Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Bad Arguments For—And Against—Liberty

by Tibor R. Machan

In his December 18th guest column for The New York Times, Orlando Patterson of Harvard University lays in on George W. Bush and his neo-conservative pals for misguidedly pushing Western style liberalism on Iraqis. The gist of his point is that Bush believes that liberty is "written in our hearts," something supposedly learned from John Locke, and that simply is false.

Now if anyone has any knowledge about the philosophy of John Locke, two vital elements of it certainly stand out above the rest: First, Locke did not believe that anything at all was written in our hearts! He opposed innate ideas, such as those Descartes, the famous French rationalist, believed in. Second, Locke did believe in every individual's right to life and property, a right that implies that everyone ought to be free from coercion by other people. But this is not the idea that freedom is written in our hearts but the idea that freedom is the right way for us to live in human communities. It is right but there is nothing at all automatic about it, as Patterson has Bush think of liberalism.

The difference is crucial. Innate ideas, those supposedly written in our hearts, do not need to be learned. Their importance and value are supposedly intuitive, known without having to learn about them. Some people have believed in this—among them many contemporary philosophers who are called intuitionists. These thinkers hold that within us all there are innate proclivities in support of and against various ways of living and organizing life and these need to be unleashed and then we will be well on our way to right conduct and laws. The most recent major political philosopher who saw a significant role for intuitions in human affairs, the late Harvard philosopher John Rawls, rested a goodly part of his case for the liberal welfare state on this idea. Professor Patterson, unfortunately, doesn't mention this. Instead he hangs the idea on John Locke, someone who is not usually invoked as a defender of the welfare state but of the free market, capitalist system of political economy, what with his strong support of the right to private property.

But Locke didn't defend his views by reference to intuitions. He realized that it is only if we "consult our reason"—if we think the matter through—will it become evident to us that individuals have a right to their lives and property and that this must be made part of a just human community. Nothing of this is intuitive; nothing is automatic; it is all hard work to figure out.

Assuming that George W. Bush's reference to freedom being written in our hearts is not just sloppy polemics but expresses his true belief, it doesn't come from John Locke. Saying it does makes a mockery of Locke's ideas and of the classical liberal tradition of political economy Locke helped get off the ground.

I do not know if Professor Patterson distorts Locke intentionally or through misunderstanding and ignorance but the distortion is significant and, if accepted, very damaging to the case for the free society. That case is an idea of justice, a normative position, one about how we ought to live within human communities. And there is nothing intuitive or automatic about that. Making it seem that such an idea rests on the quicksand of intuition is to belittle it, to besmirch it as a possibly sound notion about human community life.

As to the Iraqis and others in the Middle East, it may well be true that they would be much better off living in a fully free society, as would we all, but there can be a great deal that stands in the way of that happening. For one, they have contrary ideas of their own. And they have rulers and leaders who would very likely be opposed to freedom for all in that region of the world, so even if the bulk of the people would like to be free, those with power are not likely to let that happen. So, yes, George W. Bush & Co. are mistaken to believe that somehow all people, including those in the Middle East, intuitively embrace the free society. But they didn't pick up that error from John Locke!

Monday, December 18, 2006

A Stale Liberal Sophistry

by Tibor R. Machan

In a mildly interesting exchange in The New Republic, between Cato Institute scholar Brink Lindsay and one of the magazine's senior editors, Jonathan Chait, the idea of a possible alliance between modern liberals and libertarians was recently debated. No one, I think, really believed in a serious prospect for this alliance but it made, as I said, mildly interesting copy.

My own attention was piqued by a particular locution in Mr. Chait's missive, where he discussed the suggestion, voiced by Lindsay, that perhaps Social Security ought to be (somewhat) privatized and why this could appeal to younger liberals. (I must admit it always irritates me to call these folks "liberals" when they have no interest in human liberty whatsoever any longer!) In reply to the idea, Chait asks, "And why would we force retirees into the individual medical insurance market?" He adds, "After all, we've tried that system with the working-aged population, and it has produced 45 million uninsured."

Now first, this figure of 45 million uninsured is about as reliable as most other statistics bandied about by those who have immense faith in government. As if only if the state got into the mess would everything that's amiss go much improved. As if being insured the government way were some kind of panacea.

But the second point is more interesting. It has to do with how Chait characterizes even partial privatization, namely, as "forcing" retires into something. Whereas the truth of the matter is that the Social Security system has been notorious for perpetrating the extortion of millions and millions for decades now: "You are only going to work lawfully if you pay the government something some have decided you must pay and that the government will, somehow (but no one knows how and, anyway, don't even count on it), save up for you until you retire. Then government will decide how much of it you will get back." Talking about doing some forcing!

Modern liberals have for ages gotten away with this, claiming that if you do not submit to being coerced into providing the funds they want, you are forcing them or someone to do something. So if I don't want to be taxed—to help the war on drugs or the Social Security system or whatever else government decides the funds extorted via taxation should go to—then I am "forcing" someone to do something, like supporting drug abuse or going without insurance.

Notice immediately how insane this idea is: If I didn't exist at all, and the funds I might have produced but I didn't are not there for these various programs, somehow some nonexistent I would have forced the recipients to go without.~ Now, of course, if I do exist and have the legal right to keep my very own resources, I would not be forcing anyone to do or be anything at all. I certainly wouldn't be forcing retirees to go without insurance since I would not have stolen a thing from them, only refused to allow government to steal the funds on which they would gladly retire, given that they wouldn't invest in this themselves. Nor would I have forced anyone to stop saving up for me—everyone would be free to do this to their heart's content but only without coercing me into their scam.

For centuries enemies of human liberty have played this nasty game, stealing concepts that support freedom and putting them to use opposing it. Like the concept of individual rights, which used to concern securing our liberties but now, after years of sophistic conceptual gerrymandering, is used to refer to alleged entitlements from others—meaning, of course, others' lives and works, the very opposite of individual liberty—the exact reversal of the idea of individual rights as John Locke and the American founders understood them.

Chait has for years rolled out this kind of sophistry. Instead of admitting, plainly and honestly, that what he wants is to steal from those who work and take care of their own retirement and hand over this loot to those who don't (or not enough), he pretends that not stealing for this purposes amounts to forcing people into doing without old age insurance. Please, don't accept this kind of verbal trickery. See it for what it is, trying to win political arguments by subterfuge.

Sunday, December 17, 2006

Peter Singer's Advocacy "Charity"

by Tibor R. Machan

Philosopher Peter Singer, of Princeton University just penned a piece for The Sunday New York Times Magazine titled "On Giving." The gist of it is that most of us ought to part with our wealth and send it to the poor of the world. There are some figures as to just how much those with various levels of income ought to send but these numbers are all fiction—Singer doesn't know us, not the very wealthy, not the somewhat wealthy, nor the rest of us. We all have different situations, some with several kids, some with ailing parents, some devoted to the arts, politics, scholarship, or science that consumes much of our spare wealth. So the number-crunching in the essay amounts to speculation, at best. The serious pitch is that whatever we have, large portions need to be given away.

Not surprisingly Singer's essay is very unclear on just what percentage we should give away of what we have. No wonder. It is impossible to say in any general terms how charitable and generous one ought to be. These are just the sort of decisions that free men and women must make based on their own circumstances and the situations they face around them. The reason, in fact, that our moral virtues, such as courage, honesty, generosity, prudence and the rest, are general guidelines is that they are indicators, not formulas, for doing the right thing. Neither Peter Singer nor any other philosopher, theologian, economist or political theorist is going to be able to answer how much I or you ought to give away of what we have. Only we can do that—it is, as some have put it, all a matter of local knowledge.

A good clue may be gleaned as to what Singer would like us to do from what one of his like-minded colleagues, Peter Unger, once wrote: "On pain of living a life that's seriously immoral, a typical well-off person, like you and me, must give away most of her financially valuable assets, and much of her income, directing the funds to lessen efficiently the serious suffering of others."

Is this true? Because it is such a broad generalization, it probably is not. It assumes, for example, that what most of us spend our money on is worthless and implies that those who gain employment from such spending ought to go jobless. It also assumes that giving money away is of greater help to others than investing money in various projects or saving it so it could be lent out to support productive work. Indeed, Singer's essay is seriously lacking by failing to compare the benefits to those who need money of investing versus giving money away. As with the late Mother Teresa, Singer, too, seems to think it is more important to merely tide someone over instead of helping them get on their own feet.

Singer is also goes astray for thinking that the world is a kind of huge zero-sum game where those who gain must make others lose. He supports this with some theories to the effect that in order for us to be well off, others must suffer but that is really quite silly—economists for centuries have shown that buying, selling, hiring, and all that good commercial stuff is just what creates wealth, not giving things away, something that should be saved for emergencies and only when it is effective.

Another fallacy in Singer's thinking is that he keeps hinting at the idea that no one quite earns all of the wealth he or she has, even if it came by without out and out thievery. Well, of course not. When a beautiful model or talented singer or ball player gains huge sums, those sums weren't always fully deserved (earned). This is especially so with those of us, hopefully quite a few, who enjoy our work and for whom it isn't some great hardship to be productive. And there are the out and out lucky, too, who have a good deal that is theirs not because of arduous labors and suffering.

Yet, the fact that something is come by through luck or pleasant work doesn't make it someone else's. Our health can be good and it is still our health and Singer and his friends aren't justified in taking it from us. Property rights aren't sound principles because all of us always earn our resources through painful labor. They're sound principles because they preserve our sovereignty and keep the likes of Singer at bay.

Indeed, the bottom line of property rights has to do with who will decide how resources should be spent—the people who own them or
others, like Professor Singer. Interestingly although much of what Singer says in his New York Times Magazine piece avoids the worst part of the story, namely, advocating confiscating what we own, there is a part that reveals the author's view on that. He says, at one point, that a cabby asked him if he "thought the U.S. should give foreign aid. When [Singer] answered affirmatively, he replied that the government shouldn't tax people in order to give their money to others." So what did Singer trot out in response? The stuff about how much of what we have we didn't come by from our hard work. But that is entirely beside the point—few if any of us came by our lungs or eyes or good looks because of hard work, yet it is not for Singer to decide what we may do with these things. Indeed, most of our wealth came about through extremely complex ways. Still it is our wealth.

Generosity is indeed a moral virtue: to give those who should have something given to them. But how much that should be, when it should be given, and under what if any conditions, is very much a matter of the context. When some advocate making up formulas the danger is that the power to disburse will be theirs and no longer belong to those with the resources. And that may be what lurks behind all of this "giving," actually, not genuine generosity!