Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Liberty and Hard Cases

Tibor R. Machan

One book I edited has the same title as this column and focuses mainly on how a free society would cope with disasters such as earthquakes, floods, tornadoes, hurricanes, etc. When the nature of a just society is discussed, those who defend big government solutions to problems tend to start with orphaned children and catastrophes, claiming that only by means of massive government intervention can a society cope. But then, of course, it becomes evident that big government advocates—actually, advocates of governments with extensive scope, way beyond the task of securing the rights of the citizenry—don’t stop with the dire cases. Instead they move on to advocate government intervention into every nook and cranny of people’s lives. The tendency is toward totalitarianism, with just a few exceptions such as freedom for the press and for people religious choices. Everything else, however, seems to require government meddling, just as was believed in the thousands of years when monarchies ruled virtually everywhere because the king was thought to be God’s representative on earth.

Starting with disasters has considerable emotional advantage for statists. People are rarely as frightened as when they contemplate the prospect of facing natural calamities. (The fire that came close to destroying the canyon in which I have my small house punctuated this for me.) Only diseases like cancer or sudden heart attacks scare most folks as much. And in a state of panic one is less likely to be rational, to assess things calmly, carefully, in a principled way. It was William Pitt who warned—in 1783—that “Necessity is the plea of every infringement of human freedom. It is the argument of tyrants, it is the creed of slaves.”

So, even dire emergencies are no excuses for forcing people into service to one another. Their lives belong to them and no one may conscript them to provide involuntary service! Especially when the proper course to take so as to reduce the damage from natural calamities is so near at hand. This is private insurance and the related industries that would develop in the absence of the state’s promise of bailing people out. Yes, getting used to not depending on government, the Nanny State, Uncle Sam, and monarchs of all kinds may be difficult and even difficult to imagine for those who lack confidence in the capacity of human beings to abide by the rules of civilized society. Yet, as with all great goals that are difficult to achieve, it is worth aiming for.

Just as in time people learned to do without serfdom and slavery, they could similarly learn to do without subjugating their fellows in times of dire need, even severe emergencies. It may not be an idea whose time has been fully apprehended, gleaned, but it is one that is, nonetheless, imperative to aspire to for all human beings.

In most areas of human life we find people subverting principles of morality and justice but this is no excuse for giving up on those principles. In whenever those principles are subverted, excuses bubble up readily—from bank robbers and adulterers to child molesters and rapists. The strong urge to violate those principles is simply not excuse for failing to try to purge their violation from our lives.

All this needs to be considered when one approaches the issue of how people ought to cope with disasters, calamities, emergencies and other occasions that appear to necessitate the violation of unalienable human, individual rights. The idea of justice that requires respect for and protection of those rights may at times seem impossible to put into practice but that is merely a function of most people’s centuries old reliance on using other people against their will, without their consent.

A dedication to refusing to yield to such habits could very well bring to the fore a different era, one in which governments will be confined to their proper job, securing our rights, and we take up the various more or less trying tasks of coping with our lives, including in emergencies.
Property Rights and the Very Badly Off

Tibor R. Machan

Is it reasonable to always demand respect for property rights? This is the question raised by some critics of the (Lockean) idea that human beings have the unalienable right to their lives, liberty and property which may never be subject to violation within the legal system of a free society. Some claim that it is unreasonable to demand this of those in dire straits, the extremely poor, who would only manage to survive and flourish by violating these rights of the well off. Thus, the argue, the welfare state in which laws are passed that permit taxing the well to do so as to provide for those in dire straits is just.

Of course, most of the welfare obtained via taxation doesn’t serve to benefit people in dire straits but owners of sizable business firms that seek support in times of economic downturns. The welfare state tends to support those afraid of competition from foreign industry and farmers, not unwed mothers who cannot find work by which to support their children. But some of the recipients of welfare are in dire straits, through no evident fault of their own. And, the argument goes, it would be unreasonable to demand of such people to refrain from taking from the well to do what they need.

As I have argued, since some of what those in dire need require would be the result of the labors of other people, this implies that it is unreasonable to demand of those in dire straits to abstain from coercing productive people to labor for them, to part with what they have produced, to even give up parts of their bodies if they can do without those parts. But that cannot be right—how could it be unreasonable to demand that people not be forced to labor for others? Does not forced labor violate the rights of those who are its victim? If one also adds that those in dire straits may very well have ample opportunity to obtain what they need by offering to work for the well off, to engage in innovation, enterprise and other efforts that can peacefully secure for them what they need to survive and flourish, the case that they may coerce others to work for them loses even the emotional appeal that at first inspection it possesses.

The most that this kind of reasoning advanced in support of the welfare state establishes, then, is that those who are well off ought to be generous toward the very needy, that in emergencies those who can should lend a hand to those who are genuinely helpless. Indeed, that is what the virtue of generosity amounts to: it inclines decent persons, ones of good character, to come to the aid of deserving but badly off people. That would be the civilized solution rather than one that resorts of coercive means and treats those well off as unwilling tools or instruments of the badly off, not as people who are ends in themselves and must give their consent whenever they are utilized by others, even the very hard up among us.

There can, of course, be circumstances so unruly, so desperate and catastrophic that reasonable conduct is impossible, something that Locke himself realized, referring to them as ones where “politics in not possible.” In such cases the world is so topsy-turvy that the principles of civilized behavior cannot reasonably be expected to be followed.

What does not follow from this is that the legal system of a society must be adjusted so as to accommodate emergencies, to require of well enough off citizens to be constant Good Samaritans. As the saying goes, “Hard cases make bad law.” One does not demand that a system of law change because of certain dire circumstances, especially since it would imply that some people get to place the rest under legal obligation to perform service that should come from good will, not at the point of a gun.

In a recent issue of Science News, the magazines that reports much of the path breaking scientific research around the globe, one short item noted that the degree of charity and philanthropy in societies with substantial free, unregimented markets is much greater than in top down planned societies. So not only it coercive welfare unjust but it seems to discourage good will among citizens. And it is mostly such good will that takes the best care of the truly needy among us!

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Is traveling a human right?

Tibor R. Machan

Liberty first had to do with the freedom to travel. In time it came to amount to a condition in which no one forces one to submit to another’s will, a condition of not being prevented by others from doing what one chooses to do. So, for example, free enterprise means no one is authorized to stop others from producing and trading; free press means there may be no bans on one’s decision to write and publish what one decides to. Of course, one may not be able to do much that one is free to do—I am free to sing operas but I am not able to do so. No one is stopping me from betting big bucks in Las Vegas but, alas, I have no big bucks to bet. It is one thing to be free to act, another to be capable of doing so, a point lost on many political thinkers and public policy proponents.

The matter I wish to explore here, very briefly, is whether a person has a right to the freedom travel. In one sense, of course, yes—everyone has the right to be free to travel because normally no one is authorized to prohibit it for others. But travel involves the use of resources and it isn’t true that everyone has the right to the resources that are required for travel. If one does, others may not interfere but if one doesn’t, one will not be able to travel. And what kind of resources are at issue?

For one, to travel, one needs some area where a trip can take place. A trip from Los Angeles to Japan, for example, usually requires fuel, a vehicle, some open route that connects the two places, etc. None of these is a free good. So although one has the right to undertake the trip, one may not have the ability to do so. And even the right to undertake the trip is something akin to the right to the pursuit of happiness—the result is not a right. No one has the right to be happy! That is something one needs to achieve. But all have the right to pursue it.

Most people travel by car and plane, though many still use a bike, motorized or not, or even a horse. But most importantly, in order to travel, one must have some sphere wherein the trip takes place—a road, a railway, a waterway, or airway. And these are not free goods by any means. Moreover, in a fully free society, in which there are but very minimal public spheres—those needed to administer the legal system (meaning where a court house, military base and police station may be located)—no one could simply enter some sphere and use it to travel from one place to another. In such a society roads would be privately built and owned, as would homes or apartment houses. And just as one may only enter and make use of these latter if those who own them give one permission—or have reached mutually agreeable terms of exchange—the same would hold for all the spheres where travel can take place.

Now for quite a while no need for buying or renting spheres of travel may have appeared necessary—like air, they appeared to be free goods. Yet what had been a free good once may not remain so as more and more people make use of it and it becomes scarce. The air mass, for example, is barely a free good, as are water masses. Land hasn’t been a free good for centuries, at least not where most people would want to live and work. The upkeep of these valuable spheres isn’t cheap. Nor do they benefit everyone equally—some people can do without much use of land or water while others wish to make a great deal of use of them (e. g., folks who like boating want a lot of water available for them, while golfer would prefer large parcels of land).

The belief that travel and its major tool, roads, is something that must be available to everyone in equal proportions is folly. Clearly not everyone wants to travel a great deal but, also, not all who do are willing to take care of what they make use of or pay others do it for them. Which is of course exactly what we learn from the doctrine of the tragedy of the commons: public realms tend to get neglected, overused, and depleted, whereas private realms get reasonably well cared for.

Perhaps the concern that’s most directly addressed by these considerations is environmentalism. If the principle of private property rights had been respected and protected for all the time that spheres or travel became scarce, there would arguably have not developed as much environmental abuse as many who concern themselves with these matters contend. What appear to be free goods simply do not get well taken care of and by treating travel as some kind of God given right of everyone—so most people believe they may go anywhere anytime the mood strakes them—a great deal of trouble comes to face us all.