Archive for October, 2012

Socialism as Elitism

Machan’s Archives: A Note on Socialism as Elitism*

Tibor R. Machan

Since ancient times some people have considered the market place an unruly forum in which to determine whose work and what commodities are worth how much. With Marxism this view acquired a pseudo-scientific status. The complaint that when free individuals and groups exchange goods and services some will get more for their contributions than they deserve reaches the level of a total ideology.

Before this complaint and its ideological expression are dismissed, it is important to understand their appeal. It isn’t very difficult to empathize with the complaint when we restrict it to individual instances. Most people have experienced a feeling of dismay with what certain producers in the market receive for their work. The pop music groups make millions of dollars for grinding out a few pleasant but clearly not phenomenal songs. A boxer gets millions of dollars for going eight or so rounds before knocking out his opponent. A television commentator collects some $200,000 a year for uttering two minutes worth of banalities twice or three times a week for about half the season. A New York Times columnist makes a bundle from writing flawed economic commentaries! Surely these folks are not worth all that money – or so the thought occurs to some of us. Especially when others, who make far more worthy contributions, receive far more modest remunerations for their efforts.

These sorts of considerations are natural, even if not fully justified in the total context. We cannot deny that monetarily speaking the worth of many a product and producer is in some sense over or under estimated. Out of this impression, natural enough in individual instances, grows a very dangerous ideological perspective. But one must appreciate that some of the individual instances make sense.

Now really—what foolishness prompts people to pay that kind of money for such frivolous results or charge so little for the same? And it is not unreasonable, now and then, to question the wisdom of various people when they do shell out enormous sums of money for goods or services while other, quite objectively more worthwhile products (even to them individually) could have been purchased for a more sensible price and some sell something quite worthwhile for but a nominal price.

From these impressions the jump is made, by Marxists and other statists that something must be done to stop such alleged miscalculations. And then, very quickly, the suggestion is made that if only some wise folks could make sure that the objective value of work and products is identified, matters could be remedied in a jiffy.

Since, however, persuasion does not guarantee results—people can ignore the advice of the wisest of men – the appeal to coercion is readily welcome. The conclusion to this effect is highly questionable—indeed, an out and out non-sequitor—admittedly. But as with all questionable hypotheses, the ground from which they stem is usually firm enough. Otherwise generally sensible human beings would never pick up on the broader theory advanced. It helps to recall this when we want to understand why so many people are sympathetic toward socialist/egalitarian political measures and doctrine.

Yet understanding the ground for the sympathy does not lead a rational person to accepting the broader inferences drawn. There is one particularly odious implication that follows from what is inferred from these understandable impressions. Others may be found as well, but this one will pinpoint a clear-cut inconsistency in the broader picture advanced by socialists.

The complaint begins by noting that free people tend at times to overrate the work and products of their fellows. True enough, they do. (There are advocates of the free market who would deny this on grounds that no objective values exist. But this is self-defeating, since they also hold that the free market is of objective value to us.) The suggestion advanced in turn is that we should have a central governing body of people who will make certain that such mistakes do not happen—even if it takes the use of firing squads to accomplish this noble result. Yet if the premise is true—that people make mistakes by over and underrating others’ work and products—then the conclusion cannot follow—that people will make certain that such mistakes do not happen. This is because what people will do is tied to what they can do. The body of select people is no less a body of people than the body of people that makes up the free market place!

Here is where the odious implications of the broader picture emerge. We are asked to believe that some people are inherently different from the rest of us. We are told that the select group—the leaders of socialist/egalitarian governments via their schemes of distribution and equalization—is immune from the errors of the rest of us. That the likes of Ralph Nader, Chuck Schumer, Joe Biden, et al., are really inherently better and wiser folk than are we all is what the citizenry is supposed to accept!

The conclusion is interesting. Because starting from a desire for equality—fair pricing, lessening the frequency of over- and underestimation of work, etc. – we are led to the establishment of public policies that grant some people the legalized position of institutionalizing their (elitist) errors. It is this conclusion that is never justified. It is the view that this select group of individuals can and will do better than free people in voluntary association at determining what is good or bad within the realm of production and exchange.

The simple fact is—known since the time of Thomas Aquinas—that we are best off taking the risk with the free market. The “utopian vision” of perfect judgments needs to be abandoned. We should all try to implement the best judgments we can make, at least within our own market activities, and maybe even in cases where our help is asked for or freely accepted.

It is futile to argue that market decisions could not be better than they are. But it is far sillier to hold that institutionalizing the will of some of us can produce a guaranteed utopia. In that path lies disaster—and we are now tasting its beginnings in our own land.

*Published in The Intercollegiate Review, Fall, 1975, pp. 33-34.

Capitalism, Socialism & Human Dignity

Capitalism, Socialism & Human Dignity*

Tibor R. Machan

Capitalism means human individual freedom, especially in the sphere of striving to become prosperous. To defend the system is a challenge because of its ties to individualism, even ethical egoism. For centuries the ethical and moral guidelines people have been urged to live by have been some kind of communitarianism, such as altruism, utilitarianism, socialism, communism, etc. The individualism associated with capitalism had been thought as atomistic, seeing people as isolated from and indeed hostile toward one another.

Socialism is the political economic order that sees human beings as part of a larger entity, society, to which they are all beholden and which they must serve not of their own free will but as a matter of coerced duty.

The common sense appeal of communal systems as guiding human action comes from the historical need for collective conduct in the face of threats from groups that would overpower those who are vulnerable. (F. A. Hayek makes this point well in his works.) Once it turned out that individuals who unite of their free will provide better protection to the group, individualism began to gain support. It is better suited to human life, with individuals being the source of solutions to most problems.

In time individualism surpassed other schools of ethical thought, especially once it became evident that voluntarily choosing to be part of a group–tribe, clan, nation–ensured greater loyalty than is possible via coercive unisons.

It also became evident that all the talk about the need to unite and sacrifice for the group has served largely to secure power for a few over the rest. Thus individualism became more civilized, less primitive. As public choice theory suggests, efforts to serve the public interest usually come to no more than serving the interest of influential, powerful people at the expense of others.

Protesting about having to serve the public or community is difficult because the alternative, of serving oneself, the individual, seems to be arbitrary and self-indulgent. But today a sophisticated ethical (as opposed to psychological) egoism, such as what we find in David L. Norton’s Personal Destinies, A Philosophy of Ethical Individualism (Princeton UP, 1976), can overcome all known objections to individualism. (See, also, Tibor Machan’s, Classical Individualism [Routledge, 1998].) This, however, hasn’t reached popular consciousness–instead, most people are schizophrenic and preach collectivism while practice individualism.

The individualism or egoism forged most fully by Norton, as well as by Ayn Rand in her book, The Virtue of Selfishness, A New Concept of Egoism (1967), and others, stresses an Aristotelian idea of the human individual, not a Hobbesian one (which is found mostly in economics). An implication of this is that virtues such as generosity, kindness, gregariousness, etc., are entirely compatible with seeking to flourish as the human individual one is and self-interest is understood by reference to what is proper for a rational animal, not a beast driven to seek power over others.

This development, though not yet widely acknowledged, puts an end to the charge that egoism or individualism, as a central element of free market capitalism, must be a crass, anti-social viewpoint and must generate a social climate of mutual hostility and alienation.

When it comes to competition in the free market, for example, the model isn’t the boxing ring, as widely assumed in caricatures of capitalism, but the marathon race! Thus, for instance, friendship would easily be seen as fully compatible with individualism, indeed, implicit in it. (See also the work of the philosopher Neera Badhwar for this.)

The dignity of the human individual is far more elevated than that of the human social animal as seen in socialism and other collectivist political regimes. The hallmark of this social-political outlook is that individuals come together voluntarily and aren’t herded into communities by rulers or dictators.

*Based on a lecture given at the Summer Leadership Academy, in Bercel, Hungary, Summer 2012.

Machan’s Archives: PBS & NPR, America’s Pravda and Izvestia

Machan’s Archives: PBS & NPR, America’s Pravda and Izvestia

Tibor R. Machan

It is a feature of American culture that’s most upsetting though hardly anyone makes much of it at all. Indeed, I know several avid defenders of the free society who make regularly and eager appearances on National Public Radio and I have to confess that I myself have appeared on one or two Public Broadcast Service programs when allowed to make a pitch for a society that would have no such things, namely partly government funded TV or radio programming.

When I first left Hungary, in 1953, and came to live in the West, I settled for a while in Munich where my father and stepmother worked for Radio Free Europe. This outfit was partly American government–CIA–funded, beaming programs into Eastern European, Soviet bloc countries and supposedly countering communists propaganda. But at heart the idea of the American government doing this turned out to be a paradox since what is wrong with communist countries is precisely that they place everything in society under state control, including broadcasting the news, educating the young, science, entertainment and athletics.

That is just what is supposed to be so different between communism and capitalism: the state and the society are supposed to be separate in the latter. Yet here was RFE doing just what the communists were doing, entrusting government with broadcasting. (I recall how eager I was at one point shortly after I came West to have the American government give massive funding to Olympic hopefuls so they would defeat Soviet athletes and show how much better American athletes can be than Soviet ones, not realizing for a good while how paradoxical this was–sports should not be the purview of government in a genuine free country.)

Yet, what we have had in America and many Western countries for decades on end is, you guessed it, virtually the same thing as they had in the Soviet Union and its colonies, namely, government run radio and TV, just like the two government published and managed “newspapers” in the USSR, Pravda and Izvestia, not to mention all their other media. Instead of showing a confidence in the institutions that emerge spontaneously in a free country, from the initiative of free men and women, Americans abandoned the principles of their system to mount a counter-offensive. Let’s defeat communism by becoming, well, partly communist! What a self-defeating policy that is.

These days a good example is PBS’s broadcast of Professor Michael Sandel’s lectures on justice from Harvard University. Sandel is smart and erudite but at heart a propagandist for a planned society, only in degrees different from what the most earnest of the Soviets had hoped for (but, of course, couldn’t bring off because of how it contradicts human nature). There is, of course, nothing objectionable about Harvard broadcasting Sandel’s lectures at its own expense but there is decidedly something wrong with Sandel getting even partial government funding for his partisan lectures. He is not a teacher who gives an fair and accurate representation of different ideas of justice but someone who subtly nudges his students and audience in a particular ideological direction.

Am I exaggerating in considering Sandel a propagandist, albeit a subtle one? Well, here is how he handled Aristotle’s political philosophy.

The ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle defended a fairly intrusive type of political system in which the government or state–although some dispute this interpretation–aimed at making people good. OK, this is a pretty standard rendition of Aristotle but in laying it out one needs to make note of the fact that it may well miss something vital about justice. This is that very likely no one can really make people good–that task needs to be everyone’s own (other than those crucial impeded).

Human goodness is arguably something every individual has to bring about for himself or herself. Otherwise it is nothing but regimentation and what we get is perhaps good behavior but clearly not morally virtuous conduct. Aristotle, probably somewhat influenced by the experience of the extreme tyranny of the city state of Sparta, accepted the idea that people can be forced to be good. This is what the classical liberal ethos has corrected about ancient political philosophy–human beings need to choose and cannot be forced to be good!

Now Sandel gave no mention of this problem with Aristotle. He made it appear (by failing to discuss the point) that whereas Aristotle had a noble concern with human goodness, the more recent tendency in (especially American libertarian) political philosophy to restrict the power of government and leave citizens to their own resources when it comes to living a morally good life was inferior to it. But it isn’t. Classical liberals pay plenty of attention to human goodness but they realize it cannot be engineered! Communitarians and welfare state liberals to the contrary notwithstanding, people cannot be forced to be good! It is a distinctive element of human life that people’s goodness must be their own doing not that of behavior modifiers, brain-washers or the bureaucrats.

To make it appear that this approach to politics fails to promote human goodness is a distortion. That is why I call Sandel’s lectures propaganda. If they were fair-minded, by presenting this kind of critique of Aristotle and others who want to force us to be good, it would be educational. And by being put on PBS, a partly government funded TV network, the lectures come very close to resembling what the citizens of the Soviet Union and its colonies received from Pravda and Izvestia.

When recently Mitt Romney said he would shut down PBS and Big Bird, there was a lot of bellyaching about it but Romney, who isn’t even a libertarian, was correct. It isn’t the task of government in a free country to do entertainment, not even education. It is supposed to keep the peace, protect individual rights, period.

A Note on Biden and Abortion

Note on Joe Biden and Abortion

Tibor R. Machan

His pro-life abortion stance should be much more of a problem for Vice President Joe Biden then the media has made it thus far. And his Left Wing base is giving him a pass, quite unjustly. Here is why:

If, as the Veep claims, a conceptus or zygote has the rights of a human infant–especially the right to life, so that no one may end its life, including the pregnant woman who is carrying it–then the issue cannot, pace Mr. Biden, be a private decision. Analogously, if I have an infant in my home I have no right to end its life, not unless it is a direct, unambiguous threat to my own (like a violent intruder would be).

Self-defense would be the only justification to a pro-lifer for having an abortion. Otherwise for pro-lifers terminating a pregnancy with the result of the death of the zygote would amount to homicide, possibly out and out murder. And anything along those lines opens the matter to a criminal inquiry, which is certainly not a private matter.

So it is clear that the pro-life position has problems with the stance that a government or a law enforcement agency must stay out of a pregnant woman’s “private” life. The pro-choice stance doesn’t have this problem since it doesn’t recognize a zygote as in possession of the right to life. Zygotes are potential but not actual human beings (although they are, of course, human zygotes). But being that they do not have the rights of, say, babies or infants, just as a human toe or finger doesn’t have the rights of a person.

Accordingly, a pro-life position, such as Joe Biden’s, has altogether too much intrusive statism about it. Government or law enforcement would be authorized to defend the zygote from anyone who would choose to destroy it; even its accidental death, as in a miscarriage, would arguably be subject to legal scrutiny, as would that of any human infant.

While Joe Biden is relatively silent about his stance on these matters, the surrounding issues should not be overlooked by the media. His current position is duplicitous! I do not believe Joe Biden or anyone on his team has fully addressed these matters. And the Republicans are probably going to avoid it since they are no less likely to be confused about it.

Society as an Organic Body

Society as an Organic Body

Tibor R. Machan

Karl Marx, in his posthumously published work Grundrisse identified his view of humanity very clearly. Humanity is an organic whole (or body). People aren’t individuals but the cells of this organic entity whose development and maturation Marx tried to chronicle in his works.

When you have an organic body you are looking out for, if some part of this body is faltering, another part may need to be called upon or sacrificed so as to help mend it. Just as with human beings sometime a part of their bodies are utilized to fix another part, so with humanity–or society, if that is all you have available to manipulate.

Mr. Obama was educated and raised as at least a crypto communist, someone who holds this Marxian view. As he expresses it now, “We are all in it together.” We are like a hive or colony of tiny critters and so none of us can have any rights that give us the sphere of independence that an individualist view of society aims to establish and protect for each citizen.

This is a serious position, not something frivolous. Mr. Obama is not perhaps a card carrying member of the communist movement but shares its central tenets. The idea that individuals matter as individuals is very far from his worldview. At most it is classes that count but not individuals. If some segment or part of society–or the country–is in need of support, another may be imposed upon to supply it.

I recall when Welsh actor Richard Harris injured his nose doctors took bones from his hip so as to repair it. It all went swimmingly.

Political leaders–rulers–in collectivist regimes see themselves as assigned the job of keeping the body politic intact. So if some element of society needs to be contracted or even cut out so as to remedy or mend another part, they see themselves as obligated to carry out the job. They cannot be bothered by what they regard as the fiction of individual rights!

A matter like this needs to be kept in mind when politicians are evaluated. It needs to be kept in mind in the current presidential election, too.