The Regime Has Fallen, But Will Anything Change?

February 15, 2011

About every six months my aunt overthrows her government. My aunt, 87, is in a nursing home; and she is certain she is a victim of nursing homes and a family that won’t give her the help she needs. Due to her morbid obesity and weak physical condition, she is almost immobile. She requires, in nursing home parlance, “maximum assist” which means it takes two or three staffers to get her out of bed or transfer her to the toilet.

Since she entered the nursing home system over two years ago, she has insisted over and over that her goal is to return home. Yet, physical therapists in three different nursing homes have told us that she offers minimal cooperation and makes little if any progress in physical therapy. In almost daily phone conversations with us, she rails against her plight and what she perceives as unfair treatment. Her refrain is often: “Why aren’t they helping me?” And so, full of blame, she transfers to a new nursing home; where the story begins again.

My wife and I have been deeply troubled by my aunt’s condition. We try gently to shift her thinking by exploring with her different ways to perceive what she is experiencing. Almost all days though, my aunt is interested only in having an audience for her story of victimization. When we ask her if telling these unhappy stories is helpful to her, she tells us she doesn’t feel like herself if she doesn’t keep the story going: “I don’t know who I am, if I don’t have my grievances,” she explains to us.

As you might expect, when she changes nursing homes, or even changes therapists within a nursing home, nothing changes. After a few days of transition, her story of victimization becomes front and center again. All that has changed is the name of the home and the name of the therapist. My aunt is close to the end of her life—my wife and I hope she experiences a change of heart before she passes.

Like my aunt, citizens of Egypt have a problematical existence. Poverty and repression is the plight of the ordinary Egyptian. Unfortunately, the current revolution in Egypt is about as likely to produce a liberal democracy, as changing nursing homes is likely to produce a change in my aunt’s circumstances.

Before I go further, let me define liberal democracy. A liberal democracy is a democracy where individual rights are protected and there are strict limitations on the role of government. Without guarantees of individual rights, and without limitations on the role of government, a democracy is unlikely to result in a free society. Walter Williams has observed, “Democracy and majority rule give an aura of legitimacy to acts that would otherwise be deemed tyranny. The founders of our nation held a deep abhorrence for democracy and majority rule.”

In Federalist paper #10, James Madison wrote, “Measures are too often decided, not according to the rules of justice and the rights of the minor party, but by the superior force of an interested and overbearing majority.” In other words, Madison understood that a democracy is no guarantee of liberty.

Germany provides a case in point. Although in free elections Hitler was never supported by a majority of the German population, Hitler was legally appointed Chancellor; and Hitler assumed dictatorial powers by an overwhelming vote of the Reichstag.

In his classic book The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, William Shirer observed that in the years after Hitler assumed total power:

The overwhelming majority of Germans did not seem to mind that their personal freedom had been taken away, that so much of culture had been destroyed and replaced with a mindless barbarism, or that their life and work had become regimented to a degree never before experienced even by a people accustomed for generations to a great deal of regimentation…. The Nazi terror in the early years affected the lives of relatively few Germans and a newly arrived observer was somewhat surprised to see that the people of this country did not seem to feel that they were being cowed…. On the contrary, they supported it with genuine enthusiasm. Somehow it imbued them with a new hope and a new confidence and an astonishing faith in the future of their country.

In other words, the barbarism that a minority of the population was experienced was of no concern to majority and was not even experienced as tyranny.

What lessons can we draw? My aunt suffers because she fails to appreciate the internal conditions that would lead to lasting change in her experience of life. Egyptians suffered, not because of Hosni Mubarak, but because they have not had sufficient understanding of the conditions that produce freedom and prosperity—Hosni Mubarak is an outcome of this ignorance and not a cause. Their economy is heavily regimented, their Coptic Christian minority has been persecuted, and widespread anti-Semitism exists.

Regarding their heavily regimented economy, Egypt’s government employs 35% of the population. As Daniel Henninger observes in The Wall Street Journal, Egypt as well as other Middle Eastern countries  have “used public works as a form of social security and a tool of political stability.” He adds:

Their universities fed graduates into a nonproductive but high-benefit public economy. Many Tunisian rioters were unemployed college graduates.

The argument being made here is that past some tipping point of a population employed by the state, an economy starts to choke. Egypt is far past that point. In Tahrir Square you are watching the economic and psychological dislocation caused by this misallocation of national energy. This isn’t just about a new government. It is a sit-down strike for a better economy.

In her classic book The Discovery of Freedom, Rose Wilder Lane writes, “Every human being, by his nature, is free; he controls himself.” Yet the “Old World” belief is that some Authority needs to control men. Lane points out, “They cannot make their energy work by any such belief, because the belief is false. But they do not question the belief, because when they submit to a living Authority’s control, and cannot get food, they can always blame that Authority.”

Lane goes on to explain that as long as that false belief—that some Authority should control the energy of mankind—remains intact, revolutions change nothing.

Back to Germany, but this time in the present day. In her book The Art of Choosing Sheena Iyengar reports on her research about societal attitudes in East Germany. She observes,

Even 20 years after its reunification, in many ways Berlin still feels like two cities, divided by a barrier of ideas as powerful as the Wall itself. In my conversations with people from East program, I’ve observed that rather than being grateful for the increasing number of opportunities, choices, and options that they have available to them in the marketplace, they are suspicious of this new way of life which they increasingly perceive as unfair… A remarkable 97% of East Germans reported being dissatisfied with German democracy and more than 90% believed socialism was a good idea in principle, one that had just been poorly implemented in the past.

In short, like my aunt changing nursing homes, knocking down the Berlin Wall has done little to change attitudes.

But let’s not be too eager to point our finger. Consider our own election cycle. Every four years in the presidential campaigns, we have a charade of candidates promising change, the result being larger budget deficits and more ruinous foreign adventures. Like my aunt, we expect that merely changing the cast of characters in front of us will somehow result in change. We want our problems fixed, but we don’t want to change. We want to keep intact our story that government is the source of our prosperity and the source of innovation.

Unfortunately, a better economy in Egypt or in the United States, like improved conditions for my aunt, is easier said than done. Before anything fundamentally changes in external circumstances, internal beliefs have to change. This is the hardest change of all.


Ron Paul and America’s Founding Principles

December 11, 2007

America is a great nation. America’s greatness is no accident; its greatness is a direct result of its founding and transcendent principles. These principles have resulted in, as Stephen Moore and Julian Simon observe, “more material progress in the United States in the 20th century than there was in the entire world in all the previous centuries combined.”

With this prosperity has come complacency and widespread ignorance of what America’s founding principles are. These principles include the right to own one’s body, as well as the right to own physical property. Rose Wilder Lane, the daughter of Laura Ingalls Wilder of The Little House on the Prairie books, wrote of these rights:

The revolutionary basis (of this country) is recognition of the fact that human rights are natural rights, born in every human being with his life, and inseparable from his life; not rights and freedoms that can be granted by any power on earth.

Government’s job then is not to grant us rights, but to uphold our inherent rights. Of all nations on earth, only America was founded with the principle that rights are inherent and not granted. When we understand this principle, we understand why James Madison wrote: “All power is originally vested in, and consequently derived from, the people.” And, “The powers delegated by the proposed Constitution to the Federal Government, are few and defined.”

In America today, few understand that transcendent idea. Almost all people seeking political office see government has having almost unlimited power to confiscate wealth from some citizens and some corporations for the benefit of other citizens and other corporations.

I don’t ordinarily like blogging about politics. Politics can be a divisive force precisely because there are so few statesmen seeking office. Elections then revolve around personalities and spin, rather than a reasoned dialogue over principles and issues. Yet, when someone says what he stands for in clear terms and with respect for others, there is the possibility of reasoned dialogue. Such dialogue helps all of us reflect on which principles we value and cherish.

This year is an unusual year because there is a statesman seeking office who speaks in such clear terms. That person is Ron Paul. Although it is unlikely that the country is ready for the kind of sea change that Paul represents, if Paul is able to go deep into the primary season, his candidacy will help bring forth many important issues for Americans to reflect on. A strong showing by Paul in the primary season helps insure that his ideas—and the dialogue they ignite—will continue to be heard this year and beyond.

Here are just a few of the reasons why I support Ron Paul:

  1. His consistent principled opposition to the war in Iraq. In foreign policy, he supports the vision of the founding fathers—commercial relationships with all, but no entangling foreign alliances.
  2. His consistent opposition to the war on drugs. This war has helped to erode personal liberty, has made war zones of inner cities, has filled our jails, has corrupted police all over the country, and has cost the nation hundreds of billions of dollars.
  3. His consistent opposition to Federal Reserve policy; that policy is threatening to send the U.S. economy into economic collapse. As an economist, I personally know that Paul has studied for decades the work of great economists such as Ludwig von Mises and Nobel Laureate Friedrich Hayek. Paul understands the consequences of decades of runaway deficits and inflationary monetary policy.

Today, I sincerely believe that there are several grim scenarios facing the United States. Again, we have lost our collective understanding of the founding principles that had helped make this country a beacon of liberty and of economic prosperity. Whether we are talking about an individual or a society, forgetting our principles has consequences. Because we have forgotten our principles, America is in serious danger of an economic collapse and more ruinous foreign wars. Yet that can change. Ron Paul is the only candidate who can help begin the dialogue that can ignite the process of America regaining its great, founding, and transcendent principles.


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