Friday, December 21, 2012

The Erosion of Our Freedom

The Erosion of Our Freedom

Tibor R. Machan

Often when I argue that governments must not violate our rights--they are supposed to be unalienable, after all--statists have a ready retort:  Government is already violating them, good and hard, all over the place.  

Recently I pointed out that imposing fines and constraints on gun owners who haven’t been shown to have committed a crime, not even close, is a case of prior restraint, of unjustifiably depriving a citizen of liberty since only convicted and guilty people may be so deprived. In a free country citizens may not be intruded upon by their governments without having been convicted by methods of due process.  Governments, in other words, are supposed to defend the rights of their citizens; that is their proper purpose!

My statist adversaries eagerly point it out to me that government is intruding upon as all over the place: we are forced to obtain a driver’s license, innumerable permits as we go about living in our communities (building our homes, engaging in businesses, practicing professions, etc.).  Nearly everything we do requires a license even though we are legally innocent!  Ergo: prior restraint big time!

Now some of this is accurate enough--citizens in America are indeed subjected to prior restraint left and right, up and down. Most of the time the justification given is that government must protect us against possible malpractice and government regulations and licensing are the best way to do this, never mind that our rights are clearly being violated in the process. Unalienable is a nice idea in a document like the Declaration of Independence, but let’s get real, please!  It is completely impractical in actual life, right?

Wrong.  It is not some kind of romantic, impossible idealism to insist that when anyone intrudes upon another person, this must be properly warranted--as it would be in self-defense, for example.  Just notice how easily this is grasped when it comes to sexual freedom--no amount of “necessity” or “practicality” overturns the prohibition against rape or even plain sexual harassment. Why is that so simple to grasp?  Because it is a form of intrusion that is very close to home, quite direct, not encumbered by fancy-shmancy public policy rhetoric!

Insisting that prior restraint be banned overall is just taking the above line about all uninvited intrusions by some people against others. If the intrusion is indeed invited, no problem--surgeons, dentists, personal trainers and coaches routinely intrude on us but with our permission, so that is unobjectionable.  

However, for centuries this was not so--the royal courts and similar oppressive regimes ran roughshod routinely over their subjects (!) since they were actually deemed as their owners (which is how serfdom and slavery managed to be palatable). In time the idea gained currency that such subjugation lacked justification, amounted to coercive imposition based on various fictions of class superiority, etc.  Once these were demonstrated to be unfounded, slowly but surely it dawned upon millions--as it is still dawning upon them across the globe--that the oppressors were getting away with a ruse and resisting them is just and right.

It is about time that even the more subtle sorts of oppression, involving the prior restraint I was pointing to above, be abolished.  If problems need to be solved, they must be solved without resort to some people coercing others!  Again, think how natural this is when it comes to sexual intercourse! It should be plain across the board of all human relations not confined only to sex.  The law and public policy must be adjusted to the principles laid out in the Declaration of Independence, namely, the universality of our basic rights to our lives, liberty and property!  No compromise, however imperative it may appear, must be tolerated.

         When it was pointed out that the price of liberty is indeed eternal vigilance, the point of that warning was exactly to alert everyone that various sophistical, phony reasons will be used to erode our liberties.  Just recall for instance what was noted by William Pitt, the elder: “Necessity is the excuse for every infringement of human freedom. It is the argument of the tyrant and the creed of the slave.”

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Gun Control Obscenities

Gun Control Obscenities

Tibor R. Machan

When the massacre occurred in Connecticut, there was no call for commentary, certainly not from me who lives thousands of miles from where it occurred and knew none of the victims, the culprit or their family.  Silence was probably the right reaction, and some reflections on just how vulnerable people can be in even a quite civilized society.  I could have come up with some ideas on the effects of disarming school teachers and administrators but without knowing details, they would have been unhelpful.

What did start to prompt foul reactions from me is the politicians’ beginning to sound off.  How they took advantage of the grief surrounding the event was not only predictable but disgusting.  Promising to reenact the old and by all accounts quite ineffective federal assault weapons ban is difficult to explain as anything more than an empty political--in the worst sense of the term--gesture.  

And of course all the venom was directed not at the perpetrator, by then himself deceased--and good riddance--but at opponents of gun control legislation.  Scapegoating is what the politicians who chimed in did so diligently.  Not a single gun control opponent could be faulted for the horrors inflicted upon the victims, not a one, yet they were under moral indictment by the politicians, including President Obama, more so than the culprit.  

Just let us remember that a good many who oppose federal and other gun control laws do so on grounds that they do not want the federales to be the only armed people in the realm.  Rightly or wrongly, they are concerned that disarming the citizenry who have done nothing to deserve that is a pointless and mindless self-indulgence, nothing at all useful or helpful.  In a considerably free country people will always be able to engage in murderous conduct.  It happens day in and day out across America and elsewhere.  It is one part of the price of liberty, namely, that citizens are not shackled and bound and thus are able to carry out not just all the praiseworthy but also many vile acts.  For such acts they would best be severely punished--something, by the way, that most gun control advocates are notoriously silent about!  (I watched quite a few talks shows and read a bunch of pundits during the last several days and those lamenting the lack of police state like gun prohibition--which have been and are still favored by tyrannies and dictatorships throughout history and the globe--have expressed zero hostility toward the people who carry out massacres like the one in Connecticut.  It is, instead, always society or culture or America or some such nebulous culprit that’s being blamed, with the actual perps mostly suffering from alienation, mental disease, etc.  Among these folks the idea of human evil appears not to have any reality to it!)

Another reaction from the political class, you know which I have in mind, that’s really pathetic is the promises made not to allow such a thing to happen, ever again!  And just how is that going to be done?  Even if every school in the world will have a squadron of cops marching up and down its corridors, how will it be assured that among them there will not be some vile sadists who will take advantage of their privileged position and carry out a similar deed?  How will Mr. Obama make sure that that will never happen?  So because this is nonsense, and because Mr. Obama is certainly not ignorant about it, what we must be witnessing is rank demagoguery.

Sometimes the best response to what happens in the world is outrage, especially with those who carry out vicious deeds.  Human beings are, after all, the one known animal that is responsible for its behavior, driven not by instincts but by conscious choices.  When those choices are irresponsible ones and vile, they are the ones whose guilt should be our focus.  

As we learn from Shakespeare--from Cassius in Julius Caesar, Act 1, scene 2--"The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, But in ourselves.” Indeed, the kid who carried out the murders in Connecticut is very likely the responsible party.  Let’s get that right and then we might embark on some useful understanding of such deeds.  

Sunday, December 09, 2012

Taxes versus revenues: Leslie Stahl's malpractice

Taxes versus Revenues: Leslie Stahl’s Malpractice

Tibor R. Machan

As I reach old age I shield myself from unpleasant television as much as I can.  Of course, in order to stay apprised of events I cannot afford to skip all of what is irritating but given all the repetition, I have managed to reduce exposure to much that’s bad for my nerves.

One show I used to watch regularly was CBS-TV’s 60 Minutes.  It was a kind of ritual.  But no longer, other than accidentally.  Which is why I managed to catch one of the 60 Minutes follow-ups the other Sunday evening.  In it Leslie Stahl commented on Grover Norquist’s fight against the spendthrifts in Washington.  Never mind for now her typical support of more spending and higher taxes; it is to be expected from her, a veteran Washington insider.  What was interesting is the length to which she went this time to bolster her support.

She seems to have decided that instead of using the term “taxes” for what Norquist opposes, she characterized it as revenues.  And that is dirty pool.

Taxation isn’t revenue raising.  It is confiscation of people’s resources.  Revenue is what merchants or employees earn in voluntary trade.  To classify taxes as revenues is an obvious distortion.  It is akin to characterizing the loot from a bank robbery as earnings, profits or income.  There is no way that Ms. Stahl doesn’t know this.*  She is simply falling in line with President Obama’s efforts to warp the English language for political purposes.  Like when Obama decided that imposing additional taxes on what he calls the rich or wealthy amounts to “asking them for a little bit more.” Imposing taxes on people is no more asking them for funds than is a tax a form of revenue.  Both of these distortions have to be conscious since they both clearly serve to help to pretend that something voluntary is going on when that is the farthest thing from the truth.

We aren’t asked to pay in funds on April 15th.  The funds are extorted from us with the threat that unless we mail them to the IRS, we will end up in jail and if we resist we could be killed!  And when we are taxed, the resulting funds at the IRS aren’t some kind of revenue but the fruit of unabashed confiscation.

When our celebrity journalists become complicit in the government’s confiscation of our resources, we are in bad shape indeed. The press used to be a partner in the resistance of government oppression.  Now it is like in a dictatorships, a co-conspirator, a partner in crime--think Pravda and Izvestia.

*Some many moons ago Diane Sawyer, if memory serves me right, did a report on the street thieves in Rome, Italy, and called their loot "profits." That 60 Minutes bunch is very confused or perverse.

Saturday, December 08, 2012

The Statists' Continued Folly

The Statists' Continued Folly!

Tibor R. Machan

          Krugman has a regular column in The Times, so he can discuss what he chooses to discuss so why is he fussing, as he did in a recent column, that others have other topics they wish to discuss not the ones he likes? Must we all take the lead of Krugman? What conceit!

          Krugman’s “solution” to the unemployment "crisis" is no solution but merely a shift--let's burden future generations with higher costs and taxes, right? Yet what is needed is fewer obstacles to growth, that is to say less government regulation, much lower taxation, and the encouragement of private investment and innovation--in short, Hayek instead of Keynes!  What is bizarre is that Krugman and his master, Obama, are dead set on socking it to the rich, so much so that even without any need for garnering more funds from them they insist that it be done!  In other words, this bunch is interested in punitive taxation, never mind budgetary concerns.

         Is this to show the “base” that they are tough, merciless?  Is this to very visibly implement their leftist policies just to show who is in the driver’s seat now?  Is it to demonstrate to the world that America’s tradition of substantially free enterprise will not be allowed continue since it makes it possible for economically savvy citizens to succeed while those not much interested in playing according to the rules of capitalism may experience losses from scoffing at ambition?  That famous 47 % plus or minus that expects to be taken care of by government with just a minimum of effort--effort consisting mostly of political maneuvering, not smart enterprise--must not be disappointed.  Obama must continue to be their leader, guru, guide and protector!

         Looks to me that Obama is making no secret of it now: he will cater to the dependent class and only throw a few bones to the entrepreneurs, enough so they keep producing enough for Obama’s constituency to remain satisfied parasites.  Most of them feel that those who are successful in a largely free market economy don’t deserve it; they are living off the blood and sweat of Obama’s people!

          If you don’t believe me, consider a recently deceased philosopher of the welfare state from Harvard University, the place where much of Obama’s political and moral philosophy was fashioned: "The assertion that a man deserves the superior character that enables him to make the effort to cultivate his abilities is ... problematic; for his character depends in large part upon fortunate family and social circumstances for which he can claim no credit." John Rawls, A Theory of Justice (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1971), pp. 104.

         In other words, as Obama put it during the campaign for the presidency: You did not build it:  “if you’ve been successful, you didn’t get there on your own.  You didn’t get there on your own.  I’m always struck by people who think, well, it must be because I was just so smart.  There are a lot of smart people out there.  It must be because I worked harder than everybody else.  Let me tell you something--there are a whole bunch of hardworking people out there....”  No, you got there mostly by accident of birth! Like the rich of the feudal era!

         None of us is successful without having gained from certain others in our lives.  No argument about that.  But, first, this doesn’t entitle anyone else to rob one of the fruits of the success.  It doesn’t follow! Second, the entrepreneurial initiative of those who do succeed is not shared by all. They may have had some help but they needed to figure out how to put that help to good use.  That is where they earned their success, not from creating things out of nothing (a ridiculous idea that the takers wish to peddle).

        The bottom line is that Obama & Co. want to promote the idea that successful people have but a tiny bit if anything at all to do with their success and, therefore--which is a colossal non-sequitur--Obama & Co. may rip them off good and hard.

        In fact, the human element in human success is enormous. What it requires from those like Obama is for them to get out of the way, to show confidence in the makers, not the takers.

Thursday, December 06, 2012

The Nature of American Politics

The Nature of American politics

Tibor R. Machan

So few grasp this that it’s embarrassing.  The political purpose of America, as made pretty clear by the Founders and the Declaration of Independence, was to secure for the people a country in which they can be free as they could be in the state of nature only also reasonably safe from aggressive neighbors across the world.  Politics had been mostly about imposing power on others, robbing them of their resources, subduing them good and hard (unless they were friendly family members or fellow tribesmen). The genius of John Locke’s system of natural individual rights is that it nearly succeeded in fashioning a society that marked off for everyone a sphere of personal authority, an area in which they would have the liberty to do as they judged proper and not be invaded by others whose company they should enjoy at their pleasure, not as a matter of uninvited intrusion.

The idea was that in the wilds people could do as they judged fit except when some powerful bullies stood in the way.  Being free is a great thing but if others can, with impunity, impose themselves on one, that takes a lot away from the beauty of liberty.  So how to secure liberty but avoid the hazards posed by the bullies?  That is the question to which no political thinker has managed to find the answer but John Locke and a few others who taught the American Founders and Framers came very, very close. If a system of individual natural rights could be codified and its administrators had sufficient integrity not to cave in the temptation to compromise it, there was a good chance that the people could not only have the right to liberty but enjoy its exercise as well.

That is roughly how America developed into a relatively bona fide free society, though by no means consistently, flawlessly.  But sufficient numbers of Americans had been devoted to the project that a pretty free country came about and managed to provide for its citizenry a kind of country only here and there tasted around the globe.  For quite some time at least the idea of this kind of country kept inspiring Americans and their friends across the globe.

Now, however, we have come to the point where a completely alien bunch of “leaders” and their academic cheerleaders--especially in law schools--are slowly but surely selling out the American system.  Individualism, which is at its heart, is being besmirched all around, including by the man recently elected to be the guardian of it.  There appears to be no interest on his part and on the part of his team to further develop what the American Founders and Framers established into a more perfect version.  Rather the current leadership seems hell bent on reintroducing the system of the top-down regime, the very one that the American revolution set out to overturn.

To reverse this trend will require very dedicated citizens, maybe even ones who will have to reignite the original revolution, preferably minus some of the weaknesses of the initial one.  Fortunately, the ideas for this are readily available in the annals of American history, law and some political philosophy.  All the new revolutionaries need is to put their shoulders to the task of serious research--actually more their minds than their shoulders.

It must not be overlooked that those who are mounting the counterrevolution are a very clever bunch.  They have invaded the most prestigious institutions of learning, from kindergarten to graduate school.  They control university presses--journals and books and all.  They have overrun the popular culture, such as Hollywood and Broadway and what used to be called dime novels.  Their hunger for power is unlimited and they are ready to use all the tricks known to human beings.  They have learned well from their heroes. Here is one of them:

“Only one thing is needed to enable us to march forward more surely and more firmly to victory: namely, the full and complete thought of our appreciation by all communists in all countries of the necessity of displaying the utmost flexibility in their tactics.  The strictest loyalty to the ideas of communism must be combined with the ability to make all the necessary practical compromises, to attack, to make agreements, zigzags, retreats, etc.” [Lenin, "Left Wing Communism," 1920].

Monday, November 26, 2012

Machan's Archives: Ethics and Gouging

Machan's Archives: Ethics and Gouging

Tibor R. Machan

    During most emergencies there are those who could certainly use quite a
bit of help and it is on such occasions that complaints about gouging
surface most vociferously. The recent storms and hurricanes in
the Northeast and elsewhere saw many people having to board up their homes and
businesses and evacuate the area for safer regions. Some did not prepare
for these times prudently enough and now depend on the help of others who
have or who are in the business of storing up and selling the materials
such times require. Some just couldn’t plan ahead.

    The usual complaints on such occasions have to do with gouging—with
people, including private parties and businesses, charging much higher
prices than in times of less inclement weather for the materials that are
needed to cope with the emergency. And there is something to these
complaints, even if taking legal measures against them are completely

    In a free society whoever is selling something is free to ask whatever
price he or she desires. Of course, when emergencies hit and the materials
are immediately needed by many people, the unusually high price will
usually have to be met or one must go without. And this makes it appear
that there is something wrong with asking the higher price.

    The truth is, however, that there is no universal principle for how
people should act in such emergencies.  Yes, there are some who ought to
be generous, at least to those who have been hit hardest and had the least
warning of the impending disaster. Others, however, who ought to have
known better and thus been well prepared, do not deserve such
generosity—they brought the problems they face on themselves and have no
moral justification for demanding that others bail them out. They will
just have to pay in order to be the Johnny come lately folks they have
elected to be.

    Exactly what is the proper way to relate to those who face these kinds of
emergencies is something one cannot tell from afar. Here is an instance
when local knowledge, with only the most general notion of propriety to
back it, is the only kind that will inform one of the facts needed to
determine what course one ought to take. Neighbors may know each other
well enough to judge whether those unprepared for disaster are negligent
or innocently ignorant or have been prevented from being well prepared by
unavoidable circumstances—say some family illness made preparations
impossible this time.

    Economists tend to defend gouging based on their view that prices are a
matter of what the market will bear. In other words, if one can sell one’s
goods or services for a high price, it is only sensible, rational to do
so. Carpe diem, as the saying you—seize the day! Any good entrepreneur
will have sympathy for this attitude and, in moral terms, it is often
quite proper since one ought to make the most of one’s assets so as to add
to them through trade.

    Yet, of course, there are circumstances in which prudence is not the
highest of the virtues to be practiced. Generosity and charity are
virtues, too, mostly for special occasions. Life is not a scene of
perpetual emergencies, at least not in relatively free societies where
people have their right to order their lives reasonably well protected.
They are sovereign, not under involuntary servitude, and so can be
expected to govern themselves.

    Given that life does confront us with occasional emergencies of various
sorts, our self-government needs to involve preparing for such events, not
expecting others similarly challenged to come to bail us out. Yet there
are also cases of really unforeseen challenges—people can be struck down
by multiple adversities all at once and on such occasions those close to
them, sometimes even strangers, have good reason to come to their

    It is when some take advantage of those hit with such multiple
emergencies by failing to be considerate that the charge of gouging makes
sense and people should avoid doing it. Exactly when this is cannot be
said ahead of time, nor from afar, but everyone who isn’t blind to the
vicissitudes of human life will know what I am talking about.

    The bottom line is that these are matters of human choice and there is no
universal principle to guide us all to a one-size-fits-all policy.
Discretion, good judgment, is what are needed, certainly not some
politicians and bureaucrats rushing in where even fools won’t dare to
tread.  Certainly bringing in the state—the police, in other words—is wrong and tends to lead to malfeasance since it mixes human emergencies with coercive force, a bit like a marriage between the Salvation Army or Red Cross and the Mafia.

Friday, November 23, 2012

Machan's Archives: On Doubting One's Mind

Doubting One’s Mind

Tibor R. Machan

A central topic of philosophy throughout the ages has been whether human
beings can trust their minds, including their sensory awareness and
thinking. Skepticism about this has been a major challenge and many from
Socrates to such recent and current thinkers as Ayn Rand and John Searle
have responded with more or less elaborate arguments defending our
capacity to get things right about the world.

Just now a new source of skepticism has surfaced, from within the field of
neuroscience. In a review essay of several books on the topic, “How
the Mind Works: Revelations,” published in The New York Review of Books
(6/26/08), Israel Rosenfield and Edward Ziff write, “In fact ‘external
reality’ is a construction of the brain.” Several of the authors they
discuss argue this point. As the review notes, “In general, every
recollection refers not only to the remembered event or person or object
but to the person who is remembering,” meaning that memory is not about an
objective reality but of some mishmash of subjective experience and
external influence.

In essence, then, what one understands about the world and oneself is
really not what actually exists but what is constructed by one’s mind with
the use of other cognitive tools. The problem with this is that it makes
no sense in the end because what the researchers are telling us would also
be covered by their claim and so it is also just some mental construction,
which then is also some further mental construction, ad infinitum and ad
nauseum. But that cannot be. At some point the researchers would have to
accept that what they are telling us about the human mind is actually so,
not also just a construct or invention.

In any case, why would there be so much interest in discrediting the human
mind, of writing elaborate tomes that argue that our understanding of the
world and ourselves is fabrication, not objectively true? Why when questioning
the mind is itself done by human beings with human minds who,
presumably, are confident that their own questioning has merit?

Some folks say that to questions like those one needs to answer by
following the money--that is to say, checking who is gaining from
these so-called findings. I am not such a cynic. As far as I can tell, some of
these scientists, philosophers, and the reporters who seem to be so gleeful
about what this skeptical work produces may well be sincere. Yet I also suspect there is
something fishy afoot here and my suspicion is that there is a tendency on
the part of many of these experts to come up with findings that assign to
them a special role in the world. They are, in effect, the only people who
have a clear handle on how things go with human beings. They are the only
reliable source of facts--as Rosenfield and Ziff say, “In fact, ‘external
reality’ is a construction of the brain.” You and I are not up to snuff
about the matter; we are deluded and misguidedly think that when we see a
red coffee cup on the kitchen table, there really is such a cup there. But
Rosenfield and Ziff and the scientists they are reviewing will inform us
that “there are no colors in the world, only electromagnetic waves of many

But if you just think for a moment, this is nonsense. It is like saying
there is no furniture in my living room, only chairs and tables and sofas.
Well, but it is those chairs, tables, and sofas that are the furniture. It
is, then, the electromagnetic waves doing certain work that are the
colors, so colors do indeed exist in the world.

Thus telling someone that there is a red cup on the kitchen table when
that is what a healthy mind is aware of is exactly right! It may not tell the
whole truth and nothing but the truth about what is there but
few people need to have that in order to cope quite well with the world around them.

The same problem faced some physicists who claimed that there is nothing
that’s solid in the world because everything is composed of atoms and
atoms, in turn, are mostly empty space with only very tiny bits of
material substance swirling within them at enormous speeds. Ergo, solidity
is an illusion. But this is to drop the context of discussions where the
distinction between, say, solidity and liquidity comes up. It is misguided
to make the leap from one context to another where the focus is quite

When we ordinary humans notice the world around us, learn to identify what
it contains, begin to understand the forces at work in it, if we pay
attention we can get it right for the purposes that we need this
understanding. To try to undermine this confidence based on highly
specialized research is misguided, ill conceived, and misanthropic to boot.
It appears to assign to some people some special status even though, by their own
accounts, no one ultimately can figure anything out correctly.

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Machan's Archives: The Pitfalls of Public Spheres

Machan's Archives: The Pitfalls of Public Spheres

Tibor R. Machan

"Each fancies that no harm will come to his neglect..." (Thucydides)

Everyone has an incentive to use resources freely available to all...but none has a corresponding incentive to conserve or replenish the resources. Parcels privately held are better cared for. The resource that ends up ravaged will be freedom itself.

"The tragedy of the commons," a phrase coined by Garrett Hardin, in a famous 1968 article, refers to the cumulative depletion or spoliation of natural resources to which no one holds deed but to which everyone may use. The commons in question might be a pasture in which every herdsman's cattle can graze, a lake every fisherman can trawl, a park every tourist can trash or the atmosphere. Because people pursue their goals with the means available to them, perhaps perfectly innocently, everyone has an incentive to use resources that are freely available to all, but none has a corresponding incentive to conserve or replenish the resources.

"Picture a pasture open to all," Hardin notes. "It is to be expected that each herdsman will try to keep as many cattle as possible on the commons. Such an arrangement may work reasonably satisfactorily for centuries because tribal wars, poaching, and disease keep the numbers of both man and beast well below the carrying capacity of the land. Finally, however, comes the day of reckoning, that is, the day when the long-desired goal of social stability becomes a reality. At this point, the inherent logic of the commons remorselessly generates tragedy."

Hardin's principle was known as early as the ancient Greeks (as well as to Thucydides ). "That all persons call the same thing mine in the sense in which each does so may be a fine thing, but it is impracticable," explained Aristotle in his Politics. "For that which is common to the greatest number has the least care bestowed upon it…. For besides other considerations, everybody is more inclined to neglect the duty which he expects another to fulfill; as in families many attendants are often less useful than a few."

When parcels are privately held, owners have good reason to ensure that the resources of their lands are properly cared for. They may, for example, charge users in proportion to the amount of usage. They may plant seeds. They may send in cleaning crews. Because they receive definite benefits as a result of paying the cost of maintenance, they will most likely pay it. So, many agree now that extensive privatization of what are now treated as public properties -- certainly all public enterprises, as well as lakes, rivers, beaches, forests, and even the air mass -- will help sustain those resources and lead to more efficient development and exploitation of them.

Ducks Unlimited, a free-market wildlife conservation organization, was founded in the Great Depression in North America to preserve duck hunting for the next generations. Wildlife biologists were hired to determine the basic problem, which was habitat reduction and degradation from agricultural pressures in the Canadian and American northern plains "pothole country" where the waterfowl breed, and in the American flyways where they rest during their annual migrations.

Ducks Unlimited raises money to purchase sensitive breeding areas and way stations, thereby preventing their development; manages those lands as waterfowl refuges; and works with farmers to manage their lands in ways that will be more hospitable to wildlife populations. The organization has rehabilitated well over 8 million acres of wetland in the US, Canada, and Mexico. It does not practice an unlimited free market: many of its properties are turned over to State and Provincial Fish and Game departments for long-term management, and it contracts with the government for many of its projects. Its shows, though, how an enlightened pursuit of private goals can promote environmental advantage -- even in a 40-percent-plus tax regime.

Worldwide the biggest danger to wildlife populations is the destruction of habitat wrought by the pressures of population growth and agricultural expansion. The problem is exacerbated by the dominant model of wildlife ownership, which is socialist. Wildlife is deemed "property" of the state, even when it inhabits or encroaches upon private property. Then it’s the exerciser of property rights who becomes the endangered species.

The problem is acute in sub-Saharan Africa. There subsistence farmers in the outback must continually if illegally combat the encroachments of "state-owned" wildlife. In many areas, hunting is outlawed, leading to local explosions in wildlife populations, which then spill out of their native habitat. That poaching is rampant under such circumstances should not come as a shock.

The solution? To turn over "ownership" of the wildlife to the villages or landowners. Wildlife then becomes a benefit, bringing in hard currency from tourists, for example. Poachers now benefit from protecting and managing a valuable resource. The results have been a gratifying reduction in poaching, an increase in wildlife populations, and more effective containment of it.

In the US "preservationist" organizations like the Sierra Club seek to “save” swatches of habitat by lobbying the government to purchase environmentally sensitive and exceptionally beautiful land for parks and preserves. But the bulk of ongoing environmental funding has been contributed by those "conservationists" (chiefly hunters and fishers) who believe, not just in the preservation of environmental resources (under glass case, perhaps), but in the wise use of them.

And therein lies both the key to the success of current Fish & Wildlife policy, and a clue as to how a non-coercive, libertarian environmental policy can proceed. For, in spite of the basically socialist ownership scheme, State and Federal Fish & Wildlife programs are almost totally financed by user fees and (more nebulously) excise taxes on sporting arms, ammunition, and fishing tackle. (An excise tax is no voluntary fee but at least it has a plausible connection to the purposes being funded -- if the moneys collected are indeed funneled as promised, something that doesn't always happen with, say, the gas tax.)

User-funded Fish & Game programs are among our biggest environmental success stories. Many big-game species have made quantum leaps from their low points at the turn of the last century–there are more deer in North America now than there were at the time of Columbus, and once-endangered alligators are now endangering golfers in parts of Texas, Louisiana, and Florida! And no managed game species has ever gone extinct since the advent of managed sport hunting early in this century.

These examples from Africa and North America show that the environment would not get short shrift in a private market. It’s very difficult to subject all valued resources, including air and water, to privatization -- although not impossible, as some argue. Personal and property injury law could deal with much of what goes awry in these spheres.

The tragedy of the commons extends far beyond the environment; as Hardin himself argued, it has hitherto been best understood in special cases "which are not sufficiently generalized." The tragedy can afflict any arena in which resources are produced and then used—and in which in the link between causes and effects, benefits and costs, has been severed. Consider the US Treasury, which so many groups work hard to raid.

Even alleged solutions to the tragedy of the commons can suffer that same tragedy. Hardin, for example, despite an otherwise often astute analysis, believed that the way to solve the problem is ratcheting up the government controls. But such controls are themselves imposed by bureaucrats who are not obliged to directly bear the cost of that control. They cause further problems which invite yet more controls as remedy, and so on. If the process continues unchecked, the result is a fully state managed system. Hardin would have shied away from that end game, but he mentioned no principle that could definitively interrupt the approach to full socialization at any point, once the regulatory premise is ceded.

Under such a system all resources whatever are treated as a vast blob of commons. Goods are extracted from all "according to ability," distributed to all "according to need." The link between cause and effect, costs and benefits is severed in such a society-wide commons. As a result, not a mere pasture but an entire economy is devastated (as well as the spirits of the people). The more vigorously a given society strives for the "ideal" of full socialism, the more rapidly the pasture will be plundered.

It's fantasy, of course. There is no way to forcibly refashion human beings into the angelic ants they'd have to be to approach the socialist dream of absolute and full equality. Individuals will rarely think first and foremost of the common interest. Even those who give it a serious try won’t succeed because they will not be able to obtain the needed information to learn exactly what that alleged interest is. The common good consists of a lot of varied individual goods, the requirements for the fulfilling of which can be known best and acted upon best by the individual whose interests they are.

Indeed, the only universal, common good is a general framework that enables everyone to seek that which he deems to be important. The provision of a system of laws makes such diverse pursuits of the good life possible. The American Founders identified such a system, one that accommodates the rights of to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness—with what that pursuit consists of left to each individual.

Welfare states and the tragedy: Although our own welfare state permits much more autonomous action than a fully socialist one would, it manifests the tragedy of the commons as well in the growing public sphere. An individual acting on his own must work hard for his paycheck. He expends time and effort. He may bear further costs if he thoughtlessly fritters away his funds. If he manages his budget responsibly, however, he enjoys peace of mind in addition to the goods and services he can obtain. So there is a direct and cordial relationship between how carefully an individual deploys personally earned resources and the benefits he achieves.

The market rewards those who behave responsibly. By contrast, the only cost that pleaders for government largesse must directly expend in return for the largesse they receive is that involved in pleading for their cut of the take. In other words, they must incur the cost of lobbying. The typical recipient of the benefits of government subsidy or regulation has little economic incentive to spurn what he's "got coming" -- whether or not he or she proclaims, when polled, that taxes are too high or that "something must be done about the federal debt."

The democratic vote itself is an indirect means of seeking benefits from scarce resources without the inconvenience of any limits to what those voting may consume. Whether it's labor unions or educators or scientists, everyone gropes for as much from the public treasury as possible, and many elected officials faithfully play along. Sometimes this means appointed people who favor one’s projects to the appropriate regulatory bodies. Thus the denizens of the Departments of Labor, Agriculture, or Energy may well engage in the same unfettered exploitation as the cattle owners whose cattle graze in a common pasture.*

Wait, there's more. One of the most difficult of legal dilemmas is how to protect individual rights to free expression in public realms. For example, citizens may wish to express their urgent dismay about something on public roads to which others citizens believe they are entitled for purposes of transportation. During the Gulf War, traffic was brought to standstill in San Francisco when residents there wanted to protest U.S. involvement in the conflict; someone suffering a heart attack at the time might have preferred his goal of getting to the hospital.

Perhaps as a matter of common sense public roads must clearly remain available to serve their intended purpose. But other conflicts of interest are more ambiguous. The reason so many conflicts involving religious observance at public schools seem so intractable is that whenever one acts in public spheres, one falls, at least de jure, under the rules of public policy. In a public high school, therefore, any kind of religious expression, even the most innocuous, comes into conflict (or at least is said to come into conflict) with the constitutional prohibition of the state’s establishment of religion. And of late, school officials have even gone so far as to ban the Boy Scouts from their premises, on the grounds that the Boy Scouts discriminate against gays. There may be no constitutional issue there, and it may seem unreasonable to punish local kids for an organization's national policy. But do public officials exercising publicly granted authority in public places have this kind of discretion or not? If you don't like a company's policy, you go somewhere else. That has not been so easy to do under the public school monopoly (especially prior to the recent growth in home schooling, charter schools, vouchers and other educational privatization).

*For more check out Tibor R. Machan, Ed., The Commons: Its Tragedy and Other Follies (Hoover Institution Press, 2001)

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Machan's Archives: What About Wealth Redistribution?

Machan’s Archives: What about Wealth Redistribution?

Tibor R. Machan

        Ever since then candidate Obama’s brief exchange with “Joe the Plumber,” there has been plenty of mention of wealth redistribution in the major media.  Then came the recovery of a 2001 interview in which the former Senator faulted the framers of the U. S Constitution, and the Founders who authored the Declaration of Independence, for not including a right of everyone to be helped with redistributed wealth.  As some have noted, this was all discussed in connection with the Civil Rights legislation which Obama also faulted for its lack of attention to wealth redistribution -- maybe reparation, as some have interpreted him. But the central point was more general, clearly.

        It is useful, then, to consider just what wealth redistribution is all about.  But to do that, we need to consider briefly what wealth is and what amounts to its initial distribution such that some favor its being redistributed.

        Wealth is whatever someone owns that he or she and others consider valuable, useful to themselves or others.  The ownership, in turn, can arise from working on what is given in nature or by way of earnings from marketable labor, or from gifts and inheritance from those who had earnings in the first place, or from good fortune (as when one wins the lottery or unexpectedly finds oil beneath his land), etc. 

        There is an ancient dispute about whether such ownership is best regarded as private or as public.  At first the dispute was carried on in terms of what type of ownership, private or public, would be most useful or productive.  Aristotle gave his defense of private property as follows: “For that which is common to the greatest number has the least care bestowed upon it.  Every one thinks chiefly of his own, hardly at all of the common interest; and only when he is himself concerned as an individual.  For besides other considerations, everybody is more inclined to neglect the duty which he expects another to fulfill; as in families many attendants are often less useful than a few." (Politics, 1262a30-37)

         The historian Thucydides made a similar point when he spoke about owners of public property. He wrote that “[T]hey devote a very small fraction of the time to the consideration of any public object, most of it to the prosecution of their own objects.  Meanwhile, each fancies that no harm will come to his neglect, that it is the business of somebody else to look after this or that for him; and so, by the same notion being entertained by all separately, the common cause imperceptibly decays. (Thucydides, The History of the Peloponnesian War, bk. I, sec. 141).

         It was, however, not until the English philosopher John Locke laid out his theory of natural rights that more than a utilitarian case was produced in favor the right to private property.  For Locke once someone mixes his or her labor with something in the wilds, that thing stops being public -- or God’s -- and becomes, as a matter of morality, his or her private property.  This is because the work invested is properly rewarded with ownership.  Thereafter the owner has the right to hold on to the property, exchange it for something else with willing others, give it as a gift to someone, bequeath it to his or her offspring, and so forth. (As to wealth come by via luck, no one is justified to take it from those who are lucky, it can be inferred, otherwise people themselves could be enslaved with impunity.)

         A very important feature of Locke’s idea, however, was that property doesn’t belong to the king, state, or government but to God who then transfers it to private individuals.  It is they who work on elements of the natural world, of what is not owned by anyone else, so they are free to obtain it, hold it, trade it, etc.  For others to stop them is wrong, a violation of natural rights.

         Many have criticized all these ideas, especially people who hold that everything belongs to everyone together and so wealth may not be freely used and distributed by individuals, only by "the community."  But, as Aristotle and Thucydides and many others since them have made clear, this idea is seriously flawed and entirely impractical.  It leads to the tragedy of the commons, of people all grabbing what they want from the common wealth and failing to use it productively.

         Both for moral reasons -- the “first come, first gain” principle -- and for practical ones -- community ownership leads to wastefulness -- the principle of private property rights gained influence in Western societies, in their legal and economic systems. This is one main reason that when Senator Obama suggested that what this country needs is systematic wealth redistribution -- routinely taking from private owners their wealth and having governments distribute it to non-owners -- many folks took umbrage.  This is quite an un-American, anti-free market capitalist idea and sounds more like what is preached by socialists and communalists (even communists).

         Of course government initiated wealth redistribution is a big part of existing American society but it is usually defended for special reasons, not as a general policy.  And there is, of course, the distribution of wealth we all carry out as we engage in commerce.  But as to government wealth redistribution, in the wake of wealth confiscation from the citizenry, Mr. Obama elevated what seemed to most to be an exception in this country to a central feature of the society.  And his opponents, of course, couldn’t effectively criticize him because Republicans have been just as willing to confiscate and then redistribute wealth as Democrats, albeit not advocate it as a systematic feature of the legal system as Obama has.

Tuesday, November 06, 2012

Machan's Post Election Comment

This result is sad, although Mitt Romney, with his socially conservative agenda, wouldn’t have been a friend to liberty. Worst of all is the plain fact that most Americans are statists now and have pretty much abandoned the ideals of the American founders.

The Myth of Non-coercive Paternalism

The Myth of Non-coercive Paternalism

Tibor R. Machan

The father-son team Robert and Edward Skidelsky--the former a recent biographer and avid champion of John Maynard Keynes, the latter a professor of philosophy--have written a book that joins the long list of anti-free market tirades available to us from which we can learn just how terrible it is for a society to be populated by men and women who are free to act as they choose, especially in the marketplace.  The book, How Much is Enough? Money and the Good Life (Other Press, 2012), holds out nothing novel--one is able to find the theme in most neo-Marxist works such as John Kenneth Galbraith’s The Affluent Society, originally published in 1958 but reissued often and most recently, in 1999, by Penguin Books.

Non-coercive paternalism--joining other neologisms such as libertarian paternalism, coined by other critics of the free market system like law professor Cass Sunstein--is what the authors are calling for in order to curtail the ambition of Americans who want to achieve economic success and financial security.  The passage that is for me most philosophically problematic reads as follows: “Economists have no ambition to remake human nature.”  And they clear this up by noting that economists “take people as they are, not as they should be.”

True enough, most economists are realists but they do not fit the description that they take people as they are, only, not as they should be.  As economists, of course, they are not in the business of helping to reform people, unlike priests or psychologists.  And this is exactly the right way for them to be.  But what is most important to note is that people cannot be made good, made to be as they should be, by others.  That is the exactly the individual person’s task.  This is what other similarly inclined authors such as Professor Robert P. George, who lays out a similar thesis in his Making Men Moral (Oxford University Press, 1993) and James P. Sterba in his How to Make People Just (Rowman & Littlefield, 1988) overlook.  Karl Marx did think human nature could be changed but because history, through various revolutionary, dialectical leaps, will achieve this, not any kind of paternalists.

The fact that bears most directly on all this is that human nature has the potential for everyone to turn out to be good or bad or mediocre.  That is just what distinguishes people from other living entities.  They are self-made as far as their moral character is concerned.  This is a point discovered about them back in ancient Greece when Plato wrote his famous dialogue Republic which, by is many interpreters understood to be a early warning against political idealism or utopianism. Don’t look to politics to improve human beings, look to human beings to do this for themselves.  

Indeed, the point of civilized life is that people must achieve improvements in their lives, including their societies, by way of their vigilance.  Paternalism is OK when parents practice it on youngsters who aren’t yet fit to govern themselves but once one reaches the age of reason, maturity, then paternalism breeds rebellion, mostly, the opposite of compliance.

Why then won’t Skidelsky & Son get it and provide personal advice for self-improvement instead of public policies aimed at changing human nature?  Probably it has to do with the widespread inclination of intellectuals to copy technologists who do make changes in the world by manipulating it.  But that doesn’t work with people, despite what these ambitious social engineers believe, the ones who follow the lead of the late Harvard psychologist B. F. Skinner who promoted behavior modification so as to improve us and society at large but met with no success in his efforts.

Because of all this the hope for non-coercive paternalism is futile.  And Stalin and Hitler should have taught us this through their vicious experiments. But sadly intellectuals are equally resistant to changing unless they become convinced it’s worth doing it themselves. Until that day those of us who know better but remain vigilant, which is, after all, the price of liberty!


Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Defending Ideology

Defending Ideology

Tibor R. Machan

It is very common among intellectuals in our time to demean ideology.  Thus if one supports, say, free trade with foreign firms, one is belittled for doing so on grounds of one’s conviction that free trade is generally better than trade that is regimented by government.  A “free market ideologue” is what one is snidely called in such circumstances.

What is the alternative?  How is one supposed to defend a policy one thinks is a good idea for a country to follow?

The first candidate that jumps to mind is pragmatism.  If it is pragmatically warranted, then it is OK to support it, or so do many vocal and well positioned public figures claim.  And what does that come to?

Pragmatic justifications usually focus on whether a policy works, whether it is practical.  But how is that ascertained?  How do we know whether a policy works?  Well, is there sufficient evidence that it achieves the goal or purpose for which it is proposed.  

In the case of international free trade that goal or purpose would be mutual wealth creation.  If through such trade the parties gain more wealth than by some other means, like government planning--setting quotas, protectionism, etc.--then free trade will have been pragmatically justified or vindicated; it will have been found the practical, workable policy to follow.

Of course, wealth creation could be achieved by way of a policy of invasion, of confiscating the wealth of some country.  It used to be the most prominent approach countries deployed so as to gain wealth in the international arena.  That is one reason wars had been started.  It had been the reason for imperialism in many instances.  

Yet, such approaches are often deemed to be unjustified because they involve the aggression by one country’s government against another.  One might even compare this to sex where if it is uninvited and involves assault or rape, it is understood to be unjustified.  Peacefully pursued, however, it would be quite acceptable but when it involves aggression it is wrong and may be forcibly resisted.

But why?  Well, here is where pragmatism doesn’t help very much.  That’s because whether one ought to attempt to obtain wealth (or sexual satisfaction) peacefully isn’t just a practical matter.  Certainly attempting to do so before one has learned of the consequences would contradict pragmatism (which is based on practice and history, not on moral theory or ideology).  Even if aggression turned out to be effective--so that raping someone gave the rapist great satisfaction--it would be unjustified yet not on pragmatic grounds but on moral or ideological ones.

Granted, most immoral, unethical conduct is also impractical.  It rarely achieves goals the best possible way, most efficiently.  But that’s irrelevant. Moreover, certain objectives or goals are also vile and thus impermissible.  Pursuing them is wrong and may often be banned whether they are practical.

Then, of course, pragmatism is itself an ideology or theory of action wherein what is workable, practical is preferred as against what isn’t.  Why should people proceed only when their objectives are feasible?  Pursuing the impossible dream could well be a good policy for purposes of gaining stamina, for honing one’s tenacity and grit.  

          There is really no hope in resting proper public or even private policies on nothing more than that they are practical.  Human beings need also to be sure that their choices, including those pertaining to public or political policies, are worthy, have overall merit, square with a proper moral outlook.  Belittling that goal by labeling it ideology is a cheap shot.  The issue should be which ideology makes the best sense not whether something is ideological.