Tuesday, December 25, 2007

The Return of Serfdom

Tibor R. Machan

The American Founders initiated a revolution by removing sovereignty from the government--kings and the like--and recognizing that it is individual human beings to whom sovereignty rightfully belongs. (Sovereignty means self governance, self rule.) By implementing the political philosophy of John Locke, who identified the natural rights of every human being to life, liberty, and property, the founders changed things radically, far more radically than did the communists later on who followed Karl Marx’s reactionary program of socialization.

But the American Founders did not eliminate one of the crucial features of the old order, namely, taxation. That is the system under which the government owns the wealth of a country and merely permits the people to live and work there, collecting a good chunk of their earnings as payment for the privilege. Serfdom, the other crucial feature of the old order, had however been overthrown in America. That was because individual rights are plainly incompatible with the government’s ownership of the people, which is what serfdom really amounts to. The serfs were supposed to belong to the king who gave them to the lords and other occupants of land, supposedly so they be taken good care of. In fact, of course, they were thoroughly exploited for the economic benefit of the ruling classes, including the royal court.

To remind ourselves that the elapse of time doesn’t always mean the improvement of circumstances, we should notice that in our day there is a slow, sometimes imperceptible return to the age of serfdom. The government now provides for millions of people, through various welfare programs for nearly every segment of society, supposedly to take good care of them. And all this is now being vigorously supported by some of the most prominent political theorists at America’s premier universities.

But so far the apologists for the massive and growing welfare state have only argued that the wealth of the country belongs to government instead of the citizens. (It is actually the corporate sector that is now the greatest recipient of welfare, of so called entitlements--via subsidies, protection against competition from abroad as well as domestic rivals.) They have openly, denied the right to private property in books such as The Myth of Ownership and The Cost of Rights, as well as various articles published in prominent magazines and journals. The idea is that individuals have no right to private property and government owns the country’s resources. The defense of this notion takes a variety of forms but the bottom line is the rejection of the Lockean individualist view in favor of a collectivist vision of society.

Few of these apologists have done so far as to claim that individual human beings belong to the government, although some, like the Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor, have argued that people’s lives belong to their communities, not to themselves. (Oddly, Taylor was a recent recipient of the substantial Templeton Prize! This despite the fact that John Templeton is reputed to be a defender of the free market, an institution that depends on the Lockean theory of individual rights!) In fact, however, with the growing number of citizens who demand entitlements from the government their claim that their lives are their own is unconvincing. When the government feeds you, houses you, provides you with medical care, with retirement benefits, and all the rest to which one is now entitled, it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that Americans are no longer citizens but have reverted to the status of subjects, if not outright serfs. Is your life really yours when you live off the state? No.

It is one thing to advocate a social order in which men and women freely help their needy fellows. That is what generosity recommends. It is an entirely different matter when men and women are coerced into involuntary servitude and the beneficiaries become beholden to them for nearly everything in their lives, starting from early childhood education all the way to old age pension.

Do not be surprised that very soon we will be hearing and reading explicit arguments for the claim that individuals do not own their lives--they have no right to it--but actually belong to the state; that they are actually serfs! And all this coming from the progressives among our political thinkers.
It’s deja vu All Over Again

Tibor R. Machan

Back in 1971 the late Harvard behaviorist psychologist B. F. Skinner published his popular best seller, Beyond Freedom and Dignity (New York, Knopf). The book followed several more technical works by Skinner arguing that the belief that human beings have free will and are morally responsible is all wrong, a pre-scientific prejudice that needs to be discarded and replaced with a technology of behavior.

This work prompted me to write my first book, The Pseudo-Science of B. F. Skinner (Arlington House, 1973), in which I disputed Skinner’s claim to have come up with scientific reasons for rejecting free will and moral responsibility. I argued that he was actually subscribing to a certain school of philosophy that advanced the views he championed. His conclusions about free will and morality were not based on scientific findings at all.

It is now over 30 years since Skinner’s work appeared and behaviorism is no longer all the rage in the discipline of psychology. But the basic goal of discrediting free will and moral--including legal or criminal--responsibility is still very much on the agenda of some folks. Only the school of psychology that is supposed to be undermining the belief in human freedom and morality is no longer behaviorism. Now it is some people’s version of neuroscience.

The basic contention put forth by some of the champions of this new scientific approach to understanding human behavior is that our actions aren’t really ours at all. And, very interestingly, the idea has enormous financial support from no less than the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation. It has contributed $10 million to do research on the issues involved, with the work carried out at the University of California at Santa Barbara.

Now I say that this money will go to do research but it looks very much like some of those involved do not think much research is needed because they write as if they had already reached their conclusions. As an article on the website of the project-- http://www.lawandneuroscienceproject.org/neurolaw%20fact%20sheet%20QandA.pdf--tells it,

"The U.S. legal system incorporates assumptions about behavior that, in some cases, are centuries old and based on common sense and culture. For example, it tends to assume that people make deliberate choices and that those choices determine what they do. However, recent breakthroughs in neuroscience research indicate that such choices may sometimes be based upon electrical impulses and neuron activity that are not a part of conscious behavior. These actions can include not only criminal activity, but also decisions made by police, prosecutors, and jurors to arrest, prosecute, convict, or mandate treatment."

In other words, as some of these scientists would have it, we are back to Skinner, although in slightly modified terms. As the new technologists of human behavior see the matter, it is not operant conditioning that drives human behavior but impersonal electrical firings in our brains. Human beings do not make conscious decisions, they do not deliberate but are being driven by “electrical impulses.” (I wouldn’t put much stock in the qualification “sometimes” since anyone familiar with the work of some of the enthusiasts behind these ideas can tell that theirs is actually a sweeping pronouncement about all human behavior!)

A column isn’t the place to attempt to rebut these ideas, merely to call attention to the eagerness with which some are promulgating them and to the enormous investment in the attempt to make them influential. But one thing can be said so as to put a bit of a break on all this enthusiasm about denying the efficacy of human conscious thought in directing human conduct. The British psychologist D. Bannister put the matter very poignantly over 30 years ago: “... the psychologist cannot present a picture of man which patently contradicts his behavior in presenting that picture.”

The point is that the champions of the relevant kind of neuroscience and its alleged findings are themselves making decisions, deliberating, and consciously deciding about what to do, day in and day out, including when they decide to make various claims about the implications of their work for the legal system they wish to discredit and take steps to convince the rest of us of how outmoded our thinking and institutions are. They cannot have it both ways--deny that people make decisions but then proceed to make all sorts of significant decisions themselves!

The plain fact is that there is something basic, undeniable about the role of our minds in our conduct, even in conduct that aims to discredit the human mind itself.

Monday, December 24, 2007

Fifth Estate Anyone?

Tibor R. Machan

It used to be thought that the press is the fourth estate, meaning a kind of shadow branch of government that keeps an eye on Washington and other centers of power to make sure politicians and bureaucrats are being watched. After all, government officials have a special advantage in gaining the ear of reporters with their news releases, declarations, and other proclamations of good will! So it is a helpful thing, one would hope, that an entire industry is devoted to challenging what they tell us.

Alas, now we seem to need a fifth estate, what with the press having become a sort of independent force that has its own agenda which tends to distort what is reported by it. This fifth estate is what the on line encyclopedia, Wikipedia describes, as the “media that sees itself in opposition to mainstream (Fourth Estate) media.” We might call it the meta-media!

One sign of how bad things have become in the fourth estate is to see all the journalists who are interviewing other journalists, not the actual players, when some vital or interesting event is “in the news.” Television news reports are especially notorious for this. Often instead of finding someone in the middle of a news story who should be interviewed, scrutinized, challenged or the like, what we are given is another reporter from the same or some other friendly “news” organization who becomes the subject of an interview. This kind of celebrity journalism seems to need some oversight.

One individual who seems to have taken an oath to do just this is the Chair of the Department of Economics at George Mason University, near Washington DC, Professor Donald J. Boudreaux. For quite some time now he has been reading a great many of the country’s prominent newspapers each morning (I assume) and sending off letters to the editor whenever he finds that the papers contains errors of fact or some other infelicities which need to be corrected so readers get the real scoop instead of some kind of spin the papers would like to be promulgating. He sends these not only to the papers but to a fairly long list of his friends and acquaintances who then can take whatever action they might deem warranted.

A good example of Professor Boudreaux’s tireless efforts is his frequent criticism of the New York Times columnist, fellow economist Professor Paul Krugman of Princeton University. With the kind of prestige Princeton enjoys, Krugman’s columns carry extra impact and if they contain errors, it is especially helpful to have these pointed out.

Not that Professor Boudreaux’s every letter gets published, far from it, Only a small percentage makes it into the letters sections of the various papers he keeps on eye on. But by sending them around to colleagues and friends, others can also chime in about the matter after they have been alerted to the problem and done some of their own research to verify Professor Boudreaux’s claims.

One of the letters came to me via email the other morning and it is an especially poignant instance of how important Professor Boudreaux’s pro bono work turns out to be. Here is the entire text of the letter he sent to The New York Times:

"Paul Krugman asserts that the steady decline in labor-union membership happened because "beginning in the 1970s, corporate America, which had previously had a largely cooperative relationship with unions, in effect declared war on organized labor" ("State of the Unions," December 24). Two facts cast doubt on this assertion.

"First, the decline in union membership began in the mid-1950s, not in the 1970s. Second, union membership in almost all of Europe and the rest of the industrialized world followed a similar trajectory to that in America."

When I received the letter and briefly checked the substance of the criticism, I decided this one needs to get the attention of the New York Times public editor, the person at The Times who is supposed to keep looking over the shoulders of reporters and editors so they don’t misbehave. So I sent a copy to this individual.

It will be interesting to see if Professor Boudreaux’s correction of Professor Krugman makes it into The Times. Do you want to bet whether it will?

Monday, December 17, 2007


[This column, posted at www.FMNN.com on December 10, 2007, generated a discussion that may be of interest to some folks not familiar with that site, one that's accessible to anyone, by the way.]

Ron Paul, the Texas Republican House member, is undoubtedly the most committed libertarian among all the presidential hopefuls. "Dr. No," as he is sometimes called, opposes virtually all government spending and other forms of oppression. He believes that many of the laws passed by Congress aren't authorized by the Constitution - a document he believes is sound because of its support of the free society and a limited federal government - and could only be passed by state political bodies, not by the feds. Paul is pro-life, but instead of wanting to outlaw abortion - a dubious libertarian idea in my book - he wants the issue of whether there is a right to have an abortion to be dealt with at the state level.... [the full column appears below, dated December 10, 2007]

1. 12/10/2007 - 20:46:6PM
BY: Tannim
Tibor writes well as usual, but he does not explain why he finds Dr. Paul's non-interventionism to be disturbing, as he puts it. Sure, he may not be totally libertarian on everything, but this isn't a libertarian purist contest, it's a race for President of the United States! I tend to agree with Dr. Paul on most everything (except abortion, but for unusual reasons), and he's a Presidential candidate I can feel proud to vote for. I cannot say the same for ANY of the others in the GOP, and NONE of the Democrats.

2. 12/10/2007 - 21:18:31PM
BY: Eric
This article is quite ridiculous. Ron Paul has never said that "killing 3,000 people is OK". Pointing out that terrorists attacked America because of US involvement in the Middle East does not mean that the terrorist acts were morally or legally justified.

3. 12/11/2007 - 0:58:40AM
BY: Greg Lippold
"To a libertarian, for whom the right of an individual to his or her life is a core principle of community life, thinking that killing 3,000 people is OK - because Americans went to Saudi Arabia and other places "there" - is quite disturbing." Mr. MACHAN this is a load of crap. Sounds like something MSM would come up with.

4. 12/11/2007 - 13:10:39PM
BY: joan green
I agree with Ron Paul in the way that he views the Constitution, and the many ways that the present administration has violated their power of office. My vote is for Ron Paul....and if I had a "trillion" votes, they would all be for Ron Paul for President in 2008!

5. 12/11/2007 - 17:34:8PM
BY: texpat
This is such a careless misrepresentation of Ron Paul's position that I can only hope Tibor Machan's article was edited without him reviewing it. If not, it lowers my esteem for Mr. Machan.

Ron Paul had no problem going after Al Qaeda in Afghanistan, given their involvement in 9/11. What he does have a problem with is still being there, six years later, and invading Iraq, a country that had not attacked us.

Furthermore, Ron Paul never said that the 9/11 attacks were justified. His blowback theory merely explains the motivation for those attacks, and it makes far more sense than imbecilic explanations such as "they hate us because we're free".

6. 12/12/2007 - 5:54:20AM
BY: Tibor Machan
The blowback theory exculpates bin Laden & Co. It is offered as an explanation for 9/11. If I kick you and then this is explained by reference to your behavior as something that provoked the kick, clearly I am left blameless. Sure, Paul was producing a sound bite but he ought to have qualified it with "our being there has contributed to bin Laden & Co.'s anger but the murder of 3000 innocents was totally unjustified in response ot that."

7. 12/12/2007 - 10:30:52AM
BY: Greg Lippold
Mr. Machan I enjoy your articles and look forward to your views. Plain and simple, you are turning a fart into global warming. The ability to entertain the concept of blow back does not prove guilt or innocence, it does not even provide an excuse. It's like raising kids, when big brother hits little brother. Now for pay back little brother blows up big brothers bedroom. Do you really think those parents are going to let little brother off the hook? Check out Mr. Pauls voting record on these two wars and you'll get a better idea where he is coming from because Mr. Paul did vote differently on these two issues.

8. 12/12/2007 - 17:59:2PM
BY: Henry Pierson
While I usually agree with Prof. Machan, in this case it is clear that the “blowback theory” that Ron Paul has advocated does not exculpate bin Laden and Co. as the good professor suggests. Neither do I believe that Ron Paul’s position on the matter is indicative of such beliefs. My perception of Mr. Paul’s view is that he believes, were it not for our misplaced foreign policy, the attacks on our country and people would likely not have occurred. I tend to agree.

Great metaphor, Mr. Lippold.

9. 12/13/2007 - 17:51:22PM
BY: Tibor Machan
Sadly when someone EXPLAINS a criminal act, it is to exculpate the perpetrator. Just consider whye defense attorneys love to bing up psychology when they discusse why their client committed a crime--if the client's background, mental state, cultural practices or such serves to EXPLAIN the criminal conduct, the jury is urged not to hold the defendant responsible. What is responsible is one of these factors, not the defendant. Just as with bin Laden, what is responsible is not bin Laden but the fact that "we are there."

10. 12/13/2007 - 20:48:45PM
BY: Greg Lippold
Mr. Machan your statement, "Sadly when someone EXPLAINS a criminal act, it is to exculpate the perpetrator." I say no, not always, sometimes it is to point the finger in the right direction. Mr. Pauls voting recored speaks for itself. I do not adhere to this Chris Wallace school of thought of putting words in Mr. Pauls mouth. We do a great diservice to all parents that have a son or daughter in these two wars when we twist the facts. It is easy to find fault with Mr. Paul, he is only humane, but on this issue his voting record is very clear.

11. 12/14/2007 - 12:22:4PM
BY: Tibor Machan
I never put any words in Paul's mouth but I do draw implications from what he said, which was that 9/11 happened "because we are there." Those are his words. And what I say about an explanation functioning as a exculpation when it comes to otherwise criminal acts is a plain, demonstrable fact.

12. 12/14/2007 - 17:32:3PM
BY: MetaCynic
Few if any crimes occur in a vacuum. Although an individual must wilfully act to commit a crime, perhaps only a psychopath will do so outside a social, economic or political context. To understand the context is not to exculpate the act. For example, children who grow up in single parent households are much more likely to become violent, self destructive and generally dysfunctional adults than those who grow up in two parent households. No one should condone criminal behavior because the perpetrator grew up without a father, but neither should we support values and policies which produce single parent households. Such values and policies will ultimately elevate the social pathology level thus leading to the possibility that even we will become crime victims.

Ron Paul's observation that foreign intervention produces unpleasant, unexpected consequences is nothing more than placing a blowback crime, such as 9/11, within its context. He urges us to not support a foreign policy that brutalizes other countries because this will greatly increase the likelihood that innocent Americans will become crime victims. I fail to see why such a warning can be interpreted as exculpating the 9/11 perpetrators.

13. 12/14/2007 - 23:49:13PM
BY: Kerk93
Mr Machan, It appears that you have missed a fundamental premise to human action. That premise-with deference to von Mises-is that all humans act to maximize their satisfaction. I am unaware of a group-throughout history-who willingly acted for their subversion. Dr. Paul is quite accurate in his assertion that they attacked us because we were "over there."

His words should only be taken for their basic meaning. After all, words have specific meaning. Words and numbers are characters invented to convey a specific meaning. These characters and numbers are how we convery our specific values to one another.

You have inferred something from his speech that may or may not be true. How do you, based on logic or reason, know that he meant anything more than what he said?

Perhaps, he was simply stating they were enraged because we were over there? This is nearly the exact cause/effect relationship that Adam Smith noted back in the 1770s.

Is that not a logical explanation for their actions?

A much more illogical explanation is that they hate us because of our freedoms.

In the vast eras of human history, I am confounded to find any sect that has ever fought to be oppressed. Quite the contrary, people have fought-throughout history-because they are oppressed.

When one realizes that the system of governance guaranteed by our Constitution is a republican form, the premises of spreading democracy to the rest of the world become all the more paradoxical.

14. 12/15/2007 - 8:22:19AM
BY: Tibor Machan
I am not a believer in the economic man analysis of human action--my criticism of von Mises may be found in my book, Capitalism and Individualism, Reframing the Argument for the Free Society (St. Martin's Press, 1990). We do not always act to promote our own interest, although we ought to more often than we do! In any case, when Dr. Paul said 9/11 occurred because "we are there," he provided an unqualified explanation and such an explanation implies an exculpation of the actors, as I have explained before (on the model of how explaining criminal conduct exculpates the accused agent).

15. 12/16/2007 - 19:53:31PM
BY: Aaron
I find Mr. Machan's position in regard to Dr. Paul's blowback explanation very disturbing. Mr Machan seems to be saying that because we were attacked we are therefore blameless. It is Machan and not Paul who is exculpating and in a very bizarre way. In essence he is saying that if you provoke (attack) someone you are blameless if they retaliate beyond simple self defense. If that is the case, then appling Machan's logic, he is the one exculpating Bin Laden, as we responded to his provocation beyond simple self defense.

Obviously this in nonsense, and anyone who listens to what Dr. Paul says cannot honestly believe that he feels any sympathy toward Bin Laden or his tactics.

16. 12/16/2007 - 23:40:34PM
BY: Tibor Machan
I am told that "Mr Machan seems to be saying that because we were attacked we are therefore blameless. It is Machan and not Paul who is exculpating and in a very bizarre way. In essence he is saying that if you provoke (attack) someone you are blameless if they retaliate beyond simple self defense. If that is the case, then appling [sic] Machan's logic, he is the one exculpating Bin Laden, as we responded to his provocation beyond simple self defense." Well, am I saying it or am I seem to be saying it, whatever that can mean. In fact I nevere said that
bin Laden is blamesless or even that the American government is blameless. I have been stressing that Dr. Paul should have qualified his claim that 9/11 happened "because we are there." He should have said that our being there has possibly contributed to bin Laden & Co.'s anger but that anger has deep historical and religious origins that have nothing to do with how the American government acts--just check out Islamic Imperialism by Efraim Karsh (Yale, 2006).

17. 12/17/2007 - 0:37:38AM
BY: Denny Jackson
I'll take von Mises any day against Machan, and I'll take Ron Paul any day against him too. Machan's patently absurd accusation that Dr. Paul is excusing the terrorists of all blame when he points out the reason for their action -- whether reasonable or not -- is barely worthy of a response. Does Mr. Machan really think that we would have been attacked if the US government had been minding its own business and not been in the Middle East attacking Muslim nations? Frankly I don't find their response all that unreasonable myself. Criminal, yes, but not unreasonable.

I find it telling that Mr. Machan seems to have little concern for constitutional constraints on the actions of the federal government, nor seemingly any concept of limits to jurisdiction. At least he did not mention them. Libertarians know where their limits are and respect them. Statists think there are none other than what are determined by the extent of state power and blame others for defending themselves against their aggression.

18. 12/17/2007 - 8:32:20AM
BY: Tibor Machan
In fact, of course, Machan has been writing steadily against the Iraq war from before it started. It would help one who posts on my views to actually know those views. See www.Tibormachan.com for how steadily, consistently I have protested the war and argued that a free country has no business doing what the American government has been doing. But the dicussion here is about what Dr. Paul said and might have said regarding responsibility for 9/11, not about the war.

Sunday, December 16, 2007

Who Fires or Lays you Off?

Tibor R. Machan

During economic downturns many people become hostile toward their employers, thinking whatever hardship they suffer is their fault. In fact, however, the responsibility lies with customers, consumers, and a host of other economic agents, rarely if ever with one’s employers.

I work for a university and have indeed done so for most of my career after I left graduate school, having earned my entry ticket, the PhD degree, which is what one usually needs to go on the market for a teaching position at colleges and universities. Much of this industry, of course, is bizarre. People are paid in most places from funds extorted from citizens via taxes, so there is hardly a genuine free market in play.

I did, however, work outside of the academy for nearly a decade, prior to entering college, where I was subject to market forces. Which is to say, when I lost my job a Carrier Air Conditioning, for example, or at the architectural drafting firm where I worked afterwards, I was let go because the number of those directly or indirectly seeking to buy my skills significantly diminished.

Yes, my pink slips were given to me by my bosses but they were only telling me what they were told by their own potential customers: “We do not want what you and Machan and the rest in your company would like to sell us. Or we want much less of it than before. Or we want to buy it from some other provider. Or we found something else we want to spend our money on instead of what you have to offer us. And so forth.”

Sometimes, as seems to be the situation now in my region of the world, many potential customers are in a belt-tightening frame of mind. For a while they may have extended themselves, gone out to buy what they wanted even beyond their means, and now it has downed on them that this could have severe consequences. So they decided to withdraw from the market place, or to go there more infrequently than before.

In the case of the housing market, for example, many people went in over the heads big time. They and their lenders took big risks, borrowed and lent much more than was reasonable given their economic circumstances. And this has resulted in widespread defaults and unless some kind of successful restructure could be arranged, it may even have led to having to give up one’s home. When such things happen with great numbers of people, then the economy undergoes a recession, at least if this happens over a prolonged period of time. But, except for when the government muscles in and causes all kinds of distortions instead of leaving people in the marketplace to sort things out, this is all nothing more mysterious than folks, as economic agents, acting somewhat wildly and then trying to take steps to rectify matters.

Yes, and there can be some malfeasance in play throughout the market which contributes to such situations, just as when the market is doing extraordinarily well. People hustle and others are all too willing to play along, take advantage. Who wouldn’t jump at the chance of selling something for much more than it was bought for even if doing so could be quite unreasonable? Much of what is called “the economy” is you and me and the rest of us, sadly often unthinking, human beings. It is not all a matter of malice but it is often plain old negligence. And there are consequences. Among those are widespread layoffs and firings.

But don’t blame the managers of firms for this. Sure, they can be more or less sensitive to the situation, handle it crassly or with consideration. But those are relatively minor matters when the major issues is the fact that one’s job is no longer wanted by the potential customers.

Unfortunately, as in so many cases, people blame the messenger, the one who hands out the pink slips, and forget that it is mostly due to potential buyers, like you and me, deciding to withdraw from the market for a while. Such, in some cases rather unfortunately, is economics.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

The Attack on Good Luck

Tibor R. Machan

Over the last few years a controversy has been brewing about the death tax. While a great many people whom it doesn’t effect support it, some who would pay huge sums in this unjust policy do as well. Bill Gates and Warren Buffet both are on record in favor of hefty taxes on estates that could otherwise benefit family members, offspring of the wealthy.

Now Hillary Clinton has jumped on the bandwagon and this really should be no surprise. Although her line of defense is kind of weird--“The estate tax has been historically part of our very fundamental belief that we should have a meritocracy, that we do not want a system--where we expect people to make it on their own--to be, over time, dominated by inherited wealth.” She continued, speaking in the characteristic fashion of royalty (that uses “we” without actually consulting anyone included), saying that “What we do believe that people should have to get out there and make their way, to a great extent.”

Two points need to be made in response to this. One is that those who earned the wealth may not be coerced into using it in ways they do not choose. Wealthy people like Gates and Buffet have every right to give away all they have earned, so their freedom and property rights are not at all violated by abolishing the death tax. If they don’t want to have their kids get their wealth, they can do with it was they choose. But those who would like their wealth to go to their offspring and others in their surviving families ought not to be prevented from doing so. They, too, have the right to private property, the greatest principle in defense of freedom of choice, a bulwark against statism and populism which amount to nothing less than confiscation.

Another point worth raising is that we are all subject to the vagaries of good and bad luck. Some of us are born with talents and these talents may well give us a leg up when it comes to competing with others in the market place. Tall people have advantages that short ones lack. Healthy people are clearly luckier than those with inherited medical problems. There simply is no end to the inequalities of fortune and misfortune in human life. Those who wish to even things out voluntarily are, of course, quite free to make that effort. No one, however, has the moral and should have the legal authority to forcibly fiddle with the advantages and disadvantages people have in their lives. In a society of free men and women this issue must be left to the free choices of the people involved. And, in fact, America, which still tends to be more in line with the idea of economic laissez-faire--though only barely by now--has more economic equality than do other countries because when governments are entrusted with equalization, look out! Bias and cronyism are sure to dominate, which is far worse than some “unfair” economic advantages or disadvantages due to inheritance and other sources not directly related to merit.

It is, furthermore, very odd to see Hillary Clinton suddenly champion meritocracy when, in fact, the history of her own type of democratic politics--populism--has been precisely to reject it and embrace government wealth redistribution based on what politicians and bureaucrats deem to be fair.

Bill Gates and Warren Buffet need not worry--no one would prevent them from allocating their wealth as they choose should the inheritance tax disappear. What would stop is the government taxing the wealth and using it in line with the vision of its ideological leaders instead of the choices of those who would otherwise have the authority to use it as they see fit because wealthy parents decided to leave it to them to make the decision.

Sadly, the death tax and similar schemes of extortion that enable politicians and bureaucrats to allocate funds they certainly haven’t earned--talk about meritocracy--appeals to the envy of many people who simply refuse to live with how nature and human decisions distribute wealth in the country. This envy then is used by the likes of Hillary Clinton to grab power for themselves, economic power they certain didn’t earn. Moreover, this is also a source of the expansion of economic statism whereby individuals are deprived of their right to choose how to allocate the fruits of their labor.

Let’s leave the wealth and the luck to those who have it without violating anyone’s rights. It may not always work out to everyone’s satisfaction but it will certainly be far superior to giving the power to the likes of Hillary Clinton.

Monday, December 10, 2007

Consumerism and Christmas

Tibor R. Machan

You all may recall that after 9/11 Osama bin Laden explained his orchestration of the terrorist deed that murdered some 3000 innocent human beings as payback for America’s materialism. (His anti-materialist rant is routine--a good discussion of his views may be found here: http://www.army.mil/professionalwriting/volumes/volume5/january_2007/1_07_4.html.)

Yet as the writer of the above piece notes, anti-materialism is a common theme among most religions. Of course! The idea that what life is all about is preparation for an after-life, a spiritual life that is superior to the mundane life we can lead here on earth, is central to most religions.

In the West, however, many religions have made peace with the mundane elements of human existence so there tends to be a less avid denunciation of materialism, which is how the idea of being seriously concerned with living prosperously here on earth is usually designated. After all, the Christian God is both human and divine, in the person of Jesus, for example. Destruction of life is generally deemed to be a sin for Christians, whereas, as bin Laden himself has noted, the love of death is central in his version of Islam. As one account has it, “This originated at the Battle of Qadisiyya in the year 636, when the commander of the Muslim forces, Khalid ibn Al-Walid, sent an emissary with a message from Caliph Abu Bakr to the Persian commander, Khosru. The message stated: ‘You [Khosru and his people] should convert to Islam, and then you will be safe, for if you don't, you should know that I have come to you with an army of men that love death, as you love life’.” This account is widely recited in contemporary Muslim sermons, newspapers, and textbooks.

Yet despite the Western theological tradition’s more friendly attitude toward the mundane, nearly every Christmas leaders of Christian denominations tend to revert to the original, anti-life doctrines by condemning materialism or, actually, commercialism. This year the latest Pope, Benedict XVI, lamented what he called the “materialist” approach to celebrating Christmas. He referred in his proclamation to “the dead-end streets of consumerism,” according to newspaper reports, chiding people everywhere for what the report calls “being caught up with consumerist pursuits.”

Ironically, the Pope issued his proclamations form St. Peter’s Square at the Vatican. If you have ever visited the Vatican, as I and millions of others have, you would know it to be one of the West’s if not the world’s most opulent places. And as to consumerism, the gift shop dominates the entrance to the Vatican, where one can spend great sums of money on various small or sizable trinkets. Commerce flourishes there, believe me, as the Vatican cashes in on the desire of many of the visitors to take way some reminder of their having been to that historically and theologically significant place.

Of course, even apart from the Vatican, the Roman Catholic Church, as well as others within Christianity, often excel in ostentatious display of riches--one need but go to high mass, indeed, on Christmas Eve, to witness this.

An why not? That is how human beings tend to celebrate what they value highly. By honoring the occasion with gift-giving. And gift-giving necessarily involves commerce--most of us aren’t skilled at the crafts that it takes to create the various gifts we wish to bestow upon those we love and cherish. I personally bought airline tickets for some of my family members, a computer for another, in part because I have no airplane in which to fly them where they would like to go or no factory and expertise to make a modern, up to date computer. To obtain these gifts, I rely, as do billions of others, on commerce.

So why then would the Pope besmirch consumerism and commerce? Beats me. (And remember, also, that “materialism” is ultimately a nonsense term--nothing we purchase is simply material but embodies the creative intelligence--indeed the creative spirit--of many human beings!) So, I urge the Pope to change his message and to have a more generous understanding of all of us who make use of commerce in our celebration of Christmas!

Sunday, December 09, 2007

Are Values Universal?

Tibor R. Machan

A frequent claim by erudite people is that the values on which America was founded--individual rights, rule of law, due process--are obsolete. They have been superseded by more recent ways of seeing things, of understanding people and their world.

This point is made especially concerning America’s roughly free enterprise, capitalist economic system. Some refer to them as “voodoo economics,” suggesting that they are old fashioned, outmoded, in need of being discarded by now. The right to private property, a basic principle the American Founders referred to in their writings and the framers included in the Fifth Amendment, is also dismissed along these lines, sometimes by very prominent thinkers in prestigious academic institutions.

At other times the point is pressed that although some of the ideas or principles of the American Founders had merit, they were in serious need of being updated, improved upon--so, for example, whereas the Founders believed in the right to life and liberty, Franklin D. Roosevelt wisely updated these with his idea of Four Freedoms, including the freedom to obtain support from others whether or not they wish to provide it--the entitlement doctrine that’s become the basis of the welfare state--which unambiguously overrules the right to liberty.

Yet, all the while some of the very same people who urge upon us this view also offer fierce criticism of early practices, laws, and customs. They will condemn slavery and the subjugation of women unhesitatingly and not accept the idea of, well, those were okay back then but not now. Favoring the upper classes, for example, is condemned, as is keeping the poor in their wretched conditions. Torture, which was routine in the Middle Ages, often comes in for chiding, never mind that back then it was widely accepted, as was corporeal punishment, child labor, and similar practices widely disapproved of.

Is it possible to have it both ways? Are some principles universal, so we can invoke them to judge the conduct of people in any age, while others are not, so that while back then it was OK to act that way but now it isn’t? If so, how do we tell the difference?

To put it differently, when is invoking the idea that is was a different era and thus OK to do some things we now know to be wrong merely an excuse? How can we avoid cherry picking the conduct we want to disapprove of in any and all eras versus the conduct we are going to condemn only for certain times and places?

The idea is not merely academic by any means. It is of considerable practical importance. There are many people who claim that various ideas and ideals advocated should not be applied to certain countries, such as Cuba, North Korea, or Venezuela. They are different places and thus what is proper in the West or the U.S.A. may not be proper there at all. Yes, freedom of speech is a good idea here in America, some will say, but in the Venezuela being ruled by Hugo Chavez it is inapplicable. How women are treated in Iran is fine there but not here.

Examples can be heaped upon examples of such cultural, ethical, and political relativism which is proclaimed side by side some very earnest absolutism. Democracy is good for every society--or is it? But if it is, does that also mean that driving on the right side of the road is the right way or can that vary from country to country--or continent to continent?

Most of us confront these issues only in our college philosophy or ethics courses and once that’s done, we rarely give the matter much thought. Yet it is really the very stuff of international diplomacy, of globalization, of how the World Court should decide cases and so forth. Maybe the issue is directly relevant even to how we deal with our next door neighbors. Should we judge their conduct as we judge our own? Do our principles of decency, justice, and such reach beyond our front doors? And if so, why not farther away, to the other side of the globe?

I am only raising the matter here because despite the abstract nature of the concern, it will certainly come up in our lives, including in the coming presidential elections. Is mandatory universal health care something right for us in America, in Canada, anywhere, or quite wrong however much other countries experiment with it? Should social security become voluntary, as it has in certain countries? Should religion be central our political system as it is in various places around the globe, or should we stick to separation of church and state and maybe even advocate it for others?

Now and then it bears reflecting on these matters; so however troubling it may be, it is worth admitting that the issue is actually quite central to human life anywhere.

Thursday, December 06, 2007

The Right to Private Property

Tibor R. Machan

America’s most prominent modern liberal legal theorist is Professor Ronald Dworkin, professor of Jurisprudence at University College London and the New York University School of Law. His books, Taking Rights Seriously, Law’s Empire, and Sovereign Virtue are all serious defenses of the idea, basically, that the Lockean tradition of law and politics which the American Founder’s had invoked in crafting the Declaration of Independence and, to a lesser extent, the U. S. Constitution, is wrong. As he said in a recent exchange in the pages of The New York Review of Books (December 6, 2007), the U. S. Supreme Court, in upholding the law in New York State, in the famous Lochner decision of 1905, that defended private property rights, “relied consistently on the mistaken but principled view that property rights are basic human rights.”

But contrary to Dworkin’s assertion, the right to private property is indeed a basic human right. It is fundamental to any bona fide free society. Just consider, as one vital case in point, that unless one has the right to private property, one does not have the right to freedom of speech--it is because of that basic human right that government may not censor what we say and write but may do so when it involves public property, such as radio or television stations that use the public airwaves, or a public park. In fact, all basic individual rights rest, practically, on the right to private property and are threatened by its abrogation.

Some have made the point that property rights had been used to justify slavery but that is sophistry. The only reason that one could plausibly claim to own slaves is that they were falsely, immorally, declared not to be full human beings, more akin to domesticated animals than to people. It needed such spurious thinking to get around the fact that human beings have a property right in their own life, their labor and its fruits.

The idea goes back to John Locke and even farther in human political history, to William of Ockham. Both of these philosophers realized that to be in charge of one’s own life, one must have the right to it fully respected and protected in the legal system. If one may not own one’s life and resources--lacks the right to life and property--one is at the mercy of governments and all other people. They can command how one will live, who one will serve, etc. But if one has one’s right to life and one’s right to private property secured, others must ask for one’s support or help or consent and are barred from simply using a person against his or her will.

Of course, modern liberals like Professor Dworkin don’t approve of this principle because they believe that people must be available to government to order about, to conscript for all sorts of purposes they do not themselves freely accept. This is the Left’s major thesis, after all--people belong to society, to humanity, to the body politic. (The most forceful advocate of this was the French philosopher Auguste Comte, who wrote that "...All human rights … are as absurd as they are immoral. This ['to live for others'], the definitive formula of human morality, gives a direct sanction exclusively to our instincts of benevolence, the common source of happiness and duty. [Man must serve] Humanity, whose we are entirely.")

It is no accident that the first thing Karl Marx listed as in need of abolition on the way to socialism and communism is the right to private property. That principle, when observed and protected, is what makes us sovereign individuals instead of serfs and slaves or mere cells in the “organic body” of society.

Sadly the American Founders spelled out excellent ideas in the Declaration of Independence but then, in the pursuit of national unity, they compromised them in the U. S. Constitution. But today, with the leadership of the likes of Professor Dworkin, even the ideas of the Declaration are in jeopardy, ready to be abrogated in the name of some undefined public or common good or the will of the people. It is going to be most important whether this jeopardy will be effectively resisted or yielded to in the coming decades. On that issue the future of human liberty will hinge.

Saturday, December 01, 2007

Health Fascism on It's Way

Tibor R. Machan

Paul Krugman, Princeton economist and columnist for The New York Times, has no problem with coercing people to do what they'd rather not do. So it's no surprise that he favors the universal health case system advocated by Democratic presidential hopefuls Hilary Clinton and John Edwards. He is worried that under the more modestly coercive system advocated by Barack Obama, "healthy people could choose not to buy insurance--then sign up for it if they developed health problems later." Under this system, argues Professor Krugman, "People who did the right thing and bought insurance when they were healthy would end up subsidizing those who didn't sign up for insurance until or unless they needed medical care." The old free rider problem, nothing very novel at all.

Yet the problem arises only if there is coercion involved in the first place. If not, all those who buy insurance when they are doing well would know that some others would purchase it only once they suspected that they are getting sick. Knowing this, they could still carry on with their risk-aversive policy of buying insurance when they are quite healthy without worrying about whether others may later become free riders. Not everyone frets about free riders. It's a concern mostly of administrators of a system, such as those who manage a health care insurance business. They dedicate themselves to working out such problems, leaving clients to worry about other matters except now and then--for example, when they are shopping for insurance or for politicians who pretend to be able to solve all of our problems for us.

Now once you coerce everyone into a system, everyone is faced with the free rider issue, like it or not. No one is free to just stay out and, as a worst case scenario, fail to be insured when health problems arise. Such people could very well have laid cash aside for such circumstances, so they would quite justifiably not bother with insurance. They could be managing their money well enough to have plenty for health emergency situations. But if the likes of Krugman have their way with us all, they would not be allowed by the national health czars to take risks.

Krugman says that "The whole point of a universal health insurance system is that everyone pays in, even if they're currently healthy, and in return everyone has insurance coverage if and when they need it." Never mind that different folks may have different ideas as to how to go about managing their sickness and health. Never mind that many may choose to handle things in ways not approved of by Professor Krugman. Their choices don't matter, free country or not. What matters is that the utopian ideals, never successfully realized as a workable health care system anywhere in the world, at anytime in human history, be coercively implemented. Once again the imagined perfect becomes the enemy of the realistic good.

Let us not be like Professor Krugman and his cohorts. Let's refuse to believe the mirage of a one-size-fits-all, universal health care system for every American. In a free society the right approach to health care isn't some Platonic ideal but preserving the freedom for each person or family to identify and then shop for what they judge to be sound for them. And if some people refuse to, in a free society they need to live with the consequences. That's a choice free individuals may want to make, be it the right one for them or not.

In a free system there can be untold number of solutions to people's problems, including those they have with their health. Some might even prefer spending what they would under Krugram & Co. be compelled to spend on health insurance on, say, their children's or grand children's education or membership in an sport association or some other objective that they value above securing themselves against health emergencies. We all make such choices all the time, as we drive, travel by air, engage in sports, undertake business ventures and so forth. To insist that no such thing must be permitted when it comes to our management of our health care betrays the mentality of the dictator, the one who knows it all for everyone.

But then Professor Krugman and his pals in the American welfare statist, quasi-socialist movement have been blind to the issue of the evil of compelling people to act as they do not choose to act, so why would they do something else when it comes to health care? You might be able to teach new tricks to olod dogs but to stubborn old dogs very unlikely.

Thursday, November 29, 2007

Betrayed via Entitlements

Tibor R. Machan

As people think about public affairs they deploy a variety of criteria by which to evaluate them. Some want to know if a law or policy increases happiness in society; some care about whether it pleases God; some are concerned about whether the policy meets standards of justice.

In the United States of America the official criteria for whether some proposed law or policy passes muster is whether it is constitutional. But that is not the end of it because constitutions can be flawed, as the American one was and arguably continues to be under the influence of highly opinionated Supreme Courts. In the back of the Constitution stands the philosophy sketched in the Declaration of Independence. This is America’s original revolutionary statement of what constitutes of just country. And as anyone can check, there is no mention of increasing happiness or pleasing God. What matters most to the drafters of the Declaration, in line with what they have learned from their study of history and some of the great political thinkers, is whether a country’s laws and public policies fully accord with the principles of individual human rights.

Foremost among these principles is the one about how every human being has unalienable and natural rights to, among others, life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. This is what make a country just, not how wealthy it is, how equally its resources are shared, how culturally refined it is, how religious are its citizens, how athletic they are or any similar incidental matter. The criteria for political justice, for what makes a country a good one, is whether these basic rights are respected and protected.

Because the American Founders’ ideas and ideals were extremely controversial and unusual, compared to the history of such ideas around the globe, it has been very difficult to get full compliance to the principles of the Declaration. The old governmental habit, of which the Declaration aims to disabuse us all, has strong staying power. People do not easily get used to individual responsibility and, therefore, to respecting individual rights.

Not long after the country got on its way, numerous compromises began to be made with its principles. It was the philosophy of populism or progressivism, especially, that came to corrupt America most. (A wonderful book about this is Richard Epstein’s How the Progressives Rewrote the Constitution [2006].)

This movement, which is still in full force, is best understood as an effort to resurrect the monarchical form of government whereby it is the government that runs everything, owns everything, determines everyone’s primary goals in life, etc., with support for some politically active majority. It is reactionary through and through by virtue of its aim to eradicate individual rights and substitute for those revolutionary principles the nearly absolute rule of the state.

Of course the excuse for taking this path is always some vulnerable group--children, poor, minorities, indigents, disabled, casualties of natural disasters, and so forth. The tactic is to invent a set of entitlements, often also called “rights” (mainly to make them all palatable within the American context of individual rights but completely reversing it at the same time). Whereas the American Founders’ ideas was that each individual has the right to live, act and pursue goals free of other people’s interference--all we need to do is abstain from intruding upon one another and cooperate voluntarily in all our mutual endeavors--the progressives (actually, if truth be told, better called “regressives” claimed that people have a right to be served by others and these others may be subjected to involuntary servitude if the government so decides. The idea that government should protect our freedom was, thus, transformed to mean that government must compel everyone to serve everyone else.

The ultimate result, even in a democracy, is that some people get elevated to rule the rest by decided who needs to provide what service, when, how much of it, and so forth. And that is where we now stand, with but a few voices in the country raising objections to it all. The American revolution has been voided and the king now rules again.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Varieties of “Imperialism”

Tibor R. Machan

Imperialism is the policy one country has toward others when it is intent on ruling them. But these days the idea is also used to point to one country’s efforts to spread ideas and institutions outside of its borders, regardless of what those ideas and institutions are. So by some people’s account—evident often in the pages of The New York Review of Books, The Nation, and so forth, for example—whether one country aims to impose a system of slavery or servitude on others versus a system of liberty and the rule of law, the mere intent to spread any idea or institution beyond one’s borders qualifies as imperialist.

Yet consider this: Suppose your neighbor is brutalizing his or her spouse or children and you go into the home and rescue the victims. Are you imposing your will on your neighbor? Are you engaging in the building of some sort of empire of your own? Or are you perhaps merely liberating the victims, saving them from the violence to which they are being subjected? Suppose once you have made sure that the victims are no longer being brutalized, you quickly leave and have nothing more to do with how your neighbors live? Is this an interventionist, aggressive approach toward your neighbor?

In contrast, suppose you have a neighbor who happens to have some very fine china in the house and you decide to intrude and take the china for yourself. Moreover you make it clear that should your neighbor obtain other valued items that please you, you will not hesitate to come over and take them as well. And you will, furthermore, henceforth force your neighbor to do chores for you—clean your garage, mow your lawn, etc.

In both instances you are meddling in your neighbor’s affairs. Your approach to your neighbor can be deemed interventionist. But the quality of intervention differs drastically in the two cases.

The same can be said of the foreign policies of different countries that embark upon interventionism. Indeed, calling both “imperialistic” is highly misleading since in the one case the objective is to force the other country to yield to the other’s oppression, to deprive the other of what the imperial power has no right to whatsoever, while in the other case the objective is to export elements of public policy that are liberating for the population.

Of course, in many historical instances there is a mixture of these two forms of intervention. When the United States of America interferes abroad, not only does it routinely attempt to export some of its highly desirable, just principles and institutions; it also tries to secure some advantages that can be obtained. We hear this a lot when people talk about oil and other resources. Never mind that even in the case of trying to obtain such benefits as oil, a study of the relevant history often reveals that the oil abroad was actually discovered and its refinement cultivated by American or other foreign companies, so claiming flatly, as Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez and other governments which have nationalized oil companies have done, that the resource belongs to the people there is open to serious doubt.

So the description of a country’s foreign policy as imperialistic or interventionist does not suffice to end the discussion of whether that policy should be approved. But there is another element to even the most benign form of intervention (or even imperialism) that needs to be kept in mind as one considers whether such policies have any merit. This is that government’s of free countries are not supposed to run around the globe rectifying all the wrongs outside their borders. Even when a country’s government intervenes so as to liberate the people in a corrupt or oppressive regime, even if this is done without embarking on seeking various advantages for the country but merely to do some good over there, there is still the objection to interventionism that such a policy in effect involves a government’s leaving its post, as it were. As the American Founders noted, “to secure these rights [namely, the rights of the country’s citizens], governments are instituted among men….” This is an obligation of the government of a free society and embarking on various foreign adventures, however well motivated, is in effect the violation of the oath of office of government.

This is not the same issue as whether the government is imperialist in its foreign policy. But it is a woefully neglected point in most discussions about foreign affairs. It would be vital to keep the point in mind even as one has to admit that there are very different types of intervention--“imperialism”—that a country’s government can engage in and that not all of them are of the same quality.

Friday, November 23, 2007

Public versus Special Interest

Tibor R. Machan

I find it difficult to listen to political speeches because so many of my own ideas are either completely neglected or are attacked outright. But it is even worse when the ideas aired make no sense at all.

One such nonsensical notion is the repeated juxtaposition of the public and special interests. Politicians of all stripes routinely promise that they will not be captive to special interests and will only serve the interest of the public, of the people. They denounce farmers, labor, business, retired folks, educators, and other groups, claiming that such special interests stand in the way of the public interest, that the lobbyists serving these special groups are trying to impose their agenda against the that of the people.

This kind of rhetoric suggests that the country is composed of two distinct group of constituents, the people, who are all decent and honest and wouldn’t think of ripping anyone off, and all those who belong to special interest groups and corrupt the system. But that suggestion is completely misguided.

Actually, all the people in the country are now members of special interest groups. The mythical people to whom politicians refer, are, in fact, exactly who make up the innumerable special interest groups. These groups of citizens are the ones who hire the lobbyists and send them to various centers of political power so as to try to influence public policy and law to produce benefits for them, mostly at the expense of members of all the other special interest groups. Outside these groups there simply does not exist some large ensemble of benign folks, “the people,” who are the innocent victims of special interest politics.

Maybe I am exaggerating a bit—there could perhaps be a few thousand citizens in the United States of America who have not joined professions or other groups that try to influence politicians to serve them with various perks that must be paid for by other people. But they are entirely negligible. The bulk of Americans belong to groups that have leaders who promise to work hard to make them the special beneficiaries of public policy. Even retired professionals can join the AARP, once called the Americans Association of Retired Persons, an organization that not only uses its sizable numbers to secure various benefits on the private market but to influence public policy by means of supporting various politicians and legislation. (Once I was naïve enough to think that one could join such a group without signing up for some kind of political agenda but, alas, I was quickly apprised of the groups massive political efforts and decided against becoming a member.)

There is virtually no way that one can remain above special interest politics in America. That is because it is nearly impossible to disassociate oneself from all groups that lobby for special benefits. The teachers’ retirement program TIAA-Cref, which is as far as I know a massive monopoly—given that in all the colleges and universities where I have taught or even sought employment they were the only retirement program being offered to teachers—even announces in its TV advertisements that they are actively seeking benefits from politicians for their clients. One’s insurance company, one’s automobile club, even one’s frequent flyer group is out there lobbying for various goodies from the government. Indeed, virtually all the companies with which a person does business engage in lobbying efforts, as do unions and professional organizations. So when politicians claim they are not captive to special interests, they are engaging in either self-delusion or blatant deception.

There is but one way that a politician can escape being involved in special interest politics. This is to stick strictly to the principle of the Declaration of Independence which announced that it is to “secure [our] rights” that “governments are instituted among us.” And those are rights to our lives and liberties, not to various benefits, not to so called entitlements. A politician who is devoted to securing everyone’s basic rights is the only kind who is not serving various special interests—and mostly like one who is out of office.

The American Founders understood that the only public interest or public good is the protection of everyone’s individual rights. Once various special groups are singled out for care and attention, their idea becomes corrupted and the system becomes but a vast arena of everyone trying to rip off everyone else by means of political clout. That is also the road to economic ruin, to massive debt, to imposing obligations on the yet unborn, to printing money with nothing to back it up, and so forth.

If you really want politics without special interests, seek out a candidate who is committed to the original vision of the American Founders.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Conservatism’s Legacy

Tibor R. Machan

As Edmund Burke, the most astute conservative of the modern era, put it, “We are afraid to put men to live and trade each on his own private stock of reason, because we suspect that this stock in each man is small, and that the individuals would do better to avail themselves of the general bank of nations and of ages.” In other words, your and my mind just will not suffice to guide us through life, we need “the general bank of nations and of ages,” meaning tradition, custom, and law.

Now there is something here worth paying attention to but the idea also embodies a colossal mistake. Everyone must, in the end, choose between the innumerable traditions, customs, and even laws that he or she faces; that choice cannot be dodged by relying on yet another tradition to guide it. So, in the end, one is going to have to “trade each on his own private stock” with, of course, some help from what one has learned form the rest of humanity.

When Socrates proposed, according to Plato, that reason is a better guide than tradition, he realized that the traditionalist or conservative faced this problem—there are just too many competing traditions and no single super-tradition to use as one’s guide. Reason, then, had to come in. Each of us must use his or her mind to figure things out or we simply rely on the thinking of someone else. And that someone else needs to be monitored so we avoid being misguided.

The alternative to an impossible conservatism isn’t solipsism, making decisions in isolation from others. It does however leave us with the responsibility of needing to double check our ideas, or as Ayn Rand used to say, to “check our premises.” We just haven’t the luxury of avoiding the thinking required to figure things out—we can either take up the task or abdicate.

A clear current illustration of the paradox of conservatism is that in America a conservative tends to be individualist because, after all, the American founders were individualists—those unalienable rights to one’s life, liberty and pursuit of happiness, among others, pretty much affirm individualism in personal, social, and political philosophy. And conservatives in America, the likes of William F. Buckley, Jr., George Will, the late Barry Goldwater and so forth, want to maintain a basic loyalty to this individualism.

The radicals in America, in turn, tend to be those who promote socialism, communitarianism, or some other version of collectivism. They believe that America’s individualist tradition needs to be discarded and replaced with the “progressive” views they embrace. (Never mind for now that this “progressivism” is itself basically quite reactionary, re-elevating government to the all mighty position it had under monarchism.)

In contrast, the conservatives in Russia today are mostly communists who want to preserve the ideas and ideals of the Soviet system that had been the official public philosophy for over seventy years. The radicals there are those who want to embrace capitalism and individualism. They are the ones who promote a revolution in the legal system and public policy.

So it should be evident to any thinking person that conservatism cannot be a reliable guide to how a country should be organized, to its laws, its public policies, its diplomacy, and so forth. At the end of the day only some version of the radical individualism that the American founders advocated can serve as a dependable guide to how the country ought to be governed. Individual citizens must assume the responsibility of gaining a clear understanding of human community life, based on a deeper understanding of human nature and relevant elements of the nature of reality itself. As much as that job can never be finally finished—reality, after all, is dynamic and continues to develop and change—it is still the only source of solid understanding by which problems can be solved in both one’s personal and public life.

Conservatism can only be a cautionary stance, reminding us not to forget what has been tried and learned in the past. But it is individualism, the philosophy that requires us to think for ourselves, that promises the best solutions to our problems.

Saturday, November 17, 2007

Some Pros and Cons of Ron Paul

Tibor R. Machan

Texas Republican House member Ron Paul is undoubtedly the most committed libertarian among all the presidential hopefuls. Dr. No, as he is sometimes called, opposes virtually all government spending and other forms of oppression. He believes that many of the laws passed by Congress aren't authorized by the U. S. Constitution—a document he believes is sound because of its support of the free society and a limited federal government—and could only be passed by state political bodies, not by the feds. He is pro-life but instead of wanting to outlaw abortion—a dubious libertarian idea in my book—he wants the issue of whether there is a right to have an abortion to be dealt with at the state level. His views on banking, the Federal Reserve Bank, hard money, the IRS, and, especially, military adventurism all follow sound strict libertarian principles.

On one or two points, though, even a libertarian could take issue with Dr. Paul. Is it true, as he claims, that 9/11 happened "because we are there"? And even if the American military presence in many countries where it has no warranted business has contributed to anger at the U.S.A., does acting on that anger by murdering 3000 people not guilty of aggression toward anyone constitute a justified response? That's clearly not the case. Even if I do you wrong, your response may not be to attack my children and neighbors! Moreover, even if the history of American military conduct gives evidence of arguably similar injustices—for example, the bombing of Dresden and, later, of Japan—that is no excuse for perpetrating similar injustices. Such military endeavors are intolerable unless carried out as a matter of defense. No wonder many find Ron Paul’s “blowback” theory highly problematic.

His theory may sound like just one bit of oddity in Dr. Paul's outlook but it is a very disturbing one since it has to do with the central libertarian issue of when is aggressive violence against others justified. 9/11 was undoubtedly aggression—certainly the attacks on the World Trade Center cannot be dismissed as anything else. (One might have a case arguing that attacking the Pentagon qualifies as a military action within the framework of the military confrontation between America and various Middle Eastern countries.) To a libertarian, for whom the right of an individual to his or her life is a core principle of community life, thinking that killing 3000 people is ok—because Americans went to Saudi Arabia and other places "there"—is quite disturbing.

Still, within the context of American presidential politics it is enough to just be against the war in Iraq and to be for substantially dismantling the federal government to come out a big winner to those who see liberty as central to human community life. The way Dr. Paul explains his position may not be perfect but the position in this instance is unassailable.

The United States military has no business in Iraq. Even the low level suspicion, encouraged by Saddam Hussein himself, that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction does not justify going over there to put American lives at risk. The proper job of the US military is to secure the rights of American citizens, not to right the wrongs of the world. This is the substance of the view expressed in the Declaration of Independence and in George Washington’s prescient farewell letter.

What about Dr. Paul's states rights stance? Here those who love liberty may again have some reason to be concerned. However constitutionally sound it is to let the states vote in various oppressive laws, voting them in is wrong and should be discouraged however they can be, provided it is peaceful. The states-rights position can render governmental mandated racial segregation permissible as well as a state's banning of innumerable ways of exercising one's rights to life, liberty, and property. Would a war on drugs be fine if conducted in Connecticut or Texas but not if it is a federal policy? Why is the states' oppression so different from that of the federal government? Both have cops who ought to focus only on protecting the rights of individuals and when their majorities insist on a different course that is every bit as much in violation of sound principles of human community life as when the federal government does so, this is wrong.

Still, since on most other fronts Dr. Paul is as close to being right as it is possible to be within the framework of American politics, he really is the only one a devotee of liberty could possibly vote for, if only to send the message: Liberty matters!
Illiberal Approaches to Possible Global Warming

Tibor R. Machan

In the current rush to judgment about claims that anthropogenic global
warming is imminent—another one of these just came out from the United
Nations—some of the proposals are truly scary. To make the point that
is central, let’s recall that one of the core values of a liberal
society—and on
this score classical and modern liberals tend to agree—is due process. It
is, after
all, the central purpose of such liberal organizations as the ACLU to make
sure that the legal system adheres strictly and without fail to principles
of due process. So, no one may be arrested without making sure that the
against him or her are clear, unambiguous, and that he or she is provided
with proper legal representation. No one may be subjected to prior
restraint. No one may be prejudged or convicted without proof of criminal
conduct. Even once someone has been convicted of a crime, all kinds of
legal protections are erected against abuse or other rights violations.

The recent concern liberals have shown about the way inmates at Guantanamo
Bay are treated falls in line with this basic concern liberals have had
with due process. Liberals, more so than conservatives, have insisted that
nothing justifies violation of the rights of accused persons, not even
when authorities believe there may be imminent danger that the accused
will again commit a crime, including terrorism.

Even in the area of foreign policy, modern liberals have recently stressed
that no military actions may be taken against a country preemptively. Only
if it
is certain beyond a reasonable doubt that such military action is
ultimately defensive rather than offensive could it be justified, even if
there is strong suspicion that something aggressive may be intended.

One liberal complaint about the Iraqi war has been that the Bush
administration failed to heed principles of just war theory, something for
which George W. Bush and Co. have been roundly condemned. Even the
majority of the American public, apart from the president’s liberal
critics, seem to embrace this criticism and will likely replace the
Republicans in the White House, after they have retaken the House and the
Senate in 2006.

So it is disturbing that such liberal icons as former Vice President Al
are insisting that the precautionary principle ought to prevail in the
of environmental policy. That principle amounts to nothing less than
away with concerns about individual rights—imposing Draconian restrictions
on American citizens (and preferably others, too) when it comes to
that may have an impact on global warming. The operative term here is, of
course, “may”. All projections in the global warming discussion are based
on probabilities,
suspicions, and estimates.

Even those who are most emphatic about the negative influence of human
behavior on the environment, the eco system, climate change and the
like provide but probabilities. Will sea levels rise? How much and by
The answers are all given as estimates, more or less well founded in

But just as with the sciences that study human criminal tendencies, having
such estimates and probabilities on which to base public policy does not
suffice as grounds for violating the rights of citizens in a free society.
Yes, some people may have a chromosomal predisposition to behave badly
but within the tradition of liberal jurisprudence this does not justify
taking action against them. A proof of clear and present—imminent—danger
is necessary. It must be shown that there is probable cause to act
against a suspect, it is not enough to show that he or she “may” be

Quite apart from the substance of the climate change/global warming
discussion, it is disturbing that when it comes to their own scary stories
modern liberals like Al Gore and all those who are on his side in the
debate do not even talk about the preemptive nature of the public policies
they propose. Their principles appear to have been left behind. Yet when
their political opponents are willing to compromise principles of just
war, the Geneva Convention, civil liberties, and the like in the war on
terror, somehow these opponents are acting in unforgivably unprincipled

Is it any wonder that a lot of Americans are skeptical about the
motivations of the likes of Mr. Gore and suspect them of wishing to grab
power instead of trying properly to address and solve an real problem?

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Good Argument Ain’t Enough

Tibor R. Machan

As rational animals, human beings do best when they think matters through and act accordingly. This is no less true in public policy matters. From the time of Socrates, political philosophers have urged us to be rational in our political affairs. Indeed, arguably the most famous Platonic dialogue, The Republic, is but a call to reason, what with the philosopher placed in the position of king, a symbolic role in a mythical society to remind us all that what matters most in both our personal and public lives is to think!

Some, however, have come to believe that if only someone has a good argument for some policy, law or institution, that’s all that is needed. So there is much consternation about why those with the best arguments do not always triumph in politics. In a recent comment on The Orange County Register’s efforts a while back to lay out the best public policy positions in its Sunday “Commentary” section the criticism consisted of claiming that the brief summaries presented were naïve, too simple and hopelessly idealistic. The Register’s libertarian political philosophy was then dismissed as unworkable.

Without realizing it, the critic could have commented on the American Founders’ political stance as laid out in the Declaration of Independence. It, too, could be dismissed in such terms. And such criticism would have a point if the editors had promised that with a rational approach to public policies, one that stressed the need for human liberty throughout human community life—liberty being, of course, a precondition for rationality—there would be a clear and smooth way toward sensible politics in the United States of America and wherever such an approach is tried. But that simply isn’t so.

Good arguments, sound ones, do establish what is best for a political system. But they are insufficient for purposes to get the policies adopted. An argument is only one side of the solution. Those considering it must also have a commitment to rationality. And such commitment is not always available.

Given, for example, that most Americans these days have irrational expectations of public policies and thus send irrational politicians to given the country at all levels of government, it is clearly not enough to approach them sensibly, rationally. Just the other day the prestigious PBS program, “The News Hour with Jim Lehrer” gathered together a little group of voters from Las Vegas. All of them chimed in with a wish list. Demands were voiced and it came through with the outmost clarity that every one of the voters selected for the interview—about eight of them—was captive to the entitlement mentality and the governmental habit.

Now when citizens of a country have such an attitude toward politics—seeing their government as Santa Claus—then the policies that they will welcome from their candidates and representatives will be anything but rational. The federal government is not only ill equipped to fulfill the Christmas wishes of the citizenry but it lacks the resources to do so.

By now the debt of the country is immense and the way nearly everything is funded is by coercively imposed credit, to be paid by the yet unborn citizens of the country whose “participation” even violates the principle of “No taxation without representation,” the is the only idea that might inject some slight measure of sanity in the economics of America’s public affairs. It has, of course, been abandoned completely by the various levels of government in the U.S. A. over the last century.

Hundreds of other examples of citizenship insanity could be cited to show that good arguments simply are ignored by millions who insist on trying to get blood out of a turnip, who insist not only on extorting funds from their fellow citizens but also on trying to extort funds that simply cannot be found. Like all those folks clocking to Las Vegas in the conviction that they will come away lucky, the bulk of the public now is hoping for the impossible.

You can advance great arguments showing what is rational, sensible in public affairs but when the public cares nothing about being rational, it will be a futile exercise, plain and simple.

Tuesday, November 06, 2007

The Magnification Effect

Tibor R. Machan

Magnification is not enlargement but only the appearance of something as bigger than it really is. It may well have a dismaying psychological version, namely, when people magnify the significance or value of something or someone because, well, they benefited from the event or person.

In my teaching career I have found that when some of my students have felt especially benefited by me, they have showered me with praise. Sometimes my lectures draw such responses, even my columns or other writings.

It is crucial not to get mislead by this magnification process, not to come to believe what one enjoys hearing but is probably overblown. Frankly, I am doing my job, following my vocation, more or less competently, more or less proficiently, and now and then even excellently. But I am no hero for all this, only someone who has chosen a line of work he loves and which has a certain element of service to it so others feel benefited from what I do.

I thought of this when after our fires here in Southern California I noticed that many involved in fighting the fires came in for a great deal of praise for doing, well, what was their pretty well paid job. They took up their work freely—were not conscripted—and when the occasion arose to do it, they did it competently. They may even be said to be dedicated, no less so that a good doctor, dentist, banker, merchant, or teacher can be. But when those who are being served by such folks see this service to be of considerable benefit to them, they often become flushed with joy and transfer to the professional a very high regard, as if what they received were way beyond the call of duty. No doubt, at times it is but more usually it is merely taken to have been.

In fact, the police officers, fire fighters, and others involved in fighting the fires and other calamities we often encounter in life are indeed doing their job, just as most of them proclaim when all that praise is heaped upon them. I know from my own case that when students tell me how great a lecture was, or how wonderful they found one of my courses, I usually feel no more than a recognition of my professional aptitude and dedication. I never think I did something extraordinary, or at least do so very rarely.

When I was 14 a professional smuggler fetched me from Budapest and guided me all the way to Austria, through some truly harrowing obstacles and hazards. We managed to allude border guards, cut ourselves through barbwires, impersonate Austrian farmers, etc., all with his extremely competent leadership. The five people whom he served as what TIME magazine later—in an article back in the early 80s—insultingly called a “flesh peddler” were of course terribly grateful and impressed with what he did. But he kept his cool, remained matter of fact. It was a profession he took up due to the terrible circumstances brought on by the erection of the Iron Curtain and he got well paid, too. We felt grateful, yes, but he didn't ask for awe.

Excellent or even just competent professional performance in the service industries is mostly well received. Nurses, doctors, teachers, even cabbies are praised to high heaven at times just for doing what they decided to take up as their profession. Unfortunately, sometimes the magnification effect takes hold of people and they begin to suffer from cognitive dissonance—they begin to believe that what is so important to them makes those who delivered to them an essentially routine professional service heroes or saints. But it isn’t usually so.

Those who fought the fires in Southern California, just as those who battled Katrina or the floods in the Midwest are indeed professionals with a job they have willingly assumed. Despite all the media hype, they are best thought of as having done their job proficiently, as conscientious working stiffs, rather than as larger than life human beings. It is unwise, even demeaning to them, to magnify them out of proportion to their own chosen roles.

Monday, November 05, 2007

Life & Property

Tibor R. Machan

When both life & property are threatened, there is much talk about how property is only stuff, easy to replace, so one should be concerned only or primarily with life. There are even those who disparage the right to private property, claiming it is not really a human right at all. Some prominent academics have been calling ownership itself a myth, claiming that no one really owns anything and all wealth belongs to government that’s supposed to manage it for the collective or public good. (See Murphy & Nagel, The Myth of Ownership [2002].)

One might have thought this kind of thinking has gone out of fashion after the demise of the Soviet socialist system in which it was put to the test and failed miserably. No such luck. Latin America today is rife with proponents of socialism, with dictators seeking and being granted absolute power to take over the wealth of various countries from private individuals and companies. Insofar as the wealth consists of such resources as oil, ones that can be harvested with little special skill once they have been discovered and captured, and are abundant for the time being, the resulting socialist and autocratic systems can exist without immediate collapse—even the USSR took some 70 years to go under and it didn’t yet have cheap oil available with which to make up for its otherwise lethargic economic system.

In any case, the close ties between life and property can be well appreciated when one either nearly or actually loses it all, say in a fire, earthquake, or flood. The first thing that comes to light, if one just thinks about it a bit, is how wrong it is to think of property as mere stuff. Instead, property involve a great variety of human creations, natural resources, inventions, and works of art. When property is lost, it is clear that specific and often unique values have vanished from one’s life and, indeed, that one’s life itself has been significantly damaged.

Those who nearly lost it all will experience this directly when they resume their lives among their property and take stock of just how much of what was threatened had meant to them. And I don’t just have in mind all those irreplaceable pictures from old-fashioned photo albums, one’s favorite books and records, the paintings and posters on one’s walls, those precious knickknacks all around the house which have grown, almost imperceptibly, into the props of one’s existence. Even small items, taken nearly for granted, turn out to reveal their importance.

This is especially so when one is a reasonably creative individual whose basement is teeming with unpublished manuscripts, accumulated artifacts one hasn’t yet finished crafting just the way one had meant to, as well as simple utilities and products one has finally managed to be able to afford with the earnings from the labors of one’s life (and some luck, as well). All these are more or less precious treasures most of us own and only those with a dogged misanthropic ideology would turn a blind eye to that fact.

Yes, losing one’s property is usually not so calamitous as losing a limb, organ or, especially, one’s life, but even that isn’t always right. After all, some of us old folks might consider the loss of life a better alternative to losing everything that could be so meaningful to our offspring, where those the only two alternatives we faced.

Now those, of course, who care nothing for life itself will care little for property. Certainly they will not cherish the kind of property that involves human creativity and production. Take, for example, Alan Weisman, the author of the book, World Without Us (St. Martin’s Press, 2007), for whom the totally untouched—perhaps even unseen—wilds matter more than anything human.

Such an outlook is too far removed from reality to be very influential except when it is expressed in the all too human language of emotive prose and poetry. Effectively packaged, nearly any idea, no matter how vile, can attract the loyalty of some. But, as Socrates taught us, for the truth of the matter it isn’t wise to turn to artists—their concern, at their best, is mainly with beauty.

So, property is very much a human institution and a precious one at that. It can be corrupted, of course, as anything human can be, but when rightly understood and incorporated into one’s life, it is a vital force indeed.

Wednesday, October 31, 2007

The Myth of a Risk-free Life

Tibor R. Machan

Skiers sometimes die, as do mountain climbers and motorcyclists and
bicyclists, because what they do routinely is dangerous, risky. Indeed,
there is very little in human life that does not entail some measure of
risk, even fatal risk.

When I moved into Silverado Canyon in Orange Country, CA, I did so with
full knowledge that the place is exposed to certain serious
hazards—earthquakes would hit harder because the houses are on steep
slopes, fires would spread faster because vegetation is abundant, even
mudslides are likely because after a fire the ground is ready to move
around quite freely. But let’s face it I liked the area a lot. The Sierra
Madre atmosphere, the funkiness of the neighborhood, the rustic abode in
which I would be living meant enough to me to take on the risk of living
there. The region was also near enough to more populated and developed
areas so that one wouldn’t be out in the boonies like a hermit.

So, I decided that the risk of my home burning down wasn’t great enough
to override the benefits I would gain from living there. And to this day,
even after the fires that may still consume my home, I would insist on
this. But California Senator Diane Feinstein and her cohorts disagree with
me, think the risks of living in places such as Silverado Canyon are too
great and no one ought to be permitted to assume them. You might ask,
“The risks to whom?” Well, the Blue Ribbon Fire Commission, created
following the 2003 wildfires by Gray Davis and which included Senator
Feinstein, held that "habitat preservation and environmental protection
have often conflicted with sound fire safe planning" and "[b]rush
management is not allowed in coastal sage scrub during the California
gnatcatcher nesting season, from March 1st through August 15th. This small
bird only lives in coastal sage scrub and is listed as a threatened
species by the federal government. Any harm to this bird could result in
fines and penalties."

So the risks are not only those faced by people but those that some bird
or other must endure. And this cannot be allowed. Others in government
insist that they are trying to shield mostly people from the risk of
fires. All in all, what all these people appear to prefer for
everyone—although only their own behavior would show if this includes them
as well—is a risk free life.

Does that mean that Senator Feinstein & Co. would rather not have us
drive to work and home? Does this mean that visiting our parents or
grandparents should be prohibited if it involves driving or riding in a
car? Do they also wish to ban hand-gliding, skiing, mountain climbing and
all those jobs, sports, and games that teem with risks?

I doubt it. What I seriously suspect is that all this supposed worry
about risks to everyone, including birds, is nothing more than posturing
and catering to the fears many people have at certain times in their
lives, vis-à-vis life’s hazards. By pretending that the risks of ordinary
life in their jurisdictions can be erased with the stroke of a pen,
provided enough politicians want that, these people are engaging in gross
deception. Of course, they couldn’t do it without the cooperation of
their constituents who, sadly, have come to expect the impossible dream
that’s being promised to them. Indeed, a great many citizens appear to
believe they are entitled to such a life, at the expense of other
citizens. This political round robin of economic cannibalism is now
routine; so it is no great surprise that millions have bought into it even
when the prospects of satisfaction are completely mythical.

In life there are risks. Sometimes the better you want to live, the more
interesting you want life to be, the greater the risks. The task of the
law of a free society should only be to make sure that those taking the
risks bear the cost of any loss they encounter in the process. Let no one
be able to dumb the loss he or she incurs on others who decide to live
less risky lives. But trying to ban risk taking is futile.