Saturday, October 02, 2010

Kate Zernike’s Stupid Outrage

Tibor R. Machan

In a news report on October 2nd, 2010, titled “Movement of the Moment Looks to Long-Ago Texts,” New York Times reporter Kate Zernike tells us that books like Frederick Bastiat’s The Law, from 1850, and F. A Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom from 1944, are selling like hotcakes among Tea Party members. OMG! How awful. Next we will be told that some people are studying Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Aquinas, Hobbes, Hume, Smith, Locke, Marx and other authors of “long-ago” texts in order to learn about political economy, ethics, social philosophy and such.

I suppose the hip thing to do would be to burn all these long-ago texts and focus only on the blogs, especially from the Left, in our efforts to gain an understanding of how the world works. Zernike writes as if most of our university curricula ought to be dismissed as useless, irrelevant, even destructive of human knowledge because, after all, in many courses one is advised to read other than the latest texts.

This is truly ignorant. Where does she think the Obamas and Krugmans and other champions of vast government powers gain their approach to political economy and public policy? How about Thomas Hobbes? Or Rousseau? Or Hegel or Marx or Keynes? All of these and their fellow statists produced works way back when.

It was in fact Keynes who made the observation that might have helped Ms. Zernike to get a grip on how ideas function in this world. As he wrote in 1936, “The ideas of economists and political philosophers, both when they are right and when they are wrong, are more powerful than is commonly understood. Indeed, the world is ruled by little else. Practical men, who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influence, are usually the slaves of some defunct economist.” (The General Theory of Employment, Interest, and Money [Harcourt, Brace, 1936], p. 383.)

And it is, after all, Keynes’ views on the modern economy that’s pretty much guiding the thinking and policies of the Obama administration and the columns of Krugman (who makes no secret of this fact as he pushes for more and more government stimuli to solve our problems). Who thought up the idea of top down management of a country’s economy? It was the long ago champions of mercantilism whom Adam Smith criticized so severely for constantly meddling in the economy. And before that it was Thomas Hobbes who promoted absolute statism which clearly implied just the sort of policies that today’s Leftists favor and which pretty much guide their thinking today.

It is actually refreshing that Tea Party members are studying classic texts in the fields of economics and social philosophy to offset the mostly statist political education they have very likely received in their own contemporary education, an education surely biased in favor of government control of nearly everything in our lives given how that education itself is nearly uniformly government funded and administered. This certainly could use some balance from some of these long-ago thinkers the Tea Party is dipping into for some advice.

Instead of attempting to belittle Tea Party folks because they read some classic works critical of the huge scope of government--the Leviathan Hobbes was advocating --Zernike might have reported on some of the arguments they are absorbing from these thinkers and what replies might be offered them in defense of those other long-ago authors who loved government and are today influencing most politicians and bureaucrats with their statist teachings.

Tea Party folks may or may not be reading the best books to gain their grasp of the right way to approach today’s American political economy but for certain the task they face isn’t impeded at all by a bit of reading of the long-ago texts of their choice. Maybe when they end up on the Jaywalking segment of NBC-TV’s The Tonight Show with Mr. Leno, they will actually demonstrate a bit of education instead of the blatant ignorance that most of those being featured exhibit.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

A Misguided Distinction--or Not?

Tibor R. Machan

When working out what should guide public institutions and policies in our lives and human communities, those who chime in from ancient to contemporary times have advanced various proposals and they have often been divided into two groups. Members of one of these advance certain basic principles that ought to ground the institutions and policies, while those of the other suggest that the way to decide is by focusing on the anticipated consequences, never mind any purportedly firm principles (which tend, in any case, to become obsolete or misapplied).

In the United States and in other developed countries the former group is called deontologists while the latter consequentialists. (In the history of political ideas Immanuel Kant is deemed to be the quintessential deontologist while John Stuart Mill the most prominent consequentialist.) Deontologists try to identify principles by which we ought to live and guide our public affairs--for example, a set of basic rights everyone supposedly has and which may never be violated; this will, argues the deontologist, insure justice and other good things in community affairs. For the consequentialist the idea that should govern is whether some policy most effectively promotes what is desirable--for example, spend whatever is necessary so as to eliminate poverty and sickness, never mind if anyone’s rights are violated in the process since those rights mostly tend to be obstacles to what needs to be done.

Is this a good, useful distinction? I have my doubts. For one, no one can tell for sure what the result or consequence of a course of action or public policy will be down the line, not certainly in any detail. And when it is possible to tell, it is because we have discovered that following some principle is likely to bring forth a given result. The actual actions or policies are not available for inspection until after they have been tried. So if we are to be guided by anything, it cannot be the results, which lie in the future and are mostly speculative. It would have to be certain rules or principles that we have found to be helpful in the past when we deployed them.

On the other hand, principles are always limited by the fact that they were discovered during the past that may not quite be like the present and future or, even more likely, the scopes of which are limited by what we know so far. Thus, for example, take the U. S. Constitution that contains a set of principles (especially in the Bill of Rights). It is subject to amendments in part so as to update these principles in light of new knowledge and new issues in need of being addressed. Once amendments are seen as possible, even necessary, strict reliance on the principles is admittedly hopeless.

So then what about the two kind of approaches, deontological versus consquentialist? Neither is really adequate to what human beings need to guide their lives. Yes, they will have to identify certain ethical, political, legal and other principles--e.g., in medicine, engineering, or automobile driving--but once they have done so they will still need to keep vigilant so as to make sure they aren’t missing some good reason for updating these. However, focusing entirely on the consequences of their actions and policies will not do the job either since those are not yet here to deal with. They will have to ease up to them with the help of the principles, more or less complete, that they have found to be soundly based on their knowledge of the past.

Fortunately, although our knowledge is rarely complete--and never final--about anything that surrounds us in the world, the world itself tends to be fairly steady and predictable (once one has studied it carefully, without bias or prejudice such as wishful thinking). It is not possible to escape the need to balance reasonably well established principles and expected consequences. With these in hand, many of our tasks and challenges are likely to be managed pretty well although we need also to be prepared for surprises. There is no substitute for paying close attention.
Rejecting Anti-Natural Rights

Tibor R. Machan

President Obama’s friend and former colleague Cass Sunstein, now apparently on leave from Harvard Law School, would have us believe that our rights are granted to us by government. Sunstein and his co-author Stephen Holmes have argued in their book, The Cost of Rights (W. W. Norton, 1999) that human beings have no rights until government grants them some. As they put it, “individual rights and freedoms depend fundamentally on vigorous state action” (p. 14) and “Statelessness means rightlessness” (p. 19).

This is just the opposite of what classical liberal natural rights theorists think and what the American Founders thought. In the Declaration they stated, albeit rather succinctly, that we have rights because our very creation as human beings has endowed us with them. And they held that these were unalienable and government is instituted so as to secure them. Clearly, this implies the basic individual human rights come before the government instituted to secure them for us. The two scholars are mounting a major assault on what is perhaps most significant in the American political tradition. They have attempted to undercut this tradition’s most revolutionary and significant features, namely, the demotion of government from its pretense of being the sovereign and the substitution of individual human beings as the true sovereign agents in a just human community.

There are other challenges, some even more deep seated, that have been and still are being levelled at the American style political regime. The late Leo Strauss and many of his followers have been arguing that the entire drift of modern political liberalism, with John Locke at its head, is wrongheaded and we must return to the paternalistic politics that came out of a certain interpretation of Plato’s famous dialogue Republic. Still, the Sunstein-Holmes attack is what is getting serious consideration in our day so I wish to revisit the topic and once more offer a line of defense that seems to be decisive.

But perhaps Holmes and Sunstein are right and the American Founders had it backwards. What can we say, in just a few words, in support of the Founder’s idea? Without rehashing John Locke’s and his followers’ defense of the character of our rights—as derivable from our human nature and the requirements for human community life—there are some simple matters that point to the fact that Holmes and Sunstein have it wrong.

Consider a thought experiment that isn’t at all far fetched: An adult human being is stranded in the wild where there is no law, no police, no courts, nothing. Someone else comes upon him and turns out to be quite aggressive. He is attacked, physically, and all of what he has made for himself out there to survive is under the threat of being taken away from him.

It seems pretty clear that such a person would do the right thing to defend himself, if he could, against the aggressor who is threatening his life, his prospects for a future, maybe his family and friends as well (if we build up the case in more detail). And if he were to be challenged afterwards why he resisted being attacked and robbed, he could well say, “This fellow wasn’t peaceful toward me, didn’t respect my rights as a fellow human being, so I had to resist him, physically, so he couldn’t succeed in his threats,” or something simpler along these lines.

Yet, if our rights depended upon government granting them to us, such a line of argument, justifying self-defense, wouldn’t hold up. Those who challenged the victim of the attack for resisting the aggressor might say, “But, listen here, since government grants people their rights and there is no government out here you have no rights. Not to your life, not to your liberty, not to your property and not to self-defense, certainly. Not, at least, until a government is established and grants you these rights. Until then it is a free for all and no complaints make sense against our actions that you consider aggressive.” (Indeed, that is pretty much how Hobbes, but not Locke, would have understood the situation in the state of nature.

Surely this would be absurd. Yet that is just what would follow if the prominent analysis of individual rights, advanced by the likes of Holmes and Sunstein, would be sound. No one would have any justification putting up any resistance against attackers--including rogue governments--unless some government issued a grant of rights. Given, however, that there are not just imaginable but real circumstances in which human beings interact with no government having been established or in operation (for the time being, at least), and given that some of these people can act violently toward others, there is need for some idea that makes sense of the situation and gives guidance to conduct on the part of those who are victims of the violence. These ideas may not be expressed entirely in the familiar terms of individual rights but that is what they would be intimating, even if somewhat unclearly and undeveloped.

Monday, September 27, 2010

Why Rip Off The Rich?

Tibor R. Machan

This fracas about letting the Bush tax cut expire for those making more than the arbitrary amount of $250K per year is bizarre. Never mind for now that the entire system of taxation in a bona fide free country is criminal--not different, in principle, from a system of serfdom or involuntary servitude. (Taxation had its place in the same systems that were home to these other types of bondage!) But this unrestrained hatred for those who earn more than $250K is rank bigotry, not different from racial, gender and ethnic prejudice at heart.

Well, yes there is a difference, since when men and women become wealthy, this isn’t unavoidable as when they are black or women or from a given background into which they were born. But neither is becoming wealthy something for which anyone ought to be blamed and punished.

It is, after all, no longer the case that behind every great fortune there must be a great crime. That used to be generally true enough when wealth was obtained primarily via conquest, looting, and robbery perpetrated by armies and navies. One of the great discoveries of Adam Smith, the father of modern economic science, is that wealth is much more efficiently created without such methods, by protecting the equal liberty of everyone to produce and trade. Because we are often so radically different from one another, we can easily find opportunities to gain from others while they are also gaining from us. This is one of the benefits of specialization. Understanding this much should be sufficient to reject the notion that anyone needs to be put in servitude to other people so that these others can find what they need and want. A genuine, unbriddled free market place makes that possible, one in which the government with its monopoly on physical force does not try to cherry pick who gets what and how much and when.

Apart, however, of the irrationality of interfering in people’s freedom of production and exchange, there is in this debate about extending the Bush tax cuts to those who make more than $250K a viciousness that should be entirely unwelcome among civilized men and women. This enviousness that many people harbor and which is then taken advantage of by so many politicians--and fueled by their academic instigators such as The New York Times columnist and Princeton University economist Paul Krugman--is neanderthal, barbaric, totally unbecoming of people who live in a complex society and who have only the faintest idea of how others earn their resources. To have cultivated this envy toward those who are economically better off is really no different from cultivating it toward those who have superior talents or other assets in their lives, such as good health and good looks. To pick on such people is totally unjust and pointless.

Some, of course, try to peddle the notion that the very rich really owe it all to society--which is to say, to politicians and law enforcement--as if it were the referees at a game who scored points! But that is a fabrication and rationalization aimed to sooth one’s guilty conscience for harboring the envy of those who happen to be better off. Nothing good can come from it and a lot of ill will and needless acrimony is fostered by it all.

We have a very fine model for understanding economic differences among people in the field of competitive athletics. Sportsmanship is part of it, whereby competitors at all the different levels of achievement and skill live in harmony instead of hating one another and insisting on placing extra burdens on the successful. (Where there is a policy of handicapping it usually serves the purpose of making the sport more appealing to spectators and has nothing to do with equalization!)

I suggest we get rid of this attitude of rich bashing once and for all and shame those who refuse to do so instead of exploiting their attitude for political purposes.