Friday, September 28, 2007

Blind to Long Term Damages

Tibor R. Machan

Eva Hoffman has written some interesting books, including novels, about post-Communist Eastern Europe. For all her insightfulness in those works, however, she can exhibit a profound blindness about the impact of communism on the societies that were touched by that system.

In a review of Polish novelist Adrzej Stasiuk’s novel, Nine, published in the October 11, 2007 issue of The New York Review of Books, Hoffman gives clear and sadly surprising evidence of this blindness. Here is the passage that jumps out at the reader:

“During the Communist decades, the food and clothing shortages, the grim Warsaw architecture, and the dreariness of living quarters could be seen as symptoms of ‘the system.’ Under which people had a perfect right to be unhappy. But no such rationales could be sustained after the Soviet bloc dissolved. The material conditions of most people’s lives remained largely unchanged, especially in the early stages, but a whole layer of ennobling interpretation was stripped away. Drab apartments, shabby clothes, and other indignities could no longer be seen as part of a large struggle against communism, but became simply signs of poverty and hopelessness”(p. 42).

So, let’s see what Hoffman is telling us here. Poland and the other former Soviet bloc countries could be seen as suffering all kinds of indignities, economic, psychological, moral and the rest, during the Soviet era because the Soviet system was seen to account for them. But as soon as that system ended, the lingering similar indignities Hoffman lists were left simply as “signs of poverty and hopelessness.” This suggests that the Soviet socialism had an impact on these countries and its people and institutions only up until it lasted as an operating system.

Now this is bizarre. When people suffer injuries in, say, an automobile crash, they usually need months to recover after the crash is over. When victims of assault and battery are no longer being beaten up, they go on suffering from the effects in innumerable ways. Would it not be reasonable to think, too, that after 45 years of tyranny, economic calamity, oppression, murder, mayhem and all the rest of what the Soviet system delivered upon its victims, the process of recovery would take time and the awful aftereffects of the ordeal would be extensive and last quite a long time. Especially when the follow-up to the ordeal is not really a healthy exercise in freedom but a mishmash of welfare statism these countries cannot afford and advice from erudite foreigners that does very little put the societies on the path of bona fide convalescence and recovery.

I suppose the reason Eva Hoffman is blinded to what to me seems quite obvious is that she, being a friend of the editors of The New York Review of Books, holds out hope for some kind of recovery in Eastern Europe without actual radical change. This is actually an attitude many share in those parts, somehow wishing both to cast off the Soviet style socialist oppression but retain, in some magical way, the expectation of the promises of socialism—equality, abundance, society-wide mutual love, absence of seeking profit in a market place, etc., etc., and so forth. This dream of squaring a political economic circle is most likely what is exacerbating the malaise that Ms. Hoffman and the author of the novel she was reviewing find so upsetting but apparently quite incomprehensible.

The fact is that bad systems can end and yet leave long lasting effects. Just consider America’s tragic history of chattel slavery and how the country hasn’t yet managed to recover from it. And when intellectuals like Ms. Hoffman and Mr. Stasiuk seem to be clueless about these matters and give their analyses and advice in light of their gross cluelessness, the problems keep piling up instead of abating.

I am not someone who likes to draw analogies between living organisms and societies but to a point that can be instructive. When a living organism has suffered enormous damage from some calamity, it needs to be treated with the utmost care and trained to regain its strength. A failure to recognize that the damage has produced long lasting effects can only make things worse.

Thursday, September 27, 2007

Power versus Precaution?

Tibor R. Machan

Over the last few years of following the debates about both anthropogenic global warming and what to do about terrorism, it is odd that neither lobby group tends to worry about the erosion of individual liberties. To put it differently, those who want to set up Draconian precautionary public policies to deal with global warming tend to be the ones who reject Draconian precautionary measures when it comes to dealing with terrorism—and vice-versa!. Why? Alarmists about the environment are willing to ignore individual rights, as do those worried about terrorism who tend also to scoff at fears that anti-terrorist hysteria will erode our liberties.

This is odd. If I am concerned about government eroding protection of individual rights, why would I not worry in both the above cases? Why would I not complain that environmentalists are undisturbed when their proposals pretty much mean government regimenting people’s lives inside and outside their homes—dictating to them when they may drive, how much, what fuel to use, how much to consume, etc., and so forth—when I do complain loudly that taking measures against the prospects of terrorism will curtain civil liberties—impose snooping, require getting federal ID cards and the rest? How come that the agendas of the environmentalists may bring upon us major restrictions of our liberties but the agendas of the anti-terrorist lobby may not—or vice-versa? After all, both limit our liberties in very substantial ways.

Once again the answer appears to be that Left and Right are both willing to make use of the power of government if it comes to advancing their own particular agenda; but they oppose using government when the other side wants to deploy it for its own. The one thing both neglect is a consistent concern about our right to liberty.

So, if global warming is to be dealt with, never mind the rights of individuals. It is more important to set up measures to cope with the possibility of environmental threats. Never mind that it isn’t even clear that global warming would be such a terrible thing—certainly it takes no rocket scientist to realize that many people in Siberia and Mongolia, for instance, may indeed welcome that prospect. As to terrorism, the main thing to fear from the terrorists is that they would bring about a religious dictatorship, conscript us all to follow their faith, kill or maim us if we resist. But if resisting terrorism promises something very similar—those who fail to comply with the policies that supposedly thwart the terrorists are going to be dealt with pretty harshly—then it seems that fighting terrorism promises to be nearly as bad as experiencing it.

In a genuine free country the official legal policy should be to solve problems without abridging the basic principles of the system. These principles are individual rights, supposedly unalienable even in times of emergency. So whatever precautions need to be taken to deal with one or another hazard, threat, or prospective calamity must be made to conform to those basic principles. This is probably most evident in how a free society deals with crime. Regardless of urgency, the rights of the accused may not be disregarded. Sure, now and then officials and some members of the public propose to do away with due process, habeas corpus, and so forth. But this tends to be widely resisted as well. Most people seem to appreciate that in a regime of individual liberty—in a free country, in other words—there must be vigilant resistance to compromising the basic principles of the system.

It would be very gratifying and refreshing if both those who worry about global warming and those concerned with terrorism would focus a good deal of their energy on how do deal with those problems without violating anyone’s rights. Then, perhaps, members of these groups could even gain some trust among the general population, trust that they aren’t more interested in gaining power over others than in solving the problems that seem to serve as the excuse for gaining that power.

Monday, September 24, 2007

Rights & Duties, Left & Right

Tibor R. Machan

It is interesting that both the Right and the Left complain about the American (Lockean) political tradition because it emphasizes individual rights and not responsibilities or duties. The complaint is ill founded, however.

First, a regime of individual rights does directly imply legal responsibilities or duties, albeit of a limited sort. If all human beings have a right to their lives, liberties, etc., this implies that everyone has the legally enforceable duty to abstain from violating these rights. If violations do occur, sanctions may be applied. And in a complex society those responsibilities are quite complicated, though they involve mostly not doing things to people rather than doing things for them.

Yet, implicit in a regime of individual rights is also the idea that citizens have innumerable familial, fraternal, professional, and related responsibilities. These, however, are either ethical and thus not subject to legal enforcement, or contractual, in which case whether one assumes them is itself a free choice of a citizen.

What critics fail to heed is that duties that are carried out because the legal authorities threaten averse repercussions if they aren’t are of no moral significance at all. If citizens provide support for their fellows because if they do not, they will go to jail, this does not improve anyone’s moral character and does not add to the moral quality of the society. Quite the opposite—a totalitarian approach to conduct sets in whereby citizens do not have to cultivate their virtues but merely obey authorities. It is difficult to imagine that anyone, Right or Left, interested in improving the ethics of a society’s population would find satisfaction with such a result.

So the complaint about the idea underlying the Lockean regime of individual rights not making room for responsibilities in our lives is entirely off base. If there is any political system that makes room for our innumerable moral responsibilities in life, it is the Lockean individualist kind because only in such a system are citizens free to make the choice to do the right thing. Of course, this also means they are free to choose badly, but that is part of the human condition. We have free will and to exercise it involves the risk that we may not do so properly. But to substitute the government, whether representative or dictatorial, for the citizen’s own moral conscience or lack thereof is antithetical to a civilized human community.

Here is where both Left and Right are so much alike. Both want people to behave right and differ mostly on which areas of life they want to ethically micromanage. The Left wants us all to be generous and charitable toward those in need, those less fortunate than others, those who may through their own fault or without fault fall behind in life or have never gotten ahead in the first place. Generosity, charity, philanthropy, compassion, and such are what the Left wants from us all and if it isn’t forthcoming in sufficient abundance, the Left will readily send out the bureaucrats and the police to make sure we all do the right thing by their lights.

The Right is no different from this except in where lies its priority. Piety, humility, spirituality, prudence, religiosity, honor, valor, and similar virtues stand at the forefront of what the Right demands of us all and if we do not deliver, the Right is just as willing to regiment us to fall in line with its vision of propriety as the Left. And they are willing to call in the bureaucracy and police just as readily as the Left to make sure the citizenry complies.

Censoring, banning, and regimenting are exactly what both Left and Right advocate and, of course, the Lockean individualist regime stands in their way. Why? Because the Lockean tradition leaves morality to individual choice. Not what is moral but whether individuals will do what is moral. That is the nature of freedom. That is what a free society ensures for its citizenry. And that is what neither Left nor Right has any patience for—they both distrust persuasion, education, proselytization, peer pressure, and other peaceful means of inducing their fellows to do the right thing. They distrust us fundamentally, yet somehow trust themselves to be wise and virtuous in the midst of all this human imperfection.

That is one reason one finds both the Left and the Right so fond of utopian visions, since they commonly promise to set everything aright from above. As if those “above” were superhuman. But, of course, they are not and so the power they gain quickly corrupts them and the result is that human community life turns out to be a disaster, nothing like the glorious vision Left and Right wishes to bring to fruition.

Let’s trust the Lockean tradition, even if its promise is modest. It can actually be fulfilled and come off as quite civilized and just, contrary to its critics’ contentions.

Sunday, September 23, 2007

Multiculturalism Takes Another Hit

Tibor R. Machan

It is a central theme of multiculturalism that human conduct is never right or wrong, merely either in conformity or not with the demands of one’s culture. So that when women are subjected to beatings or female “circumcision” in certain places around the globe, whether this is OK to do is dependent on what those in the culture approve of. So, by the tenets of multiculturalism, there are no universal principles to guide how people act, how they may be judged. It’s all relative.

Some years back International Greenpeace faced a dilemma. Since the group championed both animal rights and multiculturalism, the members were hard put to figure what to do about a tribe of Canadian Indians that bludgeoned baby seals as one of its cultural practices. In time Greenpeace reportedly decided that multiculturalism is more important and dropped its objections to the slaughter of baby seals.

Oddly, when in a recent issue of The New Republic one George Pelecanus discussed Michael Vic’s involvement with dog fighting ["Barking Mad," September 10, 2007, pp. 12-13], he made no mention of the fact that in multicultural terms, what Vic did might be deemed quite acceptable. There is, to wit, a problem with condemning Vic conduct for~anyone championing~cultural diversity. Just what are the limits of multiculturalism, if anything, and why?

In very nearby Mexico, for example, cockfighting is a popular spectator "sport." Across the border in its banned. In Spain bull fighting is deemed to be perfectly acceptable, while elsewhere it is taken to be a barbaric indulgence. So what gives? How does the often astute New Republic stand on this issue? Is there something universally wrong with cruelty toward animals or is it a cultural matter? Why one or the other?

Even for those who consider it unethical to mistreat animals—well, some of them, because they rarely fret about the mistreatment of insects or flies—there are some distinctions that need to be addressed. For example, is something that’s unethical also to be legally prohibited? But then would all those who believe so fervently in freedom of the press or free speech be completely wrong? After all, under the legal protection of the right to freedom of speech—or as many now put it, freedom of expression so as to include all sorts of artistic creation—people may say endless unethical things.

A good case in point is that not very long ago many people in the West criticized the violent reaction of some Muslims to the caricature in some Danish newspapers of the prophet Mohammed. These Westerners readily granted that many of the cartoons were insulting, even blasphemous—thus unethical, in fact—but insisted that this did not by any means justify banning them or punishing those who created and published them. Their stance is based on the view that while it is quite possible that certain conduct is morally objectionable, it doesn’t follow that this justifies prohibiting it. If it did, a most basic precept of Western liberalism would come under fire. So, instead, we have the distinction between crimes—namely, conduct that may be banned—and wrongdoings, which may be condemned but not banned.

Now does the mistreatment of dogs by Michael Vic or anyone else amount to unethical conduct that may be banned? Or is it conduct that in a free society must be discouraged some other way, without the benefit of the force of law? Certainly many in America take it as given that mistreating the dogs should be legally actionable—see, for example, Are they right? If so, does it follow that misconduct in general may be prohibited? And does that not imply that the very idea of a free society ought to be abandoned and the conduct of the citizenry of any society micromanaged, regimented so that it conform to ethical standards? Or is there some criterion by which wrongful conduct can be separated into those subject and those not subject to legal sanctions? Is all of this supposed to be merely a matter of how people happen to feel in some country or region of the globe but not in others?

In which case why not look upon the conduct of Michael Vic and others who mistreat animals as simply something some would ban but others would not, and rightfully so? The criticism and legal condemnation of Mr. Vic seem to me to have been based mostly on sentiment, not on a rational assessment of the relevant issues. And doing so violated a very basic principle of a civilized society, namely, the rule of law. It seems to me that the matter needs to be thought through and not be approached merely by consulting one’s feelings.