Saturday, December 03, 2005

Disingenuous Care for Privacy Rights

Tibor R. Machan

Another nomination hearing is about to unfold before us and we can count on some of the central themes based on previous hearings. Conservatives on the Senate Judiciary Committee will throw a lot of soft balls at the nominee Samuel Alito, hoping that no one will succeed in branding him, well, a conservative. And perhaps in the case of supreme court nominees such labels aren’t what is crucial. What should count most, by all accounts, is how a nominee understands the role of a justice vis-à-vis the US Constitution. How will he or she read its various provisions? How expansive will he or she take government’s power to be? Will her or she see certain issues as properly federal and others as state or local so that the Tenth Amendment will be honored or will the nominee regard such concerns obsolete, even archaic?

But perhaps the most controversial matter that will once again surface during the hearings is whether the US Constitution contains the right to privacy, a right supposedly implicit in it, as modern liberals and some others read that document—for example, via the Ninth Amendment (which refers to unenumerated rights, thus intimating quite unambiguously that besides rights listed explicitly in the Bill of Rights, human beings have others, as well). It was on the basis of finding such a right that the famous decision was made that struck down the law banning the sale of contraceptives in Connecticut back in 1965. In that case, Griswold v. Connecticut, the Court held there is a general constitutional right to privacy so Connecticut may not institute the ban. In particular, Justice William O. Douglas identified a “zone of privacy” based on several amendments to the U.S. Constitution which supposedly guaranteed protection against governmental invasion of the homes and intrusion into the lives of citizens.

What is interesting to me about the concern with this right to privacy is how it has become the mantra of the American Left. And it is the American Right, lead on the Court by Justice Antonin Scalia, that has strong objections to it. Does this not strike anyone as paradoxical?

American conservatives have been identified as individualists, especially when it comes to their economic views. They used to champion capitalism and the right to private property. This right they identified in the US Constitution, especially the Fifth Amendment. When recently the Court ran roughshod over this right in its New London, CT v. Kelo ruling, the American Right still voice some protest. Indeed, their greatest hero on the Court, Justice Clarence Thomas, was in the outspoken minority wishing to uphold that right.

As to the right to privacy, we now have an American Left—which is notoriously anti-individualist and persistently demeans the right to private property—declaring fidelity to it and insisting that it is part of the fabric of the US Constitution. In political philosophy circles, for example, the American Left is constantly stressing that individualism is false, that people are not really individuals at all, that they are all social beings. Following Karl Marx, who declared that “the human essence is the true collectivity of man,” they insist (in the words of one of their foremost political thinkers, the Canadian Charles Taylor) that we actually “belong to our communities.”

Well, how then does the Left come off insisting on the right to privacy? I suppose the same way as it insists on the right to freedom of choice in the abortion rights debate—if it happens to suit its purpose, then let’s pretend to champion a principle. But don’t anybody dare apply the principle elsewhere—say the rights to privacy and freedom of choice in the economic spheres of our lives.

Sadly, with the conservatives seeming to have abandoned any loyalty to the philosophy of the American Founders, you aren’t likely to hear any of them on the Senate Judiciary Committee pointing out these glaring cases of hypocrisy.

Wednesday, November 30, 2005

Serfdom, Taxation and Individualism

Tibor R. Machan

For some this issue may appear to be moot—taxation, like death, is unavoidable, is what many believe. And many others would like us all to fall for this because then they would have gained the upper hand about political economy.

For those who don’t much like the free society and its economic system, free market capitalism, it’s vital to show that taxation is just. That’s because taxation means government owns everything, we merely rent some space and time from it for which we have to pay a bundle. That is how it used to be in the era of feudalism—the monarch owned it all and for our use of some of it collected a hefty tax. (This is what Robin Hood protested, by the way—he didn’t take from the rich but from thieves!) Not only did all property belong to the king—the government—but everyone’s labor did too. That’s what serfdom means—you and your labor belong to the government.

There are those today, in prestigious universities, who insist that this old system is correct and none of us owns anything. “The myth of ownership” is what two such scholars call it, Liam Murphy and Thomas Nagel of New York University, as well as quite a few others. They insist that everything that you and I may regard as our own property is, in fact, the property of the government or the public. We get the government’s permission to use it but only at a high price.

Now this idea makes sense when you accept that government is God here on earth. Just as everything belongs to God, so such folks believe everything belongs to government. You may think that the money taxed from us is ours but these folks claim it isn’t. The reason is that such folks do not even believe there is a you and me and the rest of us, as separate individuals, in this world. They are anti-individualists and believe, as the Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor argued, that we all belong to our communities. We do not even own our own lives—the right to life is a myth, too, just as the right to private property.

It was the thesis of the American founders, learned from the English philosopher John Locke, that individual rights are natural—the very nature of a human being makes these rights imperative as part of our social existence. They were individualists, not collectivists like these new theorists are and the pre-Lockean thinkers were. In opposition to Karl Marx, they regarded each person not as but a cell of the most important individual, namely society (or humanity) but as an individual with an independent will. Each of us has an individual identity, we are not all simply part of some larger being and subservient to it.

But if anti-individualism is a crock, which in my book it certainly is, then not only is serfdom a vile mistake but so is taxation. Ultimately some other means of paying for the few proper services of government must be found because taxation is in fact extortion—“You pay or we put you to jail,” so we are told, but in fact no one has this authority, no one at all. Just as no one has the authority to enslave anyone, or to make anyone into a serf, none has the just authority to extort from another as little as a penny.

Because an alternative way to pay for legal services hasn’t been widely discussed—although there are such ways—the anomaly of taxation in a free society is accepted and now those who don’t much like the free society at all are happy to use it as a way to reintroduce the system in which individuals had no rights, indeed, didn’t exist as such.

With government’s growth by leaps and bounds and no opposition found to this in mainstream politics, there is a serious danger that the anti-individualist crowd will succeed. The courts are almost completely under their sway (wiping out private property rights right and left), as are legislatures.

I say let’s stand up for our rights, including private property rights, and condemn taxation as Mafia style extortion and insist that it be gotten rid of just like serfdom has been. That would be taking the American Founders’ idea to its logical conclusion.
Europe Clings to Old Ways

Tibor R. Machan

Valparaiso, Chile. I do not wear a sign saying “I am a champion of human liberty.” Yet I often run into other frequent travelers on the road who share my concerns about the lack of appreciation for freedom around the globe.

This time I had taken a bus trip from Santiago, Chile, to Valparaiso just for the fun of it. When we finally stopped for a bit of lunch at a very pleasant restaurant overlooking the ancient port, I sat across from a Polish businessman who was similarly mixing business with pleasure. He represents a multinational company that trades in various energy products and services. He speaks excellent English, so conversation between us began to flow very easily.

He confirmed to me something I had heard before, namely, that one great obstacle to progress toward freedom in Poland as well as other former Soviet bloc countries comes from former Soviet bloc bureaucrats and politicians. Having rechristened themselves so as to hide their true convictions, members of the deposed ruling class are doing whatever they can to sabotage any advances toward a free society.

Unfortunately, as new my Polish acquaintance pointed out, the bulk of Europe still embraces old time vices. Too many are rediscovering the charms of ethnic pride, for example, thus giving support not to liberal political parties but to nationalist leaders, along with all the hoary economic nonsense with which such sentiments are usually coupled—protectionism, tariffs that repel foreign competition, and laws that serve as impediments to investment from abroad.

The worse thing, however, that people trying to do business in Poland and elsewhere face is the widely entrenched tradition of layers and layers of bureaucracy creating so many needless rules that only the most vigilant will enter the market and seek to flourish in their midst. Into the middle of this, then, steps the clever organized criminal who has no compunction about using strong-arm means with which to overcome the bureaucratic hurdles and who will, for a price, help you do so as well. The temptation to get into bed with such dubious characters is enormous since for what they charge, it pays to have the tedious rules circumvented. Sure, one is walking on eggs getting into bed with these people but often legitimate entrepreneurs see no other way to stay afloat and get things done. The bribes, my new pal told me, are just the cost of doing business for most folks who are willing to take advantage of such “connections.”

No, this is not only happening in Poland, Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Hungary or some other country previously part of the Soviet bloc. It’s on the increase throughout Europe now because one result of this wonderful constructivist monster, the European Union, is the volumes of regulations placed before business people preventing them from getting useful work done.

At one time, my Polish friend noted, it was possible to point to the United States of America which at least promoted the idea of a free market system, of reducing government regulations and so on—say back in the Reagan era which although failing to do much about the heaps and heaps of rules at least talked a good game in favor of free markets. But, he noted, these days America’s credibility as a leader of the free world is very wobbly and at least when it comes to advancing the ideas of economic freedom, open competition, the free flow of labor and capital, George W. Bush & his team are not the leaders to look to.

Of course, in the midst of these laments we both thanked our lucky stars for no longer living under the Soviet system, indeed, for the pleasure and advantages of being able to travel freely. So, with such progress having been made, we both concluded on an optimistic note, hoping that liberty will win out after all.
Freedom versus Freedom

Tibor R. Machan

Santiago, Chile. As I was driven to my hotel upon my arrival here, I couldn’t miss all the promotional posters and billboards typical of election seasons in most Western democracies. I had little interest in Chilean politics other than to wonder whether anyone running was promoting greater liberty in the country than it was enjoying now.

Chile is Latin America’s most modern, most economically sound, and certainly cleanest country, both based on my own evidence and what I am told by everyone hereabouts. (It has some of the most striking and gorgeous natural attributes, to boot.) Where Buenos Aires shows the recent Argentine meltdown by way of its rather dilapidated environment—cars going about with dents not fixed, apartment houses going un-repaired, people wearing slightly shabby clothing and the hotel in which I stayed in need for many minor fixes—Santiago looks and feels like, say, Tucson, Arizona, or some other city shooting up in the midst of a southwestern state, only better kept.

I asked what if any issues are being debated in the current election here that suggest some care about liberty? The answer was that there is indeed a debate about the very nature of freedom.

It seems there are those who want the concept to be understood in its classical liberal sense—a person is free if other people do not intrude, if the rights to life, liberty and property are secure. Freedom is negative in the sense that it involves a “Do not enter without permission” sign around every adult person. Many in Chile are relatively loyal to this American model of freedom, often complaining that it is Americans who are losing sight of it these days more than Chileans.

But there are those who want freedom to be understood in its positive sense—people are free if all obstacles facing them, human or other, are removed, if they aren’t held back by various impediments be these the creations of others or of nature itself—ignorance, poverty, disease, and such. This kind of freedom is respected if others who have plenty of it are legally required to share their portion with others who lack it. So respect for individual freedom is in fact often an imposition of burdens so that these could be relieved for others—a kind of redistribution of burdens and benefits to make everyone equally free.

Of course Chile is not the first place where this debate has surfaced. From when the idea began examined seriously, there have been those who objected to “mere bourgeois freedom,” claiming it is shallow and unfair. Marx was among these but by no means the first critic. Those who defended negative freedom believed that human beings could—and most often would—do very well for themselves if only they were not subjected to the will of others, including, especially, their governments. Break their chains, liberate them from captivity and subjugation, and then they would take the steps, sometimes alone but more often with willing others, to be successful in their lives. Human initiative was taken to be a very good prospect, provided everyone’s sovereignty is respected or at least properly protected.

Those who champion the “true freedom” of Marx and his allies maintained, in contrast, that people need to be given support in order to advance in their lives, that merely setting the free from oppression is far too little help for them. Indeed, often so as to improve their lives, it is necessary to secure supports from others, whether voluntarily or by coercive force. Only that will make them free. In the case of Marx, of course, this could only happen at the end of social history, when human nature would be reconstituted and everyone would be motivated primarily by fellow feeling. Neo-Marxists and welfare statists aren’t like that, though, so they wish to impose the ideal of the New Man on their societies right her and now. They take us to be substantially passive or inert and in need of receiving boosts so as to improve our lives, something that requires the redistribution of labor power and other resources guided by either some elite or a democratic discussion. In either case, negative freedom is not only insufficient but often an obstacle to achieving positive freedom for all.

The current embrace of the “European model,” as many here in Latin America call it—in contrast to the US model, as proposed by the American Founders—is based on the widespread belief that a great many people who aren’t doing well in life cannot benefit much from enjoying mere freedom from intrusiveness, oppression, regimentation and so forth but must, instead, undergo a certain measure of proper regimentation by people in the know who have their best interest at heart. Venezuela is, of course, now fully in the grip of this outlook, going even further back, to outright socialist ideas. Bolivia looks like headed in that direction, with its favorite in the upcoming presidential election championing no holds barred socialism and nationalization of vital industries.

Of course, one problem is that the “American model,” as some refer to it, is nothing like what the American Founders outlined in the Declaration of Independence. The USA today is virtually a market socialist system, with government in charge of much of the economy, subsidizing this, regulating that, and protecting yet another thing from the free market. With this kind of leadership of the free world, no wonder its earlier ideal of a free society is faltering among those around the globe who are trying to figure out which way they ought to go as far as their political economic system is concerned.

Ultimately, of course, the debate is about human nature itself and what kind of community best suits it so individual human beings can embark upon a life of dignity and prosperity. For my money, there is little doubt that a free society requires respect for individual rights, not some elite group embarking on forced redistribution and caretaking. The lessons of history and honest human reflection (e.g., public choice theory, the tragedy of the commons, etc.), not to mention plain ordinary morality—that makes freedom from coercion a precondition of any ethically significant conduct—teach this to anyone who would but pay attention.
Back to More Bashing Business

Tibor R. Machan

BUENOS AIRES, Argentina. If you think business bashing is rife in the USA, just consider how much worse it is elsewhere around the globe. A bit of this was brought home to me during a telephone interview with a newspaper reporter from Santiago, Chile.

Amidst some general questions about business ethics and whether it is useful to teach it I was asked repeatedly about how "we can prevent the corruption that has occurred recently at some major corporations." No sooner did I point out that there is no way that such corruption can be prevented in some kind of formulaic, permanent way, the question was rephrased and put to me again. No sooner did I point out that there is corruption in all other areas of human life, especially government, than
my interviewer returned to the idea that there is a need for putting a complete end to corporate corruption. I went on to make clear that, after all, corporations are peopled by, well, people, so putting a complete end to corruption is a fantasy, a dangerous one at that, since any purported formula that is adopted will require human implementation and administration, so it is, thus, exposed to the dangers of corruption at that end and corruption more dangerous than what was supposed to be prevented.

Even after all this the issue kept coming up about what can be done to eliminate corporate misconduct, as if nothing I said before had sunk in the least bit. Nor did it matter that I noted how every human institution includes some more or less severe malpractice--journalism, I pointedly noted, as well as medicine, education, athletics and, do not dare forget, politics. The lesson from that was also missed, namely, that wherever there are human beings doing anything at all, their doing it badly is a natural risk. No, business isn't especially vulnerable, although focusing on business with special glee is, of course, a persistent phenomenon in most cultures. Why?

Because there has always been not so hidden bias against this profession, evident since the beginning of recorded history and, especially, in the writings of philosophers and
theologians. But why is that so? In large measure because business cannot disguise its goal of attempting to make life here on earth most prosperous, comfortable, enjoyable, convenient, pleasant, and so forth, as opposed to attempting to prepare us for the afterlife, for everlasting salvation which, by many accounts of what counts for most in human affairs, is seen as being undermined by it. Only a few theological schools think benignly of business, like Calvinism and Judaism. Most ca barely hide their disdain for it, even as those who preach the anti-commercial line see nothing very wrong in enjoying the benefits of the profession (contributions, donations, libraries, jobs, ad revenues, hospitals, technology--you name it and businesses provide it).

My interviewer acted as if none of this carried any weight, proceeding to seek for assurances that teaching business ethics will put and end to business malpractice. Well, has medical ethics teaching done it? No. What about engineering or legal or educational ethics? No. So isn't it utopian to expect business ethics teaching to permanently erase business malpractice from our midst? Never mind--how can we do it?

After this runaround I was asked what could at least reduce some of corruption in business and I mentioned that one thing that would help is if fewer people who write critically about business would realize that it is an honorable profession, not something innately base. Unfortunately since at least the time when Plato wrote his famous philosophical dialogue The Republic, those in business get a bad rap. This was due, in part, to the fact that the writers of such tracts were usually intellectuals, artists or members of some other group that had its own agenda to place their own calling on top of the heap. Plato went to great lengths to suggest that perhaps something like a philosopher king would be a great model for political rule. He also spilt much ink on indicting trade and business and wealth creation and for hundreds of years this mantra was
repeated by those in the humanities and continues big time today.

Very sadly the human species has had too many thinkers who were idealist of the worst sort, placing before us impossible goals to strive for while demeaning the possible and desirable ones. Another case of the perfect being the enemy of the good. And it is really quite unjust, when you come to think of it--with all those diligent people in business, breaking their necks to produce what millions of us want, working ceaselessly to help us all prosper, they are routinely put down, lumped together with the relatively few crooks among them. No one does this with
medicine or education or science but somehow the members of the
intelligentsia haven{t managed to grasp that such lumping is unjust as well when it comes to business.

When so many influential people still believe that business ethics is an oxymoron, no wonder that journalists and even those in the business community begin to let the notion go unchallenged.
Some (little) Good News

Tibor R. Machan

It started out way back when I was an undergraduate at Claremont Men’s (now McKenna) College and started to write columns for the student paper. Once I was paying for some books in the college bookstore with a check and the cashier, himself a student there, looked up at me and said, “Are you really Tibor Machan? I thought he was a gnome with a long gray beard fussing and fretting about everything.” I laughed since my actual, in-person demeanor is rather lighthearted and mostly cheerful. But I understood because my columns tend to talk about what is wrong, and mostly what’s wrong is that individual liberty is being trampled all over the place, which upsets me a lot. Ergo, “gnome with a long gray beard fussing and fretting about”!

OK, here, however, is a counterexample. Over the couple of decades I have been reading the magazine Science News I found the editors and reporters treating global warming, so called, as if it were established beyond a shadow of doubt that human beings made it happen. I wrote to them about this in the summer of 2004 and in their September 11 issue they did publish my letter of one sentence: “It is very disappointing that ‘Dead Heat: The health consequences of global warming could be many’ (SN: 7/3/04, p. 10) has not a word about any disagreement surrounding the health and related consequences of global warming, let alone of any disputes about its very likelihood.” The reports continued, however, to treat the phenomenon as something unnatural and largely produced by people.

But a year later, another letter appeared, in the November 5, 2005, issue, on page 303. It is worth reproducing it here:

I have spent the past 30 years as a geoscientist studying the history of Earth and take great exception to a statement in the article: “Scientists are divided on whether climate change, induced by industrial and automotive release of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases, is driving those statistics.” This sentence states that there would be no climate warming without mankind’s use of fossil fuels. While that belief may be politically correct, it is certainly not scientifically correct. About 15,000 years ago, much of North America was covered by glaciers, and those glaciers have been retreating since that time with no help from Homo sapiens. While the emission of greenhouse gases by man might be changing the rate of warming, mankind’s activity certainly has not caused the warming. (JDU, Terrell, TX)

Although the content of discussions of global warming in Science News has not change much and most of them keep suggesting that it’s all due to the greed and materialism of human beings, at least now and then a letter is allowed to voice some dissent.

I am not sure if I should break open that bottle of campaign I’ve had cooling in my fridge for over three months—this development at Science News may not be sufficient to warrant celebration. Moreover, the general media’s and our educational institutions’ nonstop propaganda of the “global warming is due to human malpractice on earth” variety pretty much wipes out Science News’ slight reform.

Nonetheless it is on these occasions that I so vividly recall that wonderful Seventh Day Adventist bumper sticker I got a glimpse of back when I lived and drove around in the Bible Belt: “Notice the good and praise it.” Indeed, if one follows this bit of wisdom, whatever its source, one will find one’s view of life and the world improving a bit.

I certainly could use this tiny improvement, especially after the way California voters chose to dismiss all warning about their state’s disastrous financial straits and defeated everything on the ballot that might have gone just a little way to remedy matters. Certainly my on and off optimistic assessment of the wisdom of the masses took a beating from this. So what Science News did by publishing this sensible letter was very welcome. Maybe if there are more and more such tiny improvements, the big disaster of letting the government become totalitarian can be fended off.
Back to the Animal Rights Folly

Tibor R. Machan

Some ideas just keep being paraded about, yet there is so little merit to them that they shouldn’t ever see the light of day, not in intellectually respectable forums. It’s as if we gave Nazi’s a place at the table when discussing how societies should be organized—they are beyond the pale.

Here, once again, I find a very famous person, indeed, a Nobel Laureate in literature, voicing sentiments that look very much like denying the difference between humans and other animals. I am talking about J. M. Coetzee, who in his novel Elizabeth Costello, has his protagonist articulate a view that appears to be his own. Costello says,

To me, a philosopher who says that the distinction between human and non-human depends on whether you have a while or a black skin, and a philosopher who says that the distinction between human and non-human depends on whether or not you know the difference between a subject and a predicate, are more alike than they are unalike.

Then Costello goes on with even more annoying nonsense:

We are surrounded by an enterprise of degradation, cruelty and killing which rivals anything that the Third Reich was capable of, indeed dwarfs it, in that our is an enterprise without end, self-regenerating, bringing rabbits, rats, poultry, live-stock ceaselessly into the world for the purpose of killing them.

Oddly, these lines are reproduced in a review of another, more recent, novel by Coetzee, Slow Man, by John Lanchester, himself a novelist and a frequent reviewer for such prestigious magazines as The London Review of Books and as in the case of the present review, The New York Review of Books. It is difficult to fathom why exactly Lanchester picked this passages to reproduce—maybe to indicate that Coetzee has gone off his rocker. (He wasn’t too impressed by Slow Man.) But these lines I have quoted appear to be put out there as something worthy of attention, even of respect, from a formidable author whose ideas, naturally, need to be heeded by the readers of The New York Review.

Now notice right away that no mention is made either by Coetzee or by Lanchester of any problems with Castello’s notions. Yet problems with it abound galore.

To start with, non-human animals do not read about how cruel they can be, eating their young, devouring their live and conscious prey, letting their offspring be taken by other animals that prey on them, etc., etc. (Even in that stunning documentary, The March of the Penguins, one is struck by how abruptly the parents abandon their young, never looking back, never having them over for Thanksgiving dinner, etc. No difference my foot!)

Then there is that little matter of people needing to feed themselves, so taking the lives of non-human animals most often has an end very much beyond the purpose of the mere killing of them. Furthermore, from time immemorial animals have used other animals as nourishment, and human beings have not been different from the rest in this regard. It is too paradoxical that while so many animal rights and liberation advocates lament this—indeed, roundly morally condemn human beings for being like other animals—they at the same time deny that we are any different from them. Well, if we aren’t different, then why not accept our cruelties just as the cruelties of the lion, the bear or the fish that devour their young are accepted? Why insist on the equality of non-human and human animals but also treat the human kind as if its life had a moral dimension missing from the lives of non-humans? Or if it isn’t missing, then why not also chide the non-human villains?

Well, the answer is rather straightforward and it is only baffling why the likes of Lanchester don’t bother to even mention it: Human beings are in fact fundamentally very different from other animals—they can choose between right and wrong, can govern their own conduct, and are not prisoners of their hardwiring, instincts or drives. (If they are, what is wrong with what they are doing to rabbits, rats, etc. anyway?)

As the author of a book on this subject, Putting Humans First, Why We Are Nature’s Favorite (2004)—which, surprise, surprise, was not reviewed in The New York Review of Books (unlike how they dutifully review Peter Singer and other animal liberation and rights promoters), I find it especially peculiar that the magazine’s chosen reviewer of Coetzee’s pro-animal rights work offers no criticism of the Nobel Prize winning novelist’s ideas. None. Not even a few softballs are thrown at the man. Go figure.
Is Classical Liberalism based on Skepticism?

Tibor R. Machan

There are quite a few champions of the free society who believe the best argument for it is skepticism, especially about moral truths. Some actually claim that the major proponents of the position—including, especially, its political philosophy of limited government—thought that the reason absolute or even considerable authority does not belong to the government is that no one can know what’s right and wrong. And if no one can know this, then no one can claim the authority to make others conform to their judgments of what is right.

Now this is a bad argument and actually few original classical liberals made it. It’s more the province of recent positivism-based classical liberalism, although followers of a certain (I would argued mistaken) interpretation of David Hume’s epistemology also toyed with it. (Hume, you may recall, is the famous advocate of the “is-ought gap,” the view that no judgment as to what anyone ought to do can be deduced from any factual knowledge. Notice, however, that Hume was careful to chide those who wanted to deduce the one from the other. He himself often made inferences from what is to what ought to be done.)

John Locke, perhaps the political thinker most responsible for the political philosophy sketched by Thomas Jefferson in the Declaration of Independence, was no skeptic. He thought we could know well enough that there are certain laws in the state of nature—certain ethical precepts before we even consider politics—that we ought to follow. And in order to make this possible in our communities, he identified certain natural rights that members of the community need to respect and its legal authority ought to protect.

This, I insist, is not a skeptical argument. It affirms that we can know the precepts of ethics and what rights everyone has. Pretty hefty stuff to know, I’d say.

Was Adam Smith a skeptic? In his Theory of Moral Sentiments, be it sound or not, he doesn’t appear to be one at all. All kinds of moral virtues are affirmed, quite confidently, in that, Smith’s favorite, book and there are passages about morality in The Wealth of Nations which show no less confidence in our ability to know a thing or two about right and wrong.

But why is the skeptical argument a bad one? Because if no one can know anything about right and wrong, then none could know, either, that it is wrong to impose one’s wishes or preferences on other people, to coerce them to live the way one happens to want them. Nor can anyone know that it is wrong to take it upon oneself to forge a polity that will regiment everyone (if it can muster sufficient power for that purpose)? The skeptical case for liberty is, in other words, hoisted on its own petard.

So those who champion the free society and want to do more than simply express their preference for it, never mind if it holds any argumentative merit—whether it can be shown to be superior to alternative regimes—need to find good arguments and not rely on the skeptical tactic. It simply will not work.

One reason skepticism is attractive to many intelligent and decent people is that in too many cases those who claimed to know had the delusion that this knowledge is eternal, timeless, perfect, incorrigible, and final. Now that kind of knowledge doesn’t exist and it is folly to think that human knowledge is like that. That kind of fantasy knowledge amounts, actually, to being what one knows, not knowing it. (Even then it’s too much to ask for—we do not even know ourselves in that way, perfectly.)

In the face of this idealistic conception of what it is to know the world, it made sense to turn to skepticism. But why accept that self-destructive view? Knowing is a normal, natural, human endeavor and like all such endeavors, the future can require one to make some modifications, alternations. The idealist’s knowledge is the knowledge of an omniscient being, not of a human one.

So the defense of the free society should not rest on skepticism but on a sensible conception of human knowledge. Such knowledge, as most classical liberals held, will show it to be the best system among all the live options.
Risky Argument for Liberty

Tibor R. Machan

Reason magazine’s science editor Ronald Bailey made some fine points in response to those who are forever painting doomsday pictures about genetic engineering. (He delivered his remarks in the November installment of Cato Audio, a CD service of the Cato Institute that I highly recommend to anyone interested in advances as well as setbacks in the struggle for genuine liberty in this country and around the globe.) In particular, Bailey focused upon the arguments advanced from the Left and the Right against this biotechnology, by all counts just around the corner in developed countries.

I was interested in his response to the Left’s claim that genetic engineering will usher into existence a “gene aristocracy,” namely, a class of very rich people who will get their hands on the biotechnological benefits way before anyone else does, helping, thus, to produce an even greater gap between rich and poor that exists today. The rich will become brighter, more beautiful, more healthy, more athletic—you name some possible advantage reaped from the new technology and the rich will benefit from it while the rest of us will lag behind. Nothing, of course, upsets intellectuals—even the brightest among them—on the Left than the prospect of some people being better off than others. In the typical strategy of those who are primarily motivated by envy and the drive to coercively create a fair society, these people would rather have no one benefit from biotechnology than have just the rich do so.

Of course, Bailey was dead on target to point out that even if the fairness issue were decisive, the only way to get the benefits of genetic engineering to the masses is to first get it off the ground by the rich. But he offered this as the central reason for rejecting the Left’s concerns and that simply will not work.

Even if in the future most people will benefit from the biotechnology, if the concern about fairness is left unchallenged, that will not refute the Left’s case. Those on the Left see fairness as a matter of justice. In other words, it is unjust to allow unfairness to exists right now, so offering the gradual decrease of unfairness in the future isn’t going to cut much ice for them. And if you do not demonstrate, as surely it is not very difficult to do, that fairness is not what’s crucial about justice, the Left’s case against genetic engineering remains basically intact.

Bailey appears to be among those defenders of the free society we may call “pragmatists” or “consequentialists,” or, again, “utilitarians.” Freedom is justified by all the goodies we get from it, never mind how they are apportioned or who has rightful claims to them. Many economists who champion the free society—or its free, capitalist market—share this approach to defending it. Look how much bread the market bakes—that is what counts for most.

But the Left has a point—if all these goodies go to just some folks, even for a while, there is something amiss. Why should those who are left out of the harvest support the system? Why should those who are afraid that they may be left out of it support it? Once you reason along these lines, few are left to have good reasons to support the free society and its market place.

So one needs to establish that those who have the resources—because they have a right, as anyone else, to seek and obtain them so long as they do not rob, steal or extort from others—have the corresponding right to the liberty to do with those resources as they see fit. This is their basic, natural right as human beings and if the exercise of this right leads to their enjoying certain advantages, so be it. Others simply have to moral—and should have no legal—authority to interfere.

The fact that this insistence on the basic rights of all, including the rich, to pursue their own goals—be they of public benefit or none—also tends to benefit most people is secondary, not primary. Unless the case for the free system can be made along lines that stress the justice of the it, those on the Left (and I haven’t even come to discussing those on the Right, with all their concerns) will make a better case with their equation of justice and fairness.

The abundance that the free system offers in the future isn’t sufficient to give it a solid moral defense. It must be shown, also, that it is supportive of justice rightly understood even if “unfairness”—that is to say, inequality in wealth—prevails.
Machan is the author of, among other works, The Right to Private Property (Hoover Institution Press, 2002) available at [ ], and Individuals and Their Rights (Open Court, 1989).