Friday, September 10, 2010

The Power of Freedom

Tibor R. Machan

At this time when most people are clamoring, or at least hoping for, economic revival, the major debate centers around how it could be achieved. One side, mainly the current administration and its supporters in the academy, believe in some variety of stimulus initiated by the federal government--funneling funds (taken from taxes and borrowed from future generations and foreign governments) to the various state governments that are to use them to pay for public work projects, improving infrastructure, etc. The other side, mainly more or less consistent free market champions, believe that removing government regulations, heavy taxes, and government management or regimentation will more readily help the economy get back into shape.

To attach names here is a bit testy since few are always direct about their proposals but let’s just say Princeton University’s and New York Times columnist Paul Krugman is among those urging the former approach, while George Mason University’s Professor Don Boudreaux among the latter. Both are public intellectuals and voice their views in various prominent forums, so one can easily check what they believe.

Let me explain why I believe the alternative promoted by Professor Boudreaux is fundamentally sound, while Krugman’s approach wrong. I do not imagine for a moment that Dr. Boudreaux fully agrees with my reasoning--his may be different. But here is what seems to me to give substantial support to those who advocate government getting out of the way, at least at the most fundamental level of analysis.

As best as I understand human nature, for people to live and live successfully, they need to have the opportunity to take the initiative in their lives, on every front but especially when it comes to aiming to prosper economically. In the fields of economics and business this is often referred to as the entrepreneurial spirit or attitude. Adult men and women make it through their lives more or less successfully depending on how intensely they face up to the challenge of coping and progressing in all their various tasks. Carpe diem, is one way to summarize the point--grab the day--although the sentiment didn’t initially pertain to taking the initiative but to focusing just on today! (That is not what makes the economy hum, not what gets one to prosper.)

What the anti-statists are confident about is that people will normally actively, consciously pay attention to the world and make the most of the opportunities it contains for advancing one’s lot. There is no guarantee that this will in fact always happen but those who have confidence in the power of freedom see it as the only option. For even those who advocate government programs as substitutes for the initiative and entrepreneurship of the citizenry admit, implicitly, that it all depends on at least some folks getting pro-active, moving things ahead. The pro-liberty people rely, implicitly at least, on this being the best general approach and a likely one because human beings are naturally self-starters. This is what makes them different in the world, their capacity to initiate the actions and institutions needed to flourish.

Those who are in favor of the governmental approach, via stimuli and such, basically believe, even if they don’t make this explicit, that most people cannot get going on their own, that we are like invalids or infants and need to be pushed around to get going. And once we are pushed around the push needs to be continued because otherwise inertia sets in. And in one limited respect they have a point--once the institutions of society have acclimated the citizenry to dependence on governmental boosts, they may form the bad habit of relying on it so as to make useful moves in their lives. The more this policy spreads, the more it is likely that fewer and fewer will take the initiative on their own.

At this point it is possible that for the entrepreneurial spirit to once again awaken, it will be necessary for the people to experience the cost of having abandoned it, of having it stymied by the entitlement mentality and the public policies which have encouraged it.

But there is an even more fundamental obstacle to a recovery, which is that the intellectual elite in many modern societies holds a view of human nature that denies human initiative and affirms, instead, the idea that we are all moving only when something moves us from the outside (or from some hard wiring in our make-up). This view of human nature, as essentially passive and not equipped to start moving ahead without prompters, invites the paradoxical approach to public policy of those who advocate the use of stimulus: only they have the capacity to get things moving, the rest of us do not!

Unless it is widely, prominently recognized that economic growth, including employment, investment, research, etc., must acknowledge that human beings are initiators and not passive, potted plants, the economy isn’t going to get going. Only if men and women are fully free will the power of freedom, namely, their own initiative, restart their engine of progress and prosperity.

Wednesday, September 08, 2010

Let’s Talk about Natural Rights

Tibor R. Machan

When various skeptics question the soundness of the American political system, one of their targets is the idea of human nature. After all, the founders took their political philosophy mainly from John Locke who thought human nature does exist and, based on what we know of it and a few other evident matters, we can reach the conclusion that all human beings have certain rights. This is what is meant by holding that there are natural rights and that they are pre-legal, not a creation of government.

This is the idea that is rejected today by one of President Obama’s top advisers and the man in charge of the federal government’s regulatory operations. Cass Sunstein, who is now a professor of law at Harvard but is on leave to work with the administration, rejects any notion of rights not fashioned by government. And one reason for this may well be, although I am not certain about it, that Professor Sunstein does not agree that human nature exists.

Certainly many prominent legal and political theorists share this skepticism. I recently read one of them who argued that because in some cultures there is no reference to human nature anywhere, let alone in the law, the idea of human nature cannot be right. As if consensus determined whether human nature exists; as if it were impossible that some folks could be entirely ignorant of what human nature is, so much so that they might even deny its existence.

When the idea emerged in philosophy that things have a nature--e.g., starting with Socrates and his pupil Plato--it was thought that the nature of something resembled geometrical objects by being perfect and timeless. So if there is a human nature, it must be something perfect and a-temporal. But because none of us is going to live to eternity, none of us can establish anything as timelessly true. If human nature has to be something like that, then skepticism about it would be warranted.

But human nature--and, indeed, the nature of anything else--need not be timeless. What makes us all human, our human nature, can be the most up to date, well-informed specification of attributes, capacities, or properties so far. Anything else would be unreasonable to ask for since, as I already said, none of us is going to be here till the end of time and can thus establish that what we understand as human nature will not need some modification or adjustment. The principles the American founders rested on human nature were understood as capable of being updated, which is why the U. S. Constitution has provisions for its amendment. This, however, does not justify fundamental doubt or skepticism about either human nature or the principles based on it, such as our natural rights.

So at least one source of skepticism about our basic rights, rights that do not depend upon government’s grating them (even if their protection is government’s main job), can be set aside. But there is more. We are all dependent upon knowing the nature of things so that we can organize our knowledge of the world. We know, for example, that there are fruits--a class of some kind of beings--and games--another class--and subatomic particles--yet another class--and so on and so forth. These classes or natures of things are not something separate from the things being classified but constitute their common features, ones without which they wouldn’t be what they are. Across the world, for example, apples and dogs and chicken and tomatoes and, yes, human beings are all recognized for what they are because we know their natures even when some cases are difficult to identify fully, completely, even when there are some oddities involved.

So there is good reason that governments do not create rights for us--we have them, instead, by virtue of our human nature. And this puts a limit on what governments may do, including do to us. They need to secure our rights and as they do so they must also respect them.

Tuesday, September 07, 2010

Here We Go Again

Tibor R. Machan

Innumerable arguments and research have been produced showing that government stimulus is useless. Despite what President Obama and his cheerleaders in the academy, like Princeton's Paul Krugman, seem to believe (or at least say), there is no evidence that government stimuli do anything to restore market activities. Such policies merely take funds from the right pocket and put it into the left while most often the transfer entails wasting a lot of resources so the net effect is widespread economic loss.

Just consider the current administration’s plan to funnel billions into public works projects--building roads, improving rail lines, beefing up public parks, etc., and so forth. The funds come from someplace, right? Even if they are borrowed from China and future generations of Americans, there will be a minus sign somewhere on the ledger.

So what then is happening to provide a net gain? Nothing. The multiplier effect is a myth--one just cannot make something from nothing however much one might wish to do so. Thus some enterprises that would have been funded by the monies spent as stimulus will be unfunded; customers will have fewer dollars to spend, banks fewer dollars to lend, firms fewer to borrow, all because the politicians have decided to divert it all to projects they deem worthy. But what about projects that those deem worthy who have to be coerced so as to pay for all this?

Whenever one has funds extorted so as to artificially pay for improving highways, etc., one will no longer have them available to spend down at the mall or grocery store or one’s brokerage. Where is the stimulus here instead of the mere forcible redirection, something that will mostly mean spending on what the taxpayers didn’t want to spend on? Why is what the politicians choose to do with one’s funds more stimulating than what one would do with them?

This seems to be no more than a shell game, at best, or out and out fraud. Making it appear that politicians are doing something about the dire straits a large number of citizens are experiencing. But it is a mirage, nothing real. Again, one cannot get something from nothing and to make it appear one can, the net effect is gross waste. You rob me to support something you want so I don’t get to support what I want; but then I need to make provisions to replace the stolen stuff and you had to exert energy on the theft instead of on something productive. Nothing about it is an economic plus.

Most of the truth of this is hidden behind a lot of talk of what “we” are doing. But there is no “we” involved, only you, I, and the others who get rooked by it all. The United States of America is not a firm but a country. When politicians treat it otherwise they must engage in malpractice. Their job is to provide a setting for us to do productive work, not to embark on various ventures as some kind of corporate giant that keeps borrowing and borrowing but has run out of collateral. Somehow this point is being missed all over the place and journalists who are supposed to hold the politicians’ feet to the fire are failing to get to it during all their Sunday interview programs.

Whenever people’s property rights are violated by all the taking and regulating and redistribution done by the politicians what is involved is removing the people from the position of being able to choose, to allocate their labors and resources, and substituting the politicians and the bureaucrats for this role. Just why these folks are believed to know better is a mystery, other then that perhaps most citizens are still in the grips of the governmental habit inherited from the times when kings, czars, pharaohs and other rulers were supposed to know it all, with everyone else just following orders.

Yet that is precisely the system that was overthrown by the American Revolution! So why do so many Americans still believe in it? Why do they want to imitate Europe and other parts of the globe that American said “no” to in the first place? Go figure.