Monday, February 07, 2005

Column on Newspeak

Newspeak Anyone?

Tibor R. Machan

George Orwell was a brilliant political novelists?Animal Farm and 1984
are his classics?and, both in his fictional and non-fictional writings,
made keen note of the phenomenon of language corruption. In 1984 he even
introduced the fictional dictionary of Newspeak. Among other concepts that
were tortured to death in this book, produced by the ruling totalitarian
regime, were, of course, ?liberty? and ?freedom.? In Newspeak these
concepts meant exactly their opposites, slavery. And there were many other
cases of deliberate distortion which the fictional regime perpetrated so
as to keep the population confused and conceptually disarmed.

In fact, of course, the phenomenon of such corruption of language is by
no means only fictional, of which Orwell was well aware and to which he
meant to alert us all. But neither is such distortion mostly deliberate,
as it was in 1984. In many cases?as in the recent essay by Professor of
History David Hackett Fisher of Brandeis University, penned, you might
have guessed it, for The New York Times (February 7, 2005)?the corruption
of language is carried out nearly unselfconsciously. Professor Fisher
achieves his obfuscation of the concepts of ?liberty? and ?freedom? not by
insisting that they mean their very opposite but by conflating them with a
great variety of their different senses. And his motivation seems to be
the sentiment, ?Why don?t we all just get along?? Let me explain.

Concepts, of course, evolve. They are mental tools by which human beings
identify and navigate reality. They do not spring into full awareness at
once but must be formed, often slowly and sometimes over several
generations. Take the modern scientific concept ?atom.? It took centuries
to get it formed and shaped so it now has a pretty clear, unambiguous,
comprehensive, and useful (though never final) meaning in particle

Value laden?moral, ethical, political, aesthetic?concepts are especially
troublesome. They are always being contested. Once a concept with
implications for values succeeds and gains prominence, most people with
agendas in the areas of morality and politics want to conscript it to
their own purposes.

Classical liberals, over the last several centuries, have formulated
conceptions of liberty and freedom such that they have come to mean, in
their most consistent renditions, individual independence from the
oppression of others, including the government or state. Even the family
doesn?t own a person, not once he or she has reached maturity?everyone has
the right to liberty, period.

There are some other senses in which the concepts ?liberty? and ?freedom?
are used, of course, coming from different contexts and different
traditions. Being free of a headache for someone with such pain isn?t what
being free of a master is for a slave, although there is a similarity.
Being free from governmental or criminal intrusion isn?t the same as being
free to obtain food, to fly to Paris or to purchase a Rolls Royce. But,
again, there is a similarity.

In Western political history the big breakthrough came when classical
liberals identified the human individual as having the right to liberty.
This took centuries of development but with John Locke and other such
liberals it emerged as a solid, coherent idea. Every adult is sovereign,
self-ruling, not a subject of others? will, be these others neighbors,
family, bureaucrats, a monarch, the majority, or whoever.

Professor Fisher, however, wants to assimilate all these often mutually
exclusive ideas of liberty and freedom, so that every tradition?including
those actually quite antithetical to individual liberty?in which the words
have appeared is pacified. He insists on being inclusive and

By attempting this, however, he perpetrates the corruption of the
coherent classical liberal idea, the one that has in fact served to
liberate millions of people from the oppression of their fellows (whether
the oppression is tyrannical or paternalistic, whether from coercive
governments or authoritarian families).

There will simply never be any value laden concepts that will yield to
this effort of happy assimilation. Some will always find your or my or
someone else?s conception of liberty, freedom, justice, goodness, or
equality displeasing. There is no escaping having to take a stand. And the
stand that succeeds is the one that provides the most comprehensive,
consistent, clear, and unambiguous version of the relevant concept.

By trying to please everyone with his idea of liberty and freedom,
Professor Fisher, most likely inadvertently, undermines the work that
these concepts are supposed to do for human beings, namely, help identify
and cope with a vital aspect of human reality.

Sunday, February 06, 2005

Column on Why Government isn't Superior

Why Governments are not Superior

Tibor R. Machan

In my unwavering efforts to place politics in proper perspective?arguing
that it has a limited scope in human life, just as does medicine,
athletics or entertainment and shouldn?t be construed as encompassing
everything we care about?I have prompted even more unwavering efforts to
rebuff my arguments. For various reason a great many quite intelligent and
articulate people insist upon viewing government is special. Its specialty
seems to them to be nearly God-like?governments are the best solution to

Most recently I had penned a short column lamenting the reliance upon
government in cases of disasters, from the relatively minor ones like
those of the mudslides in California?s La Conchita region in Ventura
County, to the cataclysmic ones such as the late December 2004 tsunami in
Southeast Asia. I had made it the point of my column to discourage people
from considering government the solution to these natural disasters and
chided them for depending on being bailed out by government when they take
the risk to tempt such disasters by living near regions where they are
likely to hit.

At this point in human history governments are still viewed as God-like
by too many people. They have inherited this perspective from the
thousands of years in which Caesars, Pharaohs, Tsars, kings, Khans and
similar violent persons and their entourage have ruled the globe (with the
rest regarded to be their subjects and not the sovereign citizens they
really ought to be). Such habits are extremely difficult to shake,
especially when vast vested interest groups are lobbying everywhere to
keep the myth going that these sorts of folks have it over us in nearly
every aspect of human life.

I received several responses to my missive, even though I made clear that
my own expectations are moderate: no one is going to give up government
interference just yet when disasters happen. I even compared how
governments in some regions of the world have done better at coping with
them than have others?for example, the in the Pacific Rim governments have
created fairly effective warning systems, while in the Indian Ocean none

Alas, without providing a blue print for how the private sector might
cope with such matters, I was chided good and hard. For it isn?t enough
for true believers in the superiority of men and women of government to
have confidence and trust in free men and women. No, you must produce the
exact formulae for how such free men and women will address problems,
otherwise only government, with its one distinctive tool of brute force
(for what is what the police and military deliver?and should?when real
criminal conduct or aggression from abroad need to be dealt with), can be
relied on to act right.

But this is the trouble, exactly. Not all problems are known in great
enough detail to produce blue prints for coping with them. What needs to
be understood and isn?t often enough is that free men and women can think
for themselves, even in times of crises (and maybe especially then), so
they can be relied upon to cope quite well. Because they aren?t the force
wielders in society, their solutions are likely to involve forging
agreements, dealing with others peacefully, using ingenuity instead of
what governments are likely to deploy, namely forcing citizens to behave
in various ways, and taking citizens? belongings and ?redistributing? them
as the men and women in government judge best.

It will take some time, maybe centuries, before this bad habit of
trusting government to do everything will abate, if it ever will. Sadly,
people often invoke the shortcut of suing coercion to solve even their
personal problems?just think of all the spouse beating, brutalizing of
children, fist fighting, and other violence they resort to?so it is
probably utopian to hope that they will reject the government
pseudo-solutions to problems. But it is worth fighting toward that goal,