Saturday, June 13, 2009

Taxes, Greed and Prudence

Tibor R. Machan

Never mind the attempt at intimidation by some, like the Nobel Laureate Woody Clark, claiming that if you work to reduce or let alone to abolish taxes, you are greedy. You are not. You simply have a common sense understanding that there is something basically amiss with a system that coerces you and millions of others to part with your resources for services that would appear to be either hardly needed or, where need, capable of being funded without using force. Moreover, not only are you not guilty of the vice of greed. You can take pride in your practice of the virtue of prudence. Because what this moral virtue requires of us all is that we make sure we and those we are responsible for are well taken care of.

So, for example, check ups at the doctor and regular workouts are a function of prudence, as is brushing your teeth regularly and driving the roads carefully. (That famous financial firm featuring the rock of Gibraltar as its logo isn't called Prudential by accident.) We should all, especially if we have families and other intimates to care for, be prudent, which includes taking good care of our resources. So, then, not permitting the tax collector to raid these is clearly one instance of being prudent, not being greedy. The more of your resources you can keep from the extortionists, the more praiseworthy you are!

Of course there are the apologists for this reactionary public policy, one that really belongs in the age of feudalism when the population was taken to be beholden to the royal family and its goons. The justice of the U. S. Supreme Court, Oliver Wendel Holmes, Jr., is supposed to have said that taxes are the price we pay for civilization and since he was a smart and powerful American justice, many think what he said must clearly be a pearl of wisdom. (Actually, the source of the statement is a bit obscure. Holmes is said, by Justice Felix Frankfurter, to have "rebuked a secretary’s query of 'Don’t you hate to pay taxes?' with 'No, young fellow, I like paying taxes, with them I buy civilization'.") In any case, the sentiment is way off. It is not just a ruse but a paradoxical one at that.

Civilization, if one can sum up its nature in just a few words, means relating to our fellow human beings peacefully, respectful of their dignity and sovereignty, never using them against their will. This is what distinguished civilized folks from barbarians throughout human history. But when we focus on governments it becomes evident that these agencies have routinely managed to circumvent the principles of civilization simply because a minimal partion of their work is quite useful, the portion that America's Founders so clearly pinpointed in the Declaration of Independence. This is where governments are assigned the role of securing the rights of the citizenry, the sole purpose for which the institution exists.

So what Holmes is supposed to have said is quite wrong--taxation is a major subversion of the principles of civilization, principles which are supposed to guide us all toward dealing with one another peacefully, not through extortion.

Ah, but you will not find this view widely discussed, let alone championed, among academics, even historians of ideas, let alone public officials, the majority of whom live off this extortionist device, just as the king and his minions used to with impunity, in most parts of the world and in America back before the Revolution demoted them all to mere citizen status!

So, if you have come by your resources, your wealth, honestly, have no shame when you also work hard not to let the government rip you off. Yes, of course, legal services--courts, the police, the military and such--need to be paid for but not by this means. Extortion is how organized criminals come by their "income." It isn't supposed to be the method of public finance of a genuinely free society.

The fact that in the course of emerging from centuries and centuries of oppression via a great varieties of rulers--Caesars, Pharaohs, Czars, kings, and even democratic majorities that disregard individual rights--much of the world is still sticking to taxation as its way of funding its legal systems doesn't make that right, any more than the fact that there was slavery and still is serfdom in many places makes those right. The task of civilized people with a concern for the quality of their system of government must be to discover and implement ways of funding legal systems in a bona fide civilized fashion, without taxation.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Communities for People, not Ants

Tibor R. Machan

No sooner does one speak up in support of individualism than some clever folks will accuse one with wanting to isolate individuals, to destroy human community life. But this really is bunk and is either a misunderstanding or an out an out attempt at distortion.

Just because human adults require independence of mind and a sphere of personal authority, which is secured by protecting their basic rights, it doesn't mean at all that they do not greatly benefit from community life. There is little that's more satisfying to human beings than one or another kind of association they can forge with their fellows. Think of marriage, family, company, team, chorus, orchestra, and on and on with the myriads of ways people come together and make the most of it.

Alas, there is one way of forming communities that is simply unsuited to people, namely, coercively, when they are herded into groups they do not choose based on their own understanding and goals. That is very much what prisons are, involuntary communities, and the only reason they are supposed to exist is to house those among us who refuse to live peacefully with their fellows.

No defense of individualism except the crudest sort omits the fact that when individuals come together much of what makes their lives worth living is made possible by their togetherness. And, yes, at first we are involuntary members of one community, the family, at least until we grow up and have reached the age of free choice. That, indeed, is what parents and guardians ought to aim for when they raise children, to prepare them all for becoming competent, loving, responsible and adventurous independent adults.

Yet forcibly grouping people immediately undermines this by depriving the young of their opportunity to hone their skills at making decisions for themselves, decisions that are usually quite unlike the decisions others need to make. That's because we all are unique in many respects, all the while that we are also much alike. As one of my favorite philosophers Steve Martin put it in his novel, The Pleasure of My Company, "People, I thought. These are people. Their general uniformity was interrupted only by their individual variety."

Of course much of this is evident from the history of the more Draconian and brutal attempts to make us all one, such as those witnessed in the twentieth century but also back in ancient Sparta. But sadly too many people keep holding on to the vision of human associations without remembering that the "human" must be very closely heeded when one embarks on these. Human beings, more than anything else in the world, are individuals, with minds of their own which however much they learn from others must get into operation from their own initiative. While other living beings are pretty much hardwired to do the right thing by their nature, our nature is that we must learn what that right thing is and then embark on doing it of our own free will. This, mainly, is the source of everyone's individuality, while, of course, our physical constitution pretty much duplicates itself in every one of us (although even there a great deal is unique to everyone).

You might forgive me for bringing in a bit of personal history here but I do have some experience to draw upon here, namely, of having lived under communism for much of my early years. And my father was an avid fascist, supporting the Nazis all his life. And neither of these recommends itself for a promising human community life. Nor do any of the communities that try to go just a bit in their direction, figuring they can somehow square the circle.

Human communities are indeed marvelous but only when they do not squash the human individual. When they do, when they try to compromise the principles of individualism, look out. They will try to lie and cheat and bamboozle since only that way can coercive community life be made credible. They will emphasize the fabulous goals and forget about the vicious means by which they propose to reach them, like conscript armies or schools or any other collective endeavors do which we aren't asked but are forced to join.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

The Collectivist Trick

Tibor R. Machan

There is an unforgettable scene in the classic film, Dr. Strangelove or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964), starring Peter Sellers, Sterling Hayden, George C. Scott and a host of others. At one point one of Sellers' characters, the mad scientists with the heavy German accent, is making a presentation and while doing so his right arm and hand engage in movements, as if these were not part of Sellers at all but had an independent will. The arm keeps shooting out to give the Heil Hitler sign and it needs to be restrained by the other arm. The character is clearly internally conflicted and the arm is damaged.

This scene comes to my mind a lot when I encounter not only popular politicians but also sophisticated political theorists who insist that we all belong to some collective being--the nation, state, culture, ethnic group, humanity, or the people. That's because when one thinks of human individuals in this collectivist fashion, their own conduct--the actions they take on their own independent initiative--are seen by such collectivists as out of line, just the way the Sellers character's arm was out of line. And when that happens, individuals must be put in their place as servants of the collective just as Sellers' arm had to be!

For many centuries the battle between individualism and collectivism has underpinned the more particular political controversies evident everywhere around the globe. Do you own your own life--do you have an unalienable right to to as it states in the Declaration of Independence, following the ideas of John Locke and some other classical liberals (although not all that many)? Or do you belong to the group--family, neighborhood, community, nation, etc., as for example was enthusiastically argued by the father of sociology, the French Auguste Comte and is being argued today by such communitarians as the Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor and the American sociologist Amitai Etzioni, among many others?

Why bring this up now? Because the dominant political thinking in America and indeed many other places has pretty much given up on the quintessentially American idea that you and I and the rest of us have an unalienable right to our lives. President Obama, for example, is an avid supporter of the ideas of his former Chicago Law School colleague, Harvard Law School professor Cass Sunstein, in championing what is known as Franklin D. Roosevelt's Second Bill of Rights, in opposition to the Founders' original bill which is draw from the Declaration.

In that original bill the rights all citizens, indeed all human beings, are supposed to possess are prohibitions on other people who may wish to intrude on one's life without one's permission. That is what the right life is, a prohibition of murder. And the right to liberty, a prohibition of assault, battery, kidnapping, rape, etc. And the right to property, a prohibition of robbery, burglary, trespass, and other kinds of takings without the owners' permission.

The Second Bill of Rights, in contrast, lists rights to other people's works, time and belongings, such as, say, the right to health care or a minimum wage or a paid vacation. All these, ofter called "entitlements" (even while of course that begs the central question), would treat citizens as part of a group with unalienable obligations to the rest of the group. And since this is a fantasy if taken literally, the thesis amounts to claiming that some people, allegedly speaking for the various groups to which we are supposed to belong--which have prior claims on us, prior to ourselves--get to call the shots as to how we ought to live our lives, what and who we must work for, support, feed, etc.

Now if individualism is even remotely right, these so called entitlements or new rights turn out to be fraudulent, tricks by which to promote involuntary servitude, period. But if collectivism is correct, in any of its forms, then the claims made upon our lives, work, time, property, and so forth can all be treated as dues we owe! (Even then, of course, it doesn't follow that anyone is authorized to enforce those duties, but never mind that for now.)

And that is why the individualism versus collectivism dispute is so vital and remains the most important one, disguised only with some difficulty as being about loving one's country, humanity, family, other people, the poor, etc. No. Those are all pseudo issues. The real one is to whom does the individual human being belong?

Monday, June 08, 2009

Mini Business Ethics & Freedom

Tibor R. Machan

In matters of ethics one is best equipped to understand when one is close up. Politics is different, as is law, although one reason for having courts is to hash out cases with all the details on view. Otherwise misjudgment lurks nearby.

A recent incident brings to light how business ethics bears on our day to day affairs and how it is really impossible to handle these the way so many people, especially politicians and bureaucrats, would like to, namely via government regulation.

Someone near me found a TV repairer on the Internet and set up an appointment, after trying to make sure the repairer knew a thing or two about the set in need of work. The repairer asked that he could come out on Sunday and it was agreed that that would work out fine. Between 11 AM and 1 PM was the window for the visit.

By noon it was evident that something went astray--the repairer got lost or met with some mishap. But once reached by phone it turned out he wasn’t lost or anything. He was just delayed for reasons the customer didn’t need to know. But he would be there by 2, latest. By 3:30 PM another call went out but only a voicemail system answered it. The customer indicated some irritation with having to wait so long without being informed as to the new time or the cause of the delay. At 5 PM the repairer finally called saying the deal is off, he will not be there to fix the set, period.

Now there is and should be nothing illegal about what the repairer did, anymore than there is or ought to be anything illegal when people fail to keep their promises. Still, failing to keep a promise can be quite costly and in this case the cost was that the customer had to just sit and wait and wait while a lot else could have been done, errands taken care of, etc., instead.

Now with thousand of this kind of malpractice quite a lot of losses could be chalked up, not to mention the irritation. So the temptation often arise to bring in some kind of law enforcement.

But the customer here was, in effect, asking for the mess since there was no reason to just accept the repairer’s word in the first place. And even if that was all that was convenient, there is still some kind of recourse through an outfit such as the Better Business Bureau. So, clearly, brining in any kind of legal authority would be (a) unjustified and (b) impractical.

There are zillions of these minor mishaps in commerce, often easily seen as the fault of one or another party to a verbal deal. And that is to be expected, after all, in multilayered commercial relations, where tripping up is possible on so many fronts. Nor is this the case only with commerce! The way to cope here, however, isn’t to empower government officials, who are themselves just as capable and even more likely to misbehave as are the parties to all the deals that are mismanaged.

The customer in the above case cut the losses and went on to get service elsewhere. And that is just what these minor or even major business ethics infractions need, not some bureaucracy that is teaming with busy bodies who pretend that they can rectify matters in these kinds of instances and even far worse ones, despite being way removed from the cases and needing to pay attention to their own problems. (This is the gist of what James Buchanan’s and Gordon Tullock’s public choice theory teaches!)

Sometimes those who defend the free market--or freedom in general--overstate the promise of these, as if perfection would always emerge from free men and women going about their affairs without government intervention and regulation. That promise is unjustified and is due mainly to the fact that many economists who support free markets do not believe in objective values, in anyone being able to tell right from wrong, good from bad. It’s all subjective, they believe. And then, of course, nothing wrong can happen so long as people act freely and interact voluntarily. But this is a very mistaken idea.

Freedom does not promise perfection by a long shot. But those who insist on perfection are themselves being irrational and fail to realize that bringing in governments just makes things worse, in the main. That’s because governments use coercive force from which human affairs very, very rarely benefit!