Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Fourth of July and the Public Interest

Tibor R. Machan

Throughout history political thinkers have been doing a lot of fretting about the public good (or public interest, common good, general welfare, etc.). Usually they came up with massive plans or enchanting visions. Plato’s teacher, Socrates, was the great grand daddy contributing to this tradition, what with his strictly imaginary totalitarian society, the Republic. (Arguably neither Socrates nor Plato envisioned it as a blueprint, only as a kind of model to help us remember what’s important.)

Not, however, until the American Founders wrote the Declaration of Independence did a truly credible official idea of the public good finally emerge. Others did, of course, educate the Founders, most notably the 17th century English philosopher John Locke. Curiously, even paradoxically, it took a bunch of individualists to finally come up with a sensible notion of the public good!

The reason is not altogether difficult to appreciate. Human beings, while alike in some important respects, are also very different in other important ones. That is what a sensible individualism teaches: we are all human individuals! Accordingly, the message of the Declaration is that the public good, quite unexpectedly for many people, is something rather modest. Instead of devising some kind of utopia in which all the problems people face is dealt with by government--the king, czar, pharaoh, Caesar, Sheik, democratically elected group or some other supreme ruler--the Founders realized that the public good is the competent, diligent, conscientious protection of everyone’s unalienable individual rights.

Yes, that’s the only bona fide, genuine public good. Certainly what all too many con artists are foisting upon us as cases of the public good do not qualify at all--a sports arena, a convention hall, a city pool or golf course, AIDS or obesity research, the city zoo, and so forth. None of these amount to true public goods. They are all pretenders, private or special projects masquerading as something that will benefit us all!

Yet the only thing that qualifies for being a public good is the protection of the rights everyone has by virtue of his or her human nature. And, as the Founders so aptly put it, governments are properly instituted so as to secure these rights, not for any other purpose.

This is why the American political tradition--though, sadly, not American political history--is associated with the notion of limited government, government restricted to some few essential tasks. The Bill of Rights suggested some of the details of this by laying out a few or limited powers of government, with everything else left for us all to do in the myriad of voluntary groupings we can organize. And it matters not at all that Founders and Framers thought all this up back around 1776--it is still as sound an idea as it was back then. (After all, those who disagree and want a massive government, intruding on us all in innumerable ways, are actually advocating something that is much older than the limited government idea--from the start most political thinkers promoted the idea of some kind of super state with an absolute or barely limited ruler on top! Yes, Virginia, it is statists who are reactionaries instead of radicals or progressives!)

So, the American Founders did propose a solid idea of the public interest, of everyone’s genuine interest in society, namely, protecting everyone’s basic rights. That’s a serious task, in need of focus and discipline, and when it’s abandoned in favor of the multitasking government we actually suffer a great loss. (Arguably 9/11 would not have happened had the government kept to its limited job and done it well!) Their idea also answers an age old question: What really is the public good, what really promotes the general welfare? It is to make sure everyone is free of coercion, that’s what.

Some think this isn’t a grand enough vision of government and they are dead right--it is a grand vision of the potentials and capacities of the citizens of a country, not of its government! Instead of championing the all mighty state, which is still so often irrationally worshiped around the globe, the American idea was--it is now nearly forgotten--that government is to be scaled down to a manageable scope and size and citizens, individual human beings and their voluntary associations, are to be entrusted with the really significant tasks in society.

So on the 4th of July we need to celebrate this magnificent, revolutionary idea, the confidence in the human individual, not in some version of bloated government.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

The Hubris of George Soros

Tibor R. Machan

Quite a few well known rich people aren’t satisfied with being rich and being able to do all the things they believe are important. They want to advertise this and to take up the role of teachers to the rest of us. The Hungarian born billionaire financier George Soros is no exception.

In a frankly narcissistic essay for The New York Review of Books (June 23, 2011) titled “My Philanthropy,” Soros reaches out to the readers of that very snooty, elitist publication evidently so as to make sure everyone who reads the piece will know how “virtuous” he is. That is to say, virtuous by the standards of a morality that requires us all to serve humanity first, before we take care of ourselves. Soros writes:

“I have made it a principle to pursue my self-interest in my business, subject to legal and ethical limitations, and to be guided by the public interest as a public intellectual and philanthropist. If the two are in conflict, the public interest ought to prevail. I do not hesitate to advocate policies that are in conflict with my business interests. I firmly believe that our democracy would function better if more people adopted this principle. And if they care about a well-functioning democracy, they ought to abide by this principle even if others do not. Just a small number of public spirited figures could make a difference.”

Sounds noble, if you believe it is meaningful. But “noble” is a matter of what values human beings should champion and promote. That’s why Soros’ declaration is dubious. It, first of all, makes it possible for him to look good in general without having to do much good in particular. You see, serving the public interest is one of those objectives that everyone likes to be associated with but has no idea what it actually requires of someone. Is the engineer who makes a locomotive run smoothly serving the public interest? Is the artist who paints a stunning landscape, a composer who creates a wonderful symphony, a doctor who cures someone’s disease, a shoe repairer who fixes people’s footware, a poet who moves us to tears--are these folks serving the public interest? Surely all those who welcome what they do are members of the public, so they are in fact serving the public interest.

Or would they only qualify as such if they made huge sacrifices, gave up all the benefits that came to them from doing all these things? Why? Why are only other people members of the public? If I serve my own interest, I am serving the interest of a member of the public too. So what on earth is serving the public interest? Who is it who studies that issue and answer this question reliably, dependably, competently?

Well, as the classical liberal political economists have established a long time ago, serving the public interest is in fact best done by serving one’s own. That’s because there is no general public interest apart from following certain very abstract principles that contain few if any specifics.

The American Founders gave a good clue when they proposed that the purpose of government is to secure the rights of all the citizens of the country. These are the rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. How would securing these rights be in the public interest? Because being secure in those rights is to everyone’s best interest. You, I, our neighbors, the shoe repairer, the physician, the artist, the scientist--all these and millions of others can embark upon serving their interest if no one is authorized to impose upon them burdens they have not freely assumed.

In the case of George Soros this would imply that he serves the public interest precisely by doing whatever actually, really, truly serves his own interest without doing violence to others. As Adam Smith pointed out, he might not even know that he is doing such a public service but in fact that is all there is to doing one’s public service--making sure of what is in one’s proper interest and making sure that that freedom to pursue it is secured for everyone. That means that the pursuit of one’s self-interest, provided it really is one’s self-interest, ultimately amounts also to serving the public interest. No conflict there at all, contrary to the picture George Soros imagines, whereby the two can be in conflict. No they cannot, not if properly understood.

What can be inflict, of course, is what some people want or desire and their real interest, including then the public interest. When I work hard to educate my students or to explain the principles of human liberty to readers of my books and articles, I serve my own interest as well as the public interest. And when I fail in serving my genuine self-interest, I am also undermining the public interest, the interest of the public to which I belong.

So Mr. Soros should stop his hubris about serving some vague public interest first, before his self-interest. He should stick to figuring out what is truly in his interest and go for it. Then the public interest will take care of itself.

Monday, June 20, 2011

Self-defense vs. Isolation

Tibor R. Machan

Where the idea comes from is not really relevant--it could be neo-conservatism, imperialism, compassion, whatnot. But it is right that it should be debated, especially by Republicans who aren’t beholden to the legacy of Woodrow Wilson in matter of foreign relations. Republicans, especially those with conservative leanings who are committed to preserving America’s ideal of using force against other countries only when those countries embark upon an aggressive foreign policy toward American citizens or allies, need to take a renewed close look at their country’s basic principles, including those pertaining to dealing with foreigners.

It was, after all, George Washington himself who, in his farewell message, warned the country against getting entangled in foreign wars. Yes, that was many years ago but the principle still holds, just as it holds in the criminal law: using force on others is only justified in self-defense. (Principles, if sound, don't change much over the centuries--not in physics, biology, or public policy!)

Admittedly the country’s domestic public affairs have long abandoned this idea. The US government now routinely coerces its citizens for all kinds of purposes. Except for a few steps in the right direction, such as the abolition of the military draft, most public policies are based on the practice of imposing burdens on citizens that they have not assumed freely. Even if one buys the notion that some taxation is justified, which is actually not true, the massive confiscation of private property by means of taxation is way out of line with the principles of the American political system. Just consider that one’s rights to one’s life, liberty and pursuit of happiness are supposedly unalienable. That is part of the Declaration of Independence and has made it into, at least indirectly, the laws of the land (e.g., the Fifth Amendment).

Yet courts over the decades have given the go ahead to politicians and bureaucrats to proceed as they wish with the task of raising funds for government’s innumerable expenses--most of them unconstitutional by the tenets of a sensible reading of that document and only legal by virtue of corrupt rulings by the US Supreme and other courts--by extorting them from the citizenry. And then there are prohibitions galore, such as the war and drugs, thousands of regulations that in fact amount to prior restraint (imposing burdens the regulated haven’t been shown to deserve via due process), etc., all the way down to local blue laws!

All of these have pretty much made it an insidious but widespread policy to treat US citizens by coercing for various alleged public purposes cooked up by special interests. In light of this, it is no surprise that so many people hold that embarking on coercive foreign policies is just fine--if what the government of Libya or any other country is doing is wrong, it is the business of the American government to intervene.

But is this right? Is this how human beings, including those in governments, ought to conduct themselves? If one tests this by applying the standards of ordinary morality and even much of the criminal law, the answer is in the negative. No one is authorized to invade a next door neighbor for misconduct, not unless that misconduct consist of attacks on oneself or one’s family. As a private citizen one may have reason to subdue a violent neighbor but even that is only justified if the authorities to whom this job is delegated are unavailable--e.g., as in a citizen’s arrest.

None of the wars the US is conducting now can reasonably be considered defensive. One need not hold to any kind of isolationism to appreciate this fact. Indeed, there ought to be a category of foreign affairs policy that’s called “defensivist.” It could justify some military action but all of it would have to be in defense of the citizens of the country. In fact, some of the hurdles still on the books, although mostly ignored or evaded by the government, basically imply that this outlook on when America may engage in a war is still the ruling framework or paradigm. But only in spirit, unfortunately.

Now that some of those in the limelight are raising questions about whether America’s aggressive stance toward some other countries is justified, it may be possible to arrive at a rational philosophy of foreign involvement. If some argue that it is isolationist to stick to self-defense--national defense properly understood--it needs to be replied that it is no isolation to be ready to fight when attacked or when some more subtle ways of initiated violence is directed at one’s country. Isolationism is irrational since others may drag one into a fight that should not be tolerated without proper resistance. But a defensive stance is perfectly rational, indeed the only one morally acceptable and conducive to promoting peaceful solutions.

The case for interventionism may rest on widespread precedence in our society of the uses of coercive public policies but that doesn’t justify it. It used to be the norm for most countries to attack their neighbors in the name of territorial expansion, need for resources, etc. It didn’t make it right. Nor is it for the US to play the role of global police.