Saturday, January 12, 2008

Individualism, the Collectivists’ Nemesis

Tibor R. Machan

It is individualism that the American Founders elevated into political prominence and it is individualism that most politicians and governments, including America’s, find most annoying because it is the bulwark against arbitrary power.

If, as the Declaration of Independence states, individual human beings have unalienable rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, no one may violate these rights. Every adult individual is sovereign, a self-ruler and not subject to the rule of others. (This is why Americans are referred to as citizens, not as subjects, like so many around the globe.)

Karl Marx was among the many political theorists--like Hegel and Comte--who realized that if individualism becomes prominent, their dream of ruling others in the name of whatever “higher goal or power” is over and done with. So they worked tirelessly to discredit individualism, to establish that no one is sovereign and we all belong to some group--the nation, the tribe, the race, the class, the ethnic group, whatever.

Today some of America’s most powerful mainstream politicians have gone on record denouncing individualism and they are joined by a great many academicians, even some scientists in trying to besmirch the idea. Instead of each person having the free will to guide him or herself in life, each of us is said to be but a cell in the larger organism that is humanity. There have been many who laid out this idea in forceful ways--just read what the French “father of sociology” said about this: “All human rights then are as absurd as they are immoral. This ["to live for others"], the definitive formula of human morality, gives a direct sanction exclusively to our instincts of benevolence, the common source of happiness and duty. [Man must serve] Humanity, whose we are entirely.” Marx put it even more succinctly: “The Human essence is the true collectivity of Man,” and referred to human beings as “specie beings,” meaning they are part of the larger organism or body of humanity. The book, by Lewis Thomas, Lives of a Cell, defended the idea in the mid-20th century!

Most recently the highly honored Canadian philosopher, a recent recipient of the prestigious Templeton Prize, has argued for “a principle of belonging or obligation, that is a principle which states our obligation as men to belong to or sustain society, or society of a certain type, or to obey authority or an authority of a certain type” in contrast to John Locke’s idea, those laid out in the Declaration, that there are unalienable rights every individual possesses simply by virtue of his or her humanity. These rights are definitive claims against anyone who would intrude upon one’s life, who would rob one of one’s liberty and moral autonomy, who would deny one’s freedom to choose and to pursue happiness.

In our current political climate it is the philosophy of entitlement that undermines the Lockean idea, which is the philosophy of the Declaration, by insisting that people have a right to take from others what they need or badly want--be this health care, retirement funds, opportunities for purchasing goods and services at lower cost than what some favorite group wants, land on which to build important shops, etc. And the idea of such entitlements, namely, that they are to be legally mandated, enforced, is backed by the philosophy of communitarianism, one that takes us all to belong to society, belong to a larger and more important entity than ourselves.

Yet, of course, it is always some individuals who make these claims and insist that they be the ones to decide what everyone’s obligation is to others, to the country, the nation, or the racial group. It is these individuals, after all, who try to secure power for themselves with the phony claim that we all belong to society and thus must be made to pay up what they decide with our lives and labors.

This anti-individualism or communitarianism then comes to no more than the special privilege of certain individuals to run the lives of other individuals, to live off the lives of others who may very well have perfectly justified goals of their own that could be supported with their lives if they were left free to decide about such matters.

Whenever you hear or read attacks on individualism, these attacks are nothing more than efforts to wrest power from people so that only a few select individuals can legally enforce their will on the rest of us, the will of those with whom they disagree.

Communitarianism--or collectivism--is false. Individualism is true. And even communitarians know this perfectly well.

Wednesday, January 09, 2008

Ron Paul and the Cause of Liberty

Tibor R. Machan

Among libertarians hardly anyone criticizes Dr. Paul. The few who do have, in turn, abandoned him completely.~ I haven’t and I do write some supporting missives regarding his candidacy, although I think he has a style that stands in the way of his getting taken seriously as a presidential hopeful. And I also criticize his ideas now and then.

Mostly I find fault with his blowback theory vis-à-vis 9/11, the belief that terrorists act as they do largely because of America’s Middle East policies.~ In contrast, I believe terrorists are motivated by an ancient anti-Western, anti-Enlightenment ideology and religion and America’s Middle East policies have only been fuel on the fire, not the reason for the terrorist stance at all.

I support Dr. Paul because he is the only candidate today who firmly and consistently advocates limited government, something that to me is a bigger issue than his ideas on~foreign policy. Yet even on this score I am concerned with how Dr. Paul expresses his position. For example, he keeps saying we should “just go back to the U. S. Constitution.” But this is a troublesome idea because it doesn’t spell out which version of the U. S. Constitution is supposed to be worth going back to. It is surely not the original one, the one that permitted slavery and included some highly disturbing and false claims about African Americans. Or is it supposed to be the current version, one that has innumerable statist amendments included in it and no longer supports limited government?

In my view Dr. Paul should not issue blanket endorsement of the U. S. Constitution. Although sound bite talk is now the preferred way for candidates to communicate, it is very risky to yield to that policy because sometimes where one ought to stand on the relevant issues is complicated and cannot be stated simply. Perhaps what Dr. Paul and others who publicly advocate the free society should do is identify themselves as “Declarationists” so as to indicate that what they support is the principles of the free society as the Founder paid them out in the Declaration of Independence, not in the compromised political-legal document that became the U. S. Constitution.

The Declaration, which is a pre-legal, philosophical document, is nearly flawless and would really be very good to go back to--or rather to move ahead toward, since America never did full justice to it and it is high time it begins to do so. It is the ideas of the Declaration that have inspired millions of people to head toward America’s shores because of its position in the world as the beacon of liberty.

Ron Paul will probably not win the Republican nomination or the presidency but with the message that America should aspire to realize and implement the principles laid out in the Declaration he could spawn a serious political movement and influence the country’s direction henceforth. Even his foreign policy ideas--namely, that the government’s task is to fend off those who attack the country because the justification for its existence is the securing of the rights of its citizens--would flow much easier from the Declaration than from the U. S. Constitution.

Dr. Paul could then become today’s popular voice of America’s true and distinctive political ideas and ideals, not the voice of the rather muddled and corrupted ideas contained in the U. S. Constitution. There is hardly any principle in that legal document that hasn’t been eroded over the centuries--only the defense of freedom of speech and religion remains reasonably intact (although even there cracks are evident now).

Sometimes in the heat of election campaigning even candidates who are committed to sound principles will lapse because of the demands imposed on them. Sound bite communication makes it impossible to be thorough and nuanced. But I think it is possible to resist this with some careful guidance--and Ron Paul now has enough cash to hire folks who can provide him with the text he needs to make clear that he stands for human liberty first and foremost, something this country desperately needs.

Monday, January 07, 2008

Freedom & the Needy

Tibor R. Machan

The defenders of the free society assume that, generally, people can fend for themselves, often alone, more often in voluntary cooperation. But they are not blind to the plain fact that not everyone can or will do this--there are serious hard luck cases, people in dire straits, as well as many who make mistakes by failing to prepare for bad times or by producing bad circumstances for themselves. So such folks will require support in order for them to live reasonably well.

What the champions of the free society assume, significantly and unlike those who distrust liberty, is that the support required for those in special need should come from fellow citizens who will provide the necessary support of their own free will, from a spirit of generosity. This should not involve the government, which in a free country has as its proper task to secure the rights of the citizenry against criminals and foreign aggressors. Why?

For one, government as property understood is certain select people using force defensively. When the force is used coercively, the “government” has gone astray, become corrupt, by engaging in the violation of citizens’ rights. This is simple to grasp: It is akin to when police officers use force not to fight crime but to subdue citizens to follow some course of action the officers happen to prefer but are not morally authorized to enforce. Sadly, of course, all too many police officers do act in such morally unauthorized ways around the globe, including in America, just as too many governments overstep their authority and instead of defending their citizens embark upon ordering them about to act as the officials deem proper and desirable.

Another reason why it is a very bad idea to conceive of government as doing more than protecting the rights of citizens is that when government lends a hand, it does so mostly to advance the agenda of its agents and only rarely just the interest of the citizenry. Pro-active government policies involve "self-dealing" because this is what comes naturally, this is what is most easily achieved.

Helping others is a very difficult task since few know, especially in far away centers of power, what those in dire straits actually benefit from. It's no simple task to be the supporter of others, especially if one is using resources that aren't one's own. Just consider how skilled those in the helping professions must be, how much schooling they require and how often even they get it wrong about what actually helps their clients.

So in a free country support for those in special need, those in dire straits, must not come from government but from fellow citizens. They are the ones who can offer genuine help to the needy, on terms the needy accept freely. Otherwise the needy are demeaned, their human dignity is undermined--they become wards of the state, not people who are being offered and freely accept their fellows’ help.

It appears that politicians willfully evade this fact, especially during election campaigns. All we hear these days is how once elected, candidates will provide for those who need something, necessarily at the expense of others who have not volunteered to give help but are being forced to provide it. This is precisely what a free society cannot tolerate and the policy that leads to its demise. One need but reflect on the fact that throughout human history the tyrants, tsars, dictators, and nearly all others who took up the task of helping the people turned out to be vicious oppressors. The people lacked sovereignty and these “leaders” grabbed it all for themselves.

This bad habit, of conceiving of politicians and bureaucrats as embarking on helping out the needy, is still very much with us--it is that insidious governmental habit and it is far worse than any dependence on using debilitating drugs or engaging in other self-destructive practices. Yet because so much of human history involved not mutual respect among people but the conquest of some of them by others, the radical idea that we can live in peace and mutual respect for each other’s rights is taking a long time to become standard practice.

The American Founders began the radical reformation of government along these lines but they only gave it a start. Sadly, it seems that contemporary politicians do not really want to follow their lead and want to reinstitute the old regime whereby government was seen as the care taker, not rights protector, within the realm.

Sunday, January 06, 2008

Ron Paul’s Middle East Foibles

Tibor R. Machan

At Saturday's (1/05/08) Republican presidential candidates debate nearly all the candidates ganged up on Ron Paul for his stance on the U. S. role in instigating 9/11 and other Middle Eastern terrorist activities. Although Dr. Paul has some valuable points to make concerning how U. S. foreign policy exacerbates the terrorist problem--namely, by providing terrorists with some valid reasons to criticize elements of that policy--he is also careless in blaming what the terrorists do primarily on U. S. Middle Eastern foreign policy.

As several of his rivals pointed out, radical Islamist hostility toward the West and, thus, its leading power, the U. S. A., is based on ancient hostilities. Terrorism against Western targets actually predates considerably even America's support of Israel, another supposed reason for the terrorists' anger and attacks.

For some reason, however, Dr. Paul will not relent in blaming it all on America. His moral equivalence thesis, invoking a hypothetical expansionist foreign policy by China, is way off the mark.~ Most of America's so called "imperialism" is economic, an element of global capitalism, whereas what China would be exporting is anything but capitalism and its free institutions but innumerable coercive ones. (There is in Dr. Paul's rhetoric an unfortunate relativism so that exporting free institutions is just as bad as exporting coercive ones.)

It is unfortunate that Dr. Paul refuses to finesse his views on this topic because on so many other fronts a great many Americans have no trouble supporting him. They will not yield, however, on the issue of whether, all things considered, America is a more just and decent country than are the Middle Eastern dictatorships--admittedly often supported by the American government--that support the terrorists who are bent on bringing it down. Now that it is evident that Mrs. Clinton’s politics and public policy ideas do not sit all that well even with many Democrats, Dr. Paul’s limited government, sound monetary policy philosophy, could take off but for his insistence that around the globe America is the criminal.

Among libertarians this is no novel dispute. Even during the Cold War there were some who insisted that it isn’t the Soviet Union but America that is aggressive, that is a greater threat to human liberty. These libertarians were--and some still are--of the “anarchist” persuasion, believing that government of any kind whatever is coercive, tyrannical, evil. And from this it tends to follow that whichever government is close is the worst, the greatest threat.

Actually, these libertarians are mistaken in calling their view “anarchist.” They believe in government but of a peculiar type, one that isn’t stationary but fluid, floating around from area to area providing its “clients”--citizens--with legal services. But they are, allegedly, not monopolistic.

Genuine anarchists, however, believe in no government at all, no law or legal authority, regarding all of that a source of mischief. Libertarian “anarchists,” however, disavow only governments that claim to be the sole representative of a group of people. So what seems to irk libertarian “anarchists” is that they cannot up and select some alternative representation right where they live, without having to move.

Now this is like complaining that Macys has a monopoly because in order to compete with it one must actually leave its premises and go to another store. But we often have just that kind of competition in a free market, so if a country did have a genuine free government--taking care only of protecting its citizens’ rights, and anyone could emigrate--there would be nothing libertarians could object about it.

Anyway, all this anti-American stuff coming from Dr. Paul is misconceived and self-destructive. It is too bad because otherwise Dr. Paul’s ideas are superior by a long shot to those of his rivals. And that would seem to be something he and his supporters could advocate with considerable success, especially to young people in the country who do prize America above most other countries around the globe, often for very good reasons.