Wednesday, November 30, 2005

Risky Argument for Liberty

Tibor R. Machan

Reason magazine’s science editor Ronald Bailey made some fine points in response to those who are forever painting doomsday pictures about genetic engineering. (He delivered his remarks in the November installment of Cato Audio, a CD service of the Cato Institute that I highly recommend to anyone interested in advances as well as setbacks in the struggle for genuine liberty in this country and around the globe.) In particular, Bailey focused upon the arguments advanced from the Left and the Right against this biotechnology, by all counts just around the corner in developed countries.

I was interested in his response to the Left’s claim that genetic engineering will usher into existence a “gene aristocracy,” namely, a class of very rich people who will get their hands on the biotechnological benefits way before anyone else does, helping, thus, to produce an even greater gap between rich and poor that exists today. The rich will become brighter, more beautiful, more healthy, more athletic—you name some possible advantage reaped from the new technology and the rich will benefit from it while the rest of us will lag behind. Nothing, of course, upsets intellectuals—even the brightest among them—on the Left than the prospect of some people being better off than others. In the typical strategy of those who are primarily motivated by envy and the drive to coercively create a fair society, these people would rather have no one benefit from biotechnology than have just the rich do so.

Of course, Bailey was dead on target to point out that even if the fairness issue were decisive, the only way to get the benefits of genetic engineering to the masses is to first get it off the ground by the rich. But he offered this as the central reason for rejecting the Left’s concerns and that simply will not work.

Even if in the future most people will benefit from the biotechnology, if the concern about fairness is left unchallenged, that will not refute the Left’s case. Those on the Left see fairness as a matter of justice. In other words, it is unjust to allow unfairness to exists right now, so offering the gradual decrease of unfairness in the future isn’t going to cut much ice for them. And if you do not demonstrate, as surely it is not very difficult to do, that fairness is not what’s crucial about justice, the Left’s case against genetic engineering remains basically intact.

Bailey appears to be among those defenders of the free society we may call “pragmatists” or “consequentialists,” or, again, “utilitarians.” Freedom is justified by all the goodies we get from it, never mind how they are apportioned or who has rightful claims to them. Many economists who champion the free society—or its free, capitalist market—share this approach to defending it. Look how much bread the market bakes—that is what counts for most.

But the Left has a point—if all these goodies go to just some folks, even for a while, there is something amiss. Why should those who are left out of the harvest support the system? Why should those who are afraid that they may be left out of it support it? Once you reason along these lines, few are left to have good reasons to support the free society and its market place.

So one needs to establish that those who have the resources—because they have a right, as anyone else, to seek and obtain them so long as they do not rob, steal or extort from others—have the corresponding right to the liberty to do with those resources as they see fit. This is their basic, natural right as human beings and if the exercise of this right leads to their enjoying certain advantages, so be it. Others simply have to moral—and should have no legal—authority to interfere.

The fact that this insistence on the basic rights of all, including the rich, to pursue their own goals—be they of public benefit or none—also tends to benefit most people is secondary, not primary. Unless the case for the free system can be made along lines that stress the justice of the it, those on the Left (and I haven’t even come to discussing those on the Right, with all their concerns) will make a better case with their equation of justice and fairness.

The abundance that the free system offers in the future isn’t sufficient to give it a solid moral defense. It must be shown, also, that it is supportive of justice rightly understood even if “unfairness”—that is to say, inequality in wealth—prevails.
Machan is the author of, among other works, The Right to Private Property (Hoover Institution Press, 2002) available at [ ], and Individuals and Their Rights (Open Court, 1989).

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