Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Column on A Fruitful Idea about Morality

Tibor R. Machan

As someone who often teaches the topic of ethics or morality in colleges and universities, I have noticed that most of my beginning students entertain conflicting positions about the subject. They see it either as a one-size-fits-all system of guidelines, wherein everyone has to act the same way or they are bad people, or as purely subjective, wherein nothing is either right or wrong and it’s all a matter of one’s opinion.

And this is understandable. If there are right answers to questions about how we should conduct ourselves, it seems to many those answers must apply to us all, equally. Otherwise how could they be right? So they are pulled toward what is often called moral absolutism. But it also seems quite reasonable that certain answers as to how one ought to act do not apply to all people the same way since they differ in significant ways from one another. That suggests subjectivism.

How can both of these valid insights be satisfied?

One possibility is that a sound, correct ethics offers perhaps just one set of very basic principles that are broad enough to apply to everyone simply in virtue of us all being human. But this morality would also recognize that different individuals need different guidelines, given their special situations, including their unique individuality, culture, even the climate in which they live.

We have this, for example, in medicine and nutrition. There are basic principles in these areas but when they are applied to different people, accommodations must be made to the individuals in question--are they men or women, young or old, tall or short, of a certain metabolism or another, allergic to this or that? So, while the basics of medicine and nutrition are taught pretty much the same everywhere, when they are applied, things begin to vary quite a bit.

In morality or ethics, also, we may well have certain very basic principles that we all need to heed and practice--such as “Think things through before you act,” or “Be honest with yourself” or “Don’t deceive anyone,” “Do onto others as you have would have them do onto you,” or “Pursue excellence in life.” (I leave aside now which might actually be those few sound and universal guiding principles--that takes a lot of figuring out.) But as applied to particular, individual persons, what specific guidance would emerge from such basic principles will not be the same from one person to the next.

Yet something very important about both the concerns expressed by my students and many others would be satisfied in so understanding morality: there would indeed be something absolute or invariant about how we ought to act; yet this wouldn’t amount to an artificially detailed one-size-fits-all code.

Indeed, the idea would help with many things that concern us all: a just legal system would not have many general laws, only a few, because citizens are quite different from one another and have just a few things in common as citizens. The market place would make sense, what with all its highly varied goods and services aiming to fit different customers and using the varied talents of producers. Even art might benefit from this outlook: We all tend to think, I believe, that some things really are artistically excellent while others lack this quality; yet we also realize that different people, with various special attributes, backgrounds, and so forth, will appreciate different excellent works of art. Instead of thinking that everyone is artistically blind who fails to respond to some work favorably that one admires, a great variety of works will be seen as having artistic merit to different sorts of people, varied talents will produce varied yet still artistically excellent works. Yet, there will still remain plenty of room for concluding that some artists’ creations do not cut it at all.

Anyway, there isn’t much hope of settling big issues like this in a brief discussion but perhaps some hints toward a sound approach could at least be established. Very formidable thinkers throughout human history have grappled with these matters and studying their reflections would be a prerequisite for making headway. What I’ve tried here is no more than sketch out some promising initial ideas.
The struggle--the long arc of advances in human liberty

Tibor R. Machan

Here is some good news: The march of liberty has so far proven to be generally unstoppable. Over the span of human history there have been periods during which hardly any sign of respect for human liberty had been in evidence. In other eras the globe has seen advances toward human liberty by leaps and bounds. That is to say, in some periods clear evidence can be pointed to showing that some men and women--such as kings, queens, czars, Pharaohs, Caesars, dictators, tyrants, politburos, political bodies of all types and uncivil majorities--have began to recede in their efforts to suppress other men and women, to treat them as their tools, instruments, subjects, and such. In other periods the opposite trend has been in evidence.

Still, overall the trend has been toward the spread of liberty. More and more of us have become masters of our own lives, fewer and fewer are in the position of ruling others. Even when in some areas, such as national economic policy, liberty has taken a beating, there are others where fewer impositions and restrictions are made into public policy--for example, the basic rights of members of minorities, women, gays, natives, the press, etc., are being recognized and provided legal protection alongside onerous economic policies. And globally, while the former beacon of human liberty, the United States of America--itself, sadly, never fully committed--is now rather halting in its defense of human freedom, other communities--for instance, the former Soviet and other colonies--are slowly but surely shedding the idea and practice that would have some people run roughshod over others, especially as a matter of official public policy.

Now this is not all that surprising. In any area of their lives people can do better or worse or just linger in some kind of mediocre limbo. And this is so when it comes to political matters. Sometimes, in fact, there can be improvement in one sphere of human life and a decline in others--for instance, while economic liberty can widen, it is possible for personal or cultural fulfilment to be on hold for many. Not everything is moving in the same direction at once and with the same speed. (One can easily confirm this by just checking one’s own life and noticing that there can be advances in one area while another can be faltering--one’s career can even soar while one’s health might not improve.)

All this is enhanced by the sheer fact that the surrounding natural world in which men and women may struggle to strive, to flourish, isn’t uniformly supportive--storms, floods, tsunamis, earthquakes, hurricanes, diseases and other adversities not of our making are often complicit in making life not so triumphant for us all. Fortunately, here, if men and women are substantially free to live their lives without being oppressed by others, they tend to do better at figuring out how to deal with these non-human adversities--the sciences, philosophy, technology, education, and other features of life tend to get improved treatment when we are free, less time needs to be spent on fending off the intrusive ones among us.

So, as one contemplates developments in one’s immediate or the broader human sphere, it is a good idea to keep in mind how even without a inevitable trend toward a better and better existence, in the long run human beings are experiencing a better and better life (just as the late Julian Simon and his students (e.g., Matt Ridley) have been stressing in the midst of the endless doom-sayings of the likes of Paul Ehrlich and Paul Krugman).

Quite often predictions of doom come from politically disgruntled folks, those who still believe that they should be in charge of others and not respect the rights of everyone to sovereignty, self-government. Also, as one gets older and senses that ones own life is slowly declining, one may be tempted to project this on to the rest of the world and declare it all going to hell in a hand basket.

No, there isn’t a guarantee of a steady march toward liberty--it is truly a matter of eternal vigilance. But fortunately there are many, many people who exhibit this vigilance in various parts of their lives, throughout human history and around the globe, and thus help keep afoot the advances toward greater and greater freedom and, alongside, a better chance of overall improvement in human affairs.

Friday, December 24, 2010

One Swallow

Tibor R. Machan

Those who have paid a bit of attention to my writings on public policy probably know that I have always been an opponent of preemptive petty tyrannies of government regulations, the sort that force people to follow certain standards of professional conduct, including manufacture, regardless of whether or not they have deserved to be coerced.

In the criminal law such prior restraint is seriously frowned upon but in administrative law it is not, mainly because of two legal notions. These are the police power--a feudal relic if there ever was one--and the arguably distorted provision of the U.S. Constitution, Article 1, Section 8, the interstate commerce clause.

The former made sense only when the monarch had been thought to be in charge of us all, when government ruled the lives of all the subjects as if they were children, invalids or inferiors. The latter appeared at first to mean only that Congress is authorized to regularize commerce among the several states so that these states do not behave as economically warring or protectionist political bodies. No duties may be imposed between New York and Pennsylvania (etc.) was the idea, no tariffs, nada.

OK, now instead of tossing this police power feudal notion and being faithful to the rational meaning of the interstate commerce clause, both developed as weapons in the arsenals of government planners and interventionists despite the classical liberal revolution. This despite the fact that neither legal measure has a leg to stand on in the court of justice.

But perhaps practically they are unexceptionable, no? Why would that be? Because, just as now and then a bit of violence among people can be useful, so can government intervention or regulation bear some valuable fruit.

Consider what Elizabeth Kolbert wrote some time ago for the New Yorker Web site concerning President Obama’s choice for energy secretary, Steven Chu, and his enthusiastic defense of government intervention:

“In the mid-1970s, California--the state Chu lived in--set about establishing the country’s first refrigerator-efficiency standards. Refrigerator manufacturers, of course, fought them. The standards couldn’t be met, they said, at anything like a price consumers could afford. California imposed the standards anyway, and then what happened, as Chu observed, is that ‘the manufacturers had to assign the job to the engineers, instead of to the lobbyists.’ The following decade, standards were imposed for refrigerators nationwide. Since then, the size of the average American refrigerator has increased by more than 10 percent, while the price, in inflation-adjusted dollars, has been cut in half. Meanwhile, energy use has dropped by two-thirds.”

Let’s give Chu credit for at least making the effort to defend government regulation--post bureaucrats treat it as their God given authority. But I am also tempted to mention here how Benito Mussolini was able to make the trains run on time back in the days he ruled Italy as a fascist dictator. Thus it is important here to recall a wise saying by the ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle, namely, that “One swallow does not make a summer, nor does one day; and so too one day, or a short time, does not make a man blessed and happy” (NE I.1098a18). And again, true enough, now and then smacking someone who is acting hysterically could calm him down, yet it would be folly to adopt smacking people around as a general policy by which to help them cope.

Or again, a bit more technically, the imposition of the refrigeration manufacturing standards in California is used by Mr. Chu as an explanation of both the increase in the efficiency of refrigerators nationwide and the cut in half of their price since the imposition was made. But there is a famous fallacy of informal logic that’s in evidence in Mr. Chu’s reasoning, namely, post hoc, ergo propter hoc (after this, therefore on account of this). No one could tell at the time the California government imposed these standards that only by doing so will the desired efficiency and price drop be produced. Indeed, in many cases in which government intrudes by establishing, by law, standards like this the market has already begun to do it, albeit peacefully, without the use of coercive force and the heavy cost of bureaucracy (like ho cigarette smoking began to subside way before government waged its war on smokers).

I am convinced that government regulation is an improper way to run people’s lives, even if now and then it may appear or even prove to be a bit helpful. Would be good thing of Mr Chu & Co. would agree with this.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Krugman’s Trashy Debating Style

Tibor R. Machan

Looks like critics of the free market are at their whit’s end. At least one of the most prominent of them clearly appears to be.

Princeton economics professor and columnist for The New York Times Paul Krugman has always been discourteous to those with whom he disagrees but his latest exhibition of his way of going about debating issues takes the cake. It used to be that he would call everyone who finds even the slightest merit in free market economic theory a “market fundamentalist,” suggesting thereby that such folks are, like all fundamentalists, mindless in their convictions and merely blindly follow some sacred text or book of instructions. Besides wishing to score points for his statist economic politics by smearing the ideas and methods of his intellectual adversaries, he also regularly distorts the scholarly lay of the land by claiming that America is in the grip of such fundamentalism. This basically meant that throughout the academic landscape departments of economics are filled by people who hold and teach views similar to those held by the late Milton Friedman, F. A. Hayek and Ludwig von Mises (among others).

While these thinkers did consider the free market superior to its statist alternatives--ones that give a decisive role to government intervention in the lives and activities of market agents--they did not, of course, hold identical views. Nonetheless, Krugman lumps them all as fundamentalists. Moreover, he rarely takes on living supporters of the free market, such as James Buchanan or Gary Becker, not to mention such current members of the Austrian School as NYU’s Israel Kirzner. Might we suppose that he doesn’t wish to engage anyone in a dialogue about economic policy but merely discredit them once they could not respond? (Just after Milton Friedman died, he and his frequent co-author Robin Wells penned an extensive and it turns out demonstrably inaccurate essay on Friedman for The New York Review of Books.) Also, despite Krugman’s allegation, there is plainly no dominance of free market thinking in American universities. Mainstream economists are mostly followers of such notables as Paul Samuelson and, of course, John Maynard Keynes, with quite a few who are influenced by the political economics of welfare statism. At the universities where I have taught throughout the last 40 plus years, economists may have been respectful toward free market theorists but were by no means fully in line with their views. So even in this elementary matter, Krugman has it wrong.

But the claim that the country is in the grips of market fundamentalism is also mistaken if it’s meant to apply to official public policies bearing on economic matters. Just for starters, the financial market place has been heavily regulated for over a hundred years--consistent free market theorists usually don’t favor a central bank such as the country’s Federal Reserve Bank (even though, somewhat paradoxically, Alan Greenspan had been such a consistent free market thinker before he was selected to head up the Fed). Furthermore, the plethora of government regulation of various elements of the economy, including virtually all professions (apart from the clergy, journalism, and writers of all stripes who are protected against such regulation by the First Amendment of the U. S. Constitution), is decisive evidence that free market thinking does not dominate public policy in America.

Yet, despite all this, here is a Nobel Laureate and professor from a most prestigious academic institution and columnist for a most distinguished newspaper who keeps trying to distort reality. Why? But I will not speculate, again. Who knows what Krugman’s agenda is.

One thing does clearly stand out in his approach to making a case for more and more government involvement in the economy. This is that he relies extensively on name calling, on besmirching those with whom he disagrees. In a recent column he went so far as to dismiss all those who hold views opposed to his as zombies! Yes, zombies. That means that people, some very distinguished scholars, who are convinced that a public policy of laissez-faire when it comes to a country’s economic affairs is best are all mindless. They do not merely think mistakenly but cannot think at all.

When a critic of a position needs to resort to this kind of technique with which to attract readers of his missives to his own outlook, it suggests that the intellectual merits of that position are truly hopeless. And that is precisely so. Statism in economics has for a long time been proven and shown to be utterly unsupportable, be this the Draconian sort one found in Soviet Russia and finds in North Korea or the less drastic kind that has just produced the worldwide financial meltdown, namely the more or less interventionist welfare state.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

America Divided

Tibor R. Machan

For all its existence America has been torn between two political positions. Originally the two were represented, mostly, by Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson, although neither was a simple partisan of the positions at issue here.

Hamilton had been a supporter of the revolution but also quite sympathetic to big government, even to monarchy in the British style (not absolute but relatively limited). Jefferson, in contrast, supported the polity implied by the Declaration of Independence (which he largely authored), although he was no libertarian, not even like Thomas Paine who came quite close.

The two positions differ mainly on how much a country should entrust its ideals to government. The Founders general thought that once the king has been deposed, one could live with government comfortably enough, although Jefferson had uttered some sentiments that suggest he was beginning to find government altogether problematic. “That government is best that governs least” shows no enthusiasm for even limited government, the sort one associates with the classical liberal tradition, although the logical implications of the principles Jefferson included in the Declaration, mostly derived from John Locke, were pretty close to the libertarian minarchist theory, the kind of government that is committed to nothing more than the protection of the citizens’ basic rights to life, liberty, pursuit of happiness and whatever is consistent with these (mostly the right to do anything that’s peaceful). So this faction of America’s political legacy does not so much support a small as a limited scope type government. (Who can tell ahead of time how large an organization devoted to securing our rights would have to be to get its job done!?)

The second position, which one may fruitfully associate with Hamilton, is far more trusting of government, at least of the democratic or representative kind. In any case, this faction of the American political tradition eventually gave rise to the idea that government must be proactive, support various undertakings that the citizens may not take up themselves. So such institutions as banking would be nearly like they had been in Europe, if not state run than at least heavily supervised and regulated by the state. This is the approach that in time gave rise to central banking, the Federal Reserve Bank. It is also the approach that ended up more generally distrusting the capacity of the citizenry to address many of the problems that arise in a society. Education, for instance, would be entrusted to government, as would the protection of wildlife, to mention only two spheres that have become nearly completely a matter of public administration. And it is also this kind of political economic thinking that would in time lead to the invention of positive rights or entitlements, which is certainly not part of the Lockean view or follow the ideas of the Declaration. (BTW, the general welfare does not imply entitlements, only the need to protect all citizens’ rights to pursue their welfare individually or corporately.)

In our own time this divide has turned into something almost fundamental and more destructive, than even the one about preservation of the union. We now see many politicians and nearly the entire intellectual community--media editors, educators at all levels of school and especially in the social sciences and humanities (excepting economists)--siding with the view that government must have a large scope of influence and authority in the country, with only few features left to the private and personal sphere. Having been supplied with political ideas mainly from Europe for the last 150 years, the influence of the classical liberals began to abate a good deal. As in Europe, so in erudite America, most folks believe government must be a supplier of goods and services, not merely the protector of rights. As if they came to believe that referees at a game should become and more more involved in playing it rather than making sure the players obey the rules.

One matter needs to be kept in mind in order to find a silver lining in these developments. This is that the governmental habit which had been cultivated for centuries nearly everywhere, is difficult to break. But not impossible. In time it may just happen and right now there appears to be some hope on the horizon that many Americans are doing exactly that (though not as consistently as they should).

Monday, December 13, 2010

A Stupid Analogy

Tibor R. Machan

Now that Judge Henry E. Hudson of the Virginia district court ruled that the Obama health care measure violates the U. S. Constitution by forcing people to make purchases they may not want to make, there are innumerable sophists who want to refute the rationale for the ruling. They trot out the “argument” that since people living in states may be required to carry auto insurance, they can also be made to purchase anything the government, including the feds, decides they must.

But this analogy fails because people do not have to drive! Yet under Obamacare by simply being living citizens, they would have to purchase health insurance. Never even mind that the state regulations requiring people to purchases auto insurance aren’t universal across the country and different states have the constitutional authority to handle the issues involved in their own way, with no federal mandate dictating to them what they must do.

Furthermore, one rationale in support of the state requirement that citizens who choose to drive carry insurance is that nearly all driving happens on state roads. There is no requirement to get insurance if one stays off them and confines one’s driving to private thoroughfares. And this is because it is the states that claim legal ownership of roads and they then get to set the standards for what those using the roads need to do for the privilege. (Yes, it is deemed a privilege, not a right, because of the state’s collective ownership of most roads.)

So the analogy with state requirements to carry driver’s insurance is fallacious. But when that’s pointed out, another tack is put forth, namely, that ill health is contagious like the plague or leprosy. This is desperate since it is blatantly wrong. One can have all sorts of ailments that will not be communicated to anyone near or far. One can contract ill health, injuries, maladies and so forth without the involvement of others. Sometimes it is just misfortune that brings this about, sometimes it is one’s own reckless conduct, sometimes the recklessness of people with whom one freely associates and rarely because of injuries sustained from what others do. In no such cases are those left out implicated and thus no one should be legally required to foot the bill of the health care measures, including insurance, that may be need to fix or treat things.

The sophists who bring up this line of shabby reasoning are capitalizing on the common sense idea that when people emit harm from their private activities--such as manufacture, smoking, reckless driving, and so forth--they ought to shoulder the burden that befalls others in consequences of it all. In short, no one ought to dump on other people the cost and liabilities of one’s own malpractice.

But this doesn’t apply to having to cope with most of one’s illnesses. A viral infection need not have come from someone else, nor a broken leg or nosebleed or upset stomach. When these occur people are supposed to be prepared to deal with it all, including foot the cost of getting them taken care of. Other people should not be placed into involuntary servitude so as to bail one out of either bad luck or misconduct that creates medical problems for one.

It is always a puzzle to me that so many people who are notoriously righteous about the past enslavement of millions of people around the globe, including in America, have no compunction about partially enslaving others so as to get their own agendas fulfilled. But if slavery is wrong, then so is imposing on others the negative consequences of one’s own life, just as it is wrong to deprive people of the positive consequences of the same.

This is the central issue in so many public policy debates not only in our time but from time immemorial. People are not for other people to be used against their will. Never, nohow, under no circumstances. Until this is learned good and hard everywhere, the world will be very far from having become truly civilized.
Coercion Betrays the Vice of Laziness

Tibor R. Machan

So many people who try to justify coercing others to part with their lives, time, resources and so forth claim that the goals to be served justify the coercion. Indeed, one hears it said often that we must realize there are greater goals than our own ones that need to be served by us. Anything else is greedy or selfish or some such thing or other. So don’t fret about your liberty, you selfish monster you. (And by what moral right do slaves and serfs insist that they be set free? Go figure.)

Now I have an observation to offer that should wake up people to just what kind of ruse all this amounts to. If you believe that there are these very important goals that everyone must serve and for the sake of which they may be coerced, how is it that coercion is the chosen approach instead of, say, proselytizing, advocating, crusading, promoting, campaigning and all the other peaceful, non-coercive ways one can go about raising support for what one believes is really worthwhile? Not only is it inhuman to force people to do the right thing--it deprives them of the morally significant choice of whether to do it themselves--but it also shows one’s own laziness or, even worse, hypocrisy. After all, if everyone ought to believe in and support this supposedly superior goal, would it not follow that one who is fully convinced of its great merit would be first in line to actually work for it instead of trying to force others do so? I mean here that they ought really to work and not merely vote for government regulations and rules to force others to comply with the idea.

Only voluntary compliance with good ideas, including moral imperatives, amounts to something praiseworthy. Anything else is morally insignificant--at the point of the gun, morality ends as Ayn Rand once pointed out. But those who would enforce such imperatives should of course be the first out there doing what they preach. And to respect their fellow citizens, they should always use persuasion, never coercion to achieve their goals. Using coercive force on others to get them to do anything, including what is worthwhile when done voluntarily, is treating people as if they were the children of those using the coercion. If adults make use of such means, it is unjustifiable except it amounts to retaliation of the prior use of force, as in self-defense. Who are these adults regimenting fellow adults anyway?

Why then are so many people utilizing coercive force to get others to pursue all those great ideas they believe need service from everyone? Could it be that (a) these people talk a good game but do not at all really believe in putting their money whether their mouths are; and (b) might they just be so damned lazy that they want everyone else to come up with the effort excepting them? After all, if a cause is that worthy, surely one way to serve it is to go out and diligently hustle up support for it. Here is where the traditional peaceful missionaries can serve as a good model--most of them believe and preach instead of using weapons or the threat of them to serve their ideals.

But no, the bulk of those advocating using force really just want other people to do the work that they pretend to be committed to doing, serve the objectives they pretend to cherish so much. Are they then better than ordinary criminals who circumvent the honorable ways of interacting with their fellows and resort, instead, to stealing, lying, cheating, murdering, raping and doing all kinds of other things that do not respect the rights of others? You know the correct answer to this, of course. Please try to make sure everyone else reaches the same insight--these coercers are unabashed bullies.

Those who reject coercion as a means for getting things done have a bit of a disadvantage because they must, if they are to possess any integrity, abide by their own policy of refraining from coercing others even if the objective is morally impeccable. Certainly implementing voluntary relationships among people qualifies as that.
Getting Worked Up

Tibor R. Machan

One might very well be right to consider me an emotional person although this doesn’t mean I lose my mind while I am worked up about something. Indeed, one result of being worked up can be more intense focus on the topic at hand.

In the current political climate, however, my feelings are taxed a good deal. I recall some years ago The New Republic asked whether it was OK to hate George W. Bush and pretty much argued “Yes” in several essays for that issue. I didn’t much approve of hating the then president although I found a great deal to criticize about his positions. I was against the war in Iraq from before it started and Bush’s sop to all the elderly with an entitlement mentality, his policy of providing aid to them for prescription drugs, was a betrayal of whatever modicum of loyalty he might have had toward the principles of a limited government.

Still, I could kind of see that both of these measures had been quite in line with the kind of Republican politics Bush practiced and preached. Nor did I ever see him as a racist or class warfare provocatuer. Now, however, we have in Washington a whole lot of truly despicable politicians and their bureaucratic cadre, people who make no secret of their demagogic contempt for the rich and successful--or their pretense of this in order to get the support of the worst elements within the American political landscape. This now feels every bit like the prevailing official attitude of Soviet bloc countries used to, what with their relentless besmirching of capitalism and capitalists (and anyone with even the slightest sympathies for these).

This then isn’t political debate, disagreement over public policy, etc. This is out and out misanthrope, hatred of the very best features of human society that America has always had to offer the world, namely, hospitality and friendship to those who try to succeed at commerce, those who pursued economic happiness and incidentally keep the wheels of the economy rolling.

This resurrection of the ancient attitudes of envy and resentment of people who do well in life is so unbecoming to anyone involved in American culture and politics that I am not at all ashamed to say that I do in fact hate these people--or at least this aspect of them--with a purple passion. When they offer their nasty soundbites on TV news and talk shows, I am just about ready rush in an blast them with some well chosen sound bites of my own, like, “You commies, go to North Korea where your philosophy will be right at home.” Yes, I have in mind Pelosi and Reed and Sanders and the lot--plus all the Americans who vote for them.

I had reserved this attitude mostly toward people who ruled the Soviet bloc countries and, I have to admit, also Ralph Nader (who epitomized for me the most maniacal proponent of the petty tyrannies of government regulation, thereby implicitly demeaning the American public, saying, in effect, that they must all be treated as children or invalids). (Yet once when I met and debated Nader, back in 1976 I believe it was, at Hillsdale College, in Michigan, he too wasn’t a visible monster, just a terribly misguided man!) These days, however, I am really quite openly angry at the statists in the country, ones who are threatening to bring it down for good unless they are stopped soon.

Of course, the politicians are only the tip of the iceberg. It is their intellectual supporters, writing for sophistic rags like The New York Review of Books, The Progressive, The Nation and the Op Ed pages of several national dailies, who frighten me most. These people, with their polished education but perverse ideas and ideals really need to be stopped in their tracks, refuted with all the ammunition possible to muster against them--with persistent blogging, writing, speaking, voting, and the rest. Otherwise they are going to bring to a sorry end the greatest human political experiment in history, one responsible for improving on human lives more than anything else, a country largely based on the principles of liberty.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Disgusting Rich Bashing

Tibor R. Machan

There are many welcome developments in America in our time, mainly in the media. Certainly Judge Andrew Napolitano’s and John Stossel’s Fox Business Network TV programs are quite unprecedented in their principled libertarian commentaries. The way Reason Magazine’s staff is all over the place on line, in print, and on television is gratifying (especially to someone like me who was one of those who were instrumental in making the magazine a regular monthly publication in 1970). There are numerous wonderful blogs where the Left and Right have met their serious critics, such as GMU’s economists’ Cafe Hayek.

Nonetheless the vehemence with which the likes of Nancy Pelosi and a bunch of her fellow Democrats in Congress voice the nastiest line of class warfare rhetoric--so much so that even President Obama can at times sound like a moderate man of the Center--is also quite unprecedented, at least in my memory. (Of course, there have been periods in American political history when these kinds of populist and near-communist sentiments flourished but I wasn’t around then to be upset by them. And in some eras we can find critics of statism, such as H. L. Mencken, every bit as emphatic and entertaining as, say, P. J. O’Rourke is today.)

Still, for my taste the current crowd takes the cake. The unabashed demagoguery forthcoming from the likes of Pelosi, Bernie Sanders and their cheerleaders of envy in the media and academy is for me very difficult to stomach. As is the way many in the media cover their blather as if it was just a tad different in content from, say, that of Bill Clinton’s when in fact it is out and out advocacy of tyrannical socialism.

Why is this so upsetting now? Because these people carry on as if there had never been a Soviet Union and the catastrophic meltdown of its type of statist economics, one that embraced to the fullest the sort of government interventionism that our current enthusiastic rich-bashers advocate. Before this, some modicum of excuse may have been possible for buying into the zero-sum type thinking that generates hatred for the rich (although even there anyone familiar with the works of von Mises, et al., could tell that what the Soviets were attempting hadn’t a ghost of a chance succeeding). Prior to the world-wide spectacle of socialism’s fatal failure in the Soviet bloc most people might be forgiven for confusing the wealth-creation under a substantially capitalist, free market economic arena with how wealth had been obtained for centuries on end, namely via military conquest, pillaging, murder, and other forms of brutal human-on-human violence.

But that was when the memory of how riches had been garnered for too many people who had them was all tainted with the primitivism of mercantilist economics and worse. That was mostly after the likes of Adam Smith pointed out that trade was a superior approach to wealth creation to what had been routine in the ancient and even later times, namely, coercive force. This lesson may understandably have taken a bit of time to sink in but once the Soviet debacle occurred, there could be no excuse for thinking that when people are wealthy--yes, indeed, very, very wealthy--this came about because they robbed others. No sane person could think now that the likes of Bill Gates or Mark Zuckerberg make their riches by depriving millions of others of theirs. (This despite the fact that neither of these beneficiaries of capitalism speaks up about the matter often enough!)

So there is no excuse for rich-bashing, none. And I don’t even believe, as some good friends of mine do, that this is all about envy since the nastiest rich-bashing comes from people who are by no stretch of the imagination poor. The best explanation to my way of thinking is that these people are demagogues, trying to cash in on the gullibility of many Americans who are hurting and in desperation and ignorance--they are busy with their ordinary lives--engage in scapegoating instead of seeking clear understanding about economics and, in particular, the current financial fiasco.

Why would they resort to this? Because they have indeed run out of sound arguments for acting like the petty tyrants they are and now can only depend for gaining and keeping power on playing to the worst tendencies of human social thinking, the tendency of too many of us to blame someone, anyone, for what the very people have perpetrated whom they have sent to Washington to do good! Under such circumstances it will probably take many more sensible and articulate media folks like Napolitano and Stossel to counter this hysteria about the rich, giving way to a civilized attitude of live and let live among people occupying the great variety of economic positions one can reasonably expect in a free society.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Law & Our Democracy

Tibor R. Machan

One clear thing about the WikiLeaks affair is that outfits like The New York Times are showing their hypocrisy by failing to vigorously defend WikiLeaks’ Julian Assange’s actions. Wasn’t it The Times that published Daniel Ellsberg’s stolen Pentagon Papers and insisted that this was a valid exercise of its First Amendment Rights and that Ellsberg was a hero? And sure, there is a distinction between taking the papers and publishing them but it seems to me rather cowardly to hide behind that.

But the more serious and general issues is whether laws enacted in a kind of corrupted democracy such as the United States of America are actually morally binding on the citizenry. A good clue comes from the U. S. Supreme Court: “The very purpose of the Bill of Rights was to withdraw certain subjects from the vicissitudes of political controversy, to place them beyond the reach of majorities and officials, and to establish them as legal principles to be applied by the Courts. One's right to life, liberty and property, to free speech, a free press, freedom of worship and assembly and other fundamental rights may not be submitted to a vote; they depend on the outcome of no elections.” [U. S. Supreme Court in West Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnette (1943)]

Sadly, this purposes has since been completely abandoned by that same court, most recently when it basically abolished the Fifth Amendment’s protection of the right to private property in the July 2005 ruling in City of New London, CT v. Kelo. Once democracy has become so bloated in its reach that no principles are safe from the mob, why exactly should citizens follow so called laws made democratically? They aren’t really laws by then but merely rules laid down by those who have nearly unlimited power.

When as a 14 year old I lived in Budapest under the rule of the “democratic republic” of Hungary--which was but a ruse disguising sheer Soviet style power--my family repeatedly violated “the law,” which is to say we defied the rules the communist--in fact, fascist--regime tried to impose on us all. We hid fugitives from Hungarian prisons and helped them escape to the West. We smuggled merchandise into Hungary with the help of athletes who were permitted to travel abroad (so as to show off how great communist athletes are). And most importantly I myself joined a group of adults who chose to violate the “law” that made it criminal to leave the country for nearly anyone not part of or favored by the ruling elite.

We made it across the border, after an arduous trip from the capitol to the Western border where border guards had been paid off by American agents so they wouldn’t stand too firmly in the way of those trying to escape. All of this was “illegal.” And no one in our group had the slightest compunction about our “illegal” conduct but felt enormous relief and even pride upon completing our journey. So, yes, we violated so called laws which weren’t anything more than the rules of a tyrannical regime. And throughout human history and around the globe back then and even now, thousands are routinely engaged in this kind of illegal conduct. And they darned well have every basic right to do so and those championing obedience of the law in these kinds of cases are full of it.

But, you say, America is a democracy and its laws are indeed binding on all of its citizens. No, that is wrong, since this democracy is now way out of control; it has repeatedly overstepped the limitations of a valid constitution. America is now a vastly illiberal democracy, one in which the majority and those allegedly representing it are perpetrating innumerable tyrannical measures, imposing rules that have no business being part of a free country. Just consider the policies vis-a-vis the consumption of “illicit” drugs!

How dare these people impose their idea of “illicit” on anyone else? Who are they, anyway? And what about the innumerable petty tyrannies of government regulations--issuing completely unjustly from federal, state, county, to municipal rulers? All these are forms of prior restraint, imposing penalties, at times jail sentences, on people who have no committed any violations of any rights but merely are deemed by bureaucrats and their bosses, politicians, capable of doing so! How is that for justice--penalizing people because they might become criminals? That policy would have us all in prison.

No, I am not impressed at all by the claim that people are violating “the law” when that law happens to be grossly unjust, enacted in violation of the basic law of the land. Obedience, compliance, is only warranted because it will serve to avoid prosecution and incarceration.

No one is obliged to be suicidal in his or her comportment toward a government that is either out and out totalitarian or only a democratic, mostly petty, tyranny. With governments like that citizens are only obliged to be prudent and crafty, except when it comes to valid provisions of the criminal law.

Saturday, December 04, 2010

Introduction [to Tibor Machan's new book, Equality, So Badly Misunderstood]:

A supreme achievement of certain thinkers of the modern era has been to challenge and ultimately overturn the idea that some human beings are innately morally or politically superior to others and so they may rule these others as they judge fit. That idea spawned some of the worst practices and institutions among people over the centuries. It was in time invalidated by the plain enough fact that members of the human species were equal in one central respect, namely, their humanity.

However, serious fallout from this welcome development has also occurred. This is the popularity of the view, especially among political and legal philosophers as well as some prominent political economists, namely, that all changeable human inequality is unjust and is to be banished, that individuality itself is something insidious since when one pays heed to it, quite evidently people are quite different individuals from one another. This latter idea, let’s call it bloated equality, has helped, paradoxically, to reintroduce the former political and even moral inequality, which had been nearly totally dis- credited in much of the developed world. This is because in the effort to ban most of the inequality in human communities, those who carry out the ban must be vastly more unequal in the power they hold over others than those they endeavor to make equal. And while their unequal power isn’t being justified on grounds of birthright, the supposed imperative to equalize us all turns out to be insidious and manages to reap the same havoc with justice that the myth of innate inequality did that had been largely abolished. This in the face of the fact that many champions of such egalitarianism have tried to convince us all that justice itself demands their program, the equalization of all, especially in economic matters.

One clear example of public policy influenced by the imperative to establish the bloated conception of political equality came through in the 2009 debate about government guaranteed health care (or insurance) in the United States of America. Such a system is approximated in many other countries across the globe and debate is raging about just how wise and efficient it is. Whether justice requires it, however, is often deemed moot.
Many, especially those who joined US President Barack Obama and his administration, believe in economic equality as they seek to establish a system of government-provided universal health care for American citizens (especially the “public option”). In doing this they clearly take it as a given that the resources required so as to establish their policy may be secured by means of massive taxation and by borrowing against future taxes the payers of which would not even have been born when the policy would begin to be implemented.

So, among other dubious results, this egalitarian effort imposes burdens on yet unborn citizens, thus violating a precious principle of classical liberal politics, one that helped set off the American Revolution in fact, namely, that there must not be taxation without representation. Furthermore the policy includes the Draconian measure of legally requiring citizens to obtain health insurance, surely a measure that would render those who would enforce this far more powerful than those who would choose to abstain. Also, such egalitarian projects are based on the policy of massive wealth redistribution and on the conscription of people’s labor that’s needed to produce the wealth to be redistributed.

But these are just some insidious, unjust results, of the effort to seek substantial economic and social equality among citizens in a human community. The injustice stems from making use of individual human beings against their will, without their consent, and thus from unjustly imposing on them what amounts to involuntary servitude. In this work many more examples of such results will be discussed, along with various arguments and other considerations involved in the issue. It will go some way toward establishing that egalitarianism of the sort that underlies such efforts is badly misguided and, when implemented, it is out and out unjust.

What I will be insisting on defending is the idea that there is no justification for the belief that enforcing economic or any other type of substantive equality among members of human communities is a moral or political—and should be a legal—imperative. No basis exists for this view that, sadly, is widely held in our time.

According to Harvard University Nobel Laureate Amartya K. Sen, the debate over the importance of equality in social and political philosophy is over.

"We are all egalitarians now, because every plausibly defendable ethical theory of social arrangement tends to demand equality in some ‘space,’ requiring equal treatment of individuals in some significant respect—in terms of some variable that is important in that particular theory. The ‘space’ that is invoked does differ from theory to theory. For example, ‘libertarians’ are concerned with equal liberties; ‘economic egalitarians’ argue for equal incomes or wealth; utilitarians insist on equal weight on everyone’s utilities in a consequential maximand, and so on . . . What really distinguishes the different approaches is the variation in their respective answers to the question ‘equality of what?’"

Yet this observation by Sen is about political economy, a very fluid area of human life, so it doesn’t indicate what is most important to most people but what people engaged in discussing public affairs believe. Your neighbor and the watchmaker at the mall aren’t much interested in substantive (e.g., economic) equality. It is mostly when they turn their minds to public affairs such as voting, redistricting, jury duty, and government service that equality starts to matter to them.

More likely, what concerns a great many people is how to be decent and just in their lives not whether people are equal in even the minimal respect of protection for their rights. That may matter, in fact, but isn’t of much concern to most people.

Friday, December 03, 2010

Leak embarrassments

Tibor R. Machan

My newspaper carried the AP headline the other day, “U.S. cuts access to files after leak embarrassment,” and the body of the article reports that Julian Assange, the founder of WikiLeaks is now on a most wanted list in Europe.

I do not have the time or even the curiosity to figure out if the leaks contain anything that would be criminal to steal--such as genuine national or military secrets--but I am told they do not and I also recall that when Daniel Ellsberg sent similar materials to The New York Times many moons ago, which The Times then published, a great many people in the American media defended him despite the fact that those at the Pentagon who were responsible for the material were very upset with him and with The Times about revealing stuff to the world they would just as soon have kept secret. There was a big brouhaha about this back then and my recollection is that many people, especially on the political Left including liberals and critics of the administration, defended Ellsberg and The Times. “How dare anyone try to stop this good man from telling us what we all had a right to know?” was the mantra then.

Today, however, I hear nothing much other than, gasp, on Fox TV, in defense of Julian Assange despite the fact that most of what he has put out there for us to check if we’d like to is by all reports quite innocuous and, in any case, ought to be available for us to find out about in this new era of government transparency. Indeed, all the materials WikiLeaks revealed seem to be no more than simply embarrassing and probably have no business being secret. Transparency, I was made to understand when the Obama administration took office, would be the order of the day, not secrecy. Yet didn’t the president go on record condemning the WikiLeaks revelations? Curious.

I am not sure just what makes something an “important diplomatic message” but the number of individuals, the AP article reported, who are permitted to read them will soon be “significantly reduced.” Is this really right? Unless it is shown that people are put in harm’s way it seems to me nothing coming out of the government of a free country should be kept hidden. How can the citizenry judge the conduct and ideas of members of the administration, the president and his team and all those in Congress who support them, without having access to their work? Must I trust these folks just for the asking? Are people in governments all that trustworthy?

My strong impression is that free men and women must never trust those in government very much, given that such folks have immense power and unless they and their works are watched carefully they are likely to abuse it--to quote the famous English political theorist Lord Acton, “Power tends to corrupt, absolute power corrupts absolutely.”

So there is good reason to applaud WikiLeaks’ efforts to inform us about how the governments of the world go about their business. The excuse that such knowledge may be embarrassing seems to me quite irrelevant since governments simply ought not to engage in conduct that embarrasses them. It is no fault of a news reporter that the transparency that he or she achieves has that effect. If the citizens have the right to know, to avoid embarrassment requires acting decently in the course of doing government’s work. If other countries rely on secrecy to do business with the American government maybe it is high time this stops and they, too, confront the reality that the people they supposedly represent in diplomatic negotiations have the right to know.

Had WikiLeaks stolen a bunch of private information, say from banks or doctors’ offices and computers, the charge that it was acting criminally would be credible. But since the information it is letting everyone have bears on public affairs, I do not see that any breach of privacy is involved. Embarrassing just doesn’t matter here.

Wednesday, December 01, 2010

Too politicized to fail!

Tibor R. Machan

It may now be assumed that the only people allowed to fail in the world are athletes and some gamblers. Businesses are not.

In Ireland, for instance, banks made bad loans and thus lost a lot of dough but no, they were not allowed to go under by the government and by its European pals. Why? Because economic failure is, well, not nice. People do not expect it and politicians couldn’t hide from the responsibility for it.

Now on top of it all this is all being blamed on Ireland’s flirtation with free market economics. The country’s government lifted some regulations so as to give support to a more vigorous financial market but when the results came in--namely, that some folks who undertook business ventures ended up losing money--well they were not allowed.

Those who blamed free market economics for this are clearly economic imbeciles. The free market is a place in which both winning and losing are possible and in either case the government must stay out of the game, just as in most sports the referees don’t bail out those who lose unless they are corrupt. If Ireland did in fact have a free market economy, however extensively or minimally controlled or regulated by the government, banks would not be bailed out but left to lose if that is how they ran their business or if luck didn’t favor them.

But once again something that is completely antithetical to the nature of a free society and market is said by foes of the these to be a part of them. And very few people who must know better jump up and protest this. On Judge Andrew Napolitano’s FOX Business News program, Freedom Watch, one member of his panel recently kept repeating the mantra about how the free market is responsible of Ireland’s woes. More regulations are needed, she kept saying, more government controls. Yet even if the free market is not, as it certainly isn’t, a perfect system of economic relationships, compared to governments across the globe and throughout history it is a marvel of virtue and efficiency!

Every government, as H. L. Mencken made it his business to constantly remind his readers, is corrupt. Why? Well, because every known one of them extorts its funds from people many of whom have not given their consent to have their resources confiscated by anyone. The consent of the governed--now there is a revolutionary idea! And it doesn’t mean the consent of most of the governed but all of those who are being governed. People aren’t ants or termites, so they must not be lumped together and dealt with as a collective. Whatever collective people may be part of they must join voluntarily not be conscripted to.

I don’t know why it is so important for so many commentators to pretend that when bad laws make bad economics possible it must have been the free market that did it. Why are those people so hostile to human freedom? Why do they insist that governments know best and their control of economic affairs is wise and virtuous? It is what Hayek called their fatal conceit, a flawed self-aggrandized vision of themselves as superior to all those they embark upon controlling.

Trouble is that for so much of human history there was not even any serious thought of an alternative to top down rule in societies. The little protest against such rule that had been voiced by a few was quickly squashed.

Just think how even in this supposedly free country public education is in charge of informing young people of the nature of politics! Surely this is virtually handing to the most biased and corrupt faction of society the ultimate responsibility of guiding the population into adult citizenship. Consider, also, that in no public finance studies is there any mention of privatizing the funding of the legal order! Never mind actually treating the idea respectfully but it isn’t even considered. There is more attention paid among public finance academics to the methods used under dictatorships and tyrannies--e.g., the much adored John Maynard Keynes did this--than those that would be under a fully free system! This is a most insidious feature of the governmental habit.

That, as far as I can assess, is the core corruption of the system, not a few judges taking bribes and politicians purchasing the support of some voters with the resources they have extorted from other members of the electorate! That’s peanuts compared to the massive indoctrination campaign perpetrated via the public education system, from kindergarten to grad school!!

Banks and companies that cannot cope with the market ought never be bailed out, certainly not by governments. The idea undermines the principles of a free country, the notion of equality under the law. Those who back such an idea are foes of human liberty, certainly not friends of it.

It is time that the population of countries in which such ruses are carried out get wind of what is happening and do something serious and lasting about it.

Friday, November 26, 2010

Do We Have a Moral Nature?

Tibor R. Machan

It is often held, by admirers of modern science (which took off around about the 15th century) that if human beings are parts of nature, there can be no room for morality in their lives. They are then simply complicated machines working as they must, with no possibility that they can make choices, which is an essential part of morality. Science and morality are, then, often juxtaposed.

But there are several problems with this. For one, nature is bountiful in its variety; so simply because other parts of it are mostly determined to move as they must, it doesn’t follow that all parts do. Just as there are living things that swim, as well as some that fly or simply slither about, there could also be some that are dumb beasts and others that think, reason and make choices. Nothing unnatural about that at all. And once something uses higher reasoning to get on in its life, choices are just around the corner.

Also, those who insist that we are all fully determined to do as we do tend, paradoxically, to be very moralistic about insisting that this is how everyone ought to think about us. In effect they believe, “No one ought to believe that people have free will, that they can make genuine choices in their lives; they ought to be thought of as complex machines.” However, without the capacity to choose, such admonitions are meaningless. Without the capacity to choose, without free will, our thinking is also purely determined and so if we do believe in free will, we then must believe in it. Yet why then get annoyed with us for failing to heed the advice of those who deny our capacity to choose?

Not only that, innumerable scientific minded folks make moral declarations galore. Blaming and praising are part of this exercise and champions of the scientific way quite often blame and praise. They blame those who reject their imperialism about how nature behaves and they praise those who share it. They often outright denounce those who think they shouldn’t be given extensive government funding for their work.

In the recent discussions by the likes of Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and Christopher Hitchens, the group called “the new atheists,” all kinds of blaming is in evidence when others who don’t embrace Darwinian evolution or do embrace creationism are being talked about. These people, these champions of science insist, others aren’t doing the right thing, namely, accepting Darwin as correct about how the world works. (Not even all of these scientifically minded people deny free will, by the way.)

The point I am making isn’t about whether such blaming or praising is correct but that it doesn’t square with the belief that we are all determined to be the way we are, that we all work like machines.

In more recent discussions of human choice some scientists have suggested that there might be room for it now that Newtonian physics has been superseded by contemporary, post-Heisenbergian quantum physics, the kind that leaves some room for uncertainty (at least at the subatomic level of existence) and thus might allow that not everything is fully determined to happen one and only one way. (Not that the features of quantum physics that they rely on for this necessarily support anything like human freedom of choice!) In particular the late Karl Popper and John Eccles had thought that the new physics allows for free will (presented in their book The Self and Its Brain [Springer Verlag, 1977]).

So while there is wide consensus among champions of the natural sciences about whether human beings have a moral nature--can reasonably be held responsible for the conduct they choose to embark upon--some dissidents do exist who think that, yes indeed, we are moral agents; it’s a distinguishing aspect of our nature but still quite natural. And certainly quite a few scientists and their champions act like we all did have free will, when, for instance, they blame those who refuse to accept their ideas about evolution. As already mentioned, blaming someone implies they have the freedom to choose how they think and act.

Of course, the world of human beings is filled with moral elements. Personal, social, political and international affairs are all replete with moral concerns, with how we ought to and ought not to think and act. And since this is also in evidence among scientists, it is probably the right way to think about us.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Dogmatism on the Left

Tibor R. Machan

As a loyal reader of books, articles and columns by members of the American intellectual left, I marvel often at just how blind these folks can be to their own dogmatism. Folks like these routinely charge those whose politics and economics they dislike with this sin, as if all those who reject Keynesian economics suffered from mindlessness instead of seriously disagreed with them. The likes of Paul Krugman do not deign to argue with their adversaries only to denounce them and label them something distasteful, such as “market fundamentalists”. (This clearly suggests that those who are convinced of the merits of free market capitalist economics couldn’t possibly have come by their view through study and reasoning but simply signed up to their “dogmas” from blind faith!)

But Krugman and others, like Mark Lilla--both of whom write regularly for The New York Review of Books, which has what its editors and contributors evidently believe the ultimately smart take on anything political and economic--are quite dogmatic themselves. This comes out when one reads them frequently and notices that they often simply assert their highly disputed positions without acknowledging that these require support, argument, evidence, etc.

Take as an example Mark Lilla’s recent contribution to a forum in TNYR where several of the favorite writers offer up their ruminations about the recent midterm elections. As a casual aside in his commentary Lilla makes this point: “The Tea Party remains a real problem for the GOP, and it will grow between now and 2012, as the party must deliver on what it promised, and knows it can’t: without serious cuts in the fastest-growing items in the federal budget--Social Security, Medicate, and defense--about which there is no social consensus, the deficit will continue to grow in the near term if taxes are not raised, another taboo.”

That bit about how the deficit will continue to grow in the near term if taxes are not raised” is, for Lilla & Co., a simple article of faith, in no need of argument. Never mind that there are quite a lot of serious and bright economists who disagree that raising taxes is the answer. I am no expert but even I can think of at least one reason to doubt that wisdom of raising taxes, never mind about its morality (isn’t extortion a moral problem for these people?). Haven’t the likes of Lilla ever heard of Frédéric Bastiat’s point about what is seen versus what is not seen? Or of Arthur Laffer’s point about how you can tax people only so far after which they stop producing and start spending their assets or simply abandon the market places but for the most essential, minimal involvement? Ok, maybe these points can be refuted--which I very much doubt--but surely serious commentators owe it to their readers to at least suggest how they would handle them.

Bastiat’s position suggested that often when governments take money out of people’s pockets and spend it on so called public works, they overlook the fact that they have also robbed the economy of honest versus artificial spending (spending that does not represent the genuine intentions of those whose wealth is being spent). Sure, officials of the government can easily point to the results of their public spending--all those shovel ready jobs Mr. Obama once liked to mention (but later admitted didn’t really exist); but hidden behind these are the losses of jobs from the fact that income and credit are depleted and in consequence productivity--jobs--are not much needed. The taxes have deprived people of their opportunity to spend their own wealth in favor of politicians and bureaucrats stepping in, as if the latter and not the former had superior knowledge of what sort of spending needs to be done.

In any case, my limited point here is that people like Lilla are dogmatic about their views, seeing no need to justify them, just as they accuse people in the Tea Party of being the same. Sure, being university faculty these folks are probably more articulate and erudite about rendering their positions, invoking their version of history and calling upon their famous experts in various disciplines. But in the end that is not what makes one knowledgeable about political economy. It is what Ayn Rand liked to call “argument by intimidation.” My bunch has fancier intuitions than yours! End of argument.

This way of going about the business of commenting on current affairs betrays lack of real interest in solving problems. Instead it suggests that such folks see it sufficient to rely on appearance as opposed to substance when they confront their opponents.
What’s so Bad About Exceptionalism?

Tibor R. Machan

There is nothing amiss with exceptionalism, never mind the slurs against it by the likes of NYU Law Professor Ronald Dworkin (in The New York Review of Books). To regard the United States of America as a country that’s exceptional--meaning the likes of which cannot be found, provided the reason for this is laudable--is no liability, yet some people consider it so. Let’s see what is exceptional about the US.

For one, it is has a system of laws, via its constitution, that lays out some rather firm principles according to which the citizenry is supposed to have its individual rights to life, liberty, etc., vigilantly protected. For example, this is probably the only nation in which (government) censorship is explicitly forbidden; one in which religion and government are explicitly kept apart; one in which it is against the law to force someone to testify against himself or herself (the fifth Amendment bans coercing anyone to incriminate himself or herself); one in which at least a reasonable attempt was made to protect private property rights (also in the fifth) even though this has been eroded by a repeated and perversely statist misinterpretation of the interstate commerce (Art. 1, Section 8, which mostly likely meant to regularize commerce, not have the government meddle with it constantly) and the takings clauses. And let’s not forget the fact that America has been relatively hospitable to commerce and came quite close in some periods of its existence to amounting to a fully free market, capitalist economic system. All of these were exceptional when compared to most nations around the globe and are so even today.

Moreover, the country began with a declaration that explicitly demotes the federal government from being a sovereign ruler to that of a hired servant of the citizenry. This is quite exceptional, too.

But even if one leaves aside these somewhat legalistic features of America and simply looks at the country’s history, which other country has ever had a civil war that amounted to an adjustment in its laws to conform to its initial revolutionary doctrine of everyone’s equality under the law? More generally, few societies elsewhere have nearly completely abandoned rigid social classes the way these have been in America. (Sure there are economic classes but they are always in flux and membership is never legally inherited.) Moreover, which country in the world, other than perhaps Australia, has opened its borders to so many millions who wanted to live there and absorbed the immigrants so readily as has America?

Of course, the country hasn’t existed without flaws such as its early unforgivable slavery and its vicious treatment of the natives (who, however, weren’t entirely flawless themselves). Even among early African and American blacks some engaged in the slave trade.

Exceptionalism does not mean being pure, only having a markedly better record vis-a-vis justice and liberty compared with other countries in history and around the globe.

When it used to be a struggle to land on America’s shores and millions still made the journey, the exceptionalism was nearly self-evident, for many of the reasons listed above. And hardly any intellectuals disputed this, although there have always been some detractors who wanted to demean the country precisely because of its exceptionalism. But in our time, when hundreds of thousands of European intellectuals have come here, many to take up influential positions at universities and colleges and in the media, the values to which exceptionalism had been related have gotten diluted, muddied, obscured and even denounced.

I have personally sat in the audience when a famous British philosopher, just one among many others, who had abandoned the UK for several US positions in prestigious academic institutions attacked nearly everything for which America has been taken to stand over the years and when asked how come he came here anyway, mumbled something about how it was a personal matter.

I am myself an immigrant and often express criticism toward my new country. Mostly, however, this is because of how determined so many are to throw overboard the principles that made the country exceptional, those laid out in the Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights. There is little question, however, that on the whole America has been exceptional--mostly in a good way but in some measure bad, as well. No one should accept the efforts of too many prominent people to deny this.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Are Corporations People?

Tibor R. Machan

Much fussing is in evidence from certain circles--some heavy hitters, like Professor Ronald Dworkin--about the Supreme Court’s recent ruling that protects corporations against government intervention when they make political contributions. The common complaint appears to be that corporations are not, after all, people.

When I run across this I always run through a thought experiment or two. I think of a corporation and ask myself, what am I thinking of. Do I think of buildings? Trucks? Limos? Parking lots? The plants that adorn the entry ways to the buildings where the corporation is housed?

None of the above, I conclude. It is people, that’s who. They are the ones I am thinking of, a bunch of human beings engaged in various activities, mostly in offices, sometimes in mail or conference rooms. And I think what else is familiar to me that fits this analysis? Well, universities, colleges, orchestras, choirs, sororities, fraternities, families, and the like--they are all made up of people and without the people they wouldn’t be what they are. Yet they can all act in unison, as well, as “one body,” so to speak, provided those who belong to them see eye to eye.

So then why all the fuss about the court’s ruling that acknowledges that business and other corporations are indeed people? Well, probably because many of the people who make up corporations disagree with the politics of those who deny them their humanity, the folks who keep insisting that corporations are something impersonal and heartless. One way to demean such folks is to write them off as something other than human beings--big faceless entities of some kind, yet with consciousness and the capacity to make good and bad choices and also capable of being sued in a court of law.

The bottom line seems clearly to be that those who make up a business corporation are people engaged in profit making endeavors, something that many folks around the country and the globe deem to be unseemly. In the Soviet Union these people were considered profiteers and accordingly taken to be criminals, given that the USSR was committed to the Marxist communist ideal that wealth may not be pursued by individuals but must be shared among all. Not that most Soviet citizens bought into this but the official ideology adhered to the idea.

What business corporations are, by my common sense understanding, is organizations established by a bunch of human beings for the purpose of conducting commerce and reaping economic benefits from this. The organization usually employs some managers and the like who are responsible to guide it toward economic success. If they fail, they are usually let go but if they succeed, they often get very well paid--after all, they helped a lot of people, shareholders and stockholders, to reap profits.

So what is the fuss all about? Why is a symphony orchestra accepted as comprised of human beings but not a business corporation? Well, I think maybe it is the widespread prejudice among intellectuals against wealth care. This is why public enterprises like PBS, NPR and most educational institutions are deemed by them holier than all get out but private enterprises are besmirched routinely. As if those involved in public undertakings were all morally superior, while those seeking profit must all be cads.

But as public choice theory has so well demonstrated, those standing up for the public interest are by no means without the temptation to pursue their own agendas instead of the public interest, something that hardly anyone knows enough about to actually serve conscientiously.

Let’s stop this business bashing that is, especially now, so damaging to society, what with everyone needing business to forge ahead and succeed so that we can all make a decent living from the employment their profit pursuits make possible. It is utterly bizarre that this kind of an attitude toward business corporations can be in place when those corporations are so necessary for us all to recover economic well being.

So the answer to the question about corporations being people or not is that they definitely are although they may not be the sort of people the critics admire or want to have around much of the time.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Is Capitalism Cruel?

Tibor R. Machan

Now this issues must always be dealt with comparatively--is capitalism cruel, harsh, heartless compared to what?

Some folks I know have maintained that compared to socialism, capitalism is indeed all these things but I just cannot buy it. Partly it’s because I have lived under at least one kind of socialism, the Soviet version, which, as only someone who has been living in a cave for a hundred years would deny, is brutal, never mind cruel, harsh, and heartless.

But let’s not focus on the worst case scenario of socialism. Let us take socialism “with a human face,” the sort that is usually associated with Sweden, France, Greece or some other country where the government manages much of the society’s economic affairs but doesn’t punish dissidents and ban freedom of speech. Are these bona fide socialist systems and are they gentle and kind to their population?

Again, compared to what? A fully free market, capitalist system in which everyone must live without resorting to extorting their support from others, without getting bailed out by the government with other people’s resources when they have mismanaged their financial affairs--is such a system more cruel than, say, democratic socialism?

Not really, not by a long shot. Any kind of socialism subjects the citizenry to coercive wealth redistribution and makes it impossible to accumulate wealth for oneself, one’s family, one’s enterprise thus impeding investment, savings and economic development. Instead people in socialist systems have to contend with being slowly bled to economic destitution unless they are savvy enough to circumvent all the damaging socialist practices (think here of George Soros). And, yes, there are quite a few people in socialist societies, even the harshest version of them, who manage to game the system. They may not openly attack their fellow citizens but because they game the system at the expense of these fellow citizens, those others are in fact--although sometimes not visibly--being seriously harmed.

These socialist systems with human faces manage to disguise their mistreatment of all those who are made to pay for the mistakes of many who become used to being taken care of, who feel they are entitled to endless help from the government, who don’t want to reach out to people and contend with the fact that generosity and charity must be voluntary whereas being on the dole is coercive but not easily noticed. Who is paying for those food stamps? The minimum wages one receives? The subsidies to farmers and all the rest of the costly welfare measures? No one can tell because it all goes through politicians and bureaucrats and they do not accept responsibility of how they treat the citizenry, for depriving Peter of what belongs to Peter and hand it to Paul (not before they skim a good deal off for themselves). (I develop this idea in my 1970 paper, “Justice and the Welfare State,” The Personalist.)

Moreover, many people judge socialism by the announced intentions of those who support the system, not by the actual consequences it produces throughout a society. All the unseen losses suffered because of the public mismanagement of the economy are overlooked and, instead, people often believe it is “the thought that counts.” But a little serious, disciplined thinking should soon reveal just what is going on and how what appears on superficial sight gentle and sweet becomes, instead, insidious and harmful.

Capitalism is up front about placing responsibility on free men and women and for this it gets a bad rep from those who are duped into thinking that one can tell the full content of a book by its fancy cover. Capitalism, unlike the welfare state, is more like parents who impose discipline and refuse to spoil their children however much they whine about it. Those who think the system is therefore a cruel one are comparable to teens who bellyache about their parents because they are more interested in justice than in mercy (which in exceptional cases is fine but not as a routine).

Because so many people have found free market capitalism too harsh, too cruel, or too mean, the system has never been allowed to function as it had been meant to by those who considered it best for a society’s economic well being, the likes of Adam Smith, Herbert Spencer, Ludwig von Mises, F. A. Hayek, Milton Friedman and Ayn Rand, among others. (Spencer, especially, got no end of grief because of sentiments like the following: “Sympathy with one in suffering suppresses, for the time being, remembrance of his transgressions….Those whose hardships are set forth in pamphlets and proclamations in sermons and speeches which echo throughout society, are assumed to be all worthy souls, grievously wronged; and none of them are thought of as bearing the penalties of their own misdeeds.” [Man versus the State, p.22].) Instead they followed the lead of John Maynard Keynes and insisted that people who mismanage their economic affairs are entitled to endless bailouts from the government.

Is this actually less cruel, less mean than the alternative, once all the results are considered? I seriously doubt it--just think of Greece, Portugal and, of course, the former Soviet colonies, as well of the members of America’s and many other nations’ future generations!

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Private vs. State Schools & Free Speech

Tibor R. Machan

Much fuss is afoot now about how various schools, especially colleges and universities, are dealing with the airing of controversial topics. Although by my count this isn’t some kind of epidemic, in several schools the administrators have decided they do not want students to air ideas (or invite guest speakers to do so) when the ideas are controversial or a possible source of emotional reaction from some members of the community. So, for example, when students at Bucknell University tried to make a point about mandated affirmative action policies by differentiating the price of certain items for sale on campus, they were told by the administration to desist. Something similar has happened at UC Irvine, presumably all so as to spare offending some members of the college community.

This phenomenon, though not quite new, has been noticed by some news reporters and commentators, for example Fox Business Network’s John Stossel, who have found it paradoxical that some speech is being regulated, even banned, by administrators at institutions that are supposedly committed to the examination of controversial issues. Some administrations have attempted to cope with the problem by creating “free speech zones” on campus, which effectively moves those who present controversial ideas--mostly, it seems, ones held by conservative student groups and their guests (e.g., Anne Coulter)--into special areas on campus, away from the general population, where they aren’t likely to offend people with insulting ideas.

Of course, such ideas could be about anything but mostly they would have to do with certain politically correct issues, such as race, ethnicity, gender, and so forth. Affirmative action policies, when imposed by law, are a favorite target of conservative speakers when they apply the principles of differentiation to some unexpected areas of life, such as pricing goods and services, even though these same principles are deployed under the protection of the law in the treatment of students and faculty at the institution in question. The idea is, “How come you find it offensive when, say, blacks and whites are charged different amounts of money for the same items for sale even though you think they should be treated differently in the admission or promotion process at your institution?”

One matter that’s often overlooked in discussing all this is the difference between public and private institutions. Public institutions are funded by funds confiscated from all taxpayers, while private institutions are not, which can make a difference in what policies are legally justified at them.

A private college, for example, has the right to institute a policy concerning the airing of controversial ideas that its administrators believe might work to facilitate the educational mission there, while a public institution must abide by the principles of the US Constitution. This is like the fact that in your own home you can restrict and ban speech--say by refusing to allow some guest to talk about some subject--whereas you don’t have the authority to do this when someone speaks out in public, say at a city park. Broadly put, the former isn’t under the jurisdiction of the US Constitution whereas the latter is.

When a private college administration deems it wise and prudent to keep discussion of certain topics confined to special places, it may do offense to the spirit of academic freedom and the tradition of open discussion associated with educational institutions but there is nothing in this that violates either the spirit of letter of the American legal system. But if a public university does the same, that same legal system’s principles are being violated. Yes, even there the administration has some discretion but normally it may not decide in ways that do offense to the public philosophy of American law.

So, then, if a private university institutes a policy of keeping speakers on controversial topics away from the general population, at some kind of “free speech” region, this can be justified in the American legal tradition but if a public university does the same it cannot. That fact may shed some light on how the issue of airing offensive ideas at colleges and universities is being dealt with across the nation’s higher educational institutions.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Besmirch & Divert

Tibor R. Machan

Ever since President Obama took office, his proposed public policies have been defended doggedly by all those who favor an increasing large scope for the federal government. Health care/insurance is just one of these policies but, of course, his way of dealing with the recession conforms to it as well. Bail them out, increase their regulation, order their CEO’s to take lower pay than they agreed they would receive, etc., etc. All these are fully consistent with a program of making government--all of the employees of which are, of course, infinitely competent and supremely moral--an all mighty force in the lives of American citizens.

This reactionary approach to the presidency--one that, if successful, will return the country to the age of George III, a former monarch with actually less power than the current federal government has over us--is very difficult to justify in general political terms. It goes directly against America’s founding principles, as they were identified in the Declaration of Independence, and it’s oppressive and economically suicidal to boot. And sure enough, the defenders of Mr. Obama, such as economist Paul Krugman, The New Republic, The New York Times, The New York Review of Books, to mention but the more visible ones among them, do not have any arguments to offer, so instead they engage in besmirching those who offer arguments against the policies they favor. Same goes for Professor Gary Wills (see it here:

A recent case in point was where an author supporting Mr. Obama insisted that despite their efforts to hide the fact, the Tea Party folks are mostly racists. This author kept repeating this charge, thus managing to divert attention from the substance of the criticism. The examples given included criticism of policies such as the welfare state which supposedly comes to nothing other than wishing ill for most African Americans. So opposition to small or limited government then amounts to racism-in-disguise.

This way of defending unwise, wrongheaded public policies can produce the result of diverting attention for the substance at issue, namely, whether the welfare state and similar measures pushed for by the president and his cheerleaders is a sound idea by which to govern a country. Never mind that! Let’s make it appear that what is going on is insidious racism. That pretty much consigns the critics to the ranks of the ultimately vicious among us with whom there is no need to argue. No one, after all, argues with Nazis! No one argues with people who regard other people morally inferior by virtue not of what they do wrong, their malpractice, but because of their color or ethnicity. Such people then can be viewed as unworthy of the respect that’s shown to someone with whom one chooses to engage in argument, whose views one decides to take seriously enough to confront intellectually. No, let’s just dismiss the critics as bigots or racists or fundamentally, incorrigibly vicious; that way we ca avoid having to answer their substantive criticism of our public policies.

Maybe this shows just how unsuccessful are all those college and university courses that most students are required to take, namely, basic reasoning, elementary logic, and the like wherein the formal and informal fallacies are discussed and it is shown just why they are fallacies and should be avoided in presenting one’s viewpoint or criticism. Besmirching one’s critics is what is called an ad hominem argument, one that demeans or attacks the person who advances a point instead of the case made in support of it. And such attacks have no bearing on the validity, soundness or related merits or demerits of a case being made.

If Mr. Obama and his accolades cannot produce anything that’s better than charges of racism and bigotry against their political or intellectual adversaries, they are in effect admitting that their viewpoint is bankrupt. No one with even a modicum of merit to his or her argument will resort to ad hominems. The arguments being advanced are supposed to carry the weight of the position and there would be no need for trying to discredit with smears those who oppose it.

Not everyone, of course, resorts to these methods of attempting to shore up the case for Mr. Obama’s public policies but enough do that the conclusion is difficult to escape that they are being a tad desperate. When a Nobel Laureate professor of economics at one of America’s most prestigious universities, Princeton, keeps attacking the character and personality of the likes of Sarah Palin in numerous forums instead of taking issue with them point by point with no reliance on badmouthing them, that suggests, strongly, that what the man has to offer against the criticisms is pretty empty of substance.
Column on Tree Hugger Hypocrisy
Tree Hugger Hypocrisy

Tibor R. Machan

I live in Silverado Canyon, about 7 miles east of Irvine Lake in Orange County, California, and it is a very pleasant place except for the fact that there is a small group of residents who want to dominate the place with their personal life style. They are bent on imposing their private preferences and policies on everyone else without, however, footing the cost of doing so.

Like most canyon communities, Silverado Canyon, an unincorporated part of Orange County located on the edge of the Cleveland National Forest, is populated by a highly diverse group of residents. Rich and poor, professional and amateur, nature lover and hermit, and so forth, there are all kinds of people who live there. And most of them confine their influence to the region they rightfully occupy and for which they paid and keep paying good money. So long as they do not dump any harmful activities or their results on their neighbors, this is just as it should be.

By all rights and common sense, if I want to start managing my neighbors’ lands, I must buy it from them. I do not get to select the TV programs they watch, the garden they wish to cultivate, the stuff they store in their garage, etc., etc. unless I obtain permission from them. That is what property rights mean--you get to decide what you do with or to your property, not others around you unless you gave them permission to butt in.

But the people who are intent on forcing their ideas on everyone else in Silverado Canyon do not have any respect for human rights. One may wonder whether they also believe that women have no rights over their own bodies, or newspapers over the content of their editorials, or authors over the plots of their novels. It makes sense that if they think they are authorized to determine the use of my property in Silverad Canyon, they would also believe they are authorized to determine the use of whatever else is mine, including my body, my novel, my column, etc. I have to assume, then, that they pose a serious hazard to our freedom on all fronts since they believe others’ freedom to make use of their land is open to them to violate just because they feel like it.

Yes, sometimes one’s neighbors engage in undesirable activities on their property but unless this intrudes on others, violates other people’s rights, they must use friendly persuasion to dissuade them, not coercive force. At one time a neighbor of mine across the street from my home in Santa Barbara kept filling up his front yard with a lot of junk auto parts and I finally had enough, so I wrote to him, a friendly but pretty firm letter imploring him to clean up the mess. But I also acknowledged that the front yard belongs to him, not to me, so I need to ask his cooperation and not simply impose my will on him--maybe sneak over in the middle of the night and clear it of the mess on my own. I did not have this authority, not by any reasonable morality and certainly not by any just law. So I asked, implored, urged, and did not demand! And I did actually manage to convince my neighbor and the front yard got cleaned up in no time. And I expressed my sincere appreciation and we remained cordial neighbors for years thereafter.

Alas, the group in Silverado Canyon, members of which refer to themselves as Tree Huggers, does not possess the kind of civility that my Santa Barbara neighbor and I did. Instead of going through the proper process of buying up the land they wish to control or persuading their neighbors to fall in line with their plans, they just make use of all kinds of legal technicalities and pressures that circumvent the rights of their neighbors so as to get their way.

That is the method of an unruly mob, not of citizens of a free society. That is how barbarians behave, not people who have an awareness of the rights of their fellow human beings. And since they refuse to move away from the lands they wish to preserve, keep rural, they are rank hypocrites to boot.
Entitlement Foibles

Tibor R. Machan

Gloating as they are too often wont to do, modern welfare state liberals are eager to point out that when it comes to proposing cuts in government spending, many who advocate it will not be specific. Even more telling, the liberals hold, is the fact that few if any will proclaim Social Security and Medicare a target of such cuts.

Perhaps this makes sense even when one sincerely wants the government to reduce it scope of involvement in society--to become, in short, truly limited as the American Founders wanted it to be and as, in any case, it ought to be. Let’s see.

Social security is often believed to be an insurance program, albeit one that is forced on people, yet still, the money taken for it is regarded by most who paid into it as theirs, so getting it out is naturally seen as simply having one’s funds returned in old age. Perhaps the idea of cutting social security is viewed with suspicion, as a way to rob people of what belongs to them and not as a reduction of government spending at all. Moreover, very likely few people have a clue just how the program could be removed from the government, how it might be privatized, especially after the “liberals”--it always sticks in my throat to call them that--have been working overtime demonizing privatization (even when it would only involve a relatively small percentage of the amount now taken from those who must pay into the system).

Medicare, too, has become something of a fixture and while there are pretty clear cut ways in which the free market could handle the insurance it amounts to, one can easily appreciate that few people have looked closely and hard at just how that might be done. Once people get used to being on the dole, especially for something the demagogues insist is their due by now, the very notion that they might get rid of it will strike most of them as implausible. Just float the idea of privatizing public education, or even public libraries, not to mention public parks and forests and airports! Most folks are unfamiliar with the work that has been done to show that all of this is quite feasible.

I remember when as a teen I was living in Germany where television and radio, not to mention trains and planes and virtually all other means of transport, were government run. To even suggest that this is not only economically silly but also an unjust sharing of benefits and burdens among people with very different needs and desire was met with incredulity. Surely this is to be expected of people whose ancestors were the mere subjects of various rulers, ones who rarely considered them to be self-responsible, who treated them as invalids or infants in most matters of concern.

In short, the governmental habit is difficult to shake--just like any narcotic--once one becomes acclimated to the benefits. The burdens are often hidden, or sold as part of being a citizen (or some similar ruse). And in comparison to how most people throughout the globe used to be treated by their rulers (!), the welfare state is a relatively mild oppressor. So when dismantling it is widely promoted to be cruel and nasty, the fact that doing so would be quite unusual, too, can make advocating such dismantling rather onerous, politically hazardous.

Ayn Rand once wrote a column, if I recall right, titled “It’s Earlier Than You Think,” suggesting that even Americans, with their unique and exceptional political tradition stressing individual rights, aren’t quite ready to accept the responsibility of living in a bona fide free country. They are still suffering from the illusions associated with ancient regimes and with modern statism, given how many reputable people--at colleges and universities and in the media across the land--clamor for these. (Just consider that nearly all of our educational institutions live off government!)

So it is a cheap shot to point out that critics of the bloated state do not always know quite what to say when asked for what in particular they would remove from its jurisdiction. Virtually everything, I think, can be done by people throughout the rest of society and government should only handle what the Founders said, “to secure our rights.” But this is still a revolutionary notion, not comfortable on the lips of politicians and the people considering supporting them