Posts tagged The New York Times

Column on Serious Flaws of Egalitarianism

Some Serious Flaws of Egalitarianism

Tibor R. Machan

Egalitarianism teaches that everyone deserves to be treated with equal consideration and respect. Mostly this is meant to stress how everyone should be provided (as a matter of public policy) with basic necessities like food, health care, schooling, etc. But that is too selective and excludes millions who would much rather gain equal provisions of different goods and services–say to exhibit one’s paintings in a famous museum and or to star in a movie. Or why not an equally plush home or car or vacation? Why not an equally meaningful occupation or career? Why not, indeed, an equally happy relationship or life?

Well, perhaps because such provisions cannot possibly be given to all, in equal quantity and quality. Yet, of course, that very same problem faces egalitarianism when it comes to the so called basic necessities. There is scarcity in food, education, health care (e.g., in the supply of professionals, equipment, and materials), etc., etc. At any given time only so much of these benefits is being produced. Perhaps they could be increased with some nudging or outright coercion but even that cannot make them available to all and usually backfires so shortages are the result. And any effort to ration is going to involve major unequal features, such as the blatantly unequal power to impose the rationing that some will have while others lack.

These flaws of egalitarianism ought to be evident to all, especially to those who are familiar with George Orwell’s little story, Animal Farm, or Kurt Vonnegut’s novella, Harrison Bergeron, both of which are excellent depictions of the dystopian nature of any egalitarian political-economic system. But if that isn’t enough or has escaped the attention of egalitarianism’s champions, there are the zillions of examples from real life.

Consider something as simple as the provision of a forum for public comment on policies being considered by governments. There simply is no time for everyone to chime in, nor space. Even as egalitarian a forum as The New York Times must limit the number of comments it can accept from readers in response to columns published in the newspaper. (Indeed, some columns accept no comments at all!)

Now this may not seem as vital as getting an equal share of so called basic goodies, in fact it is. One of the most erudite advocates of egalitarianism considers it vital for members of a just society to have the opportunity to chime in on public policies. Such democratic discourse is deemed to be essential to justice by the Nobel Laureate economist, Amartya Sen of Harvard University–to see, check his mammoth recent book, The Idea of Justice (Harvard, 2009)? Only if men and women are equally free to give input when public policies are discussed are they properly empowered. Indeed, the term “freedom” for Sen has this implication above all–we must all be free to chime in when public policies are being considered. As Sen has said, “participation in political decisions and social choice … have to be understood as constitutive parts of the ends of development in themselves,” development toward economic justice, that is.

But even if one were to regard such universal equality a good thing and worth the very risky cost of empowering government officials to implement it, it simply cannot be achieved since even mere participation in public debates involves costs. No country could afford it and, paradoxically, it would consume and thus diminish many of the resources that might be slated for equal distribution.

Take another case in point. People are always clamoring to be part of discussions, e.g., as they try to call talk shows or submit comments to the Op Ed pages of newspapers, yet there is scant room for them so only very few can succeed. Moreover, whatever goods and services are produced by people could not possibly be slated for equal distribution since there is no assurance that the producers will come up with the amount of these needed for such massive consumption. Just look at how few books get reviewed in The New York Times Book Review–something I am particularly aware of since it has never bothered to review any of my now more than 40 books. Where is the editors’ famous commitment to egalitarianism here?

Well, it is nowhere because it is an impossible commitment or if you will, ideal. (Only “ideal” assumes it is something good whereas that is just what is at issue–if it has so many inherent flaws, it is most probably a bad idea!) As it is often pointed out, the road to hell is paved with good intentions and while egalitarianism may be well intended by some of its proponents, both the process and the end result turn out to be teeming with disappointment.

Column on Big Guns for Statism

Big Guns for Statism

Tibor R. Machan

Since some federal judges have ruled against the constitutionality of Obamacare, there has been a bit of panic in the ranks of defenders of American statism. Thus, for example, Harvard Law School’s Lawrence Tribe has chimed in, on the pages of The New York Times, with the predictable observation that “Since the New Deal, the court has consistently held that Congress has broad constitutional power to regulate interstate commerce. This includes authority over not just goods moving across state lines, but also the economic choices of individuals within states that have significant effects on interstate markets. By that standard, this law’s constitutionality is open and shut. Does anyone doubt that the multitrillion-dollar health insurance industry is an interstate market that Congress has the power to regulate?” Well, yes, those of us who champion individual rights as against collectivism do!

David Cole made his pitch in The New York Review of Books, claiming that these rulings were far too libertarian and thus not really consistent with the way the U. S. Constitution has been read of late. As he wrote, “The objections to health care reform are ultimately founded not on a genuine concern about preserving state prerogative, but on a libertarian opposition to compelling individuals to act for the collective good, no matter who imposes the obligation.” Indeed, and that’s all to the good! Who on earth wants to defend state prerogative other than some crypto-monarchists!

Both apologists for statism are correct, of course, but they are also beside the point. Just because justices have been appointed who have favored expansive powers for the federal government–and, indeed, for governments as such–doesn’t prove anything about whether that is how they ought to rule on, for instance, Obamacare’s constitutionality.

In earlier years the courts have interpreted the constitution as limiting the power of governments, including the power to regulate–let’s call it what it is, namely, to regiment–interstate commerce. They used to view Article I, Section 8, the interstate commerce clause, as authorizing Congress to regularize commerce, not to regulate it–that is to say, to establish uniform free market conditions for doing business within the borders of the country and across state lines. Prior to the formation of the union the states often behaved in highly protectionist ways but once united into one country this became a serious restriction on the exercise of individual property rights and an impediment to the free flow of commerce. Ergo, it had to be stopped, given the broad principles of community life laid out in the Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights. It was a revolution, after all, not a minor putsch.

In later times, under the reactionary influence of the populists and other statists, the courts started to reintroduce the principles of government that had been in practice for many centuries, principles that rationalized the power of government over the citizenry in contrast to what the revolution aimed at, namely, the demotion of the state, placing sovereignty in the hands of citizens rather than governments. Of course it didn’t happen all at once, nor completely, radically, but more like changing the course of an aircraft carrier, gradually. The aim was revolutionary but the process was slow just as with the abolition of slavery.

Clearly some elements of the legal order of the new country needed major overhaul, such as the permission for the states to support slavery, a permission that contradicted the ideals of the revolution. To the extent that this required some temporary broad powers on the part of the federal government, it amounted to nothing more than carrying out the implementation of the ideals of the founding. State rights, while a good federalist idea in certain respects, also had the unfortunate side effect of standing in the way of a nationwide renunciation of slavery.

Because in this instance federal power was used for purposes of of expanding human liberty, those who champion statism jumped at the chance to argue that statism itself was consistent with the basic principles of the founders. Its like arguing that because it is permissible to deploy force against others in self-defense, it is perfectly OK to deploy it aggressively, too.

No doubt, some founders felt that way, such as maybe Alexander Hamilton. They were not all of one mind. But it is sheer sophistry to argue, as Tribe and Cole do, that the needed adjustments on America’s legal system were meant to reintroduce into the country broad powers for the federal government under the distorted, albeit prominent, reading of the interstate commerce clause.

Nonetheless, these eager statists are continuing what has amounted to a counterrevolutionary legal trend, one that reestablishes the government–the king, Congress, the state–as the sovereign in the country, making the citizenry once again subjects, people who could be ordered by other people to purchase health insurance on the grounds that the public interest demands this. No wonder people ask if forcing us to exercise or to eat broccoli will come next, as per the enlightened polices of the Third Reich.

Such is the nature of statism, sacrificing the rights of individuals for some alleged public good, one that reduces, in the end, to the private agendas of the statists and has nothing to do with the public at large.

Column on Law and Our Democracy

Law & Our Democracy

Tibor R. Machan

One clear thing about the WikiLeaks affair is that outfits like The New York Times are showing their hypocrisy by failing to vigorously defend WikiLeaks’ Julian Assange’s actions. Wasn’t it The Times that published Daniel Ellsberg’s stolen Pentagon Papers and insisted that this was a valid exercise of its First Amendment Rights and that Ellsberg was a hero? And sure, there is a distinction between taking the papers and publishing them but it seems to me rather cowardly to hide behind that.

But the more serious and general issues is whether laws enacted in a kind of corrupted democracy such as the United States of America are actually morally binding on the citizenry. A good clue comes from the U. S. Supreme Court: “The very purpose of the Bill of Rights was to withdraw certain subjects from the vicissitudes of political controversy, to place them beyond the reach of majorities and officials, and to establish them as legal principles to be applied by the Courts. One’s right to life, liberty and property, to free speech, a free press, freedom of worship and assembly and other fundamental rights may not be submitted to a vote; they depend on the outcome of no elections.” [U. S. Supreme Court in West Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnette (1943)]

Sadly, this purposes has since been completely abandoned by that same court, most recently when it basically abolished the Fifth Amendment’s protection of the right to private property in the July 2005 ruling in City of New London, CT v. Kelo. Once democracy has become so bloated in its reach that no principles are safe from the mob, why exactly should citizens follow so called laws made democratically? They aren’t really laws by then but merely rules laid down by those who have nearly unlimited power.

When as a 14 year old I lived in Budapest under the rule of the “democratic republic” of Hungary–which was but a ruse disguising sheer Soviet style power–my family repeatedly violated “the law,” which is to say we defied the rules the communist–in fact, fascist–regime tried to impose on us all. We hid fugitives from Hungarian prisons and helped them escape to the West. We smuggled merchandise into Hungary with the help of athletes who were permitted to travel abroad (so as to show off how great communist athletes are). And most importantly I myself joined a group of adults who chose to violate the “law” that made it criminal to leave the country for nearly anyone not part of or favored by the ruling elite.

We made it across the border, after an arduous trip from the capitol to the Western border where border guards had been paid off by American agents so they wouldn’t stand too firmly in the way of those trying to escape. All of this was “illegal.” And no one in our group had the slightest compunction about our “illegal” conduct but felt enormous relief and even pride upon completing our journey. So, yes, we violated so called laws which weren’t anything more than the rules of a tyrannical regime. And throughout human history and around the globe back then and even now, thousands are routinely engaged in this kind of illegal conduct. And they darned well have every basic right to do so and those championing obedience of the law in these kinds of cases are full of it.

But, you say, America is a democracy and its laws are indeed binding on all of its citizens. No, that is wrong, since this democracy is now way out of control; it has repeatedly overstepped the limitations of a valid constitution. America is now a vastly illiberal democracy, one in which the majority and those allegedly representing it are perpetrating innumerable tyrannical measures, imposing rules that have no business being part of a free country. Just consider the policies vis-a-vis the consumption of “illicit” drugs!

How dare these people impose their idea of “illicit” on anyone else? Who are they, anyway? And what about the innumerable petty tyrannies of government regulations–issuing completely unjustly from federal, state, county, to municipal rulers? All these are forms of prior restraint, imposing penalties, at times jail sentences, on people who have no committed any violations of any rights but merely are deemed by bureaucrats and their bosses, politicians, capable of doing so! How is that for justice–penalizing people because they might become criminals? That policy would have us all in prison.

No, I am not impressed at all by the claim that people are violating “the law” when that law happens to be grossly unjust, enacted in violation of the basic law of the land. Obedience, compliance, is only warranted because it will serve to avoid prosecution and incarceration.

No one is obliged to be suicidal in his or her comportment toward a government that is either out and out totalitarian or only a democratic, mostly petty, tyranny. With governments like that citizens are only obliged to be prudent and crafty, except when it comes to valid provisions of the criminal law.

Column on Leak Embarrassments

Leak embarrassments

Tibor R. Machan

My newspaper carried the AP headline the other day, “U.S. cuts access to files after leak embarrassment,” and the body of the article reports that Julian Assange, the founder of WikiLeaks is now on a most wanted list in Europe.

I do not have the time or even the curiosity to figure out if the leaks contain anything that would be criminal to steal–such as genuine national or military secrets–but I am told they do not and I also recall that when Daniel Ellsberg sent similar materials to The New York Times many moons ago, which The Times then published, a great many people in the American media defended him despite the fact that those at the Pentagon who were responsible for the material were very upset with him and with The Times about revealing stuff to the world they would just as soon have kept secret. There was a big brouhaha about this back then and my recollection is that many people, especially on the political Left including liberals and critics of the administration, defended Ellsberg and The Times. “How dare anyone try to stop this good man from telling us what we all had a right to know?” was the mantra then.

Today, however, I hear nothing much other than, gasp, on Fox TV, in defense of Julian Assange despite the fact that most of what he has put out there for us to check if we’d like to is by all reports quite innocuous and, in any case, ought to be available for us to find out about in this new era of government transparency. Indeed, all the materials WikiLeaks revealed seem to be no more than simply embarrassing and probably have no business being secret. Transparency, I was made to understand when the Obama administration took office, would be the order of the day, not secrecy. Yet didn’t the president go on record condemning the WikiLeaks revelations? Curious.

I am not sure just what makes something an “important diplomatic message” but the number of individuals, the AP article reported, who are permitted to read them will soon be “significantly reduced.” Is this really right? Unless it is shown that people are put in harm’s way it seems to me nothing coming out of the government of a free country should be kept hidden. How can the citizenry judge the conduct and ideas of members of the administration, the president and his team and all those in Congress who support them, without having access to their work? Must I trust these folks just for the asking? Are people in governments all that trustworthy?

My strong impression is that free men and women must never trust those in government very much, given that such folks have immense power and unless they and their works are watched carefully they are likely to abuse it–to quote the famous English political theorist Lord Acton, “Power tends to corrupt, absolute power corrupts absolutely.”

So there is good reason to applaud WikiLeaks’ efforts to inform us about how the governments of the world go about their business. The excuse that such knowledge may be embarrassing seems to me quite irrelevant since governments simply ought not to engage in conduct that embarrasses them. It is no fault of a news reporter that the transparency that he or she achieves has that effect. If the citizens have the right to know, to avoid embarrassment requires acting decently in the course of doing government’s work. If other countries rely on secrecy to do business with the American government maybe it is high time this stops and they, too, confront the reality that the people they supposedly represent in diplomatic negotiations have the right to know.

Had WikiLeaks stolen a bunch of private information, say from banks or doctors’ offices and computers, the charge that it was acting criminally would be credible. But since the information it is letting everyone have bears on public affairs, I do not see that any breach of privacy is involved. Embarrassing just doesn’t matter here.

Column on A Blatant Lie at The New York Times

A Blatant Lie at The New York Times

Tibor R. Machan

Nearly every day I check out The New York Times on line and there is no doubt in my mind that the paper is firmly partisan in favor of egalitarian and other mostly Leftist causes, as well as, of course, the politicians who promote them. The paper just the other day editorialized about how fair and balanced are NPR and PBS. Poppycock!

I do not follow NPR–National Public Radio–except when I am on the road driving a rented car, which happens to be quite often. (I call these my masochistic hours because, well, NPR irritates me to no end.) First of all, the fact that it gets money from the government, money extorted from me and millions of other citizens, is an unforgivable vice of the outfit (as it is of any other that takes part in such a policy, such as PPS, various corporations and individuals on the dole, etc.). I would have no interest in any broadcasters using “public” funds to support what they do even if their reporting and other programming were impeccable other then for purposes of keeping my fingers on the pulse of the nation. (Some of the music on NPR stations is, actually, excellent!) But in addition to using extorted funds to support its programming, NPR’s various news and reportorial programs are about as partisan as The New York Times if not more so–say like what is found in The Nation.

Take their “Fresh Air” segment in which one of their highly polished interviewers finds a favored author or other public intellectual to toss softballs to–reminding me of the saying “throwing Christians to Christians” or something. Hardly any scrutiny is shown of those who champion yet another government program promoting some Left of Center or Left Wing program. The books “reviewed” are always friends to statism and on the few occasions that a book is examined with a free market theme, it is confronted with searching questions mostly about how awful it is that freedom makes it possible to neglect the poor and needy and noble causes like the greening of the globe.

NPR’s staff has absolutely no concern about the heavy hand of government except in cases where it is deployed against terrorist suspects or their defenders. NPR’s minimum support for individual liberty focuses mainly on the press, although given its own reliance on government subsidies it understandably doesn’t address the matter in great depth.

Now my exposure to NPR is not continuous, so I am not able to swear to it that the outfit is uniformly partisan in favor of more government, of statism. But my sample is a pretty good one, especially when you add to my exposure to NPR during my pre-iPod years–when, as I have already noted, I liked the classical music, jazz, and blues many of the stations offered, especially when their home was some university or college campus. This, by the way, is another insidious aspect of NPR, its intimate relationship with university and college radio programming where it is beaming propaganda to young people as if it were scientifically established truth.

In America’s mixed political economy NPR is no big surprise and if it were not a matter of corrupting news reporting and commentary, it would not amount to something especially hazardous to the country. After all, so many other institutions–think of virtually all public education, from elementary to post graduate varieties–are infected with the statist point of view! (Arguably the first item on the agenda to turn the country toward greater loyalty to its initial classical liberal politics and culture would be to eliminate its virtually fully socialized educational system.)

Yet contrary to the recent editorial lie in The New York Times, NPR is really quite a corrosive feature of the country. Not only is its nearly one-sided viewpoint statist to the core–more so that Fox TV news is right wing but which notably has plenty of competitors out there; there is also its annoying snootiness. Has anyone ever encountered someone with a Southern accent on an NPR station (apart from some special guest, a novelist or poet from a place such as New Orleans)? I certainly haven’t.

If I am not mistaken much of European journalism is unabashedly partisan and this futile effort to uphold the standard of neutrality in America’s media just makes little sense. People are always involved in taking sides on various topics and to attempt to purge the news medial of this is hopeless.

The one sound way to address the matter of balance is via competition and that is just what NPR opposes from its ideological stance but also has no way of practicing, what with its special advantage of receiving extorted funds from the government!