Thursday, April 14, 2011

On Demeaning A Straw Men

Tibor R. Machan

A. C. Grayling, an normally sensible English academic--just check out his book, Liberty in the Age of Terror (Bloomsbury, 2009)--wrote recently in The New York Review of Books: “Of course, people who hold extreme political positions are not troubled by such conflict [as the one between wanting to make everyone economically equal and also making sure everyone is free]. They simply disown the values that they believe cause the conflict. The libertarian can say that only freedom matters and the totalitarian that personal freedom does not matter at all. But for people who are sensitive to the full range of moral values, the extreme views are not options....”

We can pretty much stop here since this setup embodies a serious distortion. To start with, the protection of the right to liberty is not a moral but a political value but once one concludes that it is of great importance in politics, there is ample room left to attend to moral responsibilities, that is, to one’s ethics. But for folks who want everything done by way of politics, this is a strange idea. Isn’t every value one holds supposed to be political, directing only public policies?

Libertarians do hold that the right to individual liberty across the board is the prime political value but by no means the prime value. Politics for libertarians can be thoroughly derivative, meant mainly to secure the possibility for a full moral or ethical life. Why be free? Mainly to be able to choose right from wrong, that’s why.

I don’t know about totalitarians but even there Grayling is offering a caricature. Most totalitarians aim to guide or make people to do what is right, which could be serving God or the public interest, following the democratic plan, saving the earth, conserving natural resources, etc., etc. But never mind totalitarianism. Is Grayling even nearly right about libertarians?

Since he gives us no libertarian to examine, no quotations from Rothbard, Nozick, Rand or the rest--and these days there’s a plethora of them who have written plenty to cite for anyone who wants to do them some measure of justice--we need to check what libertarianism means as one of the political options in our day and age.

As the term clearly indicates, it is all about liberty, in particular about a polity the legal system of which takes the right of every citizen to be free of coercive force from others as its highest value to be protected and preserved. As I already pointed out, this is just the beginning of a libertarian’s system of values. These are the politics that the libertarian holds will secure for citizens their sovereignty, their sphere of personal authority. Within that realm, however, innumerable moral challenges face a citizen. Libertarians do not address those qua libertarians but mostly as ordinary free men and women with their various sources of moral convictions.

The only thing libertarianism has to say about one’s moral convictions is that they may not include coercing anyone else to do anything. Coercion is using unprovoked force on people, ones who haven’t violated the rights of others. If you believe it is your moral duty or responsibility to rob Peter so as to help out Paul, that will not fly. It is like holding that one has the moral duty to rape or kidnap someone. Some may--and sadly some do--claim that this is what they ought to do but they are confused or vicious. Only vis-a-vis children or invalids could one have such moral duties or responsibilities, never toward intact adults.

Despite what we could call the thinness of libertarian politics--the opposite end of the thickness of any kind of totalitarian regime--it does not follow that libertarians hold “that only freedom matters.” That’s what matters politically but as far as how human beings should conduct themselves in their lives, a plethora of moral requirements will be on the agenda for everyone. Fathers, mothers, friends, colleagues, sports partners, farmers, engineers, doctors, and all others who occupy some such role in life have a list of virtues they ought to practice. Hence even college courses in medical, business, engineering and legal ethics, for example.

On top of it there is just the ethics for living one’s human life, ethics addressed by numerous philosophies and religions and nearly all libertarians embrace one or another of these in their personal, nonpolitical lives.

In The New York Review of Books it seems even largely libertarian folks must demean that political alternative. After all, if libertarianism is the politics of a good, just human community or country, there is very little meddling left for all those bright in its pages people to do. Who will they be nudging? Where will they practice their oxymoronic paternalist libertarianism? Put plainly, whom will they be pushing around so as to fulfill their aspirations when they fail to voluntarily enlist support from others?

Finally, what is so extreme about libertarianism? In fact is the common sense social philosophy of most civilized people. Fulfill your moral tasks as a matter of your own free will and leave others to do the same--they aren’t your children or subjects! But make sure no one gets to lord it over anyone who acts peacefully. Not so extreme, me thinks!
Republicans are Disarmed

Tibor R. Machan

In the current Democrat-Republican fracas Democrats want to ignore fiscal prudence and claim they are doing it for the poor and needy. Republicans, in turn, claim they don’t want higher and more taxes because of their speculative contention that taxing takes resources away from the market where jobs are created, especially by the rich who would spend what they have if its not confiscated from them.

When it comes to the strength of the two sides’ arguments, the Democrats win because they have the moral high ground, given that the Republicans lack a moral case in favor of their position. But there is one. But Republicans are as wedded to confiscating other people’s resources as are Democrats, only perhaps not as much of it as Democrats. The bulk of the members of each party believe in taxation for the goals that are dear to them. And with that premise, the Democrats have the upper hand since their goals are more compassionate, caring. Yes, the Republicans do embrace the virtue of prudence but in hard times generosity or charity trumps prudence. We all go out of our way to stand up when times are tough to help out, even if this is risky. People will jump into troubled waters to rescue someone even if they might perish. Not perhaps if they know they will perish but if they only might, the risk is worth it.

If, however, the Republicans took a principled stand against extortion and defended the idea that it must be those who own the resources who decide what should be done with them—whether to give it to the needy or invest it in productive endeavors, for example—then there would be a chance for them to win this argument. For, while people often sympathize with compassionate intentions and policies, they generally do not sympathize with coercing others to make them compassionate. Indeed, they sense that one cannot make other people do what is right—they must choose to do the right thing, whatever that happens to be.

What the Republicans ought to do is insist that whatever help people need in this country—or indeed anywhere—it must be given freely, not at the point of a gun. That theme may sit well with most American citizens since it is, after all, the centerpiece of the country’s political philosophy. Freedom! Republicans miss out on standing up for it against Democrats and come off as merely having a different scheme up their sleeves, one that seems like cronyism to Democrats and their supporters. Don’t tax the rich because it is an inefficient way to help the poor! This comes off as a bogus idea and it is to cave in, too, instead of to stand up for something really different.

The entire history of political oppression rests on the theme that important goals, like helping the needy, require oppressing people, forcing them to labor for the greater good, for society, for the public interest. It has almost always been a ruse, of course, but it is difficult to rebut unless one has a sound alternative, namely, insisting on everyone’s right to decide how one’s labor and resources should be made use of. It isn’t about wealth but about choice!

What the Democrats and their supporters want is control over everyone’s resources. They have argued this position for centuries. They still argue that it isn’t really your wealth at all, it belongs to society, the public, and in a democratic republic its allocation must be left to politicians. Not true but sounds plausible enough.

Several of the major intellectual advocates of the Democrats’ way make this point quite explicitly. Consider the books The Myth of Ownership, by Thomas Nagel and Liam Murphy, and The Cost of Rights, by Cass Sunstein and Stephen Holmes. And the Democrats’ base, the Left, has for all its existence denied that people have a right to the products of their labor, let alone what they come by through luck. Property rights are the first to be abolished in Marx and Engels The Communist Manifesto. It is basic for the Left, including for the somewhat softer, watered down American version of it we find among the thinkers who forge the Democrats’ public philosophy.

Republicans, if they want to win, must attack this directly, not with supply side economics but with Lockean individual rights. Until that happens, they will remain losers.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Atomization & Commodification in Capitalism

Tibor R. Machan

That free market capitalism, if it existed, would atomize and commodify people is a charge that’s been around quite a while. It pops up for sure whenever someone means to disparage the free market economy.

Atomization is the idea that people, like the early conception of atoms, are fully self-sufficient, autonomous, in need of nobody, ruggedly individualist through and through. Is this view of people really assumed in a capitalist, free market economy?

Remembering first that no such economy exists, it isn’t possible to test the idea based on experience. What we live in is a mixed economic system and that means there are socialist, communist, fascist, capitalist, welfare statist and who knows what other economic styles in evidence through most developed countries, including America which is closely associated with capitalism but wherein free market capitalism hasn’t ever been realized. Zillions of economic regulations, meddling by politicians and bureaucrats, infest America’s economic order, as do government ownership of some enterprises (e.g., Amtrak, public forests, beaches and parks, first class mail delivery, roads, etc., etc.). America, also, is home to innumerable more or less sizable experiments in collectivist forms of life such as convents, kibbutzes, communes, and the like, and they all have economic features that impact the larger society.

But when it comes to political systems they can be scrutinized to a degree without their being fully actualized. Thought experiments, for instance, are one way to examine them. And, of course, some of them have been dominant enough in various periods of human history around the globe so that those interested can study them closely enough. So we might then conclude that whether free market capitalism tends to atomize the citizenry in America can be discerned if one pays close attention.

So are Americans atomized? Not by a long shot. What is true, however, is that in the field of economics, where free market capitalism is studied most directly, many use a model of the economy that assumes that the agents acting in it are atomized. Everyone is a utility maximizer, claim such prominent economists as the late George Stigler. Such folks do assume, but usually only for theoretical purposes, that all agents in the free market act self-sufficiently and choose all their social relationships, although only in a limited respect. Yet what the economist uses as a convenient tool is usually moderated by building into the model elements that closely resemble actually social lives. And there is a plethora of community life in America, consisting of ethnic, religious, athletic, and other groups by no means only of business corporations. What distinguishes them mainly from communities elsewhere is that most people largely enjoy the exit option--they are free to leave. And champions of collectivism tend to find this irksome. They don’t want folks to enlist but to be conscripted. For them to belong means not just to be closely, even intimately, associated but out and out kept tied down.

What about commodification? This, too, is a possibility but for most reasonable people only some with whom they work and trade get treated as a commodity, like most of us treat the cashier at the grocery store. But there are pals, colleagues and friends, as well as those in one’s family, who are anything but commodified.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Essential Capitalism

Tibor R. Machan

A while back I got caught up in a fracas about using the term “capitalism” to mean the free market, fully voluntary system of economic relations. It didn’t surprise me since I am aware that complicated matters often need to be discussed, well, in complicated ways so when one just refers to some system as “capitalist” or “democratic” or “socialist” or “libertarian,” one is likely to start a dispute as to just what the term is to mean in the language in which such issues are to be discussed.

For most of my life and career, much of it entangled in writing about political economy, I have taken “capitalism” to mean just that, the free market, fully voluntary system of economic relations. No such system has ever existed, of course, and yet the term is often used to refer to certain extant economies, such as those of England, America, Australia, Hong Kong (prior to its return to China), and so forth. Some even call today’s version of “communist” China a capitalist country. And with a bit of generosity this is no big problem. Such uses of “capitalist” or “capitalism” amount to indicating some of the most basic and distinctive features of a country’s economic order without at all implying that the country is adhering thoroughly to the principles of capitalism as a fully developed, consistently implemented economic order conceived by those who champion it without compromise.

I like to compare this to using the term “marriage,” since most marriages do not at all conform to the version of that institution that one has in mind in one’s most romantic imaginings. Yet, we use “marriage” or “married” without constantly having to qualify it with such terms as “more or less,” “troubled,” “half ass” or the like. We just say, “Harry and Susie are married,” realizing that what that amounts to it in their case may not be the pure thing of romance novels.

There is a problem, however, since unlike most uses of “marriage” or “married,” “capitalism” or “capitalist” rarely occur in nonpartisan contexts. Those using the terms are usually either critics or champions. And the critics will mostly zero in on what they regard as the liabilities of capitalism while the champions on the assets, not bothering to make very clear what is the central or core aspect of the system. Even when one spells it out, however, there will be those who will look for a chance to besmirch capitalism and those who will admit to no possible problems with it at all.

I am not going to clear all this up here but I would recommend, strongly, that when such terms are used, a bit of time and space be reserved to offering some details, some qualifiers, such as “I do not have in mind state or crony or similar version of capitalism but the unsullied sort we find in such advocates as Ludwig von Mises or Ayn Rand.” Sure, this may not pacify the determined critic and such a person is likely to associate capitalism with all kinds of features that no one who is honest would claim is a part of it. Thus, in a recent letter to me, in response to a column I wrote, someone insisted that capitalism must involve massive theft by the rich! And this zero sum idea about capitalism is evident in many discussions even though it is all wrong.

Of course, one can do a similar thing with all systems one does not favor, such as socialism or communism, and focus only on, say, the Soviet or North Korean version, not admitting that some forms may be rather mild and peaceful, such as the kind that we find in many a kibbutz or commune. Not that these will have escaped all the liabilities of a system in which the means of production are publicly owned but they may have managed to deal with them less harshly than the Soviets did when they collectivized Russia’s farms.

Most of us do not have the time to discuss even the most important issues in full so that we do take care to cover all crucial elements and avert most honest misunderstandings. But it may be worth giving it a try if it is likely to secure a civilized discussion instead of what turns out to amount to a mere slinging of political ad hominems.