Friday, March 04, 2005

Column on Ad Hominem attacks on freedom

When Elites Use Ad Hominems

Tibor R. Machan

A book came to my attention with a promising title, so I bought and began
to read it. The author is William M. Sullivan, a senior scholar at the
Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching and the book is Work
and Integrity, The Crisis and Promise of Professionalism in America (2005).

With such a title I was hoping for, though admittedly not quite
expecting, a non-politicized discussion of the ethics of work and
professionalism. Alas, there is some of this in the book, but much of it
is also devoted to putting down anyone who thinks these matters can be
handled without involving a massive government?especially, licensing and

OK, but this would not be so bad if our distinguished author went about
arguing for his support of these measures, ones that have been on the
books for ages and yet have spawned a situation that has prompted the
author himself to lament endlessly the unprofessional conduct of
professionals. Instead, when it comes to the issue of whether the private
sector could deal with professional credentialing, we get no argument at
all, only name calling. Mr. Sullivan does not hesitate at all to deploy
one of the least civil of rhetorical devices in discussing issues, namely,
ad hominems.

It may be recalled by some that the Nobel Laureate economist Milton
Friedman wrote a book, Capitalism and Freedom (1962) in which he
argues?yes, he actually argues?against professional licensing, making the
case that a free society does not deserve to be burdened by such demeaning
public measures, ones that treat professionals as requiring the
supervision of a bunch of force-wielding bureaucrats. A free society can
have its own watchdog agencies, ones, however, that do not have the status
of the monarch but simply one among many service agencies like the Good
Housekeeping Seal of Approval folks.

So what does Mr. Sullivan offer in rebuttal to this line of argument
Friedman goes to great pains to develop? Nothing, not unless you consider
calling Milton Friedman a ?market fundamentalist,? someone among ?those
who allow their enthusiasm for the ideals of markets performance to
develop into fanaticism,? an argument. Sullivan says that Friedman is
wrong because he fails to make any room for non-market institutions doing
something to enhance professionalism, whereas, of course, Friedman does
nothing of the sort. He simply wants to exclude coercive measures, which
in Sullivan?s view makes him a fanatic.

Now being a fanatic about liberty hasn?t ever seemed to me such a
dangerous thing. As when Barry Goldwater said, ?extremism in the defense
of liberty is no vice,? so neither is fanaticism in defense of it so
awful. Abolitionist were fanatics, as were anti-Vietnam War demonstrators,
and civil rights activists?meaning they were really, seriously opposed to
what they deemed to be unjust. Calling them ?civil rights fundamentalists?
wouldn?t suffice to take issue with their position. Arguments, however,
might?as we have seen when prominent law professors have taken issue with
those activists.

But cheer up. When prominent scholars from very prestigious organizations
lash out at various ideas with venom, you know those ideas are making an
impact. And they should. Free market fundamentalism, like Criminal justice
fundamentalism (a la the ACLU) or human rights fundamentalism (as per
Amnesty International) can indeed be a wonderful thing and attacking it in
such uncivil ways may give it something of a boost.

Licensing of professionals is, in fact, a form of prior restraint and is
not tolerable where human beings are supposed to be left free until they
have been proven guilty of a crime. People doing work in the various
professions need to be credentialed without violating this ideal and a
little fanaticism in support of that will do us a lot of good.

Maybe we ought to thank the likes of Mr. Sullivan for showing how
impoverished have become defenders of all the myriad government measures
that treat people as if they were beholden to the state, not to their own
conscience and the expectations of their free customers and clients.

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