Column on American Commisars

American Commissars
Tibor R. Machan
Back in 1859 Abraham Lincoln noted that “All this [the economic success of
America] is not the result of accident. It has a philosophical cause.
Without the Constitution and the Union, we could not have attained the
result; but even these are not the primary cause of our great prosperity.
There is something back of these, entwining itself more closely about the
human heart. That something, is the principle of ‘Liberty to all’—the
principle that clears the path to all—gives hope to all—and, by
consequence, enterprise, and industry to all.” In a related vein, Lincoln
also said that “No man is good enough to govern another man, without that
other’s consent.”
However much actual public policy may have departed from these strong
moral convictions, it was at least acceptable back then to openly declare
them.
In contrast, what many very prominent public thinkers proclaim these days
has a rather different ring to it. At a recent presentation of his ideas,
the political economist James K. Galbraith made no secret of his
enthusiasm for the state’s regulation of American citizens. He spoke with
open nostalgia about the times when he was in Washington making rules for
people to follow. (And I am convinced he is looking forward to be asked by
the next US president to return to his favorite job as an economic
regulator.)
Another famous American public thinker, a Nobel Laureate no less, MIT’s
Professor Robert Solow, pontificated along similar lines in a recent
review he penned, in The New York Review of Books, of Peter Gosselin’s
book, High Wire: The Precarious Financial Lives of American Families
(Basic Books, 2008). The review essay abounds in paragraph after paragraph
of elitist proclamations about how government ought to regulate people’s
lives because that is the best way for them to be insured against various
disasters. No need to go into the details here—the theme is a very
familiar one, especially in the pages of TNYRB. The following passage
should, however, give one a very clear flavor of the thinking behind these
elitist notions:
“The standard argument for leaving all the responsibilities and decisions
to the individual in the free market is that, in appropriate
circumstances, that is the route, and maybe the only practical route, to
economic ‘efficiency’.”
There is more but that is no relevant here. My reason for focusing on
these ideas is not so much to dispute them from the viewpoint of sound
political economy but to examine them as instances of rank and immoral
political elitism. Galbraith, Solow, et al., are the kind of people who
take it as unquestioningly given that they are entitled to regiment the
society in line with their superior vision. Never mind the consent of the
governed, never mind “liberty to all.” Such notions appear to strike these
people as primitive and no account needs to be taken of those who might
protest being nudged about, regulated, regimented by these high minded
intellects, the government’s eager chevaliers.
When at a recent presentation of his views I challenged Professor
Galbraith to address the argument of public choice theorists—that school
of economists who contend that government regulators are entirely unsuited
to be entrusted with regulating us, with exercising the power of
government so as to set things right in society—he simply ignored the
question. It was evidently beneath him to pay heed to those who express
skepticism about the suitability of the likes of Solow and Galbraith as
paternalistic regulators who use the vague notion of the public interest
as their excuse to govern other people.
I don’t know about you, dear reader, but I am baffled why there are such
people, especially in America, how they manage to convince themselves that
they may govern others without those others’ consent. I remember similar
but rougher versions of these people, back in communist Hungary, the
commissars who unhesitatingly ordered us about, knowing full well that
their authority arose from sheer power, period. Sadly, the likes of Solow
and Galbraith probably imagine themselves more sophisticated than those
commissars. But, of course, they are every bit the same.

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