Friday, October 13, 2006

The Common Good

Tibor R. Machan

Liberal Democrats are having a conniption fit about the lack of any vision that unites the Democratic Party. So several of their pundit-philosophers are writing essays in which they lament this and propose remedies.

Among those doing this is Michael Tomasky who, in a recent piece for The American Prospect, suggests that “Democrats need to become the party of the common good.” Then he goes on to write, as one of his critics put it, “breathlessly,” that “We are all in this ... together, and ... we have to pull together, make some sacrifices, and, just sometimes, look beyond our own interest to solve our problems and create the future.”

I have a better idea. Let Democrats, Republicans, and the rest recover the powerful idea that got the country going in the first place, one laid out pretty neatly in the Declaration of Independence. This idea is that the common good is pursued precisely when government does what justifies its existence, namely, secure our rights. That, indeed, is THE common good in the American political tradition.

The reason is that in that tradition there are millions of disparate goods individuals pursue but only one unites them, only one is their common good. This is the protection of their fundamental individual rights. This was part of the revolutionary idea that animated the Founders and put the country in opposition to so many others, including those in Europe from which so many of its initial population fled.

In most countries throughout human history the idea was promoted that there is a rich common good, a whole slew of objectives that we all must pursue. In other words, the common good was really the collective goods of all the people, as if they really did share goods galore that they needed to promote. The one size fits all mentality was encouraged by rulers, monarchs, tsars, and the rest who needed to hoodwink us into thinking that their goals are really our goals and we cannot really, individually, have goals of our own. That was the common good—the leaders’ good peddled for the rest as their good, too.

The American Founders, guided by the classical liberal social-political philosophies of John Locke and Co., saw through this. They realized that in a big country, the millions of inhabitants, citizens, share but very few goods. (Of course, small associations—churches, clubs, corporations, professional groups and so forth—can have some common objectives all right. It is only that no such common good or objective exists for the millions of us!) And the most important—probably, in fact, only—common good we share is the protection of our individual rights to life, liberty and pursuit of happiness. It’s the one good that’s indeed good for us all, that we have in common.

If government, which is instituted to secure these rights, does its job right, it will stick to little more than making sure that everyone’s liberty is safe. Why? Because then all the millions of different individuals, and some of the groups they voluntarily form amongst themselves, will quite successfully embark on the task of pursuing all those goods that suit them. Securing our rights does that for us!

But today’s public pundit-intellectuals don’t get it. They want to find some thick public good—a whole, humongous basket of allegedly common goods—which government will set out to achieve. And they are surprised that there isn’t such a basket—in a largely free society people have their own basket of proposed goods they want to obtain for themselves. And this isn’t because they are selfish and will not make sacrifices—notice how looking out for yourself is being demeaned in Tomasky’s call to arms—but because even in what they consider appropriate objectives for which sacrifices should be made the citizenry differs significantly. They don’t need having one idea of what’s worthy of a sacrifice shoved down everyone’s throat. No, they want to choose those objectives, as well as the ways of making the sacrifices for them if need be.

Maybe the Democrats—and Republicans—ought to recover the Founders’ vision. Then they wouldn’t have to concoct an impossible one behind which they cannot manage to unite folks at all.

Thursday, October 12, 2006

Politics and Logic

by Tibor R. Machan

When people talk of being logical, they mean consistent, coherent, rational. They aren't talking about the kind of formal or symbolic logic that is studied in logic classes, but rather of the kind that basic reasoning classes discuss. Formal or symbolic logic is so rigid that nothing in the real world, not even subatomic physics, reflects it completely. Logic like that is a closed system, with symbols standing in for ideas and sentences but without the normal openness of the latter.

Still, be it physics, sociology, ethics or politics, it is imperative that when we consider anything we follow the rules or principles of logic. They are the method by which we make sure, first and foremost, whether or not we are talking about reality. Why? Because reality is at its base governed by logic. When, for example, someone violates the rules of logic during testimony in a court of law, we know that something has gone wrong no matter what the issue at hand. It is simply elementary that contradicting one's self discredits what one is saying. One cannot be both at home and not at home at the same time, so saying one was just cannot be right.

Trouble is a lot of folks would like to have things several ways, ways that simply cannot all be at once. A very clear case in point is when they claim they have rights to what others also have rights to. This comes up when people talk of entitlements, especially, to what other people have or produce. Health care "rights" are an excellent example. A doctor and nurse have their basic rights to their lives, their liberty, but if you and I have a right to health care, that means they don't because we have a right to make them work for us. Any citizen has the right to his or her property -- e. g., to their skills and resources -- but if you and I have a right to welfare that requires confiscating these, and that simply cannot be. Maybe people want it but then they want the impossible.

Whenever public policy or law affirms what is impossible, the result is that some people -- bureaucrats, judges and the like -- have gained arbitrary powers. The impossible cannot be achieved, so instead of relying on the law or public policy to guide us impartially, cogently, some bloke will have to decide what goes, in defiance of sense and reason. This comes from making laws and public policies that cannot function as consistent guidelines to how we should conduct ourselves. Someone must, then, step in and make a decision that is independent of objective law, of law that can be predicted to function in the real world. Instead some whimsical choice is substituted.

For example, since both the patient and the doctor cannot have those rights they are said to have -- the patient to health care, the doctor to liberty -- the government steps in and decides, arbitrarily, whose wants will be satisfied and when. Sometimes it will be doctors -- say, when they go on strike and refuse to work for the pay they are offered -- and sometimes it will be patients -- say, when they get to force other people to pay what doctors want for their services. In such cases, and there are zillions of them, logic is violated and the law becomes a matter of some people's arbitrary, irrational decisions.

And that's basically the destruction of the rule of law, the principles which put order into human affairs so that no one gets to call the shots and we all live by consistent rules and principles. If, for example, our rights to life, liberty and property get full protection, that means entitlements must be rejected in law and public policy because enforcing entitlements violate those basic rights. Sadly, violation of that has become routine now, urged on by the likes of FDR and his current followers, champions of so called "positive" rights, rights to other people's works and resources. (Professor Cass Sunstein of the University of Chicago is such an FDR epigone.) The expansion of eminent domain is another case in point. If our property belongs to us but also to the city officials who want to take it so as to improve something in the community, the result is arbitrariness, rule not of law but by the whim of officials.

It only seems that logic and life don't mesh well but what in fact does not mesh well is how many of us wish life to be with how it can be. People, sadly, often want it in several incompatible ways and politicians are only too willing to promise they can deliver them this impossible gift. The result is more or less tyrannical rule in society and the abandonment of the rule of law.

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

One Size Fits All Revisited

by Tibor R. Machan

Outside of politics, the place where the one size fits all approach is most tempting would be the family. Parents are often eager to urge their own tastes and preferences on their children, confusing these with the basic values, virtues and principles they do need to teach them.

My own experience with this has been rather severe—my parents were nearly fanatic athletes who insisted that I, too, follow in their footsteps. Things got so bad that as soon as I reached the age of legal maturity, I left. Of course, back in Europe and in many parts of the world the idea that one must virtually copy one's parents' lives is widely embraced and it is often inescapable because of its economic utility. In a relatively free and abundant country, however, the idea that children need to find their own way, based on their talents, desires, opportunities and so forth, is more prevalent.

Yet even in such a society the temptation for parents to insist that children follow in their footsteps is a powerful one. Even though I have guarded against yielding to it, I cannot say I am immune. Just the other day I spent time with my older children, both in their late twenties, and I noticed how they were interested in matters that leave me entirely cold. In fact, in my more self-indulgent or vain moments I even consider my own interests superior to those of many others—just as one finds watching certain kinds of TV programs silly or trivial or tasteless. And I was on the verge of expressing my disdain for my adult children's tastes and preferences when I realized what I was doing—namely, following my own parents' lead in trying to make my children into clones of myself.

It is difficult, of course, to identify just what sort of values one really must try to inculcate in their children and what are those they should be left nearly on their own to discover. What if they enjoy horror movies while you find them disgusting? What if they love to watch professional sports all weekend and do not check out a novel or seek out some good play or concert in the neighborhood? What if they wear clothes that you consider in bad taste or read gossip magazines instead of those informing them of culture and science? How about if they have no interest at all in politics or economics?

Surely some matters are important to anyone and if one's kids show no interest, trying to encourage them to look into them is not being too tyrannical. Yet, even there a delicate balance needs to be found between being pushy and giving friendly suggestions and advice. Moreover, there may be a good time to explore some things—say, a bit after they have left school so they have had their break from all the heavy mental lifting.

Parenting is not instinctual for human beings, contrary to what so many people seem to believe, judging by how unprepared they are for rearing kids. The notions that one's own tastes and preferences are high and mighty, superior to those of others, is very tempting—after all, if one has them, surely they must matter more than those others have! But that is a mistake. More often tastes and preferences are quite idiosyncratic and there can be many different ones, with none superior to others at all.

Some people prefer opera, others drama, yet others big band concerts; some are fond of tennis, others of golf, and yet others of basketball. Even though one often hears debates about which of these is superior, which inferior, it is most likely that such debates are misguided. These matters are really more about tastes and preferences, not about right or wrong judgment and conduct.

However, that is difficult for many of us to keep in mind. Some tend to confuse matters of principle, about which it is important to find common ground, and matters of pleasure, about which no common ground need to be found at all. Never mind all the self-congratulatory magazines, books, galleries, fashion venues, and forms of entertainment that are advertised as superior to all the others. In fact, in most cases, they are just some people's pleasures but not that of others.

Indeed, this point is something too many educated people—even some geniuses (who peddle their likes as if they were metaphysical truths)—overlook. Some even insist that what they prefer, what they have a taste for, be provided with special subsidies by the government—such as PBS and NPR and museums and other forums the rest of us are coerced into supporting. And all of it tends to begin with the family practice of wanting kids to follow parents in all things, something that denies the children's individuality and freedom of choice.

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Freedom back in the Mainstream?

Tibor R. Machan

Other than the occasional loose and practically incoherent mention of “freedom” by George W. Bush & Co., contemporary political discourse hardly invokes the idea. It is as if the era in which human liberty was of concern had now passed.

That, indeed, was the notion that Karl Marx championed. For the old communist individual liberty was a passing fancy, mostly of concern to those who were pushing for the special interest of the rich—e. g., John Locke, Adam Smith, David Ricardo. And while the alternative, namely socialism (not to mention the fantasy of communism) has met with serious setbacks, there still linger strong echoes of Marx’s idea that liberty has become passé. Even American conservatives seem to have given up on the ideals and ideas of the American Founders, other than in some of their neo-conservative rhetoric that tries desperately to justify going abroad and futilely attempt to change some rouge regimes.

Yet, now and then the concept of individual liberty re-ignites the imagination of even mainstream scholars and pundits. That was evident from a riveting book review published in the October 9th issue of The New Republic, written by Professor Steven Pinker of Harvard University and taking to task the book by another linguist, Professor George Lakoff, Whose Freedom? The Battle Over American’s Most Important Idea (2006). You may think what you will about either the book’s message or Pinker’s brilliant review but what is most encouraging is that The New Republic would publish a long discussion that’s focused so directly on the idea of human liberty.

In academic political philosophy and theory circles it is pretty standard fare that two conceptions of liberty have been doing battle for a couple of centuries now, usually dubbed “negative” and “positive.” Sometimes the discussion is cast in terms of “negative” versus “positive” rights, inasmuch as “rights” signify a sphere of human liberty. The idea of negative rights is just what is contained in the Declaration of Independence. It is that all adult human beings require, by their very nature, a sphere of sovereignty or self-government and others may not enter this sphere without being given permission. That is why government requires the consent of the governed, otherwise it is illegitimate. (This notion, while gaining public airing rather recently in human history has been around for a long time—check out Xenophon’s book, Memorabilia (written around 400 B.C.) in which it plays a vital role in a dialogue between Pericles and Alcibiades!)

Positive rights—which came on the heels of the fullest development of the idea of negative rights by John Locke and other classical liberals—was defended by such philosophers as Hegel, Marx, and T. H. Green and means being entitled to provisions from other people. It came to dominate political discourse during the era of FDR, who forged what’s called “the Second Bill of Rights,” filled with “rights” to services and goods other people must produce for us whether they choose to do so or not.

Obviously, these two ideas are incompatible. Pinker makes that point very well in his review of Lakoff’s book (one that's in full support of FDR’s idea): “[M]y freedom to have my teeth fixed impinges on my dentist’s freedom to sit at home and read the paper. For that reason, positive freedom requires an agreed-upon floor for the worst off in a society with a given level of affluence, and presupposes an economic arrangement that gives providers an incentive to benefit recipients without being forced to do so at gunpoint. That’s why many political thinkers (most notably Isaiah Berlin) have been suspicious of the very idea.” Certainly none more so than libertarians, who have always recognized that “positive freedom” is really the very antithesis of individual liberty.

We cannot fully explore this debate in a column but it bears noting how important it is that The New Republic made room for such a discussion by an astute thinker like Steven Pinker, who, though no libertarian himself (to my knowledge) has focused on the issue very precisely. And this in the context of reviewing a book that purports to advise the Democratic Party on what issues to stress in their push to regain Washington!

One can only hope that once again America will become a forum for some intelligent discourse on the most important idea in human political history, the idea of individual liberty.

Monday, October 09, 2006

A Primer on Rights & Animals

by Tibor R. Machan

When one has rights, it means others may not intrude and do violence to one, even if the intrusion might do good or benefit the victim. Rights are not about not being hurt or harmed. They are about a person's freedom of choice. And some exercise their freedom of choice to do harm to themselves. Still, others may not use coercive force to "help" out. Rights, in short, are about sovereignty, self-government.

Yes, there are some damaged persons who can barely, rarely or even never exercise choice -- they lack free will. (We all do now and then, say when asleep!) But a general principle such as the right to liberty extends to all of us, even those who don't fit the typical case of a healthy human being. It extends, for example, to children, even infants, who are but at the very beginning of being able to make choices. That's because principles of human association are not like principles of geometry, but rather more like biology -- some exceptions or borderline cases are to be expected.

Animals have no rights because in general they lack moral agency, the capacity to choose between right and wrong conduct. Of course, now and then some animals behave as if they were morally aware -- that's to be expected, especially, of domestic pets that have acquired many attributes from human beings in their thousands of years of association with them. Nonetheless, although dogs may appear to experience guilt, say when they pee on the rug, that's not guilt, which is why punishing them is nonsense. Rather one may try to train them by apply some discouragements or negative reinforcement. To stand around and morally blame the dog is preposterous -- animal abuse, if you will. They cannot help what they do, not like people. (Just chiding human beings for anything, including their thinking about animals, clearly suggests this.)

Of course, trying to ascribe rights to non-human animals is a great temptation, not unlike the attempt to ascribe to people what are called "positive rights" -- entitlements to treatment that would benefit them but would really amount to enslaving those who would have to provide the entitlements. Eagerly wanted benefits are often proposed as rights, but they are not. The way to check is to see if respecting such rights would require people to provide services and goods to their fellows. If they do, there cannot be a right to such services and goods. They would impose involuntary servitude! Ascribing rights to animals rests on similar eagerness, the desire to help them. But such help must be provided by those who want to care for the animals and not conscripted or expropriated from others who have made not commitment to them.

There is, of course, a good deal more to the story of how people ought to treat animals. It is not about rights, however, but about decency and empathy. These are not political concepts, like rights are. They have to do with human moral character that would not lead someone to inflict wanton harm or damage on animals. However, just as in the wilds animals are driven, by their instincts, to make use of one another for various purposes involving their survival and flourishing, so in human life the choice to make use of animals can be perfectly appropriate. It is not the same, though, because human beings do have the responsibility to act decently and so how they use other animals is subject to moral evaluation. Even inanimate objects, like beautiful artifacts (e.g., paintings), may be treated well or badly, not because they have rights but because they are valuable, precious.

As I have argued in my book, Putting Humans First: Why We Are Nature's Favorite (2004), trying to politicize our relationship to other animals is very risky for both the animals and ourselves. It shifts responsibility away from us individually and leads to our desensitization toward animals. Instead of once again relying on politics and law to solve problems, the ethical treatment of animals ought to be promoted as a matter of human decency, not of justice.

Sunday, October 08, 2006

A new book by Tibor R. Machan, Libertarianism Defended (Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2006) is now in print in both paperback and hardback versions. It is available at

See attachment for cover and for BackFlap blurbs.
Reviews would be much appreciated.

Tibor Machan

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