Investment & Prudence

Investment and Prudence

October 30, 2013

Editorial By Tibor Machan

To be prudent amounts to making sure that one takes good care of oneself in all important areas of one’s life. Health, wealth, family, friendship, understanding, etc. are all in need of good care so that one will achieve and sustain one’s development as a human individual. It all begins with following the edict: “Know thyself!”

All those folks who make an effort to keep fit and to eat properly are embarking on elements of a prudent life. Unfortunately, the virtue of prudence has been undermined by the idea that everyone automatically or instinctively pursues his or her self-interest.

We all know the rhetorical question, “Isn’t everyone selfish?” Because of certain philosophical and related doctrines, the answer has been mainly that everyone is. In the discipline of economics, especially, scholars nearly uniformly hold the view that we all do whatever we do so as to please ourselves, to feel good. No room exists there for pure generosity or charity, for altruism, because in the final analysis everyone is driven to act to further his or her own wellbeing, or for carelessness, recklessness. If people do not achieve the goal of self-enhancement, it is primarily out of ignorance – they just don’t know what is in their best interest but they all intend to achieve it and even when they appear to be acting generously, charitably, helpfully and so on, in the end they do so because it gives them satisfaction, fulfills their own desires and serves their idea of what is best for them.

This is not prudence but what some have dubbed animal spirit. People are simply driven or motivated to be this way, instinctively, if you will. The virtue of prudence would operate quite differently.

One who practices it would be expected to make a choice to pursue what is in one’s best interest and one could fail also to do so. Practicing prudence is optional, not innately produced. Like other moral virtues, prudence requires choice. It is not automatic by any means. The reason it is thought to be so, however, has to do with the intellectual-philosophical belief that human conduct is exactly like the behavior of non-human beings, driven by the laws of motion!

Once this idea assumes prominence, there is no concern about people having to be prudent. They will always be, as a matter of their innate nature. What may indeed be needed is the opposite, social and peer pressure to be benevolent or kind, to adhere to the dictates of altruism, something that requires discipline and education and does not come naturally to people.

It would seem, however, that this idea that we are automatically selfish or self-interested or prudent doesn’t square with experience. Consider just how much self-destructiveness there is in the human world, how many projects end up hurting the very people who embark upon them. Can all that be explained by ignorance and error?

Or could it be, rather, that many, many human beings do not set out to benefit themselves, to pursue their self-interest? Could it be that human beings need to learn that they ought to serve their own wellbeing and that their conduct is often haphazard, unfocused, even outright self-destructive (as, for example, in the case of hard drug consumers, gamblers, romantic dreamers, fantasizers and the lazy)?

It seems that this latter is a distinct possibility if not outright probability. It is a matter of choice whether one is or is not going to be prudent, in other words. And once again, ordinary observation confirms this.

One can witness numerous human beings across the ages and the globe choosing to work to benefit themselves, as when they watch their diets or work out or obtain an education, and many others who do not and, instead, neglect their own best interest. Or, alternatively, they often act mindlessly, thoughtlessly, recklessly, etc.

The contention that they are really trying to advance their self-interest, to benefit themselves, seems to be one that stems from generalizing a prior conviction that everything in nature moves so as to advance forward. This is the idea that came from the philosopher Thomas Hobbes, who learned it from Galileo who took it from classical physics.

Accordingly, acting prudently, in order to advance one’s wellbeing, could be a virtue just as the ancient philosopher Aristotle believed it to be. And when one deals with financial matters, careful investing would qualify as prudence, just as is working out at a gym, watching one’s diet, driving carefully, etc.
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Misunderstanding freedom of the press

Misunderstanding Freedom of the Press

October 10, 2013

Editorial By Tibor Machan

Katherine Rushton of The Daily Telegraph wrote a column trying to embarrass those in America, like Republican lawmaker Kieran Michael Lalor, who oppose bringing in Al Jazeera television on to the American television news market. Ms. Rushton feels such opposition is a kind of ethnic prejudice, not sound journalism. Dubbing Al Jazeera “Al Jihad,” such efforts may well be over the top but not necessarily.

Suppose Americans had opposed making room for Pravda and Izvestia in America or some Nazi or fascist broadcasters in the past. Would this prove them to be prejudiced, unfair, biased? I personally object to NPR (National Public Radio) and PBS (Public Broadcasting Service), not at all because I am prejudiced but precisely because I consider it dangerous to treat government funded and supported “journalism” and “entertainment” as if it were just like some private outfit such as HBO, The New York Times or Time magazine.

When governments fund news outfits, they go astray in several ways. They take money by force from citizens to support what those citizens may well not want supported! They enjoy a competitive advantage as against those who do not use taxpayers’ resources. And when it comes to Al Jazeera, there is no other government-owned – it is owned by the Qatari government(!) – service pretending to be journalists instead of propagandists. (Not everything on Al Jazeera has to be tainted by government bias for one to be justified in being suspicious of the content of its broadcasts.)

Frankly, even the venerable BBC is a misguided institution and its reputation rests mainly on its traditional commitment to straight newscasting, not on its official restraint. Ms. Rushton complained that “Meritocracy is all well and good for certain ethnic minorities.” But evidently not for those with Middle Eastern or Islamic ties.

Maybe not so. Maybe what bothered Kieran Michael Lalor has nothing to do with ethnic ties but with evident enough efforts by Al Jazeera to cast jihadists in a favorable light. I don’t know this for sure but if so, that would certainly justify skepticism about Al Jazeera’s credentials and a bona fide news-broadcasting organization. Whenever I check out Al Jazeera, I sense that jihad is treated with kid gloves.

Genuine freedom of the press has no government involvement of any kind. Competition among newspapers, broadcasters, magazines, etc. arises from the initiative of entrepreneurs! Otherwise we are back to Pravda and the like, which should not be treated as agents of a free market of newscasting.

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A Note on Taxation

I have found it sensible to characterize taxation as a form of extortion. This is what it was when monarchs claimed that they owned the realm and everyone who occupied a part of it had to pay them for the privilege of utilizing it. Monarchs–at least many of them–believed that they own the country they happen to rule (because, some argued, God appointed them the caretaker of it). So if you make use of any portion, you need to pay them (taxes). It was just a “fee” extracted in return for the privilege of dipping into the monarch’s property.

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Involuntary Servitude

Involuntary Servitude

Tibor R. Machan

I now have three grandchildren. The latest, the young son and my own son and his wife, was born just a few days ago. The other two, my oldest child’s, also boys, are now two and three years old.

I am reluctant to bring them into my political quarrels but it is impossible for me to divorce their lives from the ideas about individual rights that have occupied me for decades. It is especially difficult to suppress my outrage at the fact that some of my colleagues in political philosophy hold views that literally consign my grandchildren into involuntary servitude without paying any heed to their own choices in the matter.

That is what the likes of Michael Sandel, Charles Taylor, James Sterba, et al, have been arguing in philosophy books and journals for decades. Just for being born, my grandchildren are supposed to owe others at least a substantial part of their lives — their labor, their talents, their good fortune, etc. may legally be conscripted, or so these political thinkers at very prestigious universities argue.

Just consider that for having been born in a given country, the state — the politicians and bureaucrats in the land — embark upon confiscating and conscripting their lives, never mind whether they have agreed to this. These erudite people, who teach at Harvard University, McGill, Notre Dame and elsewhere, contend that my grand kids do not have the full right to their life and liberty, not to mention property but must relinquish it so they and their preferred politicians and bureaucrats may use them as they judge fit. This they do mainly by some sophistical argumentative tricks, such as the notion that being born ipso facto assigns part of one’s life to other people, never mind who they may be, whether they deserve it, whether permission was given to do such a thing.

If this isn’t the same as slavery I don’t know what is. No one asked the slave’s permission to be coerced to labor as told by the masters. No one asked the slave whether his or her life is here for others to use and dispose of as the masters choose.

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Some Pros and Cons of a Syrian Attack

Some Pros and Cons of a Syrian Attack

Tibor R. Machan

Why should one powerful nation attack another that is following intolerable policies — e.g., gasing its own citizens? Some argue that this is because when others act violently toward innocent people, those who can prevent this from happening have an obligation to step in and help out. We are, as Mr. Obama put it not long ago, “all in the same boat!”

But is this true? Do we have such an obligation? The men and women who signed up to defend a country didn’t do this to fight for the citizens of other nations. They signed up to defend their own nation. For their leaders to lead them into a war that doesn’t involve national defense is malpractice.

But perhaps when the wrongs committed by the powerful nation are severe enough, the restraint against getting involved must be abandoned. It is just inhuman to allow the powerful nation to carry on with its vile, murderous practices.

Yet when my neighbors — two brothers, say — are fighting, is it my duty to intervene, even if in support of the weaker brother? Do I have the moral authority to do so? After all, going to the aid to the weak brother isn’t costless and those who are going to pay (sometimes with their lives) must give their consent, which the citizens of the intervening country may well not have given.

It is usually politicians who make these decisions and they aren’t footing the bills involved, let alone doing any of the fighting. (The lives of those who are being made to pay require sustenance and resources and it must be up to them how they allocate what belongs to them, otherwise they aren’t sovereign citizens.)

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Machan’s Archives: Once Again It’s Freedom’s Fault

Machan’s Archives: Once Again, Freedom is at Fault

Tibor R. Machan

“The condition upon which God hath given liberty to man is eternal vigilance,” was how John Philpot Curran put it. Sure enough, but there is vigilance and there is vigilance and the sort I am familiar with is not what people usually think of when they hear the above truth.

My own experience is that in a relatively free society such as ours, the vigilance required consist of unfailingly meeting arguments that aim to support the violation of human liberty with ones that show that the individual’s right to liberty is indeed the supreme public good.

I thought of this when I came across, a while back, a book by Cornell University economist Robert H. Frank and Duke University political scientist Philip J. Cook, The Winner-take-all Society (The Free Press, 1995). The work argues that in our relatively free market system we sometimes encounter a phenomenon that’s disturbing to some, one whereby in many fields of work a few superstars take all the money, with the bulk of the rest bunched together fighting over the left over crumbs. As they put it, “The incomes of the top 1 percent more than doubled in real terms between 1979 and 1989, a period during which the median income was roughly stable and in which bottom 20 percent of earners saw their incomes actually fall by 10 percent.” Because of this the authors recommend — you guessed it — a drastic expansion of the system of progressive taxation. If Michael Jordan, Tom Brokaw, John Grisham, John Silber, Cyndy Crawford, Larry King, Sandra Bullock, Rush Limbaugh, George Will, Barbara Cartright, Ann Rice, Michael Jackson and Arnold Schwartzenegger take home so much of the available money in their respective professions, we must not allow this to happen. We must make laws to take the money from them. This will discourage such stardom and will help us redistribute their ill gotten gain to others whom we did not elect, by our choices in the free market, to receive our spending money. You and I are not going to be allowed to give all this money to these folks, and the few others in their class, no. Politicians and bureaucrats will be authorized, if these authors have their way, to check our choices, to correct our errors, to eliminate this egregious “market failure.”

Why it this regarded a market failure? Well, because these folks aren’t really more deserving than the others bunched below them. Surely Rush Limbaugh’s radio rap isn’t much better than that of a much lower paid local talk show host. Michael Jordan plays superbly, but not by so much as to justify all the endorsement contracts he receives. Michael Jackson performs well, but … well, we get the idea, don’t we?

I confess that some of this resonates with me a bit. I am a small time writers, my 12 books haven’t brought in enough to pay the paper on which they are printed, my columns earn me a pittance compared to what George Will gets, etc., etc. I am envious, at times, of all those who live in the big cities and get exposure on the Sunday morning news programs. Even in my field of philosophy, there are stars whose popularity — manifest in their repeated appearance on the pages of not only the most prominent and prestigious scholarly journals of national magazines and Sunday book review supplements — are way out of proportion to their talent and achievement. They are where they are in large measure from bad habit, luck, knowing the right people, whatever, with their superior achievements probably accounting for a fraction of the rewards they reap, not just in money earned but in influence they manage to peddle.

But so what? How dare anyone suggest that this is something that others ought to check by the exercise of nothing other than coercive government intervention? It is an outrage.

I don’t know if the scholars who propose this are simply morally obtuse or actually envious of the fame and fortune of a few others in their filed, Nobel Prize winners Gary Becker or Milton Friedman in economics, for example. It doesn’t make any difference what motivates these people. What is clear is that they are proposing yet another phony reason to increase the power of the state over the lives of citizens in a supposedly free society.

It is perhaps worth noting that the complaint voiced by Frank and Cook applies to an era of American economic history that is hardly characterized by a national economic policy of laissez-faire. Quite the contrary — our national economic system has become more and more managed by government. Regulation, taxation, nationalization of land, control of wages and labor relations, welfare, and the rest have never declined, either at the national or regional levels. At most there has occasionally been some decrease in the rate of the expansion of government interference. Even the current Republican House is not managing to reduce government interference and spending, only to stem the proposed increases in some very few areas.

But even if it were true that a bona fide free market has seen the emergence of something akin to the winner-take-all society, so what? If I wish to ogle two or three supermodels and thus increase their wealth beyond anything the rest in their profession earn, that is my business. Pace Mr. Obama, it’s my earnings, my time, my good or ill fortune and these are for me to distribute to willing takers, not for the politicians and bureaucrats whose power Frank and Cook are so eager to rationalize.

Let us not be taken in by this somewhat novel effort to increase even more the power of the state over our lives. If some entertainers, CEOs, athletes or novelists are lucky enough to parley their talent into gigantic rewards, let it be. If this will outrage us, we will remedy it somehow. We will find peaceful, noncoercive ways that reverse the trend. We do not need the remedy of the state, even if that were likely (which it isn’t since those serving in government aren’t noted for their success at establishing fairness anywhere, let alone in how money is spent by government).

Frank and Cook can, of course, do some good by letting us know of the trends they wrote about. But their proposed remedy is wrong and should be rejected by anyone who has any concern for the quality of our society. Liberty does require eternal vigilance, even in the fashion to paying close attention to sophists who would give ammunition to statists to increase their power over us.

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Rand & the family

Rand’s focus wasn’t on child raising, any more than it was on farming or physics; yet she would not regard these as unimportant. Context matters, here as elsewhere. As a neo-Objectivist, with three children and three grandchildren, I find all this Rand-bashing a non-sequitor. Nothing in her thinking stands against the family in general but as a responsible person she probably realized that given her extreme focus on philosophical and related matter, it would be best for her not to commit to raising kids; elementary but some people must find something personally objectionable about Rand, given how hard it is to take issue with her philosophy

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