Saturday, March 10, 2012

How Not to Treat Ideas

Tibor R. Machan

The philosophical school I consider most sensible sees ideas as the means by which human beings gain understanding of reality. Ideas are what helps us navigate reality so we can live successfully. Which is why so much effort has been spent on developing, criticizing and analyzing ideas throughout human history, especially in the academy, not just in the sciences but in matters of public concern.

But in the modern age a good many thinkers have come to believe that ideas are actually expressions of passions or interests, brought about so as to promote the satisfaction of desires. Or, in other words, that they are simply ideology.

This attitude appeared to be what lay behind a question some journalists on TV were asking about Ron Paul. On a round table television program I was watching recently, several of journalists were discussing results from the various primaries and caucuses, and some of them asked, “What is Ron Paul after? What does he want? What is driving him?” This in part because, well, he isn’t very likely to win. And the answer that Ron Paul is actually interested in figuring things out and then teaching people something--for example about the US Constitution, about the Federal Reserve system, about the nature of money--just kept being overlooked. No, Paul has to have an agenda of some sort, like wanting to be a vice-presidential candidate, like getting appointed to some federal department, etc. Just advancing and defending certain ideas so as to promote understanding on the part of the electorate seems to be unfathomable to these journalists. There has to be an angle!

Here is one main source of the widespread cynicism about American politics. People look at candidates and office holders as always being out for something--power, wealth, fame, and the like. Wanting to be correct about political matters seems not to matter. Getting it right about the Fed or the US Constitution--that is, truth--is passe. Why?

There is also that related way of dealing with people’s opinions and ideas, namely, by explaining them away as having been caused by one’s upbringing. The often heard question, “Where is he or she coming from?” indicates this approach. When you hold that economic stimulus is folly or helpful, it doesn’t matter whether the idea is true; just explain it either linking it to the person’s special interest or background. Concern yourself with what put the idea in the mind. (Which implies, of course, that the answer to that question will also be treated as having been caused by someone’s background, history, or upbringing, ad infinitum!)

All of this may indicate why so many people in public life don’t really argue about the merits of ideas or positions on various issues but focus, instead, on the motivations and character of those advancing the ideas. And to undermine those ideas, then, will not require better ideas, sound criticism and so forth but, instead, the calling into question of the motivations and character of whoever defends them. Never mind if an idea has merit, ask, instead, what explains that someone holds it and is the motivation benign. Besmirching the thinker is what works, not criticizing what he or she thinks! So as to impugn Ron Paul’s or Mitt Romney’s or Newt Gingrich’s position, link it to some kind of questionable motive. He holds his foreign policy views because he has loyalties to certain foreign countries since his parents or associates were born there! He opposes the Federal Reserve Bank because he hates bankers who help his adversaries, not because the ideas are right and those who oppose them are, well, wrong.

I received an unsolicited email the other day that questioned President Obama’s loyalty to the United States of America, claiming, instead, that he is working for Kenya! I couldn’t resist replying that it doesn’t matter to me if he came from the moon or Mars, what matters is whether he has good ideas on public affairs. Immediately I got a reply saying well it should matter to me if I care about where this country is going.

This kind of reasoning bothers me not only because it commits the informal genetic fallacy, which questions ideas not because of their flaws but because of their origins, but also because I have been subject to similar dismissal of my own thinking: “You come from Communist Hungary, right? So obviously you would think this or that.”


Friday, March 09, 2012

Prudence versus Greed

Tibor R. Machan

Most people mean by greed an “excessive or rapacious desire, especially for wealth or possessions.” As to prudence, it is the quality of being cautious with regard to practical matters and especially in regard for one's own economic interests, being careful in the management of resources, heeding economy and being frugal.

Why is this of any interest? Because the sense of “prudent” as used to mean being economical, frugal is now being distorted by confusing it with being greedy. When Gordon Gekko declares greed to be good in Oliver Stone’s notorious movie, Wall Street--notorious since it managed to exacerbate the already hostile attitude toward business that sadly prevails in much of the world--he doesn’t differentiate between excessive or rapacious desire for stuff and the prudent management of one’s resources. They are lumped together.

And sadly some professional economists tend to agree. When I took my first economics course in the mid-60s at Claremont Men’s (now McKenna) College, my econ prof was University of Chicago PhD Procter Thomson who did use to tell his classes that “greed is good.” But it was said with a mischievous look in his eyes--he didn’t really mean to say that greed as understood as a vice or sin is good, only that the pursuit of one’s self interest, as argued by Adam Smith the father of modern economic science, is useful, enhances economic productivity.

Critics of the free market system have been capitalizing on the casual identification of prudence and greed, the sort that Professor Thomson and quite a few other economists continue to indulge in. That identification has a complex history. In a nutshell, there was a time when prudence counted as one of the most important human virtues, even a moral principle, meaning living carefully, attending to one’s life in a way that will be of benefit to oneself, enhance one’s human excellence. When some girls used to be named “Prudence,” they certainly weren’t meant to be declared greedy. Even the name of that major financial company The Prudential, isn’t meant to convey that those working there are rapaciously bent on acquiring riches. No, the idea is that original one, namely, that being prudent is taking good, proper care of oneself and of one’s clients’ funds.

But then in the 16th century, mostly at the hands of the English philosopher Thomas Hobbes, prudence was used not to much as a term for being careful but for being ambitious, even power hungry. The drive to gain power, wealth and such was taken by Hobbes and his followers to be innate in us, the engine that moved us forward, no different from how other biological imperatives push us to behave as we do. Prudence was thus changed from a virtue to a drive or motive, from a character trait and virtue to an inborn psychological disposition.

This is where we get the idea so many of my students repeat, “Everyone is selfish.” They just cannot help it! And thus there can be no credit or blame ascribed for being prudent--it is how we simply must be, how we are, as it were, hard wired.

But the evolution of ideas is rarely smooth and seamless, so a mixture emerged in time where many, especially in the social sciences, saw prudence as both a drive and an attitude, except it stopped being a praiseworthy one. Being selfish as a prudent person would be got replaced with being selfish as an avaricious or greedy person would be. Since the latter is, of course, widely taken to be a bad trait, its association with economic ambition served the critics of the free market system very nicely: they could now link plain old, innocent economic prudence with a vice! But since the term “prudence” didn’t easily fit this idea, given its honorable original meaning--”greed” became the term which then was used to smear economic self-interest.

So nowadays even those on Wall Street and elsewhere who are trying conscientiously to increase their and their clients’ wealth are dubbed greedy, even as it’s becoming evident to most folks that without their good works the economic system is going to tank.

Just imagine all the brokers, money managers, company presidents and chief financial officers resigning their posts and joining a monastery. That would really boost employment, wouldn’t it?

Wednesday, March 07, 2012

Machan's Archives: Genuine Military Defense Anyone? (updated)

Tibor R. Machan

As much as one may object to Iran's government’s efforts to build atomic weapons, the American government isn’t supposed to be some kind of meta-police that embarks upon restraining such governments! Certainly spending American taxpayers’ funds on conducting military actions against Iran would be going way beyond the proper military role of the American government, which is to protect its citizen’s freedom from domestic and foreign criminals.

It bears remembering here that however off course the American government has gone in its role in the country, the real role it has is to be a government strictly limited to the functions laid out in the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution, which is to stand ready to defend the country when it is attacked or when there is a demonstrably clear and present danger that it will be--not might be--attacked. So the criteria by which one must judge its conduct, both domestic and international, is whether it amounts to such defense.

Sadly, of course, most politicians and bureaucrats, as well as their cheerleaders in the academy and media, don’t give a hoot about restraining the power of government. After all, the same rationale that serves to justify its relentless intervention in our lives at home is what is used to rationalize it abroad. (Does it occur to folks that despite some of the rhetoric of restraint associated with the political thought of President Obama, it is modern liberalism’s interventionism that removes all principled restraint and leads to the imperialist policies of which this Libyan expedition is a case in point? Obama is, after all, a self-professed pragmatist and that means rejecting all principles as mere ideology!)

I am talking, of course, from the position of someone who has always agreed with President George Washington’s warnings about foreign entanglements, made in his farewell address and one implicit in the basic thrust of the American political tradition of limited government. The limitation is not all that tough to grasp: it is self-defense, just as in the case of when people are justified to use force against each other, namely, when they have been attacked, when they encounter an aggressor. This does not include being deprived of someone else’s productive work or resources, including Iran’s oil. If my neighbor refuses to sell me his produce or labor, I have no right to attack him and try to force him to hand these to me because I want them very badly, even need them desperately. And if he arms himself and his family to the teeth in anticipation, justified or not, of being attacked by local gangs, that too is not cause for me to attack him.

Such is the proper standard of international military policy for a bona fide free society and whether that goes contrary to domestics intellectuals, the community of nations, the UN or whoever else sounds off about it, it makes no difference. None of that is going to make it right and, furthermore, one rotten consequence of it is that all the rhetorical opposition to international banditry is certainly going to sound mighty hallow!

Once a country’s government abandons the stance by which its use of force is kept to national defense and nothing else (however tempting it is to breach it), it has lost its moral authority as it criticizes other aggressors around the globe, including that of the Iranian or Syrian government against “its own people”. Rogue regimes everywhere, with their rulers aspiring to impose their will upon everyone, will be able to point to the USA and declare, correctly: “Look at the leaders of the free world, see how they butt into all manner of misconduct by their fellow governments, so clearly it must be permissible for us to act likewise when we disapprove of what others do!”

Just as the philosophy that demands restraining government domestically is the most radical and sound political idea--just compare it to all the imperialism throughout human history embarked upon by hundreds of regimes--so this insistence that governments keep to their oath of protecting the rights of their citizens is radical, sound and sadly neglected.