Posts tagged Krugman

Column on Why not Pessimism?

Why not Pessimism?

Tibor R. Machan

By most accounts there is little good news about any progress toward a freer society, quite the contrary. Around the globe, of course, there are some regions that are making small moves away from tyranny but even in those few, human freedom doesn’t appear to be a priority. Instead tribal and religious conflicts are the rule, even as the more vicious rulers are losing their grip on their populations. In Syria the tyrant is hanging on by a very thin thread yet elsewhere it’s mob rule that has replaced dictatorships.

In the USA, which at one time had the justified distinction of aspiring toward a fully free society–”leader of the free world”–the system and those who administer it pay hardly any heed to human liberty; the leadership is either wallowing in calls for economic equality (as if George Orwell had never written Animal Farm) or embarking wrangles about social and religious issues. (These Republicans certainly know how to drop the ball and miss opportunities!) Every problem that gains serious attention seems to call forth simply more statism from the elite; the possibility of turning toward more freedom is routinely denounced by prominent commentators. (I cannot get over Paul Krugman’s widely respected yet totally preposterous complaints about “market fundamentalism,” something he keeps alleging has gripped the country even though no evidence of it exists anywhere.)

Despite all this, there is reason to be hopeful. First, there is that proverbial long run to keep in mind; anyone who takes a close look at the sweep of human political history has to grant that there exists at least a “two steps forward, one back” phenomenon when it comes to the progress of freedom. Then there is the recent emergence of substantial respectability for libertarianism, with the likes of Ron Paul and his son Rand championing it openly among mainstream politicians and with the likes of Fox TV’s Judge Andrew Napolitano, John Stossel and others making a libertarian pitch on a very successful cable network, with regular appearances by and interviews with consistent, uncompromising champions of the fully free society. All those Reason Magazine and Reason.com folks certainly are a very welcome presence “on the air,” repeatedly, making their points very cogently. Gary Johnson, former governor of New Mexico, is going to give it a shot as the Libertarian Party’s presidential candidate, lending his sharp message–one I consider more coherent and on point than those of Ron Paul whose is marred by both certain domestic conservative themes and somewhat over the top ideas on international affairs–to the growing demands for freedom coming from America’s main street (as against the insistent statism we get from too many prominent academics). And there is the growing acknowledgement from many corners that the profligacy of government just cannot be sustained, not without the serious threat of a police state that would be needed to coerce us all into compliance with the resulting grotesque economic policies such as increasing taxes on productive citizens and clamping down on all efforts to resist confiscatory tax policies around the country and abroad. (It bears remembering that John Maynard Keynes considered the Third Reich as a very promising place for his policies of economic meddling by the state–see the Introduction he wrote for the German translation of The General Theory!) Also, the general population seems to be tiring of rich bashing, although there are those, like the Occupy Wall Street bunch, who continue to be ignorantly deluded about the desirability and feasibility of economic leveling.

It is wise also, I think, to keep in mind that massive semi-democratic systems are very unlikely to ever settle into a sensible political regime, given all the conflicting and often bizarre influences that guide public policies and produce truly awful elected officials–think Barney Frank here. Nonetheless over the long haul freedom is making progress. Not in all places, for sure, and with major gaps not just at the national level but in our backyards. When a totally corrupt and counterproductive war on drugs can continue in force, it does appear to be hopeless to expect increasing sanity in the country.

Yet, all in all, the trend, albeit a slow one with many detours and interruptions, does seem to be pointing toward a freer world than before.

Column on Consequences of Mixed Systems

Some Consequences of Mixed Systems

Tibor R. Machan

China is what political economists call a market socialist country, with political socialism at a virtual dictatorial level (as distinct from, say, democratic socialist and liberal democratic countries) and is thus very precarious when it comes to its political stability, kind of like Chile was under General Pinochet. The rulers will keep trying to square the circle, having a largely free, capitalist economy and a one party socialist political regime. But everyone knows this is very vulnerable to upheavals, especially once the economic side of the equation makes enough ordinary people wealthy so they no longer look to the government to sustain their way of life.

When a country is politically socialist, this means that officially what is most important is the well being of society as a whole. Karl Marx referred to a socialist society as an organic whole or body and this implies that the different elements of it, the limbs, organs, cells, etc., are all subordinate to the whole society. This is why such a country is also called collectivist–it is the collection of everything, including people, land, natural resources, culture and achievements, that is important. Certainly the individual citizens are not except as they contribute to the society as a whole. By such an understanding of a society or country, anyone who isn’t fully on board with where the society is headed–as determined by the rulers who are, officially, the head of the organic body–is deemed to be mentally ill. Sometimes so much so that like some tumor in a human individual, such an individual might need to be cut out or otherwise pacified. Any idea that such an individual might simply be a legitimate dissident is officially alien in a bona fide socialist country.

Of course, there has never been a fully functioning socialist country–even in contemporary North Korea, which comes the closest to the idea, small segments of the population manage to function outside of the system. In the economy there is a sizable black market that operates without the full involvement of the government (which is the official policy). Indeed, in all the political economies around the globe referred to as “capitalist,” “socialist,” “fascist,” “communist,” or “welfare statist” the correspondence between what the theory requires and what exists in reality is rather loose.

Still, it is undeniable that when the legal system conforms mainly to socialist tenets–when the public sector is deemed to be far more important than the private sector–this will have practical consequences. In the official rhetoric of the rulers and their supporters there will be routine endorsements of the superior significance of the public versus the private interest in society. Non-profit endeavors will be favored, at least in official discussions. The idea that people are all a tiny part of the country–and that, for example, they ought not to ask what the country can do for them but ask what they can do for the country–will be embraced and seeking to advance one’s own agenda will be deemed objectionable, greedy, selfish, and narrowly individualist.

The welfare state, in turn, is indeed an explicit attempt to combine certain socialist and some capitalist political economic features. A more complicated mixed economy will have elements of most political economic systems combined in it, a kind of smorgasbord in which some of the items may not co-exist well with others and where if troubles arise it is difficult to tell which element made the greatest contribution to it. Nor will the successes be easily traced to their causes.

For example, the recent financial fiasco–some call it a meltdown–comes from a mixed system and not from the policies of one political economic arrangement and so to tell which of the various elements that have been in place for decades on end–or which combination of them–is responsible is very difficult to determine. This is one clear reason why when the likes of Paul Krugman point fingers at the free market elements, such as a bit of economic deregulation, as responsible for the mess, their claims can be seen as purely ideological, meaning indicative of their prior, unexamined commitment to anti-market economic policies. No one who is honest could tell from a quick examination that the meltdown or whatever one calls it was caused by one or another type of economic ingredient of the mixture that has been in operation for a very long time. It is possible to figure that out but it would take meticulous study since the different elements of the mixture do not operate in isolation from each other. It is as if one tried to determine why one caught food poisoning after a sumptuous smorgasbord. Any one or some combination of the items on the menu could have been responsible.

A statist will tend to blame the free market elements whereas a free market champion will look to statist elements to explain the mess. And this is not without good reason, since both have gained confidence in their ideas over time and do not consider it plausible that elements they champion would have produced havoc.

That is just one of the consequences of a mixed economic system.

Column on Krugman’s Incoherent Moral Stance

Krugman’s Incoherent Moral Stance

Tibor R. Machan

Finally Paul Krugman, Princeton University Nobel Laureate in economic science and columnist for The New York Times, has come clean about his “moral” position (TNYT, January 14, 2011). He has admitted that he doesn’t believe that when you earn something, you own it. (Don’t know if he believes we own things we haven’t earned, such as our kidneys or eyes! Maybe he thinks that as with earned resources, these unearned ones, especially, belong to the government which can proceed to distribute them just as Krugman thinks it can redistribute the resources citizens have actually come by through hard work, ingenuity, luck and the like.) Let’s see then whether Kurgman’s moral stance has any chance of being sound. Is it the morality by which people ought to guide their conduct in their lives? Do we and what we own belong to government to do with as government officials believe? But isn’t that slavery?

If my life doesn’t belong to me–if the norm the Declaration of Independence identifies as universal, namely, that every human being has a right to his or her life, is false–then what is true? Does my life belong to the government? If we recall that government is a group of individuals to whom a certain social role has been delegated–namely, the role of securing the rights of the citizenry–the claim that government owns our lives and resources means nothing else but that these individuals in government own our lives and resources.

But that is very odd–why would those people be in the privileged position of owning us and what to all appearances belongs to us while we, also human beings and with equal rights, do not own our lives and resources? This makes no sense.

So when we take even a cursory look at Professor Krugman’s position, it turns out to be incoherent, rank nonsense. It reminds me of the remark attributed to the poet W. H. Auden, namely, “We are here on earth to do good for others. What the others are here for, I don’t know.” So we all belong to government but then to whom does government belong?

The idea that we belong to government is obscene and harks back to an age when Caesars, monarchs, tsars, Pharaohs and such were believed to have been given their realm by God and everything within that realm, including all the human beings, therefore belonged to them. Later these slaves and serfs began to be called subjects, implying that they were all subject to the will of the government. This is were serfdom and even taxation have their origin.

Now we have, in 21st century America, one of the most prominent commentators and educators reiterate this horrendous outlook. Incredible. But it gets even worse.

An essential aspect of any bona fide moral position is that it must be practiced voluntarily, not because someone–e. g., government–holds a gun to one’s head and coerces one to do what is right. That doesn’t count as doing the right thing, so any such policy is literally demoralizing. It robs people of the opportunity to be morally good (or bad, of course).

A society that’s fit for human habitation must not have policies that prevent citizens from exercising moral judgment. So, OK, assume for a moment that we should devote ourselves entirely to serving other people, to serving the public good. If, however, all of this is accomplished through governmental coercion like taxation, regulation, regimentation, and so forth, there can’t be anything moral about it. So Dr. Krugman’s so called moral stance isn’t one at all. It leaves no room for morality because it makes all purportedly moral conduct involuntary, imposed by rulers and not a matter of one’s own free will.

So Krugman’s moral stance is not only incoherent but it isn’t even a moral stance. So much for the “morality” of one of America’s foremost public philosophers.

What someone like Dr. Krugman could more fruitfully do is urge people to be generous toward those in need, to give support to worthy causes, to help the poor, etc., but always of their own free will. That is what moral leaders may do, nothing else. Whether the morality they advocate is sound is another matter. But to remain something morally relevant it must not be imposed. Elementary, Dr. Krugman, really.

Column on It’s A Massacre, Stupid

It’s a Massacre, Stupid

Tibor R. Machan

What happened in Tucson, AZ, was a massacre and not a tragedy. Perhaps some view this a pedantic detail but it isn’t–words do have meaning and a tragedy, as anyone familiar with ancient Greek literature or a bit of Shakespeare will testify, takes place when bad outcomes come from what good people are forced to decide. They are a peculiar moral phenomenon. A massacre isn’t morally peculiar but plainly, straightforwardly evil. To execute a bunch of people who haven’t been convicted within a system of due process and when the executioner isn’t properly authorized to act as the agent of punishment for crimes is no tragedy. It is a vicious crime.

Having said that, please let me reflect a bit on all those who are scapegoating now by assigning blame for the massacre not to the actual perpetrator but to something, anything, they don’t like in the world. Accordingly, you will find the likes of Professor Paul Krugman of Princeton University and the Op-Ed page of The New York Times and any number of opportunists in Congress point the figure at the heated rhetoric that emerges from those in public forums who are often passionate and polemical about their political convictions. No doubt, some of these folks can go too far with labeling their opponents, unreasonably ascribing motives to them, indicting them for the likely adverse consequences of the policies they promote. That’s what happens when a lot is at stake–even the most civilized among us will tend to resort to hyperbole.

But words are not guns. Even the law, always only a questionable clue to what is and what is not moral or ethical, acknowledges that there are only a few fighting words. These are those rare case of speech that do not get the protection of the principle embodied in the First Amendment to the U. S. Constitution because they are deemed to be too offensive and provocative for civilized discourse. But fighting words are few. And heated political rhetoric does not qualify.

These scapegoat mongers–who, by the way, quite often excuse wrong doing on the grounds that people just cannot help how they act, that their socio-economic circumstances force them to do the vicious things they do–aren’t really concerned about properly fixing blame or responsibility for events like those that transpired in Tucson but are more likely hoping to score political points. So Sarah Palin likes to shoot big game and you find her politics objectionable, maybe what you can do is associate her with any kind of shooting, never mind the target. Or if those talk show hosts on radio and TV–for instance, Keith, Beck, and Rush–indulge in some fancy verbiage so as to drive home a point, lets treat what they say as if it amounted to fighting words, as if they could cause people to act criminally. By suggesting this one may succeed in besmirching one’s favorite political adversaries–or one could at least for a moment win over to one’s side the people who are too desperate to make sense of events that are overwhelming and for which no ready explanation is available to them.

This is dirty pool. Yet it should not be banned, any more than the rhetoric being indicted should be (as, sadly, some people are proposing). Curbing the heated rhetoric, as such censorship is euphoniously referred to, isn’t going to reduce the number of villains among us–they don’t need to be enticed; they have their warped imagination guiding them to do what is unacceptable in civilized society.

Even if one could show that a perpetrator of a massacre such as occurred in Tucson did hold a particular ideology or religion by which one might govern one’s behavior, that ideology or religion can never be held fully responsible for the ensuing conduct. That is one thing that’s wrong with holding radical Islam responsible for terrorism or Roman Catholicism for the Inquisition! All ideas must be filtered through the minds of the human agents who may make use of them. And these human agents are supposed to be reasonable enough to restrain themselves however passionately they may feel.

Column on Besmirch & Divert

Besmirch & Divert

Tibor R. Machan

Ever since President Obama took office, his proposed public policies have been defended doggedly by all those who favor an increasing large scope for the federal government. Health care/insurance is just one of these policies but, of course, his way of dealing with the recession conforms to it as well. Bail them out, increase their regulation, order their CEO’s to take lower pay than they agreed they would receive, etc., etc. All these are fully consistent with a program of making government–all of the employees of which are, of course, infinitely competent and supremely moral–an all mighty force in the lives of American citizens.

This reactionary approach to the presidency–one that, if successful, will return the country to the age of George III, a former monarch with actually less power than the current federal government has over us–is very difficult to justify in general political terms. It goes directly against America’s founding principles, as they were identified in the Declaration of Independence, and it’s oppressive and economically suicidal to boot. And sure enough, the defenders of Mr. Obama, such as economist Paul Krugman, The New Republic, The New York Times, The New York Review of Books, to mention but the more visible ones among them, do not have any arguments to offer, so instead they engage in besmirching those who offer arguments against the policies they favor. Same goes for Professor Gary Wills (see it here: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2010/10/27/stephen-colbert-garry-wills-tea-party_n_774662.html).

A recent case in point was where an author supporting Mr. Obama insisted that despite their efforts to hide the fact, the Tea Party folks are mostly racists. This author kept repeating this charge, thus managing to divert attention from the substance of the criticism. The examples given included criticism of policies such as the welfare state which supposedly comes to nothing other than wishing ill for most African Americans. So opposition to small or limited government then amounts to racism-in-disguise.

This way of defending unwise, wrongheaded public policies can produce the result of diverting attention for the substance at issue, namely, whether the welfare state and similar measures pushed for by the president and his cheerleaders is a sound idea by which to govern a country. Never mind that! Let’s make it appear that what is going on is insidious racism. That pretty much consigns the critics to the ranks of the ultimately vicious among us with whom there is no need to argue. No one, after all, argues with Nazis! No one argues with people who regard other people morally inferior by virtue not of what they do wrong, their malpractice, but because of their color or ethnicity. Such people then can be viewed as unworthy of the respect that’s shown to someone with whom one chooses to engage in argument, whose views one decides to take seriously enough to confront intellectually. No, let’s just dismiss the critics as bigots or racists or fundamentally, incorrigibly vicious; that way we ca avoid having to answer their substantive criticism of our public policies.

Maybe this shows just how unsuccessful are all those college and university courses that most students are required to take, namely, basic reasoning, elementary logic, and the like wherein the formal and informal fallacies are discussed and it is shown just why they are fallacies and should be avoided in presenting one’s viewpoint or criticism. Besmirching one’s critics is what is called an ad hominem argument, one that demeans or attacks the person who advances a point instead of the case made in support of it. And such attacks have no bearing on the validity, soundness or related merits or demerits of a case being made.

If Mr. Obama and his accolades cannot produce anything that’s better than charges of racism and bigotry against their political or intellectual adversaries, they are in effect admitting that their viewpoint is bankrupt. No one with even a modicum of merit to his or her argument will resort to ad hominems. The arguments being advanced are supposed to carry the weight of the position and there would be no need for trying to discredit with smears those who oppose it.

Not everyone, of course, resorts to these methods of attempting to shore up the case for Mr. Obama’s public policies but enough do that the conclusion is difficult to escape that they are being a tad desperate. When a Nobel Laureate professor of economics at one of America’s most prestigious universities, Princeton, keeps attacking the character and personality of the likes of Sarah Palin in numerous forums instead of taking issue with them point by point with no reliance on badmouthing them, that suggests, strongly, that what the man has to offer against the criticisms is pretty empty of substance.