Saturday, June 30, 2007

Pollution and Government

Tibor R. Machan

At a recent conference I attended one speaker made the point, now widely admitted, that air quality in America has markedly improved over the last several decades. (For a good treatment of this topic, see Joel Schwartz, “Blue Skies,” The American, May/June 2007.) Yet at the same time the speaker also argued for a free market in air quality management.

Some in the audience came up to me later—I had invited the speaker—and said, “How could he criticize government intervention in air quality control when his own data suggests that the improvements occurred because of stricter standards imposed by the government.” And this was a fair enough question—can one defend a free market in this area after it has been government that has helped to reform much of the country when it comes to pollution, ozone depletion and similar vices that have been responsible for so much dirt in the air and water around the country?

Actually, there is no contradiction here at all. The reason is that a free market does not by any means preclude law enforcement where crimes are concerned. Just for starters, a free market system requires steady and consistent identification and protection of private property rights. And it also requires respecting freely entered into contracts, something that very often involves the courts and police.

Indeed, the free market presupposes private property rights and enforcement of contracts, both ultimately in need of legal adjudication and law enforcement. This is just like the fact that a free country presupposes the protection of the rights to life, liberty and pursuit of happiness of its citizens by the agency that is instituted to carry out that job, usually (but not only) the government.

Setting up and enforcing standards of air quality is not in principle different from this kind of law enforcement—the only kind that was identified by the American Founders as the just power of government, namely, “to secure our rights.” Yes, rights-protection involving pollution is a complicated matter—detection is tougher, borders are not easy to define, etc. But that is what a legal order is for, namely, to apply the basic principles of a free society to ever more complicated matters. Just consider how free speech rights need to be translated now to be properly applied to the Internet. The framers of the U. S. Constitution could not anticipate the details but the principles they identified are so general—they apply to human community life in all its incarnations—as to have implications for matters they couldn’t even imagine.

When pollution became a problem in America, it took a while to see how the law ought to deal with it. Many champions of government intervention wanted to do this by means of heavy government regulation, as if some Tsar at the top could manage it all. In fact, however, that option falls victim to numerous problems, including what public choice theory suggests, namely, that regulators tend to have their own agenda, influenced by various special interests.

In time, however, it became clear enough to many that the only sensible way to deal with pollution and similar problems is by applying the principles of property rights. What economists call negative externalities—bad side effects of production and transportation that injure non-consenting bystanders—need either to be internalized (firms need to handle them by assuming full cost for their containment) or banned (when the damage is significant enough).

As these legal devices became more and more sophisticated—and sometimes used by government regulators to impose certain standards that would indeed be helpful (although regulation wasn’t necessary to do so; adjudication would have handled it all)—the problems of pollution began to abate. And as Schwartz shows, despite massive expansion of industrialization, transportation, and population, America is now cleaner than it was been a long time. It wasn’t government meddling that brought this about but the proper deployment of governments legal powers to stop some people from dumping their waste products on innocent others.

Thursday, June 28, 2007

David Brooks, Edmund Burke Wannabe

Tibor R. Machan

In America we have two kinds of conservatives: Those who basically insist that it's vital to preserve the basic precepts of the American political tradition, the ideals of the American founders. Two of them are the very visible William F. Buckley, Jr., and George F. Will, both highly educated pundits. These wish to conserve the central tenets of the Declaration of Independence, which are in fact radical ideas about basic unalienable individual rights, freedom, strictly limited government and so forth.

The second kind have a different purpose: To promote the idea that human beings are not up to the task of self-government. Individual sovereignty, for such conservatives, is trumped by group think, which includes people’s instincts or unconscious beliefs. Among these conservatives are David Brooks, the NYT pundit, and such earlier figures as Russell Kirk, author of The Conservative Mind (1953), a book that contains endless intellectual assaults upon human reason and much support for the view that people are basically, well, corrupt. For these the proper approach to public policy, as well as social mores, is to defer to tradition, to the implicit, tacit judgments of the collective (meaning those who speak for them).

In the mid-20th century the two carried out a pretty open debate about which is on sound footing. Young Americans for Freedom (YAF) had experienced serious upheavals, as a result. Frank S. Meyer, Frank Chodorov, and Buckley himself had ruminated extensively about how the two strains might be fused into one movement but no fusion ever materialized—Barry Goldwater came closest to achieving it, for example in his book Conscience of a Conservative (1960).

The two conservatisms are still represented in public discussions, mainly by Will, who has lately drifted more and more toward the individualist, American conservative camp, and by David Brooks, who is promoting the Burkean wing. His arguments are different, however.

Brooks has been laying out the same conclusions as Edmund Burke but now based on certain alleged scientific findings. Burke said, based on his understanding of history and community life, that,

“...Men have no right to risk the very existence of their nation and their civilization upon experiments in morals and politics; for each man's private capital of intelligence is petty; it is only when a man draws upon the bank and capital of the ages, the wisdom of our ancestors, that he can act wisely.…”

And he taught, also, that

“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”

David Brooks, in turn, has been saying something pretty close to this but in modern jargon:

“There is no central executive zone in the brain where all information is gathered and decisions are made. There is no little homunculus up there watching reality on a screen and then deciding how to proceed. In fact, the mind is a series of parallel processes and loops, bidding for urgency.”

Furthermore, continues Brooks,

“We're not primarily deciders. We're primarily perceivers. The body receives huge amounts of information from the world, and what we primarily do is turn that data into a series of generalizations, stereotypes and theories that we can use to navigate our way through life. Once we've perceived a situation and construed it so that it fits one of the patterns we carry in our memory, we've pretty much rigged how we're going to react, even though we haven't consciously sat down to make a decision.”

Burkean conservatives, currently represented by Brooks, embrace a paradox. Their ideas are themselves thought up by individuals—e. g., before by Burke and now by Brooks. But though in less Draconian ways they embrace the philosophies of the Fascists, the Nazis, and the Communists, all of whom demean the capacities of individuals to decide about their lives. Human beings only take in ideas, by osmosis, and then implement them practically unconsciously.

So, then, not only in their conclusions but also in their premises Left and Right tend to be united against the freedom of the individual.

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Normative versus Positive Statements

Tibor R. Machan

Professor Walter Williams is a very good economists but not so good at moral philosophy, as is demonstrated by his recent column (titled in my local paper, “Don’t Confuse what is with what should be”). In this piece he lays out what can fairly be said is now a widely discredited theory about whether moral judgments, like those in the various sciences, are subject to proof. He states that “Normative, or subjective statements deal with what’s good or bad, or what ought to be or should be” and adds, that “there are no facts whatsoever to which we can appeal to settle any disagreement.” He goes on: “One person’s opinion on [a normative] matter is just as good as another’s.”

It is true enough that this is one theory that has been influential especially in modern philosophy, ever since David Hume is said to have defended it (although there is doubt about that too), but it is by no means the only one. A reason for this is that the theory is self-defeating—it implies that normative statements should not be taken as seriously as scientific ones, yet that statement is itself a normative statement. Indeed, if Williams were correct, the suggestion that superstition is bad but scientific findings are good would be insupportable. All “ought” claims, including the one implicit in Williams’ view would just amount to babble.

Furthermore, his own views on politics, law, economic policy, and so forth would carry no more credence than do those of all the people he criticizes—which are numerous. Then, also, claiming that what deals with “what’s good or bad, or what ought to be or should be” is all subjective—completely up to the subjects who says so, is extremely controversial. After all, if so, then condemning terrorists or students who cheat or dishonest merchants amounts to nothing but arbitrary, unjustified venting. The response, “Well, that’s just what you think but nothing justifies it” could be perfectly adequate.

Those who have been studying the foundation of ethics—who have advanced various arguments on just why acting in certain ways is wrong and in others is right—have had to deal with skeptics like Walter Williams throughout history. Yet that is also true about those who have been studying the foundation of the sciences. There are many, many skeptics about scientific beliefs, those who hold that ultimately science rests on quicksand, that there is nothing concrete, solid supporting scientific findings and they are only true within certain frameworks. If one rejects those frameworks, the science no longer holds.

Skeptics and their critics have been around for a long time and their moves have been fascinating. Suffice it to say here—for this isn’t where such a controversial issues will be treated fully—that plenty of thinkers have proposed plausible views about the objectivity of ethics. (For one, check out my own book, Objectivity [Ashgate, 2006].) Great minds like Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Thomas Aquinas, John Locke, Immanuel Kant, and many later ones have advanced ideas that are in direct opposition to Walter Williams’ position on this topic, though many, also, support him. (He himself more often then not writes as if he does not believe what he has said on the issue since he confidently and firmly debunks those who recommend policies and principles of conduct different form those he considers sound. If it’s only subjective, why all the confidence?)

It is true enough that when we come to how people ought to act, agreement is more difficult to reach than about, say, what causes a fire or some medical ailment. But the reason for this could be that people are more stubborn when they deal with what is right or wrong. Answers to that reflect directly upon our own character and self-image, so it is very tempting to feign confusion and skepticism.

Most of us know, however, in our common sense approach to the world that lying and cheating are most often wrong; that wanton torture is evil; that claiming credit for someone else’s academic artistic or indeed any other good work is despicable, and that neglecting to raise one’s children with proper values is malpractice. And the reason we do is that these normative notions have been well considered and found to be true—as true as they can be, which is true enough.

Monday, June 25, 2007

Does Radical Left Equal Radical Islam?

Tibor R. Machan

Increasingly I have been recalling when University of Michigan Professor of Law, Catherine McKinnon used to advocate censoring pornography because she believed it is an assault upon women. She lays out her case in her very prestigiously published slim and readable book, Only Words (Harvard University Press, 1993). She not only developed a case for censoring pornography but also went north to Canada to help guide their legal system to implement her ideas in their Constitution.

Paradoxically McKinnon had once defended some Muslim women against their Bosnian oppressors who had tried to restrain their all too Western activities, in K. v. Karadzic, 866 F. Supp. 734 (S.D.N.Y. 1994), 70 F. 3d 232 (2d cir. 1996), all in the name of feminism. Yet, she also gave expert testimony against white supremacists on harm of discriminatory symbols (swastika and cross burning) in support of human rights statue prohibiting them, before Board of Inquiry in Alberta and won the case. (See, Kane v. Church of Jesus Christ Christian—Aryan Nations, Board of Inquiry Decision [Edmonton, Alberta], Feb. 28, 1992.)

The reason these facts have been occupying my attention is that they call to mind for me a strain of thinking in the West that really isn’t at all different from that exhibited by radical Islamists. Remember the reaction in some Muslim communities to the exercise of the right to journalistic freedom when some Danish newspapers published pictures that were regarded as offensive to Islam? And, of course, there is the fatwa—a contract for murdering someone—that has never been rescinded against novelist Salman Rushdie who was accused of insulting Islam in his book Satanic Verses. The deadly reaction, in which Danish embassies were attacked, had been justified on the grounds that insulting Islam must be punished with murder, nothing less.

Of course, Professor McKinnon does not advocate murdering those who insult woman by producing and publishing pornography but the principles underlying her case isn’t different from the principles embraced by radical Islamists. Both believe that writing or speaking against something isn’t “only words” but amount to what should be legally actionable offenses.

But we can take this even further, to policies embraced by many mainstream modern liberal thinkers—e.g., the notion that there should be hate crimes. Never mind that the evidence for the hate is insulting language and other non-aggressive though admittedly insulting, offensive symbolism. The Southern Poverty Law Center, co-founded by Morris Dees and Joe Levin, actively promotes legal sanctions against those who have promoted ideas and ideals that could inspire some to act violently against innocent members of minorities. Again, the issue isn’t that there is nothing wrong with promoting such ideas and ideals but that Dees and Levin urge us to forcibly restrain those with them.

But even more nearly mainstream is the idea that if one discriminates against someone, one has infringed his or her human rights. Yet, such discrimination is often nothing more than the exercise of one’s right to freedom of association, as when someone refuses to sell goods or services to members of certain minorities or to hire them for a position one has available in one’s business. Not that there may not be some kind of legal objection against such policies, given that in numerous cases there is no disclosure of the discriminatory policy. Yet, the law often prohibits such policy, so it would be illegal to disclose it! Only in strictly personal relationships, like those pursued on dating Web Sites, is one free to practice discrimination that may well be irrational—e.g., wishing only to date blacks or whites or light skinned Indians.

All this violates the right of freedom of association and is often against the law. When radical Muslims advocate the more extreme versions of these public policy measures, wishing to herd everyone everywhere into the Islamic community and using whatever force they can get away with to bring this about, they could see regarded as taking these politically correct public policies to their logical conclusion.

It might be of interest to see what Professor McKinnon thinks about the policies advocated by radical Islamists. It could give us a clue as to just how many prominently published and positioned thinkers in the West share the premises of those who wish to destroy it. (One web site does discuss McKinnon’s odd position—
Compared to What?

Tibor R. Machan

In yet another so called book review in The New York Review of Books, the author unleashes some pretty vindictive remarks at capitalism, or what is left of it in America. James Lardner, a senior fellow at Demos, which is dubbed a center for public policy—for my money, read “partisan Leftist propaganda”—in New York City (and author of Inequality Matters: The Growing Economic Divide in America and Its Poisonous Consequences), uses three books to advance his own poisonous views, The Disposable American, The Great American Jobs Scam, and The Battle of the Soul of Capitalism. As is not difficult to figure out, these are all attacks on the free market—never mind that no such thing even exists in America!

I am not going to go through the entire “review” but merely quote the final paragraph, which will suffice here as a vehicle for illustrating how writers like Lardner use any means to distort what free markets are about.

“Most Americans are troubled by the culture of dealmaking and financial engineering and insider self-enrichment that [one of the authors] deplores; by the callous treatment of communities and community institutions that [another] examines. Not very far below the political surface, most of us feel some version of the same vexed ambivalence toward corporate American—dazzled by the conveniences and comforts it delivers, yet resentful of the tradeoffs that it continually demands; few Americans would be anything but grateful if our corporations and financial institutions could develop some respect for our non-material and non-individualistic selves. It is hard to imagine such a fundamental transformation of these giant institutions. It is even harder to imagine a better world in which they remain essentially what they are.” (TNYR, 6/14/07, p. 65)

Where to begin? Let’s start with some problems of journalism—where is the data about Americans being “troubled by the culture of dealmaking”? Most Americans I know are diligent dealmakers themselves, as they shop in stores, on line, or when they purchase homes and look for apartments to rent. Very few consider themselves guilty for practicing the prudence involved in looking for good deals. So why would they begrudge others doing so, including the financial professionals who care for their wealth? Where is the beef, Mr. Lardner?

Are corporations callous toward their communities? I live in Orange County, California, where corporations fund universities, art centers, and museums, among other “community institutions,” to the tune of multiple millions of dollars. Day after day the local newspaper reports on these gifts, many of them anonymous! Where are all those Americans who are “resentful of the tradeoffs” that corporate America allegedly demands? Again, there is no data here, nothing, just a brazen allegation. Never mind that of all the developed countries in the world, America is the most generous when it comes to voluntary contributions to institutions that seek corporate and individual support.

So then what about corporations addressing “our non-material and non-individualistic selves”? Again, there is no clarification here—is the enrichment of stockholders who use their wealth to fund their children’s education, health care, and vacations something “material”? What on earth amounts to “material” stuff anyway, when even a simple wristwatch is practically a work of art these days? Where are all those Americans to are hooked a sheer matter instead of matter formed and shaped into artifacts that are infused, through and through, with aesthetic and utilitarian attributes? Very few of them are of this sort, by all reasonable observation of ourselves and our fellows.

What, also, is so glorious about our non-individualist selves? An individualist is someone who claims the right to make his or her own judgments as to what to do in life, whom to associate with, what goals to pursue, and so forth. An individualist is not some hermit in the wilderness pretending to be self-sufficient but someone who insist that he or she is better qualified to run his or her life than are politicians, bureaucrats, and their cheerleaders, such as Mr. Lardner! (It is not too farfetched to speculate that these folks desire us to give up our individualist selves mostly so they can step in and order us about as they would wish us to be, never mind our consent. Not very far, by the way, from the dreams of the Nazis, Fascists, and Communists, all of whom hated individualism!)

Finally, it is not at all that difficult to imagine “a fundamental transformation of these giant institutions” nor an allegedly “better world in which they remain essentially what they are.” The world has seen the attempts at grand transformations, thank you. What is needed is for things to change not in the direction of greater influence by the likes of Mr. Lardner but by F. A Hayek, Ludwig von Mises and a host of others who love liberty instead of top-down social engineering.