Friday, January 14, 2011

Krugman’s Incoherent Moral Stance

Tibor R. Machan

Finally Paul Krugman, Princeton University Nobel Laureate in economic science and columnist for The New York Times, has come clean about his “moral” position (TNYT, January 14, 2011). He has admitted that he doesn’t believe that when you earn something, you own it. (Don’t know if he believes we own things we haven’t earned, such as our kidneys or eyes! Maybe he thinks that as with earned resources, these unearned ones, especially, belong to the government which can proceed to distribute them just as Krugman thinks it can redistribute the resources citizens have actually come by through hard work, ingenuity, luck and the like.) Let’s see then whether Kurgman’s moral stance has any chance of being sound. Is it the morality by which people ought to guide their conduct in their lives? Do we and what we own belong to government to do with as government officials believe? But isn’t that slavery?

If my life doesn’t belong to me--if the norm the Declaration of Independence identifies as universal, namely, that every human being has a right to his or her life, is false--then what is true? Does my life belong to the government? If we recall that government is a group of individuals to whom a certain social role has been delegated--namely, the role of securing the rights of the citizenry--the claim that government owns our lives and resources means nothing else but that these individuals in government own our lives and resources.

But that is very odd--why would those people be in the privileged position of owning us and what to all appearances belongs to us while we, also human beings and with equal rights, do not own our lives and resources? This makes no sense.

So when we take even a cursory look at Professor Krugman’s position, it turns out to be incoherent, rank nonsense. It reminds me of the remark attributed to the poet W. H. Auden, namely, “We are here on earth to do good for others. What the others are here for, I don't know.” So we all belong to government but then to whom does government belong?

The idea that we belong to government is obscene and harks back to an age when Caesars, monarchs, tsars, Pharaohs and such were believed to have been given their realm by God and everything within that realm, including all the human beings, therefore belonged to them. Later these slaves and serfs began to be called subjects, implying that they were all subject to the will of the government. This is were serfdom and even taxation have their origin.

Now we have, in 21st century America, one of the most prominent commentators and educators reiterate this horrendous outlook. Incredible. But it gets even worse.

An essential aspect of any bona fide moral position is that it must be practiced voluntarily, not because someone--e. g., government--holds a gun to one’s head and coerces one to do what is right. That doesn’t count as doing the right thing, so any such policy is literally demoralizing. It robs people of the opportunity to be morally good (or bad, of course).

A society that’s fit for human habitation must not have policies that prevent citizens from exercising moral judgment. So, OK, assume for a moment that we should devote ourselves entirely to serving other people, to serving the public good. If, however, all of this is accomplished through governmental coercion like taxation, regulation, regimentation, and so forth, there can’t be anything moral about it. So Dr. Krugman’s so called moral stance isn’t one at all. It leaves no room for morality because it makes all purportedly moral conduct involuntary, imposed by rulers and not a matter of one’s own free will.

So Krugman’s moral stance is not only incoherent but it isn’t even a moral stance. So much for the “morality” of one of America’s foremost public philosophers.

What someone like Dr. Krugman could more fruitfully do is urge people to be generous toward those in need, to give support to worthy causes, to help the poor, etc., but always of their own free will. That is what moral leaders may do, nothing else. Whether the morality they advocate is sound is another matter. But to remain something morally relevant it must not be imposed. Elementary, Dr. Krugman, really.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

An Extremist and Proud of it

Tibor R. Machan

Yes, I am that for sure. an extremist. I knew if from the time Barry Goldwater announced that Extremism in defense of liberty is no vice, moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue." That’s because an extremist is just someone who holds a set of positions that is internally consistent, uncompromising, and insistent on integrity.

Of course, once you enter the political fray, it is pointless to be all these things except in how you identify your political position. In one’s political philosophy everyone ought to be an extremist, even a politician, but in one’s strategies for realizing one’s principles in public policy it is quite all right to be practical, pragmatic, or prudent.

Politics takes place among thousands and thousands of people and many of them have agendas very different from one’s own. To make any headway at all in the direction of the policies that would help realize one’s political philosophy, at least to some degree, one cannot simply hold out for the vote that will agree with that philosophy. Here is where compromise is required but never in watering down one’s ideals.

It is mostly those whose views are wishy-washy but who do like power who promote the idea that compromise in how one thinks about issues is necessary, even honorable. But that is false. The world does not conform to a compromised position on anything--it is a consistent system of facts disallowing any inconsistencies or contradictions. But the sociology of politics does make compromises useful, provided one never forgets the goals that are being served by it. In and of themselves compromises are worthless--they are in fact evidence of incoherence. But as means to get closer to one’s objectives when working with a lot of folks who hold drastically different views they have merit.

Extremists are folks who stick to their guns as a matter of principle and integrity but they aren’t prevented by this from making headway through the give and take of politics. (A good case in point would appear to be Representative Ron Paul.) Dr. No, as he is often called, holds to his principles unwaveringly but he does have the skills of a politician to make progress toward his goals in the midst of colleagues with whom he doesn’t see eye to eye. Those who defend the idea that a politician must not be principles, must not hold to fundamentally coherent ideas, are hoping that they will make headway with their ideas while their opponents wobble. Some issues, especially, aren’t about how much or how little should be done but about whether certain objectives are even permissible in a free country. Abolitionists knew about this well and while many were willing to politic about various measures that more or less promoted abolition, they never caved in on the idea that blacks were human and thus had all the same basic rights that human beings have. Maybe this involved taking two steps ahead and one backwards but they knew that all in all there was no compromising their fundamental position.

Of course there can be a point beyond which no negotiations with opponents is tolerable. One could give away the ball game by going along with certain means so as to attain the necessary goals. At that point one may simply need to withdraw and wait for a more opportune time to press one’s cause.

All of this takes intelligence, discretion, even some talent and not everyone can do the job well--some have temperaments that simply don’t suit the machinations of politics. The division of labor applies here as elsewhere. The basic point is that one can be an extremist, a principled advocate of a position, and also be smart and skilled about how to make advances toward its implementation. And those who observe such people need to make sure that they aren’t protesting when such smarts are being displayed and mistake it for having compromised one’s political-ecnomic principles.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

It’s a Massacre, Stupid

Tibor R. Machan

What happened in Tucson, AZ, was a massacre and not a tragedy. Perhaps some view this a pedantic detail but it isn’t--words do have meaning and a tragedy, as anyone familiar with ancient Greek literature or a bit of Shakespeare will testify, takes place when bad outcomes come from what good people are forced to decide. They are a peculiar moral phenomenon. A massacre isn’t morally peculiar but plainly, straightforwardly evil. To execute a bunch of people who haven’t been convicted within a system of due process and when the executioner isn’t properly authorized to act as the agent of punishment for crimes is no tragedy. It is a vicious crime.

Having said that, please let me reflect a bit on all those who are scapegoating now by assigning blame for the massacre not to the actual perpetrator but to something, anything, they don’t like in the world. Accordingly, you will find the likes of Professor Paul Krugman of Princeton University and the Op-Ed page of The New York Times and any number of opportunists in Congress point the figure at the heated rhetoric that emerges from those in public forums who are often passionate and polemical about their political convictions. No doubt, some of these folks can go too far with labeling their opponents, unreasonably ascribing motives to them, indicting them for the likely adverse consequences of the policies they promote. That’s what happens when a lot is at stake--even the most civilized among us will tend to resort to hyperbole.

But words are not guns. Even the law, always only a questionable clue to what is and what is not moral or ethical, acknowledges that there are only a few fighting words. These are those rare case of speech that do not get the protection of the principle embodied in the First Amendment to the U. S. Constitution because they are deemed to be too offensive and provocative for civilized discourse. But fighting words are few. And heated political rhetoric does not qualify.

These scapegoat mongers--who, by the way, quite often excuse wrong doing on the grounds that people just cannot help how they act, that their socio-economic circumstances force them to do the vicious things they do--aren’t really concerned about properly fixing blame or responsibility for events like those that transpired in Tucson but are more likely hoping to score political points. So Sarah Palin likes to shoot big game and you find her politics objectionable, maybe what you can do is associate her with any kind of shooting, never mind the target. Or if those talk show hosts on radio and TV--for instance, Keith, Beck, and Rush--indulge in some fancy verbiage so as to drive home a point, lets treat what they say as if it amounted to fighting words, as if they could cause people to act criminally. By suggesting this one may succeed in besmirching one’s favorite political adversaries--or one could at least for a moment win over to one’s side the people who are too desperate to make sense of events that are overwhelming and for which no ready explanation is available to them.

This is dirty pool. Yet it should not be banned, any more than the rhetoric being indicted should be (as, sadly, some people are proposing). Curbing the heated rhetoric, as such censorship is euphoniously referred to, isn’t going to reduce the number of villains among us--they don’t need to be enticed; they have their warped imagination guiding them to do what is unacceptable in civilized society.

Even if one could show that a perpetrator of a massacre such as occurred in Tucson did hold a particular ideology or religion by which one might govern one’s behavior, that ideology or religion can never be held fully responsible for the ensuing conduct. That is one thing that’s wrong with holding radical Islam responsible for terrorism or Roman Catholicism for the Inquisition! All ideas must be filtered through the minds of the human agents who may make use of them. And these human agents are supposed to be reasonable enough to restrain themselves however passionately they may feel.