Archive for January, 2010

Column on Tipping the Scales for Liberty

Tipping the Scales for Liberty

Tibor R. Machan

It has been my experience that people who take politics seriously tend to want to have their idea of a good or just system of laws fully implemented. Yet these people aren’t ignorant about the poor prospects of achieving their goal. Unless a society is being ruled by some incredibly powerful individual or tight knit group, the public policies and laws will be a reflection of a hodge podge of ideas, principles, objectives and so forth. Largely democratic societies are not hospitable to just some given system of justice but will routinely be a reflection of many different notions of how human communities ought to be configured.

Nonetheless, those of us who are serious about politics will not just settle for the plain fact that we cannot have exactly what we judge best, namely, that their pure system of this or that political economy will come to dominate the realm. It would require silencing or making impotent all those with whom one disagrees, something those who strive for liberty may not even consider. Because people aren’t likely to be persuaded of a particular view of how a community should be arranged–something that is true even if there is such a system that has been conceived by some of them–the best that can be achieved is some kind of a mixed political order. And no such mixed system is likely to remain in place for very long because the percentage of those who favor some one way of doing things will keep fluctuating. No sooner will a population emerge with a certain number of socialists, communists, libertarians, monarchists, theocrats and whatever combination of these can be conceived, another one will replace it, one with different percentages exerting influence over laws and public policies.

Nonetheless, despite the truth of the above, it is not futile to strive to bring about the correct, proper, truly just political-economic order. The reason is that the prospect of getting things right about how people ought to live together in their communities is so vital that the mere but real possibility of its actualization makes the striving worth it all. It’s a little like striving to be as healthy or fit or, especially, as good a human individual as one can possibly be. Even without the likelihood of success it is worth giving it all a try. One way to see this is to think of it as a pursuit that is worth undertaking because were it to come to full fruition, nothing much greater could be achieved. That is how important justice is in human communities, as important as moral excellence is in a person’s life.

Sometimes this outlook is deemed to be idealistic or utopian, a virtual guarantee of failure. And, yes, failure is more likely than not, although even the bits of success in this or that human community, for a more or less lengthy period of time, is by no means negligible. And without making the effort to bring about a just society, even such partial accomplishments are going to be absent from most human communities. Just as one’s regular exercise routine undertaken reasonably frequently will not make one perfectly fit or healthy, it will do much more than nothing. The fight for justice is similar–even the fight itself has its valuable results and if one adds the practical accomplishments that come from even a failed effort, its value cannot be disputed.

It is important to come to terms with all this in mixed systems such as those that dominate most of the developed world. Indeed, it is coming to terms with these points and following their practical implications that has made the beneficial development of that world possible. So for those who might be tempted to become discouraged with where the fight for liberty is headed just now it should be pointed out that even a little bit of progress (or prevention of regress) is significant. Yes, the statists are making headway toward re-establishing a coercively run society in many parts of the world but those who understand how destructive this is need not despair. They need to keep in mind that without their vigilance statism would be far more extensive than it is. So they need to keep it up, and not relent, ever.

Column on Do We Need More Guilt?

Do We Need More Guilt?

Tibor R. Machan

It is a running joke, of course, concerning Jewish mothers that they relentlessly try to instill guilt in their children along lines of, “You owe me since I brought you up.” Never mind now that bringing up children is something parents usually sign up for freely and it is a fair assumption that they do so for reasons of their own. There is no gratitude required when they carry out what they themselves decided to do, only if they did it exceptionally well, super-conscientiously. (My own children owe me no more than ordinary respect and some thanks for extras. The rest was all my idea!)

In times like these, when a good many of those in some parts of the globe are hit with massive catastrophes, most decent people not experiencing plight ponder just what they might be able to do to help out. Sending some supplies or money is the usual, normal and sensible answer.

Yet there are those among us who jump at the chance to indict all who are doing reasonably well in these times of confusion and uncertainty, by claiming that we owe everything to those in dire straits; that any joy we experience during these days must be denied a place in one’s life since it would be an insult and affront to those who suffer and who have perished.

I was reflecting on this not just in my usual role as a student of ethics or morality but also as an ordinary person, as I am sure quite a few of us have been doing. I had been on my morning constitutional, walking past some homes in my neighborhood, and I heard laughter coming from some porches or kitchens and thought that this is a welcome sign that the world isn’t quite going to hell in a hand basket, that people go on about with their lives even when some others are having a really bad time of it. And that is, I figure, just as it should be, except for some outreach with effective assistance by those who can handle it.

But I can tell you, from having read the writings of some very influential people, including academics, that that is not what some people in prestigious places would want from us all. Martin Luther King Jr. wrote, for example, that “An individual has not started living until he can rise above the narrow confines of his individualistic concerns to the broader concerns of all humanity.” And academic philosopher Peter Unger wrote–in his provocatively titled book, Living High and Letting Die: Our Illusions of Innocence (Oxford University Press, 1996)–that “On pain of living a life that’s seriously immoral, a typical well-off person, like you and me, must give away most of her financially valuable assets, and much of her income, directing the funds to lessen efficiently the serious suffering of others.” If one takes these proclamations seriously, one will never have any peace at all and defeat the very thing in one’s own life that one is being urged to help support in the lives of others people, namely, personal well being and happiness.

The other side of the coin, however, isn’t to stick one’s head in the sand and pay no attention at all to how others, even total strangers, are faring. In clear emergencies, such as what happened during the Southeast Asia tsunami a few winters ago and what is happening right now in Haiti, decent human beings will take some of their time or resources and chip in not because they may not be happy without doing so but because no such individual ignores the plight of other people who are facing sudden drastic circumstances.

It would be absurd to begrudge those who are living reasonably satisfactory lives what they have in light of the fact that there are others who aren’t so well off. After all, what is one lamenting but the very fact that these others are lacking in what some of us do have (whether deservedly or fortunately)? The idea that just because there are other persons who are disabled or lacking in what they would want, no one may take pleasure in what he or she does have, may have a noble ring to it but it is complete folly. It is contrary to the very point of feeling sorry for those who are in a bad way. It suggests, implicitly, that the best state of affairs would be for everyone to be badly off, for us all to suffer. Sheer nonsense!

Clearly a proper concern for the bad lot of one’s fellow human beings does not entail by any stretch of the imagination the adoption of an ascetic life of one’s own. Showing care for the mishaps of others cannot even be effective if one proceeds to join them in their misery!

Column on Planners and Earthquakes

Planners and Earthquakes

Tibor R. Machan

It is no fun to use the Haiti earthquake as an object lesson–it may take away from the first business of the day, namely, to extend one’s generosity to those who have been devastated by it. Still, once one has done one’s part to help, to send off ones support, there are some lessons, also, to be learned.

One of these is that the effort by governments to plan our lives, to pursue collective economic and related goals, faces yet another obstacle. It is only a reminder, of course, since the fact of which it reminds us surrounds us day in and out, never mind the magnitude of the disruption. Even the daily weather should call to mind the impossibility of massive government planning. Yet the most powerful obstacles to government planning aren’t the phenomena of impersonal but certain basic facts of human nature.

Human beings are the same in only very limited respects. Yes, we all need nourishment and air and shelter and the like but even these we need in a great variety of different ways. Even that prominently promoted idea of universal health care cannot be delivered in a one-size-fits-all fashion since people differ in what can cure their maladies, what ails them, and even in how much value excellent health is to them–a mountain climber, for instance, needs to be far more fit than a columnist!

Even at the elementary levels people are very different from one another. When we factor in their enormously diverse goals and purposes and tastes and preferences, the problem of devising plans for them from afar–a national or state capitol, let alone some international center of political power–multiplies beyond imagination. Even such a widely embraced public policy as is pursued by, say, the Food and Drug Administration of the US Federal Government turns out to be absurd, given how different people are with respect to what kind of medicines will help them, what they are allergic to, what the proper dosage is that will serve them well. Not even their proper weight can be calculated without serious qualification–we have just learned, from the UK, that having a sizable rear end can be a health benefit for some!

The brilliant father of the Austrian School of economics, Ludwig von Mises, and his Nobel Laureate pupil, F. A. Hayek, along with several of their very bright students have shown in the early parts of the 20th century that government planners face literally insurmountable hurdles. If one remembers that their plans are supposed to suit millions and millions of different human individuals, not ants or bees that tend to be pretty much indistinguishable from each other, the notion that their lives can be planned by bureaucrats in far off places becomes evident nonsense. What the economist demonstrated with their sophisticated theories (and what recent history bore out so clearly) is that no one, no group of policy wonks, can figure out how to make us all prosper, how to anticipate what will be best for us economically. Only the spontaneous workings of the free market can do this, wherein the great variety of prices manage to reflect better than anything else can what it is that people need and want and how to fulfill it all by way of a enormously complex system of supply and demand.

A massive earthquake is only a reminder of what the Austrian economists taught with their research and theoretical work–the most reasonable economic system is one that lets decisions be made on the ground, among the free men and women who make the market do its work. Of course, hardly any politicians can readily admit this since they must always pretend that without their meddling in our lives we would all remain inept and helpless. But as Adam Smith and many other economists have made clear, the best plans are laid by those who must live with them, not by people in high places. Even when a disaster like that in Haiti hits, and when worldwide efforts are extended to try to lessen its blow, it must be those at ground zero who ultimately decide what sort of help, and where, is most fruitful.

Government planning is not only an enemy of human freedom but also a major obstacle to economic efficiency.

Perils of Soft Paternalism (From Machan Archive)

Perils of State Soft Paternalism

Tibor R. Machan

Jim Holt discusses the recent debate about soft paternalism, in his essay in this Sunday’s, New York Times Magazine. His “The New, Soft Paternalism” is a fair and pretty thorough account of the debate about whether people have multiple selves of which some may be wiser than others and it does a decent job of considering whether the wiser selves we have ought to get government support, as when states limit gambling or other easily abused activities by their citizens. Holt comes out in favor of the government’s lending a hand to our wiser selves in the end. Here is how he put his conclusion:

“But what if you are one of those people who rely on more mundane stratagems, like self-binding? The general problem you face (as put by the political theorist Jon Elster [a member of the analytical Marxist school, by the way]) is this: For a given uphill goal and a given strength of will, does there exist a path, however circuitous, that will get you to the top of the hill? By adding a new path here and there, state soft paternalism makes it more likely that the answer will be yes.”

A couple of preliminaries. Invoking David Hume’s idea of the totally—indeed, impossibly—fragmented human self is a non-starter here. For Hume the idea was not to show that there is no self. He advance the notion merely as a reductio absurdum argument against radical empiricism, to show that simply relying on our senses gets us nowhere in trying to understand anything, including ourselves. Of course we have different ideas and desires, with some of us remaining intact over time while others waffling about with no integrity at all. Yet even the worst of us, with the most discombobulated personalities and unhinged character, can have some good moments during which we try to set about straightening our who we will be henceforth–just think of all the New Year’s resolutions here. And, yes, a bit of push from peers and institutions may help when such folks are ready to lapse once again.

Now it might be tempting to do what Jim Holt, on the advice of Jon Elster, is proposing, get the state involved here. State soft-paternalism has its greatest appeal not because of its successes and because good theory supports it, quite the contrary. It appeals because of the powerful governmental habit that has been cultivated in the human race from time immemorial. This is a bit akin to the root idea behind paternalism—”parents know best.” And that’s right for most kids, of course; for adults, however, it is a disabling, inept approach to dealing with life and gives dangerous powers to governments.

The governments of most societies have, of course, sold themselves to the people as their parents—or uncles or nannies—who have nothing but the best interest of their children, the people, in mind. Kings notoriously justified themselves along these lines, as have dictators. What differentiates democratic governments is merely the fact that they work by a process of decisions-by-committee and there are numerous competing committees vying to dominate until in the end a decision is reached that supposedly has had the benefit of extensive discussion. Of course, the decision will be coercively imposed but, presumably, wiser then many private decisions would be.

Now this is the kind of view that began to be questioned with the writings of Baruch Spinoza. Thomas Hobbes, writing just a bit before Spinoza, made the mistake of trusting the democratically selected absolute monarch, arguing, like Holt and Elster, that people want themselves to be ruled and a king or government is just who should do the ruling. But as Spinoza began to suggest and, later, classical liberals like John Locke, Adam Smith, and a host of others began to warn us, governments aren’t made up of angels but people. People with the crucial added attribute that makes it easy to yield to bad temptations, namely, power over other people.

In the 20th century Jim Buchanan and Gordon Tullock finally put the idea into a fully developed theory called “Public Choice” which argued that politicians and bureaucrats will routinely pursue their own agendas, not those assigned to them by the people via the democratic process. Now this pretty much means that entrusting government to engage in benign soft paternalism is futile.

Yes, some people could benefit from this if it could be counted upon—although that alone doesn’t make it good public policy either—but counting upon government to administer soft paternalism without corruption, without abuse, is the big mistake embraced by the likes of Jim Holt, Jon Elster, and, sadly, millions of others across the globe.

Essay on Self-interest (from Machan’s Archives)

What is the Nature of Self-Interest?

Tibor R. Machan

The beauty of free market capitalism is that it does not require anything more than ruthless self-interest from its most ruthless self-interested citizens. When the system works properly they enrich us all by enriching themselves without giving the matter a great deal of thought. If that is no longer true it is a sign not that they are less moral, but that the invisible link between private gain and the public good has been severed. (Michael Lewis, “Lend the Money and Run,” The New Republic, December 7, 1992)
This observation, made in a review essay of books by Nicholas von Hoffman, Capitalist Fools: Tales of American Business, from Carnegie to Forbes to the Milken Gang [Doubleday, 1992], and James Grant, Money of the Mind: Borrowing and Lending in America from the Civil War to Michael Milken [Farrar, Strauss & Giroux, 1992], has several questionable assumptions embedded in it. And they are all worthy of some scrutiny. For although some economists who champion the free market embrace some version of the idea Lewis relates, even their use of it does not quite fit Lewis’ characterization.
First, Lewis assumes we all understand what “self-interest” means. But from the time of Plato to ours there has been a serious debate as to whether self-interest means “doing what one wants” “doing what is of concern to one,” or “doing what one actually benefits from (by some objective standard of what benefits a person).” There is nothing remotely “ruthless” about doing the latter, while the former borders on being tautologi¬cal when understood as many economist understand it. But it is the latter sense that critics of the market focus upon, claiming that such selfishness is callous, amoral and can produce high untoward consequences. They then derive from this a moral critique of the free market, forgetting that there are other sense of self-interest that may well escape such criticism and that even in their criticism they fail to acknowledge the most important element of morality to which free markets do homage.
The self-interest thesis critics attribute to economists amounts to the view that people act because they want to act, so invoking it as a characterization of what they do makes little sense unless they smuggle in some objective standard of what benefits oneself. In other words, the self-interest referred to in economic analysis is really what Milton Friedman said it is in his Nobel Prize acceptance address, namely, “The private [i.e., self] interest is whatever it is that drives an individual. (Milton Friedman, “The Line we Dare Not Cross,” Encounter, November 1976, p. 11) By this account, both Michael Milken and Mother Teresa act from self-interest. But what is true is that both have their own motives from which they act. Those motives, however, may be very different and to understand their conduct it is this difference that is most interesting. Knowing that they both want to do what they are doing isn’t going to tell us a lot. Yet that is all that being “self-interested” seems to mean here.
Second, the claim assumes we know what it means for some system of political economy to work properly. But there is a great deal of dispute about that. Does a system work properly if it enhances justice? Or economic prosperity? Or equality of well-being? Or stability? Or peace? Or all of these? Or God’s purposes for us by reference to Scripture, the Torah, or some other good book?
Indeed, those who talk along these lines may well have some hidden idea–even from themselves–of what “works” means, usually, advancing some ideal they hope they share with their readers. But that is just what is mistaken, especially in this age of multiculturalism: There are too many competing social ideals and by some accounts we aren’t even supposed to ask which is better, which has greater validity.
Yet without addressing that issue, there simply is no way to determine what system of political economy works. For example, it needs to be shown that a system that achieves equality of opportunity or aggregate prosperity or the protection of individual rights or spiritual enlight¬enment is to be preferred over ones that achieve some other objective instead. Yet when public discussion ensues concerning what kind of system works, it often seems that these matters are left untouched.
Third the claim assumes that being moral consists of doing things not for oneself but for the public interest, understood in some fashion or another. We find in the remark a necessary schism between private gain and the public good.
Just why are we to assume that this is what it is to be moral? After all, if the public is worth benefiting, why would not private citizens also be worth benefiting? Just because the public is large? But that assumes that mere numbers make something worthy. Yet a lot of scoundrels are worse than one good individual. Indeed, even in simple altruism, whereby benefiting others is good but oneself is at best morally irrelevant, why should this be so? After all, the agent is also a person who has needs and wants and why would serving those needs and wants rate lower than serving the needs and wants of others?
There are probably other assumptions involved here but these are of direct interest to us. The unabashed invocation of the Smithian doctrine, expressed so aptly by Bernard Mandeville, namely, “private vice, public benefits,” is instructive. It shows that we still embrace the conflict between the individual and common good that gave rise to many of our troubles. By this doc¬trine, people can only exonerate themselves morally when doing something that is to their benefit if this is done so that others also benefit. Moreover, even than one isn’t gaining moral credit, only escaping moral blame. For if one does not benefit others while benefiting oneself, one’s action lacks redeeming moral worth. The reason is that the agent is never taken to be worthy of benefit¬ing from his or her actions, only others are. Yet, that makes very little sense–why would other people be worthy of concern but not the agent who acts?
Not only does this view condemn many people in business to lacking in all moral worth–all those, namely, who are not guilty of moral wrongs but possess no positive moral achievement either by virtue of their business successes–but nearly all artists, scientists, educators, athletes, etc., who do what they do because they deem it to be to their own benefit, something they themselves value or find fulfilling. Most great artists do not set out to serve other persons but create their works because they have a vision they want to realize. The greatest scientists do not usually engage in their work because they want to benefit humanity but because they are intrigued by some problem.
The same view of what is moral that condemns people in business to moral irrelevance also condemns nearly everyone who isn’t a martyr or saint. Which is already enough to call it into question.
So instead of such sloppy approach to a vital problem, what needs to be addressed is just what kind of political economic system should human beings establish and maintain.