Saturday, February 10, 2007

The Lives of Others is a riveting, poignant, factually and emotionally perfect movie about central European communism, in particular East Germany. It depicts this era in microcosm, not as Fateless or Schindler's List do the Nazi era. It is the particular lives of the characters that energize this movie. It has intellectual punch, but avoids outright didacticism. And it is an exciting story as well. Now it may have a bit more impact on me as someone who actually lived a part of my early life in exactly the circumstances recounted here but I think that isn't really what makes the movie excellent even for me. It is, also, perhaps the first time I heard the term "socialism" used as it should be, instead of all the romanticized, sentimental uses one encounters among too many contemporary political theorists and other intellectuals in the West. Don't walk, don't even just run, but sprint to see it.

Friday, February 09, 2007

Unauthorized Government is Wrong

Tibor R. Machan

What was most horrible about the bulk of political history is that some people ruled others, often to the point of using them entirely against their will, even sending thousands and thousands of them to their death or using their lives for purposes they had no part in choosing. The big deal about the American revolution was the idea that one owns one’s life—the Lockean idea of the unalienable right to one’s life, liberty and pursuit of happiness. This was so radical a notion—although here and there expressed by earlier thinkers but never really given official endorsement—that even now most folks just don’t get it. No one owns you—not your country, not your family, not your neighborhood, not your community, no one. You are the one who owns your life and properly gets to say what will be done with it. To reiterate what Lincoln so aptly said about this, “No one is good enough to govern another without that other’s consent.” And in some respects everyone has an inkling of this idea—it is entirely unacceptable for a doctor to operate without the patient’s consent, for an auto mechanic to work on your car without your giving permission, and so forth. Plain as anything can be!

Yet we are still in grips of public policies that directly contradict this idea and hark back to a time when government treated people as its resource, as its possession, as if only the ruling head and elites had the authority to set agendas with the rest of us having to tow the line. Day in and day out politicians and bureaucrats manage to make laws—in fact, the term law is all too honorific for most of their petty rules—by which the rest who have not consented must live their lives lest they be subject to fines or incarceration.

This distinctively American political idea has often been criticized—and today it is mostly denigrated by communitarians like Charles Taylor and Robert N. Bellah—for an alleged failure to stress the importance of community in human affairs, a lament that's entirely misguided. The founders had no prejudice against community, our social nature. What they did insist upon, however, is that human community life needs to be voluntary, un-coerced. They had a clear notion that unless a community is founded on the principle of voluntarism—unless each member of that community has his or her unalienable rights respected and protected—the result is not a genuine, bona fide human community but something akin to a bee hive or an ant colony. But because human beings are self-directed, because they have the freedom of the will to give meaning and direction to their lives—and only when they do so does it achieve full meaning—they realized that it is a condition of a human community that coercion is excluded from it. In other words—using the parlance of contemporary public policy—the public (human) good cannot involve the violation of basic rights. Those rights in fact serve to define what is the public good, namely, a society in which those basic rights are protected and promoted. That is what is meant by what the Declaration states, namely, that the just powers of government are derived from consent and such just powers have as their purpose to secure our basic rights.

None of this is against community but in favor of a community of free men and women. A community that rejects these criteria fails to be properly human, fit for proper human living.

But, because the propagation of the idea that some get to rule others is so entrenched, having for millennia served to rationalized the more or less arbitrary rule of some by others, even in America, let alone the rest of the world, it is still thought odd that one would oppose oppressive governments, including those which deploy the democratic method in achieving their oppression. Democracy that oppresses is no less oppressive than out and out dictatorship. It merely disperses the process of oppression so that it is somewhat disguised.

Those who appreciate the full impact of the words of the Declaration are few—even America’s founders only went a certain distance to fully realize them. Still, it is just the thing to realize if one is serious about aiming for establishing and maintaining a just human community.
Science and State

Tibor R. Machan

By now it has become predictable that each time a new president of the USA is elected, the letters sections of major newspapers, such as The New York Times and The Washington Post, fill up with pleas from various professionals who believe that their services must not be left to the uncertain, volatile forces of the market place. Instead, they must be assured of funding by the government, via coercion, taxation.

If memory serves me right, the loudest bunch of folks who advance this plea are scientists of all stripes—natural, social, applied, you name them, they are in line with their hands reaching out, expecting to have the benefits of coerced funding because, well, what they are doing is so vital and so few people appreciate this that the money just cannot be expected to come voluntarily. Never mind that everyone can cook up this rationale for innumerable projects, personal, professional, political, philanthropic, whatever. Too many of us are convinced that on our agenda are gathered the most profound and urgent items, while other people’s priorities can certainly wait. Or so it would appear, given how the scientists line up to demand special treatment. It has become so bad that what might be deemed special is now indeed the norm—nearly everyone wants to escape having to convince the public of the merits of his or her projects, to go about raising support in a civilized, peaceful way. Instead nearly all seem to be convinced that support is due them automatically, that the allocation of funds based on the extortion that is taxation is what they are entitled to.

There are a few folks who have argued against funding sciences, let alone other endeavors, in this coercive fashion but they are by no means many. Terrence Kealey, in his book The Economic Laws of Scientific Research (Macmillan, 1996) is one of the few and his efforts to defend a free market in funding of research and development quickly came under criticism from those who want to continue with the now well established practice of exempting the sciences from having to make their case without the benefit of political clout. (I edited a book not long ago, Liberty & Research and Development [Hoover Institution Press, 2002], in which this topic is debated by the various contributors.)

But here my focus is not so much whether it is just to have science—or, indeed, any other human endeavor—supported coercively. I am convinced that it is not except where science supports bona fide law enforcement and defense against foreign aggression. Just as in the criminal law, force may only be used defensively, not to achieve various goals that may not be popular with enough people for them to gain support. But another aspect of this matter has become evident to me, although I speak about it as an amateur. I have in mind whether all this funding of science by coercive means isn’t actually having a corrupting effect.

Over the last twenty years or so I have been an avid reader of the little weekly magazine, Science News, which carries many reports of recent and current work in most of the sciences. And what I have noticed is that a great deal of what is being done just has no plausible relevance to anything at all except that it interests the scientists doing the work. This is easy enough to appreciate when it comes to various obscure studies in astrophysics or paleontology, for example. Why are millions and millions of dollars taken from citizens and handed to these professionals to produce findings that, well, are little more than curiosity items? Yes, they might turn into something more and there is plenty of evidence in the history of science that the results of work motivated by nothing more than curiosity eventually turn out to be useful. Good, but that means at best that we have been lucky—it does not imply any kind of imperative for the coercive support of such curiosity, none, nor that the bulk of it bears fruit for all those who are coerced to fund them!

I am willing to bet that if some God’s eye perspective could be found—an impossible idea, I admit—a very great deal of what scientists spend money on could be used better if left for the taxpayers to spend on projects of their own. But because the idea is so foreign, it seems evident that the way the politicians and bureaucrats allocate the funds is best. But there really is no good reason to think so.

Wednesday, February 07, 2007

Even Astronauts are People

by Tibor R. Machan

No, I am not at all gleeful about Astronaut Lisa Nowak's indictment for attempted murder. But I do consider it instructive that someone from an elite group of men and women can apparently turn out to be quite vicious. It shouldn't need to be said but, sadly, it does. On one Los Angeles radio station, for example, a commentator intoned with great indignation about the event, lambasting Nowak not for what she is supposed to have done but for doing it while an Astronaut with NASA. How dare someone with such a prestigious outfit turn out to do bad things, maybe even end up a bad person?

I wish I could have replied to this ignorant exclamation right on the spot, just in case some listeners didn't appreciate its full implications. Are certain groups of human beings supposed to immune to evil, lack the freedom of will to do the wrong thing? Surely that is a hopelessly delusional idea, embrace by the likes of those who believe in the innate goodness of certain groups of people.

We have so many examples of the supposedly elite going bad; we have Aristotle teaching that the hypothetically best regime governed by the best among us will not work because the best rulers often turn into despots; and we have ourselves to check out so as to confirm that anyone is capable of going bad. Not that anyone must go bad—the idea of innate evil is as insidious as the idea of innate goodness. What makes the human species distinctive is precisely that anyone can become either good or bad or hover somewhere in between, in mediocrity.

Of course there is a long tradition of some folks managing to pull off the ruse that they are a special breed and those who aren't of their ilk, just aren't up to snuff. This has served thousands of those in the upper echelons of society very nicely for thousands of years. But it was and continues to be nothing more than a ruse. We are all capable of turning out to do things right or to do thing wrong or, as is often the case, do a bit of this and a bit of that throughout our lives.

The belief that suggests that NASA folks are a special breed and that Lisa Nowak is thus some freak lends credence to one of the most insidious aspects of social thought. It goes hand in hand with the many varieties of tribalism, whereby Germans are superior to Jews, Muslims to Christians, white folks to black ones, men to women—or vice versa, you name it. And it is responsible for a huge amount of the misery that we find throughout human history.

Instead, the best understanding of human nature suggests that keeping on the straight and narrow is a matter of constant vigilance, of shaping and keeping in good shape one's moral character, of never stopping the monitoring process whereby one conducts oneself virtuously instead of viciously. The temptation to become lax in this task can lead to disaster, and indeed most of the avoidable disasters in human history have been due to such negligence and the subsequent efforts to cover it up.

So the lesson from astronaut Nowak's story may well turn out to be important not only for her and some of the folks in her life but for all those who are tempted to believe that going into some line of work, some profession, or some calling will spare one the trouble of having to work at being a decent human being. There is no formula for achieving that apart from one's own relentless, full focus on what it takes to live one's individual life as best as one can. While there can be some practices that will make this come about at greater ease than without them, even then constant vigilance is unavoidable since the future can always pose unexpected challenges, temptations, obstacles and diversions.

Tuesday, February 06, 2007

Revisiting Taxation's Origins

by Tibor R. Machan

Come tax day each year it is important to recall just what gave rise to this practice of government extorting money from us. Not that the good people at the IRS confine their crimes to April 15 or thereabouts—the 17th in 2007. There are hundreds of hidden and not so hidden taxes involved in virtually all our commercial undertakings. (The exception I know of seems to involve horses—but don't tell anyone!)

First a little history: In feudal times, and even before, the monarch or whoever else pretended to be the "keeper of the realm" was deemed to have been granted ownership of a country, either with absolute title or with some constraints. (As the feudal era lost its dominance, the constraints became stricter and in time monarchies came to be mostly ceremonial—the still very expensive—as in the UK.) But the framework in all feudal systems involved statism—the government owned nearly everything. So if one lived in this realm and worked there, it collected rent, just as an apartment owner does form those renting in the building. The entire system rested on the firmly held assumption that the head of the state owned the country and could collect taxes from others who lived and worked there.

With the American revolution a new idea emerged, namely, that no head of state owned anything. Governments were now deemed to be instituted as a kind of service agency assigned the task of protecting the basic (and derivative) rights of all those who lived in the country. And it was these folks, not some king, tsar, pharaoh or some other keeper of the realm, who owned stuff. The right to private property had been identified as a proper instrument for deciding who owns what. John Locke, the grandfather of the American political tradition, claimed that people came to own stuff by mixing their labor with raw nature. While a challenging idea, it had the ring of truth about it far more than that story about the king owning it all!

With this new political notion the system of serfdom or involuntary servitude—whereby people were tied to the land that the king owned and needed the king's permission to act as they wanted to—had been consigned to the dustbin of history in most places in the West as well as a few others. But taxation remained in place because it hadn't been figured out how governments might be funded. However, severe limitations had been conceived so that all that taxes would do was fund a highly limited government.

Now as they say, the best laid plans of mice and men—well, taxation quickly got out of hand and we are now nearly back where we were with all those monarchs. Governments are claiming ownership of their countries' wealth—and some of their apologists are making sophisticated arguments defending the idea. (See Liam Murphy and Thomas Nagel, The Myth of Ownership [Oxford UP, 2002].) To put the matter differently, the current system of taxation is a reactionary policy that conflicts with the idea of the right to private property and the right to one's life and liberty, as well.

But then how might the valid functions of a government be funded, if taxation is really but extortion? There are answers but no one at major, prestigious centers of learning is doing research on the details. In broad outline, the proper substitute is a contract fee. Most people take advantage of contracts and these need a legal order for them to function properly. But it is not necessary to do so—it's technically optional. (For more on this, see my "Dissolving the Problem of Public Goods, Financing Government Without Coercive Measures" in my edited volume, The Libertarian Reader [Rowman & Littlefield, 1982].)

Men and women have lived with many unjust institutions and policies but that isn't sufficient to construe them acceptable, morally and politically. Nor should taxation be taken as an exception. An alternative must be found that avoids its injustices.

Sunday, February 04, 2007

Free Speech is Dead

Tibor R. Machan

When Senators Olympia Snowe (R-Maine) and Jay Rockefeller (D-West Virginia) wrote their bipartisan letter to demand that the giant oil corporation Exxon “end any further financial assistance [to those] whose public advocacy has contributed to the small but unfortunately effective climate change denial myth,” I recalled the following report about Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak: “There are freedoms, but they can’t contradict our traditions,” the president intoned some years ago as he opened a book fair in Egypt. “We must guarantee that freedom of expression agrees with our values.”

In a genuine free society there must be freedom of expression even about matters that are highly unpopular and perhaps conflict with received scientific truth, if that idea makes any sense at all in science. Scientists have been notorious throughout the ages for tilting against windmills, for being skeptics about mainstream thinking. And in our day mainstream thinking has it that human beings are a very significant contributing cause to global warming. There are dissidents regarding this view and maybe they are wrong—that isn’t the point here. What is the point is that Snowe and Rockefeller are in the wrong about whether Exxon has the right to support organizations such as the Competitive Enterprise Institute.

Reportedly, Exxon made its decision to withdraw its support of CEI before this letter went out, so that, again, isn’t the issue. What is very disturbing is that the one remaining liberty in the United States of America, due to how the courts have read the First Amendment in the Bill of Rights, is now being threatened by the very agency that is supposed to be making our rights secure. Governments are instituted among us for that purpose, according to the Declaration of Independence.

Of course, when this is noted, apologists will come forth and claim that the Exxon case is special. Richard Littlemore of the blog, for example, writes that “The problem is that this kind of speech [Exxon’s support of CEI] is not ‘free.’ In distracting us from addressing an issue that threatens the world in an unprecedented way, it is costing us all a price that we may never be able to pay.”

Notice how the concept “free” is being twisted around by Littlemore—from meaning that no one may interfere with someone else’s speaking out or funding other’s doing so to meaning that something doesn’t cost anything. Hardly related, if at all! Mubarak is far more honest when he states what Snowe and Rockefeller actually mean, namely, that “we must guarantee that freedom of expression agrees with our values.” But that’s Egypt, which is a virtual dictatorship, not the United States of America where politicians constantly stress how everyone is free, especially as far as thinking and saying what they will.

I happen to agree that there is a bit of confusion about what the freedom is that Snowe and Rockefeller are threatening, although there is a lot of expert debate about this. For example, in the campaign financing debate many who oppose caps consider it a violation of freedom of speech to impose them. I think it is more accurate to view this as a violation of the right to private property. However, since private property is now hardly protected in America, many have decided to attempt to defend our right to give support to causes and political candidates on the basis of the right to freedom of speech and expression. In any case, what is at issue is human freedom and those like Snowe, Rockefeller, Littlemore and Mubarak clearly care nothing about it.

It is no big surprise, of course. There is that famous quip from William Pitt who answered similar arguments by saying, “Necessity is the excuse for every infringement of human freedom. It is the argument of the tyrant and the creed of the slave.” From the Right it is national security or the dire necessity to spread democracy across the globe that serves to justify the abridgement of liberty. From the Left it is poverty, inequality, and, now, environmental precaution that serve to invalidate our rights and undermine the government’s duty to secure our rights.

I am still not fully despondent, though, mainly because the habit of crushing human liberty is a very old one and difficult to shake, like most bad habits are. But to quote another favorite philosopher of mine, the jazz pianist and song writer Mose Allison, “I am not downhearted, but I’m gettin’ there.”
Dinesh D’Souza Goes Bananas

Tibor R. Machan

D’Souza is a man to reckon with. He is no fool and many of his ideas have considerable merit. But in his latest book, The Enemy At Home: The Cultural Left and Its Responsibility for 9/11, D’Souza has gone over the top big time. The theme of this work is that 9/11 is partly the responsibility of the American Left, which, as Publishers Weekly characterized the work, "roots the blame for the 9/11 attacks in the left wing's ‘aggressive global campaign to undermine the traditional patriarchal family’."

The flaw in this is elementary and is contained in that famous saying, "Sticks and stones may break my bones (but words will never hurt me)." The main point, a serious one, is that human beings can be unavoidably hurt only when physically attacked. Otherwise, when insulted or offended, they are free to turn and walk away from what doesn’t please them. There is, in short, nothing coercive about verbal assaults.

In turn, of course, the response to such "assaults" must be peaceful, non-aggressive. However much one may take exception to what someone else says, thinks, advocates, promotes, suggests, intimates, and so forth, none of it justifies responding with violence. Yes, there may some borderline cases, as with all things human. But those are few and far between—if someone is grieving for an intimate and you insult the person, the pain may be too difficult to bear and the response could be violent and excusable. Even in the criminal law in some countries crimes of passion are forgiven because, well, they are deemed to have been provoked. But that’s already too lenient, too willing to accept as an excuse one’s failure to act in a civilized fashion, namely, with proper restraint.

When the Danish newspapers ridiculed Mohammed, those were insults. A civilized response would not have gone beyond a verbal, if firm, protest. Instead many Muslims went out and burned down buildings and killed people. No insults warrant this.

So Mr. D’Souza is wrong to blame the American Left, with all of its moral relativism and support of decadence and licentiousness, for how Muslims acted, specifically when they assaulted and murdered innocent people in New York City on September 11, 2001. They should have confined themselves to criticizing those in the West, including, perhaps, those on the Left, for being wrong. Instead they acted like barbarians. And for this neither the Left nor anyone else besides the perpetrators are responsible.

Mr. D’Souza has a compatriot on the Left in this matter. Catherine MacKinnon, the University of Michigan law professor and author of the book, Only Words (Harvard University Press, 1993), argued against first amendment protection for pornographers because, well, their words, pictures, and films should be construed as being equivalent to physical weapons. But they aren’t. And when people who read or view pornography engage in violent conduct, it is not the pornography that’s responsible but they are. That is the meaning of human freedom of thought, namely, that the bulk of what we are offered without coercion is not assault by any stretch of the imagination. It may be offensive, insulting, annoying, irritating, blasphemous, and so forth; but it is no justification for violent reaction from any human being. If one’s culture taught one that being offended justifies violent response, one’s culture is misguided, wrongheaded, period.
The idea behind this is that human beings can read and view anything and freely accept or reject it—they have free will and aren’t coerced into doing what the material they read or view urges them to do. This is, indeed, the basis for the First Amendment’s protection of the right of freedom of speech and expression in the U. S. Constitution. It is the height of civilized law! The fact that many Muslims are unwilling to act accordingly cannot be blamed on those whose words and deeds offend them.

Mr. D’Souza, who has written some fine things about America and why it is such a free and essentially great country, seems to have forgotten his own ideas in this latest book.