No one is more prone to criticize the various levels and branches of the U.S. government than I am. My complaints, however, tend to focus on how our political institutions have departed from the best ideas on which the country was founded.
When you read most prominent mainstream newspapers and magazines — The New York Times, The Washington Post, The New Republic, The New York Review of Books, for example — these too often and sadly aim their criticism exactly at those principles. It is when America is most American, one might say, that they pick on her.
Take as an example James Traub’s Feb.13 column in The New York Times Magazine, “Freedom From Want.” It is a nasty little piece that calls into question America’s generosity toward those around the globe who are in dire straits. As the tag line quotes Traub — which pretty much summarizes the piece — “Our closest allies have put world poverty at the top of their agenda. Why can’t Americans do the same?”
Well, for starters, our closest allies haven’t put world poverty at the top of their agenda — it is their governments that have made the decision to send some of the money they take from their citizens in taxes to help some of the poor around the globe.
This is a totally neglected distinction by Traub and others: Confusing what governments do in the way of forcibly transferring wealth from their citizens with what citizens support voluntarily, without being threatened with jail time if they refuse.
And here Americans as a whole come off as the most generous people on the face of the Earth. I am not talking about the considerable foreign aid the government of the U.S. is sending abroad, secured through the extortionist means of taxation (yes, Virginia, taxation is extortion — you pay or you go to jail).
I am talking about the fact, noted poignantly in a letter to The New York Times Magazine by Carol Adelman, senior fellow at the Hudson Institute, that while the U.S. government sends $16 billion — still the highest absolute amount — as aid, “This number, however, excludes American private giving of more than $43 billion, more than double the government aid in 2003.”
What was Traub thinking? Why was he ignoring the facts that Adelman brought to light? What kind of journalist is it who considers only what the government coercively redistributes as “giving,” while treating genuine, voluntary contributions as non-existent?
I think I have a clue here: Someone who is eager to denigrate America and Americans; someone who is eager to discredit a society in which freedom is still more important than coercion; someone who would rather have us all forced to behave as statists like us to behave rather than leave us govern ourselves. For such a person the virtue of generosity is meaningless unless it is extracted at the point of a gun, just the opposite of how generosity ought to work among human beings.
Yes, while I am a fierce critic of U.S. government policies, I confine my criticism mainly to when that government undermines the principles of individual rights on which it was founded — the unalienable rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, among others. But in continuing to sustain a legal and cultural atmosphere of voluntarism, many Americans are still doing what distinguishes them from the rest of the world, acting freely to do the right thing.
Whenever you encounter critics of the American system, look out: If it is being put down for upholding the principles of individual rights, the critics are actually being anti-American in the important sense of that term, namely turning against America’s central ideal.
When the critic employs the standard of liberty, then he or she is urging America to be more like what it should be in the first place.
Tibor Machan advises Freedom Communications, parent company of this newspaper. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org