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So What's the Problem?

By Grant Davies

It's obvious from the media coverage of the Presidential election this year that the most important things to be considered by the voters are: whether President Obama thinks business owners created their own success, and whether Mitt Romney worked for a company that owned some companies who outsourced some work. (Presumably the media thinks that's a bad thing.)

As much as I hate to sound like some kind of conspiracy nut, I think that it's a continuing strategy to distract voters from the actual issues. Worse yet, I think it's working, again.

I know it will shock some of you, but most of the media is left-leaning. (Okay, since they have readily admitted it in the past I know it's not a shock, but I can't resist being a smart ass.) And since they lean left, I'm quite uncertain why they care which one of these guys gets the nod.  After all, they get what they want no matter which of these big government advocates is in office. But distracting the voters from Obama's unbelievably poor performance seems to be job one. Here we go again.  

So I feel obliged to bring up a few points that some of you may want to mention at the next backyard cookout you attend this summer when "beered" up neighbors or relatives start talking about which guy is the bigger liar, or "outsourcer," or non-citizen, or Mormon, or friend of a distasteful clergyman. Or maybe they want to chat about who likes/dislikes gay people more, or whether "rich" people should pay more taxes because they don't pay their fair share. Or whether Tea Partiers are racists. Or whether it's getting too hot or cold because people are alive.

In that case here are some of the points I think you might mention: 
  • The country is still in a recession/depression.
  • The country (FED) is still printing money like crazy.
  • Prices are rising precipitously as the value of the money falls. And you ain't seen nothin' yet.
  • The government is spending money it doesn't have like there is no tomorrow. (They might be right on that point.)
  • Social Security is on the verge of collapse.
  • Medicare is on the verge of collapse.
  • Cities are declaring bankruptcy.
  • States are on the verge of the same.
  • Greece may be bailed out by somebody, but there is no one who can bail out America.
  • The President has seized the power to assassinate anyone, even US citizens, who he thinks might be a terrorist. No arrest, no arraignment, no witnesses, no trial. Congress has gone along with it and he has already done it.
  • Here at home, the right of Habeus Corpus has been abolished by executive order. Also with the approval of congress.
  • The Supreme Court just decided that the Constitution presents no barrier to government intrusion on our lives as long as the law in question is determined to be a tax.
  • One half of the adults in the country pay no federal tax.
  • Almost one half of the citizens are receiving some form of government funds. They will never vote for anyone who says those payments are to be cut back, much less eliminated.
  • New regulations are being made by the thousands, mostly by unelected people. There is no end in sight.
  • Wars are still being fought, also with no end in sight. And no one can figure out what would constitute victory or defeat.
So, if you think everything is just dandy and the above list has either been concocted by me out of thin air, or the list is correct, but the items on it are not a problem, then by all means chat about why Republicans or Democrats are the bad/dumb guys and have another beer. Argue about what the media wants you to focus on.

But just in case I'm right about any of the list being an actual issue, you might want to get a helmet. You know.. just in case.


Motives vs. Results

Image courtesy of Cafe Hayek

A fan of liberty writes me of her struggle of being surrounded by people with a different world-view–people who make her feel that in defending liberty, she is greedy, selfish, and uncaring. I wrote a novel  on this issue–here’s a shorter answer…

Are you greedy, selfish, and uncaring? A little. We all are. Even people who oppose liberty. But I don’t think self-interest explains your view of the proper role of government intervention.

But it’s not surprising that you worry about your motives. In our daily interactions, motives are nearly everything. I want friends and family that care about me and whose motives count me in, alongside their own concerns.

So we pay a lot of attention to motives because they’re important. But the motives of strangers are much less important. For starters, by definition, it is hard to know strangers as well as my friends and family. So their motives will be much harder to read. But there is a much worse problem which is that by definition, strangers don’t have much information or knowledge of my needs, desires, and dreams. They can’t. They’re strangers. It’s hard enough for my friends and family to know me well. But strangers can’t know me well. So even with the best of motives, they may not be able to help me. In fact, they may end up hurting me despite their motives. We know that we sometimes hurt our friends and family even with the best of motives because of our imperfect knowledge of who they are.

This suggests a humility for intervening in the lives of strangers. Those on the other side of the spectrum of government intervention often lack this humility. They claim to know what is best for others–what they should eat, how they should behave in the bedroom, whether they purchase health insurance, and what is the best use of other people’s money. When these plans go awry, when they cause harm to those they would help, they fall back on their motives–after all, they meant well.

But when dealing with strangers, with people outside our circle of friends and family, results trump motives. Or at least they do for me. For you see, I too, have good motives. I just believe, perhaps naively, that sometimes, it is better to leave things alone than to intervene. Not always. Sometimes. We know that is true in public policy just as it is true in parenting where the motives are very powerful. Sometimes good parenting means letting children make mistakes and learn from those mistakes. Sometimes it means letting children come to grips with responsibility.

So we teach our children to drive and let them take the car. We know it’s dangerous but we accept the risk. We do so not because we do not care about our children. It’s just the opposite. We accept the risk because we care about them. We respect them. We want them to leave the nest and learn to fly on their own.

So my opposition to a minimum wage or government schools or agricultural price supports or bank bailouts or mandatory health insurance or mandatory retirement contributions or mandatory eating habits doesn’t come from my selfishness or greed. Rather it comes from respect for my fellow human beings and a belief (not a faith) that leaving people free to choose what is best for themselves usually works out better than strangers making decisions for them.

The other day a friend of mine was defending a regulation related to smoking. I hate smoking. I’ve never smoked in my life. But I think people should be free to smoke if they want and I believe that private establishments–restaurants and apartment buildings and businesses–should be free to allow people to smoke on their premises. My friend doesn’t. He’s a great guy and knows as I do, that smoking has some very damaging health consequences. He feels very self-righteous about his quest to regulate smoking even more throughly than we currently do. Part of that self-righteousness comes from his motives. He knows they are pure and they are. He is a fine person. I respect him. He also happens to be overweight. I wonder how he would feel if I explained to him that I have been doing a lot of reading lately on diet and health and that I thought he should eat fewer carbohydrates and spend more time at the gym? I do wish he were thinner. I think it would be good for him. But I would never want to force him to change his habits and even more than that, my respect for him would keep me from even making the suggestion. I think he knows he’s overweight.

He’s not a close friend. He’s a casual friend. With a very close friend or a sibling, I might say something about the virtues of diet and exercise. But a stranger? I can’t imagine going up to a stranger on the street and lecturing him about his weight. Forcing a stranger to do something about his weight is even harder to imagine. But I don’t think my motives are the issue. It’s a question of respect and imperfect knowledge.

One of the points I make in The Invisible Heart  is that those of us who want smaller government because we think it will make the world a better place are the allies, whether we like it or not, of purely selfish people who want smaller government in order to avoid taxes and who have no intention of giving to charity. That should give us pause. At the same time, those who care so much about others that they would run their lives for them are allied with those who would run the lives of others because of less attractive motives–for power and profit.

So don’t lose any sleep over your motives. And don’t let others who are no better than you are, convince you that there is something wrong with you because you don’t want to use the power of the state to try to improve the lives of others. Their strategy has a very mixed track record. They are always saying this time will be different. But it is unlikely to be different because of the knowledge problem and because the other side centralizes power. And centralized power doesn’t attract nice people. Just the opposite.

Both sides want to make the world a better place. We just disagree on how to get there.

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The above article is re-published here in it's entirety with Professor Roberts express permission. Please visit the excellent site Cafe Hayek to enjoy and enlighten yourself with the fine articles concerning liberty to be found there.

Russell Roberts is Professor of Economics at George Mason University and the J. Fish and Lillian F. Smith Distinguished Scholar at the Mercatus Center, and a research fellow at Stanford University's Hoover Institution.

His latest book is The Price of Everything: A Parable of Possibility and Prosperity (Princeton University Press, 2008). Told in the form of a novel, it's the story of how prosperity is created and sustained, and the unseen order and harmony that shape our daily lives.


Amnesty For the Rest of Us

Dr. Walter E Williams

Proclamation of Amnesty and Pardon Granted to
              All Persons of European Descent
Whereas, Europeans kept my forebears in bondage some three centuries toiling without pay,
Whereas, Europeans ignored the human rights pledges of the Declaration of Independence and the United States Constitution,
Whereas, the Emancipation Proclamation, the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Amendments meant little more than empty words, 
Therefore, Americans of European ancestry are guilty of great crimes against my ancestors and their progeny.
But, in the recognition Europeans themselves have been victims of various and sundry human rights violations to wit: the Norman Conquest, the Irish Potato Famine, Decline of the Hapsburg Dynasty, Napoleonic and Czarist adventurism, and gratuitous insults and speculations about the intelligence of Europeans of Polish descent,
I, Walter E. Williams, do declare full and general amnesty and pardon to all persons of European ancestry, for both their own grievances, and those of their forebears, against my people.
Therefore, from this day forward Americans of European ancestry can stand straight and proud knowing they are without guilt and thus obliged not to act like damn fools in their relationships with Americans of African ancestry.
Walter E. Williams, 
 Gracious and Generous Grantor