Friday, April 29, 2011

More Foibles of Unlimited Democracy

Tibor R. Machan

It is certainly no secret that while democracy has certain merits as a method for reaching political decisions, it is liable to be abused without those limits. American democracy was always feared, even by the framers, and unless it is restrained by a good, just constitution, it can get way out of hand. It can turn into mobocracy, nearly as bad as an out and out dictatorship.

Unfortunately many who desire serious political change stop at democracy and do not proceed to consider its proper limits. This is what afflicts many countries across the globe, including most of those in the Middle East just now in upheaval. The countries that used to be Soviet colonies as recently as the 1980s are also struggling with just what kind of democracy should be adopted for them. Not very surprisingly while a good many embrace the democratic process, very often when this yields exactly the results one would expect--namely, produces public policies that the majority (more or less) wants--complaints are voiced about these results as if it weren’t crystal clear that the process will often yield something many citizens do not want. But if one really just wants pure democracy, no constitutional restraints with it, how can one complain? It makes no sense. That is just what a limitless democracy will yield, policies that most but definitely not all support. It is a bit like a jury driven courts system--whatever the jury decides has to be deemed acceptable (yes, even when the defendant is one O. J. Simpson).

In Hungary, for example a recent constitutional upheaval involves the democratically elected Fidesz Party which is changing the constitution in ways many are protesting. The size of the national debt is now limited, which of course doesn’t sit well with those who have dreams as their guide for public policy, kind of like our own liberal democrats. When one wants to base policies on fantasies like unlimited, costless indebtedness, ignoring the burdens of nonvoting future generations, constitutional limits on the debt will be upsetting.

Yet if that is what the democratic processes yields, how can champions of unlimited democracy protest? The Hungarians are also facing numerous other measures, such as officially stressing Hungary’s Christian roots (which of course doesn’t sit well with quite a few Hungarians). With the super-majority, the Fidesz Party is pushing for measures in education and even the media--they have no first amendment there, which would ban using the power of this super-majority from dictating matters in these areas--that limit the liberties of millions of Hungarians. Yet, so long as they simply want majority rule, they have nothing to complain about.

In America, too, there is a lot of fuss about what Republicans and, especially, Tea Party members and supporters want to make into public policy, despite the fact that this is just what is yielded up with the democratic process, one so eagerly embraced precisely by those who don’t like what the Republicans and Tea Party folks propose for the country. Well, sorry about that but you cannot have it both way--unlimited democracy with restrictions on what may be enacted. You have to take your pick. Will democracy be limited in its scope, in what may come under majority rule, or will it be the bloated kind which can extend to regimenting virtually everything in the country? When a party enjoys strong support, big numbers, the latter tends to be favored by its members; when it doesn’t well then limitations are urged upon it.

The real answer is to have democracy seriously confined to some issues, such as who will administer the laws of the land (but not to what those laws will be, which is supposed to be what the constitution determines). Some minor exceptions would involved the amendment process which would get supervision from the Supreme Court so it doesn’t amount to altering the principles on which he country’s laws rest. But majorities would not be permitted to transform the country into something alien like a socialist of fascist system. For that one would need a revolution, which is not easy to get under way.

It is understandable why elsewhere democracies are highly prized, limits or no limits. That’s because ordinary folks throughout human history have had little say about their political circumstances and with democracy they get some. But that’s just the beginning. The limits on democracy are as important as democracy itself.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Progressives are Reactionaries

Tibor R. Machan

The simple answer to why progressives are reactionaries is that they tend to want to empower governments to solve all of the problems that face people in their social lives and that is just the authority that kings, tsars, pharaohs, and other rulers have claimed for themselves throughout history. The literally progressive position is that no one gets to rule anyone else without that other’s permission. So a football coach or physician or orchestra conductor may rule only because he or she is permitted by those being ruled. But no one else has such authority without such consent. Today’s pseudo-progressives, however, want to assign such authority to governments without anyone consenting to being ruled about a great many matters that their favored governments want imposed on the citizenry.

More generally, governments that rule people have been the norm throughout human political history. Here and there and now and then this practice hasn’t prevailed but mostly it has. In contemporary times the term “ruler” is still used in, say, Libya and Dubai. It was the American Founders, or the majority of them, who demoted the English king and along with him all monarchs--no longer were they deemed the sovereign but a servant of the citizenry.

It is true that American conservatives, often associated with traditional values, have embraced much of what the Founders installed here and this may make it appear that what the Founders believed was itself conservative or traditional. Not so. In American it is the distinctive tradition to champion limited government and not the bloated state. So that is why American conservatives are really more radical than their modern liberal, welfare statists opponents.

The confusion is understandable but foes of the fully free society like to engage in discrediting what they do not like instead of arguing about it. In any argument there is no question that the political vision of the American founders wins hands down. It is a superior system to all those that went before which have all been more or less statist, gripped by the governmental habit. It is just this habit that modern liberals have reaffirmed, what with their wish to make government the caretaker of society, the nanny and ruler of us all. That is the old idea of politics and there is nothing truly progressive about it at all. Let’s just get this straight.

Sure the statism embraced by contemporary liberals, socialists, fascists and the like is somewhat different from the older kind, from mercantilism, from monarchism, from the rule of Caesars and tsars. Not all statists are the same. But what is crucial about all of them is that they are statists. They do not favor certain particular version of statism such as monarchism that had been demoted, overturned by way of the American revolution. The Founders were nearly libertarians except for some matters they probably didn’t know how to handle without some coercive laws, such as the funding of law enforcement and maintenance via taxation. But taxation is the feudal kin of serfdom--the treatment of those in a society as if they and their resources belonged to the government. That idea is not knew at all, nothing progressive about it whatever. It is however the idea that is close to socialism in which system all the major means of production are publicly owned, belonging to government (which goes by the euphemism of “the public”). And what does socialism see as the major means of production in a society? Human labor. So human labor--which is to say every human being--is owned by the state. The hallmark of serfdom and slavery.

Progressive my foot. This is thoroughly reactionary, taking contemporary politics back to an era that was prominent before the American revolution challenged it good and hard. This is crucial not just for purposes of political rhetoric, which can delude people who are not all that well versed in political history, but also for dealing competently with public policy. Any such policy that treats the citizen as a subject--subject to the will of the government, that is--must be rejected without any compromise.
A Most Costly Fallacy!

Tibor R. Machan

No need to keep readers in suspense--the fallacy is to aim for certainty beyond the shadow of doubt! It is very costly because by holding on to the belief that if one lacks such certainty, it’s OK to believe this or that and to do this or that, one is wasting enormous resources. And this is the basis of much public policy--especially, since the funds to engage in such fruitless pursuits can be obtained via the extortionist methods of taxation which creates the illusion of no limits. It is no accident that President Obama, for example, has linked his own public philosophy to the idea of hope--as seen in the title and theme of his famous book, The Audacity of Hope (Canongate, 2007). Pursuing what one can only hope for, mostly against all reason, is just how one produces enormous debts, especially when one doesn’t need to worry about who will have to foot the expense of such pursuits.

In the sciences, too, this is a major fallacy. For centuries, for example, there has been a debate about whether one can know if other people are conscious. It goes something like this: “No one can enter another person’s mind and all one can do is observe behavior, so isn’t it possible that everyone who superficially seems to be conscious like oneself is, in fact, mindless? Isn’t this possible? Can it be ruled out? Is it certainly so beyond a shadow of doubt? If not, well go for it!”

Well, if the standard of what can be ruled out is that it must be certain beyond a shadow of doubt that it could be, then most of what one imagines cannot be ruled out. Are we certain like that of anything at all? Isn’t it conceivable, imaginable, that I am dreaming that I am sitting at my computer now typing away? Can I be sure beyond a shadow of doubt that I am not? Sure, but what of it? Such doubtfulness is utterly pointless, irrational. It is why in a court of law the goal is certainty beyond a reasonable doubt, not a shadow of doubt.

If it were possible to gain certainty beyond a shadow of doubt, it would be impossible spell it out. For doubts can always be imagined past the current ones. What should be the standard is certainty of the kind that withstands doubts that are well grounded, for which reasons exists. So that if I were sitting at my computer and my vision and thinking became fuzzy and around me all were spinning in a fog, then I would have reason to doubt that my belief that I am indeed sitting there would rest on something worth exploring. As it stands, simply fantasizing that I might be out of my mind is a source of paranoia, not sensible concern. And costly visits to a psychologist!

So can we be sure that others are conscious even if we cannot get into their minds and check this out? Yes, indeed, we can--even those who toy with the notion that people might to be deny this notion in how they act and live, for example, by writing about the issue for readers they surely know are conscious enough to grasp what they are saying.

The fallacy of wishing for the kind of certainty that is beyond a shadow of doubt shows up everywhere--despite the lack of evidence for extraterrestrial life people and institutions invest enormous resources on searching for it. Despite no evidence for thinking that government stimulus packages can dig a country out of recessions or depressions, politicians and policy wonks keep up the hope that it is possible to do it--getting something out of nothing, to put the idea in its most basic form and thus indicating just how contrary to reality it actually is.

There are two very good books about this issue that should be read far more widely than they are. Shirley Robin Letwin’s The Pursuit of Certainty (Cambridge University Press, 1965), and Ludwig Wittgenstein On Certainty (Harper, 1969). The bottom line is that although it is sometimes, rarely, useful to base actions and policies on mere hope--if there is at least some credible reason lined up behind such hope--in the bulk of cases resting public policy and personal aspirations on the fact that one doesn’t know beyond a shadow of doubt that a course of action is futile is a very bad idea. And it is very very costly, unless you can steal the funds from others to support such fantastic explorations.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Who is Near Socialism Now?

Tibor R. Machan

Nearly all people who believe in a pro-active government--one that doesn’t merely make sure the rule of law by which individual rights are protected is followed but gets in there picking winners and losers--have a good deal in common with socialists. They are more or less avid statists. This includes monarchists, fascists, communists (with some peculiarities though), welfare statists, modern liberals, many conservatives and so on. Only classical liberals and libertarians are exceptions. They either adhere to a very limited role for the government--they are, in short, minarchists; or they may even embrace a kind of anarchism.

In America there are very few thinkers who come right out a identify themselves as socialists but quite a few are clearly statists. They believe government ought to make large contribution to the way the society and culture shapes up, from education, economics, science, all the way to the arts. Only religion and the press are excluded, mainly because the framers of the US Constitution to explicit and firm objection to government involvement in religion and journalism.

But there is a good test for telling if an American statists is in fact nearly a socialist, even a socialist of the Marxist variety. This is to see if he or she holds that people’s labor belongs to the society or to them--is one’s labor private or public property? The recent controversy about President Obama’s health care policy, one feature of which is that government is authorized to force citizens to purchase health insurance, is a kind of litmus test. This policy involves the government coercing people to engage in a certain kind of labor, even if only the labor of purchasing health insurance. Citizens, just for being citizens, are deemed subject to being forced to do something they may very well not choose to do, namely, to expand their labor and resources in ways they may believe is wrong.

Yes, this is not a Draconian measure for sure. And there are some other similar measures already on America’s law books, so it isn’t even entirely exceptional. But it is rather blatant and unabashed. Forcing people to get a license to work in some profession is similar but one might chalk that up to an overly zealous concern with safety, not to making people purchase what they do not want. The idea that a citizen’s labor belongs to the government to manage, to give direction to, is not just statist but indeed part and parcel of Marxian socialism.

Here is the late Professor Robert Heilbroner, famous mainly for writing The Worldly Philosophers (Simon & Schuster, 1961, a history of economic thought nearly all students are assigned upon entering college), spelling out the point in his less well know book, Marxism: For and Against (W. W. Norton, 1980):

“Indeed, the creation of socialism … requires the curtailment of the central economic freedom of bourgeois society, namely, the right of individuals to own, and therefore to withhold if they wish, the means of production, including their own labor. The full preservation of this bourgeois freedom would place the attainment of socialism at the mercy of property owners who could threaten to deny their services to society—and again I refer to their labor, not just to material resources—if their terms were not met…” (p. 157, my emphasis)

That is the crux of the issue: Not just private property but the private control or freedom of one’s labor is abolished under socialism; the state in that system (which is to say the group people in government) knows best what citizens need to do and have the legal authority, even duty, to make citizens comply for the good of society.

Is this what is involved in Obamacare? To a certain extent it is and if it is an intricate aspect of Mr. Obama and his supporters’ public philosophy, it signals that they are moving toward socialism, the state’s rule over the population of the society. (It bears out F. A. Hayek’s warning issued back in the 1940s about the heavy handed welfare state, in his The Road to Serfdom [Routledge & Sons, 1944]!)

And that means that all those who have made the charge that Obamacare is socialist have been on target and not engaging merely in badmouthing, besmirching the president’s efforts to solve an important social problem. And why protest the charge anyway? Why don’t Mr. Obama and his supporters admit outright that they want a socialist health care system and maybe even a socialist political economy in America? If such honestly were to obtain, we could start a real argument instead of engaging mostly in name-calling.
Ayn Rand & Libertarians Grossly Misunderstood

Tibor R. Machan

In my local paper a letter writer, apparently eager to besmirch Ayn Rand--which many have tried in vain--had this to say: “Rand’s libertarianism has an underlying philosophy that says that if you are not particularly smart, ambitious, disciplined or wealthy, and you become homeless, hungry, financially ruined and suffer from premature illness or death, then that is entirely your fault.” (April 25, Local p. 5)

Neither Ayn Rand nor libertarianism says any of this. What they both do say is that if you are in such a state, you by no stretch of the imagination have the authority to deprive others of their resources. You can ask, of course. And surely that is correct.

Even a person in the greatest of need has no warrant for stealing from others. What such a person most definitely is fully justified in doing is to request help from others which, in America especially, millions provide at little urging--just consider the help that they provide when something like Katrina or a tsunami strikes, and all the charitable contributions they send to the casualties of various similar mishaps. They do this far more than citizens of any other country.
Both Rand and libertarians support voluntary aid but oppose, most vigorously and vociferously, confiscating what other people own.

Nor do Rand and libertarians hold that everything the letter writer lists is one’s fault, quite the contrary. Many mishaps people experience, because of illness and natural disasters, are clearly not their and (most often) anyone else’s fault. Bad things do happen, be it to good or bad people.

What Rand and libertarians have believed, on pretty good grounds, is that when improvements are needed in people’s lives, relying on confiscating other people’s belongings and coercing them to do work to provide assistance are flawed and morally wrong remedies. Instead, voluntary cooperation is both the most ethical and the most effective way to go.

This idea is by no means odd. In broad terms it is recognized that countries the laws of which protect their citizens against coercion--violent criminals, intrusive or meddling governments--are in better shape than those ruled by strong rulers who impose their idea of what is good for everyone not by convincing citizens of what they believe is right but by imposing their will on them. Be this in small matters or large ones, history is replete with the lessons about how coercive force between human beings is an ill advised way to handle problems.

In one area, especially, this has proven to be true for the last few centuries. Ever since Adam Smith published his path-breaking book The Wealth of Nations in 1776, it has been understood by quite a few political economists that prosperity is best pursued in peaceful ways. Voluntary economic relations among people are what is now referred to a win-win situation, whereas coercive economic relations are primarily zero-sum games, meaning when one party gains the other loses. In most of human history, sadly, this latter is how wealth has been obtained and many still advocate the approach even today. This is in part because in a largely free markets--there has never been a fully free market anywhere, unfortunately--those seeking to have their needs and wants met, from gaining groceries to major medical treatments, have been able to find nearly exactly what they have in mind, suiting their particular, individual needs and wants instead of some general benefit that governments prescribe for everyone, something that always suffers from government’s ignorance of what it is that can benefit individual human beings. This may be one reason boosters of government involvement in our lives--in other words, statists--tend to speak mostly of the public interest or the public good or the common welfare since these are so indeterminate, to vague that no one can check out just exactly what they come to in practice.

Aside from all this, there is also the less well known greater generosity found in free societies than in those with top-down government regimentation of nearly everything in people’s lives. But this isn’t government “generosity,” involving robbing Peter so as to hand some of the loot to Paul. It is voluntary charity and philanthropy so it is likely to be far more efficient than what the government does when it sets out to “help” people, including the poor, indigent, hapless, or unfortunate among us. (It isn’t help when one doesn’t dig into one’s own pockets or bank accounts but those of other people and hands these to those in need of help. Moreover the welfare state didn’t emerge because private help was not forthcoming.)

Ayn Rand and libertarians have supported all voluntary contributions to the people the letter writer listed, provided those people aren’t set on robbing others to support their goals or urging the government to do so. Rand, in particular, did believe that focusing too intently on the needy is a mistake. After all, even the needy are much better off if the productive among us are championed. And how are the needy ever going to gain from rich bashing, by denigrating and discouraging those who create the resources from which they might benefit?