Saturday, October 10, 2009

Property Rights are Human Rights

Tibor R. Machan

A sad confusion that has once again made its way into general circulation is that the right to private property is a mere invention designed to legitimate greed and obscene riches. Actually, this is like claiming that the right to life is a mere invention designed to legitimate crude selfishness and unrestrained personal ambition. And actually there is something to this but nothing insidious, nothing bad in the end.

One's right to one's life is indeed a moral and political bulwark against others making use of one against one's will. The right to life is the principle by which slavery and involuntary servitude are morally and politically rebuffed, so they ought to be part of the legal system of any civilized, just human community even if they can be unwisely, imprudently applied by some. Greed is far more rife among those who would violate this right, even of the very fortunate and rich, for once anyone is subject to the willful intervention of others, there is no limit--it is an easy slippery slope. Kind of like the idea that well, very tall or healthy people should have their rights less vigilantly respected and protected then others since they are, well, so much better off and others need to be able to subdue them when in need. This is the old and wholly misplaced egalitarian--Procrustean--impulse, cutting everyone down to one size. Of course, it also means that those who supervise and administer the cutting will have far greater--unequal--powers over other people than will those whom they regiment about for this egalitarian purpose.

The way the attack on the right to private property gains some minimal moral mileage is by associating it with ruthless self-indulgence, say the activities we have recently witnessed by Bernie Madoff. Yet, of course, what made Madoff the criminal he is was precisely that he violated this right of thousands of trusting clients.

Besides that, the right to private property is most vital for those who are struggling to build up a nest egg, some resources beyond the minimum. And while sometimes what results is enormous wealth--Bill Gates and Warren Buffet are contemporary cases in point--mostly this right secures for people a decent, ongoing livelihood, not a whole lot more. Yet common sense suggests that most of us would welcome more and that there really is nothing wrong with that.

It is mostly the vice of green envy that motivates people to begrudge that this right gets at least a bit of respect and protection in modern societies, one that is of course very tentative. The wealth redistribution juggernaut just will not leave people's property in peace. The simple fact that some have unmet needs gives demagogues like Michael Moore the ammunition to attack the system of capitalism which, if it did exists at all, would be based on strict protection of private property rights. (Instead, of course, what is ubiquitous is not capitalism but state corporatism and the out of control welfare state, a welfare state the beneficiaries aren't poor unwed mothers, as the caricature would have it, but massive powerful institutions such as universities, farming conglomerates, corporations and all who are savvy at lobbying the government!)

The source of private property rights, judging by the most famous defender of the principle in modern political philosophy--yes, Virginia, it was also defended in ancient times, for example, in Aristotle's Politics--the English classical liberal John Locke, is that one is a sovereign individual, a self-governing, independent moral agent not to be bullied by others, not for others to manipulate, intrude upon or even nudge (a recent preferred public policy device of President Obama's favorite legal advisor, Professor Cass Sunstein). You and I and every human being is properly in charge of his or her life, not other people who may gain from that life only if you and I and anyone else chooses to be helpful and generous. Indeed, being helpful and generous would not be moral virtues if one didn't get the chance to be so freely, at one's own initiative--governments cannot make people decent!

It used to be thought that you and I and other people belong to a monarch or czar or some hotshot bully but this has been thoroughly discredited by the likes of Locke. Only now it is being brought back under the guise of fostering communities and avoiding the fallout of rugged individualism. But this is all a ruse aimed to intimidate any resistance there may be to the demagoguery that would enslave us, make us into serfs, once again. Let us hope it is competently resisted.

Friday, October 09, 2009

The Desperate Defense of Obamacare

Tibor R. Machan

The political arena has abandoned all civility, it seems. It was coming our way once folks like Ralph Nader and Michael Moore got to be big wigs, speaking up in support of populism and a massive federal government.

The American citizenry tends to be middle of the road, championing a mixed economy but resisting either extensive statism or full freedom from coercive government. Most people seem to want the chance to get government to do their special bidding, so they will not sign up to restrain its powers completely. Neither, however, will they grant the government all the powers its most avid advocates would like. I have in mind the likes of Chuck Shumer and Henry Waxman among the Democrat politicians and some of the Republicans who border on authoritarianism.

But these days if you opposed government health care, you are a right-wing lunatic, a wild person or barbarian so there is use trying to argue with those who are committed to socialize the American medical system. They have dismissed all serious skeptics. The train must not be stopped as it is hurling toward full government involvement in all areas of society, at every level. This may not be objected to without getting those who love it to call you names and flatly ignore your concerns. Only compromisers will get some attention since they don't question the policies at their foundations.

I am a regular reader of the center left magazine The New Republic and even it is having a hard time remaining somewhat civil about opponents of President Obama's mission. In a recent issue the editors jump on board with those who have declare Americans who fervently oppose Obama's health care and insurance plans as racists of some kind. The writers said they don't much worry about this racism but insisted that it was that, not bona fide political disagreement about the direction the federal government is taking under this president. And The New York Review of Books, which I also read regularly, has rolled out Elizabeth Drew who tries to tarnish everyone who doesn't genuflect at the altar of medical statism.

Some in this administration are really quite un-American, seriously! I have in mind, among others, Obama's regulatory czar, Professor Cass Sunstein, who believes that (a) government is the source of our rights and (b) government should grant animals rights of the sort human beings have.

This is no small matter. After all, what is distinctive about the American political tradition is what it says in the Declaration of Independence, namely, that the rights everyone has, every human being, are ours by virtue of the fact that we are human beings. All of us except the hopelessly incapacitated have these rights, yet Professor Sunstein and his boss, we may assume, think that governments, in the fashion of monarchs of days gone by, hand out rights, meaning, grant privileges or permissions. (I always cringe when people say "Government allows us to...." because government as the American Founders and their teachers knew haven't any magical powers to allow anyone anything.) Government doesn't stand to us, the citizenry, as parents and nannies stand to children. Government is a group of hired administrators, not czars, kings or Caesars.

So when this president eagerly endorses the views of people such as Sunstein as he is charging ahead with transforming the country into something it had vehemently gotten away from when it was founded, opposition should be expected. And some of it will be loud, even a bit unruly.

Instead, however, of laying out a set of reasons for why this change ought to be undertaken and communicating them to us all, the critics are being denigrated, dismissed, and besmirched as right-wingers (which is a term that by rights should apply to people like Mussolini, Hitler and perhaps Peron, not to the likes of George Will and Dick Army). I am certainly no right-winger myself, having had a solid taste of Nazism in my early life. Nazism, by the way, refers to a German political party that worked to establish national socialism, not a system of private health care that's averse to collectivizing medicine.

But perhaps the hysterical attitude toward all who question Mr. Obama's rush to massive statism carries an implicitly hopeful message. The ideas behind this march are bankrupt so its champions will not talk them up. Instead they have to demonize those who are skeptical.

Wednesday, October 07, 2009

Letterman's Indiscretion

Tibor R. Machan

Just as with Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky, so with Letterman, the problem is that he is the boss, the top banana who wields considerable clout with the rest of those on the team. For their employees to say no to them is obviously somewhat difficult and risky. Never mind the law here, it is a matter of professional ethics. Just as teachers ought not to hit on students, so bosses should not hit on staff. It is taking advantage of one's legitimate power to exploit someone who did not sign up for romance but for work.

Sure, most adults know how to handle it all, with just a bit of integrity and courage. But staff ought not to be faced with a boss who strays from the standard of sticking to the parameters of the job. If it is the big love that comes up in the office, the parties ought to quit the professional relationship, move it outside the shop.

Obviously many people meet their one and only at work. That is to be expected. Better than at some bar, with the dim lights and booze coloring everyone's judgment. Work shows people virtually fully so others can see who they are and if there is appeal, acting on it often makes good sense. Except when it involves taking unfair advantage and the likelihood of intimidation which is quite frequently the case, unfortunately. Insisting that no one at work get involved personally is silly unless the job itself is seriously jeopardized, as it might be where, say, a doctor and nurse or pilot and flight attendant are involved. Even there a romance, even just casual dating, could commence but if the parties want to explore things fully, they will need to move outside the job situation.

What is not realistic is a demand for precise rules, some kind of exact code, about all this. Circumstances vary too much to be codified. But there are general principles by which one can be guided. The main one is that the duties involved in one's work may only very rarely be compromised and if there is even the smallest change they will be, the extracurricular activities must be taken off premises, so to speak.

Of course with Clinton it was gross. Ms. Lewinsky was an intern for heaven's sake, and he the president and commander in chief of the country. The man had a huge problem. And it was revealing how nearly all so called feminists gave him a pass--just goes to show you how much some people's principles manage to be flexible for them. Moreover, intern or not, fooling around with Monica violated the oath Clinton took upon marriage and pretty much discredited him, showed him to be untrustworthy. Which isn't what one would want from one's president or boss, for that matter.

Yes, much of these matters are within the purview of ethics, not of public policy or the law. Yes, there is a difference--when one is guided by ethics, one is supposed to do what is right of one's own free will, not under threat of punishment or sanctions. The right or wrong thing to do must be voluntary. But since these folks, both Bill Clinton and David Letterman, are very public in their different ways, even their private conduct is subject to widespread inspection and evaluation. (Too bad the lawyers get involved so often--it obscures the distinction between private and public malpractice. But malpractice it often is, nonetheless.)

It would be welcome to see these public figures managing their affairs more sensibly, at least discretely. They might then set something of an example for their admirers and viewers instead of becoming a disappointment for them. But it just goes to show you, there is no way to guarantee human decency. Even those granted considerable confidence by the rest of us keep falling down.

It all suggests that the last thing we ought to do is to entrust any of these people with power--doing the wrong thing comes much easier when you have it.

Sunday, October 04, 2009

Problems with Pragmatism

Tibor R. Machan

In my columns I return to pragmatism now and then in part because so many prominent, influential folks embrace it and use it to justify the approach they take to public affairs. One such individual is President Barack Obama who has declared more than once that he is fiercely “loyal to economic pragmatism.” This in contrast to those he and many on his team regard as being ideological, people who, for example, adhere to a general economic viewpoint such as socialism, capitalism, welfare statism or the like.

Among the many 20th century thinkers, the economist John Maynard Keynes (the leading guide of Mr. Obama’s economic policies—via such figures as Princeton University’s Nobel Laureate and columnist for The New York Times Paul Krugman) was a dedicated pragmatist. About a decade before he wrote his most prominent and influential book, The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money, published in 1936, Keynes wrote his very brief but packed little booklet, The End of Laissez Faire (1926), based on lectures he delivered in England and Germany the year before.

In this book, Keynes goes to great lengths to trace the history of both the term and the economic philosophy of laissez faire economics. After doing his best to keep a straight face about it all, he eventually shows his total disdain for the idea, mainly because he associates it with a somewhat vulgarized version of Darwin’s theory of natural selection, namely, the doctrine of the survival of the fittest in human social life, or Social Darwinism (as associated with Herbert Spencer).

Keynes is disgusted by this view, treating it as nothing but an excuse for the powerful in a society, including the economically successful, to remain undisturbed in their quest to remain powerful and rich. As Keynes saw it, the principles of laissez faire had as their purpose to make it easiest on the money seekers, to facilitate the pursuit of profit by the most lucky in society, never mind what wreckage they leave behind with all the poor who have to go without because of their greed and avarice. Keynes saw the free market as a zero sum game!

A particularly illustrious analogy of Keynes in his little book has to do with the wilds where in times of scarcity only the giraffes, with their long necks able to reach atop trees with abundant leaves, manage to survive and flourish, with all other animals left to suffer. He comments: “If we have the welfare of the giraffes at heart, we must not overlook the suffering of the shorter necks who are starved out, or the overfeeding of the long-necked ones, of the evil look of anxiety or struggling greediness which overcasts the mild faces of the herd.”

So as to remedy the unfairness the analogy is supposed to capture about laissez faire economic policy, Keynes recommends that governments must get involved an help level the playing field. In the process he dismisses the case for laissez faire as resting on nothing more than empty abstractions. As he put it, “We cannot … settle on abstract grounds, but must handle on its merits in detail what [Edmund] Burke termed ‘one of the finest problems in legislation, namely, to determine what the State ought to take upon itself to direct by the public wisdom, and what it ought to leave, with as little interference as possible, to individual exertion.’”

There is much to chew over here but I will focus on just one thing, namely, the point that economic policy needs to be determined case by case. Each issue “must be handled on its merits in detail.”

This is a pragmatic myth. No issue can be handled divorced from history and theory. If it isn’t going to be laissez faire, it will be something else and, indeed, throughout the book Keynes is very sympathetic toward socialism except for the fact that it isn’t economically feasible. But the sentiments behind it have merit. And the cases then are to be dealt with on their merit, meaning, of course, on whether they conform to socialist aspirations or are still better left to be dealt with by individuals’ exertion.

There is no such thing as leaving problems to be solved on their individual merit—it is humanly impossible except for people who act randomly. From this it follows that the dispute isn’t between a pragmatist and a laissez faire economic policy but between some other system and laissez faire. And when it comes to that, laissez faire is indeed the most promising system and departing from it is simply very costly.

Only by inventing magical devices such as Keynes’ famous multiplier can this be denied, a device that plainly defies the laws of logic and metaphysics. This is one reason why Keynes wants to discourage us from considering abstract grounds! But it will not do. And the failure of the New Deal illustrates this clearly.
Coercion and Laziness

Tibor R. Machan

When people have a strong urge to get something accomplished they cannot--or perhaps better put are unwilling to--do by themselves, they often insist that it must be done by the government. This is what has been happening with the whole health care/insurance fiasco. Yes, it is very desirable to be insured against medical mishap or disaster. Yes, many are uninsured, though not so many as the alarmists in the debate claim. And yes, those most alarmed aren't going to be able to afford to insure everyone they want to see insured. So, presto, government is urged to force everyone to contribute to the system whether or not this is a priority for them.

A good example came to light this last Sunday (October 3rd, 2009) when The New York Times Magazine profiled the actress Anna Deavere Smith who is about to open a show at the Second Stage Theater in Manhattan, "Let Me Down Easy," in which she plays 20 characters and unabashedly promotes the Obama type health care reform. She will recite monologues on this topic, mostly attempts to intimidate those who think that people should obtain their own insurance or should seek help from volunteers. It doesn't even occur to the lady that help is supposed to be granted voluntarily, not at the point of the gun. Here is part of her screed:

"...And if you fail, It's your own fault-- Why should anybody else have to help you? And I reject that. It's inconsistent with my values. I disagree very strongly with it...."

Notice that this is all a distortion of the real issue. Health insurance is every adult's own responsibility and if some are simply unable to buy it, there is the option of appealing to others for help. (When they neglect to buy it and spend the money on other, more satisfying purchases, that is no one's fault but their own.) And the appeal may have to be persistent. And, yes, at times it will fail.

But none of that authorizes anyone to take out a gun and conscript the support of other people, people who may well have important matters to accomplish with their limited resources. Or even if they do not, they aren't to be used by Ms. Smith and Mr. Obama against their own will. Has Ms. Smith never heard that slavery and involuntary servitude were abolished? Does she not grasp the simple truth that one has a right to one's own life and that to give of that life one must be free to do so, not be coerced by others? Has she never figured out that charity, generosity, compassion and such are all morally worthwhile only if volunteered? And has she never realized that she is not the boss of everyone with whom she disagrees?

To disagree very strongly with the idea that others ought to obtain health insurance or health care without coercing anyone is no justification for violating their human rights. Even if it were a terribly greedy, heartless thing not to help those who need health insurance and health care, that would still not suffice as a reason to violate their right to life, liberty or property. But by no means does it have to be for that reason that many refuse to buckle under Obama's massive wealth redistribution health program.

Suppose back in the days of chattel slavery the masters could make out a pretty good case that they desperately needed the work of their slaves, that without that work they would be very hard up. Would that have made slavery OK? No, not at all. So the dire needs of many for health insurance and health care similarly fail to support any kind of coercion against the rest.

Perhaps it is just plain laziness. It is far more cool to put on a play in Manhattan than to start up a charitable foundation and go out to solicit sufficient funds to help those who need health insurance and health care. Or to get out and solicit the unpaid work of health care professionals who could remedy matters for those who cannot afford health care.

It is sad that so many civilized human beings so cavalierly resort to forcing others to do their bidding, even granting that their cause is a respectable one.