Thursday, September 02, 2010

Revisiting Wealth Redistribution

Tibor R. Machan

Statists often clamor for wealth redistribution, mostly implying that the wealth held by those who make or obtain it in the marketplace, without coercion, is in the wrong hands and must be transferred to other people or projects in dire need of it.

Sounds humane, kind, friendly, generous, compassionate and so on, doesn’t it? The wealth-redistributors can then brag about how they are the good guys and intimate that those who do not want them to do their taking and redistributing are just a callous, greedy lot.

Yet if you look more carefully at wealth redistribution you find that what the dispute is about isn’t really whether wealth should be redistributed. That’s because wealth is nearly always being redistributed. You may get a buck for mowing someone’s lawn but you will not be sitting on it but usually go to the mall or grocery store or movie and make use of it--indeed, hand it over to someone else who then is going to do the same and this process just keeps going on. Some of the stuff for which the wealth is distributed will be consumed but then the consumer will expand his or her time and energy to create some more wealth. It just keeps going round and round, wealth and its equivalent being endlessly redistributed unless the tax-takers disrupt the process.

So if we are all vigorously engaged in wealth redistribution, what’s up with the claim that it is only the tax-takers who do it? It is a lie, that’s what.

What really bugs the taxers is not that wealth isn’t being redistributed by those being taxed but that where the wealth is headed isn’t up to them but up to those who hold the wealth in the first place. The tax-takers don’t like us to have the choice about who will receive our wealth, to whom and for what it will be distributed and redistributed, that’s what’s at stake here. You and I aren’t a good enough wealth-redistributor, they are. Mr. Obama, who declared to Joe the Plumber, and Hilary Clinton who told that San Francisco gathering of well healed folks that their wealth will be redistributed, do not believe your and my choices as to where our resources should go are good ones but theirs must be.

Exactly what justifies this belief on the wealth-redistributors’ part is a mystery to me. Except it may just be the same as that of the bank robber, burglar, embezzler, and any other confiscator of other people’s wealth. They want it and will take it if they can get away with it. That they have absolutely no legitimate reason to believe that their choices of where the wealth should go, to whom it should be redistributed, makes no difference. At least bank-robbers and their ilk don’t insult their victims by making the incredible claim that they are taking what isn’t theirs because their use of it is superior to what their victims may have used the wealth for. Politicians and their cheerleaders, however, are bald faced liars about this and try to peddle the myth of their superior knowledge of what the funds should go for. And since it isn’t their funds--actually, their life and labors and inventiveness--but ours, they pay far less attention to whether it is wisely spend, whether the value of what they use the funds for is well calculated and whether the funds spent is done wisely and prudently. The funds they redistribute turn out to be mostly a waste or precious resources, including, don't make any mistake about this, other people’s lives shortened by the process.

This is in fact another instance of the tragedy of the commons, only here it is brought about not so much by way of tragedy but out and out villainy and obfuscation. The takers of our resources aren’t better qualified to spend them than we are. They don’t do wealth-redistribution right while we do it wrong. They just want to do it because they can, because perversities of the legal system make it possible.

It is time to bring this ruse to an end. Those people’s scam should be shut down. Their phony authority to take from everyone so they can use it as they see fit--in the name that they are the nice guys who redistribute wealth while we the greedy bunch intent on keeping it for ourselves--must be abolished. They should be sent off to join Bernie Madoff by now.

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Tempted by One Size Fits All

Tibor R. Machan

For most of human history it used to be standard practice for parents to insist that their children not only live by principles the parents have found to be sound but also to adopt all sorts of practices of dress, play, work, taste and so forth that they approve of. Father was a barber so son, too, had to be; mother raised four children, so daughter, too, must bear the same number. Parents liked living by the sea, so the kids too must follow suite. Indeed, if a child had another idea, all hell tended to break loose. And those around the family who didn’t conform were deemed to be weird or inferior or just plain different in that sort of way that ‘s quite intolerant of such a thing.

In some cases this was a useful practice but more often it was a matter of habit, nothing much else. And since there are some matters concerning which one size does indeed fit all--such as certain ways of dealing with other people, certain ways to governing one’s life, and certain ways of setting up a human community, e.g., honestly, prudently, and justly, respectively--the idea has always been somewhat palatable. In nutrition, medicine, engineering, farming and so on some ways clearly are better than others no matter who is doing it.

Yet, it dawned on many folks in time that not everyone should act the same way, work in the same tasks, or wear the same kind of clothes or haircut, if for no other reason than because people faced significantly different situations in their lives. And, most evidently, they were themselves rather different, even unique. So a tall son would not fit well in the kind of clothes worn by a diminutive father. Hat and shoe and glove sizes aren’t the same for all. And once these and other differences got noticed and taken more and more seriously--as individuals were being paid more attention to as individuals--others managed to surface. In time the notion emerged that individuality is itself something important in our lives, that one isn’t replaceable by someone else except in special circumstances--say if one weighs the same as someone else where weight is what counts for most. So while in team sports substitutions are routine, they cannot easily be replicated elsewhere, such as in romantic love or friendship. Once it is clear that it isn’t just what one is but who one is that matters a lot, the one size fits all mentality comes under serious challenge.

But not everyone likes it and bad habits die hard. Even in markets it is very tempting to treat all potential customers as if the same goods and services were proper for them all. Thus we have mass marketing of stuff that really can only benefit some people--a certain type of exercise, a back ache cure, or a headache remedy. The more this is understood, the more the notion starts to make sense that one person’s way of life could well be perfectly well suited for that person without this being an offense to others for whom it is not suitable.

Yet the idea persists that everyone ought to worship alike or admire the same artists or fashion designer’s work. Here the temptation isn’t just a mistake but also a desperate hope since if one size does fit all, those who make that size will be able to cash in on this big time. Everyone should love Pepsi, Coca Cola, a Chevy, a Volkswagen, or a Bentley or take a vow of poverty or love the outdoors. Of course in some cases qualitative considerations do recommend conforming to what others prefer and do but more often what is best for Jerry could well not be best for Harry or, especially, for Sue.

Figuring out when one size does versus does not fit all--or most--isn’t that easy but it is usually worth the trouble, at least if it matters how happy one will be with what one pursues, has, or does in one’s life. For wearing the hat that doesn’t fit one is clearly uncomfortable, to say the least; and pursuing a career that will not be fulfilling can be a major hindrance to living happily.

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Frank Rich’s Prejudice

Tibor R. Machan

Karl Marx was famous for, among other things, claiming that everyone always promotes his or her economic interest. This is something he actually had in common with non-Marxists classical economists.

Most economists, in fact, believe that we are all motivated by our economic interests, nothing else. Or, rather, everything else that might appear to motivate us really comes down to economics. Consider the following from a few very prominent non-Marxist economists. The late Milton Friedman, one of the modern age’s most famous and diligent students and defenders of the free-market system, said it most directly: “[E]very individual serves his own private interest... The great Saints of history have served their “private interest” just as the most money grubbing miser has served his interest. The private interest is whatever it is that drives an individual.” His colleague, the late George Stigler, another Nobel Prize winner, made the point only slightly differently: “Man is eternally a utility-maximizer—in his home, in his office (be it public or private), in his church, in his scientific work—in short, everywhere.” Finally Nobel laureate Professor Gary Becker, who also embrace this homo economicus viewpoint, underscores the idea as follows: “The combined assumptions of maximizing behavior, market equilibrium, and stable preferences, used relentlessly and unflinchingly, form the heart of the economic approach as I see it.” The bottom line: We are all driven by our desire to fare well economically, first and foremost.

Marx also held to this idea, at least so far as people in the capitalist phase of humanity’s development are concerned. We act to enrich ourselves and whatever else we might claim motivates us, it is really just self-enrichment.

Frank Rich, prominent columnist at The New York Times and a relentless foe of the free market, capitalist economic system, has just now latched on to the story of the brothers Koch of Wichita, Kansas, David and Charles--there is another who isn’t so directly involved in the Koch business enterprises--a story told extensively in The New Yorker recently, by Jane Mayer. Rich is very impressed by this story and interprets it in the way many economists would, namely, that everything done by the brothers Koch has to do with their desire to enhance their wealth. But the economists would say this about all of us, not the the brothers Koch.

Of course, Rich merely infers his claims from the story--he fails to give one solitary good quotation from either David or Charles Koch to substantiate his allegation that they are both interested solely in self-enrichment. No wonder, because it is not so.

I have had the good fortune to make the acquaintance of both of the Koch brothers, although we aren’t fast friends by any means. But way back when I was a graduate student in philosophy, Charles took an interest in my work on my doctoral dissertation and invited me to give a talk about it in Wichita. It had to do with human rights and whether we can know that there are such rights or do some of us simply have a strong feeling in favor of them. Later I served, briefly, on the board of the Reason Foundation (which grew out of Reason Enterprises, the tiny firm that published Reason magazine in its early incarnation) with David Koch. So I can attest without any reasonable doubt that what motivated and likely still motivates the brothers Koch is their firm commitment to the ideas and ideals of a fully free society, a la the Declaration of Independence.

Now it is often held by the likes of Frank Rich--such as Ralph Nader and Kevin Phillips--that those who favor a fully free society are only interested in promoting their own economic welfare. Is this credible?

No. Of course, true enough, a fully free society would also be economically free, just as it would favor religious liberty or freedom of the press or everyone’s right to, say, sing in the shower and marry whoever they want who would want them. Freedom for those of us who love it isn’t divided into economic, religious, journalistic, scientific and other parts. It is indivisible, a general proper condition for human community life, period. This is what the Koch brothers have always championed.

Now just like journalists who favor freedom of the press benefit from such freedom, the Koch’s naturally would benefit from freedom of commerce. But so would we all. Freedom, not surprisingly, is simply good for us all and this includes entrepreneurs such as the brothers Koch. Now do they--do we all who champion a fully free society--support liberty solely because it enhances our economic welfare? No, I am certain of that--I, who have hardly a dime to my name, certainly favor liberty in part because it enables me to earn a living with the support of those of my fellows who freely choose to pay me for my work. But is this the sole reason why I favor liberty? Is it the sole reason the brothers Koch do so? Wrong! Not by a long shot.

Just ask us. Don’t ask Frank Rich, who makes his claims based on his prior beliefs, independently of any evidence from the brothers themselves.