Posts tagged egalitarianism

Column on Dyson’s Nonsense

Column on Dyson’s Nonsense

Tibor R. Machan

In a recent review essay Freeman Dyson flatly asserts that “social justice demands equality. Fair reward for enterprise and achievement demands inequality.” Well, neither of these is true but for soundbites in a publication like The New York Review of Books one could do much worse. Social justice is neither social, nor just. It is an excuse for some people to run everyone else’s life.

But Dyson doesn’t stop there and adds this:

Advocates on both sides of the debate have tended to take extreme positions. Numerous utopian communities have been founded to put egalitarian principles into practice. Few of them have lasted longer than one generation. Children have a regrettable tendency to rebel against their parents’ dreams. Meanwhile, advocates of extreme free market capitalism have been preaching the gospel of greed. They glorify greed as the driving force that creates new industries and in the end will make everyone wealthy. Unfortunately in many parts of the world where free market capitalism prevails, the rich are growing richer and the poor are growing poorer. [“The Case for Far-Out Possibilities,” Freeman Dyson, NYRB, 11/10/11, p. 27]

Much of this is simply wrong–no free market capitalist champion preaches any gospel of greed. The closest may be some economists who claim that each of us is motivated to make out well in life, a point so broad that it can mean nearly anything. As Milton Friedman put it, “. . . every individual serves his own private interest . . . . The great Saints of history have served their ‘private interest’ just as the most money grubbing miser has served his interest. The private interest is whatever it is that drives an individual.” ["The Line We Dare Not Cross," Encounter, 11/76:11] So being “greedy” is merely to want to do something, anything, one likes. Self-interest is just having some interest, some goals, never mind what they are. No gospel of greed here, none!

Will freedom produce industries? Well, that and also art and athletics and family life and whatever free men and women choose to pursue. Again, nothing here that should offend any sensibilities.

Does free market capitalism prevail anywhere? Not by a long shot. At best we have some welfare states, mixed economies that include a few elements of capitalism, such a moderate protection of the right to private property and some, fewer and fewer, voluntary contracts, in the midst of innumerable socialist features and fascistic political powers. And where capitalism has made some inroads, the poor are definitely not getting poorer but growing rich, though perhaps not as rapidly as those who focus mostly on wealth care.

So why then is a famous public intellectual saying such misleading things? Maybe because his fame comes from doing work in physics, not in political economy. And maybe also because the common sense account of making it rich still owes too much to the times when that goal was pursued through pilfering, murdering, robbing and otherwise depriving others of what they have. In short, for most of the history gaining wealth was a zero sum game, not the win win situation that modern economists have found far more productive. Peace, not ripping people off, is the road to riches.

Dyson is of course saying all this nonsense in a publication that tries every which way to discredit human economic liberty. He promotes some kind of middle way, between liberty and slavery, at least in the realm of economics. But it makes no sense. It rests on obsolete theory about what gets people to create and produce wealth and ignorance about economic history and reality.

Maybe Dr. Dyson should return to physics and leave economics be. Although quite a few so called economists get it wrong just as he does, especially the Keynesians who believe that one can make something out of nothing. That confusing idea ought to be offensive a physicist for sure.

Introduction to Equality, So Badly Misunderstood

Introduction [to Tibor Machan's new book, Equality, So Badly Misunderstood]:

A supreme achievement of certain thinkers of the modern era has been to challenge and ultimately overturn the idea that some human beings are innately morally or politically superior to others and so they may rule these others as they judge fit. That idea spawned some of the worst practices and institutions among people over the centuries. It was in time invalidated by the plain enough fact that members of the human species were equal in one central respect, namely, their humanity.

However, serious fallout from this welcome development has also occurred. This is the popularity of the view, especially among political and legal philosophers as well as some prominent political economists, namely, that all changeable human inequality is unjust and is to be banished, that individuality itself is something insidious since when one pays heed to it, quite evidently people are quite different individuals from one another. This latter idea, let’s call it bloated equality, has helped, paradoxically, to reintroduce the former political and even moral inequality, which had been nearly totally dis- credited in much of the developed world. This is because in the effort to ban most of the inequality in human communities, those who carry out the ban must be vastly more unequal in the power they hold over others than those they endeavor to make equal. And while their unequal power isn’t being justified on grounds of birthright, the supposed imperative to equalize us all turns out to be insidious and manages to reap the same havoc with justice that the myth of innate inequality did that had been largely abolished. This in the face of the fact that many champions of such egalitarianism have tried to convince us all that justice itself demands their program, the equalization of all, especially in economic matters.

One clear example of public policy influenced by the imperative to establish the bloated conception of political equality came through in the 2009 debate about government guaranteed health care (or insurance) in the United States of America. Such a system is approximated in many other countries across the globe and debate is raging about just how wise and efficient it is. Whether justice requires it, however, is often deemed moot.
Many, especially those who joined US President Barack Obama and his administration, believe in economic equality as they seek to establish a system of government-provided universal health care for American citizens (especially the “public option”). In doing this they clearly take it as a given that the resources required so as to establish their policy may be secured by means of massive taxation and by borrowing against future taxes the payers of which would not even have been born when the policy would begin to be implemented.

So, among other dubious results, this egalitarian effort imposes burdens on yet unborn citizens, thus violating a precious principle of classical liberal politics, one that helped set off the American Revolution in fact, namely, that there must not be taxation without representation. Furthermore the policy includes the Draconian measure of legally requiring citizens to obtain health insurance, surely a measure that would render those who would enforce this far more powerful than those who would choose to abstain. Also, such egalitarian projects are based on the policy of massive wealth redistribution and on the conscription of people’s labor that’s needed to produce the wealth to be redistributed.

But these are just some insidious, unjust results, of the effort to seek substantial economic and social equality among citizens in a human community. The injustice stems from making use of individual human beings against their will, without their consent, and thus from unjustly imposing on them what amounts to involuntary servitude. In this work many more examples of such results will be discussed, along with various arguments and other considerations involved in the issue. It will go some way toward establishing that egalitarianism of the sort that underlies such efforts is badly misguided and, when implemented, it is out and out unjust.

What I will be insisting on defending is the idea that there is no justification for the belief that enforcing economic or any other type of substantive equality among members of human communities is a moral or political—and should be a legal—imperative. No basis exists for this view that, sadly, is widely held in our time.

According to Harvard University Nobel Laureate Amartya K. Sen, the debate over the importance of equality in social and political philosophy is over.

“We are all egalitarians now, because every plausibly defendable ethical theory of social arrangement tends to demand equality in some ‘space,’ requiring equal treatment of individuals in some significant respect—in terms of some variable that is important in that particular theory. The ‘space’ that is invoked does differ from theory to theory. For example, ‘libertarians’ are concerned with equal liberties; ‘economic egalitarians’ argue for equal incomes or wealth; utilitarians insist on equal weight on everyone’s utilities in a consequential maximand, and so on . . . What really distinguishes the different approaches is the variation in their respective answers to the question ‘equality of what?’”

Yet this observation by Sen is about political economy, a very fluid area of human life, so it doesn’t indicate what is most important to most people but what people engaged in discussing public affairs believe. Your neighbor and the watchmaker at the mall aren’t much interested in substantive (e.g., economic) equality. It is mostly when they turn their minds to public affairs such as voting, redistricting, jury duty, and government service that equality starts to matter to them.

More likely, what concerns a great many people is how to be decent and just in their lives not whether people are equal in even the minimal respect of protection for their rights. That may matter, in fact, but isn’t of much concern to most people.

Column on Two Insidious Trends in America

Two Insidious Trends in America

Tibor R. Machan

Two powerful intellectual developments are ruining America. One is egalitarianism, the other pragmatism.

The former is an effort at the highest levels of American education, at institutions such as Harvard University and the University of Chicago, for example, to help establish a regime or political system that has as its firm and unrelenting goal to make all people equal in the benefits and burdens they enjoy and shoulder in their lives–economic, educational, medical, psychological, etc. The clarion call of this movement is to demand government mandated fairness for everyone.

The latter, pragmatism, is also being promulgated at some of the most prominent and prestigious institutions of higher education. This is a broad philosophical school of thought, originally forged on American soil by the likes of Charles Peirce, William James, C. I. Lewis, John Dewey, and numerous others, including the most radical member of the school, the later Richard Rorty; it insists that no basic principles can be identified in any area of human concern, not in ethics, not politics, not even metaphysics or epistemology (or theory of knowledge). Instead of finding basic principles on which to rest one’s reasoning and actions–in morality or law, for instance–an attitude of practical expediency is all that human beings can hope for.
“Whatever works,” is the simplified motto of pragmatism but there is a big problem with this, since things work always with respect to some goal and certain goals are clearly not worth pursuing, others are. Pragmatism insists, however, that there is no way to tell which goals are important, which are trivial and which are out and out insidious. That is all a matter of the intuitions of those who are in charge of calling the shots. (Currently, for example, President Obama and his team–most notably Professor Cass Sunstein of the Harvard Law School–proclaim the superior merit of pragmatism and pursue workable approaches to solving problems they feel need solving.)

Both egalitarianism and pragmatism tend to unleash an army of government regulators upon members of society, in the effort to cut everyone down to the same size and achieve goals the leaders believe need to be achieved, respectively. But both of these outlooks are hopeless, futile and must produce confusion and the tyranny of some people over others. As a result, the egalitarian objectives will mostly turn out exactly as George Orwell indicated in his novella, Animal Farm, namely, a group of members of society will be running the show and thus defeat the very idea of equality among human beings. And given how unprincipled conduct also encourages the rise of elites and petty tyrants, pragmatism also produces very bad public policies. Moreover, the pragmatist agenda flies directly in the face of some of the most noble aspects of the American political tradition, namely, the rule of law and the Founders’ declaration of the vital need for basic principles, such as individual human rights within the legal system. (Cass Sunstein explicitly insists that such rights do not exists and the only “rights” you have is what the government grants you!)

What might be put in oppositions to these two clearly dangerous movements so widely embraced by elite public philosophers? A renewed commitment to the American Founders’ idea that human beings all have basic rights–in this respect they are indeed equal–and the most vital public good or purpose is the protection of their basic rights to life, liberty, the pursuit of happiness, etc. Some adjustment will have to be made on the Founders’ ideas but very little. One point to keep in mind is that just because basic principles can indeed be identified in areas such as ethics, law and politics, it doesn’t mean they are going to be timelessly fixed, unalterable. (That is the point of the amendment process)

Unfortunately the education of American students is mostly in the hands of those who embrace both egalitarianism and pragmatism, so it isn’t going to be easy to rekindle the commitment to the Founders’ ideas and ideals. Still, that is the most significant way to counter the drift of the country toward greater and greater government regimentation. Everyone who understands this needs to discover ways to arrest that drift. It is an eternal struggle but worth it.

Column on There’s no Level Playing Field nor Equal Opportunity

There’s no Level Playing Field or Equal Opportunity

Tibor R. Machan

Yet another excuse for some people to gain power over others is this idea of the level playing field. It’s a metaphor, of course, but used often to mean starting in a race with no advantages for any of the participants. Another term by which to indicate this is equal opportunity. Even those who see through the ruse of peddling equality for all people tend to cave in to this one, agreeing that at least everyone has the right to an equal opportunity. The opportunity for what is not often spelled out but it may include obtaining a job, entering a school, embarking on travel, winning a contest or whatnot. The image that’s called to mind is that when people start out to achieve some goal, none may be favored or disfavored, none may have special advantages or disadvantages, etc.

But the the idea is hopeless. In no actual or even imaginable endeavor do people enjoy the level playing field or an equal opportunity. Take those who begin a marathon race at the same starting point. Looks like they are enjoying an equal opportunity or level playing field since none is provided with extra time or less distance to complete the race. Surely this amounts to treating all those in the race as equals.

Not really. Some of them will have gotten a good night’s sleep, others tossed and turned for who knows what reason that’s certainly unavailable for control by those who organize the race fairly. Some will have had a decent breakfast, others were too nervous to keep any food down; some had loving fans seeing them off to the races, others went it alone. There are, in short, innumerable sources of inequality right from the get go. People are simply too different and face different situations as they embark on various tasks that others, too, attempt.

But by holding out some vain hope for the true level playing field or genuine equal opportunity, meddlers can insist that they must butt in and that their legally mandated manipulations and interference are needed for the noble purposes of serving this utterly misconceived version of justice. It is all bunk. Not only are there predictable differences among virtually all people who embark on similar missions but there are always fortune and misfortune, like the weather or just a plain old cold, that can hit and tilt the odds in favor or disfavor of certain of the participants. Even in sports wherein every possible effort is made to put all participants on a level playing field, this is an unrealistic aspiration. Everyone knows that it is unattainable and any serious attempt to attain it will be futile.

Then quite apart from the natural, given, and unavoidable inequalities that place people into different categories with different chances of winning, there is also other people’s preferences, wants, hopes, and such that upset the apple cart all the time–some athletes are loved by fans, others aren’t so much. Or the sex appeal is simply missing.

More significantly, say you are a farmer planting and harvesting a crop but the purchasing public just lost interest in it and the price you can ask for it plummets, while the efforts of others, say those diving for seafood, are in high demand all of a sudden? Maybe this is because a popular TV chef has come up with some very appealing seafood dishes on the show and the audience is now smitten and demand for the the farmer’s crop has subsided markedly. Surely this upsets any hope for a level playing field between farmers and seafood merchants.

So how is all this to be rearranged without sending in the police who will have no clue what to do about it all but will insist on trying to do something, anything, so as to seem important? And how will the disparity between the power of those embarking on the rearrangement and those who are subject to it be eliminated so that equality obtains between them? Impossible.

The dream of full, robust equality is a nightmare, let’s face it, and it is best to distance ourselves from it as far as possible.

Column on Sandel Says Rumor is False

Sandel Says Rumor is False

Tibor R. Machan

A while ago a rumor was circulating about Michael Sandel, the Harvard University political theorist who is an avid advocate of egalitarianism. He supposedly refused to allow his children to play competitive sports because these instill the wrong, anti-egalitarian values in them.

I mentioned this in a column, saying “Michael Sandel reportedly refused to let his own child play sports because that would teach them the idea that some people are better athletes than others and that this matters somewhat in one’s life.” Then I went on to criticize the policy and the philosophy behind it.

The column appears to have just recently come to Sandel’s attention, so he sent me an email saying that “this [the report] is false.” I am, in turn, reporting what he said so as to let others know that he despite the report. If I mislead anyone, I apologize. (My hedge, “reported,” may not have been sufficient to warn people that this was just a rumor.)

As to the substance of the issue, an egalitarian would quite naturally object to competitive sports which emphasize differences among people, not their similarities. (They would prefer being a member of a choir, one may assume.) Whatever competitive sport one might consider, in the end some turn out to have outdone the rest, proven themselves better than their competitors. The idea that eliminating such sports might contribute to the elimination of the meritocratic aspects of one’s society is certainly very plausible.

Egalitarians like Sandel’s former colleague, the late John Rawls, explicitly reject the idea that people could deserve their advantages in life. Rawls has written, in his very famous A Theory of Justice, that “The assertion that a man deserves the superior character that enables him to make the effort to cultivate his abilities is … problematic; for his character depends in large part upon fortunate family and social circumstances for which he can claim now credit.” (104) This surely implies, also, that any attribute one has that leads one to win in a competitive sport is also “in large part” a matter of fortunate circumstance and thus permitting children to believe that they have earned their victories in such sports would be to foster a seriously mistaken social point of view. (This is why the rumor about how the egalitarian political theorist Sandel’ rears his children appeared quite plausible to me.)

Nonetheless, I didn’t check out the rumor. Given that I was writing an opinion column and not a scholarly paper, I figured it is the substance that matters, not the veracity of the story. But I can appreciate that Sandel would not agree, so I want to make sure that his denial gets at least some circulation. It does bear mentioning, however, that Sandel himself has characterized libertarianism in seriously misleading ways, suggesting, on his TV program “Justice,” that for libertarians there are no moral responsibilities apart from ones that one agrees to shoulder.

Yet, of course, libertarians hold that at the minimum everyone is obligated not to violate the rights of others. Furthermore, libertarians are political and not moral theorists so they do not spell out any specific moral position that we ought to abide by. They do agree, on the whole, that whatever moral responsibilities one has need to be carried out voluntarily even if they do bind one to act in certain ways. Any kind of coerced conduct loses moral significance, which is another reason for insisting on the regime of individual liberty and on rejecting Sandel’s enforced egalitarianism.

So never mind Sandel, just mind his egalitarianism, which he is well positioned, at Harvard University and on PBS-TV, to promulgate. So it is worth pointing out the flaws of Sandel’s position, including their misguided implications for public policy. We can accept Sandel’s denial of what he was rumored to do concerning his children’s playing competitive sports; yet the idea that this follows from his philosophy is worth pointing out.