Archive for March, 2012

Column on Prudence versus Greed

Prudence versus Greed

Tibor R. Machan

Most people mean by greed an “excessive or rapacious desire, especially for wealth or possessions.” As to prudence, it is the quality of being cautious with regard to practical matters and especially in regard for one’s own economic interests, being careful in the management of resources, heeding economy and being frugal.

Why is this of any interest? Because the sense of “prudent” as used to mean being economical, frugal is now being distorted by confusing it with being greedy. When Gordon Gekko declares greed to be good in Oliver Stone’s notorious movie, Wall Street–notorious since it managed to exacerbate the already hostile attitude toward business that sadly prevails in much of the world–he doesn’t differentiate between excessive or rapacious desire for stuff and the prudent management of one’s resources. They are lumped together.

And sadly some professional economists tend to agree. When I took my first economics course in the mid-60s at Claremont Men’s (now McKenna) College, my econ prof was University of Chicago PhD Procter Thomson who did use to tell his classes that “greed is good.” But it was said with a mischievous look in his eyes–he didn’t really mean to say that greed as understood as a vice or sin is good, only that the pursuit of one’s self interest, as argued by Adam Smith the father of modern economic science, is useful, enhances economic productivity.

Critics of the free market system have been capitalizing on the casual identification of prudence and greed, the sort that Professor Thomson and quite a few other economists continue to indulge in. That identification has a complex history. In a nutshell, there was a time when prudence counted as one of the most important human virtues, even a moral principle, meaning living carefully, attending to one’s life in a way that will be of benefit to oneself, enhance one’s human excellence. When some girls used to be named “Prudence,” they certainly weren’t meant to be declared greedy. Even the name of that major financial company The Prudential, isn’t meant to convey that those working there are rapaciously bent on acquiring riches. No, the idea is that original one, namely, that being prudent is taking good, proper care of oneself and of one’s clients’ funds.

But then in the 16th century, mostly at the hands of the English philosopher Thomas Hobbes, prudence was used not to much as a term for being careful but for being ambitious, even power hungry. The drive to gain power, wealth and such was taken by Hobbes and his followers to be innate in us, the engine that moved us forward, no different from how other biological imperatives push us to behave as we do. Prudence was thus changed from a virtue to a drive or motive, from a character trait and virtue to an inborn psychological disposition.

This is where we get the idea so many of my students repeat, “Everyone is selfish.” They just cannot help it! And thus there can be no credit or blame ascribed for being prudent–it is how we simply must be, how we are, as it were, hard wired.

But the evolution of ideas is rarely smooth and seamless, so a mixture emerged in time where many, especially in the social sciences, saw prudence as both a drive and an attitude, except it stopped being a praiseworthy one. Being selfish as a prudent person would be got replaced with being selfish as an avaricious or greedy person would be. Since the latter is, of course, widely taken to be a bad trait, its association with economic ambition served the critics of the free market system very nicely: they could now link plain old, innocent economic prudence with a vice! But since the term “prudence” didn’t easily fit this idea, given its honorable original meaning–”greed” became the term which then was used to smear economic self-interest.

So nowadays even those on Wall Street and elsewhere who are trying conscientiously to increase their and their clients’ wealth are dubbed greedy, even as it’s becoming evident to most folks that without their good works the economic system is going to tank.

Just imagine all the brokers, money managers, company presidents and chief financial officers resigning their posts and joining a monastery. That would really boost employment, wouldn’t it?

Machan’s Archives: Genuine Military Defense Anyone? (updated)

Machan’s Archives: Genuine Military Defense Anyone? (updated)

Tibor R. Machan

As much as one may object to Iran’s government’s efforts to build atomic weapons, the American government isn’t supposed to be some kind of meta-police that embarks upon restraining such governments! Certainly spending American taxpayers’ funds on conducting military actions against Iran would be going way beyond the proper military role of the American government, which is to protect its citizen’s freedom from domestic and foreign criminals.

It bears remembering here that however off course the American government has gone in its role in the country, the real role it has is to be a government strictly limited to the functions laid out in the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution, which is to stand ready to defend the country when it is attacked or when there is a demonstrably clear and present danger that it will be–not might be–attacked. So the criteria by which one must judge its conduct, both domestic and international, is whether it amounts to such defense.

Sadly, of course, most politicians and bureaucrats, as well as their cheerleaders in the academy and media, don’t give a hoot about restraining the power of government. After all, the same rationale that serves to justify its relentless intervention in our lives at home is what is used to rationalize it abroad. (Does it occur to folks that despite some of the rhetoric of restraint associated with the political thought of President Obama, it is modern liberalism’s interventionism that removes all principled restraint and leads to the imperialist policies of which this Libyan expedition is a case in point? Obama is, after all, a self-professed pragmatist and that means rejecting all principles as mere ideology!)

I am talking, of course, from the position of someone who has always agreed with President George Washington’s warnings about foreign entanglements, made in his farewell address and one implicit in the basic thrust of the American political tradition of limited government. The limitation is not all that tough to grasp: it is self-defense, just as in the case of when people are justified to use force against each other, namely, when they have been attacked, when they encounter an aggressor. This does not include being deprived of someone else’s productive work or resources, including Iran’s oil. If my neighbor refuses to sell me his produce or labor, I have no right to attack him and try to force him to hand these to me because I want them very badly, even need them desperately. And if he arms himself and his family to the teeth in anticipation, justified or not, of being attacked by local gangs, that too is not cause for me to attack him.

Such is the proper standard of international military policy for a bona fide free society and whether that goes contrary to domestics intellectuals, the community of nations, the UN or whoever else sounds off about it, it makes no difference. None of that is going to make it right and, furthermore, one rotten consequence of it is that all the rhetorical opposition to international banditry is certainly going to sound mighty hallow!

Once a country’s government abandons the stance by which its use of force is kept to national defense and nothing else (however tempting it is to breach it), it has lost its moral authority as it criticizes other aggressors around the globe, including that of the Iranian or Syrian government against “its own people”. Rogue regimes everywhere, with their rulers aspiring to impose their will upon everyone, will be able to point to the USA and declare, correctly: “Look at the leaders of the free world, see how they butt into all manner of misconduct by their fellow governments, so clearly it must be permissible for us to act likewise when we disapprove of what others do!”

Just as the philosophy that demands restraining government domestically is the most radical and sound political idea–just compare it to all the imperialism throughout human history embarked upon by hundreds of regimes–so this insistence that governments keep to their oath of protecting the rights of their citizens is radical, sound and sadly neglected.

On Having to Fund Immoral Policies

Having to Fund Immoral Policies

Tibor R. Machan

At the outset I am talking about what someone considers immoral, not what is objectively immoral. Nonetheless, millions are coerced by governments, backed by other millions, to work and pay for what they consider morally wrong. Is that right? Is it avoidable in a democracy?

Back during the Vietnam war a great many opponents of that disastrous policy wanted to withhold their taxes, or the portion of it that went to fund the war. They were mostly from the Left but that doesn’t matter. The point is that such people argued that it is unjust to make them do this. And there is something to this: why would it be OK to require something to contribute resources he or she has produced and owns to a policy deemed to be morally wrong?

Granted requiring someone to make contributions to anything is objectionable but isn’t it more so if the policy is objected to by the victim of such coercion on moral grounds? Suppose the sources of the moral objection is one’s religion. Wouldn’t that contradict the idea of freedom of religion? You are supposed to be free to choose what faith you accept and practice but then you are forced to give up portions of your life for some other faith! Isn’t that inconsistent? You are both free to choose as well as not free to choose!

Doesn’t democracy amount to such this kind of confusion? Well, not if it’s property limited, as limited government champions have insisted it should be. All this stuff about funding or not funding contraceptives would be off the table, not up for the vote.

Today we have President Obama and his minions insisting that forcing Catholics, their churches and such, provide contraceptives and the like to people who want it from them is just fine. But Roman Catholics consider contraceptives an instrument for evil, like pacifists might guns. Would it be OK to demand that pacifists hand out lethal weapons to people who want it from them?

I proposed that this is no different from forcing people to fund a war in which they do not believe, which they regard unjust. I wrote this in a comment at The New York Times on line where one can contribute comments to columnists’ views and where these comments can be further commented on by others. Well, my comment received a bunch of bizarre follow-up comments claiming that there is a world of difference between wanting to withhold support for a war and wanting to do the same for government distributing contraceptives, a policy some consider unjust. But, in fact, the former is simply a different instance of the latter but it’s exactly the same kind of thing.

It reminds me of when people who often embrace democracy whole hog but then when the vote goes against them, cry foul! But if the democratic method is accepted as a valid approach to settling disputed issue, one has no business protesting the outcome. It is rank duplicity, even hypocrisy.

But here is the rub: Mr. Obama and his ideological cohorts are pragmatists and what is so convenient about pragmatism is that you can insist on some policy here, but reject it there, embrace it one hour and then denounce it the next. Because, you see, at least the type of pragmatism that Mr. Obama has often stated is his philosophy rejects principles from the git go. Yes, there are sophisticated pragmatists who defend their unprincipled viewpoint on grounds that principles are really impossible! Principled thinking is mere ideology, not based on reality, so they hold, since reality is too chaotic, too illogical to yield sound principles that can be used in guiding conduct and criticism. But Mr. Obama hasn’t bothered to provide a defense of his unprincipled stand on a great variety of issues, like undeclared wars, deficit spending, abortion, etc.

But then what is there if reason is passe? What would political campaigns be if candidates could not look for inconsistencies in their opponents? Well, then they would be what they have become, shouting matches, throwing dirt at one another, name calling, besmirching and such, that’s what. Because once logic is abandoned, once consistency is ruled out as a criterion of admissible thought and discourse as proposed by pragmatists, we are back just a step away from the jungle where reason has no place and force rules. As that famous painting of Goya says, “the sleep of reason brings forth monsters.”