Posts tagged Herbert Spencer

Column on Moral Responsibility and the Poor

Moral Responsibility and the Poor

Tibor R. Machan

Two central dogmas of contemporary liberalism are that the rich are to be blamed for all our ills and that in the end all people are the same and no one is more or less worthy than anyone else. Blaming those who are not so well off as others is unjust because they are not well enough socialized to be ambitious and diligent.

At the same time, those who are well off get a lot of moral criticism for failing to be generous, kind, charitable or giving. Indeed, they are so bad that they need to have their wealth reduced by way of heavy taxation–not just the familiar progressive kind but whatever else the politicians and bureaucrats with this line of thinking can manage to extort from them. (Remember, taxation is extortion. It is the legacy of the feudal era, the kin of serfdom.)

Not only that but even those who stand up defending the wealthy are morally guilty, deserving of scorn and contempt, not civilized discourse about the matter. I know this quite well since I have been standing up against extortion for decades now. For me it isn’t a matter of whether a wealthy deserve their wealth–I don’t know the bulk of them so I cannot tell–but whether anyone is justified it doing such extortion. (I may not deserve my good health or pretty face but this doesn’t justify anyone levying a tax on it!)

The liberal attitude about morality stems, in part, from widespread scientism, the view that science has invalidated morality, made it something bogus like astronomy has made astrology bogus. Extrapolating the empirical scientific method to everything else of interest to human beings achieves this distortion.

Everything is not subject to the experimental method–for example whether faking research is ethical isn’t. And this is the beginning of the confusion and obfuscation–those who are championing the abolition of morality are just as morally ticked off with those who distort their ideas as anyone else is with bad conduct. They become moralists, all of a sudden, never mind that no natural science can show there is anything amiss with faking research, with distorting anyone’s views, etc.

So from the git-go the effort to abolish the moral perspective fails. But what then about denying to those not so well off a moral criticism? Is it right to hold that the poor or disadvantaged cannot be held morally responsible?

That would be rank dehumanization. These folks are not invalids or infants but full human beings who for whatever reason lack substantial wealth. But that doesn’t mean they could not be guilty of acting irresponsibly. All bona fide human beings are subject to moral assessment, usually by those who know them well but when the conduct is evident to us all, to anyone aware of how they are acting. It doesn’t take intimate knowledge of a terrorist to know that what he or she is doing is contemptible. Or of a child molester or cheat.

In the realm of economics, also, that some people refuse to make the effort to lift themselves out of poverty is quite subject to criticism. Or that despite being poor, they keep producing children they cannot care for and then then dump on the rest of society as if others were the parents.

But if all this is true, then all this blaming the rich needs to be seriously reconsidered. Maybe the rich–or at least most of them–are the good guys, having worked hard or deployed their skills and talents wisely so they’d end up well enabled to carry on in their lives.

And all this also implies that the public policy debate about who is to be held responsible for housing bubbles, becoming debt ridden and unemployed and such needs some serious revision. Instead of penalizing the rich, perhaps most of them ought to be praised and held up as models for the rest of us. And the poor ought not to be let off so easy when they come under scrutiny. As Herbert Spencer observed,

“Sympathy with one in suffering suppresses, for the time being, remembrance of his transgressions….Those whose hardships are set forth in pamphlets and proclamations in sermons and speeches which echo throughout society, are assumed to be all worthy souls, grievously wronged; and none of them are thought of as bearing the penalties of their own misdeeds. “(Man versus the State, p.22)

Column on Is Capitalism Cruel?

Is Capitalism Cruel?

Tibor R. Machan

Now this issues must always be dealt with comparatively–is capitalism cruel, harsh, heartless compared to what?

Some folks I know have maintained that compared to socialism, capitalism is indeed all these things but I just cannot buy it. Partly it’s because I have lived under at least one kind of socialism, the Soviet version, which, as only someone who has been living in a cave for a hundred years would deny, is brutal, never mind cruel, harsh, and heartless.

But let’s not focus on the worst case scenario of socialism. Let us take socialism “with a human face,” the sort that is usually associated with Sweden, France, Greece or some other country where the government manages much of the society’s economic affairs but doesn’t punish dissidents and ban freedom of speech. Are these bona fide socialist systems and are they gentle and kind to their population?

Again, compared to what? A fully free market, capitalist system in which everyone must live without resorting to extorting their support from others, without getting bailed out by the government with other people’s resources when they have mismanaged their financial affairs–is such a system more cruel than, say, democratic socialism?

Not really, not by a long shot. Any kind of socialism subjects the citizenry to coercive wealth redistribution and makes it impossible to accumulate wealth for oneself, one’s family, one’s enterprise thus impeding investment, savings and economic development. Instead people in socialist systems have to contend with being slowly bled to economic destitution unless they are savvy enough to circumvent all the damaging socialist practices (think here of George Soros). And, yes, there are quite a few people in socialist societies, even the harshest version of them, who manage to game the system. They may not openly attack their fellow citizens but because they game the system at the expense of these fellow citizens, those others are in fact–although sometimes not visibly–being seriously harmed.

These socialist systems with human faces manage to disguise their mistreatment of all those who are made to pay for the mistakes of many who become used to being taken care of, who feel they are entitled to endless help from the government, who don’t want to reach out to people and contend with the fact that generosity and charity must be voluntary whereas being on the dole is coercive but not easily noticed. Who is paying for those food stamps? The minimum wages one receives? The subsidies to farmers and all the rest of the costly welfare measures? No one can tell because it all goes through politicians and bureaucrats and they do not accept responsibility of how they treat the citizenry, for depriving Peter of what belongs to Peter and hand it to Paul (not before they skim a good deal off for themselves). (I develop this idea in my 1970 paper, “Justice and the Welfare State,” The Personalist.)

Moreover, many people judge socialism by the announced intentions of those who support the system, not by the actual consequences it produces throughout a society. All the unseen losses suffered because of the public mismanagement of the economy are overlooked and, instead, people often believe it is “the thought that counts.” But a little serious, disciplined thinking should soon reveal just what is going on and how what appears on superficial sight gentle and sweet becomes, instead, insidious and harmful.

Capitalism is up front about placing responsibility on free men and women and for this it gets a bad rep from those who are duped into thinking that one can tell the full content of a book by its fancy cover. Capitalism, unlike the welfare state, is more like parents who impose discipline and refuse to spoil their children however much they whine about it. Those who think the system is therefore a cruel one are comparable to teens who bellyache about their parents because they are more interested in justice than in mercy (which in exceptional cases is fine but not as a routine).

Because so many people have found free market capitalism too harsh, too cruel, or too mean, the system has never been allowed to function as it had been meant to by those who considered it best for a society’s economic well being, the likes of Adam Smith, Herbert Spencer, Ludwig von Mises, F. A. Hayek, Milton Friedman and Ayn Rand, among others. (Spencer, especially, got no end of grief because of sentiments like the following: “Sympathy with one in suffering suppresses, for the time being, remembrance of his transgressions….Those whose hardships are set forth in pamphlets and proclamations in sermons and speeches which echo throughout society, are assumed to be all worthy souls, grievously wronged; and none of them are thought of as bearing the penalties of their own misdeeds.” [Man versus the State, p.22].) Instead they followed the lead of John Maynard Keynes and insisted that people who mismanage their economic affairs are entitled to endless bailouts from the government.

Is this actually less cruel, less mean than the alternative, once all the results are considered? I seriously doubt it–just think of Greece, Portugal and, of course, the former Soviet colonies, as well of the members of America’s and many other nations’ future generations!