Archive for June, 2011

Column on The Hubris of George Soros

The Hubris of George Soros

Tibor R. Machan

Quite a few well known rich people aren’t satisfied with being rich and being able to do all the things they believe are important. They want to advertise this and to take up the role of teachers to the rest of us. The Hungarian born billionaire financier George Soros is no exception.

In a frankly narcissistic essay for The New York Review of Books (June 23, 2011) titled “My Philanthropy,” Soros reaches out to the readers of that very snooty, elitist publication evidently so as to make sure everyone who reads the piece will know how “virtuous” he is. That is to say, virtuous by the standards of a morality that requires us all to serve humanity first, before we take care of ourselves. Soros writes:

“I have made it a principle to pursue my self-interest in my business, subject to legal and ethical limitations, and to be guided by the public interest as a public intellectual and philanthropist. If the two are in conflict, the public interest ought to prevail. I do not hesitate to advocate policies that are in conflict with my business interests. I firmly believe that our democracy would function better if more people adopted this principle. And if they care about a well-functioning democracy, they ought to abide by this principle even if others do not. Just a small number of public spirited figures could make a difference.”

Sounds noble, if you believe it is meaningful. But “noble” is a matter of what values human beings should champion and promote. That’s why Soros’ declaration is dubious. It, first of all, makes it possible for him to look good in general without having to do much good in particular. You see, serving the public interest is one of those objectives that everyone likes to be associated with but has no idea what it actually requires of someone. Is the engineer who makes a locomotive run smoothly serving the public interest? Is the artist who paints a stunning landscape, a composer who creates a wonderful symphony, a doctor who cures someone’s disease, a shoe repairer who fixes people’s footware, a poet who moves us to tears–are these folks serving the public interest? Surely all those who welcome what they do are members of the public, so they are in fact serving the public interest.

Or would they only qualify as such if they made huge sacrifices, gave up all the benefits that came to them from doing all these things? Why? Why are only other people members of the public? If I serve my own interest, I am serving the interest of a member of the public too. So what on earth is serving the public interest? Who is it who studies that issue and answer this question reliably, dependably, competently?

Well, as the classical liberal political economists have established a long time ago, serving the public interest is in fact best done by serving one’s own. That’s because there is no general public interest apart from following certain very abstract principles that contain few if any specifics.

The American Founders gave a good clue when they proposed that the purpose of government is to secure the rights of all the citizens of the country. These are the rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. How would securing these rights be in the public interest? Because being secure in those rights is to everyone’s best interest. You, I, our neighbors, the shoe repairer, the physician, the artist, the scientist–all these and millions of others can embark upon serving their interest if no one is authorized to impose upon them burdens they have not freely assumed.

In the case of George Soros this would imply that he serves the public interest precisely by doing whatever actually, really, truly serves his own interest without doing violence to others. As Adam Smith pointed out, he might not even know that he is doing such a public service but in fact that is all there is to doing one’s public service–making sure of what is in one’s proper interest and making sure that that freedom to pursue it is secured for everyone. That means that the pursuit of one’s self-interest, provided it really is one’s self-interest, ultimately amounts also to serving the public interest. No conflict there at all, contrary to the picture George Soros imagines, whereby the two can be in conflict. No they cannot, not if properly understood.

What can be inflict, of course, is what some people want or desire and their real interest, including then the public interest. When I work hard to educate my students or to explain the principles of human liberty to readers of my books and articles, I serve my own interest as well as the public interest. And when I fail in serving my genuine self-interest, I am also undermining the public interest, the interest of the public to which I belong.

So Mr. Soros should stop his hubris about serving some vague public interest first, before his self-interest. He should stick to figuring out what is truly in his interest and go for it. Then the public interest will take care of itself.

Column on Self-Defense v. Isolation

Self-defense vs. Isolation

Tibor R. Machan

Where the idea comes from is not really relevant–it could be neo-conservatism, imperialism, compassion, whatnot. But it is right that it should be debated, especially by Republicans who aren’t beholden to the legacy of Woodrow Wilson in matter of foreign relations. Republicans, especially those with conservative leanings who are committed to preserving America’s ideal of using force against other countries only when those countries embark upon an aggressive foreign policy toward American citizens or allies, need to take a renewed close look at their country’s basic principles, including those pertaining to dealing with foreigners.

It was, after all, George Washington himself who, in his farewell message, warned the country against getting entangled in foreign wars. Yes, that was many years ago but the principle still holds, just as it holds in the criminal law: using force on others is only justified in self-defense. (Principles, if sound, don’t change much over the centuries–not in physics, biology, or public policy!)

Admittedly the country’s domestic public affairs have long abandoned this idea. The US government now routinely coerces its citizens for all kinds of purposes. Except for a few steps in the right direction, such as the abolition of the military draft, most public policies are based on the practice of imposing burdens on citizens that they have not assumed freely. Even if one buys the notion that some taxation is justified, which is actually not true, the massive confiscation of private property by means of taxation is way out of line with the principles of the American political system. Just consider that one’s rights to one’s life, liberty and pursuit of happiness are supposedly unalienable. That is part of the Declaration of Independence and has made it into, at least indirectly, the laws of the land (e.g., the Fifth Amendment).

Yet courts over the decades have given the go ahead to politicians and bureaucrats to proceed as they wish with the task of raising funds for government’s innumerable expenses–most of them unconstitutional by the tenets of a sensible reading of that document and only legal by virtue of corrupt rulings by the US Supreme and other courts–by extorting them from the citizenry. And then there are prohibitions galore, such as the war and drugs, thousands of regulations that in fact amount to prior restraint (imposing burdens the regulated haven’t been shown to deserve via due process), etc., all the way down to local blue laws!

All of these have pretty much made it an insidious but widespread policy to treat US citizens by coercing for various alleged public purposes cooked up by special interests. In light of this, it is no surprise that so many people hold that embarking on coercive foreign policies is just fine–if what the government of Libya or any other country is doing is wrong, it is the business of the American government to intervene.

But is this right? Is this how human beings, including those in governments, ought to conduct themselves? If one tests this by applying the standards of ordinary morality and even much of the criminal law, the answer is in the negative. No one is authorized to invade a next door neighbor for misconduct, not unless that misconduct consist of attacks on oneself or one’s family. As a private citizen one may have reason to subdue a violent neighbor but even that is only justified if the authorities to whom this job is delegated are unavailable–e.g., as in a citizen’s arrest.

None of the wars the US is conducting now can reasonably be considered defensive. One need not hold to any kind of isolationism to appreciate this fact. Indeed, there ought to be a category of foreign affairs policy that’s called “defensivist.” It could justify some military action but all of it would have to be in defense of the citizens of the country. In fact, some of the hurdles still on the books, although mostly ignored or evaded by the government, basically imply that this outlook on when America may engage in a war is still the ruling framework or paradigm. But only in spirit, unfortunately.

Now that some of those in the limelight are raising questions about whether America’s aggressive stance toward some other countries is justified, it may be possible to arrive at a rational philosophy of foreign involvement. If some argue that it is isolationist to stick to self-defense–national defense properly understood–it needs to be replied that it is no isolation to be ready to fight when attacked or when some more subtle ways of initiated violence is directed at one’s country. Isolationism is irrational since others may drag one into a fight that should not be tolerated without proper resistance. But a defensive stance is perfectly rational, indeed the only one morally acceptable and conducive to promoting peaceful solutions.

The case for interventionism may rest on widespread precedence in our society of the uses of coercive public policies but that doesn’t justify it. It used to be the norm for most countries to attack their neighbors in the name of territorial expansion, need for resources, etc. It didn’t make it right. Nor is it for the US to play the role of global police.

Column on Hail Sandel

Hail Sandel!

Tibor R. Machan

Thomas Friedman, prominent New York Times columnist, recently penned a kudos to Harvard University professor of government Michael J. Sandel because Sandel received some fine notices recently in China Newsweek (not part of the American publication). Friedman could hardly contain his glee since Sandel’s ideas are the opposite of those of the American political (Lockean) tradition.

In a column of mine a while back I wrote this: “One famous scholar who finds this [that we have rights but no innate obligations] very annoying is Professor Michael J. Sandel, so much so that his recently published, Justice, What is the Right Thing to do? [Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2009] based on his very popular PBS TV and Harvard University lectures by that same term, begins with a frontal attack on libertarianism [a la the late Robert Nozick]. Sandel’s central complaint is that libertarianism doesn’t acknowledge that everyone has unchosen obligations to society. The famous American and classical liberal idea that government must be consented to by the governed is tossed aside for this reactionary idea that when you are born you are already legally ensnared in innumerable duties to others which, of course, government is authorized to extract from you. The idea, most forcefully defended by the French father of sociology, Auguste Comte, is a ruse and used mostly to make people into serfs, subject them to involuntary servitude, however noble sounding the sentiments behind it.”

It is simple enough to see why a government-sanctioned Chinese publication–kind of like the Soviet Union’s Pravda or Izvestia–approves of Sandel’s ideas. They certainly serve to rationalize state power over the citizens of a country. If you and I are born with positive duties to others–God, the world, the majority, that government, whoever–and government is the enforcer of obligations (as when it enforces those created by contracts), then citizens are clearly servants. Involuntary servitude is then every citizen’s proper role. And government gets to make sure that this service that’s due is efficiently and promptly extracted from us.

Professor Sandel champions these ideas not from a society with a strong statist tradition in its politics and law but from the United States of America which is associated with the classical liberal/libertarian political tradition. So now Chinese communists need not invoke Marx, Lenin, or Mao, whose reputation has plummeted in recent decades, so as to buttress their public policy of coercion against the citizenry. They can point to a famous Harvard University American political philosopher instead. Here is a star academic from the leader of the free world, as the US used to be called, endorsing what is normal practice in statist countries, ones where natural individual rights are denied and rights have become government granted privileges. (Another famous American academic who see things this way is, of course, President Obama’s friend and former University of Chicago Law School colleagues, Cass Sunstein!)

In the American tradition government’s just powers are supposedly derived from the consent of those whom government governs. As the Declaration put it, “to secure these rights [i.e., those negative one’s the Declaration lists], governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed….” Which clearly implies that (a) our rights don’t come from government but must be secured by it, and (b) the government’s authority is based on the citizenry’s consent not on some kind of innate obligation government must collect on by subjugating the citizenry.

Now this bona fide American idea cannot possibly sit well with the Chinese authorities. It is far more likely that those authorities will endorse Professor Sandel’s notion where the citizenry’s consent is not necessary to impose various obligations on them to come up with labor and resources for the government to use as it sees fit. (Which, of course, means for other people, a select few, to do this!)

And the folks at The New York Times, including regular and very prominent columnist Thomas Friedman (constantly feature on PBS’s News Hour and by Fareed Zakaria on his GPS CNN program), cannot but be pleased with Sandel, just as the Chinese communists are, since they also hold that government is supreme and the people are born with numerous unchosen obligations it must enforce.

Column on Deciphering Paul Krugman

Deciphering Paul Krugman

Tibor R. Machan

It is hardly ever explicit in Paul Krugman’s columns except that he has made it clear that he is a pragmatist and finds all ideologues off base. But what is an ideologue to Krugman? Someone who invokes principles as he or she thinks and copes with the real world. That’s, however, infantilism for any serious or radical pragmatist.

Both President Obama and Professor Krugman have made it abundantly clear that they consider ideological thinking misguided. Serious, radical pragmatists regard such thinking as unfounded—a species of foundationalism, something to be avoided since it involves imposing on the messy world an order it doesn’t have.

The foremost architect of this radical pragmatism was Harvard philosopher C. I. Lewis. In his massive work, Mind and The World Order (Dover 1941), he lays out the case for the view that even logic is something we invent and do not learn from studying reality. (Another famous proponent of this line of thinking was Columbia University philosopher Ernest Nagel—he made out this position in his famous paper, “Logic Without Ontology,” reprinted in Readings in Philosophical Analysis, edited by Herbert Feigl and Wilfrid Sellars. [New York: Appleton-CenturyCrofts, 1949]. More recently the late Richard Rorty, a very famous academic philosopher from Princeton University and several other prominent places, defended radically unprincipled thinking. I don’t know if Krugman and Rorty had been philosophical pals but it would not come as a surprise to learn that they had.)

One thing all this implies is that when one reads Paul Krugman one cannot criticize him tellingly by pointing out that he is inconsistent—e.g., that his serious scholarly work doesn’t jive with what he writes in his columns, or that last week’s column contradicts this week’s or last year’s this morning’s.

That Krugman does not announce this to the readers of his columns in The New York Times and articles in other publications, such as The New York Review of Books, is perfectly understandable. Most readers tend to have respect for logic—it is one way people tend to judge others, trip up prevaricators in law courts and criticize the scientific and scholarly work of those who write and speak out on vital topics. On innumerable occasions many will find a political candidate, president, or international figure criticized for being inconsistent. But that assumes, for Krugman, an ideology of consistency which radical pragmatists see as entirely artificial.

From very early on in the history of human thought it was accepted that logic is the first device to be used in aiming for understanding and in offering criticism—all of Plato’s Socratic dialogues adhere to this. Students at colleges and universities are constantly chided for being inconsistent. Everyone is, in fact. Except by serious pragmatists, at least the radical variety of them. And the reason isn’t very complicated to grasp.

Pragmatism grew out of a disenchantment many philosophers had with principled thinking. Indeed, throughout most of the history of philosophy the effort to come up with a solid, principled viewpoint hasn’t always met with welcome reception. Reasons for this vary but the result is that at least for the better part of the late 19th and early 20th centuries many philosophers not only gave up the idea that logic is a good guide to thinking about the world but they went on to develop what they called alternative logics. This was a big debate back then and many pragmatists took the side of those who rejected classical logic except as a kind of human invention, like the rules of chess or baseball.

When one understand this—and the story is, of course, more complicated in its details—one can also understand Professor Paul Krugman’s way of thinking about public affairs: The ideologues are clueless, thinking that their well thought out theories will help with that task. They will not, or so Krugman & Co., including our president, believe. And at the level of punditry they will not bother to explain this, try to defend it, but merely dish it out in whatever forum will feature them.

Yes, of course, pragmatism is not all that prominent, especially in the West, since most of Western thinking is influenced by Socrates, Plato and, especially, Aristotle, all firm proponents of the importance of a solidly grounded science of logic. Many others throughout human history have followed suite, one or another way, except for a few such as Hegel, Kierkegaard, and Sartre. But even these at least had respect for logical thinking, as they understood it.

Not so with the serious pragmatist Paul Krugman. And readers of him need to keep this in mind.

The Weiner Paradox

The Weiner Paradox

Tibor R. Machan

What is most puzzling about the scandal with Rep. Anthony Weiner (D-New York) isn’t how stupid the man has been and apparently managed to be to the last moment before he came clean (enough). What is really puzzling is why in the face of repeated scandals and corruption across the world and this country, there are well educated folks who continue to be confident that if only one hands a problem over to politicians and their appointees, all will be fine.

I have never believed in the innate stupidity of human beings. Free will disproves that idea. Some are, sure enough, very stupid and nearly constantly so; others are stupid periodically; while yet others have managed to keep their sanity and focus without fail. But judging by history and current affairs, it comes down to my favorite graph, the bell shaped curve. At one extreme are the truly mindless; in the middle are most of us with our vacillating mental acuity, while at the other extreme are those utterly rare cases of people who never let up, are always aware and in focus.

If my bell shaped curve accurately reflects the distribution of willful mindlessness versus mindfulness in the human species, the likelihood of having a fully sane political order is minimal. At best now and then throughout human history moments or perhaps brief eras of upright political affairs can be expected. And why? Because the kind of nonsense exhibited by Weiner, Schwartzenegger, et al., just will never be purged from our midst.

So does that mean that politics must always be a failed undertaking? It would seem so, at least as politics is understood today. What people tend to expect from politics is something that had been explicitly promises by those who defended the ancient regime, monarchies, empires and such, namely, that problems in society need top-down solutions because only those at the top are smart and good enough to be trusted.

While few today advocate this view up front in the West, many still believe it. It amounts to what Jonathan R. T. Hughes called “the governmental habit.” That is to say, despite the fact that the theory is no longer convincing and history has completely disproved it, many people are still supporters of one or another type of statism, not so much from understanding but from a habit that has been cultivated–indeed woven into the fabric of society, including language–for centuries on end. (Just check how enthusiastic people still are about royal weddings and inagurations!)

What can politics offer but continued failure? A suggestion emerged from the works of classical liberals and today’s libertarians. It is that politics must be about no more than defending the rights of citizens. Akin to what referees and umpires are expected to do at games, politicians and their staff must confine their involvement with society to identifying and fending off those who would introduce coercive force into human relations. Politics, in short, must be purely defensive, never pro-active. So confined, it can serve the citizenry reasonably–though not perfectly–well.

The nickname his colleagues in Congress have given Dr. Ron Paul, namely, “Dr. No,” captures this job quite accurately. Just as referees at games must focus on what players must not do, not on what they need to do, so with politicians. This will not tax them too hard, they will not need to be angels or saints, just as no one expects that from referees. Sure, they will still need to have integrity, just as the cop on the beat does. But they will not be asked to produce any projects–that is what the players of the game do, what citizens do.

If this kind of politics were to develop–and it will take time to wean most people of the governmental habit–then the field will no longer seem so attractive to all those power-seekers, all those easily corrupted people who enter it all the time and get caught either with their hands in the till or their pants down.

None of this is the familiar Utopian thinking we find in so much of political philosophy and theory. That’s because this kind of highly constrained politics offers something minimal, not the solution to all of our problems in medicine, farming, business, the arts, the sciences and the rest of the fields of great importance to people which they need to address in peace, without the benefit of politics which specializes in the use of force. Only one problem will be laid at the feet of politicians, namely, keeping social life peaceful.