Saturday, February 13, 2010

Are all of us Always Selfish?

Tibor R. Machan

The idea that everyone is always acting selfishly comes from Thomas Hobbes, mostly, though others have voiced it too. For Hobbes we are all moved by passions, such as for power or wealth or such, and this is merely the human version of the way matter behaves in the world. Everything moves forward unless stopped by something. The normal process is to go forward.

This idea was taken over by political economists, including in some measure by Adam Smith. They held that we are all eagerly motivated to gain wealth, to prosper. It is what has come to be known as the profit motive and one learns of it in Economics 101. Also goes by the name "utility maximization," to drive to increase to as much as possible what one wants or desires.

All of this isn't really up to us, it's automatic or instinctual, not something anyone can choose or refuse to do, any more than one's blood choses to circulate or hair chooses to grow or fall out. Many believe in something like this as they try to make sense of human affairs. It seems former Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan did, along with many economists, along with the notion that when this forward movement, this utility maximization process, proceeds undisturbed, the economy would just purr along nicely, correcting itself when veering on some missteps, just as everything else in the biological, zoological, or physiological realms does.

Clearly such a picture of human affairs precludes freedom of choice. Just as many, many natural and social scientists, and a good many philosophers, believe in our day and have believed before. Free will had been and still is mostly something religious people believe, except for some who believe that nature includes some (few) beings with that capacity. (This is my view.) And thus the idea the we are all selfish is really something that starts with very basic assumptions about the world, ones worked out by classical physicists, and is the exported to how people need to be understood.

But is this correct? Well, common sense would dispute it, of course, since millions of human beings quite evidently act contrary to their best interest, quite unselfishly or, rather, self-destructively. People often abuse their bodies, their psyche, undermine their marriages or careers and get into intractable conflicts with their fellows on all fronts which certainly does them no good. Selfish? Quite the contrary, it seems.

So why does this not convince? After all, newspapers, books, magazines, TV broadcasts and many others sources of reports about human life, including the bulk of history, seem to give evidence of how unbelievably self-destructive people are, how they mess up instead of proceeding nicely forward in life. Why then the persistence in the view by so many, especially in the discipline of economics, that everyone is selfish?

Maybe it is because the belief isn't based on evidence but on a powerful and promising theory that holds out hope that applying it will render everything clear and simple. Reducing all human affairs to appear as if they were just the same as the movements of atoms in space could serve the purpose of helping us explain ourselves more simply than the more involved psychological, moral, political and similar explanations seem to do. And this idea is both very ancient and contemporary--all that exists are atoms or their equivalent--say tiny strings--the rest is merely illusion, sort like those sand objects on the beach that have different shapes but come to nothing more than sand.

Take this small case: I once drove across an intersection and noticed myself speeding up to help those behind me make the green light. Simple but not consistent with the selfishness idea. Why would I care? These people following me were not family, friends, and so forth. But I seemed to have acted generously toward them by speeding up so they wouldn't get caught by the next red light. I won't even go into all the help some give to those in dire straits.

Yet the "everybody is always selfish" view makes no sense of this except by some torturous reasoning--"I did it so in the future when I find myself following others, they would move and let me go through, etc., etc. Or I did it to feel good." But I didn't. I monitor myself well enough to know. (And if one wants to be skeptical about that, one will have to discount all testimony of witnesses or reports to doctors about one's pains and aches and memories, etc. It's too much to give up to save a dubious theory!) Moreover, millions of people show generosity, charity, kindness, considerateness toward others, even if only once they have taken reasonably good care of their own affairs, so the "always" in that idea of Hobbes goes counter to what we know well enough about ourselves and other people.

People have many and different motives for what they do and advancing their own interest is just one among these, even if perhaps it ought to be the main one since, to begin with, otherwise they will risk neglecting something only they can really work on. Still, the notion that everyone is always selfish just doesn't cut it.
Public Service Work and Unionization

Tibor R. Machan

Just now in many states of the United States of America, especially in California, there is a crisis brewing in the public service employment region. No longer to public service employees are expected to be motivated by service, as distinct from their private sector colleagues who are pretty much looking for the best deal they can strike with potential employers. In public service work one is supposedly doing part of one's labor from a sense of devotion to the public good, not from the private motive! Or so you may have thought.

Consider, however, why labor unions exist in a free society: to facilitate employees' efforts to improve their bargaining power in negotiating with employers. This, in turn, presupposes a free market system. Employees are free to organize into unions so as to bargain and get a good deal and employers are free to hire different workers whose offer they prefer to those of the organized group's. But most importantly, prospective customers are free to find some other firm from which to purchase goods or services, ones not seriously encumbered by crippling labor disputes.

Now public workers are different because they work for public or government agencies that are usually monopolies. Only one first class mail delivery outfit, the US Postal System; only one source of "free" education for which property owners are forced to pay, etc. You get the point.

So when public workers threaten to strike, there is usually nowhere for the customers to go to purchase the services they want other than the government agency that employs these public workers. When public workers organize into a union and threaten to go on strike, their employers are the only game in town. There is nowhere else the customers can go to obtain these services, no competition with public agencies and, therefore, with public services workers.

Now this is patently wrong. If customers aren't free to shop elsewhere, if they are hostage to the government agencies providing the public service, those who work for those agencies ought not to be able to threaten and walk of their jobs. That's especially so with the likes of members of teacher unions whose income depends upon confiscated resources, obtained via taxation. In free markets if the employees want to use their sizable numbers to improve their bargaining power, they aren't the only one's with such clout. Customers can also leave the employee and shop elsewhere for their wares without breaking the law. But if taxpayers want to change the employers with whom they want to deal, those in public schools or private ones, they aren't free and will be breaking the law if they stop paying taxes.

All the wrangling about public service unions and how they are able to secure for their members enormous retirement benefits tend not to take these points into consideration. These unions are very different from labor unions in free market systems where such workers must compete with others and offer terms to employers that are not impossible to meet and which competing workers are free to contest. They aren't exorbitant as are the pay demands of a great many public service unions, especially in the state of California. And while economists use the term "demand" to characterize what customers want from providers, actually no demands are in play at all--they are just proposals from which the parties can walk away until the deals have been struck. But in the case of public service employees there really are demands being made--"You will pay us this, or we walk off the job and no other options for obtain our kind of work are available to you!"

America is supposed to be a free country, as are in fact all others supposed to be, and here some semblance of such a country had been attempted. But public service unions, as many other "pseudo-market" agents--companies receiving subsidies and protection from foreign competition--are subverting this attempt. It is high time to put an end to it all.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Oh, that Egalitarian Feeling!

Tibor R. Machan

If I recall this right, the prominent philosopher and legal theorist, Martha Nussbaum of the University of Chicago (where she is the Ernst Freund Distinguished Service Professor of Law and Ethics), has argued that while it is true that full human equality is not something found in the world, we are, nevertheless, obligated to try to bring it about. She wrote, in her book Sex and Social Justice (Oxford UP, 1999), "At the heart of this tradition [of liberal political thought] is a twofold intuition about human beings: namely, that all, just by being human, are of equal dignity and worth, no matter where they are situated in society, and that the primary source of this worth is a power of moral choice within them, a power that consists in the ability to plan a life in accordance with one's own evaluation of ends." (SSJ,57) She has also written, in that same work, that "Human beings have a dignity that deserves respect from laws and social institutions. This idea has many origins in many traditions; by now it is at the core of modern liberal democratic thought and practice all over the world. The idea of human dignity is usually taken to involve an idea of equal worth: rich and poor, rural and urban, female and male, all are equally deserving of respect, just in virtue of being human, and this respect should not be abridged on account of a characteristic that is distributed by the whims of fortune."

Professor Nussbaum has, accordingly, devoted herself to just that mission, via several global initiatives, working with the World Institute for Development Economics Research, which is an organization connected with the United Nations. (Full disclosure: she once very kindly penned a foreword to a book I co-authored with Craig Duncan, Libertarianism: For and Against [Rowman & Littlefield, 2006], making no bones about which side of the debate featured in that book she supported.) I am afraid her good will in attempting to rearrange the world so that all humans are equal, especially in economic matters and how they fare medically, educationally, and in other eras where inequalities are evident, is misguided and can do much more harm than good.

A good start on understanding why this is so can be made by considering the short story by the late Kurt Vonegut, titled Harrison Bergeron, in which we are offered a good debate about perfect equality as well as a picture of what a country would look like in which it is the ruling regime. But this is fiction and too many slights of hand can sneak in, so let me just make clear why the egalitarian world Professor Nussbaum advocates is a very bad idea.

To start with, the egalitarian ideal isn't that of the American Declaration of Independence in which we are told that "all men are created equal." Never mind about the precise process of creation the Founders had in mind, divine or natural, the equality they were referring to is what most people know is equality under the law or procedural equality. In particular, what the Declaration declared is that all human beings are equal in possessing the rights to life, liberty, the pursuit of happiness and whatever other rights are implied by these. (The U. S. Constitution is an attempt to work out just what they are and the U. S. Supreme Court often struggles with the task of applying the principles of the Constitution to concrete cases put before it.)

To be plain about the matter, the Declaration's conception of human equality acknowledges that everyone has the right to live, to act freely, to devote oneself to peaceful goals of one's choosing. Accordingly, however, one can be quite unequal in one's life conditions to others. One may not be as healthy as one's neighbor, nor as wealthy or good looking or bright or lucky. So long as these unequal conditions are attained peacefully, without violating anyone's rights, that is perfectly acceptable and just, as it is perfectly acceptable that the outcome of a marathon race would be decisively unequal for the participants. Indeed, although many speak of the Declaration's support of "equality of opportunity," that isn't quite right either. After all, just as in a marathon or virtually any other race the participants come to it with very different abilities, preparation, motivations--e. g., not everyone runs to win, some do it for the exercise or to simply have the experience--so in life the starting point is very different for different people.

Now inequality is clearly objectionable from this position when it is created by violence, by imposing on people by oppressing them, limiting their liberty to strive for a good life either on their own or in free, voluntary associations with others. But it isn't the inequality per se that's the problem but the intrusiveness, oppression, tyranny and so forth which often produces it. Clearly, without such interference there could still be inequality among human beings, based on one's natural attributes and life conditions. Yet it is not all that easy to sort out just why inequalities occur. At times it is evidently something that's no one's doing, as when someone is very tall while another very short in physical stature (although even in this the poverty that others may have imposed on someone or someone's family could be instrumental).

Bottom line, however, is that no matter how diligently Professor Nussbaum and all who agree with her might work at it, there is no reasonable prospect for establishing total human equality, nor is it a value to be pursued. Why would it be a good thing to have us all equal? Our equal human dignity does not imply that we are better off if we are equal in our benefits and burdens to all others. It is a non-sequitur to believe that! Indeed, many of our greatest benefits in our social lives come from the prominence of inequalities among human beings, even some that are undesirable. For example, doctors and medical researchers benefit from the presence of the sick! Teachers benefit from the presence of ignorant students. The superb talents of artists and athletes are of benefit to all who enjoy witnessing what such persons can but they cannot do!

One source of the desire for full equality is clearly that in our families and small associations there is cause for insisting on some of it. Families ought to share the benefits of a superb dinner or household and in a college classroom all the students ought to be attended to professionally and helpfully by the teacher.

But notice the limited range of these cases where equality is a valid objective! Extrapolating from them to societies at large, let alone to the entire globe, is unjustified and the attempt to do it has wrought havoc in the world whenever it has been tried seriously. The dystopian vision of Vonegut, then, has it right, after all, as do the warnings off all those who insist that imposing the vision of full equality in human societies will mean very little equality--after all, those doing the imposing will certainly always be unequal to the rest--but a whole lot of grief from the deployment of massive government coercive force.

Finally, are all of us of equal worth, really? At birth, perhaps, although it is probably more correct to say that at that point our moral worth, our dignity, hasn't really surfaced yet. Only once we begin to make an impact on the world, including our own lives, do we earn our dignity, provided we do a commendable job of that task. And it is a myth to think that everyone does so. Even egalitarians will have to contend, implicitly at least, that opponents of their project aren't so deserving of dignity as are those who support it.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Another Pitch for Pragmatism

Tibor R. Machan

This article surprised me a bit because I have been reading The New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof for a long time and he never appeared to me an unprincipled person. Yet in an essay for The New York Review of Books, titled "On Isaiah Berlin," he pushes for unabashed pragmatism, which is the philosophy of expediency, of "anything that works."

Kristof's essay is about the late philosopher and historian of ideas Isaiah Berlin, most famous for his essay "Two Concepts of Liberty." In that essay Berlin laid out and clarified a notion that had been making the philosophical rounds for about a century if not more--for example, in the writings of the English idealist philosopher, T. H. Green--namely that in politics two ideas of human freedom are prominent, negative and positive. Basically negative freedom or liberty amounts to not intruding on someone, leaving him or her be. This is the liberty endorse by John Locke and by the American Founders.

The other type of freedom is positive, meaning one gets to be supported by other people so as to have the ability--freedom--to advance in one's life, for example, the freedom to get health care or insurance or public housing or whatever is produced, via coercion, for those who need it by those who can. If others are forced to provide (foregoing some of their values), then they will be free to pursue the values they need and want to have.

Berlin never thought this distinction is all-encompassing but he believed it covers a good deal of what goes on in contemporary welfare states where both types of freedom are supposedly being secured by governments. And he embraced a very controversial view about morality, ethics and politics, namely, that we can have values--ideas of what is right and wrong, good and bad or evil--that are in conflict, that it is false that "there must somewhere be a true answer to the deepest questions that preoccupy mankind." While he noted that great minds throughout human history had assumed this, the idea is nevertheless false!

Kristof thinks he knows why Berlin held to this belief--he gives a typical psycho-historical explanation based on Berlin's early life and later experiences with totalitarianism and what Berlin liked to call "unbridled monism" (the idea that the universe hangs together seamlessly and although we rarely know how it does so, in principle we could; this is pretty much what is assumed in all the sciences other than, perhaps, in chaos theory, so Berlin's helter-skelter account of the world would seem to be the odd one, not that offered by those who seek, even if they cannot find, a comprehensive account).

But what stands out most in Kristof's essay is how he attempts to enlist Berlin to support pragmatism. As he puts it, "What exactly is Berlin's legacy in philosophy? To me, it is his emphasis on the 'pluralism of values,' a concept that suggests a nonideological, pragmatic way of navigating an untidy world." He does this without bothering to explain how Berlin's (or indeed anyone's) version of pragmatism could give support to Kristof's own favorite causes, including rescuing women who are oppressed across the globe. Can a pragmatist really object if someone replies, "Well it is very useful to oppress women (or whoever else), at least to us here in this country or region"?

Never mind. Barack Obama has declared himself a loyal pragmatist, at least in economic policy, so his cheerleaders, among them Nicholas Kristof, are doing whatever they can to make this a respectable outlook. Is it? Or is it a rationalization for unprincipled personal conduct and public policy? I suspect it is the latter. The more one can shore up the credibility and respectability of shooting from the hip, never mind justification and, more importantly, justice, the more unchecked power one can claim is necessary to do one's work. Dangerous stuff, I'd say.

Tuesday, February 09, 2010

Same Old Song

Tibor R. Machan

Meg Whitman is running for governor of California and I haven't a clue what her chances are. I know I don't want anyone like Arnold to get elected but then I don't want hardly anyone to be either reelected or elected. And Meg Whitman gives a good example of why.

Her ads on California TV stations are all about giving stuff to people. Yes, her big, novel, revolutionary political pitch is to provide more and more stuff to the electorate. She says so explicitly in her television ads. No bones about it, nothing about principle, nothing about throwing all the lobbyists out, nada. It's all about stealing from these citizens and handing the loot to those. How else are you going to do more for "the people"?

And this pattern is repeated all around the country these days. No one even pretends to stand for a principle of justice that is to everyone's equal benefit, like making sure there is no more debt citizens are stuck with. No mention about refusing to place members of future generations in debt even though, contrary to a major American founding principle--no taxation without representation--such a policy is glaringly perverse in this country.

Why can't Ms. Whitman come up with something really different when she claims to offer us change? But then so did Mr. Obama who now seems to be going down the exact same road that George W. Bush did, deficits, debt, entanglements in foreign wars, the continuation of the war on drugs, etc., etc.

It is not in my philosophy to construe politics innately corrupt. There could be decency there, yes, provided the idea the American founders had were still what would guide those running for office. Politics should stay out of our lives and only do what referees do at a game, make sure the rules are followed. The rules, in turn, are to act peacefully in all realms of our lives, no exception. Yes, yes, on some very rare occasions someone may deploy just a bit of force, as when a hysterical uncle needs to be restrained. But that is a very rare exception indeed, and so would be the use of coercion in a decent society, especially by the government the job of which is to secure our rights, period.

Ms. Whitman, however, is no agent of serious change but is going to continue the widespread destructive governmental habit, promising to redistribute wealth just like all the other politicians are trying to do, thereby impoverishing the country--including the state of California in spades--at every turn.

Of course, it would be a mistake to think that the American people, including the bulk of California's citizenry, are innocent. Most are, after all, the ones who invite the likes of Ms. Whitman to run for office instead of someone who is committed to weaning us of the governmental habit.

Back when Arnold got into the game I actually was stupid enough to vote for him, but only because I considered The LA Times's efforts to discredit him by writing a story on the eve of his election about how he frolicked on the set of some of his movies. Well, I figured, that was such a low blow that I should come to his rescue! Dumb move; no good reason to vote for someone. Rash. I will never do that again.

But any other basis for selection from among current candidates seems even worse since all they do is offer themselves up as your hired thief rather than someone else's. Yes, that is the ploy of most of them--"free" health care, "free" insurance, "free" maternity leave from your job, "free" unemployment compensation, etc., etc., all of it anything but free, of course, but all put on the backs of others and of members of future generations.

Maybe some day there will be a citiznery that will repeal the authority of politicians to engage in all this larceny. Maybe. But do not hold your breath because that governmental habit is a very powerful one.