Thursday, January 24, 2008

The Free Society & Democracy

Tibor R. Machan

Around the world democracy is often thought to be the system of liberty. A free country is often thought to be identical with a democratic one. And while this is wrong, the mistake is understandable. For too many millions of people progress toward liberty begins with gaining the vote, with managing to have some, however small, measure of influence on public policy as opposed to having public affairs dictated by some unelected chief of state or some unelected group of thugs. So to get at least a bit of influence—to gain the right to vote—is a step in the right direction toward becoming free.

But in a truly free society democracy has to be strictly limited. For starters, it cannot involved voting on how non-consenting citizens should act and use their labor and property. Democracy can involve no more than the selection of the administrators of the legal system and such as system must be strictly limited to the protection of everyone’s basic individual rights. In short, people may vote for who the sheriff will be but not on whether the sheriff may rob Peter to help out Paul. The sheriff may only act in the capacity of a peace officer, as a crime fighter, as the defender of the citizenry from domestic and foreign aggressors.

Now this shows very clearly and plainly that we do not live in a truly free society anywhere on the globe, not even in the United States of America. That’s not to say America is a full blow tyranny or that we do not enjoy far more liberty than do citizens—“subjects”—of most other nations around the globe. Just as is implicit in the way some organizations such as Freedom House rank countries, there are more or less free societies around the world. And compared to most eras in human history, there are societies these days that enjoy institutions and laws that come near to making them free, considering how brutal and Draconian tyrannies and despotisms had been in the past and were not all that long ago. Yet even today many societies are ruled top-down in more or less totalitarian fashion and things could get worse—there is no automatic progress toward freedom in the world.

The original statement of the way America was supposed to differ from other societies, laid out in the Declaration, made it abundantly plain that democracy may not trump individual rights. That is what is meant by calling the rights of all human beings unalienable—nothing and no one may strip individuals of these rights; nothing and no one may justifiably act to violate those rights.

Unfortunately the urgency involved in building a new country, despite all the good ideas most of the Founders had about how to devise it, made it very difficult to stick to the basic ideas of the Declaration. So the Constitution didn’t do justice to its principles, just as Lincoln explained when he invoked the Declaration’s ideals to try to remedy the Constitution. (Sadly, even Lincoln didn’t quite stick to those excellent ideas.)

For those who appreciate how vital liberty is to the maintenance of a just system of law, it is difficult in our day to tell just what one is to do, especially when the available selections during elections nearly all betray the principles of liberty. Will voting for a Hillary Clinton make American a freer society than it is now? How about voting for Rudy Giuliani? We don’t even have the kind of system, as many countries do, where many candidates can run for office in the final race so that citizens can at least register a sizable preference for other than the winner. It is certainly very frustrating to have to choose between two candidates who have no serious concern for what a free society requires.

But in some ways it may still be possible for some people to vote so as to guide the country in the direction of a truly free society. Just what that involves can vary a great deal from one region of the country to another, from what’s at stake in one election versus in another. Voters are intelligent enough to figure out what will get the country closer to a free society, although they do not often use their intelligence for that purpose. As it stands now, most often, sadly, they use it to figure how many goodies they can get at others’ expense by means of casting their votes. (That’s just what Alexis de Tocqueville warned us against in his famous Democracy in America!)

The original idea that what American should be is free, first and foremost, is getting hardly any attention in our democracy.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Revolutionaries and Reality

Tibor R. Machan

Those who are loyal to the political values of the American Founders are revolutionaries, far more so than any other type (like the Marxists or radical Muslims). This is because the American Founders identified something brand new and radical when they declared that individuals have unalienable rights to their lives, liberty and pursuit of happiness.

This idea overturned thousands of years of official doctrine according to which people belong to the government—the idea that they are subjects, not citizens. Such a notion is fundamentally alien to what the Founders proclaimed and believed is in fact the case, namely, that each intact adult human being is sovereign, a self-governor, and not someone’s slave, serf, or subject.

Sadly although the gist of the Founders’ idea has gained a good deal of influence in many cultures—legal systems and public policies certain give some lip service to it—there is still a great deal of habitual statism in vogue. Many politicians, intellectuals, educators, pundits, and such cling to the notion that you and I and the rest of us belong to some group—the race, nation, tribe, what have you—and so can be conscripted to do service to these never mind whether we consent. Both conservatives and liberals—and indeed nearly all the rest of the political factions—insist that your life isn’t really yours but you owe it to something or somebody else.

This was, of course, the essential teaching of socialists of all stripes, including Karl Marx. It is also the teaching of some of today’s leading political and social thinkers, such as Cass Sunstein, Charles Taylor, Thomas Nagel, Amitai Etzioni, and many others. They all deride individualism, the idea that you and the rest of us are sovereign and to gain our cooperation for any project we need to give our consent, we must be asked and only if we agree may such cooperation be obtained form us.

In the current election year this collectivist idea is especially prominent. It is taken for granted, not even argued for, by most liberal democrats and even by American conservatives, those in the country who claim to be conserving the ideas and ideals of the American Founders but have, in fact, become totally disloyal to them.

So what are the bona fide loyalists to do? What are those to do who insist that the original American position is sound and ought to be the governing set of ideas in this country and, indeed, in any civilized society? There is no one to vote for who embraces these notions except Ron Paul whose numbers aren’t very impressive, even if those who support him have made news with their enthusiasm and willingness to put their money behind their man. Even Dr. Paul isn’t quite the champion of the Founders’ ideas this country needs—someone who stands four squares by the Declaration of Independence rather than, as Paul does, by the much more ambiguous and constantly changing U. S. Constitution.

What the revolutionaries among us need to grasp is just how radical their position really is and how long it takes to make such radical ideas gain currency. Human beings can live by good judgment, their rational thought, but they also live, mostly, by habit. And many of the habits of the human race are flawed and tend to misguide people toward neglecting their sovereignty. Just as some women who have every right to insist on their independence in fact acquiesce to being subjugated by some men, so a great many people, even in America, are embracing the old, reactionary notion that people belong to the government, the king or whoever, not themselves. They do not protest at all when politicians make arbitrary, unjustified claims on their lives and labors, as if these didn’t belong to them at all but could be used and disposed of by the government.

John Locke made clear that “absolute monarchs are but men,” meaning, essentially, that government is simply other people and since no human being has rightful dominion over another—slavery is a vile institution, as is serfdom—the continued belief in government’s authority to expropriate what belongs to us, to conscript our labor against our will, is unjust. But, sadly, it is understandable because old habits are hard to overcome. (Just think of a habit you have which you have learned is destructive to, say, your health. It is often very hard for us to change it.)

So in this election year when our leaders want to continue to govern according to the tenets of the reactionary doctrine that government is our ruler, not our hired professional duty-bound to protect our rights, those who are loyal to the American revolution must continue vigilantly to promote their ideas however hopeless it seems to do so. That is a matter of integrity and in the long run it will also bear fruit.

Monday, January 21, 2008

Ethics and the Writers’ Strike

Tibor R. Machan

In the field of business ethics there is a very influential movement called stakeholder theory or, alternatively, corporate social responsibility. The gist of the idea is that when corporations are being managed, the managers have a fundamental obligation to serve those who have an interest in how the company is doing. So, in contrast to the idea that management ought to seek to advance the best interest of those who own or have invested in the company, this view holds that management ought to look out for the best interest of those who have a stake in the company, who could be helped by it, such as employees, customers, subcontractors, neighbors near plants and office buildings, and so on.

The target of this movement is the idea of the right to private property and that when one owns something, one may determine what should happen with it (within the limits of everyone’s rights). Shareholders own the company and together ought to be free to provide its direction. Instead, stakeholder theorists claim, it should be politicians, bureaucrats, pundits, preachers, and others in the population who should give company’s their direction, their purpose.

At the foundation of this movement lies the idea that people owe their lives, their labor, their property to others, first and foremost. This is the ethics of altruism, a favorite of many moralists but also an ethical doctrine that is ultimately impossible to practice consistently. As W. H. Auden so cleverly put the point, “We are here on earth to do good for others. What the others are here for, I don't know.”

The people who advocate this altruistic ethics, especially as it influences the way businesses are being managed, are those on the political Left. And the political Left in American includes, more than most professions, those who write the scripts for Hollywood movies and television dramas. If you check out the moral orientation of most Hollywood fare, it is plain to see that it promotes the idea that businesses shouldn’t seek to make profit but aim to help those in need.

The heroes in Hollywood aren’t the suits who bring in the dollars (and create the jobs), not by a long shot. The heroes are the actors and actresses who gallivant around the globe offering help to the needy and put down concern with the box office and commercial success. The fact is largely ignored that they couldn’t do their philanthropic work without the profits that the suits make possible for all these actors and actresses. As with Mother Teresa versus Bill Gates, never mind that the former could barely help a few people while the latter has created decent jobs for millions and useful tools for the rest of us. Looking good, in terms of the altruists, seems to trump actually doing real good!

Yet, there is a glitch here, as the writers’ strike reveals. Suddenly the fact that this strike has virtually crippled the entertainment industry cuts no ice. Never mind all the stakeholders who are losing work and cannot pay their bills because the writers are insisting on pursuing what they perceive to be their own economic interests. In short, where is the “social responsibility” of the writers, their unions, in this current strike? Why is it OK for them all to focus on their own economic well being, their economic future, on what benefits them and their loved ones? Why, if corporate managers are acting badly in advancing the economic interest of those who own and invest in their companies, aren’t the writers and their union leaders acting badly by trying, with this prolonged work stoppage, to advance their own economic interest?

Why are the writers and their union leaders not renouncing self-interest and profit and going back to work for the benefit of all the stakeholders? Is it, perhaps, that they aren’t actually very serious about their altruism? Is it perhaps that when it comes close to home they agree with W. H. Auden’s point that altruism is an impossible guide to human conduct. It is one thing to give lip service to it and to denounce those who seek to make a profit from their work; it is another thing entirely to walk the talk and abandon the pursuit of profit by, for example, stopping the writers’ strike.

Of course, the writers have every right to strike--although with the oddities of mandatory unionization their strike has a good many perverse elements. But it would be cool if they admitted that when it comes to their own economic well being, altruism isn’t their ethical guide and egoism is and they are doing exactly what those “greedy” suits are doing whom they are always putting down in their writings.

Sunday, January 20, 2008

Empty Talk -- Blog Entry at