Posts tagged wealth

Column on Choice & Rights

Choice and Rights

Tibor R. Machan

It’s about who is to choose! Our rights identify the realm of our choices, where we and not others get to decide about how things go. When rights are violated, the violator deprives the rights holder of his or her proper, morally justified authority to chose.

So often both defenders and critics of private property rights get this wrong. They contend that property rights are mostly about who gets to have something. And while that’s part of it, the more important matter is who gets to choose what happens to something.

If the politicians and bureaucrats extort 40% of my earnings I do not get to decided what happens to this. I might have squandered it, yes, just as that enemy of private property rights Karl Marx argued. But I could also have done something else, such as sent part of it to a charity, contributed it to some innovation, stashed it away so my kids might get it when they grow up, or sent it to a political candidate I support. But this is just what the confiscators of my resources prohibit me from doing. They want to destroy my proper authority to use my resources and use it themselves.

Check me out. In all cases of taxation what happens is that the taxed lose the opportunity to allocate the resources that belong to them and those who tax gain this opportunity without any consent from the taxed. But why should they? Democracy doesn’t justify such confiscation, nor does being some monarch or bureaucrat or whatever, only our permission would. We are supposedly equal in having rights, including private property rights. No one else may, therefore, take what is mine or yours or anyone’s and start deciding what happens to it however good intentioned that tax-taker might be, however noble are that tax-taker’s goals. This is why it is so important to understand that private property rights are about our choices to do one thing, another, or yet another, not primarily about having wealth, about greed or such.

But that is just what the enemies of private property rights, starting with Marx, cannot stomach–our having the opportunity to use and dispose our labor and its results. They want it! This despite all that talk about how labor belongs to the laborer. No, that is not what the taxers believe. They believe, and many of them have actually said this, that your time and labor and skills belong to society! And they, of course, must be the representatives of the people, of society.

But that is a ruse, just as when kings claimed that they are the representatives of society or God or History. No, these folks represent only themselves and when they tax you and me and the rest and deprive us of the choices our rights entail, they are extortionists, thieves, or robbers. But most of all they remove from us the opportunity to exercise free choice with what belongs to us.

Some have tried to refute these points by the fairy tale that all wealth belongs to society, the people, or even the government. Again, these are lies. Sure, our resources are acquired with a lot of support from and cooperation with others, including the lawmakers who enacted sound principles way before we were born. But that’s all irrelevant. Artist, too, paint with colors that have existed way before they started to use them but these colors, once made into pictures, become theirs and no one else has the authority to intrude on what they do with it, not unless it involves the violation of another’s rights somehow.

It is best that whenever politicians and their cheerleaders speak “for us” it is recognized that they are speaking only for themselves and all that talk of “we” or “the people” or “Americans” or “humanity” is meant to disguise this fact. It’s time they are stopped in carrying out this gross deception. If not, they will continue to shut off our choices in life and imposing theirs on us all.

Column on The Myth of Surplus Wealth

The Myth of Surplus Wealth

Tibor R. Machan

Over the last couple of decades a colleague from a famous university has challenged me about my view that everyone has the unalienable right to private property. Now this position, derived from such sources as John Locke, the American Founders, Ayn Rand, and many others in the classical liberal, libertarian political tradition, amounts to the idea that in a just human community every adult human being is free to pursue prosperity in the form he or she desires–material wealth, intellectual resources, land, items produced by humans or nature, and so forth. The right to private property is a right of action, an extension of the more general right to liberty: everyone must be left free to pursue wealth, to take those peaceful actions that could result in prosperity (although there is no guarantee that they will). And this right to freedom of action is itself based on the yet broader right to one’s life. Life is an ongoing process of action which, for human beings, needs to be initiated by the living agent. We have to do stuff to live, in short. And having the right to live entails being free to do so.

Now this critic of my thinking has argued against this idea at least in cases when some people are in dire straits, in serious need of resources through no fault of their own. And that certainly can happen, although it is far more likely to when people are oppressed, barred from taking the action needed to prosper, than when they are not imposed upon by others, especially by armed governments. What he has been maintaining is that if those in dire straits are forbidden to take from those who have what he dubs surplus wealth, then they are effectively not in possession of their own right to liberty. As it is sometimes put, those without resources are effectively in bondage. They lack the freedom to take the actions that could advance their lives. And this means that although everyone has the unalienable right to life, liberty, property and so forth, those in dire straits actually do not.

In particular my critic has stressed that those in dire straits, in serious need through no fault of their own, may not be stopped from taking some of the surplus wealth of the wealthy. And this, indeed, is roughly how people justify not just ordinary but progressive taxation–the wealthy must give up some of their wealth to those in dire straits because only that way will the latter be able to enjoy their own basic rights.

I have replied to the criticism in a variety of ways. One is by pointing out that the absence of resources is not the same as the violation of rights. I have no resources to buy myself a yacht but I do have a right to buy myself a yacht and no one would be authorized to stop me from doing so if and when I become wealthy enough to do so. In other words, I have the right to liberty to seek a yacht for myself by peaceful means, although, again, I may not succeed.

Indeed, this is pretty plain since one may be struck down by all sorts of natural impediments–disease, calamity, earthquakes, hurricanes, and so forth–for which no one is responsible and so no one may be penalized or fined for having caused them. Those who encounter such natural impediments are, well, unfortunate, that is for sure. But this does not authorize them to impose any burdens on those who have not deserved it even if they are, indeed, in a position to alleviate the hardship. They may and probably should request help, support, assistance, and so forth. They may even organize campaigns to urge that their bad luck be addressed by their fellows. But they have no rightful authority to take anything from them, not even so called surplus resources–an idea that is, in any case, vague and subject to systematic abuse. (Is my second kidney an article of surplus wealth? My second eye? My back-up golf set? My collected vintage cars?)

It isn’t true that surplus wealth makes no sense at all but only the most intimate knowledge of someone could enable us to tell if that person is in possession of wealth that he or she can easily do without. Maybe the individual is saving for a rainy day, for a time when he or she will be giving this wealth away to relatives or favorite causes. Maybe such an individual is powerfully enriched, psychologically, by holding on to wealth beyond what others may consider reasonable.

Having the right to private property means, in large measure, that the individual with that right is the one who is free to decide to what purposes his or her property will be devoted. It is a matter of who is to choose. Without this basic, unalienable right one’s freedom of directing one’s life is undermined not by natural causes, which can impeded anyone, but by others who are at liberty to refrain from doing so and, given this right, ought to so refrain.

Positive Externalities of Riches

Positive Externalities of Riches

Tibor R. Machan (from my archives)

Although I came to America as a poor immigrant and after leaving home at 18 became dirt poor, with no family support, I have also been fortunate as well as industrious enough to do reasonably well in my life. From the start it seemed to me that a chance such as I faced (namely, to make my way in the country of nearly every poor foreigner’s dreams) demanded the best effort on my part, lest I blow it. Not that everything went smoothly but all in all I got nearly all I set out to obtain, including a superb education, a career that could be many people’s envy, wonderful children, a great deal of travel, some of the best friends one could ask for, and at least a tolerable economic life that sustains me well enough albeit by no means in luxury.

What all this leads me to suggest is that clearly there are many who are far more prosperous than I, even if I doubt that too many have enjoyed the degree of happiness I have been fortunate to experience thus far. Still, I could easily benefit from having a good deal more money, pretty much like everyone else. Yet, I have never felt envy in my life. Somehow the sight of greater wealth on the part of others has never lead me to desire to exchange their lives for mine. Nor, especially, have I ever felt ill will toward those who are rich. On the contrary, I have been thoroughly pleased that the very rich are with us. And there are some good reasons for my pleasure with them, even if I can barely think of myself in their shoes.

For one, the rich remind me that if I wanted to aspire to be one of them, I would have a decent chance at it. I know some rich people and some of these started nearly as low if not lower on the economic ladder as I did. But they wanted to be well off and found a way to do this while also gaining satisfaction from their work. I know some people who are millionaires, a few who probably have a billion or so, and in each case I know that the way movies or sitcoms or pulp novels depict them is grossly inaccurate. None of these folks is mean or greedy or amoral, quite the opposite. I know that if I had wanted to concentrate my energies on securing wealth and great prosperity–e.g., by means of expertise in finance or corporate management–I could have given that a decent shot, with not too bad a chance at success.

Another reason I welcome the existence of the rich in our society–near enough to the lives of my family and friends to witness what their lives are like – is that without them we and millions of others would scarcely have a chance to occasional luxury, a taste of the finer aspects of nourishment, entertainment, decoration, art and culture in general.

Who but the rich sustain good restaurants? Who but the rich make fine porcelain or jazz clubs or beautiful rugs or fancy furniture, not to mention stunning architecture and enthralling theater possible? I cannot afford to support artists, musicians, actors, great chefs, and the other people who create and produce some of the marvelous features of our culture, nor can my equally middle level and poor income earning friends. But once in a blue moon we all manage to go to a great French restaurant, an art gallery, a neighborhood where fashionable estates are located, or a shopping center that features exquisite merchandise.

It is wonderful to go to an elegant mall such as those strewn about in the New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, Washington, Boston, and other areas of the country where these businesses can count on enough wealthy folks to sustain them. I, and others like me would not be able to support elegant ocean cruisers, superb automobiles, and great sports events such as Wimbledon or the America Cup. But there are those who can and I, for one, am extremely glad for that.

This is one of the reasons–although not the main one–for my distress about the kind of rich bashing that is so common in our culture. I find it disgusting how the envious among us would rather destroy the rich than witness the gap between their own modest economic status and that of the very wealthy. It is especially loathsome how so many American politicians, who ought to know better, gladly capitalize on this envy and persist on using the rich as a scapegoat of their own unwillingness to do the right thing, namely, concentrate on defending us from foreign and domestic aggressors and leave us be to fend for ourselves in peace, however much economic disparity this may generate–far less, incidentally, than is generated in societies where politicians try to even things out and run the country to the ground.

Of course, the first thing to be said about the rich is that they have every right to seek their kind of life, so long as they do this in peace. But there is also this point, namely, that their existence is of enormous benefit to the rest of us, not just in jobs and national wealth (especially in times when, unlike now, politicians haven’t mucked things up) but in keeping culture at a level that is there for all of us to enjoy, to save up for a bit of luxury once in a while, even if we do not wish to live as some of them are, namely, in persistent pursuit of abundance.