Tuesday, December 25, 2007

The Return of Serfdom

Tibor R. Machan

The American Founders initiated a revolution by removing sovereignty from the government--kings and the like--and recognizing that it is individual human beings to whom sovereignty rightfully belongs. (Sovereignty means self governance, self rule.) By implementing the political philosophy of John Locke, who identified the natural rights of every human being to life, liberty, and property, the founders changed things radically, far more radically than did the communists later on who followed Karl Marx’s reactionary program of socialization.

But the American Founders did not eliminate one of the crucial features of the old order, namely, taxation. That is the system under which the government owns the wealth of a country and merely permits the people to live and work there, collecting a good chunk of their earnings as payment for the privilege. Serfdom, the other crucial feature of the old order, had however been overthrown in America. That was because individual rights are plainly incompatible with the government’s ownership of the people, which is what serfdom really amounts to. The serfs were supposed to belong to the king who gave them to the lords and other occupants of land, supposedly so they be taken good care of. In fact, of course, they were thoroughly exploited for the economic benefit of the ruling classes, including the royal court.

To remind ourselves that the elapse of time doesn’t always mean the improvement of circumstances, we should notice that in our day there is a slow, sometimes imperceptible return to the age of serfdom. The government now provides for millions of people, through various welfare programs for nearly every segment of society, supposedly to take good care of them. And all this is now being vigorously supported by some of the most prominent political theorists at America’s premier universities.

But so far the apologists for the massive and growing welfare state have only argued that the wealth of the country belongs to government instead of the citizens. (It is actually the corporate sector that is now the greatest recipient of welfare, of so called entitlements--via subsidies, protection against competition from abroad as well as domestic rivals.) They have openly, denied the right to private property in books such as The Myth of Ownership and The Cost of Rights, as well as various articles published in prominent magazines and journals. The idea is that individuals have no right to private property and government owns the country’s resources. The defense of this notion takes a variety of forms but the bottom line is the rejection of the Lockean individualist view in favor of a collectivist vision of society.

Few of these apologists have done so far as to claim that individual human beings belong to the government, although some, like the Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor, have argued that people’s lives belong to their communities, not to themselves. (Oddly, Taylor was a recent recipient of the substantial Templeton Prize! This despite the fact that John Templeton is reputed to be a defender of the free market, an institution that depends on the Lockean theory of individual rights!) In fact, however, with the growing number of citizens who demand entitlements from the government their claim that their lives are their own is unconvincing. When the government feeds you, houses you, provides you with medical care, with retirement benefits, and all the rest to which one is now entitled, it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that Americans are no longer citizens but have reverted to the status of subjects, if not outright serfs. Is your life really yours when you live off the state? No.

It is one thing to advocate a social order in which men and women freely help their needy fellows. That is what generosity recommends. It is an entirely different matter when men and women are coerced into involuntary servitude and the beneficiaries become beholden to them for nearly everything in their lives, starting from early childhood education all the way to old age pension.

Do not be surprised that very soon we will be hearing and reading explicit arguments for the claim that individuals do not own their lives--they have no right to it--but actually belong to the state; that they are actually serfs! And all this coming from the progressives among our political thinkers.
It’s deja vu All Over Again

Tibor R. Machan

Back in 1971 the late Harvard behaviorist psychologist B. F. Skinner published his popular best seller, Beyond Freedom and Dignity (New York, Knopf). The book followed several more technical works by Skinner arguing that the belief that human beings have free will and are morally responsible is all wrong, a pre-scientific prejudice that needs to be discarded and replaced with a technology of behavior.

This work prompted me to write my first book, The Pseudo-Science of B. F. Skinner (Arlington House, 1973), in which I disputed Skinner’s claim to have come up with scientific reasons for rejecting free will and moral responsibility. I argued that he was actually subscribing to a certain school of philosophy that advanced the views he championed. His conclusions about free will and morality were not based on scientific findings at all.

It is now over 30 years since Skinner’s work appeared and behaviorism is no longer all the rage in the discipline of psychology. But the basic goal of discrediting free will and moral--including legal or criminal--responsibility is still very much on the agenda of some folks. Only the school of psychology that is supposed to be undermining the belief in human freedom and morality is no longer behaviorism. Now it is some people’s version of neuroscience.

The basic contention put forth by some of the champions of this new scientific approach to understanding human behavior is that our actions aren’t really ours at all. And, very interestingly, the idea has enormous financial support from no less than the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation. It has contributed $10 million to do research on the issues involved, with the work carried out at the University of California at Santa Barbara.

Now I say that this money will go to do research but it looks very much like some of those involved do not think much research is needed because they write as if they had already reached their conclusions. As an article on the website of the project-- http://www.lawandneuroscienceproject.org/neurolaw%20fact%20sheet%20QandA.pdf--tells it,

"The U.S. legal system incorporates assumptions about behavior that, in some cases, are centuries old and based on common sense and culture. For example, it tends to assume that people make deliberate choices and that those choices determine what they do. However, recent breakthroughs in neuroscience research indicate that such choices may sometimes be based upon electrical impulses and neuron activity that are not a part of conscious behavior. These actions can include not only criminal activity, but also decisions made by police, prosecutors, and jurors to arrest, prosecute, convict, or mandate treatment."

In other words, as some of these scientists would have it, we are back to Skinner, although in slightly modified terms. As the new technologists of human behavior see the matter, it is not operant conditioning that drives human behavior but impersonal electrical firings in our brains. Human beings do not make conscious decisions, they do not deliberate but are being driven by “electrical impulses.” (I wouldn’t put much stock in the qualification “sometimes” since anyone familiar with the work of some of the enthusiasts behind these ideas can tell that theirs is actually a sweeping pronouncement about all human behavior!)

A column isn’t the place to attempt to rebut these ideas, merely to call attention to the eagerness with which some are promulgating them and to the enormous investment in the attempt to make them influential. But one thing can be said so as to put a bit of a break on all this enthusiasm about denying the efficacy of human conscious thought in directing human conduct. The British psychologist D. Bannister put the matter very poignantly over 30 years ago: “... the psychologist cannot present a picture of man which patently contradicts his behavior in presenting that picture.”

The point is that the champions of the relevant kind of neuroscience and its alleged findings are themselves making decisions, deliberating, and consciously deciding about what to do, day in and day out, including when they decide to make various claims about the implications of their work for the legal system they wish to discredit and take steps to convince the rest of us of how outmoded our thinking and institutions are. They cannot have it both ways--deny that people make decisions but then proceed to make all sorts of significant decisions themselves!

The plain fact is that there is something basic, undeniable about the role of our minds in our conduct, even in conduct that aims to discredit the human mind itself.

Monday, December 24, 2007

Fifth Estate Anyone?

Tibor R. Machan

It used to be thought that the press is the fourth estate, meaning a kind of shadow branch of government that keeps an eye on Washington and other centers of power to make sure politicians and bureaucrats are being watched. After all, government officials have a special advantage in gaining the ear of reporters with their news releases, declarations, and other proclamations of good will! So it is a helpful thing, one would hope, that an entire industry is devoted to challenging what they tell us.

Alas, now we seem to need a fifth estate, what with the press having become a sort of independent force that has its own agenda which tends to distort what is reported by it. This fifth estate is what the on line encyclopedia, Wikipedia describes, as the “media that sees itself in opposition to mainstream (Fourth Estate) media.” We might call it the meta-media!

One sign of how bad things have become in the fourth estate is to see all the journalists who are interviewing other journalists, not the actual players, when some vital or interesting event is “in the news.” Television news reports are especially notorious for this. Often instead of finding someone in the middle of a news story who should be interviewed, scrutinized, challenged or the like, what we are given is another reporter from the same or some other friendly “news” organization who becomes the subject of an interview. This kind of celebrity journalism seems to need some oversight.

One individual who seems to have taken an oath to do just this is the Chair of the Department of Economics at George Mason University, near Washington DC, Professor Donald J. Boudreaux. For quite some time now he has been reading a great many of the country’s prominent newspapers each morning (I assume) and sending off letters to the editor whenever he finds that the papers contains errors of fact or some other infelicities which need to be corrected so readers get the real scoop instead of some kind of spin the papers would like to be promulgating. He sends these not only to the papers but to a fairly long list of his friends and acquaintances who then can take whatever action they might deem warranted.

A good example of Professor Boudreaux’s tireless efforts is his frequent criticism of the New York Times columnist, fellow economist Professor Paul Krugman of Princeton University. With the kind of prestige Princeton enjoys, Krugman’s columns carry extra impact and if they contain errors, it is especially helpful to have these pointed out.

Not that Professor Boudreaux’s every letter gets published, far from it, Only a small percentage makes it into the letters sections of the various papers he keeps on eye on. But by sending them around to colleagues and friends, others can also chime in about the matter after they have been alerted to the problem and done some of their own research to verify Professor Boudreaux’s claims.

One of the letters came to me via email the other morning and it is an especially poignant instance of how important Professor Boudreaux’s pro bono work turns out to be. Here is the entire text of the letter he sent to The New York Times:

"Paul Krugman asserts that the steady decline in labor-union membership happened because "beginning in the 1970s, corporate America, which had previously had a largely cooperative relationship with unions, in effect declared war on organized labor" ("State of the Unions," December 24). Two facts cast doubt on this assertion.

"First, the decline in union membership began in the mid-1950s, not in the 1970s. Second, union membership in almost all of Europe and the rest of the industrialized world followed a similar trajectory to that in America."

When I received the letter and briefly checked the substance of the criticism, I decided this one needs to get the attention of the New York Times public editor, the person at The Times who is supposed to keep looking over the shoulders of reporters and editors so they don’t misbehave. So I sent a copy to this individual.

It will be interesting to see if Professor Boudreaux’s correction of Professor Krugman makes it into The Times. Do you want to bet whether it will?