Friday, December 23, 2011

Machan’s Archives: Libertarianism and Americanism

Tibor R. Machan

Given that in the main the American political system is still the closest to protecting varieties of individual liberty—regarding speech, commerce, religion, due process, etc.—most of those who peddle political ideas want to hitch their wagon to the ideas of the American Founders. Socialists, conservatives, populists, agrarians and even communists have laid claim to being the proper carriers of the American political flag. Libertarians, of course, are no different. They hold that it is their political philosophy that most fully realizes the vision first put into practice by the American Founders and Framers. And with their current role in America's political life, it would be useful to see if they or the others are right.

Why would a socialist think the same thing? Or a conservative or populist, let alone a communist?

Socialists tend to believe that the American Founders advocated egalitarianism, first and foremost. They focus on the paramount idea in that document that “all men are created equal.” Conservatives, in turn, consider their position to be validated by the Founders and Framers in light of how they derived their political theory from a study of history and the thoughts of numerous influential political philosophers and theorists. This confirms the conservative notion that to do nation building properly, one must consult tradition, history and custom, not concoct ideas and ideals de novo. Populists, of course, focus on the democratic elements of the American political tradition, those that relate to how every citizen has a right to influence public policy. Never mind the limits imposed by, say, the Bill of Rights. What counts is mass participation, the “will of the people.” Agrarians will insist that Jefferson & Co., were mostly promoting the special interest of the landed gentry. And communists will argue that the American system is simply a historical precursor to the ideal community in which a nation becomes a family of equals.

Libertarians, however, point out that the Founders had a more realistic but also optimistic view of human community life than these other advocates do. They hold that listing the basic unalienable rights of every human being serves as a clear reminder of the radical insight that no one has the proper authority to impose his or her agenda upon others however much these others may mismanage their lives, even threaten some desirable features of culture. The political task is to secure the basic rights of all citizens. Everything else must be achieved without resort to the main instrument of public policy, namely, coercive force. As the libertarian insists, initiating force against others even for purposes that are quite admirable just cannot be reconciled with a proper standard of justice. That standard, which is actually the first ingredient of civilized life, is to interact with one’s fellows voluntarily, even as one disagrees with them, even if they are recalcitrant, even if they act indecently themselves but they remain peaceful, respect for of the rights of others.

The idea that reference to all human beings being equal should usher in socialism is countered by the recognition that the equality referred to in the Declaration is about the equal possession of the unalienable rights all of us have, not about health, welfare, good looks, and other admittedly valued matters. And only libertarianism acknowledges this strict limitation of the Founders’ and Framers’ “egalitarianism.”

Some features of the original American political ideas and ideals are clearly improved upon in libertarianism; abolition of any form of involuntary servitude, for example, including taxation, the military draft, the war on drugs or alcohol and other types of compulsion citizens are supposed to be subjected to just as may be subjects of a monarchy. As the libertarian sees it, some of these elements of the original American system are the unfortunate reactionary residue from prerevolutionary times and not consistent with the fundamental principles laid out in the Declaration, especially the idea of everyone’s unalienable individual rights.

So, I submit, libertarians are indeed the faithful students of the American political tradition, one’s who learned well from their elders and went on to improve on what they have so learned.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Property Rights and the Free Press

Tibor R. Machan

Not as if the point hasn’t been made often by now, but repeating it may be of some benefit: without a firm protection of the right to private property, the rights to freedom of speech, press, religious worship, etc., are under constant threat.

The most recent demonstration of this is happening in Argentina, although Venezuela has served as a recent case in point also. As reported by the BBC, “Argentina's government wins control of newsprint supplies, amid a long-running feud between the president and a major media group...” It appears that the legislature caved in to pressure from the president of Argentina and basically nationalized all the supplied that are needed to run an independent press. As the BBC put it, “The legislation, which passed in the lower house last week, says the production, sale and distribution of newsprint is of national interest.”

Of course, even if true, nothing follows about how the government ought to wrest control of the “production, sale and distribution of newsprint.” If anything, if it is true and “the production, sale and distribution of newsprint” is in the national interest--allowing that this means that it is generally an important part of the society--it is least secure when government takes control of these matters. The same principle holds for education--its importance by no stretch of the imagination justifies placing it under government jurisdiction.

What too many folks do not grasp is that governments are agencies run by some members of a society and it is most unwise to put these members in control of nearly anything, let alone the dissemination of knowledge and information. If there is a solid enough constitution in place, firmly upheld, perhaps the protection of individual rights might be placed in the hands of the government, provided the government can be kept impartial as it adjudicates disputes, protects rights, etc. But that itself is called into serious question by examples such as the Argentinian case, where instead of protecting property rights, and thus the right to freedom of the press, government is the main violator of them.

Ironically, it is those on the political Left who are most hostile to private property rights. Karl Marx and Frederick Engels made this clear in The Communist Manifesto where they declared that the very first task of socialists is to abolish private property rights. Yet it is just such cantankerous folks as communists who most need the protection of their private property rights, otherwise their many opponents will have no trouble invading their spheres from which they are mounting their challenge to the status quo. (This itself suggests quite strongly that the Left’s political viewpoint is quite confused!)

All this also calls to mind how fiercely some of the Left’s most prominent platforms decry the claim that America is in any way exceptional. Yet it really is, as exemplified in the now sadly fading American tradition of serious respect and legal protection of the right to private property.

In its eagerness to undermine free market capitalism, the Left is willing to sacrifice its major bulwark against those who would oppress it. But it just will not work--without the protection of private property rights, there is no freedom of the press and no effective political freedom either, the freedom needed to institute change in society’s political institutions which the Left is so hell bent on doing.

Of course, much of this is relatively novel in the annals of politics across human history and the globe. The more usual state of affairs is that which we now see in Argentina and many other countries where dissent is eagerly being suppressed by the thugs who rule. Perhaps in time the vitality of the right to private property for all kinds of human endeavors--economic, educational, religious, scientific, journalistic, etc., etc.--will be widely recognized. But as with freedom on all fronts, that requires eternal vigilance.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Ideological Thinking Revisited

Tibor R. Machan

Following the December 15th Republican “debate,” New York Times columnist Paul Krugman wrote once again about the evils of ideological thinking.

Krugman began piece by criticizing Mitt Romney for his repeated vacillations about which public policies he supports, which he opposes, a problem Romney has been plagued by most of his political life. But Krugman didn’t do what follows form this, namely, praise Romney for being a pragmatist, for his agility and flexibility. No, he decried the former Massachusetts's Governor’s various views. And then he moved on to a more familiar target, one he has been shooting at every chance he gets. This is Representative Ron Paul’s integrity and consistency. Calling it ideological thinking, Krugman considers this a far great failing than anything he could find with Romney.

As Krugman summarizes all this, “In a way, that makes sense. Romney isn't trusted because he's seen as someone who cynically takes whatever positions he thinks will advance his career - a charge that sticks because it's true. Paul, by contrast, has been highly consistent. I bet you won't find video clips from a few years back in which he says the opposite of what he's saying now. Unfortunately, Paul has maintained his consistency by ignoring reality, clinging to his ideology even as the facts have demonstrated that ideology's wrongness.”

Ignore, please, for the moment that Krugman is every bit as ideological as would be anyone who tries to make sense of political economy, just one field of study that tries to learn generalities from the past so as to prepare for the future. The way this is done is by the identification of certain principles and then implementing them with the expectation that bad results will be avoided and good ones fostered. There really is no practical field, such as farming, medicine, engineering, child raising, and so forth, that can carry forth without this approach. Call it theoretical or ideological thought, no one who even dabbles in them can avoid them.

Ron Paul’s theoretical guidance comes from a certain school of free market economics, laid out by the likes of Ludwig von Mises and F. A. Hayek. (Other free market schools are those of Milton Friedman--the Chicago School--and those of James Buchanan--the Virginia School.) Massive volumes lay out these positions, in more or less technical ways, as they do the positions of Paul Krugman and his idol, John Maynard Keynes. It is routine in the social sciences for up and coming scholars and researchers to hitch their wagon to some earlier leader in their field. Just check out sociology or anthropology--they all follow this pattern. Krugman is no exception--he has hitched his wagon to Keynes and follows Keynes’ pragmatic, erratic economic thought. It happens to accommodate his hostility to principles. It doesn’t demand any integrity in one’s thinking; only expediency counts.

Because we are talking here about how political economy should be approached, or if you will macroeconomic theory, the impact of unprincipled thinking is quite remote. It is difficult to tell which results of such a mishmash political-economic thinking come from which ideas--as I have argued before, it is like getting food poisoning or, alternatively, health benefits from a smorgasbord meal which contains many diverse ingredients. But if you consider some areas of concern that are more immediately relevant to one’s life, the unprincipled approach shows its damage right away.

For example, it is generally understood that people with certain medical maladies should stick to a certain diet--think of diabetics. In engineering, medicine, nutrition, farming and the rest the practitioners learn their general principles and implement them in the course of their practice. Or consider morality; it is pretty much the case that lying and cheating ought to be avoided. Eve more drastically, deploying coercion in sexual relations is not just immoral but outright criminal. Everyone must, therefore, practice consensual sex so that rape, for example, is never acceptable. That is the principle of the thing, no exception.

Yet by Krugman’s lights to prohibit rape in all cases, as a matter of one’s ideology, is a serious flaw in one’s character, just as sticking to free market economic analysis is supposed to be in Ron Paul’s thought. As Krugman says, “Paul has maintained his consistency by ignoring reality, clinging to his ideology even as the facts have demonstrated that ideology's wrongness,” but the only case he offers to illustrate the alleged wrongness is that Paul and his allies have warned about inflation for years and yet we are not seeing inflation break out all over. (Of course, there are those, rather more subtle economists, who see it break out in numerous hidden way--like postponing the destruction of the value of money for a while, kicking the can down the road to confront the mess later, e.g., by our grand children.) In other words, inflation can be prevented in various clever ways but not without eventual dire consequences. So here, too, Krugman is off.

What Paul insists on is consistency in one’s economic theorizing, something that every bona fide science insists upon. Pseudo-sciences like astrology and tarot reading don’t, with the result that they accomplish nothing useful at all. Most of Krugman’s ad hoc economics is like that--fancy footwork without any useful wisdom in its wake.

The ideology that Krugman follows despite denying it--just as many pragmatists deny that they firmly stick to some ideas--is the economic philosophy of coercion, of the state’s regimenting economic agents at nearly every turn. At no time will coercion as such be frowned upon by Krugman--it would be ideological to do so, in his view.

But the issue isn’t whether ideology is admissible but which ideology is sound, which bogus.