Thursday, August 13, 2009

So Who is Simplistic?

Tibor R. Machan

Having been a loyal champion of the regime of individual liberty for decades on end now, I have met up umpteen times and more with the charge that these ideas are mere ideology and simplistic to boot. The only tune I am told I sing is "Reduce the power and scope of government whenever that's possible." How childish, isn't it? All this freedom stuff, for which millions have lived and died over the centuries.

Well, most people have certain central notions from which they draw their political convictions. Simple some may be but not necessarily simplistic. That's because championing liberty, for example, is in fact championing extensive complexity--when millions of human beings are free to think and act as they choose, the outcome is something totally diverse, a complex society with thousands of elements, features, attributes, processes, goods and services contributing to human flourishing. Freedom isn't just one course of conduct but many, many, and most aren't even predictable. So those who champion it by no means place their trust in just one idea but in the capacity of people to forge millions of them.

In contrast, do the critics of the regime of liberty promote anything comparably complex? No, not actually. Their bottom line is always: "Have governments use additional coercive force!" Rob Peter to serve the needs of Paul. Force Peter to conform to rules and more rules. The one note that such political operatives, including citizens and their "representatives," sing is "Just make people do what they don't want to do." Coercive force is the answer that will save us from every adversity! Be they conservatives or liberals or socialist or Fascists such folks trust in just one policy over all others, namely, to subdue the will of their fellow human beings and bend them to their own.

What could be more simplistic than this? Where is there any complexity, diversity, multifacetedness in such a doctrine? But one may suppose that by dismissing their critics as simplistic adherents to this idea hope that their own simplistic idea will not be too evident. Just insisting that the policy of coercion against innocent human beings is a sophisticated one might put champions of liberty on the defensive and confound those on the sidelines. But what champions of liberty need to realize is that it isn't they who advance simplistic, one-size-fits-all answers to the problems people face in their lives and communities but their opponents who trust nothing more than the deployment of state power--from the mild sort now dubbed "nudging," to the more Draconian one involving vice squads.

Take this to the personal level and consider whether a peaceful individual, unarmed, lives a more complex, diverse, multifaceted life, and interacts with others in highly varied ways or does a bully do this, or a criminal, whose one and only effective method is to deploy coercive force? The answer seems quite evident from just looking around at history and our daily lives. Take terrorists, as a case in point. Do they have many ways of dealing with their fellow human beings? Not at all--what they do is kill and maim them, period.

So when those who chide defenders of the free society for having only one answer to our problems, or for saying "no" to coercion wherever it is found, they have it all wrong. Champions of individual liberty are only starting out toward solving problems by refusing to sanction coercion. Once coercion is prohibited and substantially removed from human associations, all kinds of different peaceful ways of dealing with life's challenges are unleashed. Statists, however, do not trust this. They have confidence in only one thing: coercion or its threat. Anything else seems to leave them utterly nonplussed.

I recommend that no one be intimidated by the thoughtless charge that freedom is a simplistic solution to problems we face in our personal and social lives. It is not. Freedom is what makes possible, indeed encourages, creativity, ingenuity, entrepreneurship, adventure, productivity, friendship, cooperation, and all the rest of what makes for a worthwhile life for people. It is the use or threat of coercive force that ruins all this wherever it is invoked.
Is Fear of Our Government Rational?

Tibor R. Machan

Too often now when some people voice fear of the American government, whether it is its policy involving Homeland Security or health care reform, one is accused of being irrational or paranoid. It is that familiar "It can't happen here" syndrome at work. But there are good reasons not to dismiss such concerns under current circumstances.

When society is considered a collective--akin to a team, only not voluntarily established like most sport teams are--those who see themselves as its leaders and charged with selecting the goals everyone must pursue, can quite easily slip into a mode of thinking that construes all opposition a form of betrayal. If, for example, the federal government is understood along these lines, setting goals for us all for which resources and hard work are needed, and dissent from which may threaten the ability to collect those resources and secure such work, the dissenters will naturally be perceived as traitors to the cause. Indeed, their obstreperousness will easily be perceived as dangerous obstruction of justice! After all, those who are leading us all toward a goal they consider vital to the public interest do understand themselves to be promoters, champions of social justice. How else are they to understand wealth redistribution, for example? In all the literature I have run across in my now quite long career in the field of political philosophy, insisting on the idea that the rich must not be allowed to keep their wealth, the poor must be made to share in the wealth of the nation, the indigent are legally entitled to support obtained by taking from those who have it--all these views are defended mainly as varieties of social or economic justice. And is it not even a crime today to obstruct justice? Sure, that means obstructing law but it is called obstruction of justice, is it not? Because if the law itself is deemed as just, then those who oppose it are in cahoots with criminals who obstruct it. And by the lights of the collectivists, laws promoting their idea of the public interest are indeed just.

How can a bona fide promoter of social justice tolerate serious, persistent dissent? It is not possible unless one is firmly committed to the idea of individual rights, the right, for example, to campaign against and even withdraw from various projects government officials consider vital to the public interest. And when a country's government is administered by officials who do not believe in individual rights, as for instance President Obama is not--judging by his close association with and reliance on the advice of legal theorists who denigrate such rights as fictitious--the concern that dissent will land one in hot water with government officials is quite rational.

OK, for a while there is the protection afforded by the First Amendment to the U. S. Constitution but with sufficient savvy the defenders of the public interest as they see it could very well see full warrant for weakening such protection. This is one of the lessons of Franklin D. Roosevelt's efforts to pack the U. S. Supreme Court when that court would not go along with his plans for the country, plans that involved breaching the principles of the U. S. Constitution. Roosevelt did not believe in the Bill of Rights as traditionally understood in America's legal history but crafted, instead, a Second Bill of Rights. It wasn't only that some of the older interpretations of the Bill of Rights needed to be straightened out but that the very idea of citizens having basic, unalienable rights stood in the way of his aggressive statism.

Today the legal team of President Obama is of the same mind as FDR was when he launched the New Deal. What is needed, they argue, is the reaffirmation of FDR's Second Bill of Rights, with its emphasis on entitlements and the coerced services needed from everyone so as to deliver on these. So when one opposes this policy, one is clearly an obstructionist. One is breaking ranks from an army that needs all the soldiers to be dedicated and loyal. Patriotism is then defined as falling in line with the government's plans.

Why is it such a surprise, then, that the Obama Administration is attacking those American citizens who voice opposition to, for example, its plan for the virtual nationalization of the health care profession in America? Why be surprised that opponents of bailouts and stimulus programs are denigrated and marginalized instead of argued with? Such people are seen as vicious opponents of social and economic justice and such opposition is quite intolerable to anyone who cares for such justice, is it not?

Once the bulwark against this kind of tyranny--namely, the basic rights of individuals and the legal system that rests on those rights--is rejected as ultimately mythical, what will stand in the way of treating dissenters as traitors?

The fear of the American government becoming more and more tyrannical is not irrational but completely justified by the logic of the current administration's attitude about political and legal theory. What we are seen as, all of us, is tools and resources for carrying out the government's plans. Anyone who disagrees may well need to be neutralized.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Could it be Genuine Collectivism?

Tibor R. Machan

Whenever one is involved in a debate or argument about normative matters--ethics or politics, for instance--certain moves are made by means of using labels. One might characterize another's position as "extreme right or left wing," "fascist," "socialist," "ultra conservative," "ruthlessly capitalist," "radically individaulist," and so forth. All such labels contain a charge to the effect that the other's position is misguided and maybe out and out disastrous and vicious in its implications. Which is why the labels are so vigorously rejected, why they are deemed to be a variety of "name calling."

Yet they are not always off base. Some people's viewpoint and policy proposals do amount to one of these on the list above. Slightly rephrased, they might even be openly embraced by one's adversary. Thus, for example, one might consider someone's position socialist and the person might accept it so long as it is a socialism "with a human face." Even Nazis, national socialists, might fess up to their viewpoint provided it doesn't get linked to concentration camps, just as communists might accept being communists so long as Stalin and the gulags are not linked to this characterization.

But in certain contexts, however much one's position may amount to a variety of socialism, communism, or, alternatively, fascism or Nazism, because of the pejorative intimation of such terms they will be rejected, resisted, and one's adversary will see it as underhanded, dirty pool, to make use of them. We have exactly this situation now with Barack Obama's recommended public policies, such as his idea of a heavily government-linked health care system, his bailout efforts vis-a-vis the auto and bank industries, his stimulus program, etc. By all accounts these measures leave very little of the already truncated American system of a free market capitalism intact. By all accounts they require revising the meaning and function of the U. C. Constitution, the complete undoing of the market economy, and the abolition of the American founders' idea of natural individual human rights.

For example, many legal scholars who support Mr. Obama now believe that the U. S. Constitution is basically outmoded and must be fundamentally re-conceived. Just peruse a recently published collection of papers by these scholars, The Constitution in 2020, edited by Jack M. Balkin and Reva B. Siegel, from Oxford University Press, all of which are self-labeled as "progressive" despite the fact that virtually all want to revamp the American legal system by returning more and more power to government, just as that used to be the case under the monarchy that the American Revolution overthrew! (In other words, this progressivism is in fact reactionary politics.) A leading light among the contributors is Professor Cass R. Sustain who completely rejects the American Founders' idea that before law, before government, in "the state of nature," human beings have rights to their lives, liberty, property and so forth, which governments are instituted so as to secure for us all. For these folks government may or may not grant or create rights--which is exactly the kind of power and authority claimed by kings, czars, chiefs, rulers, and politburos over their subjects.

How can one detect the socialist version of this attempt to revamp the American system in Mr. Obama & Co.'s proposals? The one straightfoward way is to pay attention to how the regime has accepted one of the most basic tenets of classical socialism, namely, that wealth is publicly owned, not by individuals who earned or otherwise honestly came by it. (The very first item of action recommended by Karl Marx and his partner Frederick Engels in The Communist Manifesto for advancing toward socialism--a system that must, by their account, precede communism--is the abolition of private property.) John Locke, the grandfather of the American legal tradition, considered the right to private property--which included for him one's life and its fruits--fundamental to a just human community. The Obama team of legal and political theorists rejects this. Or it considers the position only right for a brief period of American history, but by now in need of discarding.

When politicians and legal scholars who stand by them--who want to revise the law to suit their so called progressive goals--believe that they may just take from one portion of the population whatever they deem necessary and use it for a purpose they deem in the public interest, they see the society as a kind of organism whose various limbs and organs and other attributes may, if need be, switched around. (This is like a surgeon who believes some bone fragment from one's hip may be useful to repair, say, one's broken nose!) The Obama regime is totally nonplussed about wealth redistribution because it believes wealth is all socially held, not private property. And since they run the society, they can make use of this wealth, including the wealth yet to be produced by members of future generations, as they believe is wise. This is why bailouts, stimulus packages, clunker programs and the like are all just fine and dandy with them. All the wealth involved belongs to us, with them in charge of it.

Since there may well be some serious resistance to this socialist program once Americans get full wind of its implications, it can well come to pass that the government will make use of rough measures to make sure its will is the way. So, lookout--this socialism with a human face could change rather abruptly to one just like those we have seen first turn brutal and then crash in the 20th century!

Sunday, August 09, 2009

Fallacies of the Clunker Program

Tibor R. Machan

Most have no time to consider the big picture so when the clunker program comes their way, they think only of the immediate consequences. It all reminds me of those horrible failed urban renewal government plans to raze innumerable small city communities and built huge high rise apartments, plans that Robert Moses of New York City pushed on New Yorkers all the time, which the late Jane Jacobs, the brilliant theorist of city life, opposed most of her life. But when you present the artist conception of the new high rises it tends to look kind of cool and many people are seduced by them.

Same with the clunker trade in program--I will just toss my old jalopy and get me shiny new wheels. Never mind that the money you get from the government will eventually come out of your or, especially, your children's and grand children's pockets and the clunkers will end up in some junk yard that will cost millions and millions to clean up.

It appears that the recent build up of a housing bubble hasn't taught people anything at all. Much of it was due to easy credit, credit folks didn't really have coming to them based on their actual financial situation. To recover from this the bulk of the population would need to go on an austerity program at least until after they paid off the debt and got back into the financial saddle.

Instead of dealing with the matter with some patience and prudence, the instant fix-it Obama regime simply reintroduced various ways once more in which the country as a whole can go into massive debt, leaving the problem to be dealt with by members of a future--and now non-voting--citizenry. It is all still just as reckless as the many private accruals of credit had been but now it is more cleverly disguised because members of the current citizenry will not feel the pinch right away. It matters not at all to these people that they are imposing immense burdens on those who have no opportunity to accept or refuse them, not even by means of the democratic method. Once again the principle of "no taxation without representation" is flouted not only by violating it unabashedly but by not even acknowledging this fact and trying, however feebly, to argue against it.

The clunker program is especially cynical. Most of us have no chance of exploring the broader implications of current public policies--most of us just try to live with them, make the most of them for purposes of managing our current affairs. So if a politician engages in the massive violation of elementary principles of justice and fair play while handing his constituency resources confiscated from others--or "borrowed" from helpless future voters--most will just accept it and make the most of it, never mind how the process can progressively corrupt the system under which we live.

The clunker program will seem like manna from heaven to a great many people with old cars they wish they could trade in for newer ones on favorable terms. Never mind that the precedence set or continued with the program spells hardship for those who will be citizens in the future. They cannot protest and no politician, nor anyone in the major media, is going to bring up the matter since it is now and has been for decades quite routine and deemed acceptable. Republicans do it, Democrats do it, so no one on Meet the Press or the Op Ed pages of The New York Times or Washington Post is going to write in opposition to it since bringing the matter up for discussion will simply prompt one's opponents to say, "Hey but your party has been doing this for decades on end." Robbing Peter to subsidize Paul is what welfare state politics is all about and both the major parties are firmly committed to this system. All that is open for discussion is how deeply the country ought to sink into the morass the system creates.

I am not excusing ordinary folks for their eagerness to take advantage of a something-for-nothing federal program but I do wish to point out that such measures are by now so deeply entrenched in the country that one would need to do some very searching thinking about political economy to realize just how insidious it is. Few can devote the time needed to come to terms with this, so they just roll with the punches. And sadly the country lacks leadership in the mainstream that might remind folks of this fact.