Saturday, February 11, 2012

Why not Pessimism?

Tibor R. Machan

By most accounts there is little good news about any progress toward a freer society, quite the contrary. Around the globe, of course, there are some regions that are making small moves away from tyranny but even in those few, human freedom doesn’t appear to be a priority. Instead tribal and religious conflicts are the rule, even as the more vicious rulers are losing their grip on their populations. In Syria the tyrant is hanging on by a very thin thread yet elsewhere it’s mob rule that has replaced dictatorships.

In the USA, which at one time had the justified distinction of aspiring toward a fully free society--”leader of the free world”--the system and those who administer it pay hardly any heed to human liberty; the leadership is either wallowing in calls for economic equality (as if George Orwell had never written Animal Farm) or embarking wrangles about social and religious issues. (These Republicans certainly know how to drop the ball and miss opportunities!) Every problem that gains serious attention seems to call forth simply more statism from the elite; the possibility of turning toward more freedom is routinely denounced by prominent commentators. (I cannot get over Paul Krugman’s widely respected yet totally preposterous complaints about “market fundamentalism,” something he keeps alleging has gripped the country even though no evidence of it exists anywhere.)

Despite all this, there is reason to be hopeful. First, there is that proverbial long run to keep in mind; anyone who takes a close look at the sweep of human political history has to grant that there exists at least a “two steps forward, one back” phenomenon when it comes to the progress of freedom. Then there is the recent emergence of substantial respectability for libertarianism, with the likes of Ron Paul and his son Rand championing it openly among mainstream politicians and with the likes of Fox TV’s Judge Andrew Napolitano, John Stossel and others making a libertarian pitch on a very successful cable network, with regular appearances by and interviews with consistent, uncompromising champions of the fully free society. All those Reason Magazine and folks certainly are a very welcome presence “on the air,” repeatedly, making their points very cogently. Gary Johnson, former governor of New Mexico, is going to give it a shot as the Libertarian Party’s presidential candidate, lending his sharp message--one I consider more coherent and on point than those of Ron Paul whose is marred by both certain domestic conservative themes and somewhat over the top ideas on international affairs--to the growing demands for freedom coming from America’s main street (as against the insistent statism we get from too many prominent academics). And there is the growing acknowledgement from many corners that the profligacy of government just cannot be sustained, not without the serious threat of a police state that would be needed to coerce us all into compliance with the resulting grotesque economic policies such as increasing taxes on productive citizens and clamping down on all efforts to resist confiscatory tax policies around the country and abroad. (It bears remembering that John Maynard Keynes considered the Third Reich as a very promising place for his policies of economic meddling by the state--see the Introduction he wrote for the German translation of The General Theory!) Also, the general population seems to be tiring of rich bashing, although there are those, like the Occupy Wall Street bunch, who continue to be ignorantly deluded about the desirability and feasibility of economic leveling.

It is wise also, I think, to keep in mind that massive semi-democratic systems are very unlikely to ever settle into a sensible political regime, given all the conflicting and often bizarre influences that guide public policies and produce truly awful elected officials--think Barney Frank here. Nonetheless over the long haul freedom is making progress. Not in all places, for sure, and with major gaps not just at the national level but in our backyards. When a totally corrupt and counterproductive war on drugs can continue in force, it does appear to be hopeless to expect increasing sanity in the country.

Yet, all in all, the trend, albeit a slow one with many detours and interruptions, does seem to be pointing toward a freer world than before.

Sunday, February 05, 2012

A Small Pleasure of Book Production

Tibor R. Machan

One of my books is a collection of prominent essays by mostly contemporary libertarian political-economic thinkers. Its title, The Libertarian Reader (1982), was so well chosen that years later someone quite prominent, David Boaz of the Cato Institute, also used it for a collection of essays he put together, The Libertarian Reader (1998). (Just in case you didn’t know, in the publishing world it is acceptable to make us of the titles of already published books.)

One of the hopes of authors and editors of books is of course that these will be bought and read, not to mention in huge numbers. But unless one is a famous author or so dedicated to learning of the fate of one’s works, it is rare that one learns whether they have made the rounds. (In the academic world, of course, professors often assign books they have written or edited in their classes, although such self-dealing is widely frowned upon.)

I do know that another book of mine was at least considered for display in a movie or TV program because some years ago I received a form letter asking that I give permission for a producer to do just that with my The Pseudo-Science of B. F. Skinner, originally published by Arlington House of New Rochelle, NY (later reprinted by the University Press of America) and once reviewed very favorably in by Robert W. Proctor and Daniel J. Weeks in The American Journal Of Psychology (Summer 1990). But I never learned if this ever came to pass.

But a few days ago I was watching the coverage of the Republican presidential primaries and as I looked at the bookshelf behind Representative Ron Paul as he was being interviewed, I noticed that The Libertarian Reader was among the books on his shelves. Well, that was gratifying, so much so that I paused my TV and took a picture of it all with my cell phone camera. (It didn’t come out well but still, there it is, in living, albeit blurry, color.)

Of course, Ron Paul is known as a libertarian--he once was nominated for president by the national libertarian party. I think I even met him once when he visited Auburn, Alabama, where the Ludwig von Mises Institute has its headquarters--Paul is close to the folks at that think tank. So it would be easy to indulge in some fantasies about how he may actually have read and been influenced by some of the works collected in my book, although that would be a bit over the top. It is much more likely that he has read into another work I edited, namely, The Libertarian Alternative, published by Nelson Hall Co. of Chicago back in 1973. That was my very first book and came about because Nelson Hall just started out and sent out a notice to academics around the country, soliciting submissions of book ideas. I jumped at the chance and lo and behold got the idea accepted and the volume published. (As the later collection, this one also contains some really fine essays on libertarian political philosophy and jurisprudence.)

So although my books, now numbering in the several dozens--with around 50 featured at’t so popular and prominent as those by Milton Friedman, F. A. Hayek, Ludwig von Mises, or even Richard Epstein, at least one managed to surface in a prominent enough place, suggesting that some others might have done likewise. Not that I wrote or edited them for fame and fortune--though I wouldn’t shy from these were some to have helped to achieve them--it is still quite gratifying to see at least one make it center stage in a popular forum.

Like with happiness, so with fame and fortune, they better be the side effects of one’s dedication and passion. That way even if one fails to make it big with one’s writings, one will at least have had the satisfaction of having contributed to a good cause, namely, the exploration of the subject matter of the works one has produced.
How to Win this One in November

Tibor R. Machan

Seeing that it looks like Mitt Romney may well win the Republican nomination--though it’s too early to be sure about that--It has been a concern of freedom loving Americans whether the nod given to human individual liberty by the Tea Party back in 2010 will have staying power. When the Republicans began their primaries it looked like one or another of the champions of serious liberty, such as former New Mexico Governor Gary Johnson or Texas representative Ron Paul, could either make it or at least have an influence on who will. This last is still a possibility but not very likely now. With Gingrich injecting the influence of the Beltway Republican insiders into the race and with Mitt Romney derailing any progress toward a consistent political philosophy of liberty among Republicans, prospects for repeating, let alone enhancing, the central trends represented by the Tea Party--which itself has never been fully focused on true liberty--are waning. And that is very disturbing because it looks more and more like Barack Obama has no interest whatever in individual rights, in a bona fide free society and market, or even in civil liberties. What he is after is a populist reformation of the American polity, one that will usher in democratic socialism, with its confusing “market” socialism added.

This is the politics of soft Marxism; which is to say it aims to establish a legal order that’s basically collectivist, communitarian to the core. The idea is that all Americans should be treated as one huge team lead by Obama or some similar minded politician and his or her cronies, with all property (including human labor) treated as public or social, with the serious implementation of the major step Marx and Engels identified on the road to socialism, namely, the abolition of the right to private property. The modern explication of this idea was laid out by NYU professors Liam Murphy and Thomas Nagel, in their book The Myth of Ownership (Oxford 2002). It is an unabashed attack on the principles of free market economics and individualism (i.e., on a system of law based on Lockean individual rights).

OK, is there any chance to nipping all this in the bud? I can only think of one way to do it, namely, to conduct a political campaign that is relentlessly focused on the threat of the loss of American liberty not just in American but around the globe. This liberty is the true hope of humanity, no the egalitarian nonsense that Obama & Co. preach. What it needed is to run an articulate, self-confident, and unapologetic campaign that emphasises the minimalist thesis of liberty as against the totalitarian thesis that all of us must be herded into a collective mass (of which the best current manifestation is North Korea).

If the Republican candidate for the presidency, or per chance someone else with sufficient support, keeps to this theme and forthrightly refuses to get entangled with side issues like illegal immigration, funding Planned Parenthood, etc., etc.--details that can easily be made to serve to distract Americans from what really is politically important--there is a chance of unseating Obama and his team in time to continue the momentum of the American revolution. The candidate to do this may not yet be in evidence but whoever it will be needs to focus clearly and be superbly articulate and intellectually competent in the effort to advance the cause of liberty.

Now Newt Gingrich and Mitt Romney do not sound bad in debate and on the campaign trail but their ideas are muddled and so their leadership is seriously wanting when it comes to opposing Obama’s populist appeal. That appeal rests on phony hopes and aspirations, on false promises and on magical economics. But packaged in the cool style and rhetoric of Obama and absent competent challenge, it can continue to take the country toward a major setback on the road to realizing its destiny, the fulfillment of the ideas of the Declaration of Independence and, less exactly, the Bill of Rights. It is this mission that must be the candidate’s central purpose, put in the clearest and most informed terms that American citizens can appreciate and support. I am convinced it has a chance in November.