Posts tagged Frank Rich

Column on Frank Rich’s Prejudice

Frank Rich’s Prejudice

Tibor R. Machan

Karl Marx was famous for, among other things, claiming that everyone always promotes his or her economic interest. This is something he actually had in common with non-Marxists classical economists.

Most economists, in fact, believe that we are all motivated by our economic interests, nothing else. Or, rather, everything else that might appear to motivate us really comes down to economics. Consider the following from a few very prominent non-Marxist economists. The late Milton Friedman, one of the modern age’s most famous and diligent students and defenders of the free-market system, said it most directly: “[E]very 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.” His colleague, the late George Stigler, another Nobel Prize winner, made the point only slightly differently: “Man is eternally a utility-maximizer—in his home, in his office (be it public or private), in his church, in his scientific work—in short, everywhere.” Finally Nobel laureate Professor Gary Becker, who also embrace this homo economicus viewpoint, underscores the idea as follows: “The combined assumptions of maximizing behavior, market equilibrium, and stable preferences, used relentlessly and unflinchingly, form the heart of the economic approach as I see it.” The bottom line: We are all driven by our desire to fare well economically, first and foremost.

Marx also held to this idea, at least so far as people in the capitalist phase of humanity’s development are concerned. We act to enrich ourselves and whatever else we might claim motivates us, it is really just self-enrichment.

Frank Rich, prominent columnist at The New York Times and a relentless foe of the free market, capitalist economic system, has just now latched on to the story of the brothers Koch of Wichita, Kansas, David and Charles–there is another who isn’t so directly involved in the Koch business enterprises–a story told extensively in The New Yorker recently, by Jane Mayer. Rich is very impressed by this story and interprets it in the way many economists would, namely, that everything done by the brothers Koch has to do with their desire to enhance their wealth. But the economists would say this about all of us, not the the brothers Koch.

Of course, Rich merely infers his claims from the story–he fails to give one solitary good quotation from either David or Charles Koch to substantiate his allegation that they are both interested solely in self-enrichment. No wonder, because it is not so.

I have had the good fortune to make the acquaintance of both of the Koch brothers, although we aren’t fast friends by any means. But way back when I was a graduate student in philosophy, Charles took an interest in my work on my doctoral dissertation and invited me to give a talk about it in Wichita. It had to do with human rights and whether we can know that there are such rights or do some of us simply have a strong feeling in favor of them. Later I served, briefly, on the board of the Reason Foundation (which grew out of Reason Enterprises, the tiny firm that published Reason magazine in its early incarnation) with David Koch. So I can attest without any reasonable doubt that what motivated and likely still motivates the brothers Koch is their firm commitment to the ideas and ideals of a fully free society, a la the Declaration of Independence.

Now it is often held by the likes of Frank Rich–such as Ralph Nader and Kevin Phillips–that those who favor a fully free society are only interested in promoting their own economic welfare. Is this credible?

No. Of course, true enough, a fully free society would also be economically free, just as it would favor religious liberty or freedom of the press or everyone’s right to, say, sing in the shower and marry whoever they want who would want them. Freedom for those of us who love it isn’t divided into economic, religious, journalistic, scientific and other parts. It is indivisible, a general proper condition for human community life, period. This is what the Koch brothers have always championed.

Now just like journalists who favor freedom of the press benefit from such freedom, the Koch’s naturally would benefit from freedom of commerce. But so would we all. Freedom, not surprisingly, is simply good for us all and this includes entrepreneurs such as the brothers Koch. Now do they–do we all who champion a fully free society–support liberty solely because it enhances our economic welfare? No, I am certain of that–I, who have hardly a dime to my name, certainly favor liberty in part because it enables me to earn a living with the support of those of my fellows who freely choose to pay me for my work. But is this the sole reason why I favor liberty? Is it the sole reason the brothers Koch do so? Wrong! Not by a long shot.

Just ask us. Don’t ask Frank Rich, who makes his claims based on his prior beliefs, independently of any evidence from the brothers themselves.

Column on Misunderstanding the Fiasco

Misunderstanding the Fiasco

Tibor R. Machan

My concern here isn’t with identifying who or what produced the recent financial fiasco but with whether and how one might produce such an identification.

It is my contention that in a thoroughly mixed economic system such as that of the U.S.A., untangling the macroeconomic or general cause and effect process is nearly impossible. It is not possible, in any case, without a comprehensive theory of how an economy works in terms of which one could then determine, despite the mass of confusing data, what could have gone amiss. Unless one has a good theory about such matters, the mere listing of events and factors just will not suffice. All that gives is hints, at most.

In the Sunday New York Times of April 11, 2010, Frank Rich tries again, as have many others, to assign responsibility of what happened as is still happening to such people as former Fed Chief Greenspan and treasury secretary Rubin. But once one appreciates the difficulty involved in sorting out what did and did not contribute to what went down, which public policies, the decisions of which public officials, the practices of which market institutions or the actions of which market agents–of whom there were, of course, millions–it can been conjectures with considerable confidence that Rubin and, especially, Greenspan are mere stand-ins in a philosophical and macroeconomic conflict between those who trust everything to government and those who have confidence in free institutions.

Because Greenspan was once associated with radical capitalist thinking, such as Ayn Rand’s Objectivism, he is constantly being derided. But it’s pure politics or ideology; no one really knows what or who in this country’s terribly mixed economy brought about the recent financial fiasco. Most who seek to blame are scapegoating, nothing more, using the occasion to score points against what they disapprove of. (Greenspan was generally approved of by most as the Fed’s chief even though he himself never made much of the job–just read his 1997 lecture about central banking to the Association of Private Enterprise Education at http://www.bis.org/review/r970502b.pdf) Frank Rich himself is but a latecomer here. It is Paul Krugman, his colleague at The Times, who puts forth the most dogmatically stated blame, namely, that what is responsible is the legacy of Reaganomics and so called market fundamentalism, a phony whipping boy if there ever was one.

When wide ranging events of very serious harmful impact occur in a mixed economy, to be able to figure out which portion of the mixture was most responsible is very tough. One needs, oddly enough, a general framework, just the sort that the likes of Krugman and Mr. Obama disparage constantly. These people are avowed pragmatists and for them any theoretical analysis of such events amounts to nothing more than cheap ideology.

By “ideology” they mean something unspecified–I have never read anything by either Krugman or Obama that explains their use of the term, as if it were a simple concept, which it isn’t. One can only infer their meaning indirectly, from the fact that they tend to contrast it with pragmatism and “pragmatism” does have a pretty specific, commonly understood meaning. It refers to an intellectual disposition that rejects systematic analysis of events and things in the world. “Unprincipled” may capture it correctly and the reason for this is that a serious, traditional pragmatist claims there simply are no fundamental principles in such disciplines as economics, political economy, or even philosophy. All that’s possible is a kind of catch-as-catch-can approach, a focus on what happens to bring about what one likes to bring about.

The general framework approach would start with the development of certain theories of human economic life that produce such systems of analysis as laissez-faire capitalism, socialism, fascism, communism, communitarianism, the welfare state and the like (with the ultimate goal of applying the best to actual public policy). From extensive historical study and sorting out of data, thinkers arrive at such broad systems and use these to analyze the very messy world in which economic events occur.

There simply is no way to escape theorizing, contrary to pragmatism. And so the only approach to figuring out what happened is by deploying the best of these general accounts of human economic life and see what it tells us. Yes, in this case theory comes before adequate understanding (but the theory has to be a sound one, which is no easy requirement to meet).

Until such an approach is recognized as the sort needed to figure things out, all that will be in evidence is a nearly random but emphatic finger pointing, with the hope to clinching the case for one’s partisan analysis through intimidation.