Archive for April, 2011

Column on Rand & Libertarians Misunderstood

Ayn Rand & Libertarians Grossly Misunderstood

Tibor R. Machan

In my local paper a letter writer, apparently eager to besmirch Ayn Rand–which many have tried in vain–had this to say: “Rand’s libertarianism has an underlying philosophy that says that if you are not particularly smart, ambitious, disciplined or wealthy, and you become homeless, hungry, financially ruined and suffer from premature illness or death, then that is entirely your fault.” (April 25, Local p. 5)

Neither Ayn Rand nor libertarianism says any of this. What they both do say is that if you are in such a state, you by no stretch of the imagination have the authority to deprive others of their resources. You can ask, of course. And surely that is correct.

Even a person in the greatest of need has no warrant for stealing from others. What such a person most definitely is fully justified in doing is to request help from others which, in America especially, millions provide at little urging–just consider the help that they provide when something like Katrina or a tsunami strikes, and all the charitable contributions they send to the casualties of various similar mishaps. They do this far more than citizens of any other country.
Both Rand and libertarians support voluntary aid but oppose, most vigorously and vociferously, confiscating what other people own.

Nor do Rand and libertarians hold that everything the letter writer lists is one’s fault, quite the contrary. Many mishaps people experience, because of illness and natural disasters, are clearly not their and (most often) anyone else’s fault. Bad things do happen, be it to good or bad people.

What Rand and libertarians have believed, on pretty good grounds, is that when improvements are needed in people’s lives, relying on confiscating other people’s belongings and coercing them to do work to provide assistance are flawed and morally wrong remedies. Instead, voluntary cooperation is both the most ethical and the most effective way to go.

This idea is by no means odd. In broad terms it is recognized that countries the laws of which protect their citizens against coercion–violent criminals, intrusive or meddling governments–are in better shape than those ruled by strong rulers who impose their idea of what is good for everyone not by convincing citizens of what they believe is right but by imposing their will on them. Be this in small matters or large ones, history is replete with the lessons about how coercive force between human beings is an ill advised way to handle problems.

In one area, especially, this has proven to be true for the last few centuries. Ever since Adam Smith published his path-breaking book The Wealth of Nations in 1776, it has been understood by quite a few political economists that prosperity is best pursued in peaceful ways. Voluntary economic relations among people are what is now referred to a win-win situation, whereas coercive economic relations are primarily zero-sum games, meaning when one party gains the other loses. In most of human history, sadly, this latter is how wealth has been obtained and many still advocate the approach even today. This is in part because in a largely free markets–there has never been a fully free market anywhere, unfortunately–those seeking to have their needs and wants met, from gaining groceries to major medical treatments, have been able to find nearly exactly what they have in mind, suiting their particular, individual needs and wants instead of some general benefit that governments prescribe for everyone, something that always suffers from government’s ignorance of what it is that can benefit individual human beings. This may be one reason boosters of government involvement in our lives–in other words, statists–tend to speak mostly of the public interest or the public good or the common welfare since these are so indeterminate, to vague that no one can check out just exactly what they come to in practice.

Aside from all this, there is also the less well known greater generosity found in free societies than in those with top-down government regimentation of nearly everything in people’s lives. But this isn’t government “generosity,” involving robbing Peter so as to hand some of the loot to Paul. It is voluntary charity and philanthropy so it is likely to be far more efficient than what the government does when it sets out to “help” people, including the poor, indigent, hapless, or unfortunate among us. (It isn’t help when one doesn’t dig into one’s own pockets or bank accounts but those of other people and hands these to those in need of help. Moreover the welfare state didn’t emerge because private help was not forthcoming.)

Ayn Rand and libertarians have supported all voluntary contributions to the people the letter writer listed, provided those people aren’t set on robbing others to support their goals or urging the government to do so. Rand, in particular, did believe that focusing too intently on the needy is a mistake. After all, even the needy are much better off if the productive among us are championed. And how are the needy ever going to gain from rich bashing, by denigrating and discouraging those who create the resources from which they might benefit?

Column on You Know He’s Desperate Now

You Know He’s Desperate Now

Tibor R. Machan

So President Obama will create a task force to investigate if there might be crimes committed that lead to high gas prices. The operate term is “might.” That is what one says when one has zero evidence but intends to implicate unknown parties and please one’s base which is committed to the class warfare idea of economic relations.

Of course gasoline costs a lot. Just look around the world–people are using more of it and the prognosis is they will be using even more in the near future; the places where oil is drilled are in shambles; the American government will not allow any digging where there’s plenty of oil in the USA, and on and on. Speculators, a perfectly decent bunch of people who try to take care of their and their clients’ economic welfare–part of the group of wealth care professionals in the land–will obviously try to buy oil futures now so as to escape the coming even higher prices. This is elementary economics and to be expected of people who choose to be prudent in their lives and economic affairs.

But Mr. Obama seems to want to cash in on it all by revving up the rhetoric of class warfare. Who must be behind rising gas prices? Someone, surely (even while he preaches about shared responsibility when it comes to the enormous debt the government has assumed). So who shall it be this time–Wall Street? The banks? Tea Party Republicans? No, this time it will be speculators, unnamed people who can be conjured up in the minds of people who already do not like business (wealth care) professionals. Mr. Obama needs those who harbor such hatred since they are the ones who hopes will go out and campaign for him. Who else would?

Now do I know that this is Mr. Obama’s intention? No, but I seriously suspect it. Moreover, there is better evidence for this suspicion than for the alleged suspicion Mr. Obama voiced, namely, that corrupt people in the oil industry are committing crimes and driving up gas prices. That, it should be noted, is sheer fantasy, totally baseless.

CNN News Room newsreaders are all for Mr. Obama doing this shadow chasing. What else can they do? Repeat elementary lessons in economics? Do they bring in experts on oil economics? No. That would be responsible journalism and by now we know that CNN gives us partisan news through and through–Mr. Obama can do no wrong and all his pronouncements are sincere, meant earnestly. Even Fox TV gives more room to opposing positions now.

But there is hope. Mr. Obama’s popularity is plummeting. Not because he will not prosecute–or is it persecute–oil people but, most likely, because he will not do the most elementary thing about all this, namely let companies drill, drill, and drill some more. That would lose him another part of his base, environmentalists. Which is to say, Mr. Obama is putting politics and his ambition to get a second term way ahead of the task of addressing the high gas prices, which he seems to be merely pretending to address.

Mr. President, please, pretty please, toss the task force idea and open up our known oils fields and hope the voters will realize you did the best you could. Just as with gold, so with scarce oil, prices will keep rising. But there is little gold to go around, while there is plenty of oil to drill for.

Why are these folks not getting it? I suppose the answer to this is manifold but one source is the late Mancur Olson’s theory that not until the bottom falls out will people and their lobbyists and politicians stop engaging in what economists call rent-seeking, urging that other people be ripped off so they can have an easier way in their lives. And for such a political climate to prevail one needs to come up with accusations against those whom one wishes to be ripped off. This task force idea of Mr. Obama achieves that goal–demonize oil people. Next time he can go back to demonizing Wall Street, the banks and, of course, Tea Party Republicans.

Column on Pitfalls of Shared Responsibilities

Pitfalls of Shared Responsibility

Tibor R. Machan

President Barrack Obama asserted in a recent speech dealing with the country’s enormous debt that what the country needs is to live by an ancient principle, namely, “the principle of shared responsibility.” He invoked this in his defense of his championing of the increased extortion of the resources of the wealthy, those who earn $250K or more per year. Why this “principle” should be invoked he didn’t say–he seemed to think it’s obvious.

Frankly the details are not what’s important her–what is is that extortion from rich and poor alike is evil and destructive of the country’s economy. In addition, the idea of unassumed share responsibility for economic mismanagement (either by individuals who ought to care for their household finances or by public officials who ought to care for the country’s economic affairs) is a very harmful one. Shared responsibility applies only where those who are to share have freely volunteered to do so. I am not morally and should not be legally authorized to conscript my neighbors to share the household debts I have assumed for myself in, say, my repeated refinancing of my mortgage.

It is interesting that a good many policy wonks complain when companies dump their waste into the public sphere–the air mass, rivers, lakes, or oceans. And they are right–such dumping is intrusive, a violation of the property rights of those whose sphere has been used without their consent. The idea of sharing the responsibilities assumed by various public officials in the name of the citizenry is no different. Some, very few, public expenses are, of course, the responsibility of all citizens–national defense, maintaining the legal infrastructure of the country, etc. But when public officials spend resources on what they deem to be important projects, such as a bridge in their district or a dam or a school, these are no shared responsibilities by any stretch of the imagination. These are the responsibilities of those individuals who elected to assume them. The rest of us, who have assumed different responsibilities, are not to be imposed upon by making us all share the burdens of fulfilling such responsibilities.

There is an ancient principle that President Obama ought to consider before he imposes responsibilities on those who didn’t consent to assuming them. It is “the tragedy of the commons.” Perhaps the best statement of this principles comes from the ancient Greek philosopher, Aristotle, who pointed out that

“[T]hat which is common to the greatest number has the least care bestowed upon it. Every one thinks chiefly of his own, hardly at all of the common interest; and only when he is himself concerned as an individual. For besides other considerations, everybody is more inclined to neglect the duty which he expects another to fulfill; as in families many attendants are often less useful than a few.” (Politics, 1262a30-37)

This principle is widely embraced by environmentalists who realize that when spheres are commonly owned, they fall into neglect. The same holds for shared responsibilities–people tend to assume that others will fulfill them and they do not need to worry. Even more importantly, it is nearly impossible to determine for a huge population in a country such as the USA just what is to be shared and what is not. Is one to share the responsibility for another citizen’s crimes, debts, children, etc.? Why, if you decided not to have any children, must you shoulder the responsibility of supporting them? Why share the debt that others have assumed unless you are a close friend or associate?

No, the idea President Obama floated in his discussion of how to handle the enormous national debt is a nonstarter. And the idea of coercing those making $250K or more to shoulder most of it is obscene. No one is going to pay attention to balancing his or her budget if others will be forced to pay one’s debts. It is also a terrible practice to support by the leader of a supposedly free country in which citizens may not be punished unless they have been shown to have committed a crime.

In fact, all this sharing of responsibility amounts to letting off the hook all those who acted irresponsibly in their finances, private or public.

On Demeaning Straw Men

On Demeaning A Straw Men

Tibor R. Machan

A. C. Grayling, an normally sensible English academic–just check out his book, Liberty in the Age of Terror (Bloomsbury, 2009)–wrote recently in The New York Review of Books: “Of course, people who hold extreme political positions are not troubled by such conflict [as the one between wanting to make everyone economically equal and also making sure everyone is free]. They simply disown the values that they believe cause the conflict. The libertarian can say that only freedom matters and the totalitarian that personal freedom does not matter at all. But for people who are sensitive to the full range of moral values, the extreme views are not options….”

We can pretty much stop here since this setup embodies a serious distortion. To start with, the protection of the right to liberty is not a moral but a political value but once one concludes that it is of great importance in politics, there is ample room left to attend to moral responsibilities, that is, to one’s ethics. But for folks who want everything done by way of politics, this is a strange idea. Isn’t every value one holds supposed to be political, directing only public policies?

Libertarians do hold that the right to individual liberty across the board is the prime political value but by no means the prime value. Politics for libertarians can be thoroughly derivative, meant mainly to secure the possibility for a full moral or ethical life. Why be free? Mainly to be able to choose right from wrong, that’s why.

I don’t know about totalitarians but even there Grayling is offering a caricature. Most totalitarians aim to guide or make people to do what is right, which could be serving God or the public interest, following the democratic plan, saving the earth, conserving natural resources, etc., etc. But never mind totalitarianism. Is Grayling even nearly right about libertarians?

Since he gives us no libertarian to examine, no quotations from Rothbard, Nozick, Rand or the rest–and these days there’s a plethora of them who have written plenty to cite for anyone who wants to do them some measure of justice–we need to check what libertarianism means as one of the political options in our day and age.

As the term clearly indicates, it is all about liberty, in particular about a polity the legal system of which takes the right of every citizen to be free of coercive force from others as its highest value to be protected and preserved. As I already pointed out, this is just the beginning of a libertarian’s system of values. These are the politics that the libertarian holds will secure for citizens their sovereignty, their sphere of personal authority. Within that realm, however, innumerable moral challenges face a citizen. Libertarians do not address those qua libertarians but mostly as ordinary free men and women with their various sources of moral convictions.

The only thing libertarianism has to say about one’s moral convictions is that they may not include coercing anyone else to do anything. Coercion is using unprovoked force on people, ones who haven’t violated the rights of others. If you believe it is your moral duty or responsibility to rob Peter so as to help out Paul, that will not fly. It is like holding that one has the moral duty to rape or kidnap someone. Some may–and sadly some do–claim that this is what they ought to do but they are confused or vicious. Only vis-a-vis children or invalids could one have such moral duties or responsibilities, never toward intact adults.

Despite what we could call the thinness of libertarian politics–the opposite end of the thickness of any kind of totalitarian regime–it does not follow that libertarians hold “that only freedom matters.” That’s what matters politically but as far as how human beings should conduct themselves in their lives, a plethora of moral requirements will be on the agenda for everyone. Fathers, mothers, friends, colleagues, sports partners, farmers, engineers, doctors, and all others who occupy some such role in life have a list of virtues they ought to practice. Hence even college courses in medical, business, engineering and legal ethics, for example.

On top of it there is just the ethics for living one’s human life, ethics addressed by numerous philosophies and religions and nearly all libertarians embrace one or another of these in their personal, nonpolitical lives.

In The New York Review of Books it seems even largely libertarian folks must demean that political alternative. After all, if libertarianism is the politics of a good, just human community or country, there is very little meddling left for all those bright in its pages people to do. Who will they be nudging? Where will they practice their oxymoronic paternalist libertarianism? Put plainly, whom will they be pushing around so as to fulfill their aspirations when they fail to voluntarily enlist support from others?

Finally, what is so extreme about libertarianism? In fact is the common sense social philosophy of most civilized people. Fulfill your moral tasks as a matter of your own free will and leave others to do the same–they aren’t your children or subjects! But make sure no one gets to lord it over anyone who acts peacefully. Not so extreme, me thinks!

Column on Republicans are Disarmed

Republicans are Disarmed

Tibor R. Machan

In the current Democrat-Republican fracas Democrats want to ignore fiscal prudence and claim they are doing it for the poor and needy. Republicans, in turn, claim they don’t want higher and more taxes because of their speculative contention that taxing takes resources away from the market where jobs are created, especially by the rich who would spend what they have if its not confiscated from them.

When it comes to the strength of the two sides’ arguments, the Democrats win because they have the moral high ground, given that the Republicans lack a moral case in favor of their position. But there is one. But Republicans are as wedded to confiscating other people’s resources as are Democrats, only perhaps not as much of it as Democrats. The bulk of the members of each party believe in taxation for the goals that are dear to them. And with that premise, the Democrats have the upper hand since their goals are more compassionate, caring. Yes, the Republicans do embrace the virtue of prudence but in hard times generosity or charity trumps prudence. We all go out of our way to stand up when times are tough to help out, even if this is risky. People will jump into troubled waters to rescue someone even if they might perish. Not perhaps if they know they will perish but if they only might, the risk is worth it.

If, however, the Republicans took a principled stand against extortion and defended the idea that it must be those who own the resources who decide what should be done with them—whether to give it to the needy or invest it in productive endeavors, for example—then there would be a chance for them to win this argument. For, while people often sympathize with compassionate intentions and policies, they generally do not sympathize with coercing others to make them compassionate. Indeed, they sense that one cannot make other people do what is right—they must choose to do the right thing, whatever that happens to be.

What the Republicans ought to do is insist that whatever help people need in this country—or indeed anywhere—it must be given freely, not at the point of a gun. That theme may sit well with most American citizens since it is, after all, the centerpiece of the country’s political philosophy. Freedom! Republicans miss out on standing up for it against Democrats and come off as merely having a different scheme up their sleeves, one that seems like cronyism to Democrats and their supporters. Don’t tax the rich because it is an inefficient way to help the poor! This comes off as a bogus idea and it is to cave in, too, instead of to stand up for something really different.

The entire history of political oppression rests on the theme that important goals, like helping the needy, require oppressing people, forcing them to labor for the greater good, for society, for the public interest. It has almost always been a ruse, of course, but it is difficult to rebut unless one has a sound alternative, namely, insisting on everyone’s right to decide how one’s labor and resources should be made use of. It isn’t about wealth but about choice!

What the Democrats and their supporters want is control over everyone’s resources. They have argued this position for centuries. They still argue that it isn’t really your wealth at all, it belongs to society, the public, and in a democratic republic its allocation must be left to politicians. Not true but sounds plausible enough.

Several of the major intellectual advocates of the Democrats’ way make this point quite explicitly. Consider the books The Myth of Ownership, by Thomas Nagel and Liam Murphy, and The Cost of Rights, by Cass Sunstein and Stephen Holmes. And the Democrats’ base, the Left, has for all its existence denied that people have a right to the products of their labor, let alone what they come by through luck. Property rights are the first to be abolished in Marx and Engels The Communist Manifesto. It is basic for the Left, including for the somewhat softer, watered down American version of it we find among the thinkers who forge the Democrats’ public philosophy.

Republicans, if they want to win, must attack this directly, not with supply side economics but with Lockean individual rights. Until that happens, they will remain losers.