Thursday, June 14, 2007

My Nemesis, RIP

Tibor R. Machan

The American radical pragmatist philosopher Richard Rorty has died, on Friday June 8th and although his views where abhorrent to me, I am not pleased. Yes, he advocated ideas that became far more prominent and influential than they should have, certainly much more so that those I find convincing. But he was also a rather civilized adversary—not that he ever acknowledged my own criticism of his views (which appeared both in scholarly and semi-scholarly journals [The American Scholar and Metaphilosophy] and in a book, Objectivity]—who wrote clearly and whose arguments needed to be answered.

Richard Rorty gained his prominence at Princeton University, where he taught philosophy and even led the department of philosophy for many years. His own philosophical guide was John Dewey, most importantly remembered as the advocate of so called progressive education and one of the leaders of the only home grown American philosophical movement, pragmatism.

Pragmatism was fashioned by American thinkers, although it had very little to say about the political ideas of the American Founders, which were taken from the English philosopher John Locke and which actually went quite the opposite direction from those of the pragmatist leaders, such as Charles Peirce, C. I. Lewis, William James and Dewey. The latter held, to put it in a nutshell, that there are no basic truths, no foundations of knowledge; whereas Locke and the American Founders thought that some things are indeed basic and true—for example, our individual human rights. Rorty, especially, scoffed at this notion, thinking that these rights are made up and that truth itself is just what a given community takes to be true, while another community could take something quite the opposed to be the truth.

Indeed, talk about truth, which had concerned most philosophers since time immemorial, was viewed with great suspicion by the pragmatists, especially by Richard Rorty. Even our everyday language reflects this—someone is a pragmatist if he or she refuses to abide by any principles, refuses to take anything as basically true, but is concerned with what works or is expedient. Some have noted that this pragmatist outlook has its roots in the practical, down to earth, not very intellectual style of much of American culture. And there may be something to this, although a philosophy in the old fashioned sense is supposed to figure out what it the case, at least basically, not what is convenient or practical, base on style alone.

I met Rorty once, late in his career, at a meeting of the American Philosophical Association, in the book exhibit, where he and I briefly talked about his most famous book, Philosophy as the Mirror of Nature. In this work Rorty was very critical of the aims of traditional philosophy—or rather of what he understood to be its aims, namely, to arrive at the ultimate, final, and perfect—some would claim impossible—Truth of things. (That had been the aim of some traditional philosophers but by no means all.) So I asked Rorty how come he keeps working in the philosophy department at Princeton. He just smiled at me as if I were a silly kid who doesn’t get it, although not long after he did resign from his position at Princeton ad left to become University Professor at the University of Virginia. (He ended his career and life teaching in the Department of Comparative Literature at Stanford University!)

Rorty’s thinking came to a head for me in a review he wrote for the venerable magazine, The New Republic, in which he declared, not long before the final collapse of the Soviet bloc, that there is no objective difference between the politics of the Soviets and that of Western countries. As he put it, we “cannot say that democratic institutions reflect a moral reality and that tyrannical regimes do not reflect one, that tyrannies get something wrong that democratic societies get right.” That was too much for me, given my own direct experience with both tyrannies—in my home land, Hungary, during its early experiment with Soviet style “communism”—and democracies—in Germany, the United States and Switzerland, where I have lived for various periods of time. I had come to the reasonably firm conclusion that one can, indeed, say that the latter “reflect a moral reality” while the former a definite immoral one!

So I went to work on Rorty’s ideas. And now the man has died. And I am not cheering his death because from what I came to know of him, his bad ideas were not all there was to Rorty. He was also a friend, a husband, and many other decent things in his life and for those of us who do take individual human lives—and human rights—seriously, even the death of an adversary, especially a civilized and intelligent one, is a sad thing.
What’s the Difference?

Tibor R. Machan

When I was in college ages ago the truth in advertising and lending and such measures were high on the agenda of modern liberals. Oddly, they were the same people, usually, who declared themselves to be loyal champions of free speech, defenders of an absolutist stance on the First Amendment to the US Constitution. But not when it came to commercial speech. You know those people in commerce—all chronic cheats and liars, of course. (The modern liberal’s hatred of commerce trumps their most cherished ideals!)

One time when this campaign against commercial speech was in progress, I walked by a church that featured a huge sign saying “Jesus Saves.” My mind immediately started to consider, well why not truth in religion? Why only commerce? Indeed, isn’t religion far more important to most people than mere business? If modern liberals insist that the task of good government is to be our nanny, to engage in paternalistic—what is now often dubbed “precautionary”—public policies, why don’t they all advocate strong federal regulation of religious speech? After all, nearly everyone believes that those who peddle religious ideas they do not share are charlatans, liars and cheats. And what they peddle, of course, is far more harmful than anything put into an advertisement, something most sensible people realize is filled with hype, gimmickry and not statements of purported truths. All those religious charlatans—I leave it to the reader to pick his or her own list—are misleading thousands, millions of human beings about what is by many people regarded of the utmost importance, namely, how to secure their everlasting salvation in the afterlife. If one is mislead about this, one won’t just purchase hazardous goods or services but lose forever one’s chance to attain the greatest prize of all! Surely this, more than anything else, requires some solid, conscientious federal, state, county, and similar government intervention.

But no. Entirely inconsistently, modern liberals—and, indeed, many folks of all ideological positions—insist that when it comes to this absolutely vital aspects of their lives—actually, their everlasting existence, here on earth and thereafter—people may be trusted to their own resources. They and their family and friends and fellow parishioners and such are entrusted fully with the job of taking care of all this, without introducing the state. Indeed, this last is deemed by most modern liberals—and, again, by many others—as completely anathema to what government’s role is in human community life. Other than outright attacks upon people, deliberately devious fraud and the like, government must stay away. It would be totally perverse to have government act in a precautionary fashion, as it is urged to do when it comes to innumerable other aspects of our lives (most notably, these days, how we related to the environment).

Yet this is totally absurd. And there is also the absurdity, when one considers the modern liberals case of government regulation and licensing and inspection and quality control—the stuff done, at the federal level, by OSHA and dozens and dozens of other agencies—that the profession of journalism ought to be exempt from the precautionary public intervention. Just watch and read the news and commentaries—they are filled with malpractice! Journalists routinely rush into print with items they have only the faintest ideas about, for example, in various branches of the sciences. They report on matters of no importance at all and treat various people as if they deserved the attention of their customers, viewers and readers. Yet, modern liberals and other champions of government’s role as our protector against the possibility of malfeasance do not advocate the establishment of departments of journalism at the various levels of government.

I must be careful. Someone I knew once quite well, the Louisiana attorney and politician Louis “Woody” Jenkins tried to demonstrate the absurdity of government regulation to members of the state government by proposing, of all things, the regulation of water diviners. Lo and behold, too many of them didn’t get the point and nearly enacted the measure into law!

Sunday, June 10, 2007

Fairness Is a Minor Virtue

Tibor R. Machan

Few ideas serve more wicked purposes as “fairness.” In public policy it is probably the most overused justification for increasing the power of some people over others, for meddling in others’ private lives, and for being guiltlessly resentful.

Yes, there is some virtue to fairness, as when teachers grade and parents divide the desert fairly. In short, fairness is a minor administrative virtue, handy once bigger issues have been dealt with properly, like justice, liberty, and merit.

Unfortunately the childish concern with whether one is being treated fairly by one’s superiors keeps preoccupying the minds of adults after they aren’t supposed to have superiors at all, after they are grown and reached the age of their own reason. At that stage, they are supposed to worry about how to direct their own lives, not whether others are being fair with it. So they keep saying things like “Life is unfair,” as if there were still some parents standing about assigning them tasks, distributing burdens and benefits. But the fact that some of us are too short for reaching the apples on trees is not unfair, anymore than that some are too large to become jockeys even if that is what we would really, really like to be. This is just life, nothing to do with fairness versus unfairness.

Yet by thinking that fairness has to do with such matters, there is a very powerful temptation to campaign for remedies—let’s get Congress, city hall, the welfare state and so on to equalize things out for us all (except, of course, where it comes to the power it takes to become an equalizer). So when some people are very pretty, much prettier—or richer or faster or more talented—than others, they are resented for this—especially for the benefits that may come their way in consequences—and much too much effort is spent on creating that mythical level playing field so many public philosophers demand.

Which, as noted already, produces a class of really unequal folks, unequal in the one matter in which equality should reign, namely, power over others. In that, you see, no one ought to have more or less than the rest because, in the end, no one has the right to rule others past the time of childhood.

Someone I know reasonably well, the philosopher Paul Kurtz—a major leader of the secular humanist movement—has recently made much of the fact that some people make a lot of money but are not taxed progressively enough. (“Progressive,” in taxation, means expropriating not the same percentage but a lot more from those who are wealthy!) He keeps insisting that despite the objection of his libertarian pals, such a policy is only fair. The rich have more, so taking a lot more from them is fair, he thinks.

There is, of course, no end of the ambiguity and vagueness attendant to discussions about fairness. Some rich folks may well have far more important tasks than some poorer ones and thus could use a lot more dough. But never mind—there is no sensible measure of such unhinged fairness, period.

But more important is the fact that when it comes to being the victims of taxation—which is a relic of feudal times and now amounts to plain old extortion—the more who can escape, the better. That is like it was with military conscription. (Come to think of it, quite a few who understood this about the draft just don’t get it when the issue of taxation comes up!) Evil, vicious policies need to be stopped and short of that they need to be escaped, dodged, evaded. So during the draft it was a good thing to “unfairly” escape it.

Yes, Virginia, successful draft dodgers were right and tax dodgers are, as well! The rest of us are just unfortunate victims who aren’t managing to get out from under. There is nothing fair about subjecting us all to equal measures of villainy! Yet that is exactly what Professor Kurtz is promoting: “Tax them all and those with more, tax even more!” That’s just bunk. Tax them none and if it cannot be stopped, applaud those who can skip out on this nasty scheme of extortion of some people by others, not condemn them.