Saturday, October 01, 2005

Column on Bannig Phoning While Driving

Banning Driving While Phoning

Tibor R. Machan

Richard Roy, a state representative of Connecticut, is quoted in The New
York Times, Saturday, October 1, 2005, saying "There's nothing worse than
seeing someone driving down the road, on the phone or shaving or putting
on make-up, and there's a child in the back seat." With this hyperbole he
was defending the new law in the state banning the use of cell phones
while driving a car.

Actually, cell phone use by drivers can be just as safe or unsafe as
combing one?s hair, fiddling with the CD or cassette player, searching for
house keys in one?s pocket or purse or doing innumerable other things that
may distract one. To pick on cell phone use is unjustified.

This is not to say that some people aren?t quite reckless as they drive
and use their cell phones. But, that?s not unique to cell phone use, as
already noted. Indeed, a good policy is to get away from drivers who are
talking to and looking at their passengers. It?s scary?they could get so
involved as to miss umpteen hazards. But is it sensible to ban this?

I am not disputing the authority of the managers?the government?to set
rules for the use of the roads. Clearly this is what underlies all these
rules of the road, even when they are an overreach. Anyone who owns or
manages a realm may establish rules within that realm?prohibit people from
smoking in one?s home or restaurant or offices, require them to take their
shoes off before coming in; you name it and ownership confers such a
right. Other people, of course, have the right to stay clear of such
realms when they disagree with such rules.

Unfortunately, when it comes to roads, there is no alternative to using
the ones the state administers, so unlike in the case of homes and
restaurants, there?s no choice??You want to drive, you got to deal with
the man.? That?s how it is, unless you can find some private road system
someplace, and even then the government will probably have intruded big
time. (Perhaps an exception is raceways, where the owners set the rules;
however, these are only available to qualified racers.)

So the issue of whether to ban hand held cell phones by automobile
drivers isn?t about who has the power to impose such a ban?clearly, in the
way our society is managed, the government does, although we can dicker
about whether local, county, state or federal politicians and/or
bureaucrats have that legal authority. It seems, however, that whether a
general ban ought to be imposed is very difficult to know?some drivers may
well be using cell phones and while doing so driving even more safely than
when they do not; while using them, they may well be especially focused on
their driving, whereas when they are not, they could become complacent.
This can apply to the use of any other implement?I, for example, often
shave as I drive and increase my focus on the road as I do this. Shaving,
of course, doesn?t run the risk of getting too involved with something
that can take one?s mind off the road. Selecting a CD from one?s
collection, however, can be much more distracting than using a cell phone.

When politicians and bureaucrats get involved in micromanaging how people
ought to drive, they can very easily become pointlessly intrusive. They
can be like those parents who meddle in everything their teen children are
doing and thereby drive a serious wedge between them and the kids, even
encourage rebelliousness instead of prudence. This would likely be even
worse with those who manage the roads?they are, after all, dealing mostly
with adults who pretty much hold on to the notion that they, not some
official, ought to decided how they ought to drive a car. Evasion of or
resistance to rules can become routine and this may work against the
purpose a cell phone or similar ban is meant to serve.

It seems to me that the answer is to focus not on what people do in their
cars while driving but on the actual driving they do, which is what those
who enforce the rules of the road can deal with most effectively. It
shouldn?t be an issue whether one is using this or that implement that may
for some but not for others serve to impede their driving. It should be an
issue of whether the driving is competent, which is something quite
independent of why it may or may not be.

In a free society it isn?t the state of mind of citizens that should be
the concern of law enforcement, but primarily their actual conduct.

Thursday, September 29, 2005

Column on Exploiting Disasters

Exploiting Disasters

Tibor R. Machan

In the beginning of the American republic there was a debate between the
Hamiltonians and Jeffersonians. Neither side was advancing a fully
consistent, coherent vision of politics for America but, in the main,
Hamiltonians defended the idea of a strong federal, while Jefferson?s
supporters argued for limited and mainly local government. The debate has
never completely ended, although Hamiltonians triumphed when it comes to
how America evolved.

In our day there is little mainstream opposition to the Hamiltonian big
government vision. Both parties champion it, differing only on what
aspects of society each would like to have government control more fully,
more aggressively. Conservatives focus mainly on shaping our souls?they
want to bring church and state closer together, they demand that religious
teaching be spread across the land, while liberals are primarily
interested in having government control the economy, raise minimum wages,
regulate corporations, and tax and spend to their heart?s content. Don?t
kid yourself?each side embraces aggressive moralizing to the core.

In times of emergencies the fact that both the liberals and the
conservatives have embraced big government?not only in terms of its size
and cost but even more importantly regarding its scope of power?comes
across most clearly. The only minor dispute between these two factions
concerns which level of government should be most involved, state or
federal. Conservatives prefer that state governments wield the greater
power and carry the greater burden, while liberals champion unrestrained
federal involvement.

The fact that neither alternative is working well, no matter what the
crisis happens to be?natural, like Katrina and Rita, or man made such as
terrorism?does not bother either side too much. Sure, there are some who
sound alarms about too much government power, say, when it comes to
sacrificing civil liberties in the war on terror or, on the other side,
when massive and reckless federal spending is contemplated as a remedy for
whatever ails the country. But aside from such details, the consensus
tends to be that when people face big trouble, the way to go is with big

The disaster by the Gulf of Mexico and the visual imagery that millions
of us experienced from the region, has given the Hamiltonians a
considerable opportunity to bolster their case. As an example, one need
but read Michael Ignatieff, Carr professor of human rights at Harvard
University?s Kennedy School of Government, in the September 25th issue of
The New York Times Magazine. To bolster his ongoing support for big,
unlimited federal government, Ignatieff penned ?The Broken Contract,? a
piece in which he propounds the notion that the American people have
entered into a contract which requires that they be protected by
government from all hazards and dangers and crisis. As he puts the point,

[The contract?s] basic term is protection: helping citizens to protect
their families and possessions from forces beyond their control. Let's not
suppose this contract is uncontroversial. American politics is a furious
argument about what should be in the contract and what shouldn't be. But
there is enough agreement, most of the time, about what the contract
contains for America to hold together as a political community. When
disasters strike, they test whether the contract is respected in a
citizen's hour of need. When the levees broke, the contract of American
citizenship failed.

Actually, of course, no such contract was ever entered into. In the
American political tradition if any kind of contract between the citizens
and their government exists, it involves the very limited terms of getting
protection of one?s basic rights. As stated in the Declaration of
Independence, where this political vision is sketched, it is ?to secure
these rights [that] governments are instituted among men, deriving their
just powers from the consent of the government.?

This is unambiguously put?governments exist so as to protect our rights,
not to protect us ?from forces beyond our control.? In other words,
American government wasn?t conceived as our doctor, dentist, tree surgeon,
hurricane fighter, flood preventer, and all the various professionals whom
we hire when ?forces beyond our control? threaten or invade our lives.
American government exists to fight criminals, not nature.

It should be simple to understand this. Government is made up of
politicians and bureaucrats, not professionals who know how to handle all
the varieties of disasters that we can encounter in life. Whenever
government extends itself to attempt to cope with these adversities, all
that really happens is that it grows by leaps and bounds. (The best
scholarly work on this is Robert Higgs? Crisis and Leviathan [Oxford
University Press, 1987].)

Yet, of course, even as academic cheerleaders of big government like
Michael Ignatieff admit outright that government failed in this latest, as
it has in innumerable other, disaster management, they also use the
disaster to call for more and more government.

Instead, they ought to call for taking government out of the picture and
acclimating all of us to the simple and vital fact that disasters are best
managed with paid professionals, ones who would be prepared and step up to
the plate if only government didn?t pretend to be there for us, feigning
?to protect [our] families and possessions from forces beyond our control.?

Wednesday, September 28, 2005

Column on Ripples of Kelo

[Please proof read before using]

Ripples of Kelo?

Tibor R. Machan

It seems like Kelo v. City of New London, CT.?the infamous case in which
the US Supreme Court ruled 5 to 4 that private property may be taken so as
to transfer it to others who might do with something conducive to the
likes of local politicians?has energized the enemies of private property
rights. Now they are arguing that whenever the government takes property
from someone, it need not even be compensated. Why? Because it never
belonged to anyone but the government in the first place.

This appears to be the rallying cry of people from around the country
lobbying against a Congressional measure (H. R. 3824) that would require
governments to pay for taking property from citizens so that this property
could serve some public purpose. Various members of Congress?e.g., Raul M.
Grijalva and John Conyers, Jr.?are claiming that any measure that would
compensate property owners when such takings occur amounts to ?a massive
new entitlement program.? Letting folks keep what they own?or requiring
government to pay for it when they confiscate it?is now to be construed as
an entitlement, a kind of gift from the state.

Suppose a government regulatory agency declares that your backyard or
farmland must be preserved so as to provide a habitat for some endangered
species. The lobbyists are claiming that when your property is confiscated
for this purpose nothing is actually taken from you because the property
in fact belongs to the endangered species, not you, in the first place.
The Endangered Species Act supposedly implies this. The reduction ad
of such an idea is that if some bug or virus infests your body, you may not
expunge it because they and not you have a right to be there. As if bugs,
viruses, and endangered species had the right to private property, instead
of human beings.

Here is where all the talk about animal rights has its insidious,
misanthropic results. If one holds to the myth that animals have rights,
including property rights, then these lobbyists?who will surely be
standing in line to administer any system honoring such animal rights?have
a point. (Yet even then the fact that people took possessions of the land
in question first would support the idea that if property is taken from
them, it should be compensated. By whom, you might ask. Well, by those who
want to provide the animals with a habitat, namely, the

In fact, as my book Putting Humans First, Why We Are Nature?s Favorite
(2004) argued, animals have no rights and any law that is enacted under
the assumption that they do is a farce. The only reason for these laws is
that there is a large enough active constituency that wants them and wants
to be in the position to administer whatever regulations emerge in the
wake of having them enacted.

OK, some of these lobbyists may in fact be animal lovers and may be
motivated by this love to run roughshod over private property rights. And
instead of collecting the money needed to make room for their beloved
animals, they prefer going to the government and having it force human
beings off their property without even compensating them for their losses.

Of course, this procedure is nothing new. Indeed, even the US Supreme
Court?s Kelo ruling wasn?t entirely novel. People have been going to
government for many years to get their way against other people. As one
sage warned, "A democracy cannot exist as a permanent form of government.
It can only exist until the voters discover that they can vote themselves
largess of the public treasury. From that time on the majority always
votes for the candidates promising the most benefits from the public
treasury, with the results that a democracy always collapses over loose
fiscal policy, always followed by a dictatorship." (Attributed to Sir Alex
Fraser Tytler [1742-1813].)

We are witnessing this evolution now, with environmental lobbyists
basically urging that the government confiscate all private property if it
can be useful to living beings other than ourselves. This is exactly the
kind of altruism that one leader of the animal liberation movement called
for back in the 1970s, in a book titled Animal Liberation (Random House,

And it is very likely that these lobbyists will prevail, sadly, since the
courts have neglected to stand firmly in defense of the right to private
property when other objectives were advanced as reason to violate them.

Monday, September 26, 2005

Column on doing things on our own

Science versus Society?

Tibor R. Machan

One would assume science is on society?s side, which is to say that what
scientists learn can make things better for many of us. And this is
certainly generally true. But there appear to be some exceptions or,
rather, puzzles. Here what the scientists produce often leads to more
confusion than understanding.

In his book Basic Instinct: The Genesis of Behavior (2005), Mark
Blumberg, a psychologist at the University of Iowa, argues that our
behavior is prompted by our DNA and by the environment and explores how
much of it is due to which. He is, in other words, chiming in with his own
reflections on the old nature versus nurture debate. What is so puzzling
is that there is no room left for Blumberg?and, admittedly, to most of
those who discuss the topic?for what most people outside of the scientific
community think is the main explanation for how we act, namely, ourselves.
(For that we would need to turn to the late Edward Pols, whose Acts of Our
Being [1983] explores that possibility thoroughly.)

Yes, indeed, Blumberg spends some 200 pages without ever considering that
beside how our genes and environment influence what we do, there may well
be just a bit of room for personal responsibility. That option is
apparently so absurd for him that he will not even mention it.

Yet, of course, much of society?its institutions, policies,
problems?assumes that although DNA has a serious impact on us, and the
environment matters, too, the main force in producing our behavior is the
individual, by means of the exercise of what has traditionally been called
one?s free will. This is why criminals are convicted of crimes. This is
why those in charge are blamed when various organizations, firms or
governments foul up?just think of FEMA or Enron or the Iraqi war. Even in
the scientific community, where Blumberg conducts his discussions, people
hold one another responsible for mistakes and sometimes even charge that
out and out malpractice is taking place.

So then how can a scientist write an entire book about human behavior but
omit from consideration whether and how individual agents decide to act?
How are this scientist?s readers and students going to come to grips with
all those aspects of human life that are attributed to such decisions and
actions of individual human beings and not to DNA or the environment?

Blumberg?s discussion is fascinating as it delves into many interesting
topics anyone who ponders human life would find relevant. I was especially
taken by the ruminations about language and its basis in our make-up. But
to fail to even mention that perhaps some of what people do is up to them,
that they are the ones bringing about this behavior and not their genes or
the environment, is certainly puzzling if not out and out irresponsible.

The failure may be to, in part, to the fact that a simple picture of how
the world works had for a few centuries gripped the imagination of many
students of human conduct. This picture would have it that everything
operates more or less as do the balls on a pool table?by way of nothing
more than mechanical causation. One thing moves and then makes another
move and so and so forth, endlessly. This simple?even simplistic?view of
causality leaves no room for initiated behavior. It requires that
everything be part of a daisy chain of endless causal links.

But immediately a difficulty arises: What of the claims the scientists
themselves make? Are these claims simply a product of this endless causal
chain? Must the scientist?is he or she compelled to?make those statements
and must those who disagree with the scientist make their dissenting
statements as well? And if someone were to presume to adjudicate between
the two sides, would that individual too be simply uttering statements
because, well, of an inner or environmentally induced compulsion?

If so, how is anyone ever going to gain an independent stance from which
the dispute could be adjudged objectively, without prejudice and bias?
Anything that makes utterances that cannot but be made?say a parrot or a
tape recorder?isn?t in a position to figure whether those utterances are
true. It is like anything that?s said in a drunken stupor or under the
heavy influence of drugs?practically meaningless.

What is needed is a reconsideration of what kinds of causes take place in
the world. Some are, of course, like what takes place on a pool table and
elsewhere, mechanical. But there are other possibilities, such as when
something, such as a Beethoven or Tolstoy or, indeed, Mark S. Blumberg,
the author of Basic Instinct, set out to do something original, something
creative. That is their undertaking and it isn?t going to be explainable
fully either our DNA or environment or the two of these alone.

The very idea of responsible scientific conduct rests on having to make
room for the individual person whose actions we are considering.