Friday, July 16, 2010

Recycling A Beauty

Tibor R. Machan

My friend and occasional colleague--when we have both worked for the Institute for Economic Studies Europe now and then during summers over the last couple of decades--Professor Donald J. Boudreaux of George Mason University has a wonderful knack for zeroing in on the nonsense that so often surrounds us in certain very prominent forums the editors of which appear to have no critical abilities at all, no clue as to whether the kind of stuff they publish manages to be utter balderdash. He is a dedicate scout searching out such nonsense and often publishes the letters he sends to newspapers, magazines and other media at the blog he and some friends of his operate, Cafe Hayek.

Just today he sent out one of these that is a great winner in my book, no question about it. It echoes something I had pointed out about ten years ago to a young friend of mine who was pining to me about how the Middle Ages had been so much more meaningful and noble to live in than our own times. (I had had enough of this pining after a while so I pointed out to my friend that he, as a father of then four--now six--children might rethink his adoration of those days past by considering that probably but one of those four would manage to survive to the ripe old age of 20 back in those glorious times!) So I have asked Professor Boudreaux whether I might reproduce in my own column his absolutely spot on comment on a similar young person’s mindless ruminations discussed in The Washington Post. Here it is and please take it to heart.

The only thing I would like to add is that anyone who would like to delve into more of such sensible points made against the innumerable know-nothings of our age should check out the works of the late Julian Simon as well as the recently published book by Matt Ridley, Rational Optimist. Perhaps these will manage to be the antidotes to the kind of baffling thinking produced by the likes of Mr. Kelley (below) and by more prominent public philosophers such as Jeremy Rifkin!

Of course our era has its problems but these folks are really bonkers with their pessimism. What’s more, they aren’t upset with some of the real horrors of our time, such as the tyrannies and wars and oppression that go on in parts of the globe but with the good stuff, like our having enough to eat and efficient transportation! Nor does one hear from them much about Nazism and Communism, the really horrible systems of the modern age but instead they keep advancing lamentations about modernity and the free market system, precisely what have been the liberating features of our time.

Editor, Washington Post
1150 15th St., NW
Washington, DC 20071

Dear Editor:

Benjamin Kelley says that his art "represents the dehumanization of modern society" ("An artistic body of work's bone of contention," July 16). I'd like to ask him which aspects of pre-modern society he believes to have been most humane. Was it a life-expectancy of about 30 years? How about mass illiteracy? Maybe Mr. Kelley longs for the odors, lice, and scabs that regularly adorned human bodies that seldom bathed and that slept on dirt or straw?

Possibly Mr. Kelley regrets that the homicide rate in modern society is far lower - as much as ten-times lower - than in pre-modern societies? Perchance he laments modernity's liberation of women from the oppressive dominance of men? Maybe he finds fault with modern humans' greater skepticism of tales of witches and sentient volcanoes? Or perhaps Mr. Kelley is upset simply because modernity has eradicated slavery?

Being only 26 years old in modern society, Mr. Kelley has many decades left to reject his fashionable romantic nonsense about a past Golden Age. Were he born just a few generations earlier, however, not only would he have been unable to earn a living as an artist, his own stint in humanity would have been much shorter.

Donald J. Boudreaux
Professor of Economics
George Mason University
Fairfax, VA 22030

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Shutting it all down for the State!

Tibor R. Machan

I travel about quite a lot. I have crossed the USA back and forth about 25 times by car and have also done a good deal of driving in Europe--France, Italy, Switzerland, Germany and so on.

Some time ago I noticed something that one might wish to explore more systematically than just relying on one’s personal observation. This is that in much of Europe the public authorities are who matter most, with the public standing in the back, waiting its turn. Twenty years ago I wrote about this in a column and it all got reconfirmed for me these last couple of days as I was making an 800 kilometer trip on the German Autobahn.

I am talking about how whenever some mishap happens on the road, the authorities shut it all down, even if it is just a crate of apples that spilled. I was driving north on A 2 and suddenly everything came to a screeching halt. Nothing moved. Like a huge parking lot. Everyone stood there, with cars idling, using up precious fuel in scorching heat, air conditioning blasting in every car that had it. To be sure, there were radio announcements telling us that matters have gone awry but this didn’t help much, especially if your German wasn’t it top shape just then.

There were two or three of these interruptions within a span of about five hundred kilometers, one lasting an entire hour. And when it was over and we drove past the “accident,” it looked like a small van turned over with some boxes spilled out on the road, no ambulance in sight, nada. At the next rest stop where everyone had to take advantage of the facilities I asked what exactly was the big deal and was informed that the Autobahn people just stop all traffic no matter the severity of the mishap. Sure, they could have pushed the crates that spilled out of the van over to the side of the road and made it possible for traffic to proceed but, no, that would not do. Let’s just shut it all down.

I am paranoid enough about public officials to imagine right away that they just don’t give a rat’s ass about inconveniencing of the driving public. Let them wait, who cares. They are just subjects who must submit the the public authorities, are they not?

Come to think of if, when I originally wrote about it I noticed a difference between how the public authorities handled the situation in Europe versus how they did in the USA but the difference appears to me to have disappeared. Now the same is happening all over the USA. A problem arises and what seems to matter is what is convenient for the authorities, never mind the driving public. Maybe I am too suspicious but it looks to me that America is becoming like Europe not only in its embrace of the welfare state, the entitlement mentality, but also in how the people who supposedly work for us as civil servants are becoming the wielders of power, never mind public service!

All this brings to mind for me that for centuries and centuries on end the bulk of the population of every country were deemed to be subjects, not citizens, not sovereign individuals. They had no rights only some privileges granted them by the state. Nothing was done as a matter of what they had coming to them from the public authorities, only as a matter of what these authorities decided they should be granted as a gift.

We in America now have a head of state who actually appears to accept this reactionary philosophy, judging by his eager embrace of the judicial philosophy of his former colleague from the University of Chicago Law School, now Harvard law professor Cass Sunstein. This theorist believes we do not have natural rights, rights prior to the development of a legal system, but the legal system establishes our rights--meaning he and his pals do. Not a great development, this Europeanization of America.

Monday, July 12, 2010

What Irritates the Statists

Tibor R. Machan

Speculating about motives isn’t my cup of tea. I really don’t know why so many folks find it attractive to run other people’s lives, to dictate to them, to regiment or regulate them endlessly. Ultimately I suspect this deepest of the deeper of human flaws has to do with a failure, a serious omission, the absence of a sufficiently fulfilled life, something that is really up to each individual to achieve within his or her particular circumstance provided other people aren’t intruding and make it impossible for the individual.

Still, bit and pieces of reasons for wanting to always bothering others with one’s agenda—or as some statists now wish to call it, nudging people to behave well—do come to light now and then without some grand theory of human motivation. A tiny example of what I have in mind stares one in the face a good deal everywhere one encounters one’s fellow human beings. I am thinking of the enormous variety of accessories people display. Take just one of these such as their wristwatches.

Nearly everyone manages to find one of these that no one else is wearing, at least no one nearby—at the same party or office or doctor’s waiting room or, well, you get the point. I would say in most developed societies people have managed to find just the watch they want and doesn’t replicate their friends’ and colleagues’ watches.

And as I travel about, which I do a great deal, I run across watch stores and other places where watches can be purchased and these are normally filled to the rim with the most incredibly varied examples of the article, most of them quite attractive as far as I can tell, some, of course, a bit hideous and silly looking.

I am of course focusing here on something those who know Karl Marx’s criticism of the free market capitalist economic system are quite familiar with. It is also something soft Marxists, such as the late John Kenneth Galbraith, implicitly criticized about the system. Marx called it commodity fetishism and Galbraith, also a socialist of sorts, _lamented the phenomenon in light of how it distracts most of us from our far more important "public" goals, the ones that get neglected because we spend so much money on private goods. (For Galbraith it was one of the major failures of the free market, namely, that we are at liberty to focus on satisfying our private desires and thus "deprive" the public treasuries of our resources that would, by Galbraith's and his cohorts’ account be much better spent on public goods like schools, roads, forests, monuments, welfare payments, subsidies, or whatever publicly minded folks would spend our resources on.

Now all this is very irritating to those who have in mind taking the resources from those of us who have ideas of our own concerning what they ought to be spent on and using it for what they deem to be of far greater public significance. Or so they would have us think about it all.

In fact, however, this public versus private purpose is a ruse. There are just very, very few bona fide public purposes for which some small portion of our wealth could be devoted—such as courthouses, police, stations, the military, and so forth. Everything else is private! Which is what most of our resources go to secure for us and, indeed, should do so! The idea that what a J. K. Galbraith or Karl Marx has designated as a public good is indeed that is completely off the wall. Virtually every benefit to be obtained by way of forking out our wealth is a private benefit, something that serve the interest of some human individual in a society—maybe many of them, sometimes many of them all at once, but all are private individuals and that includes Marx and Galbraith and all their pals who are so eager to confiscated everyone else’s resources for purposes they deem to be important. If they think these are important purposes, they ought to get up a collection and convinced their fellows to part with what is needed to obtain them. That includes environmentalists who are eager to confiscate the land of others to they can carry on with whatever environmentally friendly project them prefer!

But it is so much simpler to send out the police to collect these funds rather than to raise them by means of convincing us of the worth of these projects. When this isn’t accepted much by the citizenry, the statists are deeply miffed. Too bad but it isn’t their stuff to spend as they think proper.