Thursday, May 25, 2006

Column on why philosophy matters

Why Philosophy Matters

Tibor R. Machan

So you think this column is motivated by my vested interest in having
philosophy taken seriously? OK, that?s part of it. But then so what? Some
things are in my interest and this alone would suffice to justify
championing them. In this case there is also the fact that all of us have
a stake in the issue at hand.

The free society is best suited to living a human life here on earth and
yet the free society is getting a bum rap in may circles. As best as I can
tell, the reason is in part philosophical. That is to say, certain
widespread philosophical convictions are standing in the way of
appreciating the importance of the free society.

One main obstacle is what people understand freedom to be. For some it is
a matter of not having others intrude upon us and what belongs to us. If
they don?t, we are free, if they do, we aren?t, at least to the extent
they do intrude or, more precisely, to the extent the law enables them to
do so with impunity. This idea of being free is very familiar?a slave
isn?t free, nor is a serf, nor is someone locked up for thinking or saying
things others do not like or trading stuff others do not want to be
traded. (It goes without saying that other people may not be subject to
being traded?it is people who are traders and never what is to be traded.
Kidnapping isn?t trade!)

But for too many others?especially political thinkers in our time?freedom
means not having to cope with burdens in one?s life. Thus, such folks
consider a free society one that reduces the burdens on us all quite apart
from other people?s intrusions. The idea is that if one is burdened by
poverty, illness, disability, ignorance, and so forth, one isn?t free. To
become free, the idea goes, these burdens would need to be removed. And to
remove these burdens, what is needed is a powerful group with the
authority to attempt to rid us all of these burdens. After all, it takes
all sorts of resources to do this and such a group, say a government,
would need the power to secure those resources via taxation and other

Those who take freedom to mean not having others intrude upon anyone and
those who see it as getting rid of burdens are serious adversaries. That?s
because if one?s freedom from intrusion is secure, that means government
may not obtain, through taxation and other forms of coercion, the
resources to unburden us of whatever stands in our way to do what we want
to, even should, do. And if one?s freedom from burdens is the first thing
to be secured, this would have to involve intruding on many people whose
resources would be needed to remove these burdens.

Those championing freedom from other people?s intrusion don?t deny the
existence of burdens on us but tend to hold that once such intrusion is
prohibited by law, the burdens that stand in our way will be removed
through voluntary effort?productivity, creativity, innovation, invention,
entrepreneurship, cooperation, and so forth. Those championing freedom
from burdens tend to think that unless others are conscripted into the
effort to remove the burdens, they will not be removed, that without the
support of government?s powers, being free from burdens will not be

At the base of this dispute?a philosophical dispute, indeed?lies the
controversy about whether human beings have the capacity to move
themselves?to freely choose to advance in their lives, to take measures to
flourish. If they do, it makes sense to think that once others are stopped
from intruding on them?once their chains are cast aside, once slavery and
oppression have ended?people will most likely come around to help
themselves by various peaceful means. But if they lack this capacity, then
unless they are pushed by some force to advance, they will remain
stagnant, poor, ignorant, sick and so forth.

No doubt there are some human beings who need a boost from their fellows
in order to get going with their lives?they need help and support from
others. But these are not in the majority?indeed, if they were, it would
all be lost anyway. So most people can make progress in their lives once
others do not oppress them, once they are free from others? intrusions. If
this were not so, it is difficult to fathom how anyone could attempt to
remove the burdens that some cannot cope with. Where would their capacity
to step up to the plate and help others come from? But if they do have
such a capacity, why wouldn?t the rest of us?

This is, of course, an ancient controversy but it bears keeping in mind
that it lies at the base of the more familiar political and public policy
disputes about the size and, especially, scope of governmental power in
human affairs.

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