Wednesday, December 23, 2009

The Myth of Surplus Wealth

Tibor R. Machan

Over the last couple of decades a colleague from a famous university has challenged me about my view that everyone has the unalienable right to private property. Now this position, derived from such sources as John Locke, the American Founders, Ayn Rand, and many others in the classical liberal, libertarian political tradition, amounts to the idea that in a just human community every adult human being is free to pursue prosperity in the form he or she desires--material wealth, intellectual resources, land, items produced by humans or nature, and so forth. The right to private property is a right of action, an extension of the more general right to liberty: everyone must be left free to pursue wealth, to take those peaceful actions that could result in prosperity (although there is no guarantee that they will). And this right to freedom of action is itself based on the yet broader right to one's life. Life is an ongoing process of action which, for human beings, needs to be initiated by the living agent. We have to do stuff to live, in short. And having the right to live entails being free to do so.

Now this critic of my thinking has argued against this idea at least in cases when some people are in dire straits, in serious need of resources through no fault of their own. And that certainly can happen, although it is far more likely to when people are oppressed, barred from taking the action needed to prosper, than when they are not imposed upon by others, especially by armed governments. What he has been maintaining is that if those in dire straits are forbidden to take from those who have what he dubs surplus wealth, then they are effectively no in possession of their own right to liberty. As it is sometimes put, those without resources are effectively on bondage. They lack the freedom to take the actions that could advance their lives. And this means that although everyone has the unalienable right to life, liberty, property and so forth, those in dire straits actually do not.

In particular my critic has stressed that those in dire straits, in serious need through no fault of their own, may not be stopped from taking some of the surplus wealth of the wealthy. And this, indeed, is roughly how people justify not just ordinary but progressive taxation--the wealthy must give up some of their wealth to those in dire straits because only that way will the latter be able to enjoy their own basic rights.

I have replied to the criticism in a variety of ways. One is by pointing out that the absence of resources is not the same as the violation of rights. I have no resources to buy myself a yacht but I do have a right to buy myself a yacht and no one would be authorized to stop me from doing so if and when I become wealthy enough to do so. In other words, I am have the right to liberty to seek a yacht for myself by peaceful means, although, again, I may not succeed.

Indeed, this is pretty plain since one may be struck down by all sorts of natural impediments--disease, calamity, earthquakes, hurricanes, and so forth--for which no one is responsible and so no one may be penalized or fined for having caused them. Those who encounter such natural impediments are, well, unfortunate, that is for sure. But this does not authorize them to impose any burdens on those who have not deserved it even if they are, indeed, in a position to alleviate the hardship. They may and probably should request help, support, assistance, and so forth. They may even organize campaigns to urge that their bad luck be addressed by their fellows. But they have no rightful authority to take anything from them, not even so called surplus resources--an idea that is, in any case, vague and subject to systematic abuse. (Is my second kidney an article of surplus wealth? My second eye? My back-up golf set? My collected vintage cars?)

It isn't true that surplus wealth makes no sense at all but only the most intimate knowledge of someone could enable us to tell if that person is in possession of wealth that he or she can easily do without. Maybe the individual is saving for a rainy day, for a time when he or she will be giving this wealth away to relatives or favorite causes. Maybe such an individual is powerfully enriched, psychologically, by holding on to wealth beyond what others may consider reasonable.

Having the right to private property means, in large measure, that the individual with that right is the one who is free to decide to what purposes his or her property will be devoted. It is a matter of who is to choose. Without this basic, unalienable right one's freedom of directing one's right is undermined not by natural causes, which can impeded anyone, but by others who are at liberty to refrain from doing so and, given this right, ought to so refrain.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Impractical Pragmatism?

Tibor R. Machan

Yes, it sounds paradoxical because by "pragmatic" is usually meant "practical, workable, functional." So when President Obama made it clear last year that he is a loyal pragmatist when it comes to economic policy, he received praise from some, especially those who denounce ideology or ideological thinking.

Yet this is not a sound approach to life or public policy because telling where one should be pragmatic and where one should hold on to one's principles no matter what is impossible. If, say, one is ideological about a woman's right to choose whether to continue her pregnancy beyond a certain point, or, alternatively, whether to preserve the life of a budding human being no matter what, is that all to the good or not? Or if one opposes rape under any and all circumstances, is one being ideological, dogmatic, a fundamentalist in the bad sense meant by the likes of Professor Paul Krugman who think that market fundamentalism is something really, really bad? What about parents who insist that their children tell the truth and not lie, ever? Are they dogmatic, mindless people and is their child rearing seriously flawed?

Yet when it comes to confiscating the resources of people for various supposedly public purposes, as per the U. S. Supreme Court's ruling in 2005 in Kelo v. City of New London Connecticut, serious legal scholars claim this is wise pragmatism, a sensible rejection of mindless market fundamentalism or ideological thinking? Why is the principle of private property rights less binding on us all than the principle of the integrity of a woman's body? Why are these same intellectuals not being pragmatic about torture or child molestation, why don't they condemn those who insist that under no circumstances may anyone commit statutory rape, as crass dogmatists?

Could it be that these folks find it convenient, to their and their preferred people's advantage, to downplay the principles of private property rights? That is surely what one would think about anyone who would counsel flexibility about matters such as rape or child abuse. There is no excuse to abandon principled thinking and conduct about such practices but for some reason it is OK to accept stealing a bit here, robbing a bit there and dogmatism or ideological to oppose that attitude?

The bottom line is that pragmatism is fatally flawed. No champion of it can identify where it is permissible or acceptable to be pragmatic and where pragmatism would be something odious and intolerable. In the case of President Obama and his public policy cheerleaders they, too, have no clue when principled thinking and conduct are required and when it is dogmatic or ideological to strictly adhere to principles. No clue at all, which then gives them carte blanche about how they should carry on with public policies or even personal conduct. Bill Clinton and Tiger Woods then can cry out, but why are they condemning us for breaking our marriage wows when they break all sorts of principles? And, worse, supporters of water boarding or even more Draconian forms of torture can invoke pragmatism, saying well it works sometimes, so given the importance of getting information from the victims it would be dogmatic or ideological to forbid it. Where is the line between conduct that may follow the pragmatic approach and conduct that may not? Where is principled conduct expendable? And why there and not someplace else?

It seems that champions of pragmatism like President Obama and his intellectual supporters have a problem here and if they think that a president should lead by example, they could be guilty of providing an impossible example for others to follow. Indeed, it is an interesting question just what Mr. and Mrs. Obama teach their own children about principles--may they be tossed whenever they become inconvenient, wherever they stand in the way of pursuing certain desired objectives like bailing out banks and auto companies with other peoples' money?

Looks like pragmatism is not at all practical, the very thing for which it is often praised. It cannot be practiced consistently, coherently, in either personal or public affairs.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

No Insurance at Gun Point

Tibor R. Machan

No one is as fond of affordability as I am--well, may this is wrong but I am very fond of it. That extends to insurance. My home, car, health and sometimes travel insurance would at their best be something I can well afford. But then this is so with whatever it is that I am in the market for, shoes, food, furniture, electronics, whatever. Bottom line is I like a good deal and it would not surprise me if everyone else does too.

Now and then I do engage in a little bit of charity purchase, as when I buy some wine from those who spend some of what they gain on supporting breast cancer research or patronize a restaurant because I would like it to keep going in hard times. Even the people who come to clean my house could come less often but I just hate to take them down a notch if I can afford keeping them working.

But most of the time I want to make a good deal, no charity, no kindness, no generosity unless friends and relatives are at the other end of the trade. Thus when I hear about how the government will force insurance companies to keep selling insurance to people whom the firms judge too expensive to insure, I am outraged. After all, people who own insurance companies aren't in the business so as to do anyone a favor. No, they see a business opportunity and hope that they can come out ahead, along with those whom they insure. But if they no longer see a decent return on their investment, they would, naturally, cut deals elsewhere, just as most people would (with those minor exceptions involving intimates). Not that people in the insurance business might not wish to provide everyone with good insurance whether they can pay what is needed to make this happen. We all have wishes like that but to realize them it would be necessary to impose a deal on people who have decided they would rather make different deals, with people who can sustain their provisions of the pertinent professional service.

People who work at insurance firms need to be paid so they can feed their children, send them to school, go on vacation, buy clothing and their own insurance and whatnot. And so do those who own insurance companies and invest in them--it is all for purposes of a reasonable deal. And what is and is not a reasonable deal for all these folks is not something anyone other than they can determine. Yes, some might wish to charge more than they do but if the industry is competitive, they will not be able to do this. But to have governments coerce people to take less from a deal than they can based on the free, voluntary agreements reached with customers is just plain criminal, no different from coercing a barber to take less from a client than they freely agree would be the right amount.

Yes, it is sad that some people are so ill that covering them with insurance would require the insurer to take a loss but unless insurers have agreed to do this, freely, voluntarily, no one has the moral authority to force them into such deals. Just because it would be very desirable for such people to get covered when they need to obtain health care, it does not follow at all that insurance companies or anyone else may be forced to come to their support. Life isn't always accommodating to such hopes and wishes and aspirations. No one welcomes a huge medical expense but unless one can find some generous people, generous of their own free will instead of being forced to act as if they were generous, that's the way it has to be.

One reason people should begin to get insured early in their lives is that they are less likely to need services at that point and they can get deals from which insurance companies can profit, just as they would want to profit from them when they have a need for medical care. Forcing either the provider or the provided to get into deals they do not judge to be sound for them is tyranny, not help.

It is too bad that in a so called free country such elementary points are all forgotten, especially once government enters the fray. (And in insurance deals governments keep things expensive by, for example, forbidding us to buy insurance from outside the state in which we live, a perfectly artificial imposition on us all.)