Friday, December 01, 2006

Promoting Freedom Close to Home

Tibor R. Machan

Over the several decades that I have championed the fully free society, one that basically conforms to the principles of the Declaration of Independence, I have had the good fortune to be able to address many people about this topic. Much of this consists of writing books, articles, letters to editors, scholarly papers and columns, of course. But aside from writing, I have also been privileged to be invited to talk to a great many and highly varied groups of people, with such organizations as the Rotary Club, Kiwanis, and the like all over America and indeed the globe. Quite recently, for example, I gave a series of lectures in the Republic of Georgia as well as in Santiago, Chile.

One persistent question I have faced all these years is what an individual person can do to promote advances toward a free society. And, naturally, there are nearly as many answers to this as there are individuals asking the question. So, quite often I have to remind people that while I can give some general ideas, based on my work and experience, they are the ones who are in the best position to answer the question about what to do to advance liberty. Yet, there are a few specific ideas that will help nearly anyone concerned with promoting liberty in their own communities. One, in particular, is very worthwhile to keep in mind. It can guide one to do things that may really bear fruit.

I have in mind advocating the decoupling of government from the innumerable projects that it’s now involved with everywhere. Governments are now supporting, through public funds acquired by way of taxation, innumerable projects in every community across the world and if one is dedicated to advancing liberty an important step in that direction is to promote removing government from all these "community" endeavors.

If some convention center is widely desired, or a baseball park or football stadium, or some other recreation or athletic facility, it is imperative that these be supported voluntarily and those who want these facilities go about soliciting the support instead of relying on the extortionist approach of taxation. Champions of liberty should vigorously advocate that!

After all, it is not difficult for most people to appreciate that those uninterested in football should be free to devote their own resources to some purpose of their own choosing instead of having these resources taken from them against their will and put to use for what they do not want, a football stadium. This is very simple to convey in letters, conversations, on talk programs, etc. One can always make mention of the fact that this is supposed to be a free country where people have the right to pursue their own happiness and not to be conscripted to help in the pursuit of others’.

Also, this is a country with a reasonably strong individualist tradition, which can also be deployed in defense of having those who want something go about securing support for their projects, leaving others to do so in support of what they want. We all have ideals, goals, dreams, purposes of our own, often not unlike those of some others but rarely those of all others.

And that’s an excellent reason why the various community projects people now tend habitually to expect governments to support should actually be supported privately, voluntarily. Sure, there are some projects where this idea would be too radical to promote—airports, roads, and schools should be funded voluntarily but the governmental habit is too powerful here and it will take a while before advances toward privatization can be made about those. But swimming pools? Ice skating rinks? Volley ball and tennis courts? Even football stadiums, while quite large projects, have no business being built with funds extorted from people who care not a whit about football.

I believe that this particular idea, so closely related to what a free society is about—namely, people being free to pursue their own objectives so long as they do not violated anyone’s rights—holds out considerable promise of gaining ascent from one’s neighbors. Even if it will not fly immediately, it can become a focus of discussion, of editorializing, of local talk programs and so forth.

So what can you do to promote liberty? One thing among others is to advocate getting government—the governing right in your own back yard, your city or county—out of the task of supporting special interest projects pretending to serve everyone’s interest. Let those who want these often very worthy goals (to some) get up the support from them and let the rest support what they value.

Thursday, November 30, 2006

Watch out For Growing Public Sector

by Tibor R. Machan

In a free society adult men and women have the rights to their lives, liberty and property proficiently protected. That's what it means when the Declaration of Independence states that governments are instituted to secure our rights and, presumably, for no other purpose that conflict with this one.

Of course, rights must be exercised some place—if I have a right to my life, I must have a right to obtain some location where this life may be lived; if I have the right to liberty, this too, involves the right to seek out places where my liberty may be exercised. So the right to private property is implicitly affirmed by any of our basic rights. Effectively, then, a free society is one wherein private property is ubiquitous.

Public property, in contrast, is highly limited, namely, to whatever is required to operate the courts, house the police and the military and some other administrative structures. (Here is the only place where eminent domain law applies, in obtaining—with appropriate compensation—the places needed for such public uses.)

But when the free society is compromised Left and Right, meaning, the major political factions don't give a hoot about private property rights as they do not in this country for sure, the private sector— which includes not just individual but a bulk of social affairs— contracts. More and more of the society becomes public—schools, colleges and universities, business establishment, forests, parks, rivers, lakes, museums, concert halls, massive portions of land of all sorts, and, of course, all the roads and traffic hubs, including airports and so on.

One consequences of this expanding public sector is that the rights people have to carry on their activities, such as their freedom of expression of all kinds, begin to be exercised all over the entire society, and to be regulated by the government. Freedom to pray would then have to be granted on public lands and in public buildings, not just private churches and homes and halls. Freedom to speak up about various matters would have to be granted on any public property. And, because the public realm is normally under the jurisdiction of public authorities, local, county, state or federal, these rights to exercise ones liberty now no longer amount to bona fide freedoms but highly restricted "freedoms," regulated and regimented by the public authorities. And this is natural—after all, in my own house, for example, the exercise of free expression is regulated by, well, me! I own the place. If you are invited and want to speak up, you have no unlimited freedom to speak out but whatever freedom I grant you.

Same with newspapers—whoever owns them sets the limits of what goes in the pages—only the owners have the right to freely use the space as they see fit. Ownership, in short, confers the authority to set terms of use and when public spheres are being used by citizens, governments set the terms. And this invites nothing less than government supervision over our supposedly free conduct, conduct we have the right to engage in and would be able to exercise without interference on our own private property but not on public property.

Now this situation, which I sketch in broad terms here, accounts for much of the hassle about what is and as not permitted by the legal authorities when we try to exercise our right to liberty on public property, such as a high school football field or classroom or a state college or university newspaper or research laboratory. The whole stem cell research controversy is largely understandable as a function of how such research is conducted mostly at public facilities—hospitals, universities, etc.

The only nearly private sector in America today—though now also in peril from IRS intrusions—is where religion is being practiced—churches are virtual private property and what goes on there, barring criminal conduct, is protected against interference and regulation and censorship. It is also true that from such private places anyone who is not invited may be excluded (except meddling bureaucrats, unfortunately), whereas this isn't so with public places. Because these are public, they generally must admit anyone who is a member of the public, so allocating use will be needed, as will be the imposition of various conditions—political correctness, for example, in what goes into student newspapers or is being said in classrooms.

The bottom line is that with the expansion of the public sector, something widely championed by thinkers both Left and Right, there is greater and greater contraction of our liberties to do as we judge correct. The free society is clearly being more and more compromised.
Secular Thinking, Science, and Ethics

by Tibor R. Machan

The Center for Inquiry, a secular humanist organization that publishes some important and interesting literature mostly in support of construing the world without recourse to mysticism or faith in supernaturalism, placed an ad in The New York Times recently. It calls for us all to take the scientific perspective on the world more seriously and leave aside the religious approach, especially religious fundamentalism.

A central passage of this ad goes like this: "Science transcends borders and provides the most reliable basis for finding solutions to our problems. We maintain that secular, not religious, principles must govern our public policy ..."

Now I have sympathies for this viewpoint because I, too, think that reliance on faith is divisive and very unsure-footed. That's why there are about 4200 different religions in America alone, all with their own conceptions of the world and how people should live in it. And, yes, science seems to be far more unified across the world, even the ages, even though there are, of course, many disagreements brewing among scientists of all types. All in all, though, science does offer up more reliable understanding than religion.

Still, religion has the corner on one area of human concern which science has been approaching very ineptly. This is morality or ethics. Scientists have never quite managed to escape the paradox of claiming that there isn't any free will at all, everything just happens because it must happen, while at the same to complaining about how people behave, especially about science! Well, if we are moved by impersonal forces, the laws of physics, chemistry, biology -- especially genetics -- then why complain? It's all que sera, sera, isn't it? If this scientific approach is right, then all the lamentations about how people view science is itself pointless. They just do as they must, so why beef?

Moreover, there is the problem that science itself doesn't have much to offer about whether we ought to respect it. Nor can science itself demonstrate that it "provides the most reliable basis for finding solutions to our problems." That, assuredly, isn't a scientific claim, provable by experimentation and other scientific procedures. Thinking that science can legislate about the merits of science is folly -- as demonstrated by the fact that the Center's ad hasn't an ounce of science in it backing up its claims about the reliability of science.

So there is a problem with secularism as understood by most of the folks at the Center of Inquiry. It doesn't address one of the most important issues in human affairs, namely, how we ought to live. Sure, there are claims that we ought to honor science but this isn't something that is well supported. Science itself cannot do it so what will? The ad doesn't say.

The bottom line is that the scientific -- some critics will call it "scientistic" -- approach needs to be supplemented with something and champions of secularism aren't generally very good at showing how to do this. Once they step away from science itself, they need to turn to some other source and what should that be? Philosophy? Of course, there are about as many schools of philosophy seeking adherents as religions. Sure, most promise ways of solving human problems that avoid the pitfalls of faith based solutions -- they claim that their ways are available to all without recourse to some supernatural guidance that is very hard for people to grasp rationally, practically. But beyond this, there is very little unanimity among philosophers.

My idea is that folks at the Center of Inquiry and other such organizations ought to advance their positive case and stop denigrating other positions, especially by besmirching their ways of trying to find solutions to our problems. No approach has found universal acceptance; each is trying to put its case out there to be considered. So let's put out our various proposed approaches to solving human problems and let there be a debate about that instead of dismissive messages about how some approaches are inadequate. Let, so to speak, the free market of ideas decide. Yes, it is best for this purposes, for government to stay out of the fray, as the Center's ad suggests. But beyond that, it is most fruitful, I think, to simply stick to arguing the substance without calling into question anyone's good will.