Wednesday, December 31, 2008

A revolutionary Struggle

Tibor R. Machan

Be it welcome or not, there are a revolutionary struggle afoot in the world. It started when certain thinkers began to dispute the claims made by defenders of various rulers--monarchs, dictators, tsars and the like--that some people have a divine or natural right to run the lives of other people. In modern philosophy it was John Locke who mounted the most sustained and influential challenge to this statist idea. His insights and arguments made a big impression on the likes of America's founders--the Declaration of Independence is filled with points most fully developed to that date by Locke.

Just think--for centuries on end it was the common notion that certain folks are superior to others, not because of their achievements or skills but by blood or even just their names. Just as we accept that parents have authority over children--at least parents who carry out their role properly--in much of human history it was widely advocated and believed that government or the state had full or at least a great deal of authority to manage the lives of people within the realm they supposedly cared for. Nearly everything that happened in society had to be a project of the state--commerce, science, religion, the arts, education and so forth.

There are a great many people, even in countries like the USA, who still embrace and even vigorously defend this position. For them the government owns the country, practically, and distributes and redistributes some of the wealth to citizens for limited private use. Fierce taxation is defended by prominent legal scholars at America's most prestigious educational institutions, on the grounds that government actually owns the wealth and taxes are merely a way of recapturing it from the people who produce but do not own it. Whenever something goes amiss in society, such people and those who give elaborate intellectual support to them insist on turning to government for help, accepting it as the ruler of the realm. These people always ask for government regulation, which assumes that governments are, as kings had been thought to be, superior in wisdom and virtue to the citizens. The very idea of a citizen is revolutionary--elsewhere "subject" is used more regularly to identify the people who live within the realm that's being governed by a select few of them.

This whole notion that governments--people who worked at centers of power--are superior to us all is what the American Revolution was challenging--it had begun to be challenged before but America's input was immense and made the biggest difference. It was not, however, to last very long and the revolution is in retreat now, not so much intellectually but as a choice of the bulk of the citizenry. After all, the thrust of the revolution is that citizens need to govern themselves, need to take on the responsibility that others pretended to possess over them. That's a scary idea to millions!

Both ideas, statism and individualism, are still very much topics of discussion and argument but judging by which of them has more support at famous academic institutions such as Harvard, Oxford, Cambridge, Princeton, and other prominent universities, statism is reasserting itself.

Of course there is also the counter movement which shows itself in world wide commerce and more or less liberal democratic developments, which are clearly signs of advances in human freedom. The revolutionary vision of the American Founders is, in fact, more eagerly embraced abroad these days than in the USA, with some exceptions, such as gay and women's rights, the expansion of first amendment ideas, etc. (As someone who does a lot of lecturing around the world I can testify from my own experiences that a great many people in, say, former Soviet colonies are enthusiastic about human liberty and not so much about the power of the state.)

Revolutions have some pivotal periods but they move slower than their supporters would want. This is also true with the American revolution and its central ideas. Nonetheless, the revolution is under way. How it will fare is quite indeterminate.

Saturday, December 27, 2008

Without Free Will

Tibor R. Machan

Lots of important people, in the sciences and in philosophy, are saying that free will is a myth, a delusion. Some go so far as to embark on revamping the legal system and our ideas of ethics or morality so concepts of guilt, innocence, responsibility and so forth are dropped. No one is guilty of anything, they hold, since no one could have done anything other than what he or she did. This is just one notion that follows from the absence of free will in human life. What are some others?

Regret is out; so is pride. Apologies are pointless since no one could have done better than she or he did. Certainly no one can be blamed for anything. Or praised. Just as it makes no sense to blame the weather for being unpleasant or even horrible, or praise it for being great, so none of the awful stuff that people do can be blamed on them and none can receive praise either, since it all just happens as it must. That means, also, that editorials that congratulate some while those that chide others are all nonsense, gobbledygook, if there's no free will. Forget about admiration, too, for no deed is a function of individual good judgment and effort. It's like nice flowers, which simply grow as they, too, must. Artists must do their art, murderers must do their murders, no alternative to any of it is possible, just as the way a river runs is how it must run.

Most difficult to swallow, though, is that what I am saying or writing here or anyone else has said or written or is saying or writing or will say or write is no more true or false than is the noise made by ocean waves since the idea of truth--the independent, objective identification of reality by an unprejudiced mind--is also dead without free will. You affirm free will? Well, you just had to do it, just as if you were to deny it, that to just had to happen. The issue of which is right cannot arise, either, since when it is claimed that one is while the other isn't, that too just has to happen as it does.

Juries, too, simply have to come up with the verdict they do--they have no freedom to consider evidence, or to evade it (when supposedly perpetrating malpractice). Scientists, too, just must believe as they do, as do their detractors--Creationists cannot help but believe as they do, as do the Darwinians. Everyone just has the beliefs he or she must have, as the unstoppable chain of causal connections has made it necessary. Que Sera, Sera!

But this, of course, means that believing in or disbelieving in free will or determinism amounts to just something that happens to people. Arguing is pointless--it is just helpless prattle, no more productive of truth (or falsehood) that the yapping of a parrot or the noise of a tape recorder. It's no more related to truth or falsehood than are thunder and the roar from a lion.

Of course, all of this could be as I say but none could know it since knowledge itself requires freedom of judgment, of a capacity to research and think about issues without prejudice, without being driven to reach some given conclusion!

As far as I can figure, being without free will makes no sense since giving up everything one must to be without free will is nonsense. But that may not be a decisive enough argument for free will. What would be? Among other things that would have to be dealt with is how come so many serious folks can so easily come to believe that tossing free will can make sense, despite all of what follows from it. What might be amiss with their framework, with how they go about considering this matter? These folks are bright--in fact, one of them has proposed that there should be a name for them, at least the ones who also deny God, and it should be "Brights"! (A label that's a bit vain, if you ask me, but not necessarily wrong.)

To help get to the bottom of this topic, much besides listing what all we would have to do without free will is necessary. Still, considering what it would be like without free will should be a good beginning for seriously considering the matter.
Year End Pet Peeves

Tibor R. Machan

Mostly I write on topics I suspect concern a wide enough audience. Columnists don’t just write on anything that pops into their minds but need to do a bit of service to reader-clients. But, if one has a regular venue for one’s columns, it maybe fine, now and then, to indulge oneself with a topic or two that’s more personal. Even these will, of course, aim to please, if only by inviting reader-clients to know a bit of the writer.

In that spirit I am going to take the risky step of laying out some of my pet peeves. These are not the most serious complaints I have about culture, politics, religion, and other human institutions. Instead, they are matters that tend to irritate me personally even as they may pose nothing much objectionable to others and might not even need to, either. Individualists like me will fully accept that some stuff is strictly personal, amounts to likes or dislikes and implies nothing about what others ought to feel, do, or pursue.

Take my favorite color, for an example. I am nuts about red-orange, the color of the California poppy and the old Mustang and the setting sun over the Pacific. This is, yes, the opposite of a pet peeve, more of a pet love. It is, however, exactly personal and idiosyncratic.

What about a genuine pet peeve, then? Well, heavy bangs would serve as a good case in point. Cannot stand them even if the face is gorgeous in all other respects. Somehow these bangs even suggest something more generally puzzling--why would someone wish to hide a forehead? Is there some message afoot in that, like, “I don’t like my brain?” No, need not be, but it’s somewhat intimated, at least for me.

Bad dancers get to me, those who go out there and gyrate without a bit of rhythm. Sure, they could be having fun, though I cannot see how, given how bad they are at what they are doing. I just cannot abide by it, maybe because I am such a great fan of the likes of Fred Astaire and Gene Kelley. And while I am at it, I should mention singing off key. Totally puts me off, especially in some popular singers--for example, the late Dinah Shore!

There is also that genre of painting, the very poorly executed abstract work! I didn’t used to take to any abstract paintings but then changed and began to like some of them as a form of design--shapes and colors and intensity, all well coordinated. But when it is without the slightest sense of balance it really sucks, as far as I am concerned. I even fancy that I can spot one of these awful efforts at a distance. But I am not confident enough to say I know they amount to bad works of art. Maybe some individuals are really sent by just such stuff!

Pointless Jargon, the sort that reeks of having been manufactured despite there being no need for it at all! I am nearly paranoid about this--some folks write, it seems, to prevent their being understood. Again, I could be wrong but I am awfully suspicious. (I guess one reason is that escaping into jargon is a temptation of writers when their ideas aren’t clear enough to them but admitting this isn’t cool.) At times it appears evident that some of the most erudite folks, highly praised scientists from prestigious institutions, will succumb to this temptation, at least in regions of their discipline they are still confused about.

Cops who swagger really put me off, and this includes nearly all those out there enforcing the rules of the road. Frankly I don’t even regard these people as police officers or officers of the law because rules of the road, however necessary, are just that, rules of the road, just a step or several above rules of attire at some private school. Yes, yes, the rules sort of aim at orderliness and even safety but more often they appear to aim solely at revenue generation. So one is stopped for making an “illegal” U-turn by a person wearing really scary outfits and prominently carrying a menacing weapon! Tends to demean the very idea of law, which is a general system of principles that is supposed to serve to secure civilized conduct, protect the rights of individuals, not bother about the specific details of various forms of life. But I suppose this pet peeve stems in part from my near-anarchism, my fierce resentment of all those who lord it over other people who are carrying on in mostly peaceful ways.

I won't go into the types of driving that I despise. It would fill a book. But here is at least a small sample of what I just happen to like and dislike. It may say a bit about me, for better or for worse.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Left Liberals and Right Conservatives

Tibor R. Machan

It is not always taken note of that conservatism refers to a procedure for dealing with life, ethics, politics, or public policy, not with a position on these. What the conservative urges is that as one considers matters related to any of the above, one ought to pay heed, first and foremost, to what has been found acceptable, useful, sensible in the past, by the dominant and persistent traditions in human history. It is these that ought to be conserved. There is, for conservatives, no other road to reliable truth. Just as the pragmatist rejects the possibility of firm, lasting principles in any area of inquiry, so the conservative rejects the possibility of gaining understanding apart from following dominant traditions.

As such, conservatives oppose something that’s central to the American political system, namely, individualism. Just consider what Edmund Burke, the father of modern conservatism, said: “...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,” adding 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.”

And it is in this that conservatives share something essential with the Left, with socialists, communists, communitarians, and many modern liberals as well. All these regard individualism fatally flawed because it entrusts human individuals with the capacity to know the world on their own (a rare case but still not unfamiliar when we consider innovators, discoverers, scientists who are often way ahead of their colleagues, etc.). For socialists human beings are innately socially bound. Karl Marx put it best when he coined the term “species being,” meaning that everyone’s basic identity is intimately tied to the whole of humanity (or in less grandiose versions, society, the tribe, the race, the ethnic group, or the nation).

This is why neither those on the Right nor those on the Left favor individual rights, those social-legal provisions that make room for the independence, sovereignty of the human individual. For these Leftists everyone belongs to society and the right to individual freedom, as per Locke and the American Founders, does violence to this idea, undermines it. At nearly every turn of the debate between defenders of the American political system, with the tenets of the Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights, in the end this issue becomes central, pivotal both vis-à-vis Right and Left.

American individualism, following Locke and advanced mainly by Objectivists and Libertarians, holds that although human beings flourish best among their fellows, this must be under conditions where everyone’s individuality is fully respected and protected. In the last analysis a citizen must have the option to withdraw from society, say when its policies have turned against individuals, just as the Declaration makes clear. This “exit option” testifies to the prominence of individualism in this system of social-political thought. This isn’t about living like a hermit or not being closely related to others--those charges are disingenuous or misconceived. Individualism is about an adult human being having the ultimate authority over his or her life, exactly what the great and small tyrannies of human history have denied.

If you want to know why the central American viewpoint has it so hard with not just the rest of the world but its very own crop of intellectuals, it is because both Right and Left are essentially against its basic tenet, individualism.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Why Gray Isn’t

Tibor R. Machan

Not unlike others who have become students of philosophy, I have had an abiding interest in ethics or morality, especially on what if anything justifies a moral conviction one may have or indeed the moral principles that are taken to be true by millions. As I grew up to get more and more involved in this issue, I became well aware that there are not only famous philosophers but millions of lay persons who basically scoff at the idea that right and wrong can be distinguished at all. Indeed, it is often deemed to be hallmark of sophistication, erudition and even wisdom to declare that thinking in moral black versus white is a form of infantilism.

When the superb actor Philip Seymour Hoffman, who plays Father Flynn in the movie Doubt, was recently quoted about this, I had to smile. What he said was is that Doubt “isn’t about whether the priest ‘did it’.” For him “What’s so essential about this movie is our desire to be certain about something and say, This is what I believe is right, wrong, black, white.” But, he is quoted as saying, we do not want to be “living in what’s really true, which is the whole mess that the world is.”

Interesting. Suggests to me that Hoffman like so many people who think themselves to be profound is urging that we embrace the ambiguity of the world, especially of morality. That would, as he seems to see it, a good--white--thing to do! Thinking in black and white, let alone acting accordingly, would appear to strike him and many others who consider themselves aware of the complexities of life as simplistic, something to be avoided! That would be another good thing.

Well, that’s all well and good because, of course, many of us don’t give the topic of right versus wrong a very close inspection, not unless we are very directly involved. Looking on as other people grapple with ethical or moral issues we give it all a cursory glance and walk away thinking that surely what is right, what is wrong isn’t anything clear cut or certain. No, it is full of doubt, maybe even inherently doubtful so that no right and wrong actually exist at all.

Yet, most of those who hold such sophisticated views on ethics or morality will balk at extending it to every ethical or moral issue. What about rape? How about racism? What of bigotry? And there is Guantanamo Bay and torture, and Mr. Bush’s policies and suddenly these very sophisticated folks show themselves to be thoroughly committed to the black versus white outlook on ethics or morality.

This is not all that dissimilar from how many erudite people look at the determinism versus free will topic. Being modern and respectful toward a certain idea of science, they tend, in the main, to dismiss free will as an illusion. This is what the editor of Science News, Tom Siegfried, states quite categorically, in his essay, “The Decider” [December 6, 2008, p. 28]: “Free illusion that endures only because biochemical complexity conceals the mechanism of decision making.”

Never mind for now whether Siegfried is right or wrong. What is noteworthy is how difficult it is to consistently embrace his position. In editorial after editorial in the magazine he edits he and guest commentators chide, implore, criticize, urge, and do all the kinds of things one can really only do sensibly if there is free will. How can one be critical of what President Bush does about, say, torture or scientific research--the latter a prominent target of criticism in the pages of Science News--if Mr. Bush has no free will? How could one even be critical of those who believe that free will exists if free will doesn’t exist and they are helpless in what they believe?

It is remarkable how many people with very high regard for their intelligence and understanding announce something they firmly believe but then, shortly thereafter, proceed to talk and act as if what they so firmly believe were quite false, after all. It seems as if they didn’t really bother to think through what they say with such firm conviction.

So for such people, then, all morality or ethics is about grays, not blacks and whites, except for what bothers them about how people talk and act. All human conduct is driven by impersonal force, absent any freedom of the will, except that those who disagree with this and other important ideas ought to straighten out their thinking, just as if they were quite free to do so.

Not all of us can be full time disciplined, professional thinkers but it would be a welcome thing if those who aspire to it did a better job at the task.

Friday, December 19, 2008

My Fine Wealth Redistribution

Tibor R. Machan

So Barack Obama got elected president of the United States of America, allegedly the freest country in the world and in human history, partly on the promise that he will redistribute a goodly portion of our wealth, yours and mine and everyone else’s. But why on earth does that make him a deserving individual? Why, in other words, is that a good thing? First, why is it a good thing that this wealth is to be redistributed? And then why is he and his team of politicians and bureaucrats the ones who should do this redistribution?

I was writing out some checks this morning, some to pay bills to compensate various people for the work they have been doing for me, and some as contributions to various causes--like Robert Paul Wolff’s fund to help black South African graduate students, and like the Institute for Justice, etc., and so forth. In short, I was doing some wealth redistribution, all on my own without any need for help from the likes of Obama & Co. Every month I do this, some of it via the Internet, not even needing to write checks, merely clicking some icon and sending off the electronic payment with the utmost efficiency, the money to be removed from my checking account and provided to those I have selected to receive it.

But I am not deemed smart or wise enough to carry off this task of wealth redistribution for nearly 50% of my wealth, not by a long shot. The local politicians hit me up for some $2K for my property taxes which they then will distribute according to their standards of what is important to finance with it; then of course every payday I have substantial sums extorted from me by various governments, through my employer (who is forced to be complicit in this extortion), and later, this coming April 15th or thereabouts, some more of my wealth will be expropriated from me all because I am not deemed smart and good enough to know how much of my own wealth should be distributed, what I should purchase with it and to whom I should contribute some of it as a gift.

If you consider it this way, the whole idea of wealth redistribution is a colossal insult to--and assault against--all of us citizens of the United States of America. Why should Mr. Obama and his cohorts be the ones to redistribute a substantial portion of my and your and everyone else’s wealth? Why not, say, the local bank robber or pick pocket or embezzler? What actually is the difference between Obama & Co. and all those unsavory characters such that if the latter attempt to do this wealth redistribution, they get prosecuted and convicted of criminal conduct but when the latter proceed to do it they are paid a salary for doing so?

Oh, you may say, it is democracy that makes the difference. A majority of voting Americans have elected Obama &Co., so they are now authorized to confiscate a goodly part of my and your and everyone else’s wealth and proceed to redistribute it as they in their ways choose to do. But why is this OK? How is it that these voting Americans may authorize these folks to engage in these dastardly deeds that would send other people to prison if they were caught doing them?

Surely these voting Americans may not authorize Obama & Co., to engage in murder or assault or even racial and sexual discrimination, not to mention banning the religious practices and free expression of Americans. So if they aren’t authorized to do those things--presumably because doing such things is vicious, criminal conduct--why do they get to extort funds from us and spend them as they see fit? What is the difference? Need? No, what people need they have to secure peacefully, from ones with whom they do trade or from the charity of their fellows, not by means of the threat of force as government obtains the portion of wealth it expropriates from us so as to engage in wealth redistribution.

It seems to me certain beyond any reasonable doubt that Obama & Co. are no better qualified to redistribute a substantial portion of my and your and everyone else’s wealth than we ourselves are. And, furthermore, even if they by some magic did possess greater virtue and wisdom in the wealth-redistribution department, that still does not authorize them to do it. As Abraham Lincoln so poignantly noted, “no man is good enough to govern another man, without that other’s consent.” And the redistribution of wealth politicians such as Barack Obama & Co., are embarking upon certainly isn’t done with the consent of those who own that wealth and from whom it will be confiscated.

So neither is there good reason to think these people are more qualified to do the wealth redistribution than we all are, nor, certainly, do they have any moral authority to confiscate the funds they are set to redistribute!
Against USA, Inc.

Tibor R. Machan

Just as in much of human political history the grossest error was to see society as the household of some leader--pharaoh, monarch, tsar, or dictator--in our era the mistake is to see society as a company or corporation that needs a CEO. Although in much of the West the political idea of monarchy, a country lead by one individual with various measures of powers--absolute to limited--has been traded in for democracy--one lead by and for all of the people--this has not proven to be a sufficient improvement.

The very idea of society as a purposeful organization, like a corporation, is the big mistake of contemporary politics. It shows up well during the current transition from the Bush to the Obama administration, what with the parade of appointments of officers who are supposed to run various aspects of USA, Inc. The spectacle reminds one of that famous Monty Python episode, “The Ministry of Silly Walks.” Intentionally or not, the renown British comedy troupe showed how absurd it is to view government as the management team of the great variety of elements of a society.

The basic lesson implicit in the sketch and in much of human political history is that society is not an organization set up to pursue some goal such as scientific progress, prosperity, artistic development, physical fitness, worship of God, etc. Societies are, instead, settings for the members to pursue their great variety of purposes in ways that are mutually harmonious, that make it possible for everyone to pursue peaceful goals that are, however, extremely different from one another.

This is one reason some of us cringe whenever there is talk of how a country requires a leader! It does not, since a country isn’t headed anywhere and no expertise of getting it there, the role of a leader, is relevant to its government. Instead, a country, properly understood, is a realm within which innumerably varied goals may be pursued by millions of different people in different peaceful arrangements--as individuals, families, clubs, corporations, teams, etc., etc. Once it is understood that adult human beings have a right to their lives, to their liberty, and to their acquisition of property (valued stuff), it becomes more and more evident that thinking of society as some purposeful organization is a gross mistake.

Just consider all these secretaries of this and secretaries of that, and their innumerable deputies and such, that president-elect Obama is appointing--what are they all for? To help him take the country down some road to a destination that he imagines was chosen by the people who voted him into office. With a private firm, profit or non-profit, this is an acceptable way to understand the role of the president or CEO and his or her management team. Those who set up such a firm have come together aiming for some goal--helping the poor or sick or making cars for profit and similar familiar pursuits. So the president or CEO has a well enough defined job to carry out.

But a society isn’t anything like that. The people didn’t come together to aim for any common goal. (This is what is so misconceived about the idea of the public interest or the common good other than in some minimal way, comparable to how referees at a game may be said to pursue the common good of upholding the rules but without by any means being players.) The political mission in a society is precisely to provide a framework within which all the disparate factions--those individuals, clubs, companies, etc. mentioned earlier--are free to work for what they want to accomplish.

Sadly, most of those doing this will regard their chosen goal to be politically very important, maybe even superior to all the others being pursued. But this is a mistake. Here is where equality is an important aspect of a truly free society--everyone’s peaceful objective is equally politically worthy of pursuit and the job of government is to secure the equal right of all to do what they want.

But if so, then politics doesn’t really call for all these secretaries of this and secretaries of that, as it may be proper in a business corporation or some other purposeful organization. It calls for a competent team of peacekeepers, nothing else. And the only element of democracy in such an organization is that the keeping of the peace, the securing of rights, is for all members of the community.

Government, even if democratic--meaning one that serves everyone in society--is to be limited in its scope. That scope is to secure our rights, just as the American Founders envisioned it.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Barack Obama and Professional Ethics

Tibor R. Machan

President elect Obama told us, during his appointment of several financial regulators, that even while the best regulators are being selected, “everybody from CEOs to shareholders to investors are going have to be asking themselves not only is this profitable, not only whether this will boost my bonus but is it right.” This remark is quite revealing. It pits the professional responsibility of CEOs, for example, against their responsibility to consider what is right.

When a professional such as a teacher or doctor or, yes, a financial manager sets out to do his or her job, it’s assumed that that job is a morally justified undertaking. So doctors who set out to cure patients, teachers who try to educate their students, and financial managers who attempt to make money for their clients are supposedly doing what is right. It isn’t that they do what their profession requires and in addition they must also do what is right. There is no such “in addition” except in so far as they have other responsibilities, as parents, friends, citizens, and so forth. But in their capacity as the professionals they are, what is right amounts to performing well at work.

Imagine if it were not like that. Imagine that what is the right thing to do is something other than fulfilling their professional obligations. What would that additional right thing be? Would it be something that conflicts with their professional responsibilities? Should a doctor care for his or her patients and then do what is right? What would that be? Should a CEO work hard to make the firm he or she manages succeed in the market place and then take time out to do what is right? What would such extra “doing what is right” amount to?

Actually, professional ethics guides the CEO--and the doctor and teacher and plumber and farmer--to act properly and that amounts to nothing else than fulfilling the proper tasks of their profession. That is what doing the right thing means for professionals. Sadly, when it comes to CEOs and other professionals in the financial industry--and indeed in any other profit making endeavor--many people believe that there is a conflict between doing what the profession requires and doing what is right. For example, many attorneys hold that when they do their work on the job that’s one thing but when they do pro bono work, that’s doing what is right. But why would this be the case?

The problem is that many people see ethics or morality in terms of sacrifice, of unselfishness, and of course all professionals carry out their work as a matter of their self-interest, their self-expression even. No one embarks upon a career (unless perhaps if they are monks) for unselfish reasons. Parents, too, send their children to college so they can develop themselves and find a line of work that will be self-fulfilling.

In teaching or medicine this is fine enough since those professions appear to require service from the professionals. As if doctors or teachers did their work purely as a matter of serving others. The pay they receive, the living they make from that work, tends to be overlooked. Of course, the pay is rarely all that such professionals seek from doing their work--they tend, also, to gain other rewards (often called in-kind compensation), such as the joy of the work, the satisfaction that comes from what they accomplish, and so forth. Even those involved in what seem to be service professions--nurses, fire fighters, and so on--seek to find satisfaction from the work they do. It is often indirect satisfaction--they find the work they do worthwhile and that gives them satisfaction.

The point is that few professionals are doing their work from altruistic motives even when they benefit others with what they do.

In the financial industries, in markets, it is mostly quite obvious that professionals are after financial or economic success. And there is nothing wrong with that except that many moralists, folks who advance ideas about how people ought to act in their lives, do not see what such professionals do as moral or ethical. Quite the contrary. So they are viewed as professionals who must not only heed their professional responsibilities but also what is right, something mysteriously different and even more important.

What people who go corrupt in various professions do is to violate either ordinary human morality or their professional ethics. But if they do not do violence to either, then they are doing what is right. Their professional tasks are what is the right thing for them to do. In other words, there is no conflict between seeking success in the market place and doing what is right, not unless one is violating the ethics of one’s profession.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Missing Xmas Commercialism

Tibor R. Machan

Some lessons are learned at great expense and just how healthy Xmas commercialism is seems to be one of them.

For decades editorialists, pundits, and other commentators have implored us all to stop all this commercialism during Christmas holidays. The holidays have become too commercial! People just focus on purchasing goodies instead of on the spirituality of Christmas. And so on and so forth the relentless blather went on and on, year after year, even in the midst of the reports on how good or bad have been holiday retails sales. This hypocrisy could be hidden from the consciousness of a great many people for a good while but now it is no longer possible to disguise it.

Fact is, what is most missing from Christmas this year is, yes, the healthy commercialism that has been part of it over the last several decades. The absence of such healthy commercialism is having some disastrous impact on the lives of millions of people across not just America but the world. Because so many of us react to the current economic fiasco by imposing restraint on our commercial activities, millions of people are going to have to experience severe economic contraction in their lives. Minimum of gifts, modest dinners, limited travel, brief vacations and similar tightening of belts characterizes this year’s commercialism and everyone is quite understandably upset about it all. Maybe a few fanatics are pleased and even propound the doctrine of austerity. Some even urge the embrace at these times of the impending poverty for all too many people around the world. (It needs to be noted that even at the best of times there are folks who advocate self-denial, asceticism, a vow of poverty.)

But most sane people recognize at last that it is not a good thing for commerce to be leaving our midst. They realize that all that talk of the evils of commercialism tends to be just a lot of words and very few human beings really commit to abandoning the malls--or the Internet--for good! The decline of commerce is indeed lamented nationwide for its impact on millions whose livelihood came from a robust economy.

Not that there are no cautionary lessons from the current mess. Too many people went way over their actual, real budgetary limits and yielded to fantasies of riches that in time came a cropper. For some it was outright greed, the unwillingness to contain oneself and the reckless indulgence in acquiring that which one had no business to attempt to acquire. Like spoiled children whose parents refuse to say “no” when asked for more and more goodies even while the household budget is clearly being strained, millions of adults pursued their imagined limits instead of remaining within the limits of reason. (I have some personal history of my own that testifies to this fact.)

It is even arguable that the tendency of many people to go overboard with buying bigger and better and more fancy--in homes, cars, vacations, gadgets, furniture, clothing, and the rest--is related to the false ideal of austerity. Just as sexual promiscuity and debauchery are very probably related to teachings of unnatural sexual self-denial, so overindulgence in acquisition is likely related to a senseless profession of the virtue of poverty. Instead of a sensible middle way, of a prudent approach, too many religions and philosophies preach at us about how evil we are for having wants at all, for desiring to be well off, for wishing to enjoy a good measure of abundance. It is understandable that with such a state of mind many people would just cast caution to the wind and become reckless instead of prudent.

It is even possible that the current economic fiasco is largely due to the failure of the leadership in our culture--of writers, pundits, public philosophers, politicians and the rest--to counsel moderation instead of self-denial and sacrifice. When prospects seem promising it is not natural to accept this counsel and the temptation to overreach will not be resisted. Sensible caution, prudence instead of sacrifice, would, however, be something most people could live with, I submit.

During these times of involuntary self-denial maybe the lesson will be learned that healthy commercialism is no vice, nothing to chide. After all, part of Christmas includes the giving of gifts, not just the receiving of them. And both are very much dependent on commerce.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

On Government Regulations Again

Tibor R. Machan

A recent New York Times carried an item that's of some general political philosophical interest bearing on the nature of a free society’s system of laws. In particular it relates to the discussion of whether public policy matters ought to be addressed pragmatically--that is, issue by issue, with no regard for general principles--or based on some system of ideas.

In "The Week in News" there was a report on something one Elizabeth Kolbert wrote on the New Yorker Web site concerning how Barack Obama's choice for new energy secretary, Steven Chu, once "established the country's first refrigerator-efficiency standards" back in California, in the face of industry opposition, and how the decision is now judged a roaring success. "The following decade, standards were imposed for refrigerators nationwide. Since then, the size of the average American refrigerator has increased by more than 10 percent, while the price, in inflation-adjusted dollars, has been cut in half. Meanwhile, energy has dropped by two-thirds." Ergo, it might be suggested, government imposition of standards (and, more generally, government regulation) is a jolly good thing!

Perhaps pragmatists would find this a decisive argument in favor of government regulations--or at least quite a few of such regulations. But I am not a pragmatist. I tend to approach the issue of whether government regulations are proper in a principled fashion, even if in some cases such regulations are arguably helpful. (Actually, once the law mandates refrigerator-efficiency standards, it is impossible to say how things would have turned out without this mandate! An there is that famous fallacy, post hoc, ergo propter hoc, that this line of argument commits!)

In any case, as far as I understand law and politics, whether government regulation is sound policy isn’t a matter of a few successes. It is more one of whether the general policy of the government regulating the economy is a good idea. There are several grounds to oppose it; mainly because it amounts to the insidious practice of prior restraint, namely, of limiting people’s liberty before they have done anything to deserve it. (This also is a telling objections to various precautionary public policies advocated by environmentalists--they limit liberty without having proven anyone’s culpability!)

In certain areas, of course, hardly anyone would be tempted to use such arguments. Take the case of torture! Surely some cases of torture yield desirable results--victims confess and in turn lives are saved. But, as observed by that famous ancient Greek sage, Aristotle, “one swallow does not a springtime make.” Even robberies could on rare occasions produce overall beneficial results--nay, even rape might--but they nonetheless ought to be prohibited.

Opposition to government regulation should not be based on some imagined absolutism, namely, that each instance of it will necessarily result in regrettable consequences. No opposition to this and any other coercive public policy ought to rest on grounds of its injustice, on its perpetration of prior restraint! In broader terms, government regulations treat people as if they were experimental tools that may be used as decided by government officials. Something seems (though hasn’t been proven) to be hazardous, so then those doing it may be forced to desist. This attitude, of enforced paternalism toward adults, is wrong even if once in a while acting on it will produce good results.

The debate is an old one, actually. Are there principles of human conduct in terms of which people should desist from, say, lying, cheating, misrepresentation, aggression, violence, and so forth? Or can the issue only be handled piecemeal--is this particular case of lying or cheating or stealing or using violence or, yes, rape good or bad, never mind any general principles?

Those who claim there are principles that ought to guide our actions even when ignoring them would appear convenient, practical, useful, etc., are often labeled ideologues, mindless dogmatists who want to act without thinking. But this is entirely unfair. The thinking went into the formulation of the principles--indeed, if we had to think through piece by piece every action we take, we would be paralyzed. Over centuries and centuries of human living, some principles have been identified as very worthy of being obeyed, including the principles that without a criminal conviction, no one ought to be treated as a convict, as subject to other people’s will.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Philosophy and Public Policy

Tibor R. Machan

When elections roll around, not to mention when dictators try to rationalize their rule, talk of the public interest becomes endless. Indeed, anytime that pundits chime in with their missives about politics, there is bound to be reference to the common good or public interest. As an example, check out Gail Collins’s Op Ed in The New York Times, Saturday December 13. It’s misleadingly title “The Dreaded Fairness Doctrine’’--it has nothing to do with broadcasting but with the auto bailout the defeat of which the previous day in the US Senate Ms. Collins laments. By her account, the reason the bill failed is that too many folks were obsessing about fairness, which she rightly suggests is a non-starter when it comes to public policy. But then she jumps from the frying pan right into the fire, writing that “The real human trick is to get past the quid pro quo [i. e., fairness] and try to focus on the common good.”

What's that? Given the immense diversity among human beings and any subdivision of them, such as people connected to the auto industry, whatever is good has virtually nothing common about it. The only common good, upon close inspection, is the protection of everyone's right to life, liberty and property. The American Founders had that right--we all benefit from the protection of our basic rights but beyond that what's good for us varies from person to person, or at least group to group, community to community, and so forth. That is the great and ultimately peacemaking insight of American individualism--eliminate the tribe or clan or ethnic group as the focus of concern and focus on the individual. About nearly everything other than our basic rights we differ so much from one another that talk of the common good or public interest has to be some trick to gain power, nothing substantial. And that is indeed what folks who pose as defenders or cheerleaders of the public or common good are after, the imposition of their idea of how everyone ought to live, what everyone ought to be devoted to.

But by pretending that they are concerned about the public good or interest, they get to posture as being above petty concerns of this or that group or individual. They are above all that trivia!

Fact is, however, that the individual’s well being is not trivial, quite the opposite. In human affairs it is the most important thing and virtually everything--apart from our common basic but very general rights--that pretends to trump it is a phony, an excuse for some individuals to lord it over other individuals, with the excuse that they are speaking for the public or common good.

This point needs to be stressed in public debates, over and over again. Those who keep invoking the public or common good are perpetrating a ruse! And they are aiding and abetting the power seekers even if they do it unintentionally. Das Folk, the Working Class, the People, humanity--there are many ways in which the mythical entity of the public is invoked by these deluded or sneaky people. And they all converge on the practical result that some will be put into positions of power over others with the excuse that we must all care about something greater than ourselves. But, once and for all, there is nothing on earth greater than ourselves, nada. We are it, each of us individually!

Sure there are many goals we can pursue that are very worthy but they are all our goals and the peaceable goals of some are no worse than the peaceable goals of others. That is the real meaning of a pluralistic society, by the way, not ethnic, racial, or national diversity and such.

Will you be duped into thinking that the ones who harangue us all about the public interest are really after something other than their own agenda? I hope not. Because therein lies the danger of demagoguery! And that’s not something that’s compatible with a free society.

However, none of this can be grasped without a bit of philosophy and some other adjacent disciplines where we learn whether individualism or collectivism is the sound social philosophy for human beings. Those who hope to do without such inquiry as they approach politics are doomed to fail and indeed wreak confusion.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Pragmatism Questioned

Tibor R. Machan

One of the standard features of ethics is that one ought to stick to principles or standards of right conduct even when it is difficult, when there is strong temptation not to. Being principled is generally thought to be a plus for a human being. It works toward reducing wrongdoing because such a person does what’s right regardless--or at least there are very, very circumstances when breaking those principles would be proper, justified. Such an individual is also said to have integrity.

Since the latter part of the 19th century, however, a powerful movement in philosophy, including ethics and politics, disputes all this. The name of this movement, often considered home grown in America, is pragmatism. Pragmatists dispute that basic principles or standards can be found in any area of human concern, be this the most basic one of metaphysics or the more practical one of ethics or politics. Every alleged basic principle, the pragmatist argues, can be successfully challenged and so it is not really a basic principle at all. At most it would be a heuristic policy or rule of thumb--be honest (when you can or it isn’t to troublesome); be courageous (unless its too dangerous); respect people’s rights (unless it costs you too much), etc.

Today this pragmatic attitude is widely associated with successful politicians such as Barack Obama and Tony Blair. Instead of being what is pejoratively called “an ideologue,” namely someone who upholds certain basic principles even against great pressure to cave in, president-elect Obama and many who admire and would emulate him claim to be pragmatists.

In the current political economic fiasco this comes out as not minding stepping on various economic principles or laws when it’s deemed something possibly workable not to do so. Prudence? Forget about it. Thrifty? Another idea up for sale! Private property rights? Never mind those, especially. The integrity of money? You old fuddy-duddy, don’t go there. Certainly the principles of the free market economy--which include that businesses quit that cannot keep solvent while answering to customers’ needs--are dispensable.

Now it isn’t always clear just how far pragmatists like Barack Obama will go to jettison morality and political justice but perhaps the governor of Illinois, Rod Blagojevich who apparently was willing to breach his oath of office right and left, didn’t realize that pragmatism has it own limits. Or he didn’t know what they are.

Most pragmatists will not go so far as to claim that the prohibition of, say, rape is provisional or situational and may be overlooked under certain circumstances, say when the rapist is terribly eager or important. Or murder. And, I am sure, most of those who admire Barack Obama’s pragmatism would not claim that we ought to have a pragmatic attitude toward torture.

But why not? Why are some principles exempted from the pragmatic rule that all principles are subject to violation in cases where upholding them is difficult or complicated?

The reason is that pragmatism is rarely fully accepted by those who profess it. Their own values, what they regard is truly worthy, may not be abandoned but those that others embrace, well they are OK to violate. So the principles of the free market economy are by no means something to fret a lot about when millions of voters ask for bailouts, never mind how economically and otherwise unwise and wrong this is. On the other hand, however, the right to have an abortion, that is inviolate, pragmatism or no pragmatism! And the prohibition of torturing suspected terrorists--no pragmatism about that!

Bottom line is that pragmatism is unworkable as any guide to human action or public policy. To do whatever works begs the question. It fails to inform us about the principles or standards by which to figure out what we ought to strive for and use to determine whether some conduct or policy works. (Works for what?) Remember, pragmatists deny there are stable, firm lasting principles or standards of ethics and politics--they are flexible about such matters (unless the flexibility doesn’t suit them).

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Bailout Is No Public Good

Tibor R. Machan

One of the many benefits of realizing that people are most of all individuals is that they are unique or members of distinct communities, teams, families, etc., all very different, nearly all with their unique goals and attributes. So what is good for some won’t be for others except very rarely. Even medicine acknowledges that cures and fitness programs are often highly specific to those who are to be helped. Once one gets into even more complex areas, like education, careers, living spaces, vacations, nutrition, dress, and the rest of the zillions of concerns of people, uniformity is gone. Sure, all of us need to eat but exactly what is known but ourselves, a few intimates, special consultants, and so forth. There is no general good except in very general terms that need to be spelled out for them to have clear meaning and practical implications. (Of course the idea of a general good is tempting and places like the Third Reich, the Soviet Union, North Korea have had disastrous histories with trying to implement them despite the symbolism of uniformity in all their parades and such!)

The failures are a very good reason to stop all this wealth redistribution and government regimentation--those folks up there in Washington, Sacramento, Brussels, and the like just haven’t clue and thus all they can do when they insist on “doing something” is to muddle about, pose, pretend, or fake. The proposed auto bailout is a good example. It is entirely unclear that saving the Big Three is a good thing, even for those in Detroit. Sure, it can tie some folks over to be bailed out but if conditions persist and consumers will no longer want what the American automakers produce, this is folly on a great many fronts! Kind of like bailing out a failing restaurant or bowling alleys where people no longer want to do business. Sure enough, establishment of these kinds go out of business by the hundreds, even thousands, month by month and the only answer to earning a living for those involved is to find some other line of work, one for which there are costumers. (And those who love getting personal about these matters, yes I’ve held about a dozen different jobs over my more than half a century of life.)

All of us need to be entrepreneurs at times, taking up the task of discovering what we can do that others want. People’s buying practices and habits change, they develop and grow and discover new areas of life to explore, and those who can provide them with what they want will succeed in making a decent living while those who don’t won’t. That’s one lesson of the starving artists who keep producing works no one cares for--they must change their line of work or derive sustenance from the doing of it and not expect a sumptuous live style. That can, of course, be very rewarding but it will not generate a steady cash flow!

Why should autoworkers and executives be exempt from these simple laws of economics? And, more importantly, why should the rest of us be sacrificed to their unwillingness to realign their careers? Because bailouts mean nothing other than wealth transfers that are involuntary. A costumer decides to downsize his or her means of transportation but instead of saving a few bucks for the effort is then penalized by higher taxes and inflation and all the results of governments going into debt, basically prevented from making changes as a consumer.

This is really an obscene disregard of individual rights, a violation of one’s liberty to use one’s own labor and resources as one sees fit. If all those going out of business could just rob their neighbors blind with the approval of governments, that would be a truly crime ridden society. And ours, as many others, are becoming more and more crime ridden in this pseudo-civilized fashion, where the crimes are committed under the disguise of legality.

Consider, also, that under the equal protection clause of the 14th amendment to the U. S. Constitution the preferential treatment of members of the auto-industry has to be totally unjust. Why not the waiter who had to be laid off because costumers left the restaurant so as to save a bit? Why not everyone whose job evaporated because the economy changed? It’s the old but expanded practice of featherbedding, nothing else.

And who will foot the bill for that? How do these supporters of bailouts imagine that the funds used are created? Printing money is what forgers do and when government does it without the money having solid backing, they join a gang of criminals once again.

The supporters of the bailout just do not address these matters. No wonder--there simply is no way to allay the concerns involved. The only answer is to face the music and learn new steps for a new dance.

Tuesday, December 09, 2008

Biased Protectionism

Tibor R. Machan

These days I have to work out regularly, lest I lose my whim and vigor and won’t be able to keep writing and lecturing and otherwise enjoying life and earning a living. So I have a treadmill in my garage, along with a small TV to watch news and even listen to music channels while I struggle to remain fit.
Of course, even during these workouts raw reality is not far from consciousness. Thus I have discovered that one of the least protected crafts in America is classical music.

The TV “Music Choice” channel I like to watch most is called “Light Classical” and wouldn’t you know it, most of the fare offered has been composed and performed outside the United States of America. Composers and performers from around the globe have their works featured 27/7 and by my account it is nearly all highly desirable, entertaining stuff. I won’t even try to list all the artist, with Mozart, Hayden, Beethoven, Schubert, Chopin and the rest on the top of the list, of course, but hundreds of less well known artist right alongside these stars, nearly all of them from some, you guessed it, foreign country. They have over the decades, centuries, invaded the American artist market and all those neglected domestic musicians have no one to blame but themselves since they failed to built a strong special interest lobby that would have enacted tariffs and duties and other protectionist measures to keep out these darned gatecrashers.

Not that there is no government help for artists--the National Endowment for the Arts and more local government agencies do provide sizable subsidies to various groups of musicians, painters, actors and directors who populate the American art scene. But it is hardly enough! If only all those foreign composers and orchestras were kept out of the country, thousands of American ones might well be featured on, for example, the Music Choice station I watch so diligently and which often inspires me to purchase CDs so I can listen to the works over and over again. (Of course, on the more than 40 music channels, plenty of Americans are represented, sometimes exclusively--in Jazz, Blues, Musicals, Blue Grass, etc.)

While I am one of those who considers it scandalous to keep foreign vendors away from us, to favor domestic automakers and ban other productive people from the American market place, it occurs to me that by American legal traditions, it is actually unlawful to favor some people with protection against competitors while leaving others exposed. (You know, the 14th Amendment and such!)

The American classical music community is, then, a group the government discriminates against big time by its totally open door policy toward foreign classical music artists. And that may be true for other artists, as well, ones who manage to fill the museums and galleries across the country, keeping struggling American artists outside those forums where works would come to the attention to the public, whereby they could make a decent living. Why, for example, should Detroit automakers get special help and thus have their competitive tasks eased while American classical composers and performers are not provided with protection? How about some kind of embargo against all those German and Australian and New Zealander symphony orchestras so that domestic ones can flourish unimpeded by rivalries?

For my money this is all nonsense. In art, science, and much else we live in a world marketplace, a global--indeed, fully globalized--arena where the participants are judged mostly by audiences, viewers, and art buyers, not by some agency of the government that decides whether their contributions will be kept away so that others, mainly the domestic folks, can have a chance. Sadly, however, in other areas, such as farming and car manufacture there is no hesitation about introducing politics and subverting the free exchange of goods and services. Not that the arts don’t participate in that great wealth redistribution feast of the welfare state. But at least protectionism isn’t their main crime.

I submit that nearly all those who favor bailouts and the like forget about this when they carry on about other purchases, such as work in the fine arts, literature, even the movies. (Of course, abroad the same kind of bias is imposed sometimes, as in France where the government limits how much foreign fare can get on TV!) I guess getting used to, let alone admiring, the free flow of all kinds of goods and services is not yet common in the world, not even in our so called free country!

Monday, December 08, 2008

Another Bad Argument

Tibor R. Machan

Let me focus for a bit on the following lines in an article in that wonderful magazine, Science News: “[T]he 19th century English historian Henry Thomas Buckle ridiculed such logic [namely, that because we can make up our own minds whether to believe in free will, therefore we have it], pointing out that consciousness is often fallible. Some people profess to have consciousness of the presence of ghosts, for example. ‘If this boasted faculty deceives us in some things, what security have we that it will not deceive us in others?’ Buckle asked.” [12/6/08, p. 28]

This is chuck full of errors, the least of which is to invoke Buckle as some kind of authority on the issue of free will. He is not. But then to take his argument as decisive is a real problem. One need not believe at all that consciousness is infallible to conclude, reasonably, that it is reliable on any given occasion. That the mind is fallible means only that it can make mistakes, not that it is rampant with mistakes. More strictly, moving from “this faculty deceived us in some cases,” to “therefore there is no security that it will be reliable in the future” is invalid. Of course, one cannot prove a negative, namely, that the mind “will not deceive us.” But need one do this so as to have reasonable confidence in it?

Lord Chesterfield has a good reply to this: “Examine carefully, and re-consider all your notions of things; analyze them, and discover their component parts, and see if habit and prejudice are not the principal ones; weigh the matter, upon which you are to form your opinion, in the equal and important scales of reason.” ( If one investigates issues this way, one can come to know, reach certainty beyond a reasonable doubt.

What Buckle asks for is what Descartes and some other philosophers demanded, namely certainty beyond a shadow of doubt. But if that were our standard for knowledge, we could know nothing, including that we can know nothing. The very idea that Buckle proposes, namely, skepticism about our own faculty of reason, depends on knowing that we have made mistakes in the past. But if certainty beyond a shadow of doubt were required to know anything at all, than we could never know that we have made a mistake--it cannot be ruled out by mere logic that what we consider to have been a mistake will in the future turn out to have been correct, after all.

None of this serves to justify full confidence in the belief that we have free will. That confidence would have to come from doing what Lord Chesterfield recommends and that would take a lengthy inquiry. However, there is what I have argued elsewhere, namely, that there is great peril with denying that people can choose. For if the denial is true, then that denial itself is something unavoidable, something the proponent could not have helped making, just as the skeptic cannot help being a skeptic. And then all questions about truth and falsehood appear to vanish. Robots do not say what is true or false but only what they must, akin to a parrot or a tape recorder.

In order to be in the business of truth seeking and discovering, human beings seem to need mental independence, just as jurors need it if they are to come up with true verdicts instead of mere prejudice. Scientists need to be in the position to freely assess the evidence and arguments bearing on their work, otherwise what they “discover” is but a claim they cannot help make. But what use is such a claim to us? It would all come to a standstill--I have to assert X while you had to assert not-X and neither of us is free to do otherwise.

Buckle’s error is to hold up an ideal of human knowledge that is plainly impossible to satisfy, ever, namely, irrefutable, absolute, timeless, perfect certainty. Maybe there is some knowledge like that, say, concerning very basic facts about the world--such as, “A is A” or that “It cannot be that A is not-A.” But knowledge of nearly everything else is not like this, not “absolute”--there is always the possibility of needing to modify what we know, although this does not mean that everything is to be doubted.

As the early 20th century philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein pointed out, in his posthumously published book On Certainty, to doubt something for which one has good evidence requires a reason, not merely the paranoia that one might perhaps be mistaken.
Can We Choose?

Tibor R. Machan

Although philosophical topics rarely get direct attention in popular culture, they are nonetheless touched upon on several fronts. There is the ubiquitous question of God’s existence, of course, that rarely leaves the arena at home or abroad. Such issues as whether torture is ever justified touch on several philosophical questions, such as how do we tell what we ought and ought not to do. The narrower field of political philosophy is never very far from consciousness, as for example when the famous Watergate episode is revisited and Nixon is recalled saying that if the president does it, it cannot be illegal (an idea not that far from something John Locke, the granddad of American political thought, discussed quite directly).

Currently there is also quite a lot of discussion of the old conundrum about whether genuine, authentic free choice is possible to human beings. That’s because the brain, where all mental processes are supposed to take place, is under very close scrutiny with the assistance of more and more sophisticated tools. In some popular forums where we mostly get news about current scientific work, various non-philosophers chime in about free will without much compunction. Thus, Tom Siegfried, the editor-in-chief of my favorite news magazine about the sciences, Science News, writes in a recent issue:

“'Free will' is not the defining feature of humanness, modern neuroscience implies, but is rather an illusion that endures only because biochemical complexity conceals the mechanisms of decision making."

And he goes on to tell readers that “free will seems merely to emerge from electromagnetic networks of neuronal interactions.” Siegfried makes these observations in connection with his discussion of a little known aspect of the human brain, namely, the habenula, “an obscure structure found deep in the brain, beneath the corpus callosum near the thalamus and in front of the pineal gland….” What stands out in his discussion is how readily the contribution of philosophy to the free will debate is dismissed because, as Siegfried claims, “the original question about free will is ill posed.” He tells us that asking whether we "have free will is like asking which came first, chicken or egg. It’s not a meaningful question.” (Actually, both are quite meaningful!)

Sometimes those in diverse disciplines need to ward off the temptation of intellectual imperialism, the belief that theirs is, in fact, the only valid field of study. Many have made the mistake of advocating this idea--sociologists, psychologists, economists and, yes, philosophers. But the world is complicated and can use being studied from several different perspectives.

One thing philosophy might still manage to contribute to the free will discussion is to point out that there is a logical difficulty with denying that people can choose. For if the denial is true, then that denial itself is something unavoidable, something the proponent cannot help making, just as the skeptic cannot help being a skeptic. And then all questions about truth and falsehood appear to vanish. Robots do not say what is true or false but only what they must, akin to a parrot or a tape recorder.

In order to be in the business of truth seeking and discovering, human beings seem top need mental independence, just as jurors need it if they are to come up with true verdicts instead of mere prejudice. Scientists need to be in the position to freely assess the evidence and arguments bearing on their work, otherwise what they “discover” is no more than a claim they cannot help but make. But what use is such a claim to us? It would all come to a standstill--I have to assert X while you had to assert not-X and neither of us is free to do otherwise.

This is just one bit of philosophical, logical aspect of the free will discussion that is quite pertinent and will not be replaced by any neuroscientific work, only supplemented by it.

No, the free will issue is not simple, although at one level the common sense idea that we, normally, have free will is telling. If we didn’t have free will, then a belief about whether we do or do not is itself just an event that had to happen, like rain falling from the sky. Which is an odd idea, isn't it?

Machan wrote Initiative--Human Agency and Society (2000).

Sunday, December 07, 2008

The FDR "Solution"

Tibor R. Machan

` It is a very scary prospect but if president-elect Barack Obama is serious about admiring President Franklin Delano Roosevelt for how the latter dealt with America’s Great Depression, then America and the world may be in for some very ugly times indeed. This is because by the most reliable historical accounts, FDR managed to overcome the economic crisis of his day not by his Keynesian political economic policies (of government spending and extensive government funded public works). Instead it was World War II that brought the economy back into shape, and that only several years after the end of the war.

In her book, The Forgotten Man: A New History of the Great Depression, Amity Shlaes demonstrates that it is a widespread myth that FDR lead the country to economic recovery by means of his public policies--by way of agricultural price supports, new mortgage markets, working-hours legislation, securities regulation, etc., etc., as well as innumerable projects funded by the federal government, mostly focused on the country’s infrastructure.

Even defenders of it, such as Eric Rauchway writing for Slate (7/05/07), admit that The New Deal “did not end the Great Depression. The war did that. Open the authoritative reference work Historical Statistics of the United States and you will find that the unemployment rate did not return to its 1929 level until 1943.” This despite the fact that unemployment, which reached 23% at the height of the Great Depression, did begin to subside for most of the years of FDR’s presidency (except 1937-38).

All in all, though, what brought America out of its economic malaise was not The New Deal but the highly revved up war economy. At what price? Well, at the price of approximately 300,000 fallen Americans, along with about as many wounded and, of course, the dead and wounded of Germany, Italy, and Japan. Yes, arguably the war was a just one for America, given that Germany declared war on it. But however one assesses the causes of the war, its impact on the American economy does not seem to offset its enormous destructiveness. Nor, as far as historians can determine, did FDR get America into the World War so as to revive the American economy. Nonetheless it is a cautionary fact for us all that war and not the Keynesian economic policies of The New Deal appears to have been the instrument by which the country recovered economically.

By the way, the essence of those policies amounts to using money taken in from and borrowed against future taxes to stimulate the economy, to get people to work, to spend funds on various types of production--precisely what many in Washington insist is needed today. The fact that such an approach is wholly unproductive because government takes resources from the economy and uses these as politicians judge best, while those who owned the resources are prevented from using them according to theirs. (No doubt, sometimes this can bear some useful fruit--the original owners of the resources may not have wanted to spend it and thus refused to stimulate growth just the way politicians imagined it should be stimulated. Even thieves can at times spend usefully the loot they take from their victims!)

My worry is that in desperation, after all the government tinkering with the economy will prove to have been ineffective, there may be a strong, even irresistible temptation to get entangled in various military endeavors in part so as to obscure that fact. It would be sheer naïve idealism to think that American politicians are immune to such a development. So it is better to be vigilant than complacent.

There is a theory of public affairs that focuses not on what politicians and public officials intend but on the unintended consequences of their policies. It might best be supplement with the realization that once certain policies are initiated by politicians, given their power to tax and otherwise coerce the population, they are likely to stick to them no matter what.
Stubbornness isn’t just some quirk of certain individuals but can actually drive public policy.

Saturday, December 06, 2008

The Economist’s Individual

Tibor R. Machan

You may recall that about a month ago Alan Greenspan said, in his testimony on the Hill, that he had been mistaken to think that the self-interest of those working in financial institutions will serve their clients’ interest and, thus, avoid anything like the meltdown we have experienced recently. As he put it on Wednesday, October 22nd, "I made a mistake in presuming that the self-interests of organizations, specifically banks and others, were such as that they were best capable of protecting their own shareholders and their equity in the firms."

Greenspan was in fact referencing on two basic tenets of modern economic science, namely, that (a) everyone acts selfishly all of the time (even when one seems to be benevolent) and that (c) if people are not interfered with as they pursue their self-interest, this will turn out best for all.

Here is how the late Milton Friedman put the first point: . . . every individual serves his own private interest . . . . The great Saints of history have served their 'private interest' just as the most money grubbing miser has served his interest. The private interest is whatever it is that drives an individual.” (The Line We Dare Not Cross," Encounter, 11/76:11) Adam Smith laid out the second tenet back in 1776. He argued that when one is guided by one’s own self-interest, this is going to promote the greater good "of the society more effectively than when he really intends to promote it which was no part of his intention."

Why such confidence in self-interest? Because it really means something very vague and can apply to all kinds of actions, just as Friedman suggests. For economists self-interest is whatever one chooses, whatever one freely selects as one’s goal, even if it is what would ordinarily be considered self-destructive, such as suicide, or altruistic, such as helping the poor in Africa (as Bill Gates has been doing with his foundation recently)! My writing these lines, your reading them, indeed everything we do of our own initiative is self-interested conduct.

In common sense terms, whenever one does what one chooses to do, one necessarily advances one’s own agenda, no one else’s. Even if one is being thoroughly helpful to others, this still is true--after all, one is acting as one thinks best and that must be, the theory has it, something that serves one’s own interest. To put it another way, the idea that we are all acting from self-interest means merely that we are all doing, when not being coerced by others, what we ourselves want to do. There is nothing more to the idea, as the economist uses it. (After all, another widely embraced thesis of economics is that what is best, what is right, is all subjective, so there is no right versus wrong, good versus bad other than how one sees things.)

So when Greenspan recanted the theory that “the self-interests of organizations, specifically banks and others, were such as that they were best capable of protecting their own shareholders and their equity in the firms” what he was saying, in common sense terms, is that the expectation, the one advanced by Adam Smith, is sometimes mistaken, namely, that all these people in all these organizations will always act to everyone’s benefit.

Of course Smith’s thesis is by no means a wild and crazy one. Even if we do not assume that people, when they act freely, follow their own lights and so will always also benefit others, the opposite by no means follows. That is the view that, for us all, to do what is best overall we must be guided by government regulators, by the likes of, say, Representative Henry Waxman, the man whose questioning elicited Greenspan’s comments and a most fervent advocate of government intervention in the economy. This latter theory, the one that places great confidence in government regulation, is not made true just because the first theory, that the self-interested or free conduct of everyone always promotes overall welfare, is false.

Quite apart from the two tenets of modern economic theory, there are independent reasons to be very weary of government regulation and good reason to favor deregulation. Here, too, we can invoke a famous quote but not from an economist but a political theorist, Lord Acton. He is the one who observed, and quite truthfully, that "Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” This means that government agents are routinely corrupted by the power they hold. They aren’t always but they are nevertheless tending in that direction and the greater their power over others, the more they do so.

It is this thesis that the likes of Henry Waxman need to absorb but are very likely to resist to the day they die.

Friday, December 05, 2008

Nader Should Rejoice

Tibor R. Machan

Ever since I became aware of American politics, way back in the 19060s, I kept hearing from Ralph Nader, the so called consumer advocate--who appointed him that I don’t know--that corporations are our major problem in this country. In particular, Nader had ranted and raved about how powerful corporations are, how invincible they have become, and how this hurts us all.

Well, it looks like some of the biggest corporations aren’t actually that invincible and, to tell the whole truth, they have never been. Over the many years of corporate commerce in America alone, hundreds have gone belly up--most notably Montgomery Ward sticks out in my memory! Even Sears and Roebuck was near demise, and K-Mart is nearly always on the brink.

But in our day it is the three huge, politically protected American automakers that are verging on going kaput. They ought to have a long time ago but the federal government has protected them from foreign--and even potential domestic--competition. Vis-a-vis the foreign companies they did this mostly by way of tariffs and various irrational requirements imposed on them. As to potential domestic rivals, just check out the movie Tucker to get an accessible picture of how the Big Three behave when their dominance is threatened in the market place!

I was teaching for a year or so in Switzerland in the early 1980s and at one point ran across a very nice Saab at a used car dealer in Lugano and inquired about buying it and bringing it back to the USA with me. I was quickly apprised of the fact that this would be an extraordinarily difficult thing to do because the US government requires all cars brought into the country to meet a bunch of standards that successfully manage to remove competition from the market place and leave the Big Three relatively protected. And it worked for a while, at least until the Big Three stopped having the clout in Washington that it used to.

By the way, automakers are by no means the only ones who play so dirty. Big agricultural firms are notorious for managing to get protection erected against foreigners--indeed, this is a real embarrassment to the American government which keeps giving lip service to free trade for everyone else but some of its own special interest groups. Even television networks had such protection against potential competitors until cable finally broke their oligopoly. For a long time if you wanted to start a new TV station, you had to go to Washington and prove to the Federal Communications Commission that you would not take any viewers away from existing stations, most of which were owned--directly or indirectly--by the three Big Networks. Can you imagine this? You were disallowed from going into business if some existing firm producing what you planned to produce could show that you might lure some of its customers away? How would this work with restaurants, movie theaters, grocery stores? What would competition amount to?

Now that finally some reality has descended upon the Big Three automakers--aside from some troubles not related to their lingering dominance--I want to see Ralph Nader appearing all over the tube hailing the fact. Finally his wish is coming true--big corporations are going bust, just he has wanted them to do for decades.

But suddenly I sense a deafening silence from Mr. Nader. I guess he has realized that big corporations are actually not just a few fat cat executives--who are easy to demonize--but thousands of people who work in various capacities that result in the production of the cars made by the Big Three. And to wish for the demise of the Big Three isn’t merely to wish ill on the suits in Detroit but also on all the workers who have benefitted from protectionism, from many years of keeping foreign competitors away or making it very tough for them to enter the domestic market.

What is needed is a completely depoliticized economy, one in which, like referees at a game, government does nothing but make sure that everyone plays by the rules--respects private property rights, the integrity of contracts, etc. But instead what governments at all levels tend to do is both play referee and enter the game, bet on the teams, console the looser, heal the injured, sell players their uniforms, you name it!

And they say our current economic mess is the result of free market fundamentalism. What a crock!

Monday, December 01, 2008

Another Restraint of Trade

Tibor R. Machan

When I was teaching at Auburn University some publishing firms decided to lobby the Alabama government--some division of it supposedly concerned about ethics. They were asking that a ban be imposed on professors selling books they receive from publishers as unsolicited examination copies. And the government was on the verge of complying!

I learned of this and immediately contacted this ethics commission in Montgomery and went to testify about how such a ban amounts to restraint of free trade, something no government ought to encourage, let alone perpetrate. Governments are supposed to protect our liberties and not to violate them, and such a ban would clearly be a violation. When you receive gifts from others at their initiative, there can be no legally enforceable strings attached. (I won’t even return something I am sent unsolicited when asked to do so! I don’t work for these people!)

There is absolutely nothing wrong with publishers and authors making a living off their books but when they decide to promote their wares by giving out free copies, they must live with the consequences. One such consequence is that they will give away or sell these books to willing buyers. Sometimes this comes to no more than giving a copy to a student or a colleague. At other times vendors may come around and offer a few bucks to take the examination copies away from one’s home or office library, to purge them to make room for new books.

The idea that once one has received these unsolicited books one must accommodate the publishers by keeping them for oneself or by returning them is morally odious. If you get something you didn’t ask for, you are completely free to give it away or sell it to willing recipients. This is no different from one receiving a gift of a book of which one already has a copy and then selling or giving away the extra copy. Or indeed from selling one’s used furniture or car!

The right to private property implies all this. Something that you own you have the right to sell. And when someone sends you something that you have not asked for, you become its owner, free and clear. This is so even if inside the item you have been given there is a note urging you to return it--no one is authorized to impose obligations on us to which we have not agreed, though of course you are also free to grant the request.

Well, lo and behold one of the book buyers who visits us occasionally at Chapman University told me recently that in Arizona a bunch of publishers are attempting to get the government to ban trade in unsolicited examination copies. Déjà vu! I told the merchant who informed me of all this that I would be glad to help out, send an affidavit or even travel to Phoenix to testify against the corrupt merchants who want to both eat their cake and have it: They want to send around promotional gifts to encourage the sale of their books but then want to avoid living with one likely result of this promotional strategy, namely the sale by the recipients of the books they gave away.

Well, one doesn’t get to do this in a free country. Once you have given something to someone else, without prior conditions agreed upon, the recipient has every right to do with it anything peaceful, as he or she pleases, even burn it in a fireplace. (It might be a dumb idea to do this, although when I consider how cluttered my office and home libraries are because I am so reluctant to toss many books I’ve read or never will read, it may not be such a bad idea.)

An interesting lesson to be learned from this evidently minor case of businesses trying to get politicians to protect them from competition is that by no means are people in business above such behavior. Free markets are OK as far as those in business are concerned but the first group to embark on restricting it are often the very people in business. As Adam Smith observed back in 1776, "People of the same trade seldom meet together, even for merriment and diversion, but the conversation ends in a conspiracy against the public or in some contrivance to raise prices."

Free market champions are often and very unjustly charged with favoring people in business as against, say, wage laborers or other professionals. From the start this has been a distortion of their attitudes, including that of contemporary libertarian champions of free markets.
Objectivity and Consensus

Tibor R, Machan

The radical skeptic regarding gaining knowledge about the world will tend to trust the empirical sciences above other means of investigation. Several issues arise, though, Scientist do not all deploy identical methods across the sciences. Botany and physiology study differently as do astrophysics and subatomic physics. That’s because the method of study needs to be fitted to the object of study. This is one reason that subatomic physicists, find it difficult to reconcile their work with astrophysicists--Stanford University’s Leonard Susskind versus Cambridge University’s Stephen Hawking.

Because the human form of consciousness a quite complex, its study, too, will involve comparably subtle tools and approaches. And, of course, the tools of study, instruments of measurement, medication, etc., will vary from field to field.

The diversity of rational approaches is evident also in how readily scholar argue. Even among ordinary folks there is less argument about, say, where the line divides a road, one side going there, another here. Other than for those whose faculties are impaired, disputation in these simple regions are rare.

Consider, for illustrative purposes, that the same people who drove to work on some express highway at 75 mph and had no trouble agreeing on where the curbs, lines, and signs stood and what they meant will enter their work and begin to argue about various issues related to their subject matters, often bearing on the making of public policy,

Is reality suffering from innate instability, as some physicists have been claiming, so measurements are in principle and practice not possible to undertake and agree about? Are the instruments badly designed? Are the students themselves impeded by differences in the way their faculties operate? Or are the individuals themselves exercising their cognitive capacities differentially--plainly put, are some slower than others, more distracted, less attentive, etc.?

Or perhaps when tasks turn out to be surrounded with many contingencies, lots of variables, and are undertaken by scholars with varied capacities, willingness, interests, and influences on their thinking--including that neglected influence of their own varied levels of attentiveness and focus--disagreements multiply. At that point it becomes tempting to ascribe responsibility to the way the world itself works, not to human shortcomings, to alleged innate irrationalities about the world, much vagueness or many ambiguities. This is suggested by those who take some epistemological challenges passed to human knowledge at the subatomic level and generalize or extrapolate it to all cases of our knowing the world.

Take, for example, that the future president’s economists drive to their offices in considerable harmony, with no intransigencies plaguing their trip but once they sit down at the round table and begin to discuss the country’s economic wows, varied opinion become routine. Why? Is it because the world is so messy that no rhyme or reason can be attained from studying it? Or is it that such coordinated study requires enormous unity of purpose and similarity of approach, otherwise the results will be mixed and that can lead skeptics to declare the effort hopeless.

If there is anything that shows that human beings are free agents, not determined to act as they do, their ubiquitous disagreements certainly suggest it. The varied beliefs people hold about God, free will, democracy, child raising and zillions of other topics shows that they need to be very much in self-control, very focused, very skilled so as to reach similar conclusions. And they need to keep in mind the philosophical issue, the one that emerges out of the study of metaphysics, that at bottom the world is and can be nothing else but internally consistent. This is implicitly acknowledge by most scholars and scientists when they do not rest until they come up with a theory that excludes contradictions. Just as at a criminal trial, if a witness makes a contradictory claim that claim is discredited, the same is true in science and everywhere else where we want to know about the world.

Sunday, November 30, 2008

Public Editor Ideology

Tibor R. Machan

I need to be especially careful in using that term, “ideology,” since I have been a frequent critic of others’ use of it. In casual talk it means “simplistic viewpoint.” But when used in a more serious discussion, “ideology” means “phony and psychologically devious viewpoint.”

That is to say, an ideology is a position someone holds not because it was reached through research and reasoning but because it serves an agenda or merely buttresses how one feels about something. In the hands of Karl Marx, for example, the term was used to discredit the views of his opponents. If they invented those views so as to serve some class or personal (especially economic) interest, well then they didn’t deserve to be taken seriously.

Today the term is deployed a lot by pundits and commentators who want to dismiss ideas of which they disapprove but do not wish to defend their dismissal of those ideas. Just calling in an ideology, or labeling someone an ideologue, serves to demean the position of those who hold it. Scientists, when they do science, would be the farthest thing from ideologues and science from ideology. That’s because it is still widely believed among intellectuals that observation is the sole basis for rational judgment and that all science is based on observtion.

This was, if I may be somewhat ironic, the ideology--or, put more respectfully, the philosophical stance--of a great many educated people at the early and middle part of the 20th century. That famous motto of the state of Missouri, “Show me,” pretty much said it all--if you can’t, well there is nothing to what you are claiming.

This outlook fell on hard times when it was noticed that advocating it had itself no observational foundation. The idea that observations ought to back up all our claims to know things turned out not to be subject to observational support! It was an article of faith, at least by the terms of the very people who proposed it.

But this didn’t kill the position as it ought to have. To this day many people embrace the supposedly hardheaded doctrine of empiricism, namely, that only knowledge based on sensory evidence counts, nothing else. And with this idea came another very seriously wrong and harmful one, namely, that no value judgments could be rationally defended, none could amount to knowledge.

The public editor of The New York Times appears to be among those who still cling to the discredited idea that nothing counts for knowledge that includes value judgments. In a recent piece in which he tries hard to distinguish between writing news or analysis and writing editorials or opinion pieces, he approvingly quotes Bill Keller, the executive editor of The Times, saying that “Op-Ed columnists have ‘greater license to write from an ideological viewpoint and be prescriptive’,” than do news writers and analysts.

So, apparently, Mr. Keller and public editor Clark Hoyt believe that prescriptive commentary need not bother much with providing support and evidence because these are produced “from an ideological viewpoint.” This is what used to be labeled “being biased” and, therefore, containing mere attitudes or feelings. That is what the early positivists argued about all non-scientific claims, including those in ethics, politics, aesthetics, and religion.

Now it is sad to find the public and executive editors of The New York Times pretty much dismissing all the material on the editorial and Op Ed pages as being written from an “ideological viewpoint.” All of it is “prescriptive,” meaning, as they implicitly do, that such writing fails to be well grounded, could not aspire to being true, cannot be subjected to critical scrutiny.

When one dismisses--editorials, opinion pieces, etc.--as prescriptive or ideological, one is of course dismissing one’s own opinions as no more than that. And if so, then why bother taking it seriously, why even read it?

In fact, ideological viewpoints are every bit as subject to critical scrutiny as are scientific positions, only not by the same criteria. Some (few) ideologies are sound, others are not. That is also the case with prescriptive statements, the stuff of morality and politics.

There is no sharp division between discourse about values and about facts--values are just different kind of facts, facts about how we ought to act, something vital to human life and not to be relegated to the class of unfounded, emotional utterances.