Tuesday, November 06, 2007

Rizzo on Becker's Presidential Medal of Freedom

Mario Rizzo, my co-author and erstwhile dissertation advisor, has some choice comments about the recent awarding of the Presidential Medal of Freedom to Gary Becker. He agreed to let me post them here:
Recently it was announced that Gary Becker has been awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom. There is no doubt in my mind that Gary Becker's work is so good that he deserves every academic honor. And he has received them, including the Nobel Prize in Economics in 1992.

However, let me offer my gratuitous and perhaps meddlesome opinion that he should not accept the award. Why? That is simple. It is the Presidential Medal and George W. Bush is no friend of freedom. Here I can only list without proof several claims. First, it is clear, I believe, to all objective analysts that he lied us into a war. He intentionally exaggerated or cherry-picked the evidence to show that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction. Second, Bush has violated the UN Charter (to which the US is a signatory) by invading Iraq without any immanent or even medium-term threat to the US. Third, he has violated the Geneva Treaties and allowed, negligently or intentionally, torture of prisoners at Guantanamo. Fourth, his Administration has engaged in completely extralegal rendition of prisoners to other countries where he knew or should have known that they would be tortured. Fifth, and perhaps least important, he has allowed the explosion of government spending not seen since Richard Nixon and Lyndon Johnson.

All this raises a much larger issue than Gary Becker's medal. This is the attitude among many academics that the state is really benign, at least the good old US of A state. As long as the state recognizes their achievements, excellent as they may be, this shows that these guys can't be all bad. And, what's more, the government (the NSF, for example) awards funding for their worthy research. So what is there to complain about? However, the evidence continues to mount about the malign effects of this government's policies, in particular, and of the fundamental structural deficiencies (to use a mild word) of our state.

The president is not in a position to convey honors to anyone, least of all to a truly great economist like Gary Becker. How can the dishonorable convey honors?
UPDATE: This is Glen now. To those who disagree with Mario's reasoning, I pose this question: Would you accept an honor from Kim Jong Il? If the answer is no, then I submit that we're only quibbling about where the line should be drawn. Sadly, I think GWB is on the wrong side of the line.

UPDATE 2: Mario emails the following addendum:
Some people are saying that I am being a "libertarian purist." My point is not that it is wrong to accept government money in all cases. I intend to accept my Social Security payments, for example. In fact, if it were simply that Gary Becker would get a check in the mail, I would say fine. Better it should go to him than down the usual rat holes.The problem is that so many people think that it is an HONOR to receive a presidential award from Bush or that, quite fantastically, this medal can enhance Becker's reputation.


Anonymous said...

Very well said, of course. But truly courageous would be for Becker to accept the award (he's deserving of it), but to use the opportunity to denounce the prize-giver-in-chief for being totally unworthy of the same prize, for the reasons cited by Dr. Rizzo.

However, if there is a monetary prize attached, I can't see turning it down even if Hitler were handing out the medal; I like money too much. Sadly, there can be an unjust personal price to pay for such courageous & truthful outspokenness. For one thing, you might get assassinated like MLK did. Or, like the cabaret singer Eartha Kitt, you might end up blacklisted and have your career damaged. I'm thinking of the surprise anti-Vietnam war speech that she gave at a luncheon hosted by Lady Bird Johnson at the White House. She was subsequently unable to work for many years in the U.S., and survived financially only by working in Europe.

Gil said...

Sorry, but I think that this makes little sense.

I don't think refusing the award would do any good. But, it would do some harm to Becker's reputation.

Yes, the president has done some bad things. But, he has done some good things, too; and this is one of them.

Why not encourage the good behavior by accepting the award graciously and not making Bush regret it? And why encourage future presidents to only bestow honors on people who have no criticisms of them?

Becker deserves the honor.

Craig said...

Sorry you saw fit to post this.

Ran said...

This is a tough one. Is it ethical to "play nice" with a … with a … with someone there are no non-vulgar words for? I don't think that Becker's acceptance of the award will in any way lend his credibility to the President, so I really think it's just a question of how Becker will feel: will he feel honored to have received the highest civilian honors of one of the greatest countries in the world? Or will he feel gross to have received it from the likes of Bush? I think it's a personal and emotional question more than one of ethics.

Sheldon Richman said...

Well said, Mario. Imagine, a Medal of Freedom from the state. I mean, really...

Daniel Klein said...

Well said, Mario.

Becker should tell George to shove it.

Anonymous said...

Yet another example of Bush derangement syndrome. Get help.

Gil said...

Yes, Glen. We're only quibbling about where to draw the line.

I guess you draw it somewhere between the California State University system and GWB.

I draw it between GWB and Kim Jong Il. I see a much greater difference between these two than your two.

I really don't see how any reasonable cost-benefit analysis could lead to the refusal of the award, unless one derived a huge psychological (psychotic?) benefit from a futile symbolic gesture.

I don't know if Becker would get such a benefit. If professor Rizzo would, he's welcome to do it with his own career and reputation.

BTW, it seems that Will Wilkinson suggests that acceptance may be better for freedom, as well.

Wilt Alston said...

Well said, Dr. Rizzo. Becker should tell Shrub to shove his medal into a seldom-used but highly-available orifice, assuming Bush is not busy pulling policy decisions or further justifications for war out of it.

Anonymous said...

Couldn't he just say he's 'busy' until 2009, but will drop by the White House to pick it up then?

Glen Whitman said...

Gil -- see Mario's addendum. The issue is not receiving money; it is receiving a symbolic honor in the name of freedom. Is Bush in a moral position to grant such an honor? I think not.

Gil said...

Well, I guess it depends on how one interprets the award.

I don't see it as having much to do with the person or policies of GWB. I see it as an honor given by the office of the President of the United States (which, like it or not, is quite important). I really don't think many people would view accepting the award as an endorsement of GWB's policies.

If I were Becker, I would accept it. I'd view it as honoring my work and ideas, and giving them more attention. That seems like a good thing to me.

I really don't see any good coming from refusing it. I think it would make Becker and his ideas seem like fringe extremism and would hurt them.

Also, it would make future presidents hesitate before attempting to honor independent thinkers whose personal and political loyalty were uncertain.

Anonymous said...

Give me a break. Welcome to another chapter of "lunatic libertarianism" (sometimes, unfortunately, also known as "libertarianism").

Chris Hibbert said...

The award is the "Presidential" Medal, not the "George W. Bush" Medal. Becker would still have a Presidential Medal long after Bush leaves office. I think that's appropriate symbolism.

I'm a libertarian and no fan of GWB or any government. It's still a prestigious award.

Anonymous said...

Some people, like Gil, are of the opinion that George Bush just isn't that bad. I'm of the opinion that while Bush isn't nearly as bad as Kim Jong Il, he's nonetheless pretty bad. If George Bush were personally giving Becker a $500,000 grant to do more research, I'd really have no problem with Becker accepting that money - aside from my normal libertarian doubts.

But where Bush is giving Becker a medal, I think it's fair to ask whether Becker wants to accept the medal from a man who has shown so little regard for "freedom".

Alexandre said...

I overall agree with Mario Rizzo about George W. Bush but does Gary Becker disagree with George W. Bush? Maybe he actually endorses George W. Bush's foreign policy. After he's co-blogging with Richard Posner who seems to be endorsing Bush. My other question would be: what about Milton Friedman who received the Freedom Medal from Ronald Reagan? Should he have accepted it or refused it? I would tend to think Reagan was much better than Bush, Jr. so I will be tempted to say yes but I am not sure super-hardcore libertarians like Rothbard would agree with me.

Alex Padilla

Gil said...

Well, apparently the ceremony was yesterday and Becker not only accepted, but got a haircut for the event!

So, he seems to disagree with Rizzo and the others who thought it would have been appropriate to refuse.

And, in this case, his opinion is the one that really matters.

Gil said...


I guess it was actually two days ago.

We've been debating ancient history (in internet time, anyway).

Becker appeared to have been pleased.

Tim Fowler said...

The issue isn't only where you draw the line but also what you think of GW (not just in terms of freedom/libertarian concerns, but all around).

In terms of liberty I don't see GW as exactly being a shining positive example but what modern president has been? Answer none of them have been.
Measured against other presidents Bush doesn't seem so bad, and any reasonable person would put him light years away from Kim Jong Il, really in a different category.

Charles N. Steele said...

Professor Rizzo is right on target. George W. Bush is an enemy of liberty; Becker, and everyone else, ought to be pointing this out loudly, not playing along.