Saturday, November 05, 2005

No Choice, Only An Echo

Tibor R. Machan

Most of my reading consist of novels, books in physics, and magazines on politics and culture. In this latter category fall The New York Review of Books and The Claremont Review of Books.

No, I am not a masochist. However I do need to keep up to snuff on what the erudite folks are thinking on both the American Right and the Left. These two publications provide one with a pretty good sample, although one should dip into The New Republic, The Nation, National Review, Commentary, and some others as well to keep abreast of things—or, rather, what such folks think about things.

The reason I mention masochism above is that reading either the American Right or Left is often painful and scary. What they are completely united on is being hell bent on wanting to control other people. They differ only on what that control ought to accomplish.

With the Right we get what George Will once had as a part of the title of one of his books, namely, soul craft. With the Left we get the desperate wish for controlling people’s wealth, their productive efforts and what results of them. As Ayn Rand, the Russian born American novelist-philosopher once noted, it all depends on your metaphysics: If you think what’s crucial in the world is the operation of matter, that’s what you will want to control; if it is spirit you think makes the most difference, you will want to control it. In either case, the casualty is human individual liberty.

This is nearly completely right, judging by what the erudite folks on the American Right and Left put out. It comes out especially clearly when they review books, often by authors from the other side. One can nearly always predict that, no matter how nuanced and sophisticated a criticism is, the Right complains that there is not more regimentation of our souls, whereas the Left’s beef is that our bodies are not put into the service of the goals they favor.

It is quite amazing how little both sides trust human individuals when it comes to the issue of choosing the right course of conduct for themselves. Whatever that proper course is—and I agree that there is such a course, albeit not usually simple to figure out, especially from remote places like Washington, D.C.—what matters to the Right and the Left is that some bullies take up the job of coercing us all to do it.

Interestingly, in this regard these highly educated, often very skilled wordsmiths, aren’t all that different from the radical Islamists they both claim to dislike. For what the radical Islamists want is to force the world to march to just one drummer, theirs, never mind freedom of choice. George Will again, the conservative pundit, once made this clear when he spoke so derisively of choice! The Left is no less impressed with choice, except when it comes to the abortion debate, somewhat like the Right isn’t too worried about life (for example, loosing it in a completely bizarre war across the globe that has virtually nothing to do with freedom, as they pretend) other than when it comes to that of a human embryo.

This is all very sad. Of course, both sides want to reserve to themselves a monopoly on championing freedom. The Right doesn’t mind some economic freedom—it isn’t essential to the spiritual life, after all. And the Left doesn’t mind some freedom in, say, the arts, which is to many of them a mere epiphenomenona. They are also perfectly willing to call “freedom” what is in fact regimentation—positive freedom, that is, making some people provide others with what will enable them to do what they want and like.

What should be clear to all these highly educated, well read, sober people on both sides—all of whom have their own particular value-agendas, don’t make any mistake about that—is that adult human beings just do not get better when they are pushed around, however well-meaning are the pushers. They may comply, they may even invent a bit to make life easier under the gun, but ultimately all this regimentation impedes genuine improvement of the human condition. Freedom is the answer, the kind of freedom that recognizes and honors every adult person’s sovereignty and attempts to influence people only in the civilized way of persuasion, never coercion.

Thursday, November 03, 2005

The Futility of Nonstop Relief

Tibor R. Machan

United Nations Emergency Relief Coordinator Jan Egeland was in conversation with Charlie Rose the other night, mostly discussing how little the developed countries of the world provide relief to underdeveloped countries that are hit by natural disasters or simply linger in dire poverty. The Pakistan earthquake devastated thousands of homes, leaving nearly a hundred thousand people destitute and almost as many dead because of collapsed buildings that were not earthquake proof. In Africa draughts are killing thousands.

Egeland and Rose both seemed to give the impression that the only solution is more government, tax funded aid from developed countries. Although Egeland admitted that when major natural disasters strike, private giving jumps considerably, he lamented—though not with the kind if finger wagging attitude we get from the likes of Peter Unger and Peter Singer—that once the disaster is out of mind, the private giving stops.

What made the discussion so interesting to me is what it was that these supposedly smart, well educated people never mentioned. This is that in most of these underdeveloped regions of the world the major obstacle to coping successfully with and recovering from any sort of natural or semi-natural disaster is the political-economic system in which people live. And this, too, is arguably the reason for the lack of massive support from developed nations, be that support governmental or private.

No one can accept the idea of trying to fill a bottomless hole—that people in these parts of the world will forever need to be taken care of, that they simply will never cope on their own. And this is quite rational—if someone requires emergency support, so as to be helped with getting back on his or her feet, after which a productive life will be resumed, helping makes sense. But if help simply goes to be consumed, after which more help is required, on and on and on, this is intolerable. At some point no matter how much is given, it will reach an end and, once again, thousands will perish.

But the idea that the political-legal infrastructure in these regions—where those whom Egeland kept referring to as “vulnerable people” live—has anything to do with the persistent hardship never came up during the entire discussion. Nor did either of these individuals think to mention that given the disincentives that are built into the political economies of the countries involved, there is not likely to be an end of the desperate neediness of the people. Nor are the bulk of the factors that make them vulnerable—bad housing, terrible school buildings, dysfunctional transportation, primitive medical facilities, etc., and so forth—likely to undergo serious improvement. Thus, those who might choose to help are very likely to become frustrated, seeing no end to the demands on them for charity.

This element of the situation was begging for some discussion, yet the main topic continued to be how little of their wealth those in developed countries were sending to help. The issue of how governments and the legal order in these regions prevent development was barely hinted at.

Both Rose and Egeland worried a great deal about the fact that although in absolute terms the USA sends more support than any other country, in terms of percentage of the wealth of the people it sends but an average, far less than the Scandinavians and other Europeans. Both of the discussants made much of this, appearing more bent on instilling guilt in viewers than on seeking working, long term solutions to the problem of poverty.

Why did they dance around the basic problem—namely, that in most of these undeveloped countries there so much poverty, so little productivity? Surely coordinating relief must include establishing a sound infrastructure. What I suspect is that raising the topic of political economy seriously, searchingly, is deemed to be too judgmental. If, say, the political system of Bangladesh, or Kashmir, or Ghana stymies development, this must remain unexamined because to make note of it is to criticize the regimes and many of the officials in those parts of the world. And with the currently very influential multicultural attitude—whereby there are no better or worse regimes, it is all relative—one is simply prevented from addressing the issue of the comparative merits of political economies.

It seems to me that such squeamishness renders these discussions largely unproductive. They amount to little more than hand-wringing and guilt mongering. And, frankly, sensible, prudent people will not fall for that after a while. It will seem to them, and rightly so, futile to even think about the topic after a while.
Precursor to Multiculturalism

Tibor R. Machan

Multiculturalism is the position that all cultures past and present are legitimate, valid ways to understand and cope with the world. Indeed, it is sometimes put that different cultures live in different worlds and in some circles there is speculation that this may be a very basic, even metaphysical and scientific (cosmological) fact, namely, that there is an infinite number of universes, not just one.

This last point is often put in terms that at least the logical possibility of infinite number of universes has to be admitted. Whether this means that those universes actually exist is left untreated for now. What is interesting is that the underlying rationale for the multi-universe/multi-culture idea had its origins in a philosophical movement that was spawned right here in the good old USA.

Now and then we hear that such strange ideas have come to us from Europe or the far East. Deconstruction and post-modernism are frequently said to have originated abroad but have seduced many American intellectuals and academics. But, in fact, the history is different from this.

In the late 1800s the American philosopher Charles Sanders Peirce (1839-1914) made a big splash with his philosophy of pragmatism—or pragmaticism—which argues, in essence, that a belief is true if it works when one puts it into practice. Later William James (1842--1910), who is known for his important contributions to both psychology and philosophy, developed the pragmatic theory of truth. Applying it to, say, belief in God, he had maintained—putting it a bit simply—that if that belief worked our for someone, produced results in one’s life that were satisfactory, made one happy, then it counts as a true belief.

Now at first this appears odd but the pragmatists put forth these ideas once they became convinced that alternative views on how to tell if an idea is true didn’t succeed. Especially views such as those of the highly influential French philosopher Rene Descartes (1596-1650), which held that truth is a matter of deducing conclusions from undeniable, axiomatic first principles—“I think, so I exist”—could not be sustained.

Even logic was thought by some influential pragmatists to be unrelated to reality and thus didn’t serve as a starting point for knowledge. C. I. Lewis (1883-1964), another pragmatist, argued that we choose to enact logic as a device for thinking straight. It is not the world itself that requires logic from us but we impose it on the world. From this idea grew the view that there could be alternate logics and that even the law of non-contradiction—certainly its corollary, the law of the excluded middle (either A or not-A, not both)—is optional. Logic is a convention, was the claim, not a necessary tool for thinking straight.

Back in ancient Greek, when Aristotle developed the system we call logic, the view was that this system is required by reality itself. It isn’t just that people want to be logical but that reality makes being logical necessary for sound thinking. So over the centuries logic served as a basic critical device. Once a viewpoint or idea or theory was found illogical—as well as a witness’s testimony in court—it was immediately discredited.

There had always been some dissidents who thought there is too much emphasis on reason or logic, in the Western tradition. The dissidents tended to come from the humanities, not the sciences, but even in science there were some influential ones in the twentieth century—for example, Niels Bohr (1885-1962). In literature such people were more numerous and today we have Nobel Laureate in Literature, J. M. Coetzee, from South Africa (now living in Australia), author of the highly acclaimed novel Disgrace, who champions the idea that logic shouldn’t matter so much and that human reasoning doesn’t amount to much—feelings are far more significant.

But the most influential detractors from the view that logic is vital were the alternative logic advocates and those who held that logic is a mere convention, something we have accepted over centuries, a little like slowly adopting a language—we could have adopted quite another. By the latter part of the 20th century this notion spawned multiculturalism—no culture is superior to any other, no practices are worse then others, it’s all the same, however one conducts oneself, whatever regime a society has. Logic itself is seen by such people as merely what European culture bought into and it cannot serve as an arbiter of sound thinking and action. And truth, according to radical pragmatist Richard Rorty of Stanford University, is what one’s community determines. There is no objectivity at all, we all think from a point of view and no one can escape some point of view.

And you thought philosophers never bake any bread! Think again. They do but, sadly, quite often its stale and rancid.

Monday, October 31, 2005

Revisiting Predictability

Tibor R. Machan

When in the 15th century the sciences really took off and technology started to flourish, many intelligent people became convinced that understanding people and human affairs along the same lines of classical physics is just around the corner. Today that’s still the mainstream view—we will eventually figure out this complicated machine, the human organism, and then we can predict its behavior and, maybe, control it for the best.

This impulse, to apply the principles of the natural sciences to human affairs is not unreasonable since we are, after all, an aspect of the natural world. Surely what applies to the rest of it applies to us as well.

Trouble is that even the rest of it offers up a great variety of things and their principles—that’s one reason for having different scientific disciplines, such as physics, chemistry, biology, botany, zoology, psychology, economics, and all the subdivisions within these. While some think that in time all of it will be combined into a single science, such as physics, this has always been more of a hope than a rational expectation.

When it comes to people, there is plenty that can be understood along lines that understanding is attained about other things—after all, people have mass just as rocks do, breathe like dogs, digest and so on like the other living things in the world. But then other things aren’t all alike either—some swim, some fly, some sting, some scratch, and so on and so forth.

So when it comes to people, there is likely to be something unique about them, and one such thing is their self-determination—they have free will, they choose. Unique but not weird, it seems to me. The evidence is all around us and much of what interests us about people seems to imply just this, that we are choosing animals, we can think for ourselves and guide (or misguide) ourselves by how we do all kinds of routine, strange, and novel things.

One thing that encourages so many to seek for a science of human affairs which will yield predictions of the kind we find in astronomy is that when people do choose to take up tasks—make commitments, set out to do things, determine to pursue goals, etc.—the consequences of their conduct is predictable enough. Say, you go shopping for groceries, so you will be seen walking around picking stuff off shelves, checking prices, filling up the cart, etc., etc. Pretty much predictable. Only if a friend shows up, you will also stop and chat and abandon the commercial but take up the fraternal mode. Then, after a while, you will return to shopping. So a kind of “predictable you” is available for observation and study by, for example, economists. And when you think about large numbers, some pretty serious and reliable predictions can be made simply from knowing that people mostly want to live and flourish in their lives.

But instead if giving a distinctive account of this, too many social scientists will escape into the "Well, we never know quite enough to be certain of what people will do" way of thinking about us. As if the same problem faced them as does the weatherman! Yet consider, our ordinary way of thinking treats weather as an impersonal force, however difficult to predict, however chaotic at times; whereas when it comes to people, our thinking rests on the understanding that they make their own choices and can be held liable for bad ones or given credit for good ones. And with all the variety of kinds and types of human living evident in history and around the globe, this assumption seems quite warranted. (Moreover, without it, one has a hard time with criticizing others even for their faulty thinking about this very issue!)

So, for my money it makes more sense to see the social sciences as trying to understand something in the world that can make choices, that can take up tasks of its own free will, that can initiate some of its conduct. As I like to say to my economist friends, we have the following good enough approach to understanding people in their economic mode: "If one decides to go to market, one is likely to try to make a deal." And that's all the prediction we can get!