Archive for February, 2010

Machan Archives: Adoration of Regulation

Adoration of Government Regulation

Tibor R. Machan

On a recent Monday I went to hear a talk by Professor James K. Galbraith, author of the free market-bashing book, Predator State: How Conservatives Abandoned the Free Market and Why Liberals Should Too. The talk repeated what so many modern liberals have been saying about the current financial fiasco, namely, that it’s all due to the free market, to the late Milton Friedman’s influence, and that deregulation is mostly to blame.

This is not especially novel, given that nearly everything wrong with America is blamed by such modern liberals on, well, the absence of sufficient modern liberalism in the country’s governance. Why not? Champions of the free market make similar claims when trouble arises—modern liberalism is to blame. And I am often among the latter group. I admit—I am much more favorably disposed toward the principles of a fully free society than toward those of a mixed economy (or even fiercer government involvement in the economy).

Let me spend a line or two explaining why I find the hosannas sung to government regulation by the likes of Professor Galbraith so bizarre. First, government regulators are people, no different from those whom they set out to regulate. Second, governments make use of physical force or its threat in order to achieve their goals, while the free market relies on voluntary interaction by market agents. Third, government regulators lack the restraints that market agents face when they carry out their plans in the market place—namely, the need to earn their resources from willing lenders or buyers. Governments can raise their resources through taxation which is collected whether those paying it chose to pay or not. Fourth, government regulators tend to be far removed from the firms and people they regulate, relying on vague, general information instead of local knowledge that market agents use as they make their decisions.

Other differences exists that, in my view, clearly favor market processes as against government regulation—public choice theory (for which Professor James Buchanan received the Nobel Prize and which was left totally out of consideration by Professor Galbraith in his talk), explains them very well. But let me focus on one particular point made by Professor Galbraith in his support of extensive government regulation. He noted that people in the People’s Republic of China prefer buying goods from America because American goods are produced with the benefit of government regulation. So they can be trusted, while those in regions around the globe that lack government regulation are untrustworthy.

This is what is called in logic a non-sequitor because the conclusion does not follow from the premises. Chinese may buy American goods but that could be for innumerable reasons other than that government regulates the production processes. Generally American production has a very favorable reputation around the globe. Yes, American goods tend to cost more but that’s because American labor and management is more expensive than labor and management elsewhere. However, one tends to get what one pays for, namely, pretty good products.

American technology is far more advanced than technology elsewhere, which also contributes to the higher quality of American goods. Science and technology in America is top of the line—just count the number of American scientists who have won the Nobel Prize and consider how many foreigners come to study at American technical universities such as MIT and Cal Tech.

Furthermore, even if some of the confidence in American products stems from the fact that there is government regulation in America, it doesn’t follow that government regulation is indispensable. There are plenty of scholars who have found egregious flaws in the regulatory process, such as the slowing down of drugs coming on the market because of irrational rules imposed by the Food and Drug Administration, the capture of regulator agencies by the very firms they are supposed to regulate impartially, etc.

In addition, and very importantly, Professor J. C. Smith’s “The Processes of Adjudication and Regulation, A Comparison,” published in a book I helped edit, Rights and Regulation, Ethical, Political, and Economic Issues (Pacific Institute for Public Policy Research, 1983) lays out the case in favor of changing from government regulation to legal adjudication where now the former is deemed to be necessary.

Finally, there is a fundamental injustice involved in most government regulation. This is prior restraint. Burdens are imposed on citizens who are being subjected to government regulation without it having been demonstrated (in court) that these burdens are deserved. This amounts to treating citizens as if they had been convicted of a crime whereas, in fact, all that can be held against them is that they might possibly do something wrong, injurious, harmful to someone. If the criminal law operated this way we would all be in jail.

The adoration of government regulation is misplaced and belongs with the ancient practice of deference to the monarch who was deemed to be superior in wisdom and virtue to ordinary “subjects.” This habit should be tossed. Free men and women deserve better.

A nifty passage for Salzman

There is a story that Communism, Capitalism, and Socialism decided to have lunch together one day. Communism and Capitalism were on time, but Socialism arrived late. He said, “I’m sorry I am late, but I had to queue up to buy some sausage.” Communism said, “What’s a sausage?,” and Capitalism said “What’s a queue?” [The Laughing Sutra, p. 210]

Column on them Philosophical Differences

How about them Philosophical Differences?

Tibor R. Machan

President Obama and others at the summit Thursday (2/25/10) kept talking about philosophical difference between his team and the Republicans but what did they have in mind?

By “philosophical” most mean “basic,” or “fundamental.” Possibly “systemic” could also be meant. Bottom line is that believing in an extensive role of the federal government in determining the health care requirements of American citizens differs from believing in an extensive role by individuals and their providers doing so. The president is right, however, to point out that it is now too late for any Republican to beef about heavy federal involvement in medical care and insurance, given that the Food and Drug Administration has been around for many decades and Medicare is also a near fixture on the American scene, not to mention the vast amount of government regulations, federal, state, municipal, we have in our mixed economy. So any Republican who complains about extensive federal involvement is way too late–we already have it in place, now it is just about how much more of such involvement should be accepted.

There is another philosophical issue that’s hovering around the debates and that is about whether everyone in American must have nearly equal coverage and care. Republicans keep trying to resist this objective for a variety of reasons, including the enormous expense it is projected to involve; the huge differences between different (groups of) American citizens for whom no one-size-fits-all health care and insurance approach will work; the differential burdens such a system will create for Americans, with the young carrying the bulk of it and the old the benefits, and so forth. So it doesn’t look like Obama’s full egalitarian agenda has a chance, not if practical considerations matter in the decisions that will be reached.

On the other hand, the rhetoric of equal provisions for everyone–whether with or without pre-existing conditions, whether prudent or imprudent in their health management, whether fortunate or not as to vulnerability to ailments–is difficult if not impossible for Republicans to rebut. They have no philosophical equipment with which to respond to this egalitarian pitch, so they just have to swallow when the president’s team brings up how unacceptable it is when an insurance company considers pre-existing conditions as disqualifying someone for insurance. Of course any responsible insurance company management would take that into consideration! It may be lamentable but there is nothing unjust or morally objectionable about this. To maintain otherwise is to deny the insurers their basic right to choose with whom they want to do business and to pursue a profitable enterprise rather than a losing one, etc.

But in order to present this kind of point, one must drop all the hand wringing about what is admittedly lamentable but cannot be helped. People who have been sick, especially with chronic ailments, are not a good risk to insure and those who want to make a living by selling insurance will tend to avoid doing business with them. And that is, really, their basic right in a free society unless they present themselves in the market place as not concerned with the issue, as open for anyone’s business regardless of pre-existing conditions. But to force the insurers to do business with anyone, never mind their own terms of prudence, is wrong and should not be proposed in a free country however nice it would be to help everyone.

But Republicans are philosophically disarmed from making this point, especially from making it insistently, emphatically, because the Obama team is ready to pounce on them as being mean and nasty if they do. And Republicans are ill equipped, philosophically–that is to way, when it comes to their basic principles–to keep insisting. For them to do so they would have to return to the founding principles of the American republic, to mentioning individual rights and so forth. But then, of course, Obama and his team could point fingers at them for being inconsistent, for lacking integrity, seeing how they have accepted a great many egalitarian government edicts, regulations, policies over the the decades.

The little commitment to individual liberty and free market transactions left within the ranks of Republicans just isn’t going to give them intellectual–philosophical–leverage against a clever bunch of egalitarians.

Machan Archives: Corruption of Liberty

Peddling the Corruption of Liberty

Tibor R. Machan

Ever since the idea of individual liberty has achieved some measure of credibility over the world, those who would be unseated by its limited triumph had to find some way to discredit it or trump it somehow. One way was to re-christen servitude, to make it appear like an even more important kind of liberty than what individual liberty, properly understood, amounts to.

When a human being is free in the most important, political sense, he or she is sovereign. This means that one governs one’s own life—others must refrain from intruding on this life, plain and simple. That life may be fortunate or not, rich or not, beautiful or not, and many other things or not, but what matters is that that life is no one else’s to mess with. One gets to run it, no one else does.

Now this is a very uncomfortable idea for all those folks who see all kinds of benefits from running other people’s lives. But they cannot champion this now in so many words, what with individual liberty having gained solid enough standing, so the only way to remedy matters for them is to claim that their oppression brings even greater freedom to people than the respect and protection of individual liberty.

So, we have the kind of “freedoms” propounded by Franklin D. Roosevelt, the freedoms now dubbed “positive.” These freedoms do not get rid of those who would use you, interfere with you, invade your life, rob, kill, or assault you but promise, to the contrary, to take good care of you without your having to do much by invading others, by violating their individual liberties. These are the entitlement rights offered up by proponents of the welfare state, all those who claim that government is best when it is generous, when it becomes the Nanny State—meaning, when it enslaves Peter to serve Paul.

I am not sure about what exactly motivates this ruse—some of it is surely the thirst for power. When you want to enslave people, promise them a special kind of liberty. Castro managed to win over millions of Cubans this way, as did other Marxists in Eastern Europe and in Latin America.

Maybe a few folks actually honestly believed that this kind of political alternative is best for us all, but it is difficult to imagine what would persuade them of such a fraudulent notion. Giving people this positive freedom must always involve depriving other people of their individual liberty, their “negative” freedom, which is to say, their sovereignty and their freedom from having others interfere with their lives, from depriving them of their resources and labor and regulating them to the hilt.

Now, there is little that can be done about this in the short run—when people put their minds to such deceptions, the only ultimate defense is clear thinking and vigilance, which is unfortunately always in short supply and needs to be slowly cultivated. Too many people are tempted by the promise of effortless living, of getting all their problems solved at the point of a gun turned on others who will be coerced to come up with the solutions. This is such a sweet notion to those who are lazy, who feel left out, or who believe that they are entitled to everything all those who are better off already have going for them, so the power-hungry have a good marketing ploy here. Envy, maybe, or the bogus political ideologies promoted by those who just must step in to govern the world as they see fit—as I say, I am not sure what kind of mental acrobatics manages to allow people to live with themselves in peace who perpetrate such fraud.

I do know of one prominent one, namely, that those who want to wield control over others believe they are on the side of goodness, virtue and justice. Making people “good” is their goal, they proclaim. Yet this just cannot be since people are only good, morally and ethically, if they choose to be. Otherwise they at most simply behave well, like robots or puppets.

Despite the fact that there is little one can do in response, other than to keep spelling out just how misguided it all is, perhaps now and then institutional barriers can also be built. Yet, since they too depend upon ideas, ideas that are so easily corrupted, the only real answer is the old one about eternal vigilance. I say, it’s worth it, so let’s go for it.

Column on Progress & Philosophy

Is There Progress in Philosophy?

Tibor R. Machan

Often those who study the history of philosophy and compare it to the history of other, especially scientific, disciplines, complain that in philosophy no progress is made, that philosophers keep talking about the same thing in each age, that nothing ever gets resolved, etc., and so forth. (Articles on this topic are available in many forums, e.g., Todd C. Moody, “Progress in Philosophy,” American Philosophical Quarterly, Vol. 23 [January 1986]:34-46) and the entry “Philosophical Progress,” in the on-line encyclopedia, Wikipedia [at]).

Here I am taking it as true that there is no progress in philosophy, not comparably to what is evident in, say, chemistry or physics or anthropology. It appears clear that in each age most of the same philosophical issues are debated, theorized about or reflected upon as are explored in others, albeit in somewhat different terms. Thus the topic of free will may get rechristened “human agency” yet the basic problem in focus is the same–are people free to determine or cause some of what they do? Ancient, modern, and contemporary philosopher all address it, with only a few exceptions and opposite positions are defended in every age. Whether God exists, does the universe have a beginning, what is the nature of moral goodness and evil–all these issues keep getting revisited and though answers are defended, they do not seem to have lasting power but seem to need renewed support again and again.

I want to suggest a reason why this is how it is with philosophy and why that fact doesn’t diminish the discipline’s importance, nor its capacity to arrive at true conclusions. It isn’t a very complicated explanation, actually. It is modeled somewhat loosely on individual developmental psychology. To whit, it is well recognized that teens tend to resist explicitly stated advice from elders. Arguably they do accept, at least subconsciously, leadership if it comes in the way of examples set for them by intimates. Becoming financially responsible, for example, may involve encountering one’s parents’ or guardians’ repeated responsible conduct–if they routinely pay their bills, keep their promises, etc., so the teens can witness this without however preaching the practice at them, this is quite likely to carry influence.

One reason may be that teens are in the process of taking over the management of their lives and want to learn about this from their very own experience and practice rather than from explicit instructions. They need to know directly that they are doing what they choose to do, not merely blindly following other people’s advice. Even the more complex matters of accepting their family’s values, religious or political, seem to follow this process. If the teens are not being badgered about what they should believe, about the convictions that their parents want for them to embrace, they are more likely than not to follow their parents. Teens are about to assume the governance of their affairs and to do this they would naturally want to start thinking for themselves. So they, or at least the bright ones among them, are likely to resist just being told everything.

It is quite probable that human beings confront their most important and basic issues, ones treated within philosophy, similarly. A new generation will not take kindly to just accepting, without question and personal involvement, the vital ideas from past generations even if these ideas turn out to be right. It seems more likely that they will want to reconsider the basics on their own, with just some help from those who dealt with them earlier. And philosophy is where the basics are studied, examined, criticized, accepted or rejected.

Philosophy is also a discipline in which discussions are not thoroughly fraught with specialized jargon but are conducted in fairly ordinary terms. Everyone can, with a bit of effort, access these ideas, in other words, instead of submitting to the authority of experts as one would normally do in the case of most of the sciences, even when these bear directly on one’s life, such as medicine, nutrition, biology, psychology, or sociology (although in some of its special areas philosophy can get quite complex and even convoluted, just as do the sciences). Thus most who have an interest in philosophy will want to and are likely to be able to explore its topics directly or through participation in the work of contemporaries, not by reading up on the topics as dealt with in the past.

This, then, places into the hands of a certain group of people in every new generation the task of revisiting the topics of the field. These would include, as already noted, “Is there a God?” “Is there free will?” “Can we know the world?” “Is it possible to be objective?” “Are principles of conduct made up or discovered?” “What exactly is justice or equality or liberty?” And so forth and so on.

No new generation will want such matters to be simply handed down from earlier ones. Sure, help from those who have addressed them will be welcome but not decisive. So there is not going to be rapid progress in the field, if any progress at all. Refinements of well travelled solutions are more likely to be the products of philosophical inquiry and reflection and, significantly, there is not going to be any “at the end of the day” about them. The day of such investigations never ends. And that is just as it must be–anything else would go contrary to human nature!