Tuesday, February 17, 2004

Misguided Honor for Politicians

Tibor R. Machan

When my son was in elementary school, once they had some kind of special event, celebrating the achievements of various students – I can’t recall just what the festivities were all about. What I do recall vividly is that the principal had invited a local politician to head up the feast, to make a key note address, some kind of inspirational speech for the kids.
Not being one who stands idly by when rank malfeasance is rife around me, I went home after the event and wrote to the principal protesting the invitation of the politician I noted that it would have been far more appropriate and useful for the students had she invited a local artist, engineer, merchant or scientist to make the address. I wrote, “What is the reason you selected a politician to stand before your students? Do you believe politicians these days are the best role model for encouraging young people to succeed in life? Please reconsider this belief – politicians are leaches, mostly, and our kids need productive role models.” Or something along these lines.
Needless to say, my letter was ignored, although at least my child didn’t seem to have suffered any averse repercussions.
I was reminded of this episode when I was watching my favorite television program the other night, Law & Order. This show always begins with the discovery or commission of a crime, followed by the detectives figuring out who is the most likely suspect and then the assistant DA and staff going about mounting the prosecution. In this episode someone had shot up City Council in New York City, killing and injuring two politicians. When the detectives come to the scene of the crime, they see one member of council dead and ask whether the injured victim, by now taken off to the hospital, is also member of council. In response the investigating officer says, “No, thank God, it was some civilian,” or words to that effect.
OK, perhaps this isn’t much to get bent out of shape about but my tentacles are very, very sensitive and I noticed how the writers snuck in this odd tip of the hat to politicians, suggesting that it is much worse to have injured such an individual than a “mere” civilian.
There is an interesting, even challenging issue afoot here, actually. In a society in which public officials are involved in the honorable task of securing the rights of citizens, they are a bit like good soldiers, standing guard against criminals and others who would undermine civil society. That is perhaps one reason why even after the sorry record of governments throughout history, there is still some kind of honor attached to the term “statesman.”
The idea is that some folks in law enforcement and administration may actually be performing a noble task, standing up to defend the citizenry against barbarians, those who would wreak havoc against peace and justice. That is one reason many people have a certain degree of native respect for police officers and soldiers, especially in a relatively free society, or for the sheriff in the so called Wild West. That is why in the famous movie, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, Jimmy Stewart’s character, the man who brings law and order to Western town, is taken to be a hero, along with the character played by John Wayne, a decent but very tough ruffian who fights the evil bloke, a robber and murderer, played by Lee Marvin. In the idealized American context, champions of law and order are seen as good guys, unlike, say, in Nazi Germany or the Soviet Union – and, if one is realistic about it, in much of contemporary America.
Sadly, in the country that America is today – or may in fact have always been when we take a closer look – it is entirely gratuitous to cast politicians and bureaucrats as heroes. Members of council, especially in major cities such as New York, Chicago, Los Angeles and San Francisco, are as a rule undeserving of special respect. They do not hold honorable professions. They are, essentially, power brokers and wielders, not professionals standing up for peace and justice. Therefore their deaths or injuries at the hands of criminals certainly don’t deserve special lament, as against the deaths or injuries of ordinary citizens.
The writers of this Law & Order episode ought to get real – people in politics today don’t merit special consideration, even in fiction, let alone in real life.

Gay Marriage Hysteria

Tibor R. Machan

After the Massachusetts Supreme Court legally validated the idea of a gay marriage for that state – but as a matter of Constitutional law, for any state in the USA – conservatives like Rush Limbaugh had a conniption fit.
First there came to feigned shock – reminiscent of Claude Rains in Casablanca vis-à-vis gambling going on at Rick’s – with the court’s making law. As if this were the first time that happened and, more importantly, as if conservative justices didn’t indulge in judicial activism big time, whenever they get the chance. (For my money it is high time some of them do a bit more judicial activism in some areas, such as restoring the right to private property to its proper position in Constitutional law!)
Next we see all the hand wringing about the tearing apart of our country’s moral fabric – as if what really troubled our society has anything at all to do with a bunch of gay unions gaining the designation “marriage.” Preventing that will surely stop people cheating on their test at Annapolis or harassing female cadets at the Air Force Academy, defrauding their employees at various big corporations, faking news reports at major papers and magazines! Yes, stopping gay folks from marrying will be the ticket to moral rejuvenation for sure. How gullible can folks get.
There is just no reason for the fuss. To start with, the tradition of freedom of speech should inform us that we are all free to call our unions by whatever word we choose, however this may ultimately square with good sense. Related to this is also the peculiar idea, which is due for serious challenge, that the government somehow is in the business of determining what a marriage is all about. This is hokum – state bureaucrats, even judges, have no special expertise about this at all. Marriage is an age old institution that will either survive intact because it’s a good idea, or it will bite the dust because there is something strange about it – maybe because we now live much longer than when it was invented, or perhaps because with the rise of individualism and pluralism, let alone multiculturalism, the one-size-fits-all approach to how human beings should work out their romantic plans is obsolete.
Yes, of course, in line with traditional Christianity marriages are made in heaven. But does anyone really know this? Has anyone been there to check it out? At most the idea is revered based on faith and as such in a free country it is wrong for the legal authorities to impose it on everyone. Indeed, it is interesting how easily the fundamentalist case against gay sex falls apart on the very biblical grounds on which it is supposed to rest. As one friend of mine has noted in a recent missive of his, is it not odd that the Bible says not a thing about lesbian unions? And if it doesn’t shouldn’t fundamentalists confine their worries to gay male sex alone? And doesn’t such a Biblical doctrine then come off as arbitrary and capricious? It sure does.
It always amazes me how Left and Right tend to unite on some basic fronts without even being aware they are doing it. The Left wants desperately to control how we deal with the economic aspects of our lives – they love to extort money from everyone so they alone can then determine how it is used. They hate the right to private property because it stands as an obstacle to this imperial goal. The spirit of the American legal system is, after all, capitalist, despite what Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., maintained, unfortunately very influentially, in his dissenting opinion in Lochner v. New York (1905). Yes, the conservatives are eager to get some judicial activists on the courts to reverse the Holmesian influence, and in this case for very good reasons. But this kind of activism the Left hates, which is why liberal Democrats in Congress have been so vehemently opposed to George W. Bush’s nomination of Janice Brown (currently Chief Justice of the California Supreme Court) to the United States Court of Appeals, District of Columbia Circuit, because of her opinions involving, e. g., property rights and parental authority.
But the Right is also itching to control us on numerous fronts and using the law as their weapon. They want to call the shots when it comes to how we think, what we believe, whom we worship, what religious edicts we declare official – as well as with whom and how we associate and what we call these associations. So, they hate it when those on the Left are making use of certain provisions of the U.S. Constitution, such as the Ninth Amendment, so as to identify basic principles such as the right to privacy, a right that if protected pretty much shuts the state out of deciding the various voluntary unions among people that may occur and whether they may be called “marriage.”
At the heart of all the frantic nauseating blabber about gay marriage is the desire to control people, to refuse to let them be, as if something truly insidious were to be unleashed by not invalidating their unions. Nothing is at stake in this prohibitionist effort other than the blatant prejudice of people on the Right against those who do not share their view of who may bond with whom. Sorry Limbaugh & Co., this is still America, not Iran.

Socialism, Bush Style

Tibor R. Machan

Compassionate conservatism always was a fraud but just how straightforward a fraud it is can be seen from recent statements from Bush Administration officials.
Why was it a fraud to start with? Because government cannot – yes, literally, cannot – be compassionate toward people with other people’s money. You, I, our friends and neighbors can be compassionate, in the sense that we can consider some people’s misfortune, even bad choices, and reach out to them with our help, be this money or some service we could offer. That’s compassion. But when we see such misfortune and go out to rob a neighbor and hand over the loot to those in need, that isn’t compassion, conservative, liberal or any other kind! It is criminal – maybe we ought to dub it “criminal ‘compassion’”!
In recent days the Bush Administration has been making plans to spend other people’s hard earned – or what if simply luckily obtained – money on, as Wade F. Horn, Ph.D., Assistant Secretary, Administration of Children and Families (Department of Health and Human Service), refers to it in a letter to my local newspaper, “to support couples in their desire to form and sustain healthy marriages.” Some people around the country have criticized this measure as yet another robbing-Peter-to-pay-Paul scheme that is plainly immoral. In this instance, however, we have the good fortune of Dr. Horn telling us why the Bush Administration believes in this program.
He tells us first that troubled couples, and their children, can very well benefit from receiving professional help from counselors. This is true enough, although he gives no evidence for it. Still, perhaps that is simply common sense – if professionals really know their stuff, they can give some helpful advice. Of course, it is still up to those getting the advice to apply it, and there is no guarantee for that. So, despite such help, people may still mess up their lives.
But let that go. Dr. Horn adds that people who lack sufficient funds may not be able to obtain the help the need from professionals. True enough – another reason that many people should wait with getting hitched and, especially, with producing children. One has the responsibility to prepare for such things, including economically. If you cannot afford to bring in professional help when you need it, you should wait until you can afford it or do without.
But then Dr. Horn goes on to line up the Bush Administration with out and out socialism. He tells us, “Don’t low-income couples deserve the same chance to build and sustain healthy marriages as more affluent ones?” So, government must provide, no?
This is a devious question. “Deserve” can mean this: “Would it not be something valuable to them to have such help?” Yes, it would. But it doesn’t follow from that that other people may be coerced to provide the help to them. There are zillions of things that would be valuable for people they just cannot afford and in order to get these things they are not justified to rob others.
But perhaps “deserve” means, “Should these folks not be receiving help from others?” Well, here the answer isn’t that easy. Some might – if they did everything reasonable to gain the funds themselves and lost it, say, in an earthquake. But say they lost it gambling? Or overspending? Or they never earned enough to start with but decided to get married and have children anyway? Do they deserve the help? Perhaps, in rare case, but generally not. And what about their children? Their lot, first of all, is the fault of the parents, not the taxpayers of the USA. And there are charitable organizations to turn to for help to children. Unless special considerations apply, leave the parents fend for themselves – they made their rickety marriage bed, now they must lie in it.
Of course, even when they do deserve help, it is not from government they deserve it, but from friends and relatives and voluntary agencies established to provide such help with the support of those who give of their own free will. That is being compassionate, not what the Bush folks and Dr. Horn propose, which is phony compassion and criminal, to boot.
More generally, there are inequalities all over the world, as well as at home, that simply may not be erased by force of arms. I am less handsome than Robert Redford – but don’t I deserve a happy love life, too? Alas, if I am unable to attract the ladies as Robert does, shouldn’t the government make sure this imbalance is fixed? No. What about vacations or schools to which our kids go – the better off can afford those while the less well off cannot. Is it the role of government to even all this out?
No, not any more than it is the role of the referees at athletic contest to make sure everyone comes in at the finish line together, or that no team ever beats another.
Law enforcement agencies exist to make sure we do things peacefully, without trampling on each other’s rights, not so as to try to make sure everything turns out to everyone’s full satisfaction. The resulting all powerful state will soon manage not to satisfy anyone at all -- just recall what happened in the good old Soviet Union.

A Libertarian Quarrel

Tibor R. Machan

Within the USA there has always been a relatively strong libertarian voice, in contrast to most other countries. And within the libertarian movement two strands have quarreled in a civil but not altogether gentle tone.
I have in mind the argument between those who believe in limited government – usually called minarchists – versus those who want to government at all – called anarchists. (This last, however, does not, akin to classical anarchists, reject all laws and their enforcement.)
Before discussing these two positions, it will help to place libertarianism in perspective. Throughout human intellectual history there have always been a few voices raised against statism, the belief that in human communities sovereignty rests with the government. This is embraced in monarchy, socialism, fascism, communism, and theocracies. Government is seen either as God-on-earth or the-will-of-the-people (as a whole). In all these statist outlooks the individual members of society are taken to be subservient, lowly beings, or simply cells in the body of the society, which is the locus of value.
Now and then statist views have been challenged but since power has been concentrated in the state, they rarely got sufficient airing. When government owns the presses, forums of discussion such as universities, or parks where speeches may be given, it is no wonder those who support one or another version of the powerful state stand in the limelight, with the few opposite voices basically marginalized if not killed off outright.
After a while, though, governments proved to be so corrupt, so unruly, and so capricious that too many folks began to see it as a threat and the ruse that it is. The lie that it’s God’s representative on earth or it expresses the will of the people just could not be made believable enough to suppress all the opposition. The power of monarchs – tsars, pharaohs, and such – began to be questioned and in time contained. The idea that royals aren’t anything special, after all – that all the self-important ministers and their favored nobility were just pretending to be endowed with special rights (divine rights, it used to be called) – began to catch on.
Eventually, certain thinkers who studied these heretical thoughts developed solid arguments and got published somehow and the notion of the sovereignty of human individuals, as opposed to states, became palatable enough to inspire influential and clever people to translate them into law and public policy. The American Founders were the most successful of these people, managing to declare to the world that it is individual human beings who have unalienable rights to their lives, to their liberties and to the pursuit of their happiness. However much or little they succeeded in curtailing the powers of the state, the idea that this may well be a good idea could no longer be kept out of circulation.
Unfortunately, bad habits are difficult to shed, so the actual legal order they forged didn’t fully recognize and protect unalienable individual human rights. And many elements of the old system were kept intact, such as taxation, conscription, secondary citizenship for various groups, and so even slavery. But the cat was out of the bag, intellectually – as Abe Lincoln somewhat duplicitiously put it, “No man is good enough to govern another man without that other's consent.”
The result was the eventual development of the libertarian alternative to all varieties of statism. This development, however, didn’t resolve one of the questions that has always been on the minds of political thinkers, namely, whether government of any type is evil, a criminal organization disguised as something necessary for society or the germ of legitimacy to the institution, only it has been twisted by power hungry rulers and their apologists to serve corrupt ends.
Libertarians, unlike old line anarchist, recognize the value of law and even law enforcement. What some of them argued is that any law enforcement agency must itself be deprived of its monopoly status, be competitive, so it is subject to a repeated cleansing process. Just like other things people want or need, law, too, must be possible to be offered by many agents who can provide it.
Those libertarians who think government has merit, provided it is kept within proper bounds, disagree with this but only to a relatively minor degree. They think that in some ways law enforcement will always be monopolistic, but not different from, say, how an apartment house or department store is monopolistic – namely, only one can exist in one geographical spot. If you want to get to a competing agency, you need to move there.
Most libertarians do not see this as a deal-breaking dispute. They are mainly concerned with the central point: Who is to rule our lives? Is it to be individuals, within their own delimited sphere, wherein no one may enter who hasn’t obtained permission, where no governing may occur unless consent of the governed has been given? Or is it to be some self-selected persons or groups, people who either rule others on their own initiative or who claim to speak for everyone and impose their (majority, minority) plans on all, never mind consent.
The libertarian alternative is still marginalized. This is perhaps analogous to how the idea of equal standing under the law for women is marginalized across the globe. Both of these ideas, of course, deserve a serious hearing and, as best as I can tell, ultimate success.

Self and Inconsistency

Tibor R. Machan

Many more years ago than I like to admit I read a wonderful little book, Prescott Lecky’s Self-Consistency: A Theory of Personality (New York: Island Press, 1945). (I note, happily, its having been reissued in 1994.) This work argued, in essence, that human beings seek, for the most part, to hold beliefs and carry out actions that are all mutually consistent. There is supposed to be a psychological reward for doing so – and that seems pretty much common sense. We often take pride in being consistent, in not contradicting ourselves.

Moreover, whenever we are discussing ideas or the larger issue of how we live our lives, it seems clear enough that we insist on consistency. Certainly in an election year we can see how journalists try to hold the feet of politicians to the standard of consistency. If they fail this test, they are open to all kinds of charges – having lied, lacking integrity, and so forth. And if witnesses at a trial contradict themselves, all their credibility has been lost!

In short, there is this idea that not only must things make sense to us, come off coherently, otherwise there is something amiss, but we ourselves need to make sense in what we believe. That is, basically, the point of Lecky’s little treatise: a healthy personality is one that’s integrated, has it all together, as opposed to being in constant conflict and out of kilter.

Yet, of course, this standard is one to which few of us manage to live up. And an example stares me right here in the face – I detest ending sentences in prepositions, yet that one, right before this one, does just that and is exactly right for it. What a drag! But this is perhaps a minor inconsistency. What is much worse is the major inconsistencies that people allow within their lives.

Take the people living in Newport Beach, California, about 30 miles south of where I do. John Wayne Airport is located there and the city’s officials, backed by many citizens, have enacted an ordinance that prohibits planes from taking off and landing before 7 AM and after 10 PM. Moreover, every plane that takes off has to proceed like one of those Blue Angel F/A-18 Hornets does, shoot nearly straight up so as to spare the dear Newport Beach residents the trouble of having to hear it climb slowly into the sky. (The pilot makes an announcement of this on nearly every flight, just so as not to scare the passengers to death when his machine immediately turns upward at about a 45 degree angle.)

Now the fact that the citizens of Newport Beach, California, benefit a great deal from the flying done by all the people who use this airport – all those folks traveling to conferences, business meetings and other venues at which many of the affairs that benefit these residents are conducted – doesn’t seem to occur to them at all. They do not even consider the inconvenience they produce for these folks who are probably actively engaged, day in and day out, in serving them all in various capacities – doctors, dentists, CPAs, engineers, professors, actors, athletes and the rest. Never mind that – we just need some quiet in the air in our town, even though the noise that we suppress would be made by the folks who do us a world of good. and it isn't a big deal at any rate. (They should live in Manhattan, next to a fire station!)

This same kind of thing happens when drivers of cars express their anger at drivers of eighteen wheeler trucks, most of which are carrying wares the drivers of the small vehicles depend upon and use constantly. Damn it, why are those big things out there? Or, why do these trains going by make so much noise? Why don’t they all go away and leave us in peace?

Never mind that if all these nuisances disappeared, the dear residents and all those annoyed drivers wouldn’t have hardly any of the goodies and services they dearly love to have around. Do they think about how all those grocery stores get filled up with fruits, vegetables, milk, meat and the rest? Without those trucks and trains they would never get there. Nor would much of the business, entertainment, and whatever else comprises the neighborhood culture exist if the airport were to shut down.

It is these little inconsistencies that I find fascinating, since the people who hold onto them aren’t dumb. They just want to both have their cakes and eat them, too, hoping they can get away with that. Many of them hate developments but they love the people living in the homes that developers build – and they beef, too, a lot about escalating home prices! They do not want anyone to come live in their canyons but they wouldn’t themselves move out in a million years. They cherish all creatures, great and small, accept they have no problem living in their homes which have displaced and keep away zillions of creatures from the spot of ground where the home was built and now stands.

What Professor Lecky said about people wishing to be self-consistent is, sadly, just part of the story. They also often want to have it all ways, however inconsistent that may be – like the politicians who criticize their opponents for lack of integrity but then turn around and champion flexibility and pragmatism – that is, abandonment of integrity, the embrace of compromise – in how public policies should be shaped!

Arguments versus Fallacies

Tibor R. Machan

In nearly all colleges and universities today courses are taught in basic reasoning, introductory logic, and clear thinking, courses most undergraduates are required to take. Some of these actually prepare students to move on to upper division logic courses and seminars, where they are taught formal reasoning, complicated proofs and various rather technical symbolic machinations use mainly in advanced scientific research. But in the bulk of such courses they are simply supposed to learn how to argue a point, the relationship between premises and conclusions and the method by which to insure that the latter actually follow from the former and aren’t simply asserted without support.

There are also many informal fallacies that are discussed in these courses, ones that are a definite no-no when it comes to discussing issues rationally, with the aim of getting things right. Among these informal fallacies appeals to emotions, argument by authority, reliance on popularity, pleading one’s case (which is to say, never looking at contrary evidence), the genetic fallacy (which means, considering where someone comes from who argues a point), begging the question (that is, assuming a conclusion before one has argued for it) and ad hominems (attacking the person) are the most widely studied.

The idea is that whatever topic is worth considering or trying to understand, there will be no headway to that end by indulging in such fallacious thinking. One should abandon all such phony methods and try to reason things out, debate issues based on getting the premises right and then arguing from those premises in a reasonable fashion, by means of valid, logical steps.

Of course, it would be too much to expect students to always follow the principles of good argumentation taught to them in colleges and universities. They will be tempted often, and yield to those temptations, to resort to the fallacious methods because, in part, those methods are a kind of short cut and offer quick fixes as opposed to requiring one to do hard work. So, if I can just invoke some famous person who impresses my audience in support of what I believe, why bother to make the case, which would take study and careful reasoning? Or if the popularity of my views clinches my point with gullible people, again, why bother doing the hard and often tedious work of laying out a serious argument? Or, if I can smear someone’s reputation with whom I disagree, I may win against the adversary without any further effort.

Political electioneering and debates about public policy are perhaps the context that most often tempt people to argue fallaciously, although they find themselves used in personal disputes as well. Candidates are bent on disparaging the character of those they want to unseat or those who challenge them, spread the idea that they are liars, cheats, lack integrity, are bought off, and so forth. This promises that they will never really have to argue their case competently, with the facts laid out as they understand them and the case made by way of valid reasoning. And so no one can actually test how good a case they have for their ideas and policies.

The fallacy of ad hominems is resorted to by countless people in these contests, even ones who could often make their case stick quite rationally. Another approach favored in political races and public policy debates, one that also violates the standards of rational argumentation, is to question an opponent’s motives. It is claimed that they aren’t interested in a good solution to problems but merely try to serve backers such as big corporations, agribusiness, labor unions, the educational lobby or whatever. Here, too, the focus isn’t on whether the policy being proposed is a sound one but rather on something entirely irrelevant. For, clearly, even if a candidate is getting backing from some group, that’s not what matters. Is the policy recommendation good, that’s what counts.

For my money, I simply assume that those who support views and policies I find wrong actually believe that those views and policies are sound ones. They are wrong, I am convinced. And my job, if I care to get involved in the discussion, is to show they are wrong – not that my view is more popular, that they are crooks, or that their motives are suspect. None of that matters, really, except if it’s been shown, already, that they are wrong and then one might wish to learn why they are wrong. But whether they are or are not wrong about any of their ideas or policies has absolutely nothing to do with such fallacious charges.

Sadly, a lot of people with whom I agree rely upon these kinds of methods of attacking their opponents. I am chagrined about being in their company, actually, because it tends to discredit the sound views we share. If people resort to fallacious reasoning in support of a view that is solid, that solidity is implicitly called into question. For example, the real issue is, was war with Iraq justified, not whether Bush lied or was misled or whatever. The real issue is whether gay marriages may exist in a free society, not whether gays are trying to corrupt the young. The real issue is whether prescription drugs ought to be funded by the federal government, not whether big drug firms like this or not.

Why won’t people stick to topic? Go figure.