Saturday, March 08, 2003


Friday, March 07, 2003

I found this observation by Susan Haack quite sound and apt. TRM

Many times in the last year we have heard: "Our values are under threat." They are; and we should--we must--defend them. But not because they are ours; for that really would be a regression to the dark side of human nature. If we take this thought to heart, we shall not, as we should not, fear that in defending them we may be guilty of a kind of cultural imperialism. And we will appreciate that, in the deepest sense, the values at stake are not "ours"--not peculiarly American, English, French, or even Western, but human: values, that is, with the capacity to enhance human flourishing, and to appeal emotionally to human everywhere. [Professor Susan Haack (U. of Miami), "9/11/02," Free Inquiry, Winter 2002/03, p. 12.]
Inheritance, Capitalism & Freedom

Tibor R. Machan

Few things invigorate critics of free market capitalism as much as inherited wealth. Quite a few defenders of this system tend to stress its supposed reward of hard work, ingenuity, industriousness, thrift and diligence – all virtues one can hardly argue with and which, if one practices them, seem to justify holding on to the often resulting wealth. So, critics focus on inheritance, a species of good luck, which those who benefit from it cannot easily be said to deserve.
And it is true enough – notoriously many beneficiaries of inherited wealth seem to be quite undeserving. They often waste their inheritance away rather rapidly; if not, they do nothing much creative or productive with it; often they spend it on projects that actually turn out to be out and out hostile to the very system that made making the wealth possible in the first place (just take notice of the many rich kids of industrialists who decided to fund collectivist think tanks, magazines, and activism). So, if this result can be associated with free market capitalism, how could any right-minded person defend the system?
The guilt by association ploy does seem to work because even among the most sophisticated critics of capitalism the ultimate ammunition is the view that even those who practice diligence, thrift, industry and other virtues merely inherited their traits of character and thus do not deserve the rewards, after all, contrary to what common sense would suggest.
Now there is a very serious confusion afoot in all this and once noted it should disabuse critics of the idea that inherited wealth and its misuses amount to any liability for freedom and capitalism.
To begin with, we do in fact inherit many of our assets and do not earn them – our good looks and health, if we have them; our talents; even much of what constitutes our personality, something that often helps us make our way to a certain measure of success in our lives. And in each of these cases we can both build on what we have inherited or waste it away good and hard. But none of that makes these assets anyone else’s to take away from one! That would be enslavement, actually, or at least expropriation.
The point is that we all come into life with some assets and some liabilities. That we do or do not have these is something over which we have no control. However, once we find ourselves with them, they are up to us to handle. Inherited wealth is among such assets, yes, and how we make use of it will be our test of character (which, contrary to what some claim, is not inherited but the result of cultivation, attention, self-discipline and thus very much the source of just deserts). So are talent, and beauty and good health, as well as their opposites.
Now, where the free society, with its corresponding free market economy, comes into the picture is in enabling us to handle these to the best of our ability and willingness. It is only in a free society that the moral fiber of human beings can be effectuated, made to count for something. So, yes, your parents left you with something very valuable – an estate, a business, a bunch of stocks and bonds or cash. But whether you do right or wrong by these is in your hands in a bona fide free society. And that is true even if you were just born pretty or witty or otherwise appealing to the rest of us so we will through money at you to gain your services on magazines covers or in comedy clubs. There is, in another words, no end of uneven starts in life – that’s why it is utterly silly to complain that life’s unfair. That is just the way it is, much like the weather.
Luck, in the way of good looks, talents, inheritance and the rest is one of the factors with which life confronts us and we then are tested by how we handle it all. One may hope that those who botch up their good fortune will learn and if not will suffer properly. It would be wrong, however, to sic the government on those who were chosen either by their ancestors or genes or some other factors not under their control to benefit at the starting point.
One more point about inheritance. Unlike good looks and health, inheritance often comes with conditions. You get to enjoy your parents’ estate, provided you carry out some of their wishes – support wild life preservation or the local little league or a fine political cause. One sign of lack of good grace is when those who inherit wealth with such strings initially accept it all but then try to weasel out of the commitment and try to treat it as if they had earned it on their own, free and clear. That again is a character tester – and again one can only hope that others will make careful note it and the deed will go un-rewarded in the end.
To some extent all assets that aren’t earned come with certain provisos. Someone with a great voice might like to have inherited the physique of an athlete, instead. And those with such a fate may wish to fight it, too. Alas, they will usually fail – had they only been content with what they were born with, their happiness, besides their good fortune, might also have been enhanced.
“It’s worth it to me”
[March 2, 2003]
Tibor R. Machan

My gym accommodates a whole lot of different people with umpteen different goals, judging at least by what they look like and do while spending time there. On a recent visit, after my perfunctory – though helpful enough – work out (a row, a bike ride, a walk-run and a swim, as well as some pulling and pushing and the rest, all with great reluctance), I was about to shower and head home when this incredibly well built guy started to look himself over once or twice in front of the mirror right by my locker. I stood by silently as the fellow admired himself, probably checking for the latest improvements on his finely sculptured black physique, but then I decided to ask, “Is it all worth it?” Taking just a slight pause I got the reply, “It is to me.”
This short, pithy, and simple response brought much delight to me, I must admit. It was a perfect way to give notice that some things can be of value to one person that would not be to another, even without it being the case that it is only of value because one says so.
One of the most difficult things human beings have puzzled about throughout the history of recorded thought is whether values are subjective or objective. Is something valuable simply because someone so regards it is or is it valuable for good reasons? Philosophers have gone back and forth about this forever and are continuing to do so – any introductory philosophy, ethics or aesthetics course can tell us that much.
One appeal of the subjectivist position is that it makes room for a lot of different values, for a lot of different folks in a lot of different times and places; the liability of the view is that no one can ever tell whether anything is valuable except from someone’s claiming it is and conflicting opinions abound with no hope of ever settling them peacefully, through rational discussion.
In turn, the appeal of the objectivist position is that there can be reasons for making value judgments, good ones and not so good, and decisions could be reached among people who disagree by considering those reasons. The problem is that objectivism has often been seen as implying that what one person finds good, another must as well. But that is too often implausible.
The problem has been, I figure, that things were thought to be valuable to humanity at large, not to individual human beings. Individuals, however, possess features they share with all other humans, with a large group, with a small group, with just one or two and perhaps some values with no one else. Now these values are all objective – one can be wrong about them, but not because they are values for just some or even for one person.
Just think of clothing or medical care: there are general things about each that are good for us all, and then things get more and more complicated, so that some items of clothing may suit none but one person, just as some medical treatments work only for one patient and for no one else. It is not a matter of opinion, though, whether they are suitable or proper, even if they are a matter of individual traits and attributes.
My fellow gym member probably has a very different life from mine, with different talents and attributes that can be factors in deciding how he should live, what goals are proper for him to pursue. I do not know him at all, so I wouldn’t know. But it felt very good to encounter someone who had confidence in doing what he was doing even when it was clear that it wasn’t at all what most of the rest of us were doing, even there at my gym.
He seemed to know who he is and what were his values and that is inspiring.§ion=COMMENTARY&subsection=ORANGE_GROVE&year=2003&month=3&day=3