Saturday, January 23, 2010

Business Versus Business

Tibor R. Machan

One can think of business as a profession, like medicine or engineering, and ask whether it is worthwhile or valuable. Should people in their communities welcome business or not? Or one can think of business as the collection of commercial institutions, such as the banks, corporations, shops, and so forth that are active in one's community.

It is one thing to oppose the former, quite another to be critical of the latter. One may well find business valuable as an institution in a human community, something to be embraced and supported, even as one considers the great majority of existing businesses guilty of innumerable types of malpractice. The same can be so with any other endeavor, such as medicine or entertainment or farming. While as properly understood all of those could be assets in a human community, their actual manifestation at any period of time could also be highly lamentable.

In America, just as elsewhere in the world, it is arguable that too many businesses are engaged in malpractice even while the institution of business, sans the malpractice, is something very much to be prized and in considerable need. The malpractice I am referring to involves mainly getting into bed with politicians and bureaucrats whereby too many businesses are actually attempting to subvert the very nature of their profession. These outfits run to Washington and other centers of political power to gain favor against their domestic and foreign competitors and thus flagrantly betray the institution of business. Of course this is not too difficult to understand, even to excuse, given that government has become thoroughly corrupt by involving itself by picking winners and losers, in favoring various businesses and disfavoring others, with special legislation, regulation and other policies that undermine free and open competition in the market place.

Consider as an analogy professional sports. If the organizations that administers the rules of a given sport were to have established as a routine practice favoring certain teams over others, if referees and umpires took bribes as a matter of course, it would be no surprise that the various teams would try to outdo each other with their offer of bribes to these officials. Or if a judge in some criminal jurisdiction established a record of corruptibility, it would be no surprise if litigants tried to approach their case not with good arguments, not with facility with the law but by way of coming up with the most attractive bribe for the judge. Those making use of bribes would, of course, be complicit in the corruption of the system but the main fault would lie with those in the administration who make a practice of selling out, of in effect betraying their oath of office.

When Bill Gates's Microsoft Corporation was being hounded by the Department of Justice for allegedly violating antitrust laws--supposedly by means, for example, of bundling its products, something that should never be deemed objectionable let alone illegal--he was reportedly advised that his practice of staying away from Washington, of refusing to fund politicians running for election, was the source of how he was being treated. In time Gates learned his lesson and began to game the system. Instead of remaining independent of politics and relying mainly on technological and market savvy, he followed the practices of his competitors by supporting politicians of both major parties running for office. By now, of course, Microsoft Corporation is there with all the others who take part in what some call crony capitalism or what is simply the corruption of capitalism. (If the sport of tennis were administrated similarly, would we call it crony tennis or simply corrupt tennis?)

One can be an enthusiastic supporter of business as an upstanding institution in a human community but at the same time be vehemently critical of how actual firms are being managed vis-a-vis their ties with politics. But the main source of the problem is how the system of government in a society makes it not just possible but nearly imperative for people in business to become corrupt so as to be able to survive and prosper.

Friday, January 22, 2010

Tipping the Scales for Liberty

Tibor R. Machan

It has been my experience that people who take politics seriously tend to want to have their idea of a good or just system of laws fully implemented. Yet these people aren't ignorant about the poor prospects of achieving their goal. Unless a society is being ruled by some incredibly powerful individual or tight knit group, the public policies and laws will be a reflection of a hodge podge of ideas, principles, objectives and so forth. Largely democratic societies are not hospitable to just some given system of justice but will routinely be a reflection of many different notions of how human communities ought to be configured.

Nonetheless, those of us who are serious about politics will not just settle for the plain fact that we cannot have exactly what we judge best, namely, that their pure system of this or that political economy will come to dominate the realm. It would require silencing or making impotent all those with whom one disagrees, something those who strive for liberty may not even consider. Because people aren't likely to be persuaded of a particular view of how a community should be arranged--something that is true even if there is such a system that has been conceived by some of them--the best that can be achieved is some kind of a mixed political order. And no such mixed system is likely to remain in place for very long because the percentage of those who favor some one way of doing things will keep fluctuating. No sooner will a population emerge with a certain number of socialists, communists, libertarians, monarchists, theocrats and whatever combination of these can be conceived, another one will replace it, one with different percentages exerting influence over laws and public policies.

Nonetheless, despite the truth of the above, it is not futile to strive to bring about the correct, proper, truly just political-economic order. The reason is that the prospect of getting things right about how people ought to live together in their communities is so vital that the mere but real possibility of its actualization makes the striving worth it all. It's a little like striving to be as healthy or fit or, especially, as good a human individual as one can possibly be. Even without the likelihood of success it is worth giving it all a try. One way to see this is to think of it as a pursuit that is worth undertaking because were it to come to full fruition, nothing much greater could be achieved. That is how important justice is in human communities, as important as moral excellence is in a person's life.

Sometimes this outlook is deemed to be idealistic or utopian, a virtual guarantee of failure. And, yes, failure is more likely than not, although even the bits of success in this or that human community, for a more or less lengthy period of time, is by no means negligible. And without making the effort to bring about a just society, even such partial accomplishments are going to be absent from most human communities. Just as one's regular exercise routine undertaken reasonably frequently will not make one perfectly fit or healthy, it will do much more than nothing. The fight for justice is similar--even the fight itself has its valuable results and if one adds the practical accomplishments that come from even a failed effort, its value cannot be disputed.

It is important to come to terms with all this in mixed systems such as those that dominate most of the developed world. Indeed, it is coming to terms with these points and following their practical implications that has made the beneficial development of that world possible. So for those who might be tempted to become discouraged with where the fight for liberty is headed just now it should be pointed out that even a little bit of progress (or prevention of regress) is significant. Yes, the statists are making headway toward re-establishing a coercively run society in many parts of the world but those who understand how destructive this is need not despair. They need to keep in mind that without their vigilance statism would be far more extensive than it is. So they need to keep it up, and not relent, ever.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Do We Need More Guilt?

Tibor R. Machan

It is a running joke, of course, concerning Jewish mothers that they relentlessly try to instill guilt in their children along lines of, "You owe me since I brought you up." Never mind now that bringing up children is something parents usually sign up for freely and it is a fair assumption that they do so for reasons of their own. There is no gratitude required when they carry out what they themselves decided to do, only if they did it exceptionally well, super-conscientiously. (My own children owe me no more than ordinary respect and some thanks for extras. The rest was all my idea!)

In times like these, when a good many of those in some parts of the globe are hit with massive catastrophes, most decent people not experiencing plight ponder just what they might be able to do to help out. Sending some supplies or money is the usual, normal and sensible answer.

Yet there are those among us who jump at the chance to indict all who are doing reasonably well in these times of confusion and uncertainty, by claiming that we owe everything to those in dire straits; that any joy we experience during these days must be denied a place in one's life since it would be an insult and affront to those who suffer and who have perished.

I was reflecting on this not just in my usual role as a student of ethics or morality but also as an ordinary person, as I am sure quite a few of us have been doing. I had been on my morning constitutional, walking past some homes in my neighborhood, and I heard laughter coming from some porches or kitchens and thought that this is a welcome sign that the world isn't quite going to hell in a hand basket, that people go on about with their lives even when some others are having a really bad time of it. And that is, I figure, just as it should be, except for some outreach with effective assistance by those who can handle it.

But I can tell you, from having read the writings of some very influential people, including academics, that that is not what some people in prestigious places would want from us all. Martin Luther King Jr. wrote, for example, that "An individual has not started living until he can rise above the narrow confines of his individualistic concerns to the broader concerns of all humanity." And academic philosopher Peter Unger wrote--in his provocatively titled book, Living High and Letting Die: Our Illusions of Innocence (Oxford University Press, 1996)--that "On pain of living a life that’s seriously immoral, a typical well-off person, like you and me, must give away most of her financially valuable assets, and much of her income, directing the funds to lessen efficiently the serious suffering of others." If one takes these proclamations seriously, one will never have any peace at all and defeat the very thing in one's own life that one is being urged to help support in the lives of others people, namely, personal well being and happiness.

The other side of the coin, however, isn't to stick one's head in the sand and pay no attention at all to how others, even total strangers, are faring. In clear emergencies, such as what happened during the Southeast Asia tsunami a few winters ago and what is happening right now in Haiti, decent human beings will take some of their time or resources and chip in not because they may not be happy without doing so but because no such individual ignores the plight of other people who are facing sudden drastic circumstances.

It would be absurd to begrudge those who are living reasonably satisfactory lives what they have in light of the fact that there are others who aren't so well off. After all, what is one lamenting but the very fact that these others are lacking in what some of us do have (whether deservedly or fortunately)? The idea that just because there are other persons who are disabled or lacking in what they would want, no one may take pleasure in what he or she does have, may have a noble ring to it but it is complete folly. It is contrary to the very point of feeling sorry for those who are in a bad way. It suggests, implicitly, that the best state of affairs would be for everyone to be badly off, for us all to suffer. Sheer nonsense!

Clearly a proper concern for the bad lot of one's fellow human beings does not entail by any stretch of the imagination the adoption of an ascetic life of one's own. Showing care for the mishaps of others cannot even be effective if one proceeds to join them in their misery!