Friday, April 22, 2005

Column on Being Right but Alone

Being Among the Few who are Right

Tibor R. Machan

When she was about 16, my older daughter and I were sitting in my small
house in Auburn, AL, and she turned to me to ask, ?How do you deal with
the fact that so many people think you are wrong?? She knew. They did, and
still do.

Just yesterday I took part on a panel discussion at Boalt Hall, UC
Berkeley?s School of Law, organized by the branch of the Federalist
Society there, a group with a largely conservative membership in the legal
profession. Of the three of us on the panel, I was clearly the most
radical?or if you will, outrageous. The topic was ?Is America
Post-Democratic?? That meant, as I gathered, whether the United States of
America is still something of a democracy or has this changed, if it ever

My colleagues on the panel, a political science professor from UC
Berkeley and a former director of a Green organization affiliated with
Ralph Nader, spoke mostly about the particulars of contemporary politics.
The professor lamented the alleged hegemony of the Bush conservative
administration, arguing, if I understood him correctly, that Bush?s team
has been moving toward a more and more remote government, one lacking
accountability and severely restricting the input of majority of the
members of the citizenry. The man from Green, in turn, lashed out as the
allegedly inordinate influence big corporations have on American politics,
itself a clear indication, he claimed, of anti-democratic trends in the

Both of these chaps pretty much took it as given that democracy is simply
a swell thing, the more of it the better, period. In contrast, I argued
that democracy is of merit only when severely constrained. In this I had
some good authority from the American Founders, of course, from Federalist
No. 10, where Madison, Hamilton and Jay wrote: ?Democracies have ever been
spectacles of turbulence and contention; have ever been found incompatible
with personal security or the rights of property; and have in general been
as short in their lives as they have been violent in their deaths.? To
indicate that his sentiment had strong historical support especially now,
I mentioned the democratic selection of Adolph Hitler, of Benito Mussolini
and the example of some current democracies such as Haiti.

But then I went out to point out that taxes are a form of extortion and
the majority?s approval of it?and Justice Holmes calling it the price we
pay for civilization?doesn?t change this fact. I also defended the view
that the power wielding of the democratic method is at most appropriate
for small role of selecting administrators of a just legal order and,
perhaps, in the initial institution of a constitutional system of
individual rights. (Here I was thinking of how nicely this is shown in
that classic Western movie, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance.)

As expected, no one on the panel and the audience appeared to agree with
any of this, although to my surprise several law students did come up to
me afterwards to ask me very friendly questions about my position. The
unpopularity of my views might put me in a funk, you could speculate, but
I have had a pretty long history of similar responses from colleagues and
people in general for over 40 years of thinking as I do. (I was inspired
to take these kinds of ideas very seriously back in 1961, when I first
encountered classical liberalism in John Locke and Ayn Rand as a member of
the US Air Force in Washington, DC. Also, they pretty much are why I
trekked from Hungary to the USA back in the 1950s.)

So, what did I answer my daughter who, incidentally, shares most of my
convictions on political matters? My response went along the lines of,
?Well, sweetie, I like being popular, I like having friendly colleagues,
but I must say I like truth even more.? Later I learned that this is a bit
like what Newton scribbled in his Cambridge notebooks: ?Amicus Plato,
amicus Aristotles; magis amica Veritas? (Plato is my friend, Aristotle is
my friend, but truth is a better friend).

And, let?s face it, when back in the early 60s I ran across the ideas
that I found to be closest to the truth as far as I could tell from my own
explorations and, later, my studies, there were very few folks who took
them seriously, which is no longer the case. Still, in terms of
percentages, those convinced of the truth of individual rights and the
justice of a regime grounded on them are still too few.

Yet think of it this way: The idea that each person is, by virtue of the
very nature of his or her humanity, a sovereign being, a self-ruler not to
be ruled against his or her will by anyone else is not only true but also
the most radical idea in all of political history. So why expect that it
would be all that popular anyway? It takes time for such a novel,
outrageous idea to catch on, if it ever fully will.

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