Saturday, February 05, 2005

Column on Imperial Government

Imperial Government Foibles

Tibor R. Machan

As the Declaration of Independence points out, all human beings are
created equal and endowed with unalienable rights to life, liberty and the
pursuit of happiness (among others). This idea, it shouldn?t have to be
pointed out but often does, is held to be self-evident for purposes of the
Declaration, although it is clearly not self-evident because much ink
needs to be spilled to establish it. John Locke, for example, wrote a
famous book in 1690, Second Treatise of Civil Government, in which he does
just that and the Founders knew of this work well and good, so they had no
illusion about our rights needing no support. (It is mostly those who
scoff at the idea of basic rights who keep saying that the Founders
thought it was ?self-evident,? ripping the notion out of context so as to
proceed with their disdainful treatment of it.)

Recently some people have been putting forth the view that because every
human being has basic rights, the government of the United States of
America has no special obligation to its citizens but must extend its
services to all alike. Michael Ignatieff ?s book, The lesser Evil:
Political Ethics in an Age of Terror (Penguin, 2004), includes this claim,
which is why the title expresses its author?s frustration with how
terrorism ought to be fought by the American government. (Ignatieff is a
very prominent scholar at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at
Harvard University, mainly working in the discipline of human rights

This position has some credibility, of course. If all persons have the
basic rights the American Founders made note of, that surely means that no
one may have these rights violated, never mind where they life, when they
live, or who they are. They are, as the United Nations Charter makes
clear, universal!

Yet something is amiss in this analysis. Merely because no one may
violate the rights of anyone to life, liberty and the pursuit of
happiness, or indeed any other rights derived from these?as the US
Constitution makes clear in the Ninth Amendment?it does not follow that a
country?s government has the same obligations to all persons as it has to
the citizens of that country.

The reason for this is that properly understood a government is
instituted and maintained by the citizenry for the purpose of having the
rights protected for the citizenry, not for others. Consider a similar but
simpler way of seeing the matter. I have the right of self-defense, as you
do and does anyone else. But when I hire a body guard to carry out this
defense?when I delegate the exercise of this right to such a person?there
is no obligation for this person to defend everyone else?s right to life,
liberty, etc.

This is a pretty straightforward notion here, so why do people like
Ignatieff get it wrong? Because they have embraced a notion of rights
entirely alien to that of the American founders, namely, positive rights
or entitlements. Not violating those rights means not only not attacking
people but delivering to them various goods and services.

When you believe government must deliver to people various goods and
services, not simply the protection of individual rights?when the
government?s obligation isn?t constrained by the contract into which it
has entered with the citizenry?then government turns into the Welfare
State. It is seen, now, as a provider to the needy, to all who lack
something important in their lives. In such a picture, why should
governments be limited to protecting the rights of their citizens? After
all, other people around the globe are far more needy than American
citizens, on average, so if this kind of do-goodism is what governments
are all about, there are hundreds of millions around the world who can use
it better than American citizens.

Of course, simple economics comes in here right away, so government will
be limited by that. However, if it has this obligation to redistribute
wealth, then why confine it to ?our citizenry? instead of, say, the people
of Bangladesh or Burundi? No reason.

And while they are at regarding all those citizens as entitled to be fed,
clothed, and medically treated, why not throw in military defense
provisions as well? Out of that thinking grows the idea of the imperial
American government, obligated to protect not only its citizenry but give
welfare and defense to everyone else.

I am convinced that the Founders would find this quite absurd. Just read
the Declaration and check it out for yourself.

Column on Dissenting from Dissidents

A Dissident Dissents

Tibor R. Machan

I am a proud dissident about the Iraqi war. My view has been that
America?s military has no business being there since America wasn?t
attacked or even seriously threatened by Iraq?s government.

Nonetheless I am very annoyed by how so many opponents of this war keep
harping on how the American and the new Iraqi police conduct themselves.
As if Saddam?s bunch had been a flock of angels and as if the insurgents
were fighting for a noble cause.

On Saturday morning, February 5, The New York Times reported on how the
new Iraqi police has turned the tables on terrorists by showing videos of
some of them squirming with obvious cowardice when caught, along with
other video?s showing them brazenly brutalizing kidnapped victims, ready
to behead them.

No sooner does The Times?s reporter Christine Hauser, conclude with the
essentials of her report, she inserts the following passage:

The broadcast of such videos raises questions about whether they violate
legal or treaty obligations about the way opposing fighters are
interrogate and how their confessions are made public.

But she gives not a shred of evidence that such questions are being raised
by any sane person or that they have any legal basis at all. She just
sticks in this passage on her own, groundlessly.

One is perhaps not going far out on a limb to suspect that this passage
is a way for an opinionated journalist to once again indict not the
bastards who are beheading kidnapped victims?without a trial, without a
scintilla of due process?but the new Iraqi (American supported and
trained) police. Oh, give me a break.

And then there is this righteous outcry about Lt. Gen. James N. Mattis?s
comment that ?It?s fun to shoot some people,? made about the wars in Iraq
and Afghanistan, as well as the broadcast of complaints from various
leaders of special ethnic interest groups belly aching about it.

Well, actually, it is ?fun? to shoot some people?and all of us who have
ever waited through an hour and a half movie, or read some 300 pages of a
thriller, to the point when the bad guys finally get their comeuppance
know this perfectly well. Some people, the ones who ruthlessly sacrifice
the lives of completely innocent children and civilians so as to express
their anger about something?terrorists and other brutalizes?need to get
creamed and it probably is fun, meaning, satisfying, to do the shooting of
such folks.

How often have we witnessed at least the eventual fictional delivery of
just deserts from good guys aimed at vicious slaver holders, murderers,
Nazis, and a sundry villains? Why did we breath sighs of relief once they
got theirs good and hard? Why was it a pleasure to walk away from a movie
or close the covers of a book once this has happened to such people?

Because it is a matter of justice?of a form of moral relief?to have such
things happen, that is why. The people who do that to those who haven?t
deserved any such brutality, mostly venting their wild anger recklessly at
innocent folks, need to be blasted away now and then, when they keep
coming and coming and that is the only way to fend them off. And then
those who get to accomplish such a worthwhile feat may well feel some joy
in their hearts because it can indeed be ?fun? to contribute to the
ridding of the world of such scum.

The outrage at Lt. Gen. Mattis?s comment is outright paradoxical, as
well. On the one hand it suggests that there are no morally bad people at
all and thus no joy may be experienced when one has helped rid the world
of some of the worst such people, especially in the face of their
relentless violent onslaught. On the other hand the outrage suggests that
the likes of Lt. Gen. Mattis are evil people, deserving of scolding and

Well, you cannot have it both ways. Either there are evil folks and some
so evil as to deserve killing under certain circumstances, or there are
none, in which case those who have fun killing others simply need to be
cured?they too aren?t doing anything morally wrong.

Indeed, this lopsided moralizing betrays the practically obsessive
anti-Americanism of too many people. Only Americans ever do things
wrong?the rest need to be defended at all cost no matter how vicious them
are. Balderdash.

Thursday, February 03, 2005

Column on American vs. simple conservatism

Conservative Relativism

Tibor R. Machan

Back in my undergraduate days our college was visited by William F.
Buckley Jr., the then rising erudite journalistic leader of the budding
post war conservative movement. His main theme on this occasion was the
importance of various fundamental truths, especially those of human
community life. He thought and argued that there really are some such
truths, among them those the American founders identified in the
Declaration of Independence.

Back then the operative word in ?American Conservatism? was ?American.?
Today it seems more and more to be ?Conservatism.? An American
conservative embraces certain truths and wishes to have these preserved in
public life, namely, politics?as well as private, namely, ethics. American
Conservatism was unique in that there wasn?t merely the imperative to look
back and learn from the past but to embrace a particularly unique past,
namely, one that laid out for us certain basic principles of community

It is this American Conservatism that helped get rid of slavery by
recalling unashamedly that that institution violated America?s founding
principle, namely, that all of us are created equal, without exception.
When Abraham Lincoln wanted to find a principle on which to base his
emancipation proclamation, he didn?t have to look to Europe or Asia of
Africa?he could find it right here in America?s founding document. It was
a document of basic principles of community life and American
conservatives gladly embraced it and worked to preserve its substance.

Now things have changed. Conservatism has reverted in America to what it
used to be in pre-revolutionary times when a conservative would simply
embrace, rather incoherently, whatever had been around for a long time,
wherever it came from, and whatever substance it contained. This is the
conservatism of Europe and of old and today?s Russia, for example.
Conservatives of this stripe are those who champion only a method, never
mind substance. As their English guru Edmund Burke had taught them,
?...Men have no right to risk the very existence of their nation and their
civilization upon experiments in morals and politics; for each man's
private capital of intelligence is petty; it is only when a man draws upon
the bank and capital of the ages, the wisdom of our ancestors, that he can
act wisely.? This sentiment applies to us all, including the American
Founders, so an old fashioned, as opposed to American, conservative has no
use for the principles that those founders identified since their, like
everyone else?s, ?private capital of intelligence is petty.?

So how does this play out in our contemporary political world? George W.
Bush and his advisers may now and then make vague references for freedom
but they do not mean by it what the American Founders meant, namely,
making sure that all grown men and women get to govern their own lives,
enjoy sovereignty, with the government functioning as the protector of
this sovereignty. No, Mr. Bush?s conservatism is one in which whatever
happens to be in the past, whatever the ?bank and capital of the ages, the
wisdom of our ancestors? instructs, must be followed. And by now this
includes, mainly, the massive welfare state built for us by the likes of
Franklin Roosevelt, John F. Kennedy, and Lyndon B. Johnson.

In this type of conservatism the wisdom of the American founders has lost
out to the far more traditional ?wisdom of our ancestors,? from a much
older history, the wisdom that trust nearly everything to the government
or ?the state,? as some political theorists call it. Your and my
?intelligence is petty,? so it must be sacrificed to those who rule, be it
the mob or some elite or a great leader, to the wisdom of those who
supposedly function rather blindly by following the ancients instead of
figuring things out for ourselves.

I must say William F. Buckley Jr.?s version of conservatism was a much
more healthy, principled one when compared to what conservatism has become
in our time?historical relativism (with each era muddling through with its
inherited, flexible ?truths?). It was informed by firm and lasting
principles that those ?arrogant? founding Americans dared to identify in
defiance of the ancient conservatism that is ruining too many countries
now and has ruined in the past.

Monday, January 31, 2005

Column on Iraq, democracy & the war (sans typo)

Word from an Anti-War Advocate

Tibor R. Machan

It would be cowardly, I think, not to chime in at this time for those who
opposed President George W. Bush?s war in Iraq, given the apparent success
of the Iraqi elections. So, as an opponent of this war from the outset,
let me chime away for a moment.

Why oppose the war? Because the idea that it amounted to what the
military of a free country should be doing, namely, protecting the rights
of the citizens?in other words, defending the country from
aggressors?simply wasn?t credible. As to the claim that the military of a
free country may invade countries with tyrannical governments, that is
simply not the case. The military has as its proper job to protect the
citizenry, not to embark upon rescue missions around the globe.

It isn?t that such rescue missions are in principle wrong, but they may
not be conducted by the military that already has its job specified. The
reason we have government, as the American founders made clear, is ?to
secure [our] rights,? not to answer the 911 calls of the world?s
oppressed. For that mission some other solution must be found?perhaps the
UN needs to do this job, or maybe various civilian militias need to be
established. But it is wrong to send a military to do this job which is
already employed and thus committed to do another.

Of course, one can do a wrong and yet something good can come of it.
Getting Iraq to be more democratic is undeniably some measure of progress,
even if the full impact cannot yet be evaluated. (A democratic Iraq could
yet also be a tyrannical Iraq, since the ruling majority could be pretty
nasty to the minority. It remains to be seen.)

It isn?t true, however, that this move toward democracy vindicates the
Bush administration that has sent over a thousand American soldiers to
their deaths and a lot more to become severely injured in a war that the
American government should not have undertaken. Volunteers in a free
country sign up so as to be ready to defend their fellow citizens, not to
become the police force of the globe. So these soldiers were treated
badly. (This isn?t altered by the fact that some of them were willing to
fight in Iraq.)

It is difficult to remain principled in the face of all kinds of pressure
and, especially, when one?s fellow contrarians can be a pretty unsavory
lot. Many opponents of this war have rested their opposition on grounds
that are entirely inconsistent with their very own political philosophy.
All the beef about the preemptive nature of Bush?s war from those who have
absolutely no hesitation about violating individual rights for various
?precautionary? purposes?e.g., in the area of environmental policy or
other types of government regulation?belies their supposed outrage with
how the Bush administration has acted vis-à-vis Iraq. Nearly everything I
read from such folks against the war in Iraq reeks of hypocrisy and

Never mind. The crucial issue is whether a champion of a fully free
society can back a war that does not involve national defense. And I do
not believe such a person can do so. And since I think such a person is
right?which is to say, such a person holds a reasonable, sensible view of
the proper function of government and, thus, the military?the unsavory
company he or she happens to keep in this particular instance is
irrelevant. (Consider that in defending the right to private property, one
is also defending the exercise of that right for such purposes as racial
discrimination. This does not undermine the justice of defending the right
to private property.)

Of course, the move in the direction of a free society in Iraq is to be
welcomed. That?s so even if it is the fruit of a wrongheaded foreign
policy. But it should not blind us to the fact that going to war in Iraq
was wrong. Liberty is indeed a worthy goal for the US government to
champion and pursue, but not by means that undermines that very goal,
namely, embarking on military aggression, even if it?s against a dictator
like Sadam Hussein.