Saturday, September 30, 2006

Worries About the Future

by Tibor R. Machan

For a moment, let's forget that the environmentalists' precautionary principle is a devastating threat to the idea of due process of law -- it is, but there are other problems with it. Why is it? Because when one anticipates that bad things might happen even though no one has been found guilty of violating anyone's rights, people begin to be treated badly. Their rights begin to be violated right and left. The mere possibility of something untoward happening leads to public policies that run roughshod over our liberties and rights. A very clear case
in point is the Endangered Species Act, which authorizes government to violate property rights merely because use of one's property might possibly hurt some critters. By this principle anyone who might commit a crime could be locked up ... whether they actually do so or not!

But there is something else at issue, something economics professor George Reisman once called my attention to in one of his fine essays critical of various aspects of environmentalism
( This came to mind for me as I was considering my upcoming schedule of activities -- talks, conferences, seminars, and so forth.

Sometimes when a good many of these activities are planned, I get
nervous and start preparing way before necessary so that I will be
ready to cope with them all. What seems to happen is that the future, with all these planned activities in it, appears to my mind to unfold independently of the periods of time in between the events that are coming up. I see the future, as it were, on one flat canvas and it looks utterly unmanageable.

Environmentalists seem to be looking at the unfolding of the future of humanity along similar lines. They see a problem here, another there, an unanswered question concerning this, and another about something else, and these seem to appear to them all bunched up, as one huger -- possibly catastrophic -- event. Al Gore's movie is a good case in point -- thousands of years of a possible and scary future are crammed into a little over an hour and when so considered, what unfolds does come off as hopeless, unmanageable and, thus, cause for panic. And people often act irrationally when they are panicked. That is why talk of threatening our rights seems beyond the pale for both environmentalists and those worried about terrorism. The
prospects are frightening, so who cares about niceties like
respecting individual rights?

What Professor Reisman pointed out in his essay is that such an
approach to dealing with the future of humanity is completely
misguided because it omits from consideration the primary facts of
human innovation, creativity, initiative. It treats us as if we were all mere bystanders, unable to do anything about those possible dangers, whereas in fact if one considers human history, people have been quite successful in dealing with all kinds of hazardous contingencies by applying themselves. Exactly how they will do so is never easy to spell out, so those who in their panic ask, "But how will it all work out?" or "What precisely must we do to cope with this and that awful scenario?" cannot be given simple answers. (The same applies in the field of emergency ethics, those famous desert island or lifeboat cases, which are so extraordinary that one has to remember that people often come up with ingenious solutions to extraordinary problems and challenges.)

My own anxiety over my upcoming full schedules abated when I realized that I kept forgetting about the fact that there are several days, sometimes a week, in between the various events and that I will be able to prepare with little trouble for the next one after one has passed by. Time was what I forgot about, as well as my ability to make the most of this time as I came to cope with my various upcoming challenges.

Sure, there will be changes in the climate, there will be more or
less water or ice or what have you. But all of this will not happen in one fell swoop but over years, decades, even centuries, and if history is any clue, most of it will be dealt with quite competently, thank you, by those who will have to cope with it all. Nor need our basic principles of human association -- the rights we have to our lives, liberties and property -- be sacrificed for that to happen.

Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Doing Government's Dirty Work

by Tibor R. Machan

It has always bothered me that government carries out all kinds of
tasks that are none of its business. Collecting funds for innumerable projects people in a country undertaken by means of extortion -- taxation, in short -- is just one of these tasks. It is bad enough that a government founded on the principles of our unalienable rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness (among others!) extorts funds from the citizenry. But it then goes on to coerce employers to collect these funds, to become its bagmen, and hand them over to the various governments perpetrating the extortion.

Forcing employers to collect the extorted funds is really low. They must incur the cost of this collection, with overhead and special employees hired just for this entirely non-productive purpose. The money wasted in the process could have meant jobs for millions of people who, in turn, could pay for what government provides voluntarily, by various means that do not amount to extortion and that do not burden others with the collection process. But worst of all is that these companies become complicit in what is by all accounts a natural crime!

Yes, these are radical notions, but so at one time was the idea of
abolishing serfdom, which along with taxation was part of the unjust feudal system. Maybe in time taxation will go the way of serfdom but while it is still kept in force by the police of most societies, at least the collection could be more honest and straightforward. That way everyone would get a clear idea of what taxation is about, namely, expropriating people's resources at the point of a gun. Getting employers to do the dirty job manages, also, to disguise what is going on.

People who believe it's OK for a democratic government to extort
resources from the citizenry probably believe themselves to be
supporting law and order. The following exchange, written by the
ancient Greek general, Xenophon (circa 444 BCE), in his Memorabilia, should disabuse them of that idea:

Alcibiades: Please, Pericles, can you teach me what a law is?

Pericles: To be sure I can.

Alcibiades: I should be so much obliged if you would do so. One so
often hears the epithet "law-abiding" applied in a complimentary
sense; yet, it strikes me, one hardly deserves the compliment, if one does not know what a law is.

Pericles: Fortunately there is a ready answer to your difficulty. You wish to know what a law is? Well, those are laws which the majority, being met together in conclave, approve and enact as to what it is right to do, and what it is right to abstain from doing.

Alcibiades: Enact on the hypothesis that it is right to do what is
good? or to do what is bad?

Pericles: What is good, to be sure, young sir, not what is bad.

Alcibiades: Supposing it is not the majority, but, as in the case of an oligarchy, the minority, who meet and enact the rules of conduct, what are these?

Pericles: Whatever the ruling power of the state after deliberation enacts as our duty to do, goes by the name of laws.

Alcibiades: Then if a tyrant, holding the chief power in the state, enacts rules of conduct for the citizens, are these enactments law?

Pericles: Yes, anything which a tyrant as head of the state enacts, also goes by the name of law.

Alcibiades: But, Pericles, violence and lawlessness -- how do we
define them? Is it not when a stronger man forces a weaker to do what seems right to him -- not by persuasion but by compulsion?

Pericles: I should say so.

Alcibiades: It would seem to follow that if a tyrant, without
persuading the citizens, drives them by enactment to do certain
things -- that is lawlessness?

Pericles: You are right; and I retract the statement that measures
passed by a tyrant without persuasion of the citizens are law.

Alcibiades: And what of measures passed by a minority, not by
persuasion of the majority, but in the exercise of its power only?
Are we, or are we not, to apply the term violence to these?

Pericles: I think that anything which any one forces another to do
without persuasion, whether by enactment or not, is violence rather than law.

Alcibiades: It would seem that everything which the majority, in the exercise of its power over the possessors of wealth, and without persuading them, chooses to enact, is of the nature of violence rather than of law?
Condoleezza Rice’s Bad Analogy

Tibor R. Machan

In the interview conducted with her on CBS-TV’s 60 Minutes program on Sunday, September 24, Condoleezza Rice, who is the Secretary of State of the United States now, made a bad analogy. She compared the condescending attitude of racists toward blacks with the skepticism of those who do not consider it realistic to attempt to implement democratic politics in the Middle East and some other regions of the globe. She said that she believes that the view that blacks cannot handle freedom and responsibility is an irresponsible, prejudiced position and so is the idea that the people in Iraq, Iran, Syria and other countries cannot now handle democracy, for the same reason.

This is a bad analogy for several reasons. The racist claim that blacks cannot handle freedom rests on a belief in their alleged racial inferiority, the idea that because they are of a certain race, this prevents them from being able to cope with the freedom and responsibility that those of a "superior" race can handle.

That view falls apart as soon as it is understood that being black doesn’t make a person mentally and morally inferior. It is vital to realize that the racist idea attributes the inability to deal with freedom and responsibility to something over which the individuals involved have no say. They supposedly cannot deal with freedom and responsibility because they are black, something over which they have absolutely no control, no say whatsoever. If this factor is found to be irrelevant to whether one can handle freedom and responsibility, the claim about blacks turns out to be unfounded, indefensible--rank prejudice.

The claim about people in the Middle East is not advanced by those who do advance it on the grounds that men and women of their race haven’t the capacity to handle democracy. Few if any attribute their supposed inability to race. If there is anything to the skepticism about those in the Middle East and elsewhere managing to live under a democratic polity, it has to do with something entirely different.

Before continuing, it is worthwhile to mention that all the talk about democracy by members of the Bush team is too loose. Simple, unqualified democracy is not a just system of politics. It is no accident that from Socrates to the American Founders many wise and prudent political thinkers had doubts about democracy per se. For what is so wonderful, or just, about a system that simply places the majority in a position of superiority, with the minority subordinate to it? If that majority is wrong, why does it matter that it is more numerous than those in the minority?

In fact, the only kind of democracy that deserves support is the classical liberal variety, one strictly limited by the individual rights of the citizenry to their lives, liberties, property, religious worship, etc. Any democracy not so limited is no better than a dictatorship or tyranny by one individual or a small group. Possibly, agreement among members of a majority would be more difficult to achieve if they were all wrong, although 50 million Frenchman can be, as the old saying goes!

But let’s get back to Secretary Rice and her bad analogy. It is perfectly reasonable to hold that some people have chosen ideas and ideals to live by that are incompatible with any kind of democratic government, liberal or not. We certainly know of people who chose to place themselves into subservience—the followers of cult leader Jim Jones come to mind, or of the Reverend Moon, or other powerful leaders of religious and other organizations. The majority of Germans gave Adolph Hitler absolute power and thereby rejected democracy out of conviction, not because of some innate inability.

Many who have been examining President Bush’s drive to bring democracy to the Middle East—and indeed the entire notion, beginning with President Woodrow Wilson, to spread democracy across the world—dispute the idea not because they are racists who think people over there haven’t got it in them to act democratically. No. The skepticism comes from the observation of a very long history of people either having freely rejected democracy or having voluntarily placed themselves under the rule of others they deem wiser and more virtuous than themselves. Or because they are too severely controlled by some elite or clergy.

Wherever a situation like this prevails, for whatever psychological, philosophical, religious, or other reasons, it is not unreasonable—and certainly not racist—to be doubtful that America can turn the place into a functioning democracy, especially via military force.