Friday, July 01, 2005

Column on G8 Ethics

Ethics at the Movie

Tibor R. Machan

The Girl in the Café is a very recent film about two people who meet,
begin to like each other, then go together to a G8 meeting in Reykjavik,
Iceland, and cause a stir with their unorthodox way of attempting to
influence those taking part to solve world poverty. The bottom line of
their exhortation to the G8 representatives is to spend billions and
billions, which the two protagonists are represented as believing will
indeed achieve the goal. All skeptics are dismissed as corrupt, greedy,
petty and lazy realists, without an ounce of ethics to their characters.

The resistance to their message consists of pretty unconvincing, shallow
reasons, with only a bit of substance and mainly outrage at the
intrusiveness of the girl from the café who is accompanying the British
bureaucrat, her love interest, as she offers uninvited advice on various
ceremonial occasions (during which all are expected to ignore the agenda).
The message of the girl?and thus the movie?completely ignores the task of
the diplomats and of how nearly impossible it is for them to do much
besides posturing a lot and making futile deals with other peoples?

Indeed, this is perhaps the most glaring folly of this movie, as it is of
those who keep imploring the G8 representatives each year?this time
meeting in Scotland in early July?to solve the problem of poverty around
the globe, especially, of course, in Africa. The exhortation here depicted
assumes, without any serious reflection and discussion, that (a) these
diplomats own the resources with which they are to solve the problem of
poverty, (b) the poverty is a kind of problem that can be solved by
forking out huge amounts of money and paying someone with the required
skills to do the work, and (c) poverty is indeed something that can be
dealt with independently of a great number of other problems faced in the
regions of the world where it is so widespread. Let?s take a brief look at
these assumptions.

The diplomats at G8 meetings are not a group of billionaires on the order
of a Bill Gates who might have the realistic option to write a check and
buy poor people whatever would alleviate their poverty once and for all.
They are elected and appointed officials of mixed regimes who must give an
account of their decisions to citizens, voters, supporters, opponents and
so forth in their countries. Many of these people ?back home? do not even
believe, for a variety of good or bad reasons, that their resources ought
to be devoted to what is quite controversially called ?poverty
elimination? around the globe. So exhortations to the G8 are misdirected,
plain and simple?both in this movie and among thousands who chime in on
this topic every year around the world.

As to the next assumption, poverty is not some disease that the right
dosage of a medication, applied by a competent physician, will cure.
Poverty is a condition of lacking resources that has a great variety of
causes, some completely out of the hands of those who are poor, some to a
small extent under their control, and some even of their own making.
Sending billions to the poor isn?t even in the cards?the billions go to
politicians and bureaucrats and they haven?t a clue (or have no interest
in) what to do to solve the problem.

Then we come to the greatest source of poverty, namely, the massive
political mismanagement that is routine in most poor societies,
mismanagement that includes taking billions of attempted aid and pocketing
it for the politicians and bureaucrats officially in charge of helping out
the poor. Another, even more crucial, part of this mismanagement is the
utterly perverse legal infrastructure of the societies in which poverty is
rife and renders its eradication virtually impossible without out and out
revolutionary changes. People in most of the poverty stricken regions of
the globe are not permitted to produce and keep the fruits of their work,
they cannot invest, they are taxed and otherwise put down on a regular
basis and no amount of help is going to work unless these circumstances
are permanently altered, something which the G8 diplomats cannot do.

The Girl in the Café makes for a heart-rendering story but it is
completely misguided and casts totally unjust aspersions on many people
who would certainly be interested in solving the problem of world poverty
if it were in their legitimate power to do so. But it isn?t, not with all
the phony national sovereignty?which actually means ruthless, oppressive,
dictatorial force?at the disposal of those political leaders and
bureaucrats in the relevant regions who have no interest at all in
pitching in with what is really needed to deal with the problem.

Column on Rights & Courts

Rights and the Supreme Court

Tibor R. Machan

Over the years I have been paying heed to what the US Supreme Court does,
not as some expert but as an reasonably well educated lay person. And one
observation I have come away with is that if a case comes their way, the
Court either returns it to a lower court or offers a rather narrow ruling,
although often with broad implications.

Critics of the Court, in turn?often including those on it who issue a
minority comment?refer to provisions of the US Constitution and/or
precedents with which the rulings being offered seem to conflict. A most
notable criticism is that the Court has invented some right that isn?t
mentioned in the US Constitution. This is was repeated a lot about Roe v.
Wade, where the Court was being charged with inventing a ?right to
privacy,? as well as in a previous case involving the attempt to ban
contraceptives for sale in Connecticut. More recently the Texas sodomy
case drew criticisms claiming, once again, that there is no right to
privacy mentioned in the US Constitution, therefore claiming that gays
have the legal right to engage in sexual conduct in the privacy of their
home is wrong.

Interestingly, though, recently the court ruled that the city of New
London, Connecticut, has the authority to expand the power of eminent
domain from taking for public use to taking for the purpose of economic
development (and in the process for private use). This time critics lined
up to denounce the court for its sanction of the violation of the right to
private property. But is that correct? What the court did is to sanction
expansion of eminent domain which may imply such a violation but only if
the US Constitution lists such a right. But does it? It mentions private
property in the Fifth Amendment but there is no mention of any right to
such property.

What is interesting about this is that many of the same critics who
complain about the justices inventing rights in certain rulings seem to be
complaining about the justices not upholding rights in others. Yet, in
both kinds of cases there are no rights being mentioned in the US
Constitution, not at least explicitly. Instead the rights at issue in
these cases are deemed by the justices who want to uphold them to be
implicit, as well as by the critics who complain they haven?t be upheld.

The only way this can make sense is by taking one amendment in the Bill
of Rights very seriously which is nearly always neglected, namely, the
Ninth. This amendment states that ?The enumeration in this Constitution,
of certain rights, shall not be construed to deny or disparage others
retained by the people.? Since the Founders and the Framers were not
collectivists, ?the people? must mean ?the individuals who make up the
citizenry of the country.? Indeed, it is these people who the Declaration
of Independence claims possess ?unalienable rights; [and] that among these
rights are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.?

So the inference that there are rights we all have in America other than
those explicitly listed in the Bill of Rights makes good sense. So those
who complain abut justices inventing them need to argue that the ones they
claim were being invented aren?t among those not enumerated ones mentioned
in the Ninth Amendment. And when critics hold that the justices failed to
uphold rights not explicitly mentioned, they too need to take the Ninth
seriously and argue that it implies such rights, for example, the right to
private property.

Of course, that would be an impossible task but it is quite likely that
the Founders and Framers knew this quite well. Their task wasn?t to list
all the rights we have, only the ones under the greatest danger at the
time. And they wanted to spell out the limited powers of government.
Beyond what those limited powers entailed for purposes of government
administration, the people would, of course, retain all the rights they
had, namely, to do anything they chose to do. And when a government
measure would infringe on their rights to do what they choose to do, the
courts would properly strike it down.

Trouble is that by now government has vast legal powers, sanctioned by
the various courts, and anytime the courts?or critics complain that they
fail to?uphold some individual rights, it all sounds quite arbitrary, both
the pros and the cons being based not on the Bill of Rights but on
personal likes and dislikes, on various moral or other convictions and
lack thereof. But that?s not law but its very ruin.

It would be much better if the courts, all of them, really stuck to the
Bill of Rights and what it implies. This is that we all have the right to
do whatever we choose to do (implied by the liberty to which, per the
Declaration, we have an unalienable right), provided we do not violate
someone else?s rights. That is indeed the ideal of a free society that has
been associated with America and it would be best for the courts and its
critics of stick to it.

Thursday, June 30, 2005

Column on Promoting RIght Conduct the Right Way

Promoting Right Conduct?the Right Way

Tibor R. Machan

Most of the time people try to justify coercing others to do things on
the grounds that they know what?s right and those others don?t or, in any
case, will not comply. Even the recent 5 to 4 eminent domain ruling by the
US Supreme Court can be viewed along such lines: The city officials
believed they knew what the private property owners ought to do and so
they may make them do it. In that particular case, economic development is
supposed to be right and good, so let?s make those property owners bend to
the will of those who understand this. Ergo, eminent domain which,
although the US Constitution authorizes it only for taking private
property for public use, is now authorized for takings transferred to
private parties who will do ?the right thing? (e.g., develop land and pay
more taxes to the city).

Never mind that most often those claiming such knowledge do not actually
have it. Even if they do, this is just the sort of barbaric approach to
making people do the right thing that was to be stopped by deploying the
principles of the US Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights.

If you know what the right thing is for someone to do, you may not coerce
him, you need to convince him of it, you need his consent. That?s because
we all have the unalienable right to life, liberty and the pursuit of
happiness. And having a right means one who has it gets to decide how to
exercise it. And that may not always conform to high standards. (Just
think of the right of the free press?doesn?t mean all journalists produce
the best stuff they could. Indeed it means lots of them produce drivel.)

But if one is not supposed to coerce people to do the right thing, what
is one to do about all the misbehavior that surrounds us? Well, the answer
is one must use civilized means. Eminent domain measures are barbaric
means?taking from people to give to other people without the permission of
the former. Imagine if one took this message of the Court to heart and
proceeded to run around one?s neighborhood bullying everyone who doesn?t
behave up to snuff to do the right thing. That?s what violent gangs
presume to do!

Civilized conduct requires that one promote the right conduct of other
people not by coercion but by persuasion, example, instruction, urging,
imploring, and, at worst, ostracism and boycott. Human beings, in short,
must deal with fellow human beings peacefully even if those others don?t
do the right thing. Unless someone is aggressive towards another, whatever
wrong he or she does must be approached peacefully. That is what amounts
to civil conduct, as distinct from the behavior of brutes in the wild that
subdue one another violently.

But why abstain from such brutishness when it comes to people dealing
with other people? Is that just a quirk or is it required somehow from
human beings?

Most generally, if one makes other people do the right thing without
their consent, these other people are deprived of their chance to earn
moral credit, deprived of their dignity. They are treated as mere puppets,
as little children, not as adults who need to make their own decisions so
as to be morally praiseworthy, commendable. The reason animals may
ordinarily be forced to behave as we want them to behave is that they are
beasts without a moral sense?and even then it is nicer to manage them
gently instead of roughly. But with human beings it is imperative that
they aren?t pushed around, aren?t forcibly made to do the right thing.

Even with kids, as they grow older it is more appropriate to provide them
with good examples of decent behavior instead of browbeating them. That is
how understanding of what?s right is promoted, rather than mere
compliance, mere following orders out of fear (which then tends to produce
rebellion a the first chance anyway). Sending out the cops to have people
do the right thing is the wrong way to act. Making laws and regulations
that must be followed lest one go to jail is not how morality is promoted
among people.

It is one of the most revolutionary aspects of the American political
tradition that this lesson was given official expression by the Founders.
By now, however, America?s political leaders have nearly completely
forgotten it all. Now they resort to the same regimentation of other
people that they had rejected on the part of the likes of King George the
3rd. It is time to regain the momentum the Founders unleashed and promote
right conduct the right way?peacefully.

Wednesday, June 29, 2005

Column on some fraudulent uses of language

Some Tricky Ideas to Watch out For

Tibor R. Machan

Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778) was a very influential social and
political philosopher who argued that although human nature is benign and
good, society has corrupted us all and now we are pretty nasty and also
?everywhere in chains.? He also defended the dubious idea of ?the general
will,? some superhuman source of obligation we must all obey, out of which
grew all kinds of harmful collectivists ideas that are used by some folks
to rationalize the violation of individual rights.

Rousseau?s notion of the innocent and good savage, corrupted by society,
is actually a great confusion. If we are all so nice and gentle to begin
with, how come society turned out to be so nasty and mean? What is
society, anyway, other than large assemblies of human beings; so if
society is making us all nasty, it is, of course, people who are making us
nasty. And then they certainly didn?t start off being so nice and gentle,
after all. If they had, they wouldn?t perpetrate the corruption Rousseau
blamed on society. If society is nasty, then, well, people managed to
become nasty all on their own, society or no society.

A recent letter writer to USA Today demonstrated the influence of
Rousseau, yet again, when he wrote, ?Basic human instincts, unless
corrupted by society, bear natural traits for morality and ethical
integrity.? So, again, we are all good to start with but something
insidious called ?society? corrupts us and we end up not so nice. And on
and on goes the nonsense.

A related issue arises when people say that it is their culture that
makes them think this, do that, and so on, as if there were some big,
transcendent being called ?culture? that went about doing stuff. But what
is culture? It is, really, no more or less than the various institutions,
artifacts, projects, and the like that people produce and which become the
defining attributes of certain groups of them living in certain regions of
the globe?the Germans, Swiss, Israelis, and so forth. Culture cannot make
people to anything since culture is people doing things.

Why is it so tempting, then, to keep talking about how society does this,
and culture does that? Probably because it caters to the myth that no one
is really responsible for his or her conduct, for what is on his or her
mind, for the good and bad things that come out of what one does. No,
it?s always something else?society, culture, the country, you name it and
it?s what?s responsible. We, in turn, are but puppets being manipulated
and none of us makes things happen, none is responsible. But we also
desperately need some wise cadre that will repair culture and get
everything straightened out for the rest of us under culture?s influence.
Yet how come they have escaped the influence of culture so they can repair
it all?

The same kind of ruse is perpetrated by the big ?we? that many people
make use of when they want to coerce everyone to follow their lead. We,
for example, in Orange County, have decided to have a light rail system or
we, in Washington, DC, decided to build a massive sport stadium. In
virtually every community around the country and, indeed, the world, there
are those who make use of this royal ?we? to peddle some project they do
not have the honesty to call their own and the diligence and wherewithal
to convinced others who don?t share it to come on board with their
support. No, by using this ?we? they aim to convinced both themselves and
others that the idea in question is indeed everyone?s idea and, thus,
everyone may be taxed and otherwise coerced to support it since they too
want it, really.

The bad habit of not calling such folks to task on their tricky uses of
language has a very high price indeed. It is the way the much more solid
notion, the idea that everyone has a right to his or her life and works
and others must ask for it if they want to make use of it for some more or
less glorious purpose, is lost in the shuffle. But this shouldn?t happen.

To resist the ruse, it is best for everyone to pay attention and notice
just what the we, the society, the culture actually is and whether these
terms are being used accurately or, as I would maintain, mostly so as to
perpetrate a fraud.

Monday, June 27, 2005

Column on Tolerance & Respect

On Tolerance and Respect

Tibor R. Machan

The concept ?tolerance? does not really capture the attitude of most
Americans, even Westerners, toward those with whom they disagree, although
that is what people say when one doesn?t believe in banning another?s
viewpoint from being expressed, another?s ways from being practiced. So,
for instance, if you aren?t gay and dislike how gays conduct themselves
but you don?t believe in interfering with them, you are regarded as
tolerant toward gays.

This, though it sounds a bit judgmental, is actually quite right. One
tolerates things of which one disapproves or what one dislikes?I used to
tolerate humidity while living in Auburn, Alabama, which certainly didn?t
mean I was fond of it, quite the opposite. I put up with it, reluctantly.
And many of us tolerate some of the annoying habits of friends without
pretending we like them but recognizing that it?s their lives and we do
not get to mess with it.

Respecting another?s views is also often used to characterize this
attitude of disagreement which doesn?t move toward interference. ?I
respect your position,? some say, ?even though I completely disagree with
you.? This, too, appears at firs to be a misstatement since if one really
disagrees with another?s position, it is quite impossible to respect it.
You think it is wrong, for crying out loud, so why then would you respect
it? One respects achievements, accomplishments, getting it right, not
being wrong about things.

But perhaps the complaint is a bit too picayune. When we tolerate
something, perhaps we are making the point that although we disapprove of
or dislike it, we do not believe we ought to do anything hostile to those
whom we tolerate. We are dealing, after all, with adult human beings and
what we probably do respect is their autonomy, their sovereignty?which is
to say their right to choose. Respecting a right isn?t the same at all as
respecting how it is exercised. It is, instead, respecting the fact that
someone is a grown up, mature enough to make one?s own decisions about
important matters in one?s life. It is, as contemporary lingo puts it,
respecting another?s space.

Even tolerance involves this element of acknowledging that other people
get to govern themselves and no one ought to deprive them of this
opportunity even if they fervently disagree with or dislike what they do.
Their lives are their own, not ours, and so they are the ones to guide how
it will be conducted. The right to the pursuit of one?s happiness means
this, too?not imposing, by force, goals on other people even if one
considers them wrong.

Both tolerance and respect for others in these limited ways are part and
parcel of a free, civilized society. Such a society is marked by mutual
acknowledgement that we are adults and as such we have both the right and
the responsibility to run our own lives without being interfered with as
if we were children or severely impaired. This is why such attitudes are
regarded a matter of human dignity. This dignity doesn?t arise from
achieving great goals in one?s life but in having the capacity to govern
oneself. This is why when old people are treated like kids they often
regarded it as an affront to their dignity?they may not be as quick as
they used to be but they are quite human and deserve to be treated as such.

One reason all this is worth reflecting upon is that the US Supreme Court
has struck a massive blow against both tolerance and respect in these
senses of those terms with the Kelo v. New London City (CT) when it
sanctioned the use of eminent domain?forcible but legal taking of private
property?by city governments for purposes of violating the rights of
individuals and small businesses so as to make them fall in line with some
plan the city has hatched and which benefits other private parties, a plan
they want everyone to conform to. Of course, it is assumed, rather
naively, that such plans represent that of the majority of a given
municipality or other legal jurisdiction. Yet even if this were the case,
imposing the plan on others is to be intolerant, to fail to respect their
basic right to self-determination.

If I have obtained, free and clear, a small shop in a city and manage to
run it profitably enough to keep it solvent, for others?for many others?to
crush my enterprise is both intolerant and disrespectful. Certainly, these
others do not need to approve of my enterprise but in a civilized society
they must tolerate it. Nor do they need to have any respect for what I am
embarking upon but they owe respect to my standing as an adult human being
who is free and responsible.

Instead the US Supreme Court joined with all too many local officials in
wiping out tolerance and respect for individual autonomy and sovereignty
by legally authorizing others to impose their projects on the rest whether
they choose it or not. They have endorsed the ancient concept of
paternalistic government. And that is not democracy?it is the rule of the
tyrannical mob, a form of barbarism.

Sunday, June 26, 2005

Columns on PBS & NPR

America?s Perverse "Public" Media

Tibor R. Machan

The Soviet Union had no free press, privately owned, politically
independent, competing publications dealing with ideas and whatever else
readers would find of interest. The old USSR had Pravda and other state
run newspapers and broadcast outlets.

This kind of media exists in other parts of the world but the United
States of America was to be a haven for a completely free press. Sadly,
even there broadcast media fell into the hands of government?the feds own
the electromagnetic spectrum and dictate a good deal of the structure and
even content of radio and television (via, for example, the licensing
process supervised by the Federal Communications Commission). Still, even
with this intrusiveness, radio and TV do not get funded by monies extorted
via taxation. There is still a pretty good semblance of competition on the
airwaves, especially with the arrival a few decades ago of cable TV and
the Internet.

One thing is, however, way over the top in American media affairs. This
is the prominence of National Public Radio and the Public Broadcasting
Service. These networks are all-pervasive. NPR is in nearly every medium
to large size city, certainly wherever there is an institution of higher
education, dominating the airwaves in college and university towns with
its substantial news coverage, interviews, commentaries and other fares.
PBS is also present in virtually every TV market.

Yet there is really no proper place for either of these networks in a
country with a free press. Both take substantial monies from
government?for example, via the Corporation for Public Broadcasting?a
funding that is totally antithetical to the principles of a free media.
Such a media is supposed to function independently of government, with no
strings attached to politicians and bureaucrats. And no one in a free
society may be coerced into funding any media outlet. It involves
expropriating their support for views and programming with which they can
very well disagree. It is like forcing the Catholics to support the
Methodists! All this in stark contrast with a free press where you buy
the paper or the wares commercials peddle if you so choose but if you do
not choose, they do not come to take your money for their ?services.? But
NPR and PBS take everyone?s money to help provide its offerings.

When it comes to these offerings they are, quite naturally, highly
editorialized, very partisan (although often at a level beyond day to day
politics), and completely uninterested in balance (which is usually a
farce, when attempted in the media). All you need is to listen to just one
day?s fare and you will encounter very distinct viewpoints broadcast. I
urge you to give NPR?s ?Fresh Air? interview program your attention and
you will learn just what ?soft ball? interviewing is all about?inviting
your favorite authors and giving them a forum, partly at taxpayers?
expense, to promote their works. There is hardly a difficult challenge
presented to these friends of NPR. It?s all done in the style of ?throwing
the Christians to the Christians.?

Mind you, I often listen to NPR stations for their classical music and
jazz and blues programming. But I do feel a bit guilty because I am
benefiting from stolen goods, paid for in part by citizens who may well
have no interest in such music and are, nevertheless, deprived of some of
their resources and of the chance to support what they judge preferable. I
am not, however, discussing the aesthetics of NPR and PBS, both elitist
outfits to the hilt and both ripping off a bunch of people who would much
rather fund alternative forms of news and entertainment.

So, in light of the fact that there is no place for NPR and PBS in a free
country, the current debate about whether to make these more balanced is
completely moot, irrelevant, beside the point. Demanding fairness of media
is like demanding it from religion or art?ridiculous, especially where
editorializing and opining are concerned. What needs to be done is to
privatize both of these organizations, totally, and let them fend for
themselves just as bowling alleys or shoes stores must.