Monthly Archives: September 2015

Trump and the Meaning of Egoism

Here’s an observation that may surprise people: Donald Trump is not an egoist. And I say that not as praise, but as criticism.

An egoist is someone whose self-interest is his highest value. But our genuine self-interest is not achieved by doing whatever we happen to feel like doing. Life is conditional. Since some actions clearly benefit us while others clearly harm us, acting on blind feelings is self-destructive. Selfishness — that is, rational selfishness — therefore requires a certain commitment: a commitment to reason and reality. It requires the use of our minds to grasp, and to be guided by, the facts of reality. The selfish individual understands that crude emotionalism is inimical to human life.

This is precisely what Trump does not understand.

Being concerned with our self-interest means being concerned with the truth. It means forming conclusions based on evidence, not arbitrary assertions. It means, for example, that one does not irresponsibly declare — as Trump has — that vaccines cause autism or that Barack Obama was born outside the U.S.

Someone who lives by reason comprehends the importance of ideas. When campaigning, he appeals to people’s minds, not to their unthinking prejudices. He does not adopt the populist, anti-intellectualist tactics of a William Jennings Bryan, who explained his approach as follows: “The people of Nebraska are for free silver and I am for free silver. I will look up the arguments later.” He does not cavalierly proclaim, as Trump has, that Mexican immigrants consist largely of drug gangs and rapists. He does not engage in demagogic rabble-rousing, as Trump has, by denouncing hedge-fund operators as merely “guys that shift paper around and they get lucky.”

The selfish individual is a practical individual — and realizes that nothing is as practical as a true principle. He is not a seat-of-the-pants pragmatist, operating by unprincipled expediency and by impulsive whim. Instead, he is guided by a moral code, one which he has rationally arrived at and which informs him of the long-range consequences of his choices.

And when the question concerns America’s political situation, he recognizes that our problems stem from bad ideas, and he offers different ideas as the solution. Contrary to Trump, he does not attribute our basic problems to “poor management,” and does not define the cause of those problems by saying, “We are led by very, very stupid people, very, very stupid people,” with the solution being simply the election of non-stupid people. Rather, he understands that the crucial factor is people’s ideas, not their IQs.

Unlike Trump, the true egoist does not regard society as consisting of predators and prey, of people whose interests inevitably clash, of winners and losers in a zero-sum game. He knows that he achieves his self-interest not by victimizing others, but by interacting with them voluntarily — by offering value for value, to mutual advantage.  He understands, therefore, that a free economy is in everyone’s interests. He grasps that all parties gain by unrestricted trade, whether it is between people who live on different streets or in different countries.

Trump bemoans the fact that “They have in Japan the biggest ships you’ve ever seen pouring cars into Los Angeles, pouring them in. I’ve never seen anything like it. . . . It’s going to end.” The genuine egoist, by contrast, welcomes those cars. He does not take a myopic, small-minded view of self-interest. He does not pander to xenophobes who want to stop voluntary trade by keeping foreign goods, and foreign workers, out of the country. Instead, he realizes that if the Japanese can build a cheaper car, then every dollar saved by an American buyer is a dollar available to purchase additional goods. If a Japanese car costs less than its American counterpart, it means that the buyer can now afford both the car and, say, a new computer, enhancing our standard of living. And if there is one less worker in an automobile plant, there will be one more worker in a computer plant.

Trump’s narcissistic bluster is often mistaken for self-esteem. An egoist experiences authentic self-esteem because he has earned it. A man of reason judges himself as capable of dealing with reality and as being worthy of the effort. However, a man of unreason — a man with a spur-of-the-moment mentality — has only a pseudo-self-esteem. His sense of self comes not from his independent judgment of his own character, but from the opinions of others. He is driven by a need to impress people. His constant boastfulness is a sad attempt to gain a sense of self-worth from their admiration. His ego is fragile, unable to tolerate anyone’s disapproval. This is why Trump is so thin-skinned, so threatened by criticism, that he responds not with refutations, but with the most sophomoric and boorish insults.

And this is why Trump is so enamored of polls, continually citing them as supposed proof of his worthiness to be president. In Trump’s world, it is not facts, but people’s opinions and assertions that are decisive. When asked, for instance, to explain “why you are a serious candidate and what your qualifications are to be commander-in-chief,” Trump’s essential answer was: “Obviously, I’m doing pretty well. I’m No. 1 in every poll by a lot.” He is good — in other words — because people say he is good.  Something becomes true for him only when others believe that it’s true. That is not the mark of a self-confident, self-respecting individual.

Donald Trump may well be described as a narcissist, a braggart or a windbag. But an egoist? Definitely not. ♦♦

This article was published at Huffington Post on Sept. 28, 2015.

“Women’s Viagra”–
Why Should Government Decide?


This was published in Huffington Post on Sept. 5, 2015

In reaction to the FDA's recent decision to approve flibanserin—the so-called "women's Viagra"two camps have emerged. One argues that the drug's benefits clearly warranted approval by the agency; the other argues that the benefits are dubious and did not warrant approval. But no voices are addressing the more fundamental question: why should the government be making this decision in the first place?

When the FDA tells us which drugs we may and may not use, its purpose is not to prevent us from being defrauded. A regulatory agency is not needed for that; there are plenty of laws under which misrepresentation by drug makers can be prosecuted. Indeed, if it were concerned about fraud, the FDA would simply require a manufacturer to state a drug's true properties, including the benefits and the risks, and then leave people free to decide whether to use it.

Further, if the FDA's role is to reassure people that a drug is safe, so that they are willing to use it when they otherwise wouldn't, why is legal coercion necessary? Why doesn't the FDA just announce its evaluation of a drug and then grant everyone the right to accept or reject it? What if our doctors disagree with the FDA's conclusions (as there is often disagreement among the FDA's own medical and scientific personnel)? Why shouldn't we be free to rely on the judgment of those who arrive at a different verdict?

In fact, the FDA, like all regulatory agencies, exists essentially to say noand to force us to abide by that pronouncement. The FDA exists, not to keep us from being deceived, but to keep us from judging for ourselves what is good for us.

The debate about flibanserin, for example, centered on the risk-reward calculation. One view emphasized the negative side-effects of the drug; the other emphasized the positive effects of libido enhancement. But why shouldn't every woman have the right to make that determination for herself? Why can't she consult her doctor and then weigh the pros and cons? Why should the FDA have the power to forbid the drug, or even to place restrictions on its userestrictions such as limiting it to premenopausal women. Why can't a postmenopausal woman trust her doctor's judgment as to whether the drug is suitable for her? Why should the FDA be allowed to play God with our lives?

As laymen, we make many important decisions by consulting people with specialized knowledge. We consult mechanics to evaluate our cars, property appraisers to evaluate the worth of our homes, financial advisors to evaluate our investments, doctors to evaluate our health. We rely on private certifiers, from Underwriter Labs to Good Housekeeping, to assess the safety and the effectiveness of various products. Why can't we rely on medical sources, including our own doctors, to assess the information about a new drug? (In fact, before the FDA took over the task, drugs were privately reviewed by physicians.)

The pernicious premise underlying FDA regulation is paternalism. It's the belief that we cannot know what is really best for us, and therefore need the supervision of a "disinterested" party. We are deemed incapable of making rational judgments about our own interests. So the FDA, like a parent, must take us by the hand and lead us down the proper path. As one psychiatrist claimed, in arguing against the drug before an FDA advisory panel: "Is there a small group of women who could benefit from medical intervention–probably." Nonetheless, if flibanserin gained approval, "the much larger group of women without any medical reason for their sexual distress will inevitably be misinformed and misled into thinking that there is a pill that can get them the sex life they read about, the one they think everyone else is having."

In other words, people must be protected against their own irrationality. Even if the drug is useful for certain peoplethe argument goesthere are others who might misuse it and it therefore should be banned. But the fact that some people take a drug unthinkingly and irresponsibly cannot justify prohibiting it. Why should those who do take responsibility for their health be penalized for the sake of those don't? Why should the rational be sacrificed to the irrational?

Yes, there is a risk in taking a drug, particularly a new drug. But there can be an even greater risk in not taking it. All the FDA does is to forcibly prevent us from choosing which risk we prefer.

By treating us as helpless children, the FDA causes needless suffering and deaths. Whether someone wants a drug to increase sexual desire or to treat a deadly cancer, every day in which access to medication is legally denied represents an unnecessary evil. Studies have shown that the mere delay in approving drugs that are being safely used outside the U.S. results in numerous deaths annually—to say nothing about all the useful drugs that get developed but never approved, or all the ones that are never developed in the first place because of regulatory burdens.

I'm in favor of getting rid of the FDA entirely. But for now, at the very least, each of us should be allowed to decide whether or not to accept the agency's opinions. Those who want to categorically trust the government would still be able do so. But those who want to rely on other sources would be given the freedom to choose.♦♦