Friday, March 30, 2007

Ayn Rand, Libertarianism, and ARI

Tibor R. Machan

In a recent letter to the editor to The Los Angeles Times, Jeff Britting of the Ayn Rand Institute writes as follows:

"Ayn Rand did not write novels of "uncompromising libertarianism." In her view, libertarianism has no philosophy to uphold uncompromisingly. Libertarianism rejects the need for a consistent, objective, philosophic defense of liberty and regards politics as primary. Rand was a defender of reason and recognized that political freedom requires a philosophy of reason and egoism. That is why Rand repeatedly condemned the libertarian movement, regarding herself, instead, as a "radical for capitalism." For further explanation, see Rand's novel of uncompromising objectivist, not libertarian, ideas — "Atlas Shrugged" — celebrating its 50th anniversary this year." (Letters, March 30, 2007)

To appreciate the errors of this letter, first notice that no libertarian is ever mentioned—the claims about libertarianism are fabricated. ("Libertarianism rejects" is, of course, nonsense—a political stance cannot do any rejecting, it is its advocates or defenders who may.)

As the author of the recent book, Libertarianism Defended (Ashgate, 2006), I can testify to at least one libertarian not rejecting "the need for a consistent, objective, philosophic defense of liberty…." Moreover, Ayn Rand identified herself as a libertarian early on and only once some libertarians disagreed with her on certain issues did she rather arbitrarily dismiss all of it. Her dismissal, moreover, was based on a careless generalization about libertarians, whom she dubbed "hippies of the right."
In fact, a great many libertarians have reached their libertarian political conclusions based on their view that Ayn Rand’s Objectivist philosophy gave this position solid support. Libertarianism is a political stance, not a full blown philosophy; this, by the way, is the case with many other political positions, including those of Republicans, Democrats, monarchists, or theocrats, all of which have been defended from a variety of philosophical viewpoints not every one of which is successful in giving them adequate support.

Rand, by the way, also called herself a "radical capitalist" and it is clear that capitalism is also defended from a variety of philosophical and religious standpoints. She used to insist that many of these are hopeless but hers, Objectivism, achieves what is needed. Well, that is exactly what she and her epigone should have said about libertarianism—the Objectivist defense succeeds, others do not. But, in fact, her politics is every bit as libertarian as her political economy is capitalist.

One reason for all this quibbling is, of course, turf fighting. Those at the Ayn Rand Institute would like nothing better than having everyone believe that their way to give support to the fully free society is the only one worth paying attention to. Now I happen to agree that Ayn Rand’s Objectivist philosophy is head and shoulders above other attempts to make the case for libertarianism, but this does not translate for a moment into claiming that those at the Ayn Rand Institute are the only ones who are able to provide such a case. Rand was a teacher, as were Adam Smith, John Locke, Ludwig von Mises, F. A. Hayek, and Milton Friedman. And she had students, some strictly loyal to her wording of the case for the free society, some more independent and still fully in accord with her ideas, and some others more or less heretical. Most do a creditable job of laying out a case for the free society—that is to say, for libertarianism. All this nitpicking about whether Rand was a libertarian is entirely pointless, in the end, and only serves dubious, distracting purposes.

Would it not be swell if all these silly quarrels could be set aside and all those who are convinced of the value of the free society for human community life could focus on productive endeavors instead? Alas, that is perhaps wishing for human nature to be different from what it is, which, as Ayn Rand herself taught, is endowed with free will and thus all too capable of straying from the right track in all matters, including in how essentially sound ideas will be defended.
Keep Loving That Gridlock

Tibor R. Machan

After the November 2006 elections I was hoping for this and said so in one of my columns. Sure enough, there is gridlock in the air in Washington, helping with the task of slowing down the rampage of Democrats to loot us of all our wealth so they can redistribute it to their heart’s content. Yes, going after Attorney General Gonzales has its benefits, as does the bill passed by both the House and the Senate, curtailing the war in Iraq, one President Bush is sure to veto. All this acrimony is to the good!

Let me just say that I am all for pulling out of Iraq. It’s been bad war, if any of them can be welcomed, and it is time to admit it and let go of it. America really has no business being in Iraq—there has never been any credible evidence that that country poses a serious threat to us, which is the only justification for war in a free society. (Remember, “governments are instituted” to “secure [our] rights,” not to go on military adventures around the globe!)

However, I don’t much trust the motives of Democrats, who had no trouble sending troops to Bosnia-Herzegovina and elsewhere in the Balkans when no threat existed against the U.S.A. from anyone there. Moreover, Democrats, with their modern liberal “precautionary” public policies preemptively intrude on our lives everywhere, so I don’t for a moment believe that they have anything in principle against preemptive military actions. They just don’t like Bush’s war. Were it their war, they would probably love it, at least most of them. (Remember Vietnam! Wasn’t a Republican war, that one.)

But, while they are beating up on Bush & Co. in Washington, Democrats may not be focusing so much on running our lives—on increasing regulations of financial institutions because of some unpleasant experiences certain customers are having who have extended themselves unwisely. This kind of Nanny state approach to governing is now part and parcel of the vision of the Democratic leadership, so if they are bogged down with acts of vengeance, at least their zeal to meddle may be somewhat arrested.

Of course, a gridlock is but a small consolation where the growth of government power over our lives is concerned. It can slow things down but only temporarily. If, however, during this slow-down there commences vigorous education from government skeptics—those who know that people working for government aren’t any wiser or more virtuous than are those working in the marker place—then perhaps some serious benefit can be reaped from it.

In the end nothing can substitute for such education, which ultimately translates into policies that will reduce the scope of government’s power. That, after all, is what a free country is about, limiting the range of government’s power over the lives of citizens to a strictly protective, defensive function that abates crime and foreign aggression. That is the vision of political society that animated the American Founders and still resonates with those around the world who want to live their lives by their own lights, not as slaves or involuntary servants.

A gridlock can help with this only so much but if good use is made of it, perhaps the trend can be extended and in time, with vigilance, the government’s reach can be reduced more and more significantly. For the time being, though, all those who recognize that the respect and protection of our right to life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness is the fundamental public good—with all the rest politicians and their cheerleaders promote mere phony projects that are none of government’s proper business—need to support the gridlock that may be with us for at least another year or so. And then, if voters wise up, they may realize that the best bet is to elect some Republican, any Republican, to fill the role of the president just so that a gridlock can continue.

Again, remember that this is just to forestall what would otherwise be routine, namely, the liberal Democratic zeal to tax and spend and regulate and mess with our lives. The real work must be done proactively—folks need to be taught that their best bet lies with a freer and freer society, with the abandonment of the redistributionist welfare state. (No, this isn’t a homogenous Scandinavian country, where, by the way, the welfare state is supported by a rather robust semi-free market economy, without the Draconian regulations we have here!)

So, once again, hurrah for the gridlock! Even if it is only temporary.

Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Non Partisan Teaching

Tibor R. Machan

Over the years that I have taught, I have also held some firm, often controversial, positions in ethics, politics, economics, and so on. Yet I have also believed in and tried to practice nonpartisan teaching. For example, although I believe that business managers have as their primary obligation to serve the owners and investors in their companies, I make it a point to present the stakeholder theory in my classes—and textbooks—which argues that they actually ought to serve all who have a stake in the firm. Or in political philosophy, where I am very much a libertarian, I do full justice to the ideas of socialists, communists, conservatives, theocrats and others.

The reason is that I signed up for all this when I entered the profession of college teaching. That was, as it were, my oath of office, not to make use of my class room as a podium for advocating my own ideas but to familiarize my students with the current ways o fthinking about those topics. Now and then I will make an “editorial” comment, of course, but these are clearly labeled as such. My students are no fools and know that their teachers have views of their own on the topics they discuss in class. But the job isn’t to preach but to teach.

In my own discipline, philosophy, this is not all that complicated because academic philosophy has mostly involved teaching a great variety of positions on innumerable topics. God, determinism, free will, knowledge, the nature of reality, and all the rest are dealt with differently by different schools of philosophy and the job of teachers, in the main, is to familiarize students with what these different schools have to say about these topics, to lay out their arguments, to offer doubts about them and then leave it to students to figure out what they find most sensible or to suspend belief until they know more.

There are disciplines, however, where this kind of relative even-handedness is difficult if not impossible to pull off even if the professors are committed to be non-partisan. Those are ones where it is the latest understanding of the subject gets taught, never mind alternative approaches. Certainly most of the hard sciences—physics, astronomy, chemistry, anatomy—fall into this category. No one teaches Newtonian physics at universities and while there are puzzles aplenty left in quantum physics, those are mostly widely agree upon puzzles. Fringe thinking may get mentioned now and then but mostly it is mainstream science that is communicated to the students.

When it comes to the less then hard sciences and fields—for example, climatology, anthropology, history, psychology, sociology, economics and such—things get a bit messy. Yes, in most of these there are schools that have more or less won out in the competition for who gets it right about the subject matter but there are also quite a few debates afoot. Still, most who teach these disciplines work from their own school’s perspective, which they tend to consider the winner in the competition. So often they will favor their school’s take on how to understand the subject matter of the discipline and only now and then tip their hats toward dissenters. A convinced behaviorist in psychology is probably not going to be even-handed about how to understand human conscious experiences. Even if the field of biology, there are disputes that get neglected because partisan teachers do not much respect those from a rival school of thought.

All in all, non-partisan college education is not easy to come by. There is something, however, that’s a remedy for this—the many courses students tend to take in the fields they study. This is why departments ideally do not adhere to orthodoxies, although this is not the norm, unfortunately. Still, over four years or so of college, let alone graduate school, most students are exposed to teachers of a great variety of positions in the various disciplines they study so, when one adds to this outside reading and personal, creative thought, there is likely to evolve a fairly balanced educational experience. Even if some professors abuse the process and use their classes to indoctrinate, they can rarely succeed. To think they can is to give students and the system very little credit. If one keeps in mind that it is prudent to be on guard against professors who abuse their positions, I do not think there will be a great deal of successful advocacy in college education.

Sunday, March 25, 2007

Property Rights Redux

Tibor R. Machan

A little while ago I had occasion to spend time with some fine legal minds. For one thing, they were all convinced that the right to private property is central to a just legal order. And many of them were involved in striving to get this idea established and strengthened within the American legal system, in the various ways that’s possible to do through the legitimate avenues of advocacy, litigation, scholarship, and so forth.

I missed, though, one thing in the discussions that I heard, namely, a clear articulation of why a legal system should incorporate a firm commitment to the right to private property. Sure, the American founders appear to have been pretty firmly committed to the idea—although when they switched from “property” to “the pursuit of happiness” in their list of basic, unalienable rights in the Declaration of Independence, they opened up a good deal of room for controversy about just how loyal they were to the idea. Still, it isn’t often enough considered why this principle mattered to them so much and why others, who champion the free society, think so highly of it.

The issues isn’t moot at all. Among many American historians there is a persistent notion that the founders favored the right to private property for personal, economic reasons. They were land owners—Washington, especially—and so given a central place to the right to private property was a kind of self-interested project, not really one of principle. This was the theme of the historian Charles Beard, which held sway among many for decades and is still prominently featured in history classes from high schools to universities. His book, An economic interpretation of the Constitution of the United States (The Macmillan Co., 1913), advocated this view. And, more generally, the heavy influence of Marxist thinking on how history is understood among many academics keeps the idea alive—when people support an institution, public policy, or law from which they reap benefits, they must do so because of those benefits, never mind whether the idea has universal merit.

Unless this is rebutted, the principle of private property rights will forever be suspect no matter how much benefit it produces for a society in prosperity, technology, innovation, and so forth. Even apart from academics, most people think that unless an idea has independent moral and political merit, it just isn’t quite up to snuff. While they may not fully subscribe to the Kantian notion that “it is the thought that counts,” for most of them the thought does matter. A principle, in short, should gain principled support and not just be accepted because it is practically useful.

Defenders of the free society do need to revisit the issue of why is the right to private property important in a society. Is it because its adoption will make most of us richer? Is it because it will facilitate the growth of knowledge and scientific inquiry? Is it because the arts are better of in a rich society? Is it perhaps because in a rich country people can be more environmentally responsible? Or is there something even more fundamental about this right, given human nature and community life?

I have always found the last of these the most important reason for championing the right to private property and the economic system of capitalism that rests on it. Property rights are the foundation of freedom of choice. To be prudent, courageous, charitable, generous, philanthropic, and kind one needs to have command over resources. When others are authorized to expropriate one’s labor and resources, they are in charge of one’s life and conduct. One’s life slips from one’s own grasp and personal responsibility and the chance of morally significant action disappear.

The story is a longish one, of course, and can only be hinted at here. What is crucial is that underlying all the economic, legal and related support for the right to private property, it is remembered that a moral justification is required and, indeed, available.