Thursday, November 24, 2011

Who Needs Austerity when some Are Rich

Tibor R. Machan

Portugal is broke but austerity measures there are protested persistently. Greece is in the same fix. And indeed in America, too, the Occupy Wall Street crowd appears to believe that if even a few folks are doing very well, no one need tighten his belt since all that’s needed is to rip off those well off and force them to continue to work hard.

The math is, of course, terribly off -- even if all the wealthy were raided for their resources, it would do very little to improve the situation of the vast numbers of those who need to cut back on their spending (including, especially, governments). It’s like a pyramid shaped storage of stuff, taking from the top and distributing it below isn’t going to create abundance. What is required for that is overall productivity, nothing less.

But these days millions of people, especially their politicians and academic agitators, hold the insane idea that wealth is collectively owned, sort of like in a family or commune. No private property is recognized so whatever anyone owns, everyone else owns as well. So if you have been profligate for years and now can’t pay your bills, never mind; there are those others with some money stashed away which can be confiscated because, well, it belongs to everyone. Never mind that it is just that kind of thinking and behavior that leads to widespread poverty, a direct result of the tragedy of the commons.

I have recounted this episode of my life before but it is relevant here again: At about 12 I was being lectured by a good communist teacher in my elementary school in Budapest about how we should all live by the Marxist idea, “From each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs” (taken from his famous essay, “Critique of the Gotha Programme”). I asked the teacher how would this work if my friend and I both started with a few bucks and I spent it on booze and he on wood. Once he made a nice little table, I'll simply drink myself under it, so would he have to help me out, would his table be my table, as well? And this landed me in hot water. (Both the Nazis and Commies dealt severely with students who asked the wrong questions, what today would be called politically incorrect ones!)

The idea now is that so long as other people are productive and lucky, the rest of us need not fret since we can always dip into their stuff and conscript them to work for us. But since the math in this “solution” sucks, it leaves everyone without sufficient wealth and, moreover, tends to discourage people from trying to increase theirs. Marx knew that this would happen so he envisioned communism as the society in which everyone became a "new man" and would automatically work for the commonwealth, the public interest (is how it is called now). With self-interest having been erased from the human race, no one would mind being poor, having to cope with austerity.

Sadly, the Occupy Wall Street people and others of similar attitude around the globe haven’t experienced this necessary alteration of human nature, whereby no one cares about himself and his intimates but only about the society as a whole. (Not that that would work out but at least people might put up with it more compliantly.) They are very much concerned mainly with their own and their loved ones’ well being. Certainly they care nothing about the well being of those who are productive, especially on Wall Street. Instead they hold the view that other people must all become fierce altruists while they themselves can remain self-indulgent. (At least that is how they behave, so I think it is fair to attribute that line of thinking to them.)

That there are free loaders among us is no news, nor a tragedy. What is, however, really disgusting is how many erudite people throughout academia, governments, and the media egg them on in their pathetic misconceptions.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011


Tibor R. Machan*

Much consternation is spent on income and related inequality. Or call it unequal advantages in life. As if it were some kind of moral or political imperative that we must all enjoy equal benefits and burdens, though few will say why that would be a good thing or why it is right to aim for it, considering that throughout nature inequality is clearly the norm.

Isaiah Berlin is supposed to have stated that equality is a virtual axiomatic norm of social-political life, so Amartya Sen, the Harvard Nobel Laureate in economic science tells us in his book The Idea of Justice (2009). Professor Martha Nussbaum of the University of Chicago Laws School and Philosophy Department also adheres to this idea. Indeed, it is widely embraced by philosophers at the top schools everywhere. It has made its appearance in political history mainly in the writings of the French philosopher Jean Jacques Rousseau.

Yet, as hard as I have tried to locate an argument for the idea, I haven’t been able to find any. Even as a matter of moral intuition, something many contemporary thinkers in ethics favor, it doesn’t appear to be plausible that people everyone ought to be enjoying the same conditions of life and that when they don’t, it becomes a political and legal imperative to rearrange things so that they will. It was the late Robert Nozick who in his famous book Anarchy, State, and Utopia (1973) advanced an argument against the intuitive power of egalitarianism. He did this with his famous Wilt Chamberlain thought experiment in which we are all equally well off but then many of us decide to contribute some of our resources to Wilt so we can see him play his fabulous basketball game, which immediately upsets the supposedly desirable equality among us all since, of course, Wilt will be but the rest of us will not be very rich. So this will require constant readjustment, wealth redistribution, by the government which will of course have to be very powerful, much more so that the rest of us, and this once again shows that inequality is unavoidable.

Of course, we have different kinds of equality before us and some do appear to be imperative, such as equal protection of our rights in the legal system. But this is about a procedural matters, not about results. But perhaps the fact of our humanity alone supports the equality that egalitarians promote? Yet while people are alike in all of them being human, this itself goes hand in hand with immense legitimate diversity and inquality among us.

Just take a peak around you and confirm the plain fact that inequality is everywhere--in talents, beauty, athletic prowess, luck (good and bad), etc., etc. And there is, of course, that fact of the widespread inequality of wealth enjoyed by us, the inequality that appears to annoy so many people. I am not convinced it really is since we all live with it day in and out everywhere and peace still prevails among most of us. No doubt there are people who are heavily beset with envy and for them all inequality of advantage justifies massive political efforts to even things out. (Consider Occupy Wall Street as a case in point!)

Of course in some areas equality is imperative, if only to make things more interesting. For example, in foot races and such the competitors all start at the same point--none is supposed to enjoy an unequal advantage, at least not in their initial positioning. (Yet even there, some start with a good night’s sleep behind them, others with nerves having kept them awake all night long.) The oft mentioned “level playing field” is a myth, too, since while the field may be level in some cases, much else isn’t.

In life, including human affairs, inequality is routine. What matters is that whatever inequality exists not be the result of violence, if coercion. If my fellow marathon runners are unequal in their readiness for the race, so be it. But if they try to undermine the readiness of their competitors by spiking their breakfast or water bottles or tripping them up during the race, that’s where things become intolerable. Similarly with wealth. If you are Bill Gates or Warren Buffet but got there peacefully, without using force against those who didn’t, such is life and upsetting it merely increases the coercive power of some people (thus introducing the most insidious form of inequality among human beings).

So unlike in the wilds where many animals rule others by means of physical strength and brutality, in human society advantages are to be gained and kept without resorting to force or fraud. Once those are ejected from the sphere, the outcome cannot be objectionable other than as a matter of a wish or hope. Even those would be unbecoming, which is why envy is a vice, not some admirable sentiment toward those who are well off.

*Tibor Machan is the author of Equality, So Badly Misunderstood (2010).