Archive for February, 2011

Column on Krugman and Bias

Krugman and Bias

Tibor R. Machan

In a recent column Princeton economist a regular New York Times columnist Paul Krugman claims that the economics profession–including the editors of scholarly journals and the staff at econ departments–is fraught with bias. This is a serious charge, impugning the integrity of those involved. Any scientist in any discipline who engages in biased thinking is disloyal to his oath of office, one might say.

Now if the bulk of those in a given scientific or scholarly discipline have reached conclusions in favor of certain systems or policies, this could be the result of bias but it need not be. Accordingly, the term “bias” may be severely misused by Krugman.

Suppose engineers favor lighter versus heavier materials in building skyscrapers. Would this be a bias? Only if they did so without a sound reasons. Taking a certain stance in economics need not be a bias by any means. It can be well grounded, supported by research and analysis.

All of the practical disciplines involve selectivity–e.g., in medicine safer and more effective drugs are selected over other ones. Again, only if the reason for this is unjustified would that amount to a bias. So when Kgurman advocates the injection of more stimuli into the economy this, too, need not amount to a Keynesian bias unless it is done thoughtlessly. And what other economists are doing when they defend public policies that are based on free market economic theories might but need not be a bias. It could derive from honest and competent investigation in their field of study.

But there is a difficulty about all this. Throughout the history of the social sciences there has been a problem with reaching policy conclusions, with making claims about what bureaucrats, politicians, and others who are responsible to propose what should be done ought to say and do. This is because of the powerful influence of value-free thinking in the epistemological foundations of these sciences.

The very influential 18th century Scottish philosopher David Hume and later the positivist school of the philosophy of science that followed his lead insisted that no one can establish any solid foundations for what ought to or ought not to be done. As the point is often put, no “ought” can be derived from “is.” (Actually, Hume argued that none can be deduced but this has been widely misunderstood to mean that no argument can be given for normative conclusions based on observations and descriptions of facts. But that view, if true, would abolish all of the practical sciences.)

Because of the widespread acceptance of this epistemological stance, the overwhelming majority of social scientists took it as an article of proper science that all statements favoring how one ought to proceed, be this in private conduct or public policy, amounted to something unsupportable–a bias or prejudice–instead of something defensible by human reason and research.

Whether this outlook is sound is a very long story and cannot be explored in a brief discussion but it can be said that there is much debate about it. One very big problem with it is that it is self-defeating since it issues a conclusion about how scientists ought to do their work, the very thing that the position says no one can reasonably do. But, in any case, this idea that all value judgments, recommendations as to how people out to act, must amount to biases has been quite prominent.

Accordingly whether it is the free market or statism that is being defended by an economist, by the the tenets of the prominent underlying philosophy of science it will always amount to a bias. In short, no one can rationally defend some policy of action since these all involve saying what should or ought to be done.

What then is left for policy studies? Only the determination of whether a policy has widespread support. In a largely democratic society that means whether the voting public favors or opposes it. But that doesn’t do away with the theoretical problem–the majority’s choice of policy is still no more than a bias according to this view.

By now, of course, the philosophical case in favor of construing all policy proposals as expressing no more than a bias has been widely disputed but, sadly, this hasn’t had a major impact on how many social scientists think. Some tend to sense that there is something amiss with the idea but that doesn’t mean they have come up with a cogent alternative.

In any case, what Krugman is doing in labeling the free market stance a bias is either saying something that is obvious since all policy positions are biases from his perspective; or he is begging the question, which is a serious logical fallacy. He would need to show that the free market stance is unjustified, flawed, and advocated only as a matter of a personal prejudice, which of course he has not done.

So what Krugman has done instead is distort the meaning of “bias” to serve his own ideological opposition to–we could call it his own “bias” against–the free market.

Column on Where Multiculturalism is OK

Where Multiculturalism is OK

Tibor R. Machan

It is reported that France’s, England’s and Germany’s leaders have issued an announcement claiming that multiculturalism is a failure. But are they right? Or perhaps it is more likely that implementing multiculturalism the way it has been tried in these and many other countries cannot work? Multiculturalism requires a particular kind of legal system. Not any will do.

What is multiculturalism? For political purposes it is the idea that members of different cultures can co-exists within a given legal order. But what order might that be? (There is an untenable philosophical idea of multiculturalism which holds that every culture is equally sound, equally well suited to human community life, which is clearly bunk.)

Now if members of different cultures are expected to co-exists as in the same family or fraternity or church, there will be serious problems, irresolvable conflicts afoot. Take those who believe in polygamy or who think women must not show any skin in public. Surely close coexistence between such folks and others who don’t share these practices is going to be difficult. But impossible?

In a society that strictly upholds the principle of private property rights the potential for conflict among members of even radically different cultures and religions is drastically curtailed. This is fairly obvious–if you stick to your own place as you practice your culture’s edicts and principles, you are not going to run into much opposition. Frank can do his bull fighting in his arena but you need not join him and can ban it where you are in charge. I can marry as many women as will have me where I am the owner of the realm while you can insist on the practice of monogamy where you are.

Crisscrossing the various cultures in such a society would be by mutual consent. No one would be required to admit into his or her realm those of whose cultural practices one disapproves. Catholics would not need to accept the practices of Jews or Muslims or atheists where they are the proprietors. And the examples can multiply endlessly.

Now it has to be admitted that there are limits to what a regime of private property can make room for as far as diverse practices are concerned. It would not be permitted to intrude upon other people who don’t consent to such intrusion. One could not trespass on to other people’s land and various spheres either. So if one’s culture demands that one invade the spaces of others, that would not be permissible. But that is a restriction that everyone should be able to live with since if one’s practices are important, they would be important mainly to oneself and one’s fellow faithful or cultural mates. To impose these on non-believers could not be necessary so as to be loyal to the creed.

It was the late Harvard political philosopher Robert Nozick who called attention to this feature of a genuine free society. He called it “experiments in utopia”–innumerable different approaches to community life carried out side by side with the only common requirement that everyone’s basic rights, especially private property rights, are respected and protected. In his powerful book, Anarchy, State, and Utopia (Basic Books, 1974), he argued that while other systems demand a one size fits all policy for everyone to follow, in a free society there is room for a great variety of ways to live.

America in a way approximates this and has done so all along. Maybe more of that is what we need to create peace among people. And maybe that is one reason why some Americans hope that their ways are going to spread around the globe.

In contrast, consider the religious conflicts in Jerusalem where three different faiths are all laying claim to one realm instead of dividing it and living peacefully together. The public square can never be truly multicultural while a group of private ones definitely can.

Column on Holding One’s Nose for Principles

Holding One’s Nose for Principles

Tibor R. Machan

One of the difficulties with standing on principle is that often one is defending them when they are practiced by bad people. Or when bad conduct is involved. In both kinds of cases one may have no sympathy at all for the specific but still finds it important to defend the principle, as when one defends sleazy journalists or artists against those who would want to censor them.

In England recently a couple of homosexuals won a court case that forces bread and breakfast places to rent to them even when the owners disapprove of homosexuality. And, of course, the argument advanced was all about public accommodations, as if opening one’s establishment for rent somehow committed one to accept every prospective renter. Why is that supposed to be a knock down argument for forcing renters to rent to anyone? Presumably because commerce is a public action.

Now by this line of reasoning censorship, too, should be allowed since most material that’s the target of it is sold or viewed in public places or places that are adjacent to public places. This is how imposing government smoking regulations and bans on restaurants and bars is legally justified–these places all open on to public roads or sidewalks, so they are “affected with a public interest,” a phrase first used in the USA by the Supreme Court in Munn v. Illinois (1877). Never mind that newspapers are often sold in kiosks and on street corners. But because of the explicit protection provided in the First Amendment to the U. S. Constitution, they are immune to government regulation. (This may not hold as statute in the UK but is more of a tradition there, while it is indeed a constitutional principle in the USA.)

Whatever the law is, the moral fact of the matter is that one’s sayings and writings may not be banned or regulated by anyone. Nor should one’s decisions as to one’s trading partners be subject to government regulation, however odious the terms are by which one accepts or rejects a trading partner.

Of course, in innumerable cases even if the government wants to regulate terms or trade it just cannot do so. One may decide not to purchase goods or services someplace because one knows that the owners are of a faith or political position that one opposes. Or they are of a race against which one is irrationally hostile. Millions of shoppers are free to engage in such unjust discrimination, while, of course, vendors are not (which, by the way, violates a cardinal feature of the rule of law, namely, that every one is equal under the law–shoppers and vendors alike).

Conceivably, however, having announced in an advertisement that one’s bed and breakfast place is available for rent does commit one to rent to any civilized person who comes up with the proper funds. Yes, that is a pretty good argument but in a free society it can be circumvented by making it clear, up front, that one does not accept certain people as prospective renters. So if you place a notice to that affect in the advertisement or by the entrance, there ought to be no objection to excluding those whom you don’t chose to deal with even if what you are doing is morally insidious.

The mere fact that one trades may not be used to subject parties to the trade to public micromanagement. After all, marriages are usually public–one must get a license–and so are many other noncommercial interactions with people. In a free society one must tolerate those who would deploy deplorable criteria for these as well as for doing business.

As much as it is a contemptible practice to reject homosexuals or blacks or whoever as prospective trading partners, it is even more contemptible to rob people of the liberty to determine whether they will do business with certain others. Yes, they need to be up front, otherwise by the standard of the reasonable person it is understood that anyone is welcome; yet if that is not one’s choice, however insidious that may be, one who openly opts out ought not to be made to embrace it. Let neighbors, colleagues, family, friends and others exert peer pressure or boycotts so as to change such people’s ways. But do not coerce them to do the right thing–it must be their free choice.

Unjustly discriminating against people isn’t assault or battery or some other kind of aggression, so the law must not interfere with it.

Column on Besmirching Libertarianism

Besmirching Libertarianism

Tibor R. Machan

Now that libertarianism has gotten some publicity in mainstream forums, those who are convinced of its merit have much work to do. This is because of the well publicized distortions of the position in prominent forums, especially by well credentialed academics in law, political economy, ethics, philosophy, and other disciplines bearing on public policy. You see, the idea that no one ought to coerce another even for noble purposes is pretty much common sense in America. Sure, some folks disagree, among them many highfalutin academics with great skills at sophistry. But the bulk of those who vote pretty much agree that when you want something from your fellows, you need to ask them instead of robbing them. So when this is being denied, lots of fancy footwork needs to be deployed, which is just what’s being done by numerous pundits at The New York Times and other outfits that champion all kinds of coerced wealth redistribution. (Of course, wealth redistribution goes on peacefully all the time, but that’s not under these statists’ control, so they don’t like it!)

What you can expect from these people is fancy discussions about how, in fact, the American system gives the legal authority to Congress and others in government to take, take, and take anything they want from you and me, as well as to force you to do what they want you to, “for the public interest.” And to make their case more palatable, they need to make it appear that the libertarian reading of the US political tradition–that reading that made it exceptional instead of just a watered down version of feudalism–is callous, heartless, and bent on undermining the public good at every turn. By besmirching the position this way, the unsophisticated citizenry, whose members are libertarian at the gut or second nature level, might then get turned around and give the statists the power they clamor for.

But here is an important piece of information that one can use to rebut this underhanded effort to discredit human liberty and to empower the statists: the American political system has a very clear doctrine of the public good (or interest). It is stated in the Declaration of Independence and it consists of a system of laws that secure the natural rights of the citizenry. That’s the American version of the public interest, namely, protecting everyone’s liberty to live his or her life by his or her own judgment. That is why a legal system is instituted, not to serve other ends, the bulk of which are, of course, on the agendas of the statists. What the Founders did so brilliantly is discern the public good or interest correctly, based on what in fact all members of the public will benefit from. And this is their being free from aggression by other people even when such aggression would be deployed for high sounding objectives.

Now it is very tempting to designate everything someone badly desires as being in the public interest. Just listen to all those lobbyists who march to centers of power peddle their special interests as in need of being pursued for the public good. But this is a ruse and it is precisely in the proper public interest to unmask and resist it, which is everyone’s basic right to life, liberty and property. That is what everyone benefits from without any cost to anyone else. That is a bona fide public good, not some trumped up version which always amounts to ripping some people off so that the goals of some others get served.

All this is vital to remember as one witnesses the desperate efforts of sophisticated statists to discredit human liberty, to label it “fundamentalism” and other ad hominems. Sadly the prominent, prestigious forums are mostly in the hands of statists so there will not be much of a chance to do intellectual battle with these sophists on the turfs them dominate. Have you ever read anyone in The New York Review of Books who had a nice thing to say about individual liberty or free markets? Just like Karl Marx did with the right to property–which he dubbed a right of selfishness that makes all sorts of mischief possible (omitting all the wonderful things this right serves as well and depending on the nasty version of “selfishness” so popular since Hobbes rendered the self something nasty and brutish)–these statists only stress the relatively rare misconduct that men and women engage in when they are free. So they will not permit anyone to say otherwise in those forums they dominate (which, by the ways, they could not do without the right to private property being well protected).

Libertarianism is a sound political idea but it faces an uphill fight given how its embrace means the demotion of all sorts of tyrants, Draconian or petty, who are very reluctant to give up their well entrenched power.

Column on Big Guns for Statism

Big Guns for Statism

Tibor R. Machan

Since some federal judges have ruled against the constitutionality of Obamacare, there has been a bit of panic in the ranks of defenders of American statism. Thus, for example, Harvard Law School’s Lawrence Tribe has chimed in, on the pages of The New York Times, with the predictable observation that “Since the New Deal, the court has consistently held that Congress has broad constitutional power to regulate interstate commerce. This includes authority over not just goods moving across state lines, but also the economic choices of individuals within states that have significant effects on interstate markets. By that standard, this law’s constitutionality is open and shut. Does anyone doubt that the multitrillion-dollar health insurance industry is an interstate market that Congress has the power to regulate?” Well, yes, those of us who champion individual rights as against collectivism do!

David Cole made his pitch in The New York Review of Books, claiming that these rulings were far too libertarian and thus not really consistent with the way the U. S. Constitution has been read of late. As he wrote, “The objections to health care reform are ultimately founded not on a genuine concern about preserving state prerogative, but on a libertarian opposition to compelling individuals to act for the collective good, no matter who imposes the obligation.” Indeed, and that’s all to the good! Who on earth wants to defend state prerogative other than some crypto-monarchists!

Both apologists for statism are correct, of course, but they are also beside the point. Just because justices have been appointed who have favored expansive powers for the federal government–and, indeed, for governments as such–doesn’t prove anything about whether that is how they ought to rule on, for instance, Obamacare’s constitutionality.

In earlier years the courts have interpreted the constitution as limiting the power of governments, including the power to regulate–let’s call it what it is, namely, to regiment–interstate commerce. They used to view Article I, Section 8, the interstate commerce clause, as authorizing Congress to regularize commerce, not to regulate it–that is to say, to establish uniform free market conditions for doing business within the borders of the country and across state lines. Prior to the formation of the union the states often behaved in highly protectionist ways but once united into one country this became a serious restriction on the exercise of individual property rights and an impediment to the free flow of commerce. Ergo, it had to be stopped, given the broad principles of community life laid out in the Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights. It was a revolution, after all, not a minor putsch.

In later times, under the reactionary influence of the populists and other statists, the courts started to reintroduce the principles of government that had been in practice for many centuries, principles that rationalized the power of government over the citizenry in contrast to what the revolution aimed at, namely, the demotion of the state, placing sovereignty in the hands of citizens rather than governments. Of course it didn’t happen all at once, nor completely, radically, but more like changing the course of an aircraft carrier, gradually. The aim was revolutionary but the process was slow just as with the abolition of slavery.

Clearly some elements of the legal order of the new country needed major overhaul, such as the permission for the states to support slavery, a permission that contradicted the ideals of the revolution. To the extent that this required some temporary broad powers on the part of the federal government, it amounted to nothing more than carrying out the implementation of the ideals of the founding. State rights, while a good federalist idea in certain respects, also had the unfortunate side effect of standing in the way of a nationwide renunciation of slavery.

Because in this instance federal power was used for purposes of of expanding human liberty, those who champion statism jumped at the chance to argue that statism itself was consistent with the basic principles of the founders. Its like arguing that because it is permissible to deploy force against others in self-defense, it is perfectly OK to deploy it aggressively, too.

No doubt, some founders felt that way, such as maybe Alexander Hamilton. They were not all of one mind. But it is sheer sophistry to argue, as Tribe and Cole do, that the needed adjustments on America’s legal system were meant to reintroduce into the country broad powers for the federal government under the distorted, albeit prominent, reading of the interstate commerce clause.

Nonetheless, these eager statists are continuing what has amounted to a counterrevolutionary legal trend, one that reestablishes the government–the king, Congress, the state–as the sovereign in the country, making the citizenry once again subjects, people who could be ordered by other people to purchase health insurance on the grounds that the public interest demands this. No wonder people ask if forcing us to exercise or to eat broccoli will come next, as per the enlightened polices of the Third Reich.

Such is the nature of statism, sacrificing the rights of individuals for some alleged public good, one that reduces, in the end, to the private agendas of the statists and has nothing to do with the public at large.