Saturday, November 11, 2006

Two kinds of Stereotyping

by Tibor R. Machan

Now and then people will characterize groups in various ways. Some of this is clearly prejudice—as when one ascribes to blacks, whites, women, those from Poland, or Latin Americans certain moral attributes which some of those from these groups may exhibit but which are certainly not innate to all members of the group. Thinking that all Mexicans are lazy or that Germans are by nature methodical or, again, that Americans are phlegmatic would be such prejudice. These are traits of individuals and while some in these groups may have them, many clearly do not. One needs to see if the ascription is justified instead of making it just because someone is a member of the group. One is, to put it somewhat differently, not morally good or bad because one is born black or Australian or Chinese. One is good or bad as a result of one's own judgments and actions.

But sometimes it makes good sense to ascribe traits to people in light of their membership in certain groups. This is so when they belong to the group as a matter of their own choice. If someone, as an adult, joins the Mafia or the Nazi Party, or becomes a Roman Catholic or a Muslim, and if it turns out that such membership amounts, in part, to agreeing to think and act in certain ways, then it makes perfectly good sense to expect members to favor the thinking and acting that goes with membership in these groups. And if such thinking and acting turns out to be morally or politically objectionable, holding such members responsible for what they have freely agreed to accept in terms of thinking and acting is justified.

Even if one is born into a religion or political party—as most of us are—we aren't forced to remain members in near-free countries but in time freely accept our membership, even if only by acquiescence. If my parents are Nazis or members of the Ku Klux Klan and they inculcate their vile ideology in me, if after I reach the age of reason I remain a member, this can certainly be held against me.

Sometimes this can happen with less obvious cases. Suppose a certain profession in one's part of the world has become corrupt—for example, medicine has pretty much been taken over by quacks or the police have become an arm of dictatorial government—then becoming or remaining a member of such a group can certainly be a fault. And those on the outside have every justification to hold it against the members for staying with the group.

When under the Nazis many judges of the pre-Nazi regimes were induced to remain with their new masters, who were perpetrating gross injustice, it was perfectly valid to question the integrity of these judges—especially since, by their choice, they added a patina of fake legitimacy to the whole thing. For a while, of course, some of them stayed with their roles in the hope that they would be able to reverse trends; but in time it became obvious that such efforts were futile. Remaining a judge under the Nazis pretty much made one complicit in the policies of the Nazis.
This, of course, is a very clear-cut case and not all of them are similar. Suppose the Roman Catholic clergy slowly began to turn a blind eye to child molestation among its members. At some point remaining a member of the Roman Catholic clergy could make one guilty of supporting child molestation, at least unless one takes a clear stand against one's fellow clergy in the matter.

The same holds true for members of other professions who fail to take a stand against corruption within their own ranks. For example, when in many countries across the globe the police willingly carry out tyrannical—or even petty-tyrannical—laws and regulations, coercively intruding upon the lives of innocent people, without resigning their positions or at least speaking out against the tyrannical measures their duties entail, then membership in the police corps becomes something morally objectionable, even when there are many aspects of the work that do not involve such tyrannical conduct.

Or, say, it turned out that for someone to teach philosophy at a university it would be a requirement to distort the history of the discipline or to mis-instruct students—as was the case, for example, throughout Soviet bloc countries during the rule of the Communists and in German universities when the Nazis where in charge—some sign of resistance would be required for one to remain a respectable member of the teaching profession.

Of course, there can be mitigating circumstances—in some countries if one does not fall into line, one pretty much risks one's life. But that isn't so in America. If one refuses to protest the unjust or corrupt policies of a profession that has gone substantially corrupt, one is guilty of being an accessory—however much good one also does within the profession in question.

Say if I were urged by the administration of my university to distort the nature of some school of philosophy I am teaching and I complied. Even while remaining accurate about all the other schools, I would have compromised my professional integrity.

Accordingly, it is no prejudice to condemn people who are members of professions which have gone substantially corrupt, even if the proper objectives of the profession are morally unobjectionable and one is able to carry out some of these while performing one's duties.

Friday, November 10, 2006

Gridlock versus Monolith

by Tibor R. Machan

Being a friend of neither Republicans nor Democrats, this election like most left me pretty nonplussed. Except for one thing. I favor gridlock. The idea is that the more they squabble among themselves in Washington, Sacramento, Tallahassee or other centers of political power, the better chance people around the country have for carrying on with their own lives as they deem proper. That is, after all, the point of life in human communities. To be able to live peacefully on one's own terms and those one can come to with others. The proper role of the lawmakers and law enforcers is to secure that peace, to make sure our individual rights aren't violated. The details may get quite complicated at times, but that's the bottom line.

Given that neither of the major parties has any interest at all in facilitating this limited purpose for us—because they all want to meddle with nearly every part of our lives now, and are often encouraged to do this by the very people whose lives they bother so much (in the hope that perhaps the meddling with favor them as against others)—what is there left to hope for from politics? The gridlock.

When the power-hungry politicians are not quite in cahoots—what they want the power for differs among them significantly enough so they keep haggling about it—they get preoccupied with jockeying for the power they see available to them. If one party is in charge of the whole shebang, well, this haggling is reduced and the likelihood of messing up our lives is greater, what with all of them agreed to do it in roughly the same ways.

As everyone could see over the last term and a half of Republican presidential and Congressional dominance, these folks were just as eager as those they kept calling 'tax and spend liberals' to, well, tax and spend. Sure, some temporary tax relief was evident but with all the spending these hypocritical Republicans supported, sometime in the near future the jig will be up. (It is moreover pretty rotten to go against that somewhat reasonable idea that there ought not to be taxation without representation, which is exactly what funding government by borrowing money really comes to!)

Republicans and Democrats alike are caught in the spiral of public choice theory—they refuse to say no to anything they can do to spend your money and mine, given that we have no systematic block against it in our legal system. (My friend Jack Wheeler says this ought to be the next big item of political debate, the erection of constitutional barriers to confiscatory taxation. Dream on Jack—they all think they can square the circle somehow!)

So the only hope that's reasonable and promising is for the politicians to get completely immersed in infighting. Let the Bush team strive to increase the military budget and Nancy Pelosi & Co. fight him tooth and nail, and let Nancy & Co. try for more money for whatever interest group they want to benefit and get the Republicans up in arms about that. And the same thing on as many fronts as possible—extending government regulations, installing more environmental precautionary measures, promoting religion in public schools, whatever.

Then if we are lucky, we will get some additional scandals from the new team manning the Nanny State, so perhaps that will add some more obstacles to their getting anything done. (They all seem to think that the most important part of their job is to "get something done," whatever that "something" happens to be, even if it means adding a bunch of intrusive laws into our lives.)

No, there is nothing very positive about gridlock except for the chance that it will slow down a bit the runaway train of government intrusion in people's lives. Perhaps that will provide a little chance for people to learn better and better what the American Founders tried to teach them about the proper scope of governmental power. This is that such power is only justified when used defensively, to ward off violations of our basic and derivative rights. The rest is tantamount to nothing less than political malpractice.

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

The Temptation to Lie

by Tibor R. Machan

Have you noticed that when you ask someone on the street where the next post office or drug store or some other locally known place is, they usually tell you it's just a couple of blocks when in fact it is a lot farther than that? Or when someone tells you she will be there in a few minutes and then you wait for half an hour and she is still missing? Or when you are told on the phone 'May I put you on hold for a moment?' and you are still waiting ten minutes later?

Why do people prevaricate so much? It comes out big time just before Election Day—we are sure to win, the candidate states with the utmost confidence, only to lose by a substantial margin a few days later. This happened in the recent election—the Republicans came on various news programs saying their own micro-polls tell them they are in far better shape than the mainstream polls would have them. And then they lost bigtime. It happens a lot. As someone who votes Libertarian when I vote, I sometimes find candidates of the LP predicting they will win when it is completely ridiculous—they haven't a ghost of a chance in this country where the bulk of the public is suffering from what might best be called the entitlement mentality. You vote for those who tell you that you are entitled to this, that, and yet another thing, all of it paid for from other people's pocketbooks. Libertarians cannot honestly make such promises since they hold firmly to the view that stealing from Peter so as to benefit Paul is morally wrong, a view that is in fact correct. But sadly most voters believe in redistributing wealth that doesn't belong to them.

OK, so LP candidates should know by now that the time hasn't come yet that most voters recognize that stealing is wrong. Sure, they usually don't steal in their circle of neighbors but when it comes to stealing from strangers across the country, they definitely believe stealing is just fine. And all of this is happening in a supposedly Christian country, with the clear commandment from God that prohibits stealing.

But despite the facts speaking a clear message, even LP candidates predict victory. Why?

I suspect the reason is that people believe they have a duty to tell others only what will please them, what will appear to benefit them. This altruistic outlook—namely, never bring bad news to people even if that's the truth of it—is encouraging millions of people to be liars. Yes, the Post Office is just around the corner—not because that is the truth but because it will make you feel good! Yes, you will only be on hold for a moment or two, not because that is the truth but because then for a little while you will feel good and I will have seemed to be doing you a favor.

Indeed, altruism may well account for why so many yield to the temptation to tell lies to others. Many people simply do not dare to tell the truth if that truth isn't pleasant, if it doesn't promise what is desired. The truth is often unpleasant. You may have to wait for 20 minutes on hold, yes, and there is nothing pleasant about that (especially with all that cheesy music being blasted into your ears). Yes, you will have to walk ten blocks to get to the drug store and this may not promise much comfort for you but it is the truth. But for me to bring to you an unpleasant truth is to make you feel bad and my duty is, of course, to make everyone else feel good. Or so altruism would have it.

Maybe it would take a bit of patience to help people get acclimated to the truth of things, to have them face up to what's what instead of what they wish for. But in the long run it would even serve them better to learn the truth—it would set them free of illusions, free of wishful thinking. But no; instead, millions are taught to serve others, which then leads them to try to make them feel better rather than be straight with them.
Can One Respect the Police?

Tibor R. Machan

It began with the Orange County ordinance authorizing police to stop teens from smoking in public places. One of my children asked me, who are these people to tell them whether they may smoke? Isn’t that the job of parents? Don’t the cops have kidnappers, rapists, murderers, and robbers to deal with? Is it really their role in our lives to order us to stop smoking?

I really couldn’t argue with the logic here. It isn’t the proper task of the police to tell us whether to smoke cigarettes or dope or whatever, for that matter. The police of a free society are supposed to be peace officers, not parents or nannies or even schoolmarms. I did mention that what the police do is follow orders given to them by the politicians and bureaucrats but my kids reminded me that this is the excuse German soldiers used when they were asked about enforcing the tyrannical rules of the Nazis. They said isn’t it just a few steps—well, maybe quite a few—from that kind of a system when cops start taking over the jobs of parents?

Later I had a chance to talk to some of my kids’ friends—they had a little gathering at our house and I took advantage of this and asked them about their views of the police. Several of them, the more articulate ones, said they have zero respect for the police because of the kind of tasks they have willingly taken on, ones they should not be doing at all. The entire notion of a vice squad was upsetting to many of them—how can police officers expect young people to think highly of them when they are willing to follow such orders handed to them by the politicians, orders to eradicate vice! When I asked, well what do you expect them to do, some answered that they should rebel and refuse to follow these immoral orders; some argued that they should resign in protest, just as should the police of any tyrannical regime.

This led to a discussion of democracy—what about when the majority of the voters, through their representatives, order the police to enforce these rules? Some of the kids immediately questioned whether a majority may order the police to do what individuals may not order them to do—such as tell them how to behave when they are not violating anyone’s rights. They knew about lynch mobs and mentioned how despite the majority’s intention of hanging a suspect, it would be wrong to do this because no conviction has occurred, no due process has been followed.

You might say the friends of my children are a special bunch— they do some thinking about these matters quite on their own. Even in class, my kids speak up and challenge conventional wisdom. (It may have to do a little with the example I and my friends set for them!) But with respect to the role of the police, it is really sad that so many young people appear to be cynical about what is happening. After all, the proper task of the police is a very important one, namely, to deal with crime, where crime is understood as people violating the rights of other people—murder, rape, assault, robbery, burglary, kidnapping, etc., etc. This task requires serious training—the police may not fight crime by acting like criminals in the process. And that's often difficult to do—discipline, self-restraint, and knowledge of the nuances of crime are required, as well as much else. Those who take up the job of the police and do it properly do deserve respect. They are doing the quintessential public service in a free society where the public good is nothing more or less than securing the rights of individuals. So the police are a major agency of securing the genuine public good.

But when they start meddling in all kinds of things they have no business doing, when they blindly and even enthusiastically follow the orders or rouge politicians, then they have become corrupt. And young people are not oblivious to this.

Moreover, arguably seeing the corruption of the police on so many fronts, they are likely to lose respect for them where it really counts, namely, in their capacity as crime fighters. The police often needs the help of citizens in fighting crime but this help isn’t likely to be forthcoming from a citizenry that lacks respect for police officers in light of what they learn about them from their role in enforcing rules and practices that are none of their business.