Saturday, July 09, 2005

Column on What Some Don't get About Terrorism

[Please edit/proof this before publishing]

What Some Don't Get About Terrorism

Tibor R. Machan

It is very dismaying but not beyond grasp why some folks do not
understand the viciousness of terrorism. The bottom line is: tribalism. It
is also called collectivism--socialist, fascist, communitarian or any
other type of irrational lumping of human beings into groups they have
never chosen to join.

Any time a terrorist attack occurs, a great many people wring their
hands trying to figue out just what is amiss with such barbaric conduct.
Be it an IRA, Palestinian or radical Muslim (suicide) attack, there is the
usual acknowledgement that terrorism is horrible and the people doing it
are over the top, but then the focus turns to whatever is supposed to have
provoked it--usually George W. Bush and his predecessors' foreign policy
measures. And some of this, of course, isn't beside the point in making
sense of certain of these events.

Yet this focus on provocations misses the must basic issue, which is
that terrorists lack the most elementary traits of civilization, which is
to treat individuals as individuals, as sovereign, self-directed agents
who aren't responsible for the misdeeds of their fellow human beings. If
you insult me, hit me, steal from me, or do any other untoward deed toward
me, it is utterly unjustified for me to go after your sister, your
neighbor, someone who looks like you, someone sitting near you, someone
who lives in the same country as you do. If you have been wronged by A,
the only recourse that is justified, morally and should be legally and
politically, is to put you on trial and convict you of your bad deeds,
period. Such due process is the bedrock of a civilized society and anyone
who resorts of so called repriasals that fail to meet this strict
criterion may not be rationally excused.

There is, of course, in our age the widespread temptation to explain
everything people do, as if they were bad storms coming off the Atlantic
Ocean or viruses attacking the nervous system. The source of this
temptation is the old philosophical doctrine of materialism, the view that
everything in nature happens because some prior event caused it to happen.
This is, indeed, the origin of much of social science and social
engineering but it misses a vital point about human life. People are
agents, they do not simply react to what happens to them. So to really
explain their conduct, it is not enough to gather up the data of what
happens around them. It is imperative, for a decent understanding of how
people act, to consider their own thinking and intentions and motives,
things over which they have ultimate control.

Once you look at it this way, you have to realize that a terrorist
is a vicious, irreponsible thug who refuses to control his own emotions
and lashes out, often with much intelligence and savvy, at some target in
the fashion of a toddler who is throwing a tantrum. And toddlers are not
civilized beings, as any parent knows. Only toddlers can be excused
because, well, they are too youg to have the capacity to act more
rationally, to be civilized. This exaplation isn't, however, available for
terrorists. They are adults and they ought to thinkg before they lash out
in their violent, reckless ways.

It is true, of course, that some of what terrorists think about is
awful and their anger can even be justified. It is what they do about what
they think about and their emotional reaction to it that is vile. And no
matter how valid some of their complaints are, tearing into the lives of
innocent people is morally inexcusable. The way, however, many of them
think is to lump other people together, in some sort of irrational
corporate fashion, as if all of those in London had consciously,
voluntarily joined in with a club with a mission statement forged by, say,
Tony Blair, a mission statement that terrorist find objectionable. But
this is wrong. Certainly a bunch of kids on a subway cannot by any stretch
of the imagination be so regarded. Nor can most citizens of London. Nor
those of Israel or New York City. And to fail to realize this is the mark
of the barbaric.

Sadly, the people of the world have tended to think in this triablist
fashion for centuries and centuries and even some of the most well
educated, erudite blokes do not get it. The imperative for us all is to
get it and to make as sure as possible that evereyone around us gets it.
It is individuals who are responsible for their conduct and striking out
at their neighbors and friends and family when you find this conduct
intolerable is a rejection of a basic feature of human civilization.

Thursday, July 07, 2005

Columno on At the Movies

At the Movies

Tibor R. Machan

Ordinarily I am not a paranoid person, so this hypothesis of mine is not
the usual type. But recently I have noticed that when I see serious
American movies, mostly the ideological take in them tends to be
anti-capitalist, anti-free market, against free trade, anti-business,
anti-corporate?in short against most things associated with the United
States of America. Granted, there are policies by the US Government that
I, too, find very upsetting but these aren?t what these movies tend to go
after?like increasing meddling in people?s personal lives, Court decisions
that favor the government over the private sector, preoccupation with
political correctness and so forth. No, the targets of these movies tend
to be ordinary American values.

It is difficult to list all the movies that incorporate some of these
themes in a rather underhanded, subterranean fashion?little asides by the
heroes, championing of people who show their ?virtues? by embodying these
attitudes, etc. There are the more blatant ones, though, such as Wall
Street Glen Gary, Glen Ross, Erin Brockovich, and some of Steven Segal?s
propaganda movies about how American business is so nasty to that sacred
cow of Hollywood, the environment.

It isn?t only the movies?television drama and even sitcoms serve as
vehicles for these sentiments (Law and Order this and Law and Order that,
Boston Legal, and similar shows all do it, sometimes in pretty
entertaining ways). Despite some pretty good writing on these, it has come
to be something of a pain to watch such fare for anyone with a serious
regard for the ideals with which America is associated, such as
individualism, freedom, commerce, profit making, the bottom line,
industrial development, wealth creation, and the rest. The good guys are
usually people who find all this abhorrent and only love a pristine pure
environment and peddle rank altruism?not benevolence but self-sacrifice.
Such protagonists consider all developers mean and nasty people, while the
villains are, of course, developers and makers of SUVs and anyone who
would have a good word to say about them. (The movie and TV fare is rife
with such alleged thought crimes, by the way.) I think you probably
recognize what I am saying here but may be so used to it that you don?t
take notice any longer. (My son keeps telling me to just relax and enjoy
the show and ignore the ideology but I am not willing to heed his advice.)

Interestingly, though, as in the old Soviet Union, where serious movies
all had to hail socialism, communism, or at least accept them as the norm,
in America now it is science fiction movies and cartoons that manage to
sneak in various American ideals and ideas. Take, for example, this recent
Batman Begins flick that has no patience with modern liberals excuses for
violent criminals, or last year?s big hit, The Incredibles, about a group
of retired comic heroes, in which incompetence was dissed while
exceptional talent praised. Both imply considerable disdain for the
intellectual community?s favorite ideology, egalitarianism.

These animated and sci-fi flicks aren?t my own favorite types, so I only
catch them now and then, when someone I trust recommends them out to me.
Despite their much more appealing values, I am not all that drawn to this
type of fare?I have never quite managed to suspend disbelief, so science
fiction stuff just doesn?t work so well for me (but I am not a
one-size-fits-all kind of guy about such matters). The few of these movies
I have attended do remind me of what used to be said about those old
Soviet movies, namely, they seem to allow the themes of individualism,
freedom, capitalism, meritocracy, pride, good versus evil and the like to
emerge rather forcefully in the fashion of a sort of aesthetic black

In Batman Begins, for example, we see the idea that crime should be
excused because of ?mental illness? pooh-poohed head on, depicted as
mostly an excuse for escaping personal responsibility and fostering the
therapeutic state. (Thomas Szasz would have been delighted with this part
of the movie, I am sure.) No show starring Susan Sarandon or Paul Newman
would allow such heresies?they would puncture too many of the modern
liberal dogmas to which these folks are attached and which are their
vehicles for peddling the interventionist government they so love.

But it seems that science fiction screen writers, as well as those
renegade South Park producers, manage to get away with championing values
that the serious folks will not embrace and feature in their offerings.
Although there is no out and out state censorship of these values in
America as there was in the old USSR, not yet at least, it is arguable
that a kind of cultural peer pressure is in force such that only movies
that seemingly offer nothing but technical razzmatazz get to say some true
and unusual things about human nature and life.

I haven?t done a scientific survey but think there is something to my
impression. I urge my readers to check it out for themselves.

Wednesday, July 06, 2005

Brief Essay on Kelo vs. its Libertarian Defenders

Kelo v. New London City, CT, versus the Free Society

Tibor R. Machan

There are some (relatively few) champions of individual or private
property rights who actually and oddly defend the recent US Supreme Court
ruling in Kelo v. New London City, CT, authorizing city governments to
condemn private property and then give it to other private parties because
the new owner will enhance economic development. (See attorney Stephan
Kinsella?s post at []
This purported libertarian justification seems to rests on the view that
while the federal government has no authority to take private property,
local governments do because the Bill of Rights constrains only the feds,
no one else. So the admonition in the Fifth Amendment to take private
property only for bona fide public use does not apply to New London City,
CT. Furthermore, the position holds, if government engages in taking, it
is better to do it for a genuine private than a nonexistent public use.

This is an opinion that would be conducive to a genuine anarchist and who
holds that no public uses exist at all, that is, nothing may legitimately
be used for citizens as citizens, such as court houses, military bases or
police stations. For bona fide anarchists these are all private projects.
(The details of why this is so is a bit complicated and, in any case,
misguided?libertarian ?anarchists? do endorse certain bona fide public
concerns only they refuse to call it that, just as they believe in
government but refuse to call it by that word and invent, instead,
neologisms such as ?defense agency? or ?justice service? or whatever. For
more, see Tibor Machan, ?Revisiting Anarchism v. Government?

There is much to be objected to in all this, however. There are, in fact,
some projects in any community that pertain to the maintenance of justice
and certain properly limited institutions are required for that purpose.
Since all citizens, qua citizens, adhere to certain very limited public
objectives, takings for public use amount to following exactly what all
the citizens want, namely, to make sure justice is upheld within the
community over which governments have been instituted so as to secure our
rights. For that strictly limited purpose it is OK to obtain property from
private parties since, in fact, they are on record consenting by their
very citizenship to such specific, limited takings. It is akin to why
citizens may be subpoenaed for trials?because they are on record, with
their citizenship, supporting the objective of achieving the pursuit of
justice. This point is rarely explored by libertarian anarchists?they
insist on reducing all public realms to private ones, thus hoping to
eliminate politics as a bona fide, legitimate concern in human community

However, limiting takings to bona fide public uses is in fact perfectly
justified within a free society because it amounts to nothing more than
the expression of what individual citizens all must have at least
implicitly agreed to, namely, the task of upholding justice. It is,
however, an abuse of this legal power to take private property for private
use, something to which citizens have clearly not agreed qua citizens,
quite the contrary. It is just so that private property and other rights
are effectively protected or secured that governments?including what the
libertarian anarchists call ?defense agencies??are instituted in free

The libertarians who support Kelo v. New London City, CT, do so, also, on
what they regard to be sound constitutional grounds, claiming that the
Fifth Amendment to the US Constitution properly limits only the federal
government, not city, county, and state governments which may make laws
entirely independently of any admonitions of the US Constitution. Because
of the belated incorporation measure that extends the scope of the US
Constitution to the entire country, they regard such application as urged
by most defenders of private property rights in Kelo to be misguided?only
those who love the Leviathan would then criticize Kelo; right minded
people would understand that Kelo is in fact sound from the viewpoint of a
proper understanding of the scope of the US Constitution.

Actually, although this may be proper legal theory in a highly esoteric
sense, as far as the libertarian objective of instituting government for
the purpose of securing our rights (as per the Declaration of
Independence), it is misguided tedium. Since the Constitution has been
applied, in ever since incorporation, to cases, for example, baring on the
rights to freedom of speech and religion, as well as to freedom to bear
arms and to be free of coerced confessions (the latter also part of the
Fifth Amendment) of all American citizens, it is now completely
unrealistic to insist on the reversal or incorporation. The best that we
can get is a possible reversal of the Court?s rulings in favor of
governmental measures that depart from what government is properly
authorized to do in a free society?federal, state, country or municipal
government?namely, the protection of every citizen?s individual rights.
Kelo failed in this miserably, so Kelo needs to be condemned, period,
whatever the technical razzmatazz about the structural undesirability of
incorporation may amount to.

The main motivation behind the contrary stance of some libertarians seems
to be that they consider empowering small governmental units to be less
hazardous than empowering the federal government (even if both should not
be so empowered). It seems to be especially objectionable to such
libertarians that a branch of the federal government would be empowered to
rule on what constitutes securing our rights (especially at the local or
municipal level), so when they fail to do this securing, or actually do
the opposite, these libertarians play the ?bite the bullet? gambit instead
of construing what the branch does wrongheaded. For instance, in Kelo v.
New London City, CT., these libertarians just hold that whatever the Court
says about anything other than the powers of the feds must be wrongheaded.
Yet that is effectively beside the point today. Moreover, it would render
some of the most potent legal measures in defense of individual rights?all
those listed in the Bill of Rights?nearly irrelevant other than when the
federal government usurps those rights. But these rights are actually
routinely violated by all levels of American government and if the Courts
can function as bulwarks against such violations, I say go for it. We need
all the help we can get and no arcane technicality of what is by now
pretty effectively obsolete constitutional law should stand in our way.

If one keeps in mind that libertarian ?anarchists? are really not
anarchists?since they do believe in law and its administration and they do
accept some agency having jurisdiction in such matters?and if one then
keeps in mind that takings for purposes of enhancing such administration
is necessary provided compensation is provided, then it is clear that
government has proper legal authority only to take private property for
public?which is to say, strictly limited legal administrative?use. The
incorporation issue is irrelevant here, not one concerned with the basic
principles of a free society. Kelo, then, did grave violence to individual
or private property rights and one can only work to have the Court reverse
itself, not to lend it any kind of credibility.

Sunday, July 03, 2005

Column on my guilty pleasure

My Guilty Pleasure

Tibor R. Machan

Yes, I have one, and I am not sure I can be forgiven for it. I like
reading The New York Review of Books, this country?s most erudite liberal
?book review? magazine. (It is only nominally a review because too much of
it departs very significantly from the substance of the books being
discussed and lets reviewers scurry all over the disciplinary landscape if
just a bit of what they discuss is related to that substance.) Of course,
I like the learned, if highly opinionated, essays included in each issues;
some of them are nearly completely unrelated to politics, such as the
abundant discussion and disputation about the nature of consciousness and
the varieties of fine arts. But even the most explicitly political work is
enjoyable to read.

Yet that alone wouldn?t make reading The New York Review the guilty
pleasure it is for me. There is one attribute to this publication that is
so blatantly paradoxical, so outlandishly contradictory, that each issue I
receive provides me the joy of seeing everyone in the editorial department
squirm?or to turn a deliberate blind eye?so as to be able to live with
himself. You see, The New York Review of Books is nothing if not
dogmatically egalitarian in its political economical philosophy. Such
legal stars writing for it as Ronald Dworkin have attained near celebrity
status in their advocacy of a level playing field in nearly all realms of
social and economic life. (His book Sovereign Virtue [2002] lays out his
case in detail.) Mandated affirmative action is just one case in point?The
Review?s contributors consistently defend it. Yet another indication of
its egalitarianism is the scholars it has targeted for debunking, such as
the late Leo Strauss and Hoover Institution fellow Thomas Sowell. (Some of
the treatments are, however, quite good, as when in a recent piece
Professor Mark Lilla of the University of Chicago Committee for Social
Thought straightened out may liberals about whether Strauss can be blamed
for the current American administration?s neo-conservative zeal in foreign
military policy matters.)

The fact is that The New York Review of Books is one of this country?s
most elitist publications. One need only read it for about a year to
notice that the selection of works to which the editors pay attention is
uncompromisingly prestigious. The authors whose books get reviewed
invariably have the highest possible academic pedigree, as do the
reviewers themselves. The publishers, too, are ranked the
highest?virtually no books from non-prominent presses get discussed. And
as far as letters to the editor are concerned, only the highest ranking
correspondents manage to get it?I know, since for about 30 years I have
tried to chime in and never managed to get published, despite writing some
very good letters, ones that are routinely responded to with considerable
interest by the Review?s authors when I send them a version of my comments.

The pleasure of seeing these adamant champions of equality of results on
all significant fronts completely ignore their own counsel is indeed a
significant one for me, someone who thinks fairness toward and equal
treatment of people in nearly all areas of life (outside the protection
owed our individual rights by the legal authorities) is bunk. When the
premier journal in the country that peddles the egalitarian line cannot
manage for the life of it to live by its own egalitarian edicts, that is
certainly a pretty clear hint that egalitarianism is an impossible dream.
I, of course, consider it a dreadful dream, a nightmare, but the editors
of The New York Review evidently believe in it with all their hearts and a
bit of their minds, yet they are unable to do what that very social
philosophy requires, namely, give a fair chance to those who do not meet
their standards, whatever they may be, within the pages of their

Witnessing one?s adversaries being hoisted on their own petard is indeed
a guilty pleasure of mine (which is why I find the idea of taking US
Supreme Court Justice David H. Souter?s home in an eminent domain measure
by the city where he lives, one he recently helped authorized, so
appealing). The New York Review provides that pleasure in each issue by
combining a straightforward, uncompromising practical elitism with the
relentless and unyielding political and legal message of egalitarianism.
This certain contributes evidence for the naiveté and ultimate futility of
its social-political message.