Sunday, December 24, 2006

Anti-Individualism, Conservative Style

Tibor R. Machan

Just to keep matters in balance, let me point out that although it is mostly the Left that hates individualism—remember, socialism means that we, humanity, are all just one organism—the Right’s hostility toward it is no less virulent. Just recall that both Hitler and Stalin hated individualism, in any of its varieties. American individualism, one that stresses the independent judgment of human beings—not their alleged and, not surprisingly, ridiculous, fictional independent or self-sufficient existence—does not suit either the Left or the Right, including some fairly powerful voices among American conservatives. Just consider the blurb peddling one currently rising conservative’s recent book, Peter Augustine Lawler’s Stuck With Virtue, The American Individual and Our Biotechnological Future. “These insightful, provocative essays critique what the author sees as America’s ever-increasing individualistic habits and attitudes, centered on a view of the individual as self-sufficient and unencumbered.” As if that is what American individualism were about.

In fact, the caricature of individualism depicted in the above passage comes from just one, somewhat idiosyncratic, version of individualism that has an admittedly noticeable presence in the discipline of economics, both its neo-classical and Austrian varieties. But here this idea of the human individual functions as nothing more than a theoretical model that, as the late Milton Friedman made eminently clear, is self-consciously unrealistic. It is a bit like those artist depictions of a building about to be constructed in your neighborhood—nothing like what the building will actually be like, only an almost farcical version of it.

For Lawler and others on the Right to claim that this is the individualism that John Locke and the American founders left for us as our social-philosophical legacy is shameful. There are those on the Left, such as the communitarians—with their leaders such as Charles Taylor, Amitai Etzioni, and Thomas Spragens—who have hurled at us these distortions of American individualism and from them this is somewhat understandable. After all, the Left is philosophically committed to collectivism, the direct opposite of individualism. Here is one of their philosophical heroes, the French “father of sociology,” Auguste Comte about that topic: "Everything we have belongs then to Humanity…Positivism [the doctrine Comte developed] never admits anything but duties, of all to all. For its social point of view cannot tolerate the notion of right, constantly based on individualism. We are born loaded with obligations of every kind, to our predecessors, to our successors, to our contemporaries....”

In one premier conservative journal, ISI’s The Intercollegiate Review—essay after essay can be read attacking American individualism with the distorted depiction I reproduced above. Why would conservatives, who are supposed to be conserving, at least in America, the ideas and ideals of the American founders, make such a big deal of the alleged flaws in individualism?

It is the one-size-fits-all mentality, that’s what lies behind it. Individualism is notoriously eclectic in the sort of human lives it regards as perfectly legitimate, acceptable, capable of being lived properly, virtuously. But what do so many conservatives want? To get a clear view of this one need but read the non-fiction works of Alexander Solzhenitsyn, who would send us all back to live on the farms; or John Lukacs, who has become an environmentalist and is urging us all “to protect the landscape (and the cityscape) where [we] live.” A younger version of this is a former Reason magazine editor, Bill Kauffman, joining the reactionary chorus with his book, Look Homeward, America: In Search of Reactionary Radicals and Front-Porch Anarchists. Each of these advocates embraces just one of thousands of ways of living a good human life, favoring it above all the rest but for no discernible, rational reason one can identify. Indeed, judging by the approach these writers take against the rationalism of the Enlightenment—what with its insidious championing of a society that makes scientific and technological progress (including Darwin) possible—arguing for their model of the perfect human being is just not cool. Traditionalism, and of a highly selective kind, is how they go about supporting their one-size-fits-all conception of how all of us ought to live our lives.

I have nothing against those who prefer the farm life, or the life in the woods, or even deep in the halls of ivy. Let a million and more flowers bloom. That's individualism, not the silliness its enemies paint it.
The “War” on Christmas

Tibor R. Machan

Some polemics are useful. They help emphasize certain points. I use them myself in my writing, as when I call government regulations “petty tyrannies.” Maybe that is to overstate my point but on the other hand it’s not at all far from the truth—when government imposes burdens on people who have not been convicted of any crime, that is a kind of tyranny.

A local church, however, has gone a bit far when it titled an upcoming sermon “The War on Christmas.” Nothing original in it, of course, given how a great many pundits have been claiming that such a war is being waged, as part of America’s “culture wars,” another bit of polemic that’s over the top. Why?

Well, I don’t know about my readers, but I have actually experienced war first hand, back when I was a kid in Central Europe. I remember very well when I was only about 6, Budapest was under siege and it didn’t consist of people talking in provocative ways as in the "war" on Christmas. No, the war involved heavy bombing, thousands of deaths and injured, near complete destruction of a once beautiful European city, and all the other horrible real ingredients of a war. The so called war on Christmas involves nothing remotely close to this. Instead it is an attempt, at its worst, to undermine the way people think about Christmas.

In a pluralistic society like America, where there are by the last count I am aware of 4200 different religions—with several major ones vying for the faithful “to come in”—one certainly should expect what is perhaps best regarded a competition among various religions. Most belief systems have adherents who would wish those systems to tower over the others. After all, the faithful and their leaders take these systems to be true, the correct faiths, so it is not surprising they would want to spread them, not only in one country but across the globe.

But this is no war. Or it certainly need not be one. If I urge someone to accept my religion, to convert, mostly I would do this by persuasion, not coercion, or at worst by means of some tricky polemics. Which is to say peacefully. The same, after all, goes on in politics. We urge our fellow citizens to switch to our side and so long as this is done through argumentation, even perhaps some intimidation—say when we threaten people with hell fire unless they come aboard—that is entirely civilized and no one has reason to object. If the atheists want to insist that the days Christians call Christmas are, in fact, old pagan celebrations, so there is no need to use the Christian term for them, that’s something people can consider and either accept or reject. There is nothing war like in it at all. If Jews try to spread the idea that Hanukkah is a more accurate term for the season, that, too, is perfectly civilized, unobjectionable as a matter of religious partisanship.

But by labeling these efforts on anyone’s part—Christians, Jews, atheists, agnostics, Moslems or whoever—something even remotely like a war, them’s fighting words, as one might put it. Why besmirch a peaceful effort to get people to adopt one’s point of view a war? I have to consider that this is a trick, a way to make one’s faith out to be some kind of victim of aggression by the dissidents and to solicit vigorous, even physical defense!

Back in the days of the Soviet Empire, when a dissident didn’t use the terminology approved of by the government of the USSR and its various puppet regimes, these dissidents were jailed, sent to labor camps, even murdered. For what? For what was on their minds, for what they believed, even though they did nothing war like at all about their dissent. Calling their views subversive, treasonous, or the like was a way to label them violent when, in fact, they were anything but.

Similarly, to label the efforts of members of competing belief systems to spread their ideas a war is deceitful. Some of the faithful may well accept the notion that if someone is attempting to covert us to their viewpoint, this amounts to aggression and should be met with forceful defense. This, yes, can even lead to church burnings, attacks on the dissidents even though they have done no violence to anyone.

It is interesting that those who are supposedly following the lead of the Prince of Peace would perpetrate such verbal slight of hand that can encourage violence.
Atheism’s Achilles’ Heel

Tibor R. Machan

I am referring to the prominent versions of atheism. There are different ones, actually. Strictly speaking there is no specific view that an atheist must accept. Instead, atheism is merely the rejection of theism. And nothing in particular follows from the absence of anything, including from the absence of belief in God.

But, of course, many associate atheism with one or another different belief about various matters, including morality. No, nothing about morality follows from atheism except that God couldn’t be the source of it. So what Sam Harris, author of two widely discussed recent books about atheism, The End of Faith and Letter to a Christian Nation, claims about the relationship of atheism and morality is highly dubious. In The Los Angeles Times he wrote
"...We do not get our morality from religion. We decide what is good in our good books by recourse to moral intuitions that are (at some level) hard-wired in us and that have been refined by thousands of years of thinking about the causes and possibilities of human happiness.
"We have made considerable moral progress over the years, and we didn’t make this progress by reading the Bible or the Koran more closely. Both books condone the practice of slavery—and yet every civilized human being now recognizes that slavery is an abomination. Whatever is good in Scripture—like the golden rule—can be valued for its ethical wisdom without our believing that it was handed down to us by the creator of the universe."
Of course simply because there are morally intolerable ideas in the Bible and the Koran, it doesn’t mean all atheists reject those ideas. Some may very well embrace them and also be atheists. What is especially important to realize, however, is that no theory of the origin or basis of morality follows from atheism, certainly not the one Harris mentions, namely, that ethics is innate—“(at some level) hard-wired”—in us. Certain atheists hold this view but many others do not.
It is quite implausible that human beings are hard-wired with ethics since so much rank unethical conduct abounds in the world and hard-wiring would amount to our being automatically or instinctively ethical—the way animals are hard-wired to behave as they do. Indeed, if to be an atheist one needs to believe that we are hard-wired with ethics, atheism couldn't be right from the start. That’s because if from a supposed fact something false follows, than it cannot be a fact. But, of course, from atheism nothing follows about ethics being hard-wired. There can be atheists who do think that but also ones who do not, who believe that ethics needs to be learned and people have the freedom of will to accept or reject even the correct moral system.
Why is Harris’ version of atheism, from which a hard-wired ethics is supposed to follow, the Achilles’ heel of his position? Because if there is anything nearly everyone knows about ethics is that whether one is ethical or not is a matter of choice, the very opposite of being hard-wired in us. It is a central feature of the morally significant life, one in which ethics counts for a great deal, that people are not hard-wired about how they conduct themselves. It is a matter of their choice whether they do or do not do what's right. Some act properly, some nearly so, some not at all. It is essential about morality that people are free to do the right thing and are it is not their being hard-wired that makes them morally responsible. If you need to make no choice to act right, if you are hard-wired, then you can gain no credit or blame for what you do. And that’s the end of ethics or morality. If atheism is tied to this notion, that pretty much undermines atheism. If it rules out ethics, well then since ethics is so evidently part of human life, it cannot be right.
Actually, of course, atheism does not imply that we are hard-wired ethically. So maybe if some version of atheism is compatible with moral choice, then such an atheism could be true. Certainly there have been famous atheists for whom people are morally responsible and free to chose an ethical life versus an unethical one. So it would seem that merely because some versions of atheism do have the Achilles’ heel of lacking room for morality, it doesn’t mean all of them do.

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Bad Arguments For—And Against—Liberty

by Tibor R. Machan

In his December 18th guest column for The New York Times, Orlando Patterson of Harvard University lays in on George W. Bush and his neo-conservative pals for misguidedly pushing Western style liberalism on Iraqis. The gist of his point is that Bush believes that liberty is "written in our hearts," something supposedly learned from John Locke, and that simply is false.

Now if anyone has any knowledge about the philosophy of John Locke, two vital elements of it certainly stand out above the rest: First, Locke did not believe that anything at all was written in our hearts! He opposed innate ideas, such as those Descartes, the famous French rationalist, believed in. Second, Locke did believe in every individual's right to life and property, a right that implies that everyone ought to be free from coercion by other people. But this is not the idea that freedom is written in our hearts but the idea that freedom is the right way for us to live in human communities. It is right but there is nothing at all automatic about it, as Patterson has Bush think of liberalism.

The difference is crucial. Innate ideas, those supposedly written in our hearts, do not need to be learned. Their importance and value are supposedly intuitive, known without having to learn about them. Some people have believed in this—among them many contemporary philosophers who are called intuitionists. These thinkers hold that within us all there are innate proclivities in support of and against various ways of living and organizing life and these need to be unleashed and then we will be well on our way to right conduct and laws. The most recent major political philosopher who saw a significant role for intuitions in human affairs, the late Harvard philosopher John Rawls, rested a goodly part of his case for the liberal welfare state on this idea. Professor Patterson, unfortunately, doesn't mention this. Instead he hangs the idea on John Locke, someone who is not usually invoked as a defender of the welfare state but of the free market, capitalist system of political economy, what with his strong support of the right to private property.

But Locke didn't defend his views by reference to intuitions. He realized that it is only if we "consult our reason"—if we think the matter through—will it become evident to us that individuals have a right to their lives and property and that this must be made part of a just human community. Nothing of this is intuitive; nothing is automatic; it is all hard work to figure out.

Assuming that George W. Bush's reference to freedom being written in our hearts is not just sloppy polemics but expresses his true belief, it doesn't come from John Locke. Saying it does makes a mockery of Locke's ideas and of the classical liberal tradition of political economy Locke helped get off the ground.

I do not know if Professor Patterson distorts Locke intentionally or through misunderstanding and ignorance but the distortion is significant and, if accepted, very damaging to the case for the free society. That case is an idea of justice, a normative position, one about how we ought to live within human communities. And there is nothing intuitive or automatic about that. Making it seem that such an idea rests on the quicksand of intuition is to belittle it, to besmirch it as a possibly sound notion about human community life.

As to the Iraqis and others in the Middle East, it may well be true that they would be much better off living in a fully free society, as would we all, but there can be a great deal that stands in the way of that happening. For one, they have contrary ideas of their own. And they have rulers and leaders who would very likely be opposed to freedom for all in that region of the world, so even if the bulk of the people would like to be free, those with power are not likely to let that happen. So, yes, George W. Bush & Co. are mistaken to believe that somehow all people, including those in the Middle East, intuitively embrace the free society. But they didn't pick up that error from John Locke!

Monday, December 18, 2006

A Stale Liberal Sophistry

by Tibor R. Machan

In a mildly interesting exchange in The New Republic, between Cato Institute scholar Brink Lindsay and one of the magazine's senior editors, Jonathan Chait, the idea of a possible alliance between modern liberals and libertarians was recently debated. No one, I think, really believed in a serious prospect for this alliance but it made, as I said, mildly interesting copy.

My own attention was piqued by a particular locution in Mr. Chait's missive, where he discussed the suggestion, voiced by Lindsay, that perhaps Social Security ought to be (somewhat) privatized and why this could appeal to younger liberals. (I must admit it always irritates me to call these folks "liberals" when they have no interest in human liberty whatsoever any longer!) In reply to the idea, Chait asks, "And why would we force retirees into the individual medical insurance market?" He adds, "After all, we've tried that system with the working-aged population, and it has produced 45 million uninsured."

Now first, this figure of 45 million uninsured is about as reliable as most other statistics bandied about by those who have immense faith in government. As if only if the state got into the mess would everything that's amiss go much improved. As if being insured the government way were some kind of panacea.

But the second point is more interesting. It has to do with how Chait characterizes even partial privatization, namely, as "forcing" retires into something. Whereas the truth of the matter is that the Social Security system has been notorious for perpetrating the extortion of millions and millions for decades now: "You are only going to work lawfully if you pay the government something some have decided you must pay and that the government will, somehow (but no one knows how and, anyway, don't even count on it), save up for you until you retire. Then government will decide how much of it you will get back." Talking about doing some forcing!

Modern liberals have for ages gotten away with this, claiming that if you do not submit to being coerced into providing the funds they want, you are forcing them or someone to do something. So if I don't want to be taxed—to help the war on drugs or the Social Security system or whatever else government decides the funds extorted via taxation should go to—then I am "forcing" someone to do something, like supporting drug abuse or going without insurance.

Notice immediately how insane this idea is: If I didn't exist at all, and the funds I might have produced but I didn't are not there for these various programs, somehow some nonexistent I would have forced the recipients to go without.~ Now, of course, if I do exist and have the legal right to keep my very own resources, I would not be forcing anyone to do or be anything at all. I certainly wouldn't be forcing retirees to go without insurance since I would not have stolen a thing from them, only refused to allow government to steal the funds on which they would gladly retire, given that they wouldn't invest in this themselves. Nor would I have forced anyone to stop saving up for me—everyone would be free to do this to their heart's content but only without coercing me into their scam.

For centuries enemies of human liberty have played this nasty game, stealing concepts that support freedom and putting them to use opposing it. Like the concept of individual rights, which used to concern securing our liberties but now, after years of sophistic conceptual gerrymandering, is used to refer to alleged entitlements from others—meaning, of course, others' lives and works, the very opposite of individual liberty—the exact reversal of the idea of individual rights as John Locke and the American founders understood them.

Chait has for years rolled out this kind of sophistry. Instead of admitting, plainly and honestly, that what he wants is to steal from those who work and take care of their own retirement and hand over this loot to those who don't (or not enough), he pretends that not stealing for this purposes amounts to forcing people into doing without old age insurance. Please, don't accept this kind of verbal trickery. See it for what it is, trying to win political arguments by subterfuge.

Sunday, December 17, 2006

Peter Singer's Advocacy "Charity"

by Tibor R. Machan

Philosopher Peter Singer, of Princeton University just penned a piece for The Sunday New York Times Magazine titled "On Giving." The gist of it is that most of us ought to part with our wealth and send it to the poor of the world. There are some figures as to just how much those with various levels of income ought to send but these numbers are all fiction—Singer doesn't know us, not the very wealthy, not the somewhat wealthy, nor the rest of us. We all have different situations, some with several kids, some with ailing parents, some devoted to the arts, politics, scholarship, or science that consumes much of our spare wealth. So the number-crunching in the essay amounts to speculation, at best. The serious pitch is that whatever we have, large portions need to be given away.

Not surprisingly Singer's essay is very unclear on just what percentage we should give away of what we have. No wonder. It is impossible to say in any general terms how charitable and generous one ought to be. These are just the sort of decisions that free men and women must make based on their own circumstances and the situations they face around them. The reason, in fact, that our moral virtues, such as courage, honesty, generosity, prudence and the rest, are general guidelines is that they are indicators, not formulas, for doing the right thing. Neither Peter Singer nor any other philosopher, theologian, economist or political theorist is going to be able to answer how much I or you ought to give away of what we have. Only we can do that—it is, as some have put it, all a matter of local knowledge.

A good clue may be gleaned as to what Singer would like us to do from what one of his like-minded colleagues, Peter Unger, once wrote: "On pain of living a life that's seriously immoral, a typical well-off person, like you and me, must give away most of her financially valuable assets, and much of her income, directing the funds to lessen efficiently the serious suffering of others."

Is this true? Because it is such a broad generalization, it probably is not. It assumes, for example, that what most of us spend our money on is worthless and implies that those who gain employment from such spending ought to go jobless. It also assumes that giving money away is of greater help to others than investing money in various projects or saving it so it could be lent out to support productive work. Indeed, Singer's essay is seriously lacking by failing to compare the benefits to those who need money of investing versus giving money away. As with the late Mother Teresa, Singer, too, seems to think it is more important to merely tide someone over instead of helping them get on their own feet.

Singer is also goes astray for thinking that the world is a kind of huge zero-sum game where those who gain must make others lose. He supports this with some theories to the effect that in order for us to be well off, others must suffer but that is really quite silly—economists for centuries have shown that buying, selling, hiring, and all that good commercial stuff is just what creates wealth, not giving things away, something that should be saved for emergencies and only when it is effective.

Another fallacy in Singer's thinking is that he keeps hinting at the idea that no one quite earns all of the wealth he or she has, even if it came by without out and out thievery. Well, of course not. When a beautiful model or talented singer or ball player gains huge sums, those sums weren't always fully deserved (earned). This is especially so with those of us, hopefully quite a few, who enjoy our work and for whom it isn't some great hardship to be productive. And there are the out and out lucky, too, who have a good deal that is theirs not because of arduous labors and suffering.

Yet, the fact that something is come by through luck or pleasant work doesn't make it someone else's. Our health can be good and it is still our health and Singer and his friends aren't justified in taking it from us. Property rights aren't sound principles because all of us always earn our resources through painful labor. They're sound principles because they preserve our sovereignty and keep the likes of Singer at bay.

Indeed, the bottom line of property rights has to do with who will decide how resources should be spent—the people who own them or
others, like Professor Singer. Interestingly although much of what Singer says in his New York Times Magazine piece avoids the worst part of the story, namely, advocating confiscating what we own, there is a part that reveals the author's view on that. He says, at one point, that a cabby asked him if he "thought the U.S. should give foreign aid. When [Singer] answered affirmatively, he replied that the government shouldn't tax people in order to give their money to others." So what did Singer trot out in response? The stuff about how much of what we have we didn't come by from our hard work. But that is entirely beside the point—few if any of us came by our lungs or eyes or good looks because of hard work, yet it is not for Singer to decide what we may do with these things. Indeed, most of our wealth came about through extremely complex ways. Still it is our wealth.

Generosity is indeed a moral virtue: to give those who should have something given to them. But how much that should be, when it should be given, and under what if any conditions, is very much a matter of the context. When some advocate making up formulas the danger is that the power to disburse will be theirs and no longer belong to those with the resources. And that may be what lurks behind all of this "giving," actually, not genuine generosity!

Saturday, December 16, 2006

Machines into Humans?

Tibor R. Machan

There’s been a pretty impressive movement afoot for over a century or even more championing the idea that human beings are but complicated machines, nothing special at all in the world. The Artificial Intelligence (AI) folks tend to hold this view—machines, in time at least, will do whatever people can, maybe even much better than we do it, like thinking, feeling guilt, empathizing, regretting, apologizing, and the whole gamut of stuff many think is unique to human life. No, say the AI folks, it’s just a matter of handling some of the technicalities and then, voila, we will have machines just like us. After all, aren’t machines already doing many of the tasks most if us had once thought only people could do? Sure.

I recall when I first ran across this topic, in a course what was called “Philosophical Psychology,” back at Pamona College, in Claremont, where I took some of my undergraduate philosophy courses—we studied, among others, Alan Turing and Ludwig Wittgenstein both of whom addressed aspects of the issue. I even recall one of our tests on which we were asked what Wittgenstein would have said to the idea that machines could think and my answer was, “Wait and see, it isn’t something to know about ahead of time.” My professor was rather impressed with this little part of my test, not much else. But I, too, would have said the same thing—who can tell ahead of time? Although I have doubts that non-living beings could ever come up with all of what people can do.

So I was discussing this with my best friend the other day, we both serious students of philosophy, and he noted that if the AI folks are correct, we should soon have a way to purge ourselves of false beliefs, as well as useless information. We will just take some kind of drug—well, may be a pill with who knows what in it—that will purge our system of falsehoods and trivia, plain and simple, just like today computers have programs that can purge them of unused desktop icons, cookies, and the like. We laughed about this some, since the notion that there could be some mechanical or even chemical way to get rid of false ideas or beliefs seemed absurd. But why? Don't we use drugs to get rid of viruses now?

Well, one reason is that to learn what is true versus false involves elaborate research, reasoning, checking and double-checking, with the ingredient of self-generated, initiated mental concentration, clear focus, keeping one’s attention, and recalling all sorts of information the coordination of which is needed to make sure of what’s what. No mechanical process is sufficient here, not at least when it comes to some of the deeper issues such as religion, politics, ethics, metaphysics, even biology and the rest of the disciplines the findings of which require extensive work of the sort that's unique to human beings, using their higher level thinking, reasoning for which they possess their very complicated brains and minds. To think some machine or mechanism or even chemical agent could accomplish the purging of falsehoods from our minds is to assume there are minds much like ours that will program whatever it is that’s supposed to do this purging business and use it to do the job. But there aren’t. Nothing in the known world does this kind of work other than people. At least not yet. It takes other people—or oneself, if one is really self-ware—to come up with criticisms and discarding of the bad ideas one holds. Sure, some tools can help—like a calculator, but who made those tools? Whoever could would be, well, pretty much people.

Yes, we can fantasize about a falsehood-purging-pill or such—that’s been done since time immemorial. Take all those Disney-like movies, right up close to our own time, in which everything and anything is routinely animated, with all those animated beings doing what we do and more, sometimes. Animals in this imaginary world do philosophy and math and literature, as do desks and chairs and cars and flowers and mountains—the human imagination is very fertile with such remote, counterfactual possibilities. But they are not to be confused with real prospects, not unless there is evidence instead of mere speculation.

So if you are waiting for the pill that will fix all your mistakes, do not hold your breath.

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

General Pinochet—Some Lessons

Tibor R. Machan

It is interesting just how real politics works. When the chips are down, we can often detect from little gestures and moves where people really stand on basic issues.

When General Pinochet died the other day, there was not a great deal of discussion about him and those that did appear tended to make a great deal of his having been supported by the American CIA when he overthrew the regime of Salvador Allende. Now for my money if it took the CIA to do this, it could well be to its credit, even though technically Chile was a so called sovereign country and Allende a sovereign leader (or ruler!). Of course, all this stuff about people being sovereign leaders or rulers of countries is nonsense, no less so than being kings or queens of countries. It fairy tale talk—there are no kings or queens, actually. There are only some men and women who dress up in fancy clothes as they impose their will on other men and women—“subjects.” And since Allende was about to take Chile into the Soviet bloc, joining Cuba as another Latin American country to be ruled by the Kremlin’s thugs, frankly I thought the CIA, never mind its technical malfeasance, did the right thing. I would have thought the same had it done this against the rulers of South Africa back then!

But all this bellyaching about Allende having been put down by the CIA instead of focusing on his allegiance with the Soviets and with Castro makes it clear that even after the fall of the Soviet Empire—a vicious Left wing, totalitarian dictatorship far worse then Pinochet’s petty military regime turned out to be—a great many intellectuals in the West are loyal to the fantasies of socialism and communism. If the brutality is done for the sake of the socialist or communist revolution, if a country is brought to its knees for that wonderful cause, well never mind the destruction and the sacrifice it takes. But if the goal is some other fantasy, say fascism, well then it is worth harping about it forever, never mind what the other choice happened to be. Never mind, also, that Pinochet voluntarily relinquished his rule in Chile after some years, ushering in a more or less democratic form of government, while no country under the rule of the likes of Stalin, Khrushchev, Cuba or North Korea ever managed to do this. Even Grobachov didn’t to this but merely toyed with some reforms hoping to keep the USSR a Soviet style social country, essentially. Yet he was hailed as some kind of savior of humanity and is still on the lecture circuit being widely welcome throughout the West. Pinochet, however, was hounded to the day he died. And by all accounts, he had committed serious crimes against many Chileans and there is little question that he should have been punished for this. But what about ex-KGB Gorbachov and Putin and the rest?

It seems that in the minds of too many on the Left what Pinochet did was only criminal because it was done for undesirable ends. The means, hell, they were routine among Leftist dictators and far more consequential. But just as after the fall of the Berlin Wall most of those on the Left kept silent—there were a few exceptions!—so when it comes to comparing fascist authoritarian brutal dictators to socialist totalitarian brutal dictators, the latter will routinely come off squeaky clean. The reason is mostly this loyalty to the fantasy of the revolution, although in some cases it is something else. That is the desire to pain the USA as dirty in all cases, as never having done the right thing, even comparatively speaking. When it was revealed that Radio Free Europe, where I did a short sting as a child actor back in the mid 1950s, and Encounter magazine, both got support from the CIA, the Left hollered from glee and some of my own libertarian pals were ecstatic—after all, the government once against did something bad and isn’t that wonderful for the cause of discrediting it. Hell with real politics, never mind what Allende would have done with Chile, never mind that those in Eastern Europe benefited a lot from RFE and that Encounter was a very fine magazine. Those goals aren’t worth it to these folks, and perhaps they aren’t. But to make these matters the focus of attention here shows how little people appreciate the evil of that evil empire!

Monday, December 11, 2006

Comparing Political Systems

Tibor R. Machan

Islam is not explicitly a political system but it has strong implications about political economy, as most religions do. Something will be forbidden in a human community if Islam dominates, something will be taken as acceptable by those in charge. This is so with Christianity, too, of course, as well as with any other religion. Some religions, however, do not aspire to rule everyone, not at least by coercive force. Islam, as it is understood by a great many Moslems, does consider the use of coercive force acceptable for certain vital purposes, notably the one of having people convert to Islam.

Now the real community value that we all, regardless of our faiths, ought to prize is people living a freely chosen moral life. But this is something impossible if coercive force is used in any realm of human affairs. Only in defense of liberty is the use of force justified—in that case it is not coercive but defensive force. Most Moslems do not share this priority of liberty over any other public good—they insist that the public good amounts to willing or unwilling service to Allah as understood from the Koran.

So the fight is over the importance of liberty. Those who deny its importance easily can reach the conclusion that killing innocent people, including children, is OK for certain, if rare, purposes, such as achieving religious dominance throughout the world. It is sad but acceptable, given the stakes.

This is wrong and however much those in the West may have failed at living by our own principles—some of us have been or supported coercive force ourselves—we are responsible to resist the attempt to make any religion, including Islam, dominate the world. We must defend human liberty.

Of course, a free country, one that does really honor liberty, can be either flawed or wonderful. There just is no guarantee. But such a country at least makes it possible for all of its citizens to aspire to their own best selves, their human excellence, however they conceive of this except for when the aspiration interferes with what other people choose to do peacefully in their lives. In short, a free country is open to many experiments with how the best life should be lived and even with what that best life is.

No, this isn’t utopia, a society with perfect lives lived in it, which is the political goal the imperialist religions pursue and plan to implement. (Here, by the way, is where Islam as understood by most of its current world leaders, resembles Communism as the Soviets understood it. No wonder the Left has taken its side recently.) It is however the kind of human community that is most likely to foster human excellence—everyone must decide how to live, which means those who decide correctly will have personally chosen the pursuit of their excellence. They will not merely have been coercively forced to behave right! This, ultimately, is why Western style liberal constitutional democracies are superior to what Islam and some other religions and ideologies would promote.

We can pretty much also judge a system of political ideas by considering how bad things can get while it is used to guide a country's legal order. Liberal constitutional democracies can be pretty bad; people can be pretty immoral--say, hedonistic, materialistic, or whatever other sort of malady the West is supposedly suffering from. But with all this, the West is not likely to glorify in violence, brutality, murder, cruelty, and so forth against innocent human beings. This really is a QED. When a religion’s or philosophy’s political implications can legally find such conduct acceptable, the system is has proven to be unacceptable, period.

Sure not all those who subscribe to Islam prefer—just as not all those who embraced Communism chose—to act violently, brutally, etc. There are moderate Moslems as there were moderate Communists, even Nazis. But those who went off the deep end had no systematic objection offered to their conduct from within their position, none. It is OK by their convictions to perpetrate murder, etc., no problem, even if not universally practiced.

Yes, there can be much amiss with the Western type liberal constitutional democratic idea and how it is practiced but at its very worst the position will not construe systematic violent sacrifice of children and innocent adults as acceptable in the pursuit of any goal whatsoever, not even the goal of self-defense (as evidenced by how many Westerners stand up for the rights of those who attack us). That is a very strong reason for its superiority!

Saturday, December 09, 2006

Christmas, Holidays & Commerce

by Tibor R. Machan

There has been much fuss lately about some people referring to Christmas as "the Holidays" and it is a bit strange. After all, "holiday" has the term "holy" in it, so those using it may be said to acknowledge the holiness of these days, something one would not expect from heathens, atheists, or agnostics. For the latter nothing much qualifies as holy since that term signifies something otherworldly, supernatural.

But perhaps the insistence on using "Christmas" has a somewhat insidious, religiously intolerant source. It may be the effort of some Christians to lock up the holidays for themselves alone, a kind of imperialism we have been witnessing the last several years from people who are willing to go the great lengths of brutality and violence to lock up the entire world for their own religion. Christians, however, were supposed to have been guided by the philosophy of Jesus, who hadn't adopted the aggressive stance of Islam's prophet, Mohammed, so it is entirely unbecoming of Christians to lord their religion over others. Especially in America, which has for over two centuries been a country that has welcomed members of all kinds of faiths.

Despite the insistence of some, America wasn't established as a Christian country—its legal system does not invoke any religion in some official sense in which, say, even England does (being officially Anglican). As to the argument about the American founders, two recent books make it abundantly clear that among them they had no agreed-upon common religious allegiance other than belief in God. But belief in God is common among Jews, Christians, Muslims, Hindus and many other faiths. So at most America can be regarded as a religious country, which using the term "holiday" by no stretch of the imagination disputes!

There is another bit of controversy, though, surrounding the holidays, namely, whether all the commercial activity during them somehow serves to demean them. One thing in favor of this idea is that Christmas ought to be a time when we are more concerned with spiritual than with earthly matters. So all the focus on gifts and such would appear to reject this notion.

Yet, especially for Christians, earth is just as important as will be the world beyond, assuming such exists, which, of course, Christianity does assume. Yet according to Christianity the earth is a creation of God and Jesus himself became a human being for a while, thus honoring the earthliness of the rest of us who will live here for a good bit before heading elsewhere. And while here on earth, we are also supposed to be generous, kind, charitable, and friendly, all of which involves, at least to some extent, looking out for our fellows' earthly needs, wants and desires.

It is a large measure of our goodness, according to Christian ethics, that we act accordingly and Christmas is especially suited for it, when we are supposed to think of what our relatives, friends and other associates might like from us. Being remembered, for example, via cards, invitations to parties, gifts and so forth is certainly part of the thoughtfulness we ought to exhibit this time of the year and going about looking for a finding gifts is certainly a part of what such consideration involves.

No doubt, one can overdo everything, including focusing so much on buying things for those we care for, although mostly people tend to be involved in finding just the right thing, which is what all the running around is about. (As a father of three grown children, it is becoming more and more difficult to tell just exactly what would make them most pleased, so I need to invest some time in shopping!)

The commerce that's done during the holidays is, in fact, all to the good—it usually brings joy to those receiving gifts, to those finding just the right gift to give, and to whose producing and selling what will become gifts so they, in turn, can go out and do all this as well. I see nothing but a win-win situation here, all around, so the complaints really have no basis so far as I can see.

Friday, December 08, 2006

Values and America

Tibor R. Machan

A theme that comes up often in commentaries about contemporary American culture is the absence of firmly grounded and widely embraced basic values among the people. While Americans have a coherent and stable enough legal tradition—albeit in the process of gradual erosion now and always a bit flawed—they seem to lack a basic ethics by which their lives might be guided, given some in depth meaning. It is for this reason, it is often said, that people require religion in their lives, whether it be Islam, Judaism, Christianity, or Hinduism.

And there is little doubt that human beings are just the kind of living creatures who cannot live without basic moral values. Even those who are totally skeptical about this do not manage to do without morals—they implicit embrace some ethical precepts, such as integrity or consistency or justice. For example, no skeptic accepts having his or her views distorted. No a-moralist believes it makes no difference how he or she is treated by critics. Total nihilism about values is impossible unless one is some kind of sociopath, seriously mentally deranged.

Why do we need values? Because we, humans, are just the sort of living beings that lack instincts. We are born with the instinct to suckle and that is about it—the rest is a matter of learning. And it isn't only the kind of learning that most higher animals need, namely, being trained in some skills. It is learning on one's own, to figure out ideas, to form principles about life and its innumerable facets. That is what all the fuss is about when we talk about the ethics of merchants, lawyers, doctors, politicians, parents, etc. And while some of this has become submerged in the discipline of psychology—so that for example such chintzy public forums as the Oprah show and The View will rarely talk about ethics and focus, instead, on psychological problems—it is still quite inescapable. Consider that however much we try to explain away ethical matters, even our psychologists are subject to moral criticism when they abuse their patients, for example.

So it seems clear enough that human beings cannot live by law alone. The law itself is open to be judged as ethical or unethical—just think how we treated the laws of Nazi Germany, the Soviet Union or South Africa. The same is true about the United States of America—its laws are open to moral scrutiny. We need, therefore, more than just laws for a coherent, civilized, and decent society.

But America is a highly pluralistic country—millions of people live here from extremely diverse cultures, traditions, religions, ethnic groups and the like. It seems, therefore, that just relying on these as sources of the common bond of ethics will not help. Instead, as elsewhere in the world, such sources often pit people against one another. Christians versus Jews or Moslems, Moslems against Infidels, agnostics against theists, atheists against agnostics, etc., etc.—there is no end of the varieties of conflict that can arise if we depend on these sources for moral guidance. Why? Because they lack a common base. They draw their principles of human behavior from diverse belief systems which are, themselves, not grounded in some common and accessible reality. When we depend upon the teachings of our culture we can be reasonably sure that some connection to reality must have infused what we believe. But a good deal of it is myth and fiction, made up by the human imagination and showing about as much diversity as that faculty can produce.

So what can Americans hope for in this matter of some set of common values? There is, first of all, no guarantee that we will come together on any possible answer as we search for a common ethics. That is because human beings are quite free to ignore even the best answers to questions they pose, say if they find it unpleasant, disturbing, scary, inconvenient or whatnot. But some answers probably offer a better chance at consensus than do others.

In ancient Greece it was Socrates, the first major Western philosopher, who proposed an answer to this question of how to come by an ethics that we can all agree on, even if we do not choose to. He proposed that reason must be employed to study human nature and when we learn what human nature is, we will also learn how to live right, how to live virtuously, justly. Because human nature is something we can all study. It is there before us every second of every minute of every hour of our lives. We have ample opportunity to examine what it is to be a human being. And this will give us a strong clue as to how to live a human life properly, ethically.

And the most important thing about human beings is that they are living creatures who must use their minds to navigate their lives. It is human intelligence, the activity of figuring things out and living accordingly, that seems to be the best guide to living well. As Socrates put it, "The unexamined life is not worth living." But only nature and, for our purposes, human nature, is available for common study and ultimate consensus.

In a diverse society such as America the people cannot hope to reach peace, harmony, and justice by finding principles from diverse traditions. That always runs the serious risk of conflict, since we interact among one another so frequently and pervasively. What we need to learn is to use, trust and be guided by our common reasoning capacity. There is a common world to be studied and our reasoning capacity is the best tool with which to study it. The results may get us what all else has failed to, namely, a set of ethical guidelines that will help us to come to agree on solutions to our problems.

There is no utopia in trusting reason. But as novelist Scott Turow put it in his best selling book, The Burden of Proof, "In human affairs, reason would never fully triumph; but there was no better cause to champion."

Thursday, December 07, 2006

Another Virtue of Liberty

by Tibor R. Machan

When men and women are free to make mistakes or act from ignorance, they are also free to correct themselves promptly. This is one reason why involving government in such policies as banning trans fats or mandating the use of helmets by bicycle riders is a bad idea. The trans fats policy was just cast into stone in New York City—as of the summer of 2008, no eating establishment may cook with the stuff. And the ban on going without a helmet while riding bikes on public roads is nearly ubiquitous now in America and quite a few other countries.

The bureaucrats and politicians who run the nanny state are, of course, convinced that they are our saviors, even as many of the regulatory agencies are captured by the industries being regulated and serve, in consequence, to promote industry interests. But never mind that part of the problem. Another is that often the policy deemed to be so helpful—such as forcing us to wear seat belts or to use helmets—turns out to have very bad unintended consequences.

A traffic psychologist at the University of Bath, in the UK, Dr. Ian Walker, has conducted research on the impact of the bike helmet ban and found that "motorists passed, on average, three inches closer when he was wearing his helmet [during his experiments] than otherwise." As the English weekly THE WEEK reported in its September 23, 2006, issue, Dr. Walker "also found [vehicles] gave him more room when we wore a wig (to resemble a woman), and when he kept close to the kerb (undermining the normal advice that cyclists should drive in the middle of the road)." As Dr. Walker noted, "By leaving cyclists less room, drivers reduce the safety margin that cyclists need to deal with obstacles in the road, such as drain covers and potholes, as well as the margin for error in their own judgments."

Of course, people who research these matters can make mistakes whether they work with, or independently of, the government. However, once their advice is cast into law, abolishing the law is generally very difficult. Just ask yourself how often you hear about such laws being revoked? The most widely known example in the USA is prohibition and even that hasn't been completely overturned—some states still have various remnants of the ban that became a constitutional law back in 1920 and then was repealed in 1933. Although the ban of trans fats is for now confined to New York City, at least as far as I have been able to determine, the ban on going without helmets is much more widespread and there are numerous initiatives by politicians and bureaucrats to spread the other ban as well.

One need not dispute the wisdom of the advice to stop using trans fats or to use bike helmets, even if it is true that these measures may in time prove to be counterproductive. We are not required to be omniscient in order to take actions, to make policies. Human beings often need to act without perfect knowledge which is, in fact, an impossible ideal. Knowledge is always contextual, based on the currently available information and research. Demanding that governments be omniscient is also quite silly.

What is not silly, however, is to demand that government stay away from enacting laws about matters of safety and prudence since laws are usually left in place to kingdom come! Somehow there is a far greater proclivity to make than to repeals laws—Dr. Walker might give that topic a bit of study! Arguably, if there were no legal ban on bike helmets, the mistaken idea that they are a great help to bikers, that they are safer overall then going without them, at least in areas where there is a lot of vehicular traffic, adjustments could be made rapidly, with impunity. But given that there are all these legal bans on going without bike helmets, that there are bureaucracies that have a stake in continuing the bans, that jobs would be lost if the bans were discontinued, etc., it is very likely that the mistake will remain in force and who knows how many bikers will sustain serious injuries from doing what the law requires, namely, wearing protective helmets as they use the roads.
How to Learn English

by Tibor R. Machan

Yes, if you came to the US as an immigrant, to live your life here, it's quite likely that you could get by without learning English. Even back when I first landed here, in 1956, there were regions of America where people only spoke Hungarian. (I recall shops in Cleveland's Buckeye District with signs saying, "We also speak English!")

But all in all it's best to become proficient in English if one is going to live and work in the United States of America. But it isn't easy. Often people who come here live in households where the default language is the one spoken where they hail from. Hungarian, Polish, or Mexican immigrants will likely continue to speak their native tongue just because it is simpler—there's so much else to worry about that if one can get away without spending time on learning English, it looks advantageous ... for awhile! In time, however, not learning English turns into a big liability.

This is especially true for children who lack proficiency and thus undermine their chances in schools, colleges, and the work place. A friend of mine's five year old son, born in China but living in the States since he was 3, simply will not even try to speak English, apparently because his mother and other relatives and friends lack the fortitude to insist on speaking English with him. So he is doing very badly in his elementary school and his mother is even thinking of sending him back to his aunt in China.

Not that one swallow makes springtime, so my example may be moot as far as many other immigrants are concerned. Still, I have a few suggestions to those who come here and do wish to learn English even though they are surrounded by folks who don't much support this idea. When I arrived, I was quite old, 17 and a half, and although I already spoke the language a bit, having gone to an American high school in Germany for a few months so as to get a head start, I was very far from being fluent, which I did, eventually, become—so much so that few people detect even a trace of an accent now when I speak English. And I tried for this quite deliberately.


For one, I learned a lot of American songs—my very first one was "Mr. Sandman." I listened and tried to imitate such singers as Louis Armstrong, Frank Sinatra, Bing Crosby, and a host of others. I learned a bunch of American songs, like "Ain't Misbehavin'," "You Must Have Been a Beautiful Baby," and many, many more, and sang them whenever I could, whenever I wouldn't drive others up the wall with my inept but educational crooning.

Of course, that is just the start. Going to the movies is another good way to acclimate oneself to a new language. Reading books, magazines, newspapers, or whatever else is at hand also helps, certainly with one's vocabulary and grammar. Indeed, I had very little formal instruction and only practiced the irregular verbs, mostly on my own initiative since learning them involves a lot of memorization. But use was my best instructor.

After living with a bunch of emigre Hungarians for about a year, I realized that that was an impediment. Since I had run away from my home anyway, I decided to leave Cleveland for someplace where no Hungarians could be found: New Cumberland, Pennsylvania. This was a great move for me since there I had no one to talk with unless I become pretty good with English. Being someone who likes to talk, to chat with people, to discuss ideas and so forth, being away from Hungarians made a big contribution to my becoming more and more proficient in English. It didn't hurt, either, that I joined the US Air Force where once again Hungarians were very scarce and where I simply had to speak English if I was to speak at all.

Of course, some people are more adapt at learning a new language than others, but I would surmise from my own and some other people's experiences that the old German saying, "Ubung, ubung macht den Meister"—"Practice, Practice makes the Master"—is true and if one wants to prepare for a productive, successful life in a new country, one ought to go to work on learning the language in ways similar to those that stood me in good stead.

Sunday, December 03, 2006

Perils of State Soft Paternalism

Tibor R. Machan

Jim Holt discusses the recent debate about soft paternalism, in his essay in this Sunday's, New York Times Magazine. His “The New, Soft Paternalism” is a fair and pretty thorough account of the debate about whether people have multiple selves of which some may be wiser than others and it does a decent job of considering whether the wiser selves we have ought to get government support, as when states limit gambling or other easily abused activities by their citizens. Holt comes out in favor of the government’s lending a hand to our wiser selves in the end. Here is how he put his conclusion:

“But what if you are one of those people who rely on more mundane stratagems, like self-binding? The general problem you face (as put by the political theorist Jon Elster [a member of the analytical Marxist school, by the way]) is this: For a given uphill goal and a given strength of will, does there exist a path, however circuitous, that will get you to the top of the hill? By adding a new path here and there, state soft paternalism makes it more likely that the answer will be yes.”

A couple of preliminaries. Invoking David Hume’s idea of the totally—indeed, impossibly—fragmented human self is a non-starter here. For Hume the idea was to show that is no self but he advance the notion merely as a reductio absurdum argument against radical empiricism, to show that simply relying on our senses gets us nowhere in trying to understand anything, including ourselves. Of course we have different ideas and desires, with some of us remaining intact over time while others waffling about with no integrity at all. Yet even the worst of us, with the most discombobulated personalities and unhinged character, can have some good moments during which we try to set about straightening our who we will be henceforth--just think of all the New Year's resolutions here. And, yes, a bit of push from peers and institutions may help when such folks are ready to lapse once again.

Now it might be tempting to do what Jim Holt, on the advice of Jon Elster, is proposing, get the state involved here. State soft-paternalism has its greatest appeal not because of its successes and because good theory supports it, quite the contrary. It appeals because of the powerful governmental habit that has been powerfully cultivated in the human race from time immemorial. This is a bit akin to the root idea behind paternalism—"parents know best." And that’s right for most kids, of course; for adults, however, it is a disabling, inept approach to dealing with life and gives dangerous powers to governments.

The governments of most societies have, of course, sold themselves to the people as their parents—or uncles or nannies—who have nothing but the best interest of their children, the people, in mind. Kings notoriously justified themselves along these lines, as have dictators. What differentiates democratic governments is merely the fact that they work by a process of decisions-by-committee and there are numerous competing committees vying to dominate until in the end a decision is reached that supposedly has had the benefit of extensive discussion. Of course, the decision will be coercively imposed but, presumably, wiser then many private decisions would be.

Now this is the kind of view that began to be questioned with the writings of Baruch Spinoza. Thomas Hobbes, writing just a bit before Spinoza, made the mistake of trusting the democratically selected absolute monarch, arguing, like Holt and Elster, that people want themselves to be ruled and a king or government is just who should do the ruling. But as Spinoza began to suggest and, later, classical liberals like John Locke, Adam Smith, and a host of others began to warn us, governments aren’t made up of angels but people. People with the crucial added attribute that makes it easy to yield to bad temptations, namely, power over other people.

In the 20th century Jim Buchanan and Gordon Tullock finally put the idea into a fully developed theory called "Public Choice" which argued that politicians and bureaucrats will routinely pursue their own agendas, not those assigned to them by the people via the democratic process. Now this pretty much means that entrusting government to engage in benign soft paternalism is futile.

Yes, some people could benefit from this if it could be counted upon—although that alone doesn’t make it good public policy either—but counting upon government to administer soft paternalism without corruption, without abuse, is the big mistake embraced by the likes of Jim Holt, Jon Elster, and, sadly, millions of others across the globe.

Friday, December 01, 2006

Promoting Freedom Close to Home

Tibor R. Machan

Over the several decades that I have championed the fully free society, one that basically conforms to the principles of the Declaration of Independence, I have had the good fortune to be able to address many people about this topic. Much of this consists of writing books, articles, letters to editors, scholarly papers and columns, of course. But aside from writing, I have also been privileged to be invited to talk to a great many and highly varied groups of people, with such organizations as the Rotary Club, Kiwanis, and the like all over America and indeed the globe. Quite recently, for example, I gave a series of lectures in the Republic of Georgia as well as in Santiago, Chile.

One persistent question I have faced all these years is what an individual person can do to promote advances toward a free society. And, naturally, there are nearly as many answers to this as there are individuals asking the question. So, quite often I have to remind people that while I can give some general ideas, based on my work and experience, they are the ones who are in the best position to answer the question about what to do to advance liberty. Yet, there are a few specific ideas that will help nearly anyone concerned with promoting liberty in their own communities. One, in particular, is very worthwhile to keep in mind. It can guide one to do things that may really bear fruit.

I have in mind advocating the decoupling of government from the innumerable projects that it’s now involved with everywhere. Governments are now supporting, through public funds acquired by way of taxation, innumerable projects in every community across the world and if one is dedicated to advancing liberty an important step in that direction is to promote removing government from all these "community" endeavors.

If some convention center is widely desired, or a baseball park or football stadium, or some other recreation or athletic facility, it is imperative that these be supported voluntarily and those who want these facilities go about soliciting the support instead of relying on the extortionist approach of taxation. Champions of liberty should vigorously advocate that!

After all, it is not difficult for most people to appreciate that those uninterested in football should be free to devote their own resources to some purpose of their own choosing instead of having these resources taken from them against their will and put to use for what they do not want, a football stadium. This is very simple to convey in letters, conversations, on talk programs, etc. One can always make mention of the fact that this is supposed to be a free country where people have the right to pursue their own happiness and not to be conscripted to help in the pursuit of others’.

Also, this is a country with a reasonably strong individualist tradition, which can also be deployed in defense of having those who want something go about securing support for their projects, leaving others to do so in support of what they want. We all have ideals, goals, dreams, purposes of our own, often not unlike those of some others but rarely those of all others.

And that’s an excellent reason why the various community projects people now tend habitually to expect governments to support should actually be supported privately, voluntarily. Sure, there are some projects where this idea would be too radical to promote—airports, roads, and schools should be funded voluntarily but the governmental habit is too powerful here and it will take a while before advances toward privatization can be made about those. But swimming pools? Ice skating rinks? Volley ball and tennis courts? Even football stadiums, while quite large projects, have no business being built with funds extorted from people who care not a whit about football.

I believe that this particular idea, so closely related to what a free society is about—namely, people being free to pursue their own objectives so long as they do not violated anyone’s rights—holds out considerable promise of gaining ascent from one’s neighbors. Even if it will not fly immediately, it can become a focus of discussion, of editorializing, of local talk programs and so forth.

So what can you do to promote liberty? One thing among others is to advocate getting government—the governing right in your own back yard, your city or county—out of the task of supporting special interest projects pretending to serve everyone’s interest. Let those who want these often very worthy goals (to some) get up the support from them and let the rest support what they value.

Thursday, November 30, 2006

Watch out For Growing Public Sector

by Tibor R. Machan

In a free society adult men and women have the rights to their lives, liberty and property proficiently protected. That's what it means when the Declaration of Independence states that governments are instituted to secure our rights and, presumably, for no other purpose that conflict with this one.

Of course, rights must be exercised some place—if I have a right to my life, I must have a right to obtain some location where this life may be lived; if I have the right to liberty, this too, involves the right to seek out places where my liberty may be exercised. So the right to private property is implicitly affirmed by any of our basic rights. Effectively, then, a free society is one wherein private property is ubiquitous.

Public property, in contrast, is highly limited, namely, to whatever is required to operate the courts, house the police and the military and some other administrative structures. (Here is the only place where eminent domain law applies, in obtaining—with appropriate compensation—the places needed for such public uses.)

But when the free society is compromised Left and Right, meaning, the major political factions don't give a hoot about private property rights as they do not in this country for sure, the private sector— which includes not just individual but a bulk of social affairs— contracts. More and more of the society becomes public—schools, colleges and universities, business establishment, forests, parks, rivers, lakes, museums, concert halls, massive portions of land of all sorts, and, of course, all the roads and traffic hubs, including airports and so on.

One consequences of this expanding public sector is that the rights people have to carry on their activities, such as their freedom of expression of all kinds, begin to be exercised all over the entire society, and to be regulated by the government. Freedom to pray would then have to be granted on public lands and in public buildings, not just private churches and homes and halls. Freedom to speak up about various matters would have to be granted on any public property. And, because the public realm is normally under the jurisdiction of public authorities, local, county, state or federal, these rights to exercise ones liberty now no longer amount to bona fide freedoms but highly restricted "freedoms," regulated and regimented by the public authorities. And this is natural—after all, in my own house, for example, the exercise of free expression is regulated by, well, me! I own the place. If you are invited and want to speak up, you have no unlimited freedom to speak out but whatever freedom I grant you.

Same with newspapers—whoever owns them sets the limits of what goes in the pages—only the owners have the right to freely use the space as they see fit. Ownership, in short, confers the authority to set terms of use and when public spheres are being used by citizens, governments set the terms. And this invites nothing less than government supervision over our supposedly free conduct, conduct we have the right to engage in and would be able to exercise without interference on our own private property but not on public property.

Now this situation, which I sketch in broad terms here, accounts for much of the hassle about what is and as not permitted by the legal authorities when we try to exercise our right to liberty on public property, such as a high school football field or classroom or a state college or university newspaper or research laboratory. The whole stem cell research controversy is largely understandable as a function of how such research is conducted mostly at public facilities—hospitals, universities, etc.

The only nearly private sector in America today—though now also in peril from IRS intrusions—is where religion is being practiced—churches are virtual private property and what goes on there, barring criminal conduct, is protected against interference and regulation and censorship. It is also true that from such private places anyone who is not invited may be excluded (except meddling bureaucrats, unfortunately), whereas this isn't so with public places. Because these are public, they generally must admit anyone who is a member of the public, so allocating use will be needed, as will be the imposition of various conditions—political correctness, for example, in what goes into student newspapers or is being said in classrooms.

The bottom line is that with the expansion of the public sector, something widely championed by thinkers both Left and Right, there is greater and greater contraction of our liberties to do as we judge correct. The free society is clearly being more and more compromised.
Secular Thinking, Science, and Ethics

by Tibor R. Machan

The Center for Inquiry, a secular humanist organization that publishes some important and interesting literature mostly in support of construing the world without recourse to mysticism or faith in supernaturalism, placed an ad in The New York Times recently. It calls for us all to take the scientific perspective on the world more seriously and leave aside the religious approach, especially religious fundamentalism.

A central passage of this ad goes like this: "Science transcends borders and provides the most reliable basis for finding solutions to our problems. We maintain that secular, not religious, principles must govern our public policy ..."

Now I have sympathies for this viewpoint because I, too, think that reliance on faith is divisive and very unsure-footed. That's why there are about 4200 different religions in America alone, all with their own conceptions of the world and how people should live in it. And, yes, science seems to be far more unified across the world, even the ages, even though there are, of course, many disagreements brewing among scientists of all types. All in all, though, science does offer up more reliable understanding than religion.

Still, religion has the corner on one area of human concern which science has been approaching very ineptly. This is morality or ethics. Scientists have never quite managed to escape the paradox of claiming that there isn't any free will at all, everything just happens because it must happen, while at the same to complaining about how people behave, especially about science! Well, if we are moved by impersonal forces, the laws of physics, chemistry, biology -- especially genetics -- then why complain? It's all que sera, sera, isn't it? If this scientific approach is right, then all the lamentations about how people view science is itself pointless. They just do as they must, so why beef?

Moreover, there is the problem that science itself doesn't have much to offer about whether we ought to respect it. Nor can science itself demonstrate that it "provides the most reliable basis for finding solutions to our problems." That, assuredly, isn't a scientific claim, provable by experimentation and other scientific procedures. Thinking that science can legislate about the merits of science is folly -- as demonstrated by the fact that the Center's ad hasn't an ounce of science in it backing up its claims about the reliability of science.

So there is a problem with secularism as understood by most of the folks at the Center of Inquiry. It doesn't address one of the most important issues in human affairs, namely, how we ought to live. Sure, there are claims that we ought to honor science but this isn't something that is well supported. Science itself cannot do it so what will? The ad doesn't say.

The bottom line is that the scientific -- some critics will call it "scientistic" -- approach needs to be supplemented with something and champions of secularism aren't generally very good at showing how to do this. Once they step away from science itself, they need to turn to some other source and what should that be? Philosophy? Of course, there are about as many schools of philosophy seeking adherents as religions. Sure, most promise ways of solving human problems that avoid the pitfalls of faith based solutions -- they claim that their ways are available to all without recourse to some supernatural guidance that is very hard for people to grasp rationally, practically. But beyond this, there is very little unanimity among philosophers.

My idea is that folks at the Center of Inquiry and other such organizations ought to advance their positive case and stop denigrating other positions, especially by besmirching their ways of trying to find solutions to our problems. No approach has found universal acceptance; each is trying to put its case out there to be considered. So let's put out our various proposed approaches to solving human problems and let there be a debate about that instead of dismissive messages about how some approaches are inadequate. Let, so to speak, the free market of ideas decide. Yes, it is best for this purposes, for government to stay out of the fray, as the Center's ad suggests. But beyond that, it is most fruitful, I think, to simply stick to arguing the substance without calling into question anyone's good will.

Saturday, November 25, 2006

For What Should We Thank Bill Gates?

Tibor R. Machan

When a few days ago PBS's Charlie Rose had Bill Gates back on his show, it was Thanksgiving and Rose began with noting how much Bill Gates had to be thankful for and how we should thank him “because of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation which has given a lot to education and global health.” During the entire interview the focus was mostly on this feature of Gate’s—and Warren Buffett’s—life, namely, their charitable endeavors.

Of course, there was some discussion about technology in general, computers, and so forth, but the one topic completely ignored was Bill Gates’ contribution to commerce—to serving his customers well, to creating thousands and more jobs around the world, to investing in new technology and the like. In short, it was as if Bill Gates were nothing but a philanthropist and computer guru, totally removed from the economics of the field in which he has been such an enormous success. The idea that perhaps Gates deserves thanks from us because he makes and sells very desirable merchandise simply never came to Charlie Rose’s mind—nor to Bill Gates’, oddly enough.

As I was watching and listening very closely to the interview I was baffled by why both interviewer and interviewee so assiduously avoided talking about making money and focused only on giving it away—as if one could do the latter without the former. It occurred to me that perhaps Charlie Rose thought nothing of such feats at all and Gates has been instructed by spin doctors to avoid making any mention of his commercial achievements. Or perhaps the producers of the show waved off any such discussion, fearing that viewers of PBS programs would be offended if the subject matter of making money got any attention.

Bill Gates would hardly be of public significance if he hadn’t made a great deal of money from his creativity and diligence, his business savvy. None of his talk of “giving back” would be of much significance if what he gave back amounted to no more than, say, a bit of volunteering at a homeless shelter or making the kind of contributions most of us can make to various charities and other worthy causes. Bill Gate matters mostly because of his technical and entrepreneurial genius which then enabled him to be a philanthropist.. But that issue seems to be taboo, at least during an hour long interview on Charlie Rose’s prestigious PBS program. Why?

My guess is that part of it is that Bill Gates would much rather be liked than being admired for what he actually accomplished in his career. He has become a celebrity. Perhaps enough people in his industry show him professional respect so he can parade for the rest of us his goody two shoes persona. Assuming that he sincerely wants to spend a good deal of the money he has made to help out the unfortunate around the globe, even there it would be of some interest whether giving away the bulk of his wealth is a better way to do this than making more money by, say, building new research facilities and manufacturing plants and providing steady jobs for the poor in Africa. Maybe the example of Mother Theresa has influenced Gates—the lady, after all, did very little of permanent significance for those whom she helped, given that she, too, just gave away mostly perishable goods and did not focus mainly on helping the poor help themselves.

Or maybe the customary guilt that sadly afflicts so many honest wealthy people around the world is at the bottom of Gates’ failure to acknowledge his own true achievements, figuring that he is just one of the lucky ones and doesn’t deserve any pride at all in what he has done. I don’t know Bill Gates but to find out about why he is disclaiming any credit for what should in point of fact gain him the most of it would be worth making some effort to find him and ask him some questions if one were permitted to do so. Maybe we would discover that in his private thoughts he is well aware of why he really counts for something to us all in his life and that the kind of stuff he gets singled out for on Charlie Rose is but a sideshow, one that may or may not be of some serious help (since it might in fact lead mostly to people becoming dependent upon others for their well being).

Don’t please misunderstand—emergency help to those who need it is often crucial and many of us do our own share to provide a bit of it when the occasion for it arises. But even the meager emergency support to the unfortunate many of us provide would be impossible if we didn’t work hard at our professions and earn a decent living. That, not giving things away, is the crucial issue to keep in mind, especially when it comes to a creative entrepreneur like Bill Gates.

Friday, November 24, 2006

A Most Civil Adversary and Comrade

Tibor R. Machan

When Milton Friedman, the Nobel Laureate economists, leader of the Chicago School of Economics, a husband to Rose and devoted father of their two children and friend of VIPs as well as not so VIPs died the other week, I couldn’t find my voice because of how little I could really say at first about such a fine individual and how many others there are who would want to express their grief and convey some of their memories in public. I wasn’t a very close associate, nor intimate friend, only someone who now and then would have the privilege of having Uncle Milty in my life, sometimes as a kind of mentor, sometimes as celebrity intellectual, and at others as a critic, even a severe one at that. My own reflections here will focus on his style of intellectual exchange more than on other aspects of this wonderful man’s contribution to our culture.

When I began my involvement with the libertarian movement in America, I was brought in by reading the novelist-philosopher Ayn Rand but then quickly discovered that beside this stimulating thinker there were several others who had been making significant contributions to the study of the free society. One of them was the economist Milton Friedman, who was, among other things, a founder of the Mt. Pelerin Society, the international association of classical liberal intellectuals founded back in the late 1940s as a rather humble antidote to the massive more or less extreme Left Wing academic, intellectual, and literary movement across the West.

Ludwig von Mises, F. A. Hayek, James Buchanan, Fritz Machlup, and Friedman were just some of the very learned people who felt the need to go on the philosophical offensive against those who in the name of what classical liberals believed is a pure fantasy, namely, the socialist ideal, one they knew was leading countries astray on numerous fronts but most especially economically. Younger enlistees like me had to immerse ourselves in the works of these and many other defenders of the right to individual liberty and the free market society men and women required so as to flourish because, well, those championing statism were, tragically, a vast group and quite learned to boot. But their values and analyses of human affairs were seriously askew, this we quickly realized, especially those of us who had a solid taste of socialism and would-be communism shoved down our throats back behind the Iron Curtain early in our lives. (Rand, von Mises, von Hayek, Thomas Szasz, and others in the classical liberal group had themselves experienced either fascism, socialism or both for part of theirs.)

In time I tried to make some contribution to the literature, as well as to efforts to spread the ideas about liberty throughout the media. One of these was helping to found Reason Magazine as a serious, dependable monthly publication containing accessible yet in depth analyses of society from the libertarian perspective. One of the features of the magazine was to be lengthy, probing interviews with important thinkers from several sides of the intellectual spectrum. These included Nathaniel Branden, Thomas Szasz, Yale Brozen, Bill Niskanan, Bill Buckley, Nicholas von Hoffman, Sidney Hook, F. A. Hayek, Yale Brozen, et al, and, also, Professor Milton Friedman.

I was teaching at a small place in Western New York and drove, in the middle of February, 1974, to Chicago to meet and interview Uncle Milty at his apartment. I had along Professor Ralph Raico and we were joined also by one of Dr. Friedman’s students, Joe Cobb, and the interview commenced. It went on for several hours and when we finished we were exhausted from a most exhilarating exchange with a very intellectually agile and superbly educated scholar.

In the course of the interview we argued a good deal, exploring various approaches that one might take to understanding human affairs and the best economic system that would serve people anywhere and everywhere. While in broad agreement, there were certain matters on which there were some differences among us and I, especially, had a very intense exchange with our interviewee on the topic of whether it is possible for people to know what is right versus wrong ethical conduct. One of the most memorable points made by Friedman was this: "I think that the crucial question that anybody who believes in freedom has to ask himself is whether to let another man be free to sin. If you really know what sin is, if you could be absolutely certain that you had the revealed truth, then you could not let another man sin. You have to stop him." "Interview with Milton Friedman," Reason, December 1974, p. 5. He, of course, held that no one could know when another sinned or did something morally wrong. I disagreed with this and we went a few rounds before moving on to other topics.

Over the years that I have taught and written quite extensively on the subject of business ethics, I have always presented my students with one of Uncle Milty’s most widely reprinted and relatively nonacademic essays from 1961, one that appeared in The New York Times Magazine, addressing the topic of corporate moral responsibility. His essay put on record one of the most uncompromising defenses of economic liberty, rejecting the notion popularized by Ralph Nader and John Kenneth Galbraith, among others, that business corporations must serve various social purposes and not the goals of those who own them. Although here, too, I was not in full agreement with him, Dr. Friedman held that managers must serve no other goals at all but those the owners designate—which is mostly to pursue the prosperity of the enterprise, or profit—and to do otherwise is to betray a trust the owners extend to managers who voluntarily come to work for them. (Uncle Milty told me and some others at Chapman University, on the occasion of the unveiling of his bust some years ago on the promenade of the campus, that, ironically, this essay of his brought him more royalties that any other piece he wrote in his long career.)

A few years later I had the good fortune of spending a year at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University where Dr. Friedman had just started as a Senior Fellow. During my year there I was working on a project about government regulation of business and my approach focused on the ethical dimensions of this by now well entrenched institution—in particular, how it violates certain elements of due process by imposing burdens on people in business who haven’t been proven to have done anything wrong. My way of looking at the practice did not please Uncle Milty at all—he preferred straightforward, ethically neutral economic studies, nothing that involved moral or even political evaluations which he thought could not be well grounded. I was firmly rebuked by him when my work saw the light of day and it was eventually published without his support.

Yet, for some reason Milton Friedman seemed to find some of my contributions to the struggle against statism worthwhile. So in time he and I would exchange views, in person or by mail or at some conference. At one of the latter—which he himself directed at the Silverado Ranch in Napa Valley, with the support of the Canadian free market think tank, the Fraser Institute—we spend three intense days discussing numerous aspects of the free society. We did, also, revisit our earlier debate and things become quite agitated when I once again argued that moral knowledge is possible to human beings and he disagreed, calling this a view that lacks humility. When I noted that his claim was itself pregnant with moral overtones, something of a mini-volcanic eruption occurred. But very soon after the conference I received a copy of the Hungarian translation of one of Uncle Milty’s books, on price theory, with a wonderful note saying that despite our differences, what matters most is to keep up the good fight.

Of course, these were minor encounters compared to the many in Dr. Friedman’s intellectual career but what they taught me with considerable poignancy is how important it is to keep one’s disputations civilized, how to keep one’s emotions in check as one examines even the most emotional topics in human affairs. Not only in my rare encounters with him but in all his writing and public appearances—in his many Newsweek columns, on Meet the Press, in the PBS broadcast of Friedman’s wonderful program Free to Choose, and everywhere else—there was exemplary conduct on display, the kind that too many who take part in public disputation nowadays seem to have cast aside in favor of character assassination, speculation about motivation, and imputation of ill will.

When Friedman produced Free to Choose (1980), by the way, something important emerged in how the design of the show compared with one that John Kenneth Galbraith did a little earlier, Age of Uncertainty (1977). Both of the programs focused on economics and both prominently featured the views of their hosts. However, whereas Friedman ended each installment with a half hour of debate, inviting several adversaries to challenge him, leaving the resolution of the disputes ultimately to the audience, Galbraith pointedly did not and closed with yet another reiteration of his position. (This, incidentally, prompted some at the Hoover Institution to produce a series of rebuttals to Galbraith in both book and media formats.) The episode reminded me of an exchange I once had with a prominent neo-Marxist sociologist at U C Santa Barbara. I asked him why those on the Left had the tendency to use their class room as a bully pulpit and he answered, “Well, we are revolutionaries and for us teaching is always something in the service of the revolution.”

I do not believe too many public intellectuals and academics can reach the level of decency attained by Dr. Milton Friedman. Luckily for us he left a large paper—and media—trail and millions here and abroad will be able to learn from it and maybe improve the quality of intellectual life everywhere.

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Market Blues

by Tibor R. Machan

The free market economy is the most suited to human commercial affairs, there is no reasonable doubt about this. But a free market leaves some people with various laments that then tempt them to undermine this great institution.

When we do all our production and consumption in a free market, we are able to do well as well as badly as producers and consumers, even as we do not violate any principles of the market economy. Freedom of trade, the right to private property, and other elements of free market economic affairs can remain fully intact, yet people in the market place can do many things badly or well. People can shop carefully, prudently, efficiently, attentively and so forth. But they can also shop recklessly, inefficiently, inattentively, and so forth.

Shopping, for instance, can be impulsive, overindulgent and out-and-out stupid, and all this is perfectly compatible with the principles of the free market. Those involved in the commercial transactions aren't going to focus on helping people improve themselves as market agents. Stupid buyers will find eager sellers to please them just as careful buyers will. It isn't generally the task of buyers and sellers to watch over one another's judgments, so often these judgments will guide the behavior of either with no attention to their quality. Sometimes market behavior can be out-and-out immoral, yet so long as no theft or assault or some other violation of anyone's rights is involved, there will not be much remedy of these in the market place.

Of course, market agents do pay attention to each others' judgments and conduct and often act in reaction to finding these flawed, but only later, after transactions have transpired. I find someone in the market who acts badly and later I might avoid such a person, or I find someone who is sharp and sensible and then return for further market relationships, but this is not guaranteed. Often convenience is the primary value being sought, aside from just getting what one wants from others.

But when one steps back and thinks about markets, one may lament all this—how come there are no systematic discouragements against bad, albeit peaceful, conduct in markets? Why are people not stopped from buying stuff they should not buy, or selling stuff others should not purchase? Why are there so many ways people can easily go wrong as they navigate the marketplace?

So there is then the temptation to want to do something, anything, to remedy matters. Apart from people who want to impose their ways on the rest of us or simply want to control others, there are those who just wish for things to turn out better then they can sometimes turn out in the marketplace where people are free to do a lot of things well or badly.

They wish people would act more sensibly, more prudently, more efficiently and so forth and they realize, also, that this wish is fully justified, at least in general terms. They can also see around them individuals who aren't being stopped in the free market from
carrying on badly. And they wish they were stopped somehow.

So they then support government measures that promise to regulate human conduct in the marketplace. Never mind that such regulation is fraught with hazards, much greater ones than the conduct of free people in the marketplace, given that it always involves some measure of some people coercing other people in various ways. Never mind that the knowledge to fix things that may go awry in the free market is rarely if ever possessed by those who would set out to set things aright. Never mind that getting government involved here will encourage it to be involved there and at yet another place, so that temporary and petty tyrannies turn into massive and institutionalized ones. The mere wish to do something about the clearly undeniable prospects of some misconduct in free markets gives aid and comfort to those who would ruin it all in a vain effort to improve matters.

And there is the plain fact that making improvements on market misconduct is always open to people in peaceful ways, ones that do not involve undermining the free market. One can try to influence others to act better but, of course, this takes a bit of courage and initiative. Farming it out to government tends to suit the lazy way toward remedying matters and has the tremendous liability of contributing to the destruction of the greatest human institutions, the free society.

Monday, November 20, 2006

Leftist Hypocrisy #2342

by Tibor R. Machan

I admit it up front—I want to be published in The New York Review of Books, even if only by means of a letter to the editor. I have been reading the magazine ever since it started and often I have something to say about what appears in its pages. Now and then, actually, I have started very civil discussions with some of the authors. Many to whom I send a comment have answered and in some cases we have carried on email correspondence for some time.

But The New York Review of Books, unlike The Nation, The New Republic, The New York Times, National Review, The Claremont Review of Books, Mother Jones, and numerous other publications Left or Right to which I have sent letters to the editor, will not budge. I simply don't get admitted within its hallowed pages.

Well, in the very recent past one of the most frequently published authors from TNYRB, Tony Judt, got bumped from a talk he was to give at the Polish Consulate in New York City and the whole bunch of his fellow authors from that magazine have been bellyaching about this big-time. Apparently what he wanted to talk about was deemed unwanted by his hosts, so they uninvited him. But now all his pals are in a tizzy about it and there have been angry letters from them in TNYRB about this, sounding very much like the authors believe that Mr. Judt has some kind of natural or constitutional right to speak wherever he wishes to speak.

Hey, let's consider this for a moment. Mr. Judt is not wanted at the Polish Consulate, which is not some public square in the United States of America but, effectively, a private one, belonging to the Polish government. He definitely has no natural or constitutional right to sound off there, any more than he would in the Consulate of some other country or, indeed, on any terrain that doesn't belong to him or those who want to hear him.

Indeed, this is not much different from my case—I would like to sound off in TNYRB and have sent them many letters over the years (having subscribed very early to the magazine). I do not send them hate mail, nothing uncivil, only some brief missives arguing a point or making a criticism of some point made in the publication. Yet, I am excluded from those pages regularly, even while some of their authors find what I say worthy of a response when I send them the comment.

Now that is the nature of a free press. You don't get to publish in a forum where you aren't wanted. It is not your right. Newspapers and magazines and web sites belong to people and unless those people invite or permit you to sound off there, you don't get to. Not even if you are Tony Judt, friend of the editors of and of many contributors to TNYRB.

But then this is not really all that novel a phenomenon. Those on the Left regularly make use of concepts of freedom, whether deployed legitimately or not, when their agenda is at issue—while happily excluding from discussions in their forums anyone who isn't on their side.

The Left and, especially its communist wing back in the 50s were notoriously lopsided in their defense of individual rights to free expression—they insisted on it in the United States of America and other places in the West (sometimes quite wrong-headedly, as when they protested blacklists by private parties which they later eagerly employed themselves toward racists and others they didn't like much) while making no protests at all when the Soviets ran a state-owned press and publishing industry and barred anyone not toeing the party line from them.

No, The New York Review of Books is not a commie outfit and often it publishes letters protesting violations of free speech rights across the globe, be it by right- or left-wing governments. But they have a problem. They fail to understand that not every forum is subject to the constitutional protection of freedom of speech. Like my home or the Polish Consulate in New York City, for example, which are not available to their pals to peddle their ideology. Just as the pages of TNYRB aren't to me if they don't choose to have me in there.