Saturday, September 03, 2005

Column on Privacy v.Anti-Individualism

Another Modern Liberal Confusion

Tibor R. Machan

It has long been a central criticism of classical liberal, liberal social
philosophy that it is too individualistic. Critics have coined the term
?atomism? for their complaint?philosophers such as Charles Taylor,
sociologists such as Amitai Etzioni, and others have followed in the
footsteps of the 19th century German political economist, Karl Marx, by
claiming that the classical liberal, libertarian outlook mistakenly
construes human beings as essentially individuals. These radicals have
held that our individuality is central to what we are. Marx?s famous
charge against capitalism, that it is alienating people in all kinds of
ways, arise from lamenting this idea.

The gist of the point is that classical liberals or libertarians
understand people to be self-directed, self-motivated to enhance and
develop their own lives by taking charge of it and not by depending
primarily, at least in adulthood, on others, on society, and on various
groups. As Marx put the idea, ?The human essence is the true collectivity
of man,? arguing that people really are parts of a larger whole?society,
humanity, family, you name it.

Yet, it is interesting that one of the major beefs of those, mainly on
the Left today, who have sympathy with this outlook and, accordingly,
criticize individualism, is that the US Supreme Court does not recognize
privacy as a fundamental individual right. Be it in connection with the
abortion debate, homosexuality, or various civil liberties issues, the
critics of the conservative wing of the court?who are sympathetic with the
political Left?constantly stress the importance of the right to privacy.

Now if there is anything in the American political tradition that
encourages individual independence, the right to privacy?founded, in fact,
on that famous capitalist institution, the right to private property?is
certainly at the top of the list. If one is free to withdraw to one?s own
sphere?free to associate only with those one chooses as friends and keep
to oneself and be private rather than open himself or herself to various
groups and be public?that certainly would tend to make atomism a
possibility. (Classical liberals and libertarians, however, maintain that
this charge of atomism is bogus?the only thing they oppose is forced
membership in groups, not a great variety of voluntary associations among

This current championing of the right to privacy by the Left is by all
appearances quite disingenuous. It smells much like the Left's earlier
championing of freedom of speech, which in time metamorphosed into
championing political correctness, the very opposite of freedom of speech.
These principles often paraded about by the likes of the ACLU and other
Left or near-Left political groups tend, in the main, to amount to
temporary tools for advancing nothing but Left Wing power throughout the
country. How could all these socialists or near-socialists truly endorse
the right to privacy when, in fact, their social and political philosophy
does not even recognize people as individuals with a private life, let
alone a private dominion? It is as close to a ruse as anything can get in
the realm of politics.

Sadly, these paradoxes are not often pointed out in mainstream political
discussions, in part because both sides that dominate them?modern liberals
and social conservatives?are hostile to any type of bona fide
individualism. Indeed, socialists and conservatives are both against it.
Just revisit the quote from Marx and then consider the words of the most
famous conservative thinker, Edmund Burke, who said, most forthrightly,
that ?[E]ach 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? and that ?We are afraid to put men to
live and trade each on his own private stock of reason, because we suspect
that this stock in each man is small, and that the individuals would do
better to avail themselves of the general bank of nations and of ages.?

Of course, the radicalism of individualism is undeniable but is it true?
Yes, it is?and everyone can experience its truth by observing himself or
herself navigating the world: Although we all draw on what we learn from
others, we ourselves are the ones who put what we have learned together
and make it work for us (or fail to do so).

Friday, September 02, 2005

Column on Misusing Liberty (Check if it's a duplicate)

What if people used liberty badly?

Tibor R. Machan

If people are free to choose how to live, how to conduct themselves and
what goals to pursue, they will do commendable as well as contemptible
things. That is what liberty means--there is no justification for
regimenting any adult's life, none. The right to liberty, an unalienable
right to quote the American founders, can be used well or badly.

Why would anyone endorse this? It's risky, of course, since folks often
choose badly. But if they aren't going to choose for themselves, then
others will choose for them and, of course, others, too, can choose well
or badly. And when others don't know about someone they order about, they
will most often judge badly. Even more importantly, the most central fact
about people will be suppressed, namely, their decisive role in living
their own lives. This is crucial about human beings--self-responsibility.
Without it we do not live genuine human lives at all but the ?lives? of
circus or barnyard animals, even puppets.

For those who wish to bring in government to save us from these risks it
needs to be pointed out that there is absolutely no reason to think that
those in governments will do better than those out of government at
managing lives. Indeed, power corrupts, so those who attempt to take over
the lives of others in the hope of making these others live right will
quickly forget that goal and manage others for perverse purposes. They
will rule others to seek their own goals, to gain and keep power to
themselves. The initial helpful intentions will quickly give way to
incompetent bungling and, in time, to nothing more noble than hanging on
to power over others. This is because rulers rarely know enough about
what is best for those they rule and instead of admitting this, they will
keep trying to get it right and fail at it worse and worse.

Defenders of liberty know that free men and women will often go astray.
But that is no justification for trying to take away anyone's liberty, not
unless they try to invade the lives of others who should also be free.
Just think, if you and I and neighbor Jones isn't up to doing reasonably
well at living our lives, why would neighbor Smith be good, on the whole,
at ordering us about successfully? Neighbor Smith isn't some God but yet
another bloke, a bureaucrat or politician, who is no better equipped to do
things right than you and I are.

Government is, in short, not qualified to guide us to do what's right, as
a general rule, so it should stick to its business of keeping the peace.
The police are best employed as peace officers and not as members of the
vice squad. That would just tempt them to become corrupt, to oppress
people, since they really aren't qualified to set us all aright.

The task to straighten out people about right and wrong should not be
left to government but to family, friends, neighbors, fellow parishioners,
teachers, experts who must earn our trust and others who must deal with us
not by means of coercion but by means of persuasion. That is the
foundation of civilization, peaceful interaction among people, not the
deployment of violence to try to make us good.

Sadly, the temptation to resort of coercion is intense. People often get
impatient and think they should take shortcuts and slap us around,
figuratively or literally, rather than reach us through reason. So they
call upon government, the wielder of force in society, to hurry things up.
But that way they undermine not just the humanity of those from whom they
take the power of self-government but also themselves whose ways they have
rendered brutal and uncivilized.

Yes, free men and women can do wild and crazy, even perverse, things but
their lives are their own--that is what having the unalienable right to
life means. And these lives are for their owners to run, however
successfully or ineptly. To help, others can urge, implore, suggest,
advise, propose, even pressure in friendly ways. But no one gets to take
over the direction of these lives, not with any justice on their side, no
matter how perversely those lives may be lived.

Column on de Tocqueville and Public Spiritedness

De Tocqueville?s America

Tibor R. Machan

Alexis de Tocqueville, born 200 years ago in Paris, traveled in America
and wrote about the country in his famous book, Democracy in America. He
is widely recognized as a most astute observer of American democracy. It
is worth considering one of his points at this particular time because it
seems to have been overly pessimistic. He wrote that,

... As each class gradually approaches others and mingles with them [in a
free, democratic society], its members become undifferentiated and lose
their class identity for each other. Aristocracy had made a chain of all
the members of the community, from the peasant to the king; democracy
breaks that chain and severs every link of it.

As social conditions become more equal, the number of persons increases
who, although they are neither rich nor powerful enough to exercise any
great influence over their fellows, have nevertheless acquired or retained
sufficient education and fortune to satisfy their own wants. They owe
nothing to any man, they expect nothing from any man; they acquire the
habit of always considering themselves as standing alone, and they are apt
to imagine that their whole destiny is in their hands.

Thus not only does democracy make every man forget his ancestors, but it
hides his descendants and separates his contemporaries from him; it throws
him back forever upon himself alone and threatens in the end to confine
him entirely within the solitude of his own heart. (Democracy in America,
vol. 2 [New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1945], pages 98-99.)

Was de Tocqueville right? Do citizens of a democracy?by which he meant a
free society in which individualism is much prized?fail to develop public
spiritedness? Do they see themselves as lacking any responsibility toward
others in their community?

It seems this is not so and de Tocqueville was mistaken. His mistake can
be seen in just how readily so many Americans rose to help out those who
were the causalities, way on the other side of the globe, of last year?s
tsunami; he is once again proven wrong by how eagerly Americans seem to
wish to help those left in ruin by Katrina.

But why did de Tocqueville make his mistake?

Many like him, who came from an ?aristocratic? background?actually, a
background of en entrenched, not earned, aristocracy?held a pessimistic
view of human nature, especially when it comes to those who aren?t members
of their class. This has to do with their widely held belief that at the
core human beings are sinful and anti-social, so much so that they need to
be nudged along by the wellborn to cultivate any public concerns.

If one identifies ?public life? with government, then, yes, many people
in a free and democratic country do not show public spiritedness. But is
that identification correct? Can one express one?s interest in one?s
fellows in a society only via politics?

Americans have proven over and over again that they are generous,
sometimes to a fault, especially in times of crises when most of those who
suffer evidently do not deserve it. In the main, Americans do not take
kindly to indiscriminate welfare-statism but there is evidence from way
back in the country?s history that natural disasters are met with
alertness and kindness, not xenophobia, as de Tocqueville had feared.

This is probably because in a largely free society it is clear to many
people that whether others will be helped in their need is not something
to be left to their government?whose job, after all, is ?to secure our
rights??but is, instead, a task to be taken up voluntarily, of one?s own
initiative. Such ?public? spiritedness is, in fact, a more hopeful
approach to coping in times of crisis then is marshaling the coercive
forces of the state. It comes from the widespread realization among
largely self-reliant people that human beings share many risks in life and
in a civilized society they must abstain from resorting to the force of
law to cope with such risks. Instead, they need to lend their hand at such
times, from their knowledge that that is indeed the most promising way to
recover from disasters.

Machan teaches business ethics at Chapman University as is editor of,
among other works, Liberty & Hard Cases (Hoover Institution Press, 2002).

Wednesday, August 31, 2005

Column on Self Deprecation

The Mystery of Human Self-deprecation

Tibor R. Machan

When parents notice their children feeling low and suspect this
may persist, signaling lack of self-respect, they naturally worry. Why?
Well, without a solid measure of confidence in oneself, one is not likely
to set off on difficult journeys, take up tasks that require skill and
perseverance. Friendship and romantic love, just to mention two vital
areas of our lives, also call upon us to do well and if we see ourselves
as inept, they are unlikely to flourish.

Yet, although children are widely understood to require the
development of self-confidence, when we become adults and do, finally,
feel up to things, this is often considered hubris. Indeed, there is now a
general movement afoot, led by the likes of Bernd Heinrich, Emeritus
Professor at the University of Vermont, to denigrate us all, to show that
we aren?t anything very special in the living world. Writing for the
International Herald Tribune on August 30, 2005, Heinrich goes to great
lengths to use the very popular recent movie, March of the Penguins, to
suggest this theme. The gist of the argument is that human beings share
98% of their DNA with some of the big apes and other animals, so there
mustn?t be much difference between them and the rest of the animal world.

Alas, this is a bad argument. A little bit can mean a lot and in
the case of the impact of that little bit on what human beings are it does
indeed mean a lot. For one, human beings are the ones who make these kinds
of discoveries about the animal world, not big apes. They are the
scientists?zoologists, biologists, physiologists and others?who bring to
light these intriguing findings, whereas chimps, orangutans, and other
apes, let alone the rest of the animals, have nothing at all to say on
these matters, nothing to show because, well, they haven?t got the
faculties with which to discover all the relevant information.

The percentage of DNA we share with other animals must be
understood in context. DNA by itself doesn?t account for a whole lot. It
is the configuration of all the biological components that make up an
organism that counts. That is what enables people to forge sciences such
as biology, to produce works of art, to build cities and write books and
all the rest that is utterly absent from the rest of the animal world.

But even more importantly, only people have the capacity to
discuss these very issues of whether they and animals do or do not share
important attributes. They are the only ones, for example, who can be
implored to act in certain ways that come from paying attention to just
what animals can and cannot do, versus what people can and cannot do.
Human beings are the only animals capable of exhibit moral concerns about,
for example, other animals or the environment or anything else for that

Now if that isn?t a vital difference between us and other animals
I don?t know what is. Clearly, having moral responsibilities makes us very
different animals from even the great apes. And all those who try to tell
us that we aren?t all that different contradict themselves in the very act
of making such a claim to us about the matter rather than addressing the
great apes about it all. They show that we are very different indeed, even
as they deny that difference.

Aristotle, 25 centuries ago, already knew well enough that anyone
who refuses to study animals fails to learn enough about human beings to
be well informed. As he said, "If there is anyone who holds that the study
of the animal is an unworthy pursuit, he ought to go further and hold the
same opinion about the study of himself." This is no news. What is new is
this incessant urgency with which some folks go about trying to belittle
human beings, trying to make us feel like we don?t amount to much. Yet,
all the while they do this they demonstrate, also, that we do amount to a
lot more than other animals since they have no interest in addressing
those other animals about these issues.

Being something special in nature doesn?t give us much credit
individually, of course. Yes, we can use animals for scientific research,
even for entertainment, if this will help us flourish in our lives--all
animals do this. But that doesn?t mean we are drastically different from
the rest of the animal world, only that we do have traits and faculties
that enable us to do very different things from other animals, including
being responsible as we chose how we conduct ourselves, something other
animals cannot do.