Friday, June 11, 2010

Democracy versus Liberty

Tibor R. Machan

Professor Benjamin Barber, author of the book Strong Democracy (1984), was recently a guest on John Stossel’s FOX Business News Network program honoring the memory and ideas of Milton Friedman who wrote the world famous book Free to Choose (1980) and has been for all his life a dedicated defender of the free market capitalist system of political economy.

Barber was critical of Friedman’s ideas, claiming that instead of the alternatives of socialism and capitalism, what is really the best system is a democracy. By this he meant, as he explained, a society in which decisions concerning economic and most other matters of widespread interest are made by way of the ballot box and not privately, by managers of firms and, especially, big corporations.

The same program had as a guest David Boaz of the Cato Institute who defended Friedman’s views and added a nuance. He pointed out that no actual systems of pure socialism or pure capitalism exist, so we do best by judging which of these is better by examining societies that have come reasonably close to the pure versions thought up by political theorists. For example, although the Soviet Union, North Korea, Cuba, and Venezuela are not pure socialist systems, they come close enough to serve as laboratories of that kind of political economy, just as the U.S., Hong Kong, and the former West Germany come close enough to free market capitalism to serve the same function when we study, evaluate, and compare political economies. As Boaz pointed out, in matters of human affairs controlled experiments are impossible so we need to rely on historical examples, even if they are somewhat messy.

The thing about democracy is that it offers something that is relatively new in human political affairs, namely, popular participation in political decision making. And this is such a welcome thing that sometimes it obscures that democracy also has serious liabilities. These can be appreciated by considering that in democracies the majority can pretty much subject the minority to intolerable treatment. Sometimes, in fact, majorities are more ruthless than, say, a given monarch--Austro-Hungarian “Emperor" Franz Joseph is a good case in point.

Majorities often ignore due process, the requirement of justice in how minorities are dealt with. It all depends on what is the scope of politics in a society. If it is fairly limited, then majorities can be restricted to making decisions only about certain topics, like who should be the justice of the peace or how large should be the military’s budget. (Even here the democratic method allows for using experts who understand special problems better than does the general population.) A bloated democracy--what some dub an illiberal as opposed to liberal democracy--can be quite tyrannical. And Professor Barber’s so called strong democracy runs exactly that risk, that the majority in a society will simply run roughshod over the minority or various relatively small groups, not to mention the individual, the smallest minority.

The contrast that Professor Barber emphasized on Stossel’s program was between a society in which big corporations versus one in which the majority make significant decisions. And if these were the only alternative facing us, democracy would be preferable most of the time. But big corporations can be restrained by way of holding them fully accountable for what they contract to do and how they handle their property and whether they encroach of the rights of the citizenry.

Take, for example, British Petroleum. Sure it has probably bungled its oil drilling operation in the Gulf of Mexico but this is partly because where it is doing the drilling is actually public property and BP’s responsibility is determined not by the scope of its property rights but by government regulators, by what the government permits it to do (which usually is influenced by democratic politics).

If the government stayed out of economic affairs the way it stays out of religion or journalism, there would be no great problem with corporate power, no more than there is with university power or the power of any other united group of interested citizens. Sheer numbers in the face of principled courts is impotent. That power is only destructive when enhanced by government officials who are willing to cave into pressure, like referees who might take bribes from competitors.

Huge corporations aren’t bad things--indeed, they make all kinds of valuable undertakings possible. What is bad is when huge corporations get into bed with government, which gives them special advantages, like all those bailouts they received from Washington which was in the hands of Democrats--"the will of the people," remember--at the time!

Huge companies are still just a bunch of people and when the rule of law is firmly adhered to, it makes no difference how huge they are. But without emphasizing the role of individual rights in our political and legal system, democracy can run amuck and follow lynch mob habits.

Professor Barber’s strong democracy can produce California’s Proposition 8--anti-liberty for gay couples--type of politics (which, of course, many liberal democrats do not like despite how it expresses the will of the people there). Instead of strong what is needed is liberal democracy, the kind held in check by the rule of law and individual rights.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

A Thing I have Learned So Far

Tibor R. Machan

I do not mean about cooking or lawn care, of course. I mean about communicating good ideas that I am convinced would, if more widely shared, improve matters near and far.

Back in the 1960s, when my columns began getting published--initially in the paper at Andrews Air Force Base, then in my undergraduate newspaper at Claremont Men’s (now McKenna) College, and later in The Freeman and the student paper at UC Santa Barbara, the weekly paper in Goleta, CA, and in time in The Santa Ana (now OC) Register and others, like The Cleveland Plain Dealer, Chicago Tribune, Houston Chronicle, Wall Street Journal (just once!), The New York Times (5 or 6 times, if I recall right) and who knows where else--I wanted to convey my strong and reflective support for the free society as I understood it. Having had experience with communism and, more personally, Nazism, and seeing the welfare state stumble all over the place, I figured I could shed a bit of light on political matters and draw some valuable lessons.

One of those who disapproved of all this was a pretty famous philosopher, Ilham Dilman, who was for a while visiting at UC Santa Barbara. Another, much later, was the expatriate German philosopher, Eric Vogelin. Both, for somewhat snobbish reasons, thought writing columns is shallow and people trained in philosophy--e.g., in the thought of Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Hobbes, Descartes, Spinoza, Kant and so forth--ought to deal with matters at a more in-depth, sophisticated level.

I disagreed mainly because I figured there is room for competent discussions at various levels of complexity and although I will do my scholarly works diligently enough, I also wanted to air good-ideas-in-brief. In time I formulated my writing program called “Machan’s five ways”-- the letter to the editor, the column, the essay, the article/paper, and the book--every topic can be addressed within the confines of each of these to some benefit.

But there was another thing about all this butting or chiming in. It agreed with my personality, which is not unimportant when one chooses what kind of work one should do in the better parts of one’s life. Being a teacher of serious ideas to initially not too serious students suited me because I really wanted to make sense of important matters in ways that anyone who is willing to pay heed can grasp. Not everyone ought to embark on such a career and maybe I am not the most excellent at doing so, compared to some of the great teachers and writers in human history. But making sense--now that is something I firmly believe in. How else can one get at the truth of whatever is of concern to us? (So I also helped found the magazine, still going pretty strong but not exactly as originally conceived, Reason!)

There is something I had not considered early on, though, which is that however much one may make sense of things and communicate this reasonably competently, others need to choose to pay attention before it can make a difference. Once the late Sidney Hook was lamenting to me that he was disappointed because despite making every effort to be reasonable, he didn’t appear to make much headway (despite his considerable reputation and influence). I told him that’s because others too must pay heed. Without that, nothing much develops from even the best thinking one can do.

So now, seeing how so much of the world is in political and economic muddle, not necessarily more so than before (maybe even less, and only the speed of communicating bad news leads one to forget this), I am convinced that it is worth all the vigilance but there are no promises that there will be a great payoff. (One reason I don’t agree with consequentialism.) Here, too, the human capacity for free choice is evident--no one can force ideas down people’s throats, let alone make them do the right thing. Nor can it be guaranteed that truth will prevail.

But in any case, it will have been worth it all, trust me.

Wednesday, June 09, 2010

Nasty Effects of Egalitarianism

Tibor R. Machan

Ideas do have consequences. You come to believe that you are invincible, you will take risks more readily. You believe government will bail you out, cover your debts up to a certain amount, you will borrow more (indeed, your financial advisor will tell you you should). You believe you can't lose at the roulette tables, you will wager more.

After all, ideas guide our actions. Even the tiniest bit of behavior has some ideas setting up its parameters and limits. Sure, some things we do is nearly instinctual but that's only because we have done them a lot and no longer need to reflect on or deliberate about doing them, like when we drive around in our manual shift automobiles and after a while shift gears without having to work it out consciously. The subconscious has been well trained and needs but a bit of monitoring to carry on. A very efficient system, this is!

But when you learn stupid stuff, that too has consequences. You are persuaded that nothing you do is up to you, that you are responsible for nothing since everyone is driven to act as he or she does by impersonal forces around the environment in which one lives, why bother paying attention? Why heed one's steps? Que sera, sera--what will be will be, so not to worry. Parents who believe their babies are all hard wired to act as they will can easily refrain from teaching their little ones. After all, they already know it all.

Now if you have been persuaded that you are equal to everyone--that your worth as a human being is no different from that of, say, Sergeant York or some other hero, or that your achievements organizing your socks in your drawers match those of Einstein or Leonardo da Vinci or Bill Gates--you could very likely be resentful about how these others are admired while you are not. Envy is one sentiment that those harbor who believe in universal equality, that no one can help what he or she is, what he or she accomplishes, that it is all a matter of sheer luck, accident and it’s all the same without significant differences among us. And that is much of the substance of the egalitarian political creed that is having such a fine run of it in the academy and in the White House and the halls of Congress these days, not to mention abroad.

Teachers who are convinced of this kind of robust egalitarianism will very likely grade their students’ papers and tests accordingly. I recall back at UC Santa Barbara, where I did my graduate work for my Ph. D., one committed egalitarian professor gave all students in his classes As. And he wasn’t brought up on malpractice charges! Not long ago the prominent Harvard Political Theorist Michael Sandel reportedly refused to let his own child play sports because that would teach them the idea that some people are better athletes than others and that this matters somewhat in one’s life. (Sandel is an avid advocate of egalitarianism and an vociferous opponent of libertarianism, although he routinely mischaracterizes this political position as implying that there are no ethics by which people ought to live! Well, there are but a persons needs to make the choice to follow the ethics in order to gain credit for good conduct!)

One result of taking egalitarian ideas seriously is to give up on ambition and on striving for excellence. And in a world where more and more people are beginning to live in regimes that make competition possible, more and more people are taking advantage of this opportunity, so if one is convinced that differentiations based on good performance, good conduct, are wrongheaded, this will have its negative externalities--side effects that are going to be wrongheaded and even harmful.

The only part of egalitarianism that is sound is that when it comes to our worth as infants, no one is morally better than another. There are no natural aristocrats, innately morally superior individuals. But thereafter, once one begins to make decision and choices in life, this egalitarianism vanishes and ranking kicks in big time (unless one has certain impediments that make this moot).

Monday, June 07, 2010

A Mother's Politics

Tibor R. Machan

In his heartfelt eulogy for his mother, Jean Biden, Vice President Joe Biden quoted some words from her, very approvingly. These included the idea that "Everyone is your equal, and everyone is equal to you." Furthermore, in his autobiography the vice president recalls something else he learned from his mother: "'Remember Joey,' she would say... 'You're a Biden. Nobody is better than you. You're not better than anybody else, but nobody is better than you.'"

These may appear to be nice sentiments from a mother who wants to support her son when he is distraught about something, say a bad grade on a test or a loss in a school office campaign or track race. But it looks like the VP considers these far more than that. He appears to think that his mother was advancing a correct political viewpoint, given how he points out also that she was politically quite astute.

So one is then entitled to ask whether these views are really sound, especially given that they appear to be those of a man just a heartbeat from the U.S. presidency. Yes, they are only soundbites but they are packed full with substance and so worthy of a brief scrutiny.

When I was very young, my own mother said to me once that she would love me even if I were a murderer. I recoiled from this with disgust, saying, "How could you? I would then not deserve any love from you at all." I suppose I was already too attached to the value of truth as opposed to pleasant myth. As such myth, my as well as VP Biden's mother's sentiments could be palatable. Mothers are supposed to be supportive. But perhaps not at the expense of truth and certainly not once a child has grown up and can think for himself.

The plain enough fact is that being a Machan, in my case, or being a Biden in the VP's, does not make one as good as everyone else--indeed does not make one anything other than, well, a Machan or a Biden starting out pretty much with a moral blank slate. Surely this is so, as well, with respect to various skills and disciplines of learning in which people differ markedly from one another once they attain the age of reason. As a teacher I need to make this evident to my students day in and out, mostly, of course, to encourage them to improve themselves. If they were already as good as everyone else, what would be the point?

But even more generally, one isn't normally as good as everyone else. I am sure there are men and women who have made better choices and lived better lives than I have, who have excelled simply as human beings, never mind at some special skill. And I am also quite sure I have made better choices and done better things than quite a few of my fellow human beings. The evidence is all around me for both of these convictions, so to hear the VP say otherwise has to be viewed as a ruse.

Ordinarily it would not be worth anyone's time to ponder the kinds of remarks made by the late Mrs. Jean Biden, apart from those who were very close to her, loved her dearly and had an emotional stake in paying heed to all her sentiments. But when her son becomes a major player on the American political stage and advances his mother's emotional outpouring as an earnest political agenda to be pursued by us all, the substance of these outpourings has to be examined and, if need be, criticized good and hard. I would expect no less from folks who paid attention to my views, were I some influential law maker or administrator in this country--indeed, on the world political scene--and made public my embrace of the ideas of my dear mother (who, at 91 and a long life in the midst of European tyrannies, seems to be far more politically astute than Mrs. Biden appears to have been, especially about this business of everyone being like everyone else).