Saturday, October 28, 2006

Government School Follies

Tibor R. Machan

France, England, Germany, and who knows which other countries are in deep dodo because of the impossibility of supporting both multiculturalism and state school policies. The former is in fact a corollary of individual liberty—in a free country one may practice whatever cultural practice one wants, provided others’ rights aren’t violated. Thus, wearing a black veil—niqab—should not be banned, while, of course, female circumcision should, the former being a peaceful if unusual while the latter a violent practice. The latter are the policies enforced in government schools which simply could not exist in a free country. But since they exist in early all countries, including in the free West, the conflict is unavoidable.

Educational administrators have their idea of what, for example, is proper dress in schools, for a variety of reasons, some of which may be a bit loony, some quite sound. Parents, however, ought to be free to send their children to schools with administration policies of which they approve. Not all children require identical school practices and shopping among them is what freedom is about. A free market in education would make this possible.

What makes educational diversity, along with diversity of school rules, nearly impossible is the policy of government—or “public”—education that is anything but free in the important sense of that term. (Of course, it isn’t free even in the sense of being cost-less to those who have to send their kids there; they pay in property taxes and in the loss of other opportunities for educating their kids.) Such education is coercive and imposes extensive uniformity in an area where just the opposite is most fruitful, namely, where alternative approaches to education should be competing and experimenting.

But when government runs something that it should not run, such as education (as well as such obviously diverse elements of culture as museums, concert halls, theaters, athletic competitions), the problem will inevitably surface that some citizens will be put upon while others will want their ways to be imposed on all. Everyone will want to control the "public" turf so his or her way will be the one size that will be imposed on everyone else. This is akin to how in some countries different religions fight for the public square.

In a fully free country there would be innumerable types and kinds of educational institutions. Many would be similar, but quite a few would be unique, different from most. Some would admit children whose parents want them to get mainly religious instructions, others those whose parents would not want this but focus mostly on science; some would go to schools with extensive athletic programs, others to one’s where the arts are emphasized. Some would be Roman Catholic, some Muslim, some Hindu, some completely secular—you get the idea.

The same would be the case with various other cultural institutions that have been conquered by government—actually, that are relics of the supposedly obsolete monarchical system or modern tyrannies where the royal head's or dictator's entourage could call the shots about nearly everything. Museums, for example, have to struggle with the artistic sensibilities of those who manage them versus the will of the public being taxed to fund them. And when one side wins, the others becomes alienated and this characterizes much of the cultural and political atmosphere.

Instead education, the arts, and the rest should be dealt with the way religion is, at least largely, in America. Everyone gets to go to his or her own church or temple or synagogue, with no one having to pay for it and encounter unwanted rituals, practices, customs, and sermons. This is, of course, only possible in a society that respects the fundamental right to private property, a right that implies both the exit option and the authority to keep those who are unwelcome outside. But because there are thousands of alternatives to choose from, conflicts can be avoided far more effectively than when government, making policies for all about matters that are highly diverse and involved deep seated human differences, tries to administer matters at everyone’s expense.

No doubt, this idea will immediately meet with the lament, “But what will happen to the poor?” No one seems to worry that there are poor people who must confront the issue when it comes to religion—some religions are poorly and some are richly supported and funded in free countries. And despite how important millions of people believe religions is in people’s lives, few, at least in American, cry for government funding and administration of their churches.

It is high time to extend the revolution toward a fully free society into the area of education and apply the principle there that is well accepted in religion—the separation of it from government. Aside from according with the principle of individual rights, it would also promote just peace and reasonable tolerance.

Thursday, October 26, 2006


Tibor R. Machan

Those who write about politics are bound to complain a lot. No wonder. Throughout human history governments have perpetrated more misery than all criminals combined. Indeed, it is probably true beyond any reasonable doubt that most governments have been criminal gangs -- conquerors, bullies, robbers, murderers, ethnic cleansers and other type of oppressors. It is governments, so-called, that have started wars, enslaved huge numbers of people, kept minorities destitute and powerless.

Sure, governments have had the support of many civilians but these civilians rarely had the weapons to carry out the vicious deeds for which governments are famous. Civilians can only implore, urge, plead, try to bribe -- it takes those who hold and wield power to actually commit the vile deeds. (One reason I have never been an avid supporter of the police is that however much good they do, they also tend to blindly carry out the orders of governments, orders that on the whole tend to be directed toward violating the rights of individuals all over the place. How can one admire a profession that simply "follows orders?")

Yet, all this focus on government and its misdeeds throughout the ages and around the globe can give the wrong impression. It is as if nothing good happened anywhere. But that is to confuse government with the rest of society. And in most societies there is ample good going on. Most human relations apart from government are pretty decent, even admirable. All the creativity and productivity we have around us -- those activities that enhance efficiency, those that contribute to beauty and comfort, those that heal and cure -- come not from government but from individuals cooperating in society. (I hesitate to call it the "private" sector because strictly speaking these social undertakings are not private but very much cooperative.)

Someone who focuses on all the misdeeds of governments may seem oblivious to all the wonderful results of free social cooperation and, also, of individual initiative. As an avid fan of novels, both classical and popular music, the arts, the crafts and the sciences, I am especially concerned that we in the media don't stress all the good which comes from these corners.

Each night I go to sleep to the sounds of music -- three hundred CDs playing randomly, filling my little home with the most wonderful sounds. (I could list dozens and dozens of particular performers and artists but I am sure you can fill up your own list.) Each night I read about 10 pages from yet another novel that thrills me, that takes me into the souls of carefully imagined characters. Each night I walk to my bedroom taking a look at one or another of the paintings on my walls. And when I do this, I am so grateful for all that creativity, sensitivity, imagination that fills my life with joy.

Many years ago I saw a Seventh Day Adventist bumper sticker that read, "Notice the good and praise it," and I have been a devoted follower of this little, not widely enough heeded, motto. There is really so much that is utterly fabulous in our world, from one's neighborhood to the farthest corners. But if one keeps thinking only of what politicians and bureaucrats do and say, one will miss out on these. Then there are, of course, the joys of one's family and friends and, yes, even colleagues and associates. And all these are quite sufficient to offset a good deal of the destructiveness perpetrated by government and its lackeys, those, sadly, who keep being honored with buildings and statutes and institutes and such. In newspapers there is rarely much fuss about the latest novel a local citizen has written, a beautiful painting someone in the city has painted, a symphony or song or musical composed -- certainly not on the front pages. Yet those are the substance of most of our lives. But when one turns on th e so-called news, national or local, the bulk of what is thrust at us consists of nothing but misery.

I will, of course, continue to harp on all the bad stuff, hoping it may make a bit of difference. But it is also vital to make note of just how much good stuff there is to go around.

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Unjust Laws of Commerce

Tibor R. Machan

Often I think of how journalists, ministers, and others protected by the first amendment of the US Constitution have an advantage over most other professionals. What’s bad about this is that those other professionals do not have their rights to be free equally protected. This shows that there's unjust discrimination built into the most basic American law. (Check it out—there is no government agency regulating professionals in journalism or religion, while there are dozens regulating those in commerce, medicine, psychology, transportation, farming, and so forth—and ask yourself, why is this discrimination supposed to be OK!)

But there are certain other instances of unjust discrimination widespread within and fully supported by the legal system. These are perpetrated against producers, as compared with consumers, and employers as compared with employees. Producers, you see, are extensively regulated in how they choose to relate to consumers; as are employers in how they choose to deal with employees. Producers, for instance, may not discriminate as they choose their customers or clients. In a restaurant the proprietor may not bar people he or she dislikes from coming there to eat. That is against the law. So would be for a store to refuse to sell to someone based on various kinds of biases. In contrast, however, customers may avoid stores for exactly the same reason.

Sure, in some establishments there’s a sign stating: “We reserve the right refuse service to anyone,” but it is pure bunk—in America no such right of free association is protected for merchants, mainly because of an irrational backlash from widespread racism and segregation of the past. Never mind that such racism and segregation prevailed mostly because the government enforced it and when the shift began to occur, it came from the private sector first. (Yes, Virginia, it was privately owned railroads that wanted to do away with racial segregation on trains and the government resisted this! And, earlier, it was in part because private schools did not discriminate on the basis of race that public schools were established to replace them.)

In the case of employer and employee, once again the employer’s bias is prohibited but employees clearly may indulge theirs if they so choose. If someone refuses to apply for a job for which he or she is fully qualified, merely because of prejudice against the employer, this can be done with total impunity. There used to be a doctrine once, called “employment at will,” in line with which both employer and employee had their right of free association protected by law. Employers could be let go and employees could leave and no one could object, whatever the reason was, unless a contract had been violated. Not so now. In today’s employment climate only employees have their right of free association protected by law—whatever the reason, if an employee wants to leave and isn’t in violation of a contract, he or she is entirely free go and the employer has nothing to say about it.

Does it impose burdens on employers that employees can leave “at will”? Of course, but so what? If my girlfriend leaves me, that too hurts but I have no authority to keep her around against her will. Yet, employers are forbidden to exercise their right of free association; they may not follow the doctrine of “employment at will” but need umpteen formal, often economically debilitating justifications for laying someone off. They have to be fair, never mind what they want.

And this is where the ironic injustice comes in: the fact that employers don’t get to employ but employees do get to walk away at will is quite unjust. It is also unjust that merchants must serve anyone who chooses to seek their services, while customers may discriminate to their hearts’ content. Sure, the unfairness in both cases is quite unavoidable. There is nothing to be done about it, nor should anything be tried—it would give rise to a totalitarian police state to attempt to remedy such unfairness. What is not appreciated that all kinds of attempts to remedy unfairness are moving toward totalitarian regimentation. And that is entirely unbecoming a bona fide free society.

Oddly, many people on the Left denounce those on the Right for trying to regulate morality, yet attempts to enforce standards of fairness are exactly the same thing, regulation of morality, only based on a different moral standard. Both the Right and the Left are perfectly willing to deny free choice to individuals in order to promote various types of so called moral behavior while failing to acknowledge that regulated morality is no morality at all.

What is moral or ethical is often very much dependent on the context—general principles are not, but how they are acted on are. So the law must stay out of dictating to us what we ought to do except when we violate the rights of others. The discriminatory deployment of anti-discrimination laws are just one example of the mess that’s created when this is ignored.

Sunday, October 22, 2006

Sam Harris and Altruism

by Tibor R. Machan

In his recent book, The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, And the Future of Reason (Norton, 2004), Sam Harris advances some of his thoughtful reasons for doubting the merits of a religious outlook on the world, especially with regard to politics. Harris has spawned a bit of a revolution with this work, putting many who insist that religion is essential for a civilized and peaceful life on the defensive.

In a column he penned for The Boston Globe the other day, Harris goes further and argues, contrary to widespread opinion, that religion is not only not a necessary foundation for morality but actually incompatible with genuine morality. That widespread opinion is, of course, reinforced in such classic (but dubiously attributed) quotations from Fyodor Dostoevsky's The Brothers Karamazov, as "If there is no God, that means everything is permitted/allowed/permissible." Harris argues, instead, that

"The truth is that the only rational basis for morality is a concern for the happiness and suffering of other conscious beings. This emphasis on the happiness and suffering of others explains why we don’t have moral obligations toward rocks. It also explains why (generally speaking) people deserve greater moral concern than animals, and why certain animals concern us more than others. If we show more sensitivity to the experience of chimpanzees than to the experience of crickets, we do so because there is a relationship between the size and complexity of a creature's brain and its experience of the world."

My concern here isn't with the battle Sam Harris is carrying on with religion but with whether or not he is right about morality. Is "a concern for the happiness and suffering of other conscious beings" a rational basis for it? Arguably, Harris is wrong here.

Perhaps the most explicitly rational ethics comes to us from the work of Aristotle, in 350 BC, in his book The Nicomachean Ethics. In this work one of the greatest philosophers in human history argues that the only rational basis for morality is human nature. Our nature, which is that of a rational animal, supports the idea that our moral or ethical excellence amounts to living life by our reason. And the first purpose or goal of such a rationally lived life is not "concern for the happiness and suffering of other conscious beings" but our own human happiness.

All of the ethical or moral virtues Aristotle identifies have as their aim, when we practice them conscientiously, to achieve human happiness in the agent's life. It is true, of course, that this rational ethics or morality includes as a very important virtue being generous or liberal toward others. But it also includes being prudent, courageous, moderate, temperate, honest, and, in politics, just. The most important imperative in this most rational of ethics is to live by right reason or prudence.

If one thinks for a moment, it would turn out to be very odd indeed to urge human beings to concern themselves primarily with others -- why on earth would others be more deserving of concern than one's self? Not only does one know one's own situation better than the situation of others so that one can act most responsibly about one's self. Not only does a concern for others as a primary responsibility tend to encourage meddlesomeness and intrusiveness other than in emergencies. But most importantly, one is, after all, a human being whose life is every bit as worthwhile as the life of another. So why then focus mainly on the lives of others, unless one has made a promise to take up that task as parents do?

In the modern age many moral philosophers have promoted altruism but that is because they believed that caring for one's self came naturally, automatically. So it would be redundant to have a moral system that also directs us to do this. Once the instinct or drive for self-preservation was accepted as innate, then it made sense to focus ethics or morality on interpersonal matters. Such was the thinking since the time of Thomas Hobbes, for example in the ethics of Immanuel Kant, Auguste Comte and Karl Marx, among others.

If, however, we aren't hardwired to care for ourselves, if there is no selfish instinct in us -- and judging by the colossal mess throughout the world and history, it is a dubious idea that we all naturally take good care of ourselves -- then we must be prudent first, take good care of ourselves. Nor can we be any good to others if we do not do so.

Harris is mistaken to think that our first ethical responsibility is others -- and this quip from W. H. Auden makes pretty clear why the idea is not at all rational: "We are here on earth to do good for others. What the others are here for, I don't know."