Archive for September, 2012

Unlimited Democracy

Unlimited Democracy

Tibor R. Machan

The Magna Carta was an early attempt to rein in government, reduce the scope of monarchical rule. Constitutional monarchy was the result in many countries.

When democracies replaced monarchies, the urgency to limit their scope of power waned even though there are many political theorists who warned that democracies can turn out to be quite tyrannical. The tyrannies of majorities are well known. Most recently there was plenty of talk about that in connection with developments in Egypt and elsewhere in the Middle East. The election of Hamas, for example, bode ill for limited democracy!
Even in countries such as the United States of America the form of government that emerged was labeled “illiberal democracy.” Fareed Zakaria’s book The Future of Freedom: Illiberal Democracy at Home and Abroad discussed the difference between liberal and illiberal democracies in the context of geopolitics but the idea had been the focus of Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America over a century ago.

Of course there is something very wrong with unlimited democracies. There is simply no justification for the majority of the population in a country imposing its will on everyone. The idea is completely misguided. Why on earth should a great number of people have the authority to force a small number to obey them? There is no argument anywhere in the history of political philosophy and theory that would make out the case for this? If it were a valid point, it would imply that a large number of thugs somehow have the right to subdue other people to serve them. The famous example of the lynch mob that hangs an accused person make the point without difficulty. Expanding the will of vicious people doesn’t make it virtuous. And even if what the larger group wants is actually virtuous, forcing it on others is still not justified since they would have to make the free choice to be virtuous. Human virtue must be a matter of free choice. Only in self-defense may force be applied to others!

The election process in so called democratic countries is anything but justified or moral. Even when it hides behind the term “we” as it tries to do in too many instances–just listen to politicians anywhere around the globe and notice how often they pretend to be speaking for and acting in behalf of everyone–the will of the majority simply has no moral authority, none! Anyone who can dodge it successfully is perfectly justified to do so!

Asking versus forcing folks to pay a little bit more

Asking versus forcing folks to pay a little bit more!

Tibor R. Machan

President Obama raised the issue of why anyone would object to asking the very rich “to give some more.” As he put the matter, “What is wrong with ‘asking’ those who make more to pay a little more?”

As it has been pointed out by all too few people, of course what Obama & Co. advocate isn’t to ask anyone to give. It is about confiscating from them what Mr. Obama & Co. want to have available for the redistribution of wealth just as they see fit. (For, of course, you and I and other citizens are all doing some serious redistribution of our wealth already, with no need for help with this from Obama & Co.) Yet hardly anyone in the mainstream media raises this objection.

Millions of Americans, including wealthy ones like Mitt Romney, are asked to give, mostly by organizations like the American Red Cross, and they come forth with generous contributions in response to the request. I know I often do, though I am hardly what one would consider wealthy. But millions and millions send contributions to victims of tsunamis or hurricanes or other disasters.

The media is giving Obama & Co. a pass on so many fronts one wonders if they are sound asleep at the wheel. A point like the one about “asking them versus coercing them” is never raised even on the Fox TV talk programs. As if there were a kind of code of silence in place!

But maybe it is because so many folks, even those opposed to Obama’s massive forced redistributions, support some such policies and know that if they raise the issue, then the case for taxing us all for their own pet projects–e.g., the war on drugs, aggressive wars fought abroad, etc.–paid for from such redistribution would get undermined.

The slippery slope may account for this silence. Talk of asking people gets mixed up with talk of coercing people and no one in the public forums objects. But competent journalists are supposed discern the difference between asking and making people pay! (One can only speculate what sorts of questions are being rehearsed in schools of journalism. It doesn’t seem like the students are enlightened about the difference between forcing and asking people for support.)

I am by no means being original in pointing out these matters but few if any prominent journalists, pundits, commentators, et al., make it a point to raise the issue. Why?

American Exceptionalism Revisited

American Exceptionalism Revisited

Tibor R. Machan

A fairly prominent perception across the globe is that America has had certain exceptional features. While these are mixed in with various traditional ones, they still manage — or have managed — to make the country unusual in human history. The American revolution, for example, is widely taken to have undermined a central element of the ancient regime, namely, top down government. Instead of the government being sovereign — in charge of the realm — it was to be individual citizens who assumed the right of self-government. Indeed, that is what marks the difference between subjects and citizens.

As with other elements of public affairs, the switch from the ancient to the modern regime had not been complete. America became a mixed system, economically and otherwise. For example, while serfdom was pretty much abolished, so that no involuntary servitude was legally permitted in the country, taxation, the confiscation or extortion of resources from the citizenry, persisted throughout the country. So, to a significant extent citizens remained subjects, at least as far as their work and resources are concerned. If one works, one’s earnings aren’t deemed to be one’s private property to belong, in large measure, to society (to be used by the government as it sees fit). Changes as radical as what the American Revolution involved, at least as spelled out in the Declaration of Independence, are easier to announce than to implement. The country, accordingly, is still a mixed system in which top down government persists, never mind that the revolutionary rhetoric flatly contradicts that idea.

With America’s relatively open borders and immigration policies, and with the minimal requirement that new citizens swear allegiance to the Constitution (something very easily faked and betrayed), the citizenry never was sufficiently loyal to the original revolutionary ideas. Many became Americans only nominally, “in name” only. (For example, the bulk of the academy where I have done most of my work for the last forty five years is outright hostile to the spirit and letter of America’s exceptional political philosophy! Indeed, it tends to make use of both First Amendment rights and academic freedom primarily to undermine, even ridicule what makes the country exceptional!)

The only way that the exceptional tradition could be preserved and enhanced is by means of popular loyalty. Yet because education is conducted mainly by intellectuals who aren’t fond of the exceptional elements of the country and are, in fact, part of a system that is alien to them — forced education, forced funding of education, tenure at taxpayers’ expense, monopolistic decisions about textbooks, etc., etc. — there is hardly any resistance to the efforts of educators/intellectuals to return the country to the ideas of the ancient regime. So statism is now the status quote in America.

Unless this is changed, unless the original ideas so well summarized in the Declaration of Independence are revived and expanded, America will lose its distinctiveness and embrace the idea that government is the ruler of the realm, not the citizenry. It would have to end that way but the likelihood is considerable. Nor need it be a permanent regression but if permitted, it will take centuries to resume the developments of which American exceptionalism is a central feature. Indeed, the one thing that is a silver lining to all this is that many people across the globe have actually learned quite well the lesson taught by America’s recent history. Unless eternal vigilance is indeed maintained in support of human liberty, it will be lost.

What is the major obstacle to advancing the American political tradition? It is the idea that “we are all in it together.” Communalism or tribalism or modern socialism are put in juxtaposition to the idea of a fully free, individualist, capitalist or libertarian society. Individuals are seen in these as cell in the larger body of society, entirely subservient to the whole. Society or humanity is seen, as Karl Marx put it, “an organic whole (or body).” Individuals must be made to fall in line with the society, which means with the often self-anointed leaders of a country who make use of the collectivist vision for the sake of realizing their personal vision, something they find very appealing even while the citizenry is ambivalent about it.

Frankness About Wealth Redistribution

Frankness About Wealth Redistribution

Tibor R. Machan

When taxation is part of government, wealth redistribution goes hand in hand with it. Taxation was what feudal systems used so as to pay rent to the monarchy. The monarch, after all, used to own the realm. All of it. So just as owners of apartment houses, monarch’s collect rent from those living in there.

The meaning of this is that members of the population got to live in the country by permission of the government, be that a tzar, king, pharaoh, caesar or some other ruler who had nearly absolute power to run the place. It is still so in many regions of the globe. The people aren’t deemed to have rights, including private property rights. That emerged late in the history of Western politics, mainly within the philosophy of the Englishman John Locke and his followers. They defended the idea of natural rights against those who championed the divine right of monarchs.

With the American revolution the Lockean system started to be implemented, though by no means fully. This abolished serfdom or involuntary servitude but didn’t quite manage to abolish taxation, namely, the confiscation of people’s resources, although in principle that should have followed the revolutionary turn of events. If citizens own their lives–have an unalienable right to life–they also own the fruits of their labor. (And such fruits did not need to be created by them from scratch as Mr. Obama suggested with his misguided remark that “You did not build that.”)

In any case, when governments confiscate resources from the people via taxation, the sort of wealth redistribution that Mr. Obama and other statists are avidly defending cannot be avoided. Taking their wealth and handing it out to some citizens for various purposes simply involves redistributing that wealth, period, be it justified or not.

Government’s redistribution of the citizens’ wealth is unavoidable unless taxation is abolished. Even the most minimal of taxation brings about such redistribution.

But in systems of limited government such as what the United States of America was supposed to become, the wealth redistribution was supposed to be minimal! That is where Mitt Romney is basically correct while Mr. Obama is wrong. It is under collectivist kinds of statism, in which the wealth of a country is deemed to be owned by the government exactly as Mr. Obama and those who support his political philosophy see it, that citizens do not have the right to private property but merely get to dispose of some property that the government allows them to retain from their earnings and findings. (Yes, Virginia, some private property is found, meaning it isn’t built from scratch but arises from good fortune, like the wealth one gains from one’s talents or good looks!) But just because one doesn’t build one’s wealth it doesn’t follow that government owns it. That is rank non-sequitur. (After all, one doesn’t build one’s pretty face or good health either, yet it doesn’t belong to Mr. Obama!)

The real issue is whether the wealth one owns is to be distributed by oneself or others! Extensive taxation assumes that it may be distributed and redistributed by others, specifically by the government–politicians and bureaucrats. Not only that, but that these latter actually own one’s wealth, including one’s labor just as is believed under socialism wherein all the major means of production, including human labor, is collectively owned and administered–distributed and redistributed–by government officials. (Several major American political theorists, like Thomas Nagel and Cass Sunstein, argue for exactly that idea.)

This is the issue that could be debated in the current presidential campaign. Who is to do the distribution and redistribution, the citizenry or the state? In a free society it is the former that gets to do the bulk of the distribution and redistribution as it spends funds in the marketplace, gives some away, etc. In a welfare state and especially in the full blown socialist society, it is government, with the people left “permitted” to make some decisions about the allocation of resources.

Which is it to be in America? Why and how? That is what could be fruitfully debated now! But instead the campaign is bogged down in moronic trivia and detail. It should be dealing with the fundamentals of the nature of free government–at least a substantially free government!

No. The Democrats refuse to admit that they really favor the socialist alternative, basically; and the Republicans lack the philosophical savvy to stand up for a truly free system of government, wherein the latter is seriously limited in its powers.

Some Past Reflections on America

Some Past Reflections on America

Tibor R. Machan

Mitt Romney might have made reference to some of the ideas of Alexis de Tocqueville and shamed his critics into attempting to ridicule or denounce these. I am surprised no one prominent in public life has recently called attention to some of them, so well articulated by de Tocqueville, perhaps the most astute European (French) observer of America. Here is a sample:

“In other words, a democratic government is the only one in which those who vote for a tax can escape the obligation to pay it….”

“What is most important for democracy is not that great fortunes should not exist, but that great fortunes should not remain in the same hands. In that way there are rich men, but they do not form a class…..”

“It is the dissimilarities and inequalities among men which give rise to the notion of honor; as such differences become less, it grows feeble; and when they disappear, it will vanish too…..”