Friday, March 25, 2011

A Sample of Government-at-Work

Tibor R. Machan

Where I live there’s no mail delivery. All USPS mail has to be picked up at the post office. And at the post office the address is, well, a P.O. Box with its number.

If one sends a piece of mail to the house address, the zip code must contain the post office box number at the end of the regular five digit number. And it is usually no problem to do this! Except, of course, with some government bureaus.

In particular, the Department of Motor Vehicles in California refuses to accept the additional numbers for the zip code. No matter how often one calls them about this, no matter how often one sends them messages from their web site, they refuse to add the extra numbers, so when they send citizens their license plates or any other official government mail, these often get returned “undeliverable.”

Now one would think there is no big problem with adding those extra numbers but for the 12 years I have lived where I do, I have tried and tried to get this accomplished with the DMV but to no avail. And when I explain this to the people at the post office, they say this is happening to everyone where I live and they cannot get things changed either. Multiply this by all those who live where mail needs to be fetched from post office boxes and you can fathom the situation.

Fortunately, when such mail is sent to homes in my canyon community, they often get rerouted to the post office anyway, as a matter of courtesy. But not always--especially when a new person or temp takes over handing of the mail. Then such materials, often pretty important, get sent back to the DMV. (This can include drivers licenses, fee notifications, tags and such, so it can be quite disruptive to people who experiences this bureaucratic snafu.)

I realize that this is hardly a major obstacle to the functioning of our republic. Nonetheless it is somewhat indicative of just the sort of malfeasance that governments often perpetrate. Since the management of more and more issues is being taken over by government--e.g., health insurance--one need not be a rocket scientist to imagine that these kinds of foibles will probably increase several fold in the future. And it all seems to be impervious to being remedied by even the most vigilant citizenship action. The DMV will not budge, the post office seems helpless and there seems to be nothing citizens can do to fix it.

Even apart from the general matter of the political flaw of government’s taking over so much of our social life, trying to manage everything for us--the hallmark of welfare statism--why is such elementary stuff not being dealt with competently? It should give supporters of the greater and greater involvement of the public authorities in our lives some pause when simple things will not be handled with even the most elementary competence.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

The Proper Promotion of Liberty

Tibor R. Machan

The policy of imposing liberal regimes around the globe has proven to be a disaster and no wonder. It is simply not feasible to coerce people to be free--the idea is an oxymoron.

It doesn’t follow, however, that countries that are largely committed, even if only rhetorically, to a regime of human liberty--one that follows the political principles of the Declaration of Independence--can do nothing to advance freedom outside their borders. Sure, this is nearly impossible if they are themselves only so-so committed to a free system, if their own legal order is a mixture between tyranny and liberty.

Those abroad who have a strong interest in maintaining their unjustified rule over a population--e.g., the likes of leaders in China, Libya, Iran, Venezuela, Cuba, etc.--can then point out whenever they are being criticized for their oppressive policies that there are similar ones where the criticism comes from. The hypocrisy of it all will be glaring and will tend to discredit the critic’s position even if, to the extent it stresses the values of human liberty, it contains merit. Indeed, in some cases such hypocritical criticism may undermine the very position in favor of liberty, having shown up the critic as inconsistent, wobbly about the ideals on which the criticism is based.

But still those in government responsible for forging foreign policy could, if they had their wits about them, stress that what they are promoting is a system of liberty, never mind the lapses within their own domestic policies. Even an occasional liar can advocate telling the truth if he admits to his failings at the same time.

Of course, those outside the government, who have no direct hand in embracing a mixed up political philosophy--like the one we find in most Western countries and which are often being shown up for the confusing idea they are by critics both at home and abroad--are not hampered by this problem of sounding hypocritical when they champion liberty. When members of the Atlas Foundation or the Cato Institute travel across the world teaching about human liberty to thousands who attend their seminars, they do not have to embrace any inconsistencies. They can make it abundantly clear that they oppose their own system’s ill advised attempts to combine free and tyrannical policies. Anyone who is in favor of liberty across the globe and realizes how self-defeating it is to try to advance this cause by means of force of arms can give their support to those private groups that are consistent advocates of the free system.

It is, of course, necessary to be well educated about the nature of such mixed systems and to learn how to identify the impact of the policies that reflect the principles of liberty versus those that violate it. When, for example, loose talk blames the free market for the recent financial fiasco, it is necessary to be able to rebut such nonsense, to show that (a) the financial mess had nothing to do with genuine libertarian policies and that (b) prolonged interventionism has produced the mess (e.g., the machinations of the Federal Reserve and the innumerable government regulatory agencies that have distorted the principles of liberty throughout the economy and produced perverse incentives). There are now many fine books and papers, by excellent scholars, making this case in both technical and lay language and some command of these will help make the case.

Even the government--or those in it who do favor liberty in consistent ways--can use some of the tools of diplomacy to advance the case for liberty abroad. Government officials need not blindly comply with the wishes of foreign officials as they honor their own corrupt systems and can, instead, make their contempt evident by various subtle means.

The cause of liberty merits the sustained exercise of the human capacity for ingenuity in teaching important lessons to those who need to learn them. None of this guarantees success, of course, but success is far more likely if the promotion of the free system is itself unmarred by inconsistency and hypocrisy.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Genuine Military Defense Anyone?

Tibor R. Machan

Why, again, is America getting involved in a war abroad, indeed, thousands of miles from its borders? Is the answer nothing more complicated than “It’s oil, stupid”? If so, this is very wrong.

As much as one may object to the Libyan government’s ownership claims to oil within that country--why on earth would a government own anything when its proper function is to protect the rights of its citizens, including to what they own--America isn’t supposed to be some kind of meta-police! Certainly spending American taxpayers’ funds on conducting military actions against Libya is going way beyond the proper military role of the American government, which is to protect its citizen’s freedom from domestic and foreign criminals.

It bears remembering here that however off course the American government has gone in its role in the country, the real role it has is to be a government strictly limited to the functions laid out in the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution, which is to stand ready to defend the country when it is attacked or when there is a demonstrably clear and present danger that it will be attacked. So the criteria by which one must judge its conduct, both domestic and international, is whether it amounts to such defense.

Sadly, of course, most politicians and bureaucrats, as well as their cheerleaders in the academy and media, don’t give a hoot about restraining the power of government. After all, the same rationale that serves to justify its relentless intervention in our lives at home is what is used to rationalize it abroad. (Does it occur to folks that despite some of the rhetoric of restraint associated with the political thought of President Obama, it is modern liberalism’s interventionism that removes all principled restraint and leads to the imperialist policies of which this Libyan expedition is a case in point?)

I am talking, of course, from the position of someone who has always agreed with President George Washington’s warnings about foreign entanglements, made in his farewell address and one implicit in the basic thrust of the American political tradition of limited government. The limitation is not all that tough to grasp: it is self-defense, just as in the case of when people are justified to use force against each other, namely, when they have been attacked, when they encounter an aggressor. This does not include being deprived of someone else’s productive work or resources, including Lybia’s oil. If my neighbor refuses to sell me his produce or labor, I have no right to attack him and try to force him to hand these to me because I want them very badly, even need them desperately.

Such is the proper standard of international military policy for a bona fide free society and whether that goes contrary to domestics intellectuals, the community of nations, the UN or whoever else sounds off about it, it makes no difference. None of that is going to make it right and, furthermore, one rotten consequence of it is that all the rhetorical opposition to international banditry is certainly going to sound mighty hallow!

Once a country’s government abandons the stance by which its use of force is kept to national defense and nothing else (however tempting it is to breach it), it has lost its moral authority as it criticizes other aggressors around the globe, including that of the Lybian government against “its own people”. Rogue regimes everywhere, with their rulers aspiring to impose their will upon everyone, will be able to point to the USA and declare, correctly: “Look at the leaders of the free world, see how they butt into all manner of misconduct by their fellow governments, so clearly it must be permissible for us to act likewise when we disapprove of what others do!”

Just as the philosophy that demands restraining government domestically is the most radical and sound political idea--just compare it to all the imperialism throughout human history embarked upon by hundreds of regimes--so this insistence that governments keep to their oath of protecting the rights of their citizens is radical, sound and sadly neglected.