Saturday, March 06, 2010

Big Lie Theory Flourishes

Tibor R. Machan

The theory of the big (but good) lie goes back to a certain reading of Plato's most famous dialogue, the Republic. There are more or less crude versions of it but the gist of the theory is that for reasons of state--that is, so as to secure the chance of the ruler to rule smoothly--telling lies can be justified and may even be necessary. Indeed, the big lie could well have been the very idea of the perfect political system itself that Socrates sketched in that dialogue, one that really amounts to a utopia, an impossible blueprint for a human community and its basic principles. Some have concluded from this that Plato (Socrates) never meant to advocate what the dialogue depicts as the perfect regime but merely presented it as a kind of model, the way that the gorgeous women on the covers of Vogue or other fashion magazines function, just reminders of what to pay attention to as women dress up.

But ever since Plato appeared to make the big lie respectable in politics, quite a few regimes have made use of it. And in our era no less seems to be the tactic, at least for the cheerleaders of more government planning who routinely appear on the Op-Ed pages of The New York Times. As a case in point, check out the article by Alan Tonelson and Kevin L. Kearns "Trading Away Productivity" (March 6, 2010). The gist of the piece is nothing less than the defense of international economic protectionism, a policy thoroughly discredited by now except for diehards desperate to keep their establishment and industry intact at the expense of domestic consumers and foreign competitors. Nothing new here--every politician is tempted to offer to square the circle; just watch how in Washington nearly everyone believes that one can indeed get blood out of a turnip and pay for goodies with, well, nothing.

What is far more egregious than the advocacy of defunct theories, defunct at least since the time of Adam Smith, is the premise with which these authors begin their discussion. What they say is, well, a big lie, although for The Times it is routine by now, what with the leadership of hyper-Keynesian Paul Krugman on their pages when it comes to political economy. They state, clearly without any hesitation, that "For a quarter-century, American economic policy has assumed that the keys to durable national prosperity are deregulation, free trade and a swift transition to a post-industrial, services-dominated future." There is no truth to this claim at all.

American economic policy--and it pains me to even refer to such a thing, since a government isn't supposed to mess with its citizen's economic (any more than their religious) lives, not to mention make policy for them all--has been protectionist in nearly every age. Indeed, such protectionism is often held to explain some of the anger of the Japanese at America that precipitated the invasion at Pearl Harbor and the ensuing bloody war in the Pacific. Administration after administration has tried to boost the fortunes of American businesses and labor by way of imposing duties on foreign imports, be this is steel, cars, shoes, textiles, and innumerable other goods. The means by which obstacles to honest trade were implemented are various--sometimes outright tariffs or duties, sometimes phony requirements that manufacturers needed to meet before their product would qualify for importation, thus making it very expensive to import and to buy the products.

I recall that back in the 1980s I was teaching for a while in Switzerland and I ran across the nifty used vehicle I naively considered purchasing and bringing back with me to drive in the US. When I inquired about how to do this, it was made clear to me that no such deal was possible since cars built for European roads by European manufacturers lack the kind of "safety" features the US government insists cars built in the US must include. Why? No reason except that this makes it simple to kept those European cars out of the American market and gave Detroit a leg up in the effort to stay in business, never mind the demand for its products by American consumers. (You can see now how well this worked in the long run!)

This same story could be repeated several thousand times. They all put the lie to the claim made by Tonalson and Kearns about American economic policy having favored free trade. But there is more.

As to government regulations, the increase of these for American businesses over the years as been stupendous. This and many of the claims of these authors can be seen as big lies in a very informative essay written a while back by David Boaz of the Cato Institute, titled "The Truth of Milton Friedman" ( The essay exposes Tonalson and Kearns' lies and the many others circulating these days about how America has been in the grips of market fundamentalism, of an economic policy of laissez-faire and free trade, successfully promoted by the late Dr. Friedman. What bunk.

America has always, from its beginning, been a mixed economy and the mixture is now markedly lopsided toward government interference, including thousands and thousands of pages of government regulations which keep increasing year by year. (And, no, Ronald Reagan didn't reverse this trend!) But the big lie and the big liars will not hear of any of this and keep cheering on as the American government moves farther and farther away from even a semblance of a free market system.

Thursday, March 04, 2010

Property Rights and Gun Rights

Tibor R. Machan

Over the years the distinction between public and private spaces has become obscured. Which is why Starbucks is finding it so difficult to insist that customers do not carry weapons while in their establishment. It is because over the last several decades a doctrine of public accommodation has developed in the law such that when some area is adjacent to a public sphere—a street or road or park—it no longer enjoys private property rights, the authority to determine what happens there.

It all came about because of the impatience with racially discriminatory merchants and costumers. If they were understood as having firm private property rights, they would have to have their racist practices protected by law, which the courts were unwilling to sanction (unlike the protection of porn!). In particular, in a decision by the United States Supreme Court, handed down invalidating a law enacted by referendum in California pertaining to the right of people to sell their property to whomever they choose, Justice Byron White explained that the California law (Art. I, Sec. 26) enacted via Proposition 14 (in 1964) "authorized private discrimination," even though, he added dubiously, only "encouraging, rather than commanding" it. (Actually it only tolerated it!) He added:

The right to discriminate, including the right to discriminate on racial grounds, was now embodied in the state's basic charter, immune from legislative, executive, or judicial regulation at any level of the state government.

And for him, a loyal modern liberal justice, that was unacceptable! Yet that is exactly what is entailed in the notion of a right—its exercise, wisely or unwisely, is shielded from others' interference. Justice White himself made this evident, albeit disapprovingly, when he observed: “Those practicing racial discrimination need no longer rely solely on their personal choice. They could now invoke express constitutional authority, free from censure or interference of any kind from official source". And what's wrong with that? Its the same with everything else objectionable the constitution protects, such a flag burning.

Notice that by prohibiting racial discrimination as a matter of legal mandate, the court removed the issue from the realm of morality or ethics. How could one freely make a personal choice to discriminate (or not) if government has the legitimate power to stop one from discriminating not as a government official but as a private citizen, within one's private domain? If I want to restrict the potential buyers of my home to only Mormons or White Protestants or Hungarian refugees, that ought to be my business, no one else's. But no, the Supreme Court of the supposedly freest country of the world chose to prohibit bad choices by its citizens. That is exactly like censorship by the government, plain and simple. And recall how so many American commentators were appalled at how Muslims reacted to the Danish cartoons that made fun of Islam! For Muslims what the cartoonists and the papers that published them did was every bit as awful as racial discrimination was to Justice White and his colleagues on the Supreme Court.

Now back to Starbucks and gun rights. Turns out that because the U. S. Supreme Court ruled that the Second Amendment protects individual Americans who want to own and carry firearms, this now means Starbucks isn't free to decided about whether its costumers may do so in its coffee shops. Why? Because these shops are "affected with the public interest," because they are located on streets which are public spheres and because government regulates them. Here are proprietors who want to apply their own, possibly sound standards of safety within the establishment they own and aren't permitted to do so because, well, the property is no longer deemed to be really theirs at all but part of the public sphere (square).

Slowly and surely everything in the country will come under public—that is, government—jurisdiction, treated as if it were a courthouse or some other sphere where public administration goes on. The logic of the slippery slope is inescapable here. Moreover, if public officials make bad decisions, they will drag the entire country down since there will not be any private sphere left where those like the owners of Starbucks could institute practices that could well make better sense than what the public officials insist everyone must adopt.

One of the ways a free society deals with dubious practices by private citizens is to protect the liberty of those who find fault with such practices to protest, including by refusing to allow them in their own private spheres such as their places of business. But because this principled approach does not immediately do away with some of the despicable practices of the citizenry, such as racism in commerce, the eager beavers have now thrown the baby out with the bathwater, sacrificed individual liberty for the sake of coerced decency. This is exactly like when others abandon liberty for the sake of security. Plague on them both

Wednesday, March 03, 2010

AGW Science and due process

Tibor R. Machan

A powerful and vital aspect of the fully free society would be that only those burdens may be imposed on citizens that they have been convincingly shown, via due process of law, to deserve. This is roughly how the criminal law works. This is why the prosecution carries the onus of proof and not the defense--all the defense (the skeptic!) needs to do is point out serious holes in the case being mounted by the prosecution and the jury will acquit.

In contrast, when in the old Soviet Union a police officer suspected someone of criminal activity, this would pretty much close the case and the accused would have to try to do something awfully difficult, namely, prove a negative: "I am not guilty."

The New York Times reports in a recent issue that AGW--anthropogenic global warming--scientists are beginning to mount a defense of their work in light of the growing skepticism that follows some of the recent (more or less serious) malpractice by some of them. As The Times presents the story, some of the scientists are pretty much baffled by the persistent skepticism. They appear to believe that their education, research, and academic credentials should suffice to make the case for what they earnestly believe.

This suggests that the protesting scientists share the attitude with the police officers of the former Soviet Union--a suspect is guilty until proven innocent. These--though by no means all--scientists appear to want the skeptics to conclusively disprove AGW.

But in a debate about the AGW hypothesis it isn't the doubters who owe the proof, just as in a court of criminal law (as noted above) it is not the defense that owes the proof but the prosecution. And this is quite sensible: the assertion that someone has done the crime is provable if true since there is a reality corresponding to it; the assertion that someone hasn't done the crime is not except for showing that the case in support of guilt is weak, not true beyond a reasonable doubt. (Proving negatives is only possible once the argument for the positive is in place, otherwise on is shooting in the dark!)

What the scientists need to realize is that a sizable portion of the public holds to the idea: the onus of proof is on those asserting the AGW theory. And it needs to be a solid proof at that since the consequences of accepting it imply Draconian burdens to be imposed on the public, burdens no one ought to suffer unless there is powerful proof that it is deserved.

Al Gore & Co. are very enthusiastic about imposing these burdens not just on Americans and other citizens of developed countries but on virtually everyone across the globe, even those whose chances to finally emerging out of poverty will be severely undermined by them. Given the prospect of such public policy consequence, the pro-AGW scientists simply must realize that many of us don't want a plausible theory, not even a probably true one. What we want is something that nails the case firmly, without any reasonable doubt left. But this of course the scientists haven't managed to produce and there is evidence that among them there are quite a few skeptics--e.g., reportedly among physicists. In other words the pro-AGW scientists need to realize that they don't run the show and cannot expect to lord it over the rest of us merely because they have a strong suspicion about AGW. That will not suffice for free men and women, not by a long shot.

Perhaps it is a sign of the waning influence of the classical liberal political and legal tradition that we are witnessing with these scientists insisting that their current case alone should suffice and we need all comply, never mind reasonable doubt. That would be a devastating development for it could establish a precedent that is completely antithetical to how a government in a free country must treat the citizenry. It would, in short, begin to usher in dictatorship. I doubt even scientists confident of their belief in AGW want something like that to happen.

Monday, March 01, 2010

What is the Public Interest?

Tibor R. Machan

In the midst of the current orgy of capitalism-bashing, unleashed by those who earnestly believe that they should be directing the buying and selling activities of the public, there is once again a good deal of talk about how we must all serve the public interest and forget about our own selfish goals. Just a few days ago Al Gore went on a demagogical frenzy, denouncing "market triumphalism" and lamenting the perfectly sensible concern that "Laws and regulations interfering with the operations of the market carr[y] a faint odor of the discredited statist adversary we had just defeated" (i.e., Soviet socialism). He even asserted, without a scintilla of proof, that the Cold War victory of democratic capitalism--which means, the mixed economy over a dictatorially planned one--"led, in the United States, to a hubristic 'bubble' of market fundamentalism that encouraged opponents of regulatory constraints to mount an aggressive effort to shift the internal boundary between the democracy sphere and the market sphere."

Of course, no such thing happened at all. Ever since its inception the United States has been a mixed system. One need but remember that even among the Founders there was a vehement debate about how centralized the U. S. government should be, with Alexander Hamilton leading the statist faction and Thomas Jefferson those who favored less concentration of power.

In other words, to quote Ronald Reagan, "Here we go again." The cheerleaders of statism try to gain advantage by distorting history. In the last fifty or more years there has not been any effective move away from the "democratic sphere." (Just consider as a case in point, the U. S. Supreme Court's 2005 ruling that eminent domain law can be used to transfer ownership from less to more taxable private use, a distortion of the market friendly Fifth Amendment if there ever was one.) The Congress has moved steadily toward populism, away from a system restrained by the Bill of Rights, by principles of classical liberal justice. Al Gore simply wants to move faster with all this, more power to his crowd, period.

The moral system these avid fans of statism are peddling is the doctrine of service to the public interest. You know, "Ask not what your country can do for you but what you can do for your country" and similar calls to have us all abandon the Declaration's ideals in favor of those of communitarianism, even out and out socialism. The public interest is back with a vengeance. But what exactly is it?

In the history of political thought the public interest or common good has been identified in a variety of ways but perhaps the most provocative and influential has been Jean Jacques Rousseau's idea of the general will--in more recent lingo, "the will of the people." No, this is not some democratic consensus of a majority of the citizenry. It is, instead, a belief in some overarching universal purpose that the citizenry of a country must serve. But then what is that purpose? Yes, that is indeed the rub.

That purpose is exactly what those who peddle the idea say it is. It is in fact the purpose of the likes of Al Gore or anyone else who invokes the idea. The public interest or general will is nothing definite apart from what those who make reference to it want it to be. It is the promoters of the idea that all of us must serve the public interest who, frankly, establish what it is. It is their own agenda, what they take to be important, never mind the rest of the public!

It was in fact the American Founders, who learned a good deal from John Locke, who advanced a pretty sensible and workable idea of the public interest, even while they had some disagreements about it. They believed, and laid this out in the Declaration of Independence, that government promotes the public interest when it secures the individual human rights of all citizens. All of them, not some special group's with its subjective agenda. Their brilliant solution to the problem of just what is the public interest is that it is the protection of everyone's liberty to live as he or she chooses, provided it doesn't thwart the same liberty of others.

Such a minimalist conception of the public interest does full justice to our human nature! We are all in need of liberty and we are also very different from one another which this liberty then fully accommodates. One size does not fit all except for one thing--everyone must be free. And that is the only sensible, morally sound idea of the public interest. Trouble is that this idea doesn't accommodate the goals of those who want to impose their agenda on the rest of us. It is those folks who give rise to the scandalous special interest politics of Mr. Gore's democratic sphere. (And he isn't being up front about that either since if the democratic sphere fails to include the agenda of the AGW crowd, it loses legitimacy for him.)

Al Gore & Co. don't like market fundamentalism because what that amounts to is individual liberty for everyone and functions as a bulwark against regimenting us all to fall in line behind Mr. Gore. For my money, I take market fundamentalism any day over the kind of fundamentalism that gives Mr. Gore & Co. power over all of us.