Friday, October 08, 2004

Thou Protests Too Much
Tibor R. Machan
Back in 1991, quite unbeknownst to me, The Chronicles of Higher Education published an article by the leader of American communitarianism, George Washington University Professor Amitai Etzioni, about his frustrations related to starting out his journal, The Responsive Community. In the course of chronicling the ups and downs of his efforts, he makes mention of the fact that some people were critical of the views communitarians espouse. He proceeds to give an example:
Tibor Machan, professor of philosophy at Auburn University, wrote in an op-ed piece in the Orange County Register that "the mirage of a unified, organic community with its own needs and its own rights is a myth. Let us not be deceived by it and yield even more of our rights to the renewed but essentially worn-out call for subjugation of the individual. In my view, communitarianism is really socialism in a new disguise, with some people wishing to call the shots for the rest of us in line with their own valued objectives."
True enough, I did pen such a piece back then, and I also had an exchange with Etzioni, published in the magazine World & I back in 1995. Moreover, I was invited by Professor Etzioni to contribute a comment even earlier, in 1991, to his budding journal, mainly discussing aspects of libertarianism.
My essay, "Revised Socialism on the Horizon," in World & I, made the point more elaborately I made in The Register column, namely, that communitarianism is a not too subtle restatement of socialist ideals, whereby the community—instead of the society—stands as the primary concern of public policy. Individual rights, once again, can and would often be neglected in favor of what some leaders deem to be the important values of the community.
Etzioni didn’t wish to acknowledge this point, of course. In his earlier essay he wrote, accordingly,
We, of course, do not wish to subjugate anyone. We believe that communities arrive at moral standards by consensus. No coercion is involved. To charge us with subjugation when we say that what we stand for most is community--people treating each other as basically deserving of the same standing--is completely erroneous: it's like accusing a Republican of being a Democrat. Such wrong labeling precludes reasoned debate because critics start from premises that aren't valid.
Fair enough—communitarianism never openly advocate some kind of Draconian totalitarian state. My point was precisely that they wish to smuggle in elitism with a human face, thus the talk of community. (Although, recall that communism is not all that far, etymologically, from communitarianism.) What is notable in nearly everything communitarians say is their persistent, unrelenting use of the pronoun "we" or "the community."
Once, driving someplace with my kids, National Public Radio was featuring a talk by Etzioni at the National Press Club. He went on and on about the communitarian vision and at one point my twelve year old daughter, sitting in the back of our van, yelled out "What does this man mean by ‘we’? Who are the ‘we’ he is talking about?"
And that is exactly the problem with communitarianism—their systematic vagueness about the people they are talking about, as those who would set and enforce rules, makes it all too easy to accept a certain elite as speaking for everyone else. "We" too often tends to disguise both the designated authority and those to be held responsible for having made and enforced a policy. The consensus Etzioni spoke of is a myth since many in the community are left out, ignored by those who pretend to speak for everyone in it.
When one charges another with fostering unstated but dangerous implications, it is not a defense to say, "Oh, but that is not what I meant." Very few of those in whose name the worst tyrannies in the world have been perpetrated ever meant anything terrible to happen. Plato’s Socrates, when he sketched for us the ideal community in The Republic, wouldn’t have wanted centuries of monarchists to justify their despotic rule by reference to his ideas. Nor would even Karl Marx, if we are to believe one of his foremost interpreters, the late Sidney Hook, have supported Stalin’s Soviet Union. But that does not show that their ideas were not, in fact, most readily available to many power seekers because of their imprecisions and ambiguities.
Communitarians clearly de-emphasize individual rights and stress community interests above all. And that is a bad idea and tends strongly to lead to the rule of elites.

Selfishness the Right Way
Tibor R. Machan
The most prestigious of contemporary moral philosophers favor the morality of fairness and impartiality. By this they tend to mean we all ought to think first of everyone’s welfare across the globe as we decide how we are going to conduct ourselves. Although they often implore us to fashion public policies by this standard, in fact they intend this to be something we ought to do in our most private decisions as well.
In his book Living High and Letting Die: Our Illusion of Innocence (London: Oxford University Press, 1996), New York University philosophy professor Peter Unger says, for example, "On pain of living a life that's seriously immoral, a typical well-off person, like you and me, must give away most of her financially valuable assets, and much of her income, directing the funds to lessen efficiently the serious suffering of others."
This is quite a preposterous demand, comparable to the Christian ethics that demands that we imitate Christ as we live our lives. But at least the Christians tend to be willing to allow for our imperfections—Roman Catholics didn’t invent confessions for nothing. What Unger & Co.—and in his ethics Unger is joined by many others, including the famous Princeton University philosopher and animal liberation advocate Peter Singer—want from us is total altruism, living entirely for others.
In fact, however, a sensible ethics advises us not to live for others but for ourselves, which often, of course, includes looking out for number two and three and four—family, friends, and neighbors. But we ought, actually, to make sure we are faring well in life, even thriving. Just go to a shrink and see if his advice is that of the altruists. No way—you are supposed to care for yourself, practice that venerable Greek virtue prudence.
An example is how we deal with the terrible news we read every day at the breakfast table—or wherever one gathers the news, if one still has the time and patience to do so. Any sane person will know that there are horrible things happening to people across to globe that he or she simply needs to ignore. Yes, now and then contributing to a rescue fund or the Red Cross is the decent thing to do—I am not suggesting that it’s sensible to be callous. But it is sensible to turn the page when one reads of the latest earthquake in Iran or famine in Somalia or even the weather carnage in Florida—unless your friends and relatives have been hit, in which case the matter becomes personal.
Our lives and energies simply cannot be spread so thin as to care for all others. If we did, the result would be caring for no one at all. Imagine having to cry whenever anyone anywhere dies. Or toasting the birth of every baby everywhere on the globe. Or sharing the pain of economic downturn for all who experience it, while also cheering on the fate of those who are prospering. Who but some kind of mythical saint can have that kind of wealth of emotional resource to feel along with billions of other people and the capacity to act on any of it at all? No one.
What ethics or morality require is sensible living, which takes one’s own objectives in life as one’s priority, including, of course, the well being people for whom one has taken responsibility—one’s children, especially, and other kin. But this blather about how we must serve everyone everywhere in order to amount to morally decent human beings is just crazy. It doesn’t even consider how destructive of any measure of human self-sufficiency such ethical ideals tend to be, communicating to the world that everyone can just wait for the help from everyone else and need not attend to his or her own needs.
The source of this fairness doctrine is varied but one of them stands out: The way children expect parents to be fair to them, say, around the dinner table. We hear kids always belly aching about things not being fair and that’s because they have the often rightful expectation to be taken care of by their elders. But this is supposed to end once one comes of age and is no longer subject to child care.
In any case, the bottom line is that this rampant and wild altruism peddled by contemporary moral philosophers at some of the most highly regarded departments of philosophy is nonsense. One can only hope students encountering the pitch don’t live a life of endless and utter guilt and have the good sense to think matters through for themselves.

Debating with one’s Shadow
Tibor R. Machan
A shadow is different from you, don’t get me wrong, but there is a strong resemblance in essentials. In the case of George Bush versus John Kerry the two men pretty much believe the same thing about the most important thing, namely about the role of government—it’s only a matter of more rather than a bit less (and even then the difference is more a matter of words than actual or likely policies).
Take the Iraqi war. Kerry helped authorized the action and said Hussein ought to go and even voted to fund it all. Now he says he would have done it differently—mainly by getting Germany and France and some other skeptics to go along—but such a counterfactual is tough to judge. What if France and Germany would have stuck to their guns as they say they will even if Kerry becomes US president? It is not mentioned in these debates that Germany and France had very strong economic ties to Iraq, so why would they take part in an action that severs those ties? Terrorists from that region of the world didn’t bother them a bit, so what reason would they have to join the US, especially if they didn’t even think Hussein deserved UN actions against him?
No, in actual fact, Kerry would have done exactly as Bush did or at least done something close. No big difference there.
How about government involvement in health care? Bush says there’s a huge difference between his and Kerry’s stance, yet Kerry wants a kind of government managed medical service for all except those who don’t mind paying for it twice—with their taxes, first, and then to a private doctor again—while Bush wants simply a slower advance toward socialized medicine, starting with his prescription drugs for all aged folks, never even mind whether for rich or poor. That, too, is being paid out of taxes and enlarges government involvement in American medicine.
So, once again, while details may differ, on the essentials the two aren’t far apart.
OK, Bush is something of a supply-sider when it comes to tax policy, believing with economists like Arthur Laffer that cutting taxes will more likely keep the economy robust while still generating huge amounts from the anticipated wider boom. Kerry thinks, along with his team of economists, like Princeton’s Paul Kruger, that this is nonsense and that cutting taxes is tantamount to reducing the "revenues" of the government.
This, too, is mere dickering in my book. Both of them are still thoroughly convinced of the full authority of government to extort money from us, they just differ on the precise method by which to do it so as to provoke the least protest from us while garnering huge sums to do with as they happen to please. Not a big difference, I say.
OK, Bush wanted to do away with partial birth abortions, Kerry didn’t want the ban. I’ll give you this but do not think it makes much of a difference. Here Congress rules, and the courts, and they have spoken. Neither Bush nor Kerry will be very influential, although I admit the court nominations will probably have a significant impact as far as conservative versus liberal causes are concerned, though they will probably even out as far as libertarian hopes go.
Both, of course, like the Patriot Act, with Kerry claiming to wish to alter a few things, which could just be campaign hokum, nothing more. (Indeed, a lot of what both of these blokes are saying can be dismissed as merely trying to get votes and forecasting no dependable policy direction.)
For my money, I will stay out of this and make my point that way. I am hoping enough folks will go elsewhere—to Nader or, more preferably, to Bandarik—to send a strong message of how these two men simply aren’t articulating a sound, rational vision for the American political order. For they certainly aren’t, not if your standards have anything to do with what this country is supposed to have been established for, namely, to uphold principles of individual rights—unalienable ones, at that.
Indeed, these candidates are like rival candidates for the massive corporate state America has become, arguing about which of them is likely to be a better hands on CEO. I am waiting for the candidate who wants to be a referee, an umpire, only willing to rush into action when our basic rights are being threatened.
I think I may have to wait quite some time!

Distrust of Our Minds Indicts Citizenship
Tibor R. Machan
Many defense attorneys, of numerous more or less notorious defendants across the country, have been arguing for some time now that their clients shouldn't be indicted because they cannot get a fair trial after all the publicity associated with the crime of which they are accused. Such arguments are pretty common now and similar to those that prompt venue changes. Not that long ago, both the Unabomber and the Oklahoma City bombing cases have generated such lines of argument from defense attorneys, as have others where the charge has been terrorism or some other very serious crime. This is also a mantra of people who wish to white wash the likes of Dan Rather and others who commit journalistic malpractice, all based on a kind of post-modernist account of human understanding.
Certainly most of us are appalled at what many defendants are accused of having done. There is no reason to think, however, that this will produce insurmountable prejudice in us about the persons who is accused of the crimes. There should be nothing impossible about prospective jurors entering courtrooms without a predisposition to see the defendant in an unfavorable light. Even when the temptation exists, based on some strong emotion and belief, potential jurors, as a rule, can resist this. They need not give in to such disposition because they can exercise self-discipline. Jurors are human beings capable of self-discipline, of looking at arguments and evidence objectively, even if at times this may be difficult to do.
Nor is political partisanship a necessary obstacle to clear understanding. Objectivity isn’t the same as neutrality, of course, but being partial may be well founded—some of us are partial to the truth, some of us couldn’t care less. Objectivity has to do with a commitment to being accurate, factual, well grounded in sound arguments and so forth. Even those who deride objectivity presume to be objective—at least about that topic!
Yet, in our time there is a very general belief that underlies the claim that people cannot see things clearly, without prejudice. I have in mind the now very widely championed view, advanced by some of the most prestigious thinkers, that human minds are unalterably shaped by history, culture, race, gender, national origin or some combination of these. How we see the world is thus supposed to be determined for us. In fact, we are not credited by many of our social scientists and philosophers with the capacity to understand things objectively.
Some academic commentators even believe that natural scientists are necessarily prejudiced. Certain feminists think that male scientists cannot help but see things differently from female ones, which is why they believe that had there been more female scientists, historians and philosophers, the very understanding of reality would now be different. Others believe that our understanding is controlled by the small or large communities to which we owe loyalty. It is our solidarity with a specific community that determines what we think and objective knowledge is a myth. Many sociologists and social psychologists agree, arguing that even the words we use are invented to suit our social needs and do not really manage to serve to represent the world as it actually is.
What is very odd about all these relativist views that so many people embrace is that they completely invalidate, in their own terms, all of what their proponents believe. If their ideas were true, then, of course, their own claims could not be taken seriously -- they would have to amount to nothing more serious than some group's or race's or gender's "truth," not likely to be relevant to others who would, then have, their own "truths." Indeed, words themselves would lack any reliable, dependable meaning and none of the points these folks want to communicated could be communicated successfully. The denial that we can be objective fatally undermines itself.
Partly in light of these very same ideas, some people think that what theorists, among them philosophers, psychologists, sociologists and other academicians, advocate is really irrelevant to the way the real world works. But this is wrong. The scribbling of these folks leaves a mark. One of the marks that we see around us from what academicians have written and taught in their class rooms is that even journalists and others outside the academy often claim that the human mind cannot really think clearly about anything, that we are all irreparably biased.
Certainly this is having its impact on the way members of juries are regarded in our day. It also can have an influence on how some people think about journalism and, indeed, democracy itself, a system that ultimately trusts people to be able to think clearly and independently about crucial political matters -- e.g., who should represent us in government, who has done a creditable job of this, what measures deserve our support and so forth.
When such distrusts starts to spread, look out. We will then hear the call for the rule of experts, a dream that was most clearly articulated by the late Harvard psychologist B. F. Skinner in his 1971 book Beyond Freedom and Dignity. He was at least forthright about it: the country needs to be run by those Skinner called "technologists of behavior," men and women well versed in the behavior modification method Skinner himself helped to develop, the only ones who can be trusted to be objective, impartial, unbiased.
When proposed so directly, people tend to recoil from the idea that they are basically inept, unqualified to deal with political matters. However, at the hands of other academics the attack on the human capacity to think clearly and objectively is more circumspect and as such it can sneak up on an unsuspecting public.
For example we are told by some social scientists that people's economic or cultural background unalterably tilts how they see the world. Folks from one region of the world, with certain kinds of traditions, living in certain economic conditions, just understand things in certain ways, like it or not. Independent understanding is impossible for them. Marvin Kitman, a columnist for Newsday, says: "There can be no such thing as objectivity. ‘Of all journalistic pretensions, that is the most hypocritical,’ explained Geraldo Rivera in a brilliant lecture at the Edinburgh Festival in 2002, largely ignored by the objective media. ‘To suggest that alone among the human race we reporters have the unique ability to divorce from emotion with machinelike efficiency, cull not only the truth from fiction, but also fact from perception or opinion, is baloney. We all try to get the facts right. But all of us see things differently, whether it is because you're standing over there and I'm over here, or personal experiences. We could look at the same event, both of us believing that we are being 100 percent professional and factual and call the story differently.’" Kitman goes on to claim that it is the lack of our capacity for objectivity that makes the free press so precious. "It's time we grew up and accepted the fact that all news is biased; only some is more biased than other. You take your pick. That is the great thing about freedom of the press."
This stance, apart from sounding like a lame effort to bail out Dan Rather and CBS-TV news, is a very serious threat against political liberty, something that may well turn out to be the worst impact of the teaching of the theorists in contemporary academe. It is also a colossal cop out. It is also what has given support to many of the worst dictatorships and one party system of politics, since when you and I are denied the capacity to be able to know things for what they are, it is easier to sell us on the idea that we require a select few, who have learned to escape our bonds, to run things for us.
The possibility for objectivity, while not guaranteeing that we will always get things right, is a bulwark against those who would deny our rights and proceed to rule the rest of us properly, as they believe only they can. Never mind that the view that we are incapable of getting things right makes such a belief itself incredible—why would it be free of bias and if it isn’t why bother taking it seriously? But if we buy their story, we will undermine our ability to see this for ourselves and such folks will have managed to hoodwink us despite the paradoxical views they champion. (For more on this, see Tibor R. Machan, Objectivity: Recovering Determinate Reality in Philosophy, Science, and Everyday Life [UK: Ashgate, 2004].)