Strange Conversations While In Africa

LUSAKA (Zambia) – During business trips in far away places it is relatively easy to talk to strangers who are also traveling, just as you are, for business or pleasure. Sometimes the conversations are very interesting, sometimes bizarre.

Meeting Brian

It is Sunday and I went to the hotel gym to exercise. Afterwards, I saw a gentleman in the locker room. I said hello to him. There is a brief introduction. It turns out that this traveler (let’s call him “Brian”) is from the North of England, very close to Scotland. Brian is a nice, mild mannered man. He runs a bed and breakfast, and he organizes outdoors activities for children. A good guy, it seems. He is in Zambia for a wedding.

British politics

So Brian lives right next to the Scottish “Border”. Ah, Scotland, with all its political problems. “This matter of secession is by no means over”, says Brian. “Even though the referendum failed, they’ll try again”. I agreed with him on this.

But then we turned to British politics, and Brian observed that there are goods things going on in the British Labour Party. Indeed, there is a new beginning, on account of the election of Jeremy Corbyn, (a bizarre radical socialist), as party leader.

I was frankly stunned. Good things? From a party that just regressed to ancient Marxism? I politely noted that this leftist agenda has been tried, many times, in many different parts of the world, and it did not work.

In praise of Socialism

Well, Brian brushed all this aside. (Essentially, the Soviet Union, Pol pot’s Cambodia and Maoist China, among others, never happened; or were just small foot notes). He noted that many noble Marxist experiments, such as the Sandinista regime in Nicaragua, were snuffed by the evil Americans. So we shall never know what wonders those truly enlightened Socialists might have brought about.

Never mind that Daniel Ortega, the retreaded old revolutionary leader whose dream of a just society was allegedly killed by the CIA, is alive and well, (In fact, now, thanks to the wisdom of Nicaragua’s voters, Ortega is the current “democratic” leader of perennially impoverished Nicaragua. Apparently the CIA did not do such a good job.)

It failed in the past, so let’s try again

But Brian goes further. “Well, the very fact that Socialism did not work in the past is good for today”, he says, quite seriously. “We can have a fresh start, avoiding the mistakes of the past”.

In other words, according to Brian, Socialism in principle is a very good thing. The ony issue is some implementation glitches, here and there. In other words, with more refined planning and better execution these problems experienced in the past will be avoided, and the world will finally enjoy the blessings of a just society.

As I said, Brian is a pleasant person.

And yet, in a peculiar way, he is a prisoner of a crazy ideology. Think of this bizarre –and totally irrational– argument: “Precisely because Socialism failed so many times in the past, this is the moment. We have to try again”.

He said all this calmly, in a matter of fact way.

So, here we go. One century of disastrous economic failures, (not to mention killings, the Gulag, mass murder, denial of basic human rights, and more), is a pretty good indicator of future success.

Blindness

It really worries me to see how blind belief in crackpot ideologies prevents otherwise normal people to see reality.

No, contrary to what the thinkers of the Enlightenment believed, Man is not a rational creature. Sadly, the vast expansion of knowledge about nature and the physical world has not done much to make people wiser.




Can We Find Decent People To Fix Our Democracies?

WASHINGTON – Democracy and free markets anyone? By this I mean opting for a real republican government with fair rules, transparency, honesty, and constructive debates. And office holders who really believe that their job is to further the public good, while allowing private citizens who play by clear and fair rules to engage in whatever activity they may be interested in.

What happened to liberal democracies? 

Does any of this still exist? The answer is a qualified yes. However, the real article is almost extinct. There are only approximations. Unfortunately, most self-described liberal democracies are only distant relatives of the original model.

In most Western countries, citizens mistakenly believe that it is perfectly alright to bend the political process and the state institutions so that they will provide for them, or at least subsidize them. This entitlement mind frame is a perversion of any honest notion of the state as guardian of the public good. And yet, the “welfare state” model is now the standard, with plenty of intellectuals willing to affirm its legitimacy and high moral standing.

Welfare and statism 

To make things worse, the welfare state goes hand in hand with a statist economic model. Many people do not believe that public institutions should limit themselves to the role of impartial arbiters and enforcers when economic rules are broken. No, the state should run things, (banks, utilities, airlines, railways, factories), or at a very least dictate via minute regulations how they should be run.

All this amounts to a state that got bigger, more expensive and more powerful, and in most cases more wasteful. As a consequence, some people in charge of powerful institutions that control huge assets or resources have enormous power. And this often unchecked power is an open invitation to corruption.

Corruption 

Corruption in turn has the effect of a chronic, debilitating disease. It is nasty parasite that eats up resources, while engendering cynicism and sometimes despair. Who will have the enthusiasm to think about starting a new business when they know that at each step of the way there will an intrusive bureaucracy run by voracious corrupt officials demanding bribes?

Well, this is the picture. In some instances, it gets to be too much. And people protest, loudly. (Witness what is going on right now in Brazil, with daily street protests and demands for the impeachment of President Dilma Rousseff).

Ironically, even semi-dictators complain about corruption. Vladimir Putin commented that there is way too much corruption in the recently annexed Crimea. Think of that. According to Putin, the once oppressed ethnic Russians of Crimea, instead of showing gratitude towards their Russian liberators, engage in all sorts of shady practices. The level of corruption in Crimea is now so bad that even Putin thinks it is way too much.

Here is the picture 

Well, without being too gloomy, here is the picture. Europe is slowly sinking under the weight of unsustainable public debt. Indeed, lacking enough revenue, this is the only way to finance all the benefits. Too much debt weighs on the economy. Too many regulations impede innovation, business formation, and therefore the creation of new employment. A bloated public sector fosters waste and corruption.

These days, confronted with economic stagnation, lack of opportunity and high unemployment, people are restless and unhappy. This being the case, they could opt for better political leaders.

But no, they do not do this. With few and limited exceptions, no way that any political force proposing to go back to the original free market, liberal democratic model could get vast popular support and succeed. “Yes, reforms may be nice, but don’t even think of touching my benefits”.

Looking for a “Big Man” 

As real world solutions are excluded, the only alternative seems to be escapism. Yes, let’s elect someone —A Big Man— who will make all this go away. Let’s elect someone who will tell us that we are the innocent victims of a vicious cabal made out of corrupt politicians in bed with exploitative financiers. And then we have all the illegal immigrants who steal our jobs, not to mention unfair trading partners who cheat. Therefore, let’s elect someone who will clean house, throw all the rascals in jail, and start fresh. (Of course, the magic broom will steer clear of all my benefits and subsidies. And don’t you dare raise my taxes).

Hence the appeal of Beppe Grillo and his 5 Stelle movement in Italy, the National Front in France, Podemos in Spain, and Syriza in Greece. And, most recently, the British Labor Party choose as new leader Jeremy Corbyn, an old (age 66), unreconstructed Socialist whose ridiculous ideas have the fresh fragrance of the 1950s.

Bad news from America 

But what about America, the reliable bastion of democratic capitalism? Bad news from that front. Right now, in what is supposed to be a serious exercise aimed at selecting candidates for President, the leading contenders on the left and on the right are people who in ordinary circumstances would be dismissed as laughable populists.

Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump 

But no, they are not dismissed. They are in fact adored. On the left, Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders is an eccentric museum piece, a socialist who talks with passion about income redistribution. On the right, businessman Donald Trump argues passionately that he is really smart, while everybody else is stupid; and this is his main qualification for becoming President.

All this is disheartening. Confronted with this detachment from reality and consequent lowering of the level of policy debates, many commentators argue that this is a “healthy rebellion” against an ossified political system dominated by worn-out elites made out of professional politicians.

“You see, the people got fed up with the establishment, and so now they vent their frustrations by supporting populists who make outlandish claims. Perfectly understandable, no?”

Venting frustration is not smart 

No, not at all! While we can understand that frustrated people may engage in foolish behavior, this does not make foolish behavior smart. It is in fact stupid and destructive. If we accepted this logic, then we should accept as “normal” the fact that some unemployed workers become thieves, while others become alcoholics or drug addicts.

Indeed, lets agree that “the system is inefficient and corrupt”. Let’s assume that this is true. Well, then let’s try to find more honest and more competent people to run it.

Electing Jeremy Corbyn in the UK, or Bernie Sanders or Donald Trump here in the US will solve nothing.

We no longer understand what this is all about 

But then, why are socialists, populists and demagogues so in fashion, these days? Why the appeal of politicians who loudly promise easy fixes? Very simple: because many members of our societies have lost the meaning of the fundamental values that make republican government possible.

A republican government is supposed to manage the sectors that individuals cannot take care of on their own, while allowing people to freely live theirs lives. Government should take care of the truly needy; but it is not a philanthropy tasked with delivering plenty of goods at no cost. Government has costs that need to financed through fair taxation; but it is not a mechanism for redistributing wealth.

Government should be about the protection of individual rights, within clear and transparent rules. Government should allow all law-abiding private citizens to engage in wealth-producing activities. In other words, I can do my own thing, but this pursuit positively excludes taking advantage of others.

We got ourselves in this mess

Sadly, we forgot all this. And so we are caught between our deep dissatisfaction with our sorry-looking, stagnating democracies and our inability to see that we got here precisely because we lost our understanding of what the state is, and what it should do. 

 

 




An Academic Argues That We Need Socialist Policies in America

WASHINGTON – In the course of a TV program focused on economic freedom, a leftist university professor was interviewed to give her own contrasting point of view.

Tax the rich 

Predictably, she proceeded to recite a long list of capitalistic evils, including unfair distribution of wealth, lack of access to basic services for the poor, and so on. Her proposed remedies? Well, very simple. Tax the rich, force multinational corporations to bring back to America all the jobs they outsourced, expand regulations of most economic sectors, increase all social services for the poor, and more. Anyway, you get the idea: capitalism is bad, and therefore it needs to be controlled.

This is socialism 

“But all this sounds like socialism”, argued the interviewer, “And we know that socialism did not work. It failed”. This rather obvious observation unsettled the professor. For a moment, she did not know what to say.

But then, after an awkward pause, she replied –with a perfectly straight face, mind you– that we haven’t had that many attempts at establishing socialism around the world. And, sadly, one noble experiment, Chile under the late president Salvador Allende, was smothered by a military coup supported by the CIA. Therefore, we shall never know what great things Allende could have produced, because he was never given a chance.

We never tried it 

Got that? “We never really tried socialism.” Really? And what about the Soviet Union and all the socialist governments imposed on all of Eastern Europe? (That would include East Germany, Poland, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Romania, Bulgaria, and Yugoslavia). What about China, Vietnam, Cambodia, North Korea and Cuba? And what about socialist models imposed in Africa on Tanzania, Mozambique and Angola? And what about the Latin American variations in semi-destroyed countries like Venezuela?

Well, apparently the professor does not  know about them, or may be she believes that these were not real attempts to create socialist societies run by socialist parties.

According to her, the only genuine article was Chile. And, unfortunately the experiment was killed way before it could transform the society. Which is to say that we do not know how good socialism is, because –you see– we have not really tried it.

Not entitled to their own facts 

So, here we go. I believe it was the late Democratic Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan who said that people are entitled to their own opinions, but not to their own facts.

Well, this academic feels totally entitled to her own facts. She reinterprets history as she pleases, making things up, and saying really stupid things on national TV.

However, the worst thing is that this idiocy, (and many more), goes essentially unchallenged. (In this particular case, the interviewer –a savvy free market libertarian– did not challenge the absurd statement made by the professor that we have not really tried socialism. He could have done so; but he did not).

Set the record straight

I am not suggesting that we should have censors passing judgment on what people can and cannot say. This would be unconstitutional. (Yes, we do have the First Amendment protecting freedom of speech). But it would be nice if someone, speaking on the basis of factual evidence, would care to set the record straight and expose falsehood, whenever necessary.

Yes, in case we all forgot, starting with the Soviet Union many countries tried socialism. It was a horrible experience. It created cruel dictatorships. Those regimes killed or imprisoned all political opponents. They created stupid and horribly wasteful economic systems. Socialism caused enormous misery; and it was eventually rejected, because it had failed –totally and completely. 

Lunacy 

If we knew all this, then we would also understand that listening to anybody who would like to repropose socialism, or anything like it, is sheer lunacy.

 




Why Are Americans In Love With Crazy Political Ideas?

WASHINGTON“I play to people’s fantasies. I call it truthful hyperbole”. This is what Donald Trump once said, according to The Economist. If this is true, we see that Trump is not just an unhinged, rich megalomaniac. He exploits weaknesses.

Make people dream 

Trump understands that at least some people in America want to be mesmerized by someone who says great stuff and makes outlandish promises. They want to dream about easy fixes that will propel the country to its deserved greatness. And this is in part due to the impact of a popular culture that glorifies improbable stories of sudden success, instant riches, overnight fame and fortune.

If we really like this fantasy world, why not elect President the man who became famous as the master of ceremonies of a reality TV show all focused on success? Indeed, why not?

This is serious business 

Well, the short, sensible answer is that public policy, running a country, and commanding the largest military force in the world, is serious business. TV entertainers should not be considered for the job.

Trump and Sanders 

And yet, there he is, with significant if not massive, following. Trump is the most obvious example of the improbable as mainstream. But what about Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders on the left? He is also getting big crowds. He is creating problems for Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton by harnessing a generic anti-capitalistic feeling that has now taken roots among many Americans. He is not another Trump. His style is vastly different.

Crazy socialist agenda 

But he is equally outrageous. Sanders is an old Socialist (his definition). He is saying, with the conviction of the ideologue, incredibly stupid things about the evil of capitalism, the need to tax the rich a lot more, so that we can finally redistribute wealth. This surprising policy platform articulated by an old man who understands nothing about how any wealth generating economy works is not laced with offensive statements, but it is just as outrageous as most of what Trump says.

The outrageous is popular

So, what do we make of this large popularity for impossible policies promoted, with uncommon vigor, by anti-establishment candidates? Is this a sign of an American society that really lost its bearings? A society in which both on the left and on the right the interesting candidates are a lunatic (Sanders), or a celebrity who willfully manufactures outrageous ideas (Trump), because he knows that outrage sells?

Or should we say that this is “just a phase” that will pass? Something akin to teen-age rebelliousness? Can we say that now, so early in this process, many people feel free to manifest their raw emotions by picking extremists? Having had a chance to vent their frustration, later on, when the game gets serious, they will come to their senses and focus on experienced candidates?

Decline of the main parties 

Well, who knows really. Hard to say how all this will play out. However, we can make a couple of considerations. We are now in an era in which the two main parties, at the national level, have retreated into bunkers of stupid ideological orthodoxy. The result is complete dysfunction in Washington. Gridlock is now the norm. We know that absolutely nothing will get done until the next elections. And we have no guarantee that with a new President and a new Congress things will get any better. This spectacle of incompetence and dereliction of duty creates disaffection and –at least in some– a desire for something radically “different”.

What is America about? 

In addition, we seem to a have lost a broad-based consensus of what this country is and where it should be headed. Indeed, what is this American Republic all about?

If we go back to our origins, the Founders believed that –yes– different people with different persuasions and different interests would try to prevail and push the country this way or that way. However, the saving grace of a republican form of government, with power divided among the Presidency, the Congress and the Judiciary, is that no single faction would be able to prevail indefinitely, this way creating a form of tyranny. The optimistic view was that, fractious tendencies notwithstanding, given this unique constitutional arrangement, the happy outcome would be that different factions would balance each other.

Besides, through the spreading of science and education, all citizens would have a chance to become more enlightened, therefore more sensible, and ultimately more rational.

Guarded optimism 

In other words, while aware of the fragility of republican institutions, the Founders shared a guarded optimism. They somehow assumed that things would take care of themselves. Democracy and self-government would not morph into a hot bed of insanity and demagoguery. Sane ideas eventually would prevail.

But here is the thing. It is nice to hope that people will choose to be more enlightened and wiser. But what if they don’t?

What is the soul of America about?

Years ago, (1983), conservative columnist George Will wrote an interesting book titled Statecraft as Soulcraft. In this book he noted that we Americans have never bothered to establish what the “values” underpinning our Republic should be. Sure, we have the Declaration of Independence, but the self-evident truths proclaimed there are both sweeping and ill-defined.

So here is the open question. What is America about? What should it be about? And, most importantly, what should we teach our children? Or are we saying that America is the country in which freedom means that you can believe whatever you want, and that the open market place of ideas will determine which ideas will succeed? From this perspective that implies that whatever sells must also be good, Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump agendas are just as good as Ted Roosevelt’s or Lyndon Johnson’s.

If it sells, then this is what people want.

Therefore, as we are ruled by whatever the majority has affirmed, we have to agree that what sells must also be good. Indeed, this is what Trump keeps saying in all his political rallies. “I am leading in all the polls. Therefore, by popular acclamation, I am the best”.

“Statecraft as Soulcraft” 

Well, what can we do to ensure that was is popular is also good? Here is what George Will wrote in his book:

“The principles of free government advocated in Jefferson’s Declaration, embodied in the Constitution, expounded in The Federalist and defended and ennobled by the life of Lincoln have survived the rigors of two centuries singularly fraught with dangers to political decency. But what the nation learned in Lincoln’s lifetime was that the social cohesion which proceeds from shared adherence to a public philosophy and shared emulation of exemplary behavior and values is not the result of spontaneous combustion. It takes work. But by whom, and with what? The answer is: By statecraft as soulcraft. Such work is done with laws and institutions. It is the citizenry working on itself –on itself, collectively, on its selves, individually. It is applied political philosophy”. [emphasis added]

Who is the arbiter? 

Of course, Will’s recipe presupposes that we, or at least some of us, “know” what is “the public good”, what is “decency”, how you teach all this, how you properly apply it, and how you teach people how to separate legitimate ideas from demagoguery.

All this is of course difficult. Besides, who can claim the right to spell out the ultimate values? Isn’t this a form of ideological tyranny?

If we do nothing 

Yes, all this is true. These are valid points. However, if we do nothing, Donald Trump, or others like him, will be able to play with the raw emotions of immature people who are unable to recognize real values because they were never taught what they are.