these people seem to have in their minds came across during this discussion rather clearly and it was a shocker.

Nobel Laureate Woody Clark--who is a senior fellow at the Milken Institute and an economist concerned with climate change as well as with California's "hydrogen freeway" project--gave the clearest expression of this peculiar notion of greed when he said that when people do not support higher taxes--as for example the majority of voters in California's recent referenda clearly did not--they are being greedy. (Sure, since most of them refuse to fund the projects he loves!) So greed means, for these folks, not wanting to hand over a goodly portion of their earnings to politicians, bureaucrats, and their little helpers to do with as these folks want but to keep it to do with as they want.

If that is greed, folks, then of course nearly every sane citizen is consumed with greed--I certainly am. I like to spend my own earnings on goals I have come to find worthwhile, including some personally satisfying goodies but also my children's education and enjoyment, as well as to benefit various charities around the world, especially when disasters strike. That is, I guess, how I manage to be greedy, according to Ms. Chick and Mr. Clark.

As John Stossel would say, "Give me a break." But I am glad these remarks were made on this serious Sunday "public affairs" forum--held, by the way, at the Milken Institute the directors of which aren't reputed to be wild about relying on government to manage our affairs. That way at least those who take the time to check out how these folks think can learn that there really is no hope in trusting them to do any good for anyone, let alone for "the public."