Saturday, September 15, 2007

Death Taxes are Wrong

Tibor R. Machan

The debate about death taxes has resurfaced. Oddly even some Democratic Senators, such as Blanche Lincoln of Arkansas, have decried the estate tax as unfair. As she declared, "I, for one, intend to fight for these family businesses, fight for these communities, and fight for these jobs in rural country-America." To which the left of center New Republic commented, “It was all very moving. Especially if you stand to inherit an enormous fortune.”

Well, I do not “stand to inherit an enormous fortune,” nor do my children. I am millions of dollars from being a millionaire, that’s for sure. But it seems to me morally obscene to want to raid the wealth of those who mean to leave theirs to their families. It matters not a wit, from an ethical standpoint, that some of those who will get the money may not deserve it. This argument—reminiscent of the late Harvard political philosopher John Rawls’s beef that no one really deserves anything much since it is all determined to happen, whatever they “achieve”—is entirely specious, a blatant non-sequitur.

A great many of us do not deserve a great deal that we happen to have—our health, talents, good parents (if we are lucky to have them), nice neighbors, a decent country in which we have been born, our good looks, and on and on. Yes, how we assemble these assets or resources is often where our virtues make their appearance in our lives. But as far as fairness is concerned, which bothers so many who push for retaining and even increasing the estate—or death—tax, nothing in life is fair. (As I have argued before, fairness is a minor, administrative virtue, applicable only where a prior promise requires one to pay attention to members of some group, like a professor who is required to fairly distribute his or her pedagogical attention to all of his or her students!)

What is really at issue and is not discussed much is our unalienable private property rights. If I honestly make my millions and want them to go to my family, who has authorized all those politicians and bureaucrats to take it way to use as they want to? You think democracy has done that? No way.

One cannot do with any degree of moral justification in concert what one may not to do individually. And no one is authorized to take from people what they have either earned or simply happened to have come by through good fortune. They alone have the authority to assign who may use or will inherit their wealth. Even if those to whom they leave their wealth are ne’er-do-wells, it is nobody’s business other than the folks’ who have decided to bequeath their wealth as they saw fit. It makes no difference if inheritance sometimes leads to sloth. That is a private moral matter, not something for politicians and bureaucrats to fret about, just as they have no authority to mess with us because we are, say, wasting our talents or refusing to be productive or marry the wrong mate. In a free country such vices or failures will come back to haunt people who are guilty of them and certainly do not confer any authority upon aspiring paternalistic politicians and bureaucrats.

When human communities are formed, slowly or quickly, their purpose isn’t to have some members direct the lives of the rest of the members. Their purpose is to make it possible for all the individuals in the community to act as freely as possible and to take full responsibility for their actions. Politics, properly understood, is supposed to be about protecting, securing individual rights, just as the American Founders stated. Politics is not about treating members of human communities as if they belonged to some kind of “organic body” (Karl Marx’s term), as some kind of conscripted group guided by a special class of people who deem themselves more wise and virtuous then the rest of us.

In a genuinely free country laws don’t function as tools for regimenting people, imposing on them visions to which they have not given their consent. The vision that includes wealthy people distributing their wealth to “society” is deeply flawed. Not the least of its flaws is that “society” is actually just some other people who pretend to stand in for us all. That famous “we” are really just certain tricky folks pretending to know that’s to our good.

So I once again invoke a famous, apt saying of Abraham Lincoln, namely, "No man is good enough to govern another man without that other's consent." That includes no raiding the what the wealthy leave to their families.

Friday, September 14, 2007

Global Warming Ad Hominem

Tibor R. Machan

Someone I know in the community of academic philosophers who works mostly in environmental ethics recently labeled me a “global warming denier” because I am—along with quite a few lay and expert individuals interested in the topic—skeptical about the human contribution to global warming and related environmentalist contentions. Now this clearly isn’t how philosophers are supposed to conduct debates. It is more reminiscent of Thrasymacus than of Socrates, that’s for sure, the guy who crashes a serious discussion with his rude intrusions. Why?

Well, the term “denier” gained its prominence in recent decades from discussions about those who claim that the Holocaust never happened. Such folks do exist—in fact, the president of Iran, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, is among them, as well as a bunch of neo-Nazis and some—a few—Word War II revisionists I have actually met.

Now to deny that the Holocaust happened, that Hitler initiated and tried to carry out the final solution of ridding Germany, maybe even all of Europe, of Jews, is blatantly dishonest. It amounts to refusing to take account of innumerable historical records, photographic evidence, eye witness testimony, mass graves, etc., etc.

It is hard to imagine that this kind of denial is based on mere ignorance. Rather, much more likely, it comes from a hatred of Jews. It comes from the legacy of their vicious treatment throughout much of ancient and modern history, ending with the mass murder of millions of them in the 20th century.

In short, calling someone a denier is to morally indict the person, even to the point of charging him or her with complicity in such mass murder after the fact. Is this anything comparable to anthropogenic global warming skepticism? Clearly not.

Anthropogenic global warming skepticism involves serious doubts about whether the recent increase in atmospheric temperature has been dramatic and whether it is the result of human activities—mostly industrial as well as involving transportation and farming. Whatever the best understanding of global climate fluctuation may turn out to be, it is certainly not based on the kind of hard and fast evidence that we have of the Holocaust.

Most of the estimates about current and future climate change are based on complicated, often quite incomplete and relatively primitive records and on the computer models that utilize these records. While there is no serious debate about the usefulness of researching the issue with the aid of these records and the models that rely upon them, it is by no means ridiculous to regard the results less than conclusive. Indeed, even most environmentalist who share Al Gore’s perspective understand their concerns to be precautionary! That is to say, they are basically advising caution so as to guard against anything drastic happening in the future.

Let us suppose they are right. Could anyone reasonably compare having doubts about their advice to doubting that the Holocaust has happened? No way. Just the fact that we are talking about predictions of the future, which is always somewhat uncertain—except perhaps about such elementary matters that there will be a future—should make it clear that this isn’t a matter of denying anything since what will happen hasn’t yet happened and cannot actually be denied yet!

What the labeling of anthropogenic global warming skeptics as “deniers” does very strongly suggest is a good deal of desperation on the part of those who deploy that term. It suggests less than serious confidence in their own projections, needing instead of evidence the demagoguery of throwing around ad hominems, that is, insults.

Which would, it seems to me, add some more credibility to the skepticism that some people want so badly to silence. (Yes, Virginia, some American politicians have already tried to silence the skeptics by threatening those who fund their research with repercussions such as withdrawing whatever support they receive from government or excluding them from eligibility for government contracts in areas completely unrelated to climate change research!)

With the recent discovery of some serious errors in calculating the temperature of the earth—turns out the early 1990s were not the hottest years because there were hotter ones in the 1940s—the work of the skeptics is essential and to dismiss—indeed to morally deride—it is scandalous.

Monday, September 10, 2007

America and Libertarianism

Tibor R. Machan

Because America is still widely regarded as a pretty decent country, even while Left, Right and the rest find a lot of fault with it, the question of whether Democrats, Republicans, Liberals, Conservatives, Populists, or Libertarians are the most faithful to its central ideas and ideals is important to ask and answer.

The Left—or modern liberals—claim they are the true champions of American values because they stand up for the little guy and reject dominance by big business, just as some of the Founders did. The Right—or conservatives—believe they are the most faithful Americans because the country was founded by more or less avid Christians and has always embraced various important religious traditions, both social and political. Populists think they are the most American of them all because they claim they stand up for the power of the underdog, the people without much means but large in number.

Why does the libertarian think America is best understood in terms of libertarian ideas, principles, theories, and ideals? Because of what the Declaration of Independence states. Libertarians hold, with that venerable document, that everyone has an unalienable right to his life, liberty and pursuit of happiness. This means that others must secure one’s permission before utilizing one’s labor, time, works, resources for any purpose whatever. No one may intrude on another person without that person’s permission or consent.

The rights mentioned in the Declaration are unalienable, which means no one can lose his or her rights, they cannot be voted away, no one, government or neighbor, is authorized to violate them regardless of how important the purpose might be used to justify such violation. If one is concerned about the poor, others’ support must be obtained without coercion. If one is interested in converting someone to a different faith from the one he or she is practicing, this must be done by means of persuasion, by convincing people, not be forcing them to change their beliefs. If one disapproves of homosexuality, drug use, gambling, hunting, horseback riding or any other fundamentally non-coercive conduct by others, one must never resort to force to try to change their beliefs and behavior. If one wants to further space research or the fine arts, that too must be achieved without conscription anyone into these pursuits.

That is what having an unalienable right to one’s life and liberty and so forth means. No exceptions, even if there are complications and nuances involved in how these ideas and ideals are implemented.

It is interesting that Osama bin Laden’s latest lecture to those in the West urged them all to convert to Islam. Now urging them to do this is fully consistent with the principles of the Declaration. But terrorizing them if they refuse completely violates them. (One can ask Mr. bin Laden why one ought to convert to Islam but the answer cannot be because the Koran commands it, since that Koran has authority only over those who are Muslims, not over anyone else! But this holds also for anyone who urges another to convert to any faith at all—the reasons must be independent of the doctrine to which one is urged to convert.)

Many people in the West are not all that far from believing what Mr. bin Laden does, namely, that everyone ought to covert to their way of life, leave everything else behind. And it is only because of certain principles, the ones the Declaration lays out so succinctly, that most do not resort to coercion to try to get others to convert.

It used to be quite popular in the West, this coercive conversion idea. And in many ways it still is, as when people use the power of government—of physical force and its threat—to force others to give up their own resources, their own private property, so as to support some worthy cause. That is totally against what the Declaration identifies are our unalienable rights. Sure, most people in the West resort not to out and out terror but to more indirect force, via the legislative process, to pursue public policies that treat others as unwilling means to their ends. But the principle isn’t all that different from rank terror—the prospect of spending years in jail unless one pays up when the legislature insists one must for some cause or another is certainly terrifying to anyone.

The only contemporary political idea that really squares with the letter and spirit of the American founders is, then, libertarianism. Sure, they may not have gone so far as libertarians do to affirm the absolutely sovereignty of every adult individual. They may not have come up with substitutes for taxation, a system of extortion that violates the principle that one has an unalienable right to one’s life and liberty. But they laid the groundwork for advancing toward a truly free society. And it is libertarianism that most fully captures the implications of what they did declare to hold as being self-evidently true.