Saturday, July 05, 2008

Ideas Have Consequences

Tibor R. Machan

My discipline, philosophy, is often lambasted for being too abstract, for not dealing with concrete matters, for not being practical. Socrates took a lot of flack for devoting much of his time to searching for fundamental principles and definitions of prominent ideas, such as justice, truth, and virtue. I’d be very rich if I had a buck for each time someone has told me over the decades that philosophy is useless.

Perhaps this is simply the fallout of a common attitude. That is for people to favor the significance of their line of work over and above all others. A great many economists, I can personally testify, are good at this--nothing is as relevant and pertinent to our lives as economics! Some have even written for a book unabashedly titled “economic imperialism.” But many sociologists, psychologists, biologists, and the rest exhibit such chauvinism as well.

In recent weeks there has been evidence of the practical impact, mostly for the worse, of certain philosophical ideas and the prestigious position of those who propound them. I am talking about animal “rights” or liberation champions, like the now world famous Princeton University philosopher Peter Singer.

First, in Spain the government has declared that great apes have the rights to life and liberty, rights that had been understood to belong only to human beings. It isn’t immediately obvious how this legal declaration is going to be implemented--do they have a lot of great apes in Spain? But it probably will have an impact at zoos and circuses, as well as, and more importantly, at medical research centers. And that, in turn, will very likely pose impediments to certain activities, some vital to human well being, others less so.

On this side of the Atlantic the animal rights/liberation doctrine has had dire consequences and continues to be deadly for human beings. The New York Times recently editorialized against making DDT available for fighting malaria around the world, in part because some penguins in Antarctica were found to have a little of it in their bodies. No, they didn’t die of this, nor seem to have had any serious illness associated with it but merely because there is that possibility, based on Rachel Carson's terribly influential 1964 book, Silent Spring! And admittedly there is evidence that DDT has done harm to the eggs of some birds.

So what? Why shouldn’t some birds suffer, even die, in the effort to improve the chances of human beings to survive certain deadly diseases? Well, because, as animal rights/liberation advocates like Singer (and another philosopher, Tom Regan), maintain, it would be to unjustly harm these animals to permit DDT to be used to help human beings.

This misanthropic doctrine is widely promulgated in various publications, including the most recent issue of Philosophy Now which has devoted most of its pages to making the case for animal rights/liberation. Sadly, no opponents to the doctrine were given space, although in fairness that's partly due to the simple fact that very few philosophers are on record defending the use of animals for purposes of helping human beings even with fatal medical problems such as malaria. It is estimated that millions of Africans have died because of the influence of Rachel Carson and other opponents of the medical use of DDT.

In much of moral philosophy or ethics it is taken as an article of faith, though not much defended, that human beings ought to live lives of self-sacrifice. As Singer put it, several years ago, “Animal Liberation will require greater altruism on the part of mankind than any other liberation movement, since animals are incapable of demanding it for themselves, or of protesting against their exploitation by votes, demonstration, or bombs.” So even though animals routinely kill and maim fellow animals for their own benefit--albeit, as a matter of their hard wired instincts, not from free choice--there is something lowly about human beings making use of other animals for their own good. Why so?

Nothing much of an answer is given to that question--indeed, in Singer’s case, it rests, ultimately, on his intuitions or, as I would call them, sentiments. What is needed is a vigorous philosophical and related defense of human life and flourishing, including human rights, and rejection of a sadly widespread misanthropic outlook that goes nearly unopposed now in the community of moral philosophers.

Tibor Machan is the author of Putting Humans First (Rowman & Littlefield, 2004).

Friday, July 04, 2008

The Common Good Sense of Liberty

Tibor R. Machan

In the sciences a great many initially controversial ideas have reached the status of common sense. Yes, the earth revolves around the sun. No, leaches do not cure all the diseases they had been used to try to cure. The earth is really quite old, unlike what the literal reading of the good book suggests. And, no, women aren’t inferior to men because somehow their emotions render them stupid.

Now as far as I see matters, freedom is superior to any and all forms of servitude, now and ever, however little this had been acknowledged in the past and still is in other parts of the globe. That is now common sense to me. Just as rape is plainly immoral and sexual unions must be voluntary, so all human conduct that’s peaceful must also be undertaken as a matter of choice. Subjugating anyone to another’s will is not much different, no matter what area of human life it involves, from subjugating an unwilling woman to the will of a forceful man.

But for some odd reason that escapes me, really, a great many quite prominent and intellectually prestigious people disagree with me. It seems to all of them quite OK to coerce others to do various things that these others do not agree to doing. Like paying into the social security fund, or following the orders of the Food and Drug Administration or the Drug Enforcement Authority. Thousands of such institutional arrangements, whereby some more or less large group of people get the legal authority to order others around, are approved of by prominent people. The excuse is usually that unless this authority is granted to these folks, some very good things will not get accomplished.

But that is simply a lousy excuse for running roughshod over other people, to limit their liberty and hand over to others the power to run their lives. It is again common sense to me that if you aim to enlist some fellow human beings in a project that is important, valuable, noble or such, you must confine your means to convincing, never to coercing them. How could it be otherwise? I stick with Abraham Lincoln here, who said, famously, that “No man is good enough to govern another man, without that other’s consent.” Just seems so obviously true that I find objections to the idea bordering on insanity. I can only have some measure of patience with such objections based on my realization that for centuries and centuries human beings have lived under the yoke of a bunch of pretenders to higher authority and this has warped their good sense.

No, I am not naïve. I realize well enough that dozens and dozens of fancy arguments, theories, motivations and such back the case for subjecting some people who want to go their own way--who want to follow their own choices--to the will of others. In the history of political philosophy and theory hundreds of brilliant figures have advanced interesting, often very sophisticated, arguments defending the divine right of kings, the absolute authority of majorities, and the like. Thousands and thousands of pages have been written to promote the fiction that some men are good enough to coerce others, in the name of various goals, desires, dreams, ideals, or notions of the common good. But none of these, I have come fairly early in my reading to realize, carries the day. Freedom simply--as well as in all its complicated renditions--triumphs over all the more or less oppressive alternatives.

Why then so much resistance to the idea? Well, the governmental habit is one explanation I have discussed often and find still to be a powerful notion. But there is also the fear of liberty--some just believe that unless powerful hands take over the running of human affairs, vital matters will be neglected. Why those powerful hands should manage to escape the same obstacle, namely human folly, to running matters properly that seem to such folks to prevent free man and women doing it beats me. The evidently blind confidence in some magic selection process that will put only wise and virtuous people into the positions of the coercers is baffling.

It is time that the superior regime of freedom becomes an article of common sense, not in constant need of having to be defended, intellectually, politically and physically!

Thursday, July 03, 2008

America Was Special

Tibor R. Machan

Despite its awful flaw, slavery, at the start, America had begun as a country founded on very special, radical principles. More importantly, these principles are true--they aren’t merely myths or superstitions men and women held for a period of time. That we all have basic rights to our lives, liberty, etc., is true and not just some fiction (as the late George Carlin liked to maintain in his curmudgeonly fashion). After all, nearly all of the criminal law across the globe recognizes it, at least implicitly. But few countries incorporated these truths into the daily fabric of their citizens’ economic lives.

Of course not even in America was the economy fully free. Nor did freedom of speech or even religion rule the realm completely, without some serious exceptions. But compared to other regimes around the globe, the ideals and ideas of a free society took greater hold here than elsewhere. That is what made the place exceptional, that’s why millions fled to it, that’s what made it a sanctuary to so many and still does.

The differences between countries are not like those between geometrical shapes. They are more gradual, so that while North Korea is a radically different place from America, Germany or New Zealand is not. And today more and more countries are adopting legal principles, institutions, and public policies that resemble those favored by the American Founders and Framers.

In some regions of the globe, such as India and China, some of these principles, especially those bearing on economic matters, have been embraced quite adamantly. That wouldn’t yet make them fully free countries; not even the US can be so called, given its oppressive drug laws and some other public policies. But in certain vital areas of human affairs, such as commerce, science, technology, and the like, embracing even less than fully the principles of liberty will mean a great deal. And one thing it will mean is that the people of these countries will become far more productive --and they will also be consuming a lot more--than they used to. So America is gradually having to face people from elsewhere who are competing in the global economy. And they are enjoying the fruits of this competition and making matters more difficult for those in the USA.

Just as when America fielded the famous basketball “dream team” but eventually faced teams from other countries that learned to play equally well, so America has been enjoying considerable advantage in many areas which it no longer does, if only because the obstacles to being part of the competition are being removed in other places. That would mean, among other things, that Americans will have to work harder and smarter in all areas of production than they did previously in order to keep up their standard of living.

In addition to these geopolitical changes, there is also all the technological developments that face people in many industries. No one can sit on his or her laurels and expect to just coast to easy success. As with a marathon race that is being run now by millions more than earlier, so with the global economy the contestants are facing a great deal of pressure now. (A good book about this is Fareed Zakaria’s recent Post-American World.)

All of this would of course be welcome news to those who find it thrilling to face new challenges in life. But if statis is one’s habit or preference, if one wants to be settled into a job, business, or profession without making adjustments, without having to be alert to the new opportunities that keep coming up, one will not be enjoying the current market place.

In fairness, of course, one needs to acknowledge that quite apart from the global economic changes facing us, there are also all the obstacles we face that bureaucrats, meddling politicians, and their cheerleaders in the media and the intellectual arena place before us and that make matters doubly difficult as we come to terms with challenges in the market place. Free men and women are more likely to meet these than are those whose minds and bodies are in partial bondage to mal-practicing governments.

So beside learning to deal with new peaceful developments around the globe, it is also vital to work on removing the artificial, indeed criminal, intrusions that make it difficult to adjust to novel situations. This is why politics is no luxury but a realm where vigilance in making improvements is as necessary as anywhere else in our lives.

Wednesday, July 02, 2008

What kind of Equality?

Tibor R. Machan

So called progressives--who wish to sell us on the idea that their rejection of the principles of the Declaration of Independence amounts to moving forward whereas it is, in fact, blatantly reactionary--like to make fun of the American Founders’ and Framers’ ideas. One of those ideas that has come in for some drubbing is where we are told that “All men are created equal.” In fact, several elements of this statement have received much ridicule. One is that it talks of “men,” another that even if it is taken more honestly as referring to adult human beings, it is plainly false. There is, of course, yet another part of it that is often derided, namely, that human beings were created by God, even though by “create” one can mean both something religious and secular.

What about the idea that human beings are created equal? Aldous Huxley is reported to have dismissed this as follows: “That all men are equal is a proposition which at ordinary times no sane individual has ever given his assent.” Yet, Huxley and all whose who gleefully join him in his attempt to debunk the Founders seem not to have been paying sufficient attention to the actual words of the Declaration. Immediately following “That all men are created equal” is the sentence “that they are endowed, by their creator, with certain unalienable rights.” Which pretty much implies that this is where all of us are equal, namely, in our possession of the unalienable rights--among others--to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

What is clear from this is that the Founders didn’t believe something ridiculous like Huxley suggests they did, namely, that “all men are equal.” Just look at any group of human beings and it is patently absurd that they are equal. We are all individuals, with a great variety of unique, distinct, different, and even special attributes that make up who we are. Despite this, however, we are also equally in possession of our rights.

Just consider this: all marathon runners differ from one another yet they are also equal in having to start from a certain spot and having to finish at another. But this equality is very limited and contributes just minimally to their status as marathon runners. The students in my university classes are clearly unequal on many fronts yet they are equal in having to pass certain tests, write certain papers, take part in class discussions.

So the equality that the American Founders identified about human beings makes perfectly good sense: however much they all differ--however unequal they may be in their talents, opportunities, physical prowess, wealth, health, and beauty--they are equal in having fundamental, unalienable individual human rights to their lives, liberty, pursuit of happiness and many others not possible to list.

Yes, the Founders proposed that human beings have many more than just those basic rights. That is why when the Bill of Rights was crafted, it included the Ninth Amendment which states that “the enumeration in this Constitution, of certain rights, shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people.” The Framers worried that listing some of the most basic rights may mislead folks into thinking that they meant human beings have only those, whereas in fact human beings have many, many more rights than what the Declaration or the Bill of Rights could possibly list.

This is not difficult to grasp. Neither the Declaration nor the Bill of Rights states that human beings have the right to, say, laugh, sing, play billiards, or to get on their knees and say prayers yet, of course, every adult human being has the right to do these things. And how do we tell that the Founders and Framers thought so? Because they listed very broad principles only, such as the rights to life and to liberty. If one has the right to one’s life, it clearly means that one has the right to a whole bunch of peaceful, non rights-violating undertakings, given that life consists of innumerable such undertakings. Similarly, to have the right to liberty means to have the right to act in innumerable ways that do not violate anyone else’s rights. But a brief, succinct declaration, or a brief list, cannot possibly mention all the rights human beings have. The terms used are abstract ones, indicating a great many more concrete elements--just as when one uses the term “furniture” to indicate all those chairs, tables, beds, sofas, drawers, etc., that is meant by it.

My suspicion is that in the battles for people’s minds and hearts a lot of people who find it inconvenient that others would have the rights the Founders and Framers indicated wish to make it appear the American Founders and Framers were confused and what they proposed can be simply dismissed. Well, they are very wrong about this.

Sunday, June 29, 2008

My Uninvited Speech at KOCE-TV’s 35 Anniversary Bash

Tibor R. Machan

A colleague asked me to come and sit with him and his pals at the table to celebrate KOCE-TV’s 35th anniversary celebration. I went, though with some trepidation, given that KOCE-TV is a “public” television station in Orange County, CA. It is mostly funded from contributions but does receive about 10% of its operating expenses from the government, via the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, I was informed by one official at the organization.

Compared to many other subsidized undertakings, the amount isn’t huge but, still, it does involve robbing Peter a bit so as to support Paul with the latter’s preferred projects.

As I was driving to the bash, I was toying with the fantasy of giving a little talk at the event, just in case I had the chance to make clear to some folks what I have against such “public” funding. No one asked! I just sat at the table with some familiar people and listened to glowing reports about KOCE-TV’s contribution to Orange County’s cultural scenery. But I figure it might be of some use if I did jot down what I would have said to the assembled celebrators. Here it goes:

“Ladies and Gentlemen. Thanks for the opportunity to be at this celebration. I am very much in favor of what KOCE-TV has done and is doing here in OC, excepting perhaps a few programs that tend toward statist propaganda instead of bona fide education or entertainment. This mirrors my support for numerous other similar projects and programs partially funded from taxation, including AIDS research, the jazz and blues offerings at KKJZ-FM, Long Beach, CA, as well as numerous scientific, medical, artistic, and even some environmental undertakings.

“What I find morally unacceptable, however, is how some of the funds for these and other worthy projects are obtained, namely, by confiscatory taxation. Taxation is a relic of feudal times when the monarch and his minions extorted funds from those who lived ‘within the realm.’ In those systems it was governments--the king, for example--that owned nearly everything (other than one’s soul). So one had to pay for the privilege of making use of the monarch’s property. But numerous revolutions, in American and France, for instance, finally corrected this idea, namely, that governments own the resources in a society. Instead, the Lockean idea of individual private property rights was identified as the proper principle of ownership. Locke also defended the idea that human individuals own their own lives--ergo, the unalienable right to one’s life and liberty--and thereby undermined the feudal doctrine of serfdom and indentured servitude.

“So, ultimately the funds being used at KOCE-TV and innumerable other public undertakings must be obtained from people by voluntary means, something that KOCE-TV and many other ‘public’ radio and television stations seem to accept since they, too, tend to prefer obtaining support from voluntary contributions. I am simply making note of the fact that this is what should happen with all the funds, not just the bulk of them. Thanks for your attention.”

Of course, no one asked me to say anything like this. Nor did anyone ask some others in the audience who shared these ideas, even though several people from KOCE-TV did stop by our table and smiled about how we were critical of some of their funding methods. (In Orange County, CA., there is at least some general awareness of these ideas, even if only in a somewhat condescending fashion, as if those who hold them hailed from some bizarre region of the globe!)

On a more general note, this issue raises the question, also, of what it means when a country is called “free.” For some, like the famous Venetian political thinker Machiavelli, it meant that the country isn’t being ruled by another one in the neighborhood; it means, in other words, political independence. For the American Founders, however, being free was spelled out in the Declaration of Independence. A country is free if it established, maintained, and secured all of its citizens’ unalienable rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

Accordingly, then, if governments deprive citizens of their resources, some of which they would devote to pursuing their happiness as they judge fit, the freedom of the country they are supposed to govern is compromised.

So, the larger issue for me when I was sitting through KOCE-TV’s 35th anniversary bash was one of human individual freedom. Maybe this wasn’t a major assault on that freedom but wherever I notice such an assault, major or minor, I choose to make some hay about it.