Saturday, January 20, 2007

Some Scientific Paradoxes

Tibor R. Machan

I recall when I was being educated at various colleges and universities the orthodoxy in vogue was that while scientists talk clearly and meaningfully because they were dealing only with facts, others were mostly uttering nonsense because they wanted to make value judgments. The value free approach was being hailed as superior, even by non-scientists, something that turned out to be rather paradoxical. After all, if value judgments are all meaningless, unsupportable by logic or research, how can it be known that the scientific approach is superior to others? Isn’t “superior” a term indicating value?

But for quite some time this paradox was dismissed and the idea that scientists get it right because they avoid value judgments was widely embraced. Up until environmentalism became a doctrine that scientists began to embrace!

Environmentalism is, of course, full of value judgments. So what are we to make of these value judgments—aren’t they just as meaningless as those made in, say, ethics, politics, or aesthetics? That is what would follow from the old idea that nothing can be true (or even false) aside of the value-free claims scientists offer us. How can we exempt the claims made about how we ought to—or should or must—conduct ourselves regarding environmental issues? Certainly these claims are value judgments, so how come they are passed off as true by the scientists who make them, while other value judgments are regarded as mere biases, prejudices, or subjective utterances?

Consider a recent book, Endangered: Wildlife on the Brink of Extinction (Firefly Books Ltd., 2006)~~by George C. McGavin, an Oxford University research lecturer, discussing species extinction. The author basically chronicles five great mass extinctions, all do to nonhuman causes, but then warns of a sixth caused by the fact that people have learned to change their environments to suit their needs and wants. He advances as fact some of the highly disputed contentions in science about how the Industrial Revolution, with its pollution, has helped produce climate change and its effects on animal species. Once he has gone through this story, McGavin gives the reader a bunch of suggestions as to what kind of actions people can take to stem all the destruction they have wrought.

First, why is the good researcher, consistent with the value-free approach, not satisfied with the possibility that human beings are part of nature and just like some elements of the rest of nature, they can destroy animal species galore. Why is their destruction not deemed to be simply a part of nature’s value-free unfolding? Especially with what so many scientists teach us, namely, that the course of evolution is inevitable, it is what had to happen, why is human evolution different?

But of course that would require scientists to accept some notions they tend mostly to reject, including the idea of freedom of choice. So not only do the likes of Mr. McGavin accept the idea now that value judgments, namely theirs, are well grounded and no at all subjective or arbitrary (as it was contended in the early 20th century about value judgments and why many scientists insisted on embracing a value-free point of view), they even embrace a stance that assumes something with which many scientists are very uncomfortable, namely, free will. Without free will it makes no sense to make any suggestions as to how people ought to conduct themselves, including as far as the environment is concerned. It is, once again, going to be Que sera, sera—what will be will be and there isn’t anything anyone can do about it.

But if this is wrong, as all the advice and admonitions from environmentalists clearly suggest, then we can actually debate the issue of just what is the right course for people to take—should they continue to insist on having their way with the wilds, transform it to suit their needs and wants, or should they defer to some other values, say, preserving the wilds even if they must make serious sacrifices in the process? Or perhaps some other idea could be right?

And then it could also well be that human beings are different from other animals—maybe even superior to them--exactly in being free to choose how they conduct themselves. So all this talk about people being governed—driven—by their genes or DNA or, especially, the forces or laws of evolution would have to be given up since all those notions imply that how we behave is just how we must behave, including when we destroy various species of other animals.

Machan is the author of Putting Humans First, Why We Are Nature’s Favorite (Rowman & Littlefield, 2004).
The Individual and the General in Our Lives

Tibor R. Machan

Often people who speak out on various issues will do so as if they knew what is true about all of us. This is the source of all the “we” talk in public discourse. “We have such and such rights,” “We need this or that vitamin or exercise or educational program.” Medical science certainly weighs in with such pronouncements all the time, claiming that coffee is or is not healthful, that cholesterol must be lowered or a certain ratio of age to height to weight is right for everyone.

At the same time there is much criticism about a one-size-fits-all approach to, say, education, exercise, weight loss, nutrition, or style of clothing. It is clear enough that in these and numerous other matters one person’s truth is not that of another, certainly not that of many, many others. It's a bit like shoes—we have our own size that fits while the rest don't. So the career path of one’s brother, father, mother, or friend may well not be the right one for oneself. This is important to realize, otherwise many people will pursue personal policies that do not fit them at all. A singing career may be right for some folks but not at all for others—as, for example, the show American Idol teaches viewers.

This lesson about individualism is perhaps most important to learn in relation to romance. Some of us appeal to some others, but not to all those who appeal to us. There is nothing amiss here at all, only the lack of a good match. Not understanding this can often lead people to get very angry at each other, thinking that they are owed being liked, even loved, when the mutual attraction is plainly missing. But instead of accepting this fact, many take it as a put down or criticism from those they would like to appeal to. It isn’t. It’s merely the announcement or declaration of lack of interest or appeal. And while those who wish to be appealing to someone will find it disappointing that they are not, they need to learn that such this is nothing against them. Again, one could think of it on analogy with liking a piece of clothing which simply doesn’t fit.

In human affairs, like in most matters, some things are true about us all, some about quite a few but not all, some about a few but not most, and sometimes a truth is only about one individual. We, human beings, are, yes, human, and that means some things will be true of all of us—as the Declaration of Independence states, we all are created with certain unalienable rights, for instance. But we are not all equally talented to sing, dance, or run a major corporation. Some of us are suited for parenthood, others may not be, given our other valid purposes and commitments, or our economic preparedness.

This matter is quite important because when folks fail to heed it, there is a strong tendency to promote public policies that will fit some but not others. Some people can live with trans-fatty foods, peanut butter, mountain climbing, and so forth, while others will be hurt by them. Some people can even safely smoke a few cigarettes a day or week without hurting themselves in the slightest, while others will be hurt due to their physiology and biology.

One size really does not fit all but the temptation to think so has spawned public policies that amount to nothing less than tyranny. Never mind for now that imposing even the right way to live is morally and politically wrong, intolerable. But when the wrong ways are being forced on people, that's even more vicious.

Throughout the globe there are many regimes that live by the one-size-fits-all approach and the worst dictatorships in history, ancient and modern, have be guided by such a fallacious political ideal. The regime of Sparta, no less than those of Nazi and Communist countries more recently were, was motivated in large part by this misguided outlook on how human beings should live in their communities.

Of course, thinking that there is nothing that humans have in common is also misguided. Yes, all people have basic rights and when regimes fail to acknowledge this, they can go very wrong along this opposite line of thinking. Some people, for example, think that the mere diversity of cultures around the globe and throughout human history means that everything is relative, there are no universal principles such as human rights or ethics. And there are common goals and purposes suited to some of us but not others—such as joining a bridge club or playing golf or watching football or tennis or, more seriously, becoming experts in disciplines such as physics, biology or economics. More or less large groups of people can share what is right for them to do, what is good for them in their lives, without everyone doing so.

Indeed, both the individualism that rejects one-size-fits-all policies and the communitarianism that tends to promote it need to be rethought. Both have a place in human affairs and it is best to get it right how they make themselves evident in our own lives.

Friday, January 19, 2007

Thomas Friedman's Love of FDR's Statism

by Tibor R. Machan

In a recent column I made the point that "With the Democrats back in power in Washington, it is not unreasonable to suppose that securing and expanding FDR's list of rights—as distinct from those laid out by the American founders in the Declaration of Independence—will once again dominate the federal government's agenda." And almost so as to bear out my prescience, Thomas Friedman, the well known author and columnist for The New York Times, produced an essay that explicitly champions drafting a list of "rights" in the spirit of FDR's "second Bill of Rights" or The New Deal. As Friedman would have it,

“The right rallying call is for a "Green New Deal." The New Deal was not built on a magic bullet, but on a broad range of programs and industrial projects to revitalize America. Ditto for an energy New Deal. If we are to turn the tide on climate change and end our oil addiction, we need more of everything: solar, wind, hydro, ethanol, biodiesel, clean coal and nuclear power—and conservation.” (The New York Times, 1-19-07)

And Friedman quite rightly tells us that "To spark a Green New Deal today requires getting two things right: government regulations and prices." Which is to say, he recommends that we become a planned society, with government doing the planning and the rest of us compelled to comply. This, oddly, at the same time as Friedman acknowledges that "Neither the White House nor the Democratic Party seems to grasp that the public and business community are miles ahead of them on this energy/environment issue." That pretty much admits that government is inept and bogged down in bureaucratic slow motion on matters that require intelligent planning, something evidently carried out with some success by the private sector.

This is especially important when it comes to environmental matters since the major obstacle to making adjustments here, as in so many other areas of social life, is the tragedy of the commons. When public spheres are involved—and they are increasing by leaps and bounds these days—there is no hope for prudent conduct from those who have an interest in the outcome. Instead, the various special interests that drive public policy decisions eagerly grab whatever advantage they can, via the political and bureaucratic process, with very little concern for how to deal with the long run.

Back in the days of the Soviet Empire what was so evident to anyone who visited that part of the globe was how ineptly the Soviet system dealt with environmental problems. Government planning simply will not deliver the desired results, in part because the knowledge needed to prepare for the future is lacking in centers of state power and because of the pressure to suit short-term interests.

The opposite is the case with the private sector. If property rights are clearly specified, those who own property will far more likely keep their eyes on the future, even promote their own precautionary measures so as to keep what they own productive and avoid destroying the property of their neighbors who could sue if this isn't done properly. Indeed, just the opposite of what Friedman is advocating is necessary so as to cope promptly and effectively with environmental hazards. What is needed is more vigilant privatization.

Placing responsibility for the care of the environment into the hands of private agents is the way a society best copes with the future. Unfortunately Friedman & Co. are so captive of the governmental habit that they cannot grasp this. In Friedman's case this is especially perplexing, since he has written on the merits of globalization—in his book, The World is Flat—as far as problem solving abroad is concerned.~ He ought to be first in line to reject government meddling—which is to say collective decision making and coercive planning—and urge turning to the private sector when it comes to how a free society ought to prepare for the future.

Instead Friedman, along with all the other statists in this country and elsewhere, see some problem and immediately turn to government for help. This is why they love FDR's New Deal and his Second Bill of Rights, since both of these are basically no more than the transference of the variety of private ways of coping with the future to the one-size-fits-all, guaranteed-to-fail public or collectivist approach.

Thursday, January 18, 2007

My Monarchical Temptation

by Tibor R. Machan

As I watched The Queen, one of the best movies I've seen recently, I thought about just how much I detested monarchies. That's how it started. After all, what are monarchies but the subjugation of millions by one individual, a queen or king, sometimes with certain restraints built in, sometimes hardly any? Not all that different from a dictatorship, except kings and queens usually dress in fancier garb and live in far plusher abodes. But in principle monarchs are even more powerful than most dictators, seeing as they claim their earthly power to have been handed to them by God. And when a monarch reigns in consequence of having inherited his or her position, there is hardly any check on whether one of them is out-and-out nuts.

Yet throughout human history some monarchs have been other than sheer tyrants, sometimes even relatively benign and benevolent rulers. So what's better, being ruled by a mob that's supposedly the majority of the politically involved, or by someone who by tradition may in fact uphold certain standards of decency and prudence?

Of course, the Queen of England is but a ceremonial, if rather expensive, monarch today. How such a title can even survive in the 21st century beats me—calling someone "Her Royal Highness" has got to produce guffaws whenever it is said out loud, does it not? The whole enterprise has to resemble something on the order of a fairy tale or Disney story, with everyone knowing full well that there's nothing real to correspond to the funny language. Yet millions in the UK want to hang on to it all. But then people everywhere seem to have a penchant for living with myths in preference to reality!

Of course, when Helen Mirren plays your monarch, it may be very tempting to fall for all the sham. She is such a superb actress and when her persona is infused in the character of the Queen, it is a very promising illusion. Given how messy the alternatives to monarchy have managed to turn out nearly everywhere—just compare George W. Bush with Elizabeth II—this idea of Helen Mirren being in charge of things has something going for it. Especially as the movie depicts her.

The American founders wanted to get away from monarchy because they held that we were all endowed with unalienable rights and so none could justly claim to rule anyone else. As Abraham Lincoln spelled out the point, "No man is good enough to govern another without that other's consent." So all that talk about subjects is pure bunk. But the American founders offered up a genuine improvement to monarchy, namely, a constitutional republic that severely limits the scope and power of government. They did not, however, count on the insidious influence of the age-old governmental habit, which reasserted itself in America despite all those brilliant sentiments expressed in the Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights. What they spawned, sadly, turned out to be a pseudo-democratic empire, with mob rule and the reign of bureaucrats.

What with the resulting tyranny of a bunch of those petty bureaucrats and the politicians in whom people still have the ancient faith that they will fix everything for us, considering the old monarchy doesn't feel so bad, at least not when its embodiment turns out to be Helen Mirren. With her in real power, maybe someone like Tony Blair could be kept in line.

Alas, as things stand, the Queen is little more than a costly figurehead, so I doubt very much that the monarchist system would be an improvement on our depressing regime. For awhile, during the last couple of decades, there was at least the promise of improvement across the globe, in the direction of greater liberty; today, however, the venerable Freedom House is reporting that the regime of individual liberty is on the decline around the globe.

Yes, it was a desperate fantasy on my part, thinking that a monarchy might improve matters. But then Ms. Mirren can turn a man's head even at her current age!

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Very Soft on Islamic Terrorism

Tibor R. Machan

The New York Times magazine has a feature called “QUESTIONS FOR,” and the other day it was “the artist formerly known as Cat Stevens,” now named Yusuf Islam (as of his conversion to Islam), who was being questioned by Deborah Solomon. Solomon is your typical left of center cultural and political egalitarian, favoring multiculturalism in most cases, but even she seemed to be a bit annoyed with Mr. Islam’s answers when she pressed him on Islamic terrorism.

Noting that “government officials in various countries have tried to link [Mr. Islam] to extremist groups, including Hamas,” Solomon asked him “What do you think of Hamas?” Wouldn’t you know it, Mr. Islam dodged the issue by asserting, “That’s an extremely loaded question.” Was it?

I dispute that and it seems even Ms. Solomon did because her comeback was, “Can you try to answer it?” At that point Mr. Islam said, “I have never supported a terrorist group or any group that did other than charity and good to humankind.” That, of course, was not an answer to Ms. Solomon’s question, which was, “What do you think of Hamas?” And, moreover, maybe Mr. Islam believes Hamas is a charity group and/or it does “good to humankind” so it should get a pass even if it perpetrates terrorism. We will never know because he dodged the question.

In a follow up exchange Solomon pressed even more: “So would you say you have contempt for a terrorist group like Hamas?” And Mr. Islam proceeded to evade the issue when he replied, “I wouldn’t put those words in my mouth. I wouldn’t say anything on that issue. I’m here to talk about peace. I’m a man who does want peace for this world, and I don’t think you will achieve that by putting people into corners and asking them very, very difficult questions about contentious issues.”

When this is our example of a moderate Muslim—and Mr. Islam tells us that if he isn’t “an example of that,” who else would be—then the chance of reaching some accord with Islam is very small indeed. Imagine a Roman Catholic who tried to whitewash the child molestation that has been perpetrated by many priests recently or who said he wouldn’t say anything on the issue of the Holy Inquisition, claiming that it is a very contentious issue. What is contentious about it? Where is the debate about its merits versus demerits? It’s pretty much a slam dunk. That’s the same with the Nazi’s Holocaust, the Communists’ gulags, or South African Apartheid. Anyone who considers these open to alternative contentions—as if the jury were still out about whether they were examples of the worst of human conduct imaginable—simply isn’t worth listening to, maybe even featuring in a prime spot in The New York Times Magazine.

Hamas is a terrorist group. No reasonable doubt about that. If Mr. Islam cannot bring himself to acknowledge and condemn this, his values are unquestionably perverse and if he is our prime example of a moderate Muslim living in the West, well we need to be very much more vigilant about the dangers of Islamic influences here than most people seem to realize.

The book I have been studying recently, the extremely well researched Islamic Imperialism by Efrim Karsh (Yale, 2006), makes no bones about identifying Islam itself, as interpreted by the “prophet” Mohammed, as an aggressive movement, bent on conquest and the coercive conversion of non-believers wherever these are possible to achieve. The fact that for many years we haven’t seen much of this side of Islam in the West only suggests that the opportunity to conquer and covert was missing. With the rise of oil-based riches and with some of the mistakes made by the West regarding Middle Eastern affairs, the situation has changed. The Islamic world has recovered its core aggressive character, with some Muslims going so far as to perpetrate and others to silently stand by relentless terrorism wherever they see a chance to do so.

I am no supporter of the war in Iraq and believe that, all things considered, it is probably not the place where an effective response to Islamic terrorism could be undertaken. Indeed, it was probably a highly counterproductive strategy to invade Iraq since it gave some tiny measure of legitimacy to Middle Eastern, mostly Islamic, anger against the USA, although of course that could not have been behind 9/11, which occurred way before the US invaded Iraq (as distinct from assisting Kuwait in the early 90s).

The bottom line, as I see it, is that a great many Muslims are either out and out bent on conquering the rest of the world or complacent about their extremist and currently dominant fellows who are bent on doing just that. It may then be wise and prudent for us all in the West to make every effort to resist an invasion on the part of such aggressive and complacent Muslims.

Maybe that is the lesson that comes out of Ms. Solomon’s disturbing interview of Mr. Yusuf Islam, formerly known as Cat Stevens.