Friday, July 18, 2008

Some Sources of Anti-capitalism

Tibor R. Machan

There is, of course, the idea Marx made prominent that no one ought to benefit from another’s need. So doctors and nurses and actually nearly everyone who is working for another who has a need for this work should just doing pro bono, out of the goodness of his or her heart. As all of one’s clients and customers were one’s bosom buddies or one’s family. We should just share our resources, our time, in the end ourselves with the rest of humanity! That’s the ideal against which free market capitalism, the arena of the deal, is being compared. No wonder it comes up short. Anything would when compared with such a fantasy.

But there is another thing the matter with capitalism or what may come close to it here and there in the world. This is another thing that’s held against the system, namely, that lots of people like to obtain loads of stuff that gets produced in it. Yes, consumerism is this supposed evil, the thing the Pope recently complained about.

Now no doubt sometime people who are working hard or just got lucky like to spend their money on lots of stuff, on vacations, and fine dining and the like. The more the merrier, for some, it would seem, and refined folks just won’t have any of that. Instead of finding this quaint and understandable, consider that all these consumers come from families with histories of poverty and bare subsistence—so a bit of indulgence could be entirely forgivable (not to mention useful in creating millions of jobs). The snooty ones, however, want everyone to purchase only articles that come from museums and galleries. They deride those of us who just want to have some goodies that our parents and grandparents never had the choice to get. And for such accesses we are denounced as hedo0nists and materialists! Oh, give me a break.

No doubt some of the exuberant acquisition that goes on in free markets may look a bit over the top, even tacky. But why make such a big deal about it? It doesn’t hurt anyone when people go shopping—they are creating jobs, too, not just satisfying their wants and desires (as if there were something wrong with that). There is little else people do with strangers that comes as close to realistic good relations as what goes on in free markets, even as people make deals and money off each other. When people lash out at consumerism I get to thinking they haven’t got much of a life and need to meddle too much in others’ affairs. A friend ascribes nearly all of it to sheer envy but I suspect that the legacy of Puritanism has more to do with it. You know puritans, whom H. L. Mencken accused of being worried that someplace someone might just be happy and we cannot have such a thing happen!

It is rue that in substantially liberal—classical not modern liberal—societies men and women have the opportunity to be self-indulgent to a fault. Such is it with freedom—a great variety of human tendencies are given vent in free systems. But so long as the normal state of affairs involves peaceful interaction among people, even this bit of self-indulgence will be contained and have few negative externalities. Moreover, with a little help from one’s family, friends and neighbors, these can be reigned in.

Compare these awful liabilities of substantially capitalist systems with those of socialism or fascism or communism. Now there are experiments that take their toll on human societies big time. Concentration camps, gulags, oppression, madness and such are routine when those dreams get tried for real. All these attempts to coercively regiment human beings, to force them to be good, noble, generous, valiant and the like may look good on paper and in Hollywood movies but wherever they are seriously implemented they produced disaster, misery, poverty and acrimony.

I bet all of us would be better of in a country where freedom is the default position and on one gets to impose a one-size-fits-all approach on the lives of the population. Sure, there will still be human failings about. Yes, perfection will not descend upon us all. No, the critics will not have exhausted their list of beefs with their fellow human beings.

But a free society is head and shoulders superior to any of the utopian dreams the critics of capitalism invoke when they decry that system.
Scientists and Morality

Tibor R. Machan

Natural scientists are pretty much committed to understanding the world without reference to morality since if what happens does so because of impersonal forces of nature, there would seem to be no room for consideration of right versus wrong, good versus bad, at least not so far as human beings could do anything about it. So, for example, human misbehavior or misconduct doesn’t depend on people but is due to ineluctable natural determinants. Even the misconduct of scientists, the few who fake evidence or plagiarize, simply happens the way a disease or earthquake does. All one can do is lament it, the way one laments a tsunami or tornado. No one is to blame. Nor, of course, are achievements anything but welcome but impersonal events. No one is to be praised for them, no one gains credit.

Yet, while many scientists are committed to expunging morality or ethics from human life—at most they admit that there are undesirable and desirable features of it—they also act as if morality or ethics did matter. As when some of them, say ecologists or climatologists, blame people for anthropogenic global warming or anything else that many believe is due to irresponsible human behavior. They chide millions for imprudent conduct; they denounce people who drive SUVs, fail to recycle, or ignore the scientists’ warnings about what is or isn’t environmentally proper. And, of course, medical scientists routinely blame patients for failing to heed warnings about overeating or smoking or lack of exercise. There is, also, the ubiquitous internal quarrelling among some scientists about who is right or wrong about various predictions and projections.

In short, even though many scientists are committed to viewing human conduct as no different from the behavior of the weather or the change of seasons—these just happen, never mind choice or decision—they also frequently engage in moral chiding, blaming which assumes we can make choices, for better or for worse. They talk of what would have happened had people only done this or not done that, just as if they believed that it is quite in people’s power to act differently from how they do actually act, or to have done so in the past.

Yet, this internal inconsistency among many scientists who are also quite moralistic about human behavior is not at all widely scrutinized. There is almost a kind of polite silence about it all. When scientists complain about how little attention people pay to their own warnings about one thing and another, few if any ever raise the issue of whether people had any choice about this—maybe they had to pay the little or no attention they did, maybe that is all a matter of the unfolding of impersonal evolutionary forces.

When a great many scientists, writing, say, for publications such as Science or Science News, chide government for not supporting science with enough funds—something that many of them do routinely vis-à-vis the administration of George W. Bush and in anticipation of a new administration—they forget all about their assumption of que sera, sera, “what will be will be” and no choice exists about these matters, free will being a pre-scientific illusions according to them—few take up this paradox in their own stance. If, indeed, there is no choice about any of this, then does it make any sense to complain that certain politicians aren’t choosing to do enough about global warming and other environmental issues? After all, they are powerless to do anything other than what they do, are they not? But if so, what’s all the fuss about, why complain, why chide?

It seems to be intellectually confused, if not outright dishonest, for thousands of scientists to avoid this issue. They maintain that they are the most reliable source of information about how we ought to be going about many of our concerns in life, yet they are also committed to the notion that whatever we do must happen and nothing can be altered as a matter of our decision, our choice.

Perhaps the answer is that scientists, contrary to the conceit of many of them, are not the only ones who can have something useful to contribute to the understanding of human affairs. Perhaps they need to consider that some of what is true about people isn’t informed only by their relentlessly deterministic outlook. After all, they themselves aren’t able to explain what they do from that perspective alone.

They should perhaps heed the words of one of their colleagues, the British psychologist Bannister, who pointed out that a theorist “cannot present a picture of man which patently contradicts his behavior in presenting that picture.” (Borger & Cioffi/Bannister, eds., Explanation in the Behavioural Sciences [Cambridge UP, 1970], p. 417.)

Thursday, July 17, 2008

What’s the Pope’s Problem?

Tibor R. Machan

Salzburg, Austria. BBC TV broadcast the news a few days ago that Pope Benedict has condemned “popular culture and consumerism” during his trip to Australia. I am not sure why this is important to report—would BBC TV inform its viewers about the pronouncements of the “Reverend” Moon, the current leader of the Mormon Church or, indeed, of the leaders of the 4000 plus different religions registered in the USA alone? What makes this particular church leader so special?

I ask this as a former Roman Catholic, one who was raised in that religion as a kid in Communist Hungary and who is fully aware of the myriads of negative side effects this can produce for a person (namely, guilt, guilt, and more guilt for just wanting to have a reasonably joyful life). Since that time I have come to be very, very suspicious of the claims of Roman Catholics and, actually, members of most other churches to having a sound understanding of human affairs. And one area where I am especially weary of what men like the Pope say is concerning the mundane purposes people have, such as wishing to live prosperously, wanting to gain some pleasures and wealth in their lives, of hoping to enjoy themselves instead of suffering, which is what many religions teach is the noble way for us all to live. No, that just won’t do for me and, I suspect, for increasingly many people.

It is, by the way, one thing for Jesus to have suffered since, after all, he was supposed to be both man and God and as such suffering couldn’t possibly amount for him to what it does for an ordinary mortal. So imitating Jesus in this and many other respects simply cannot be something humanly noble—why should a mortal human being seek to suffer? There is simply no sense in that at all.

But even apart from the wrongheaded idea that we ought to reject what pleasures and enjoyments this world can offer us—i. e., condemn consumerism—there is the sheer audacity of the head the Vatican City chiding other people for their embrace of abundance and wealth. Have you ever visited the Vatican? I have and the measure of its ostentatious and very mundane wealth—no, opulence—is something to behold.

Indeed, the very first attraction on the way around the City is a gaudy shop with thousands of Catholic trinkets for sale. Talk about consumerism—few places match this blatant display of commercial savvy. (If you don’t know the place, just think of those shops you find at art museums, with all those reproductions of the works displayed and the books about them for sale! And then multiply these several hundredfold.)

All of this really comes down to the great likelihood of Papal hypocrisy. And this cannot be news to most Catholics, either, given their awareness of the display of splendor, glitter, and pomp at high mass. I don’t know where else we would find the likes of this other than at some of the palaces that remain as reminders of the obscene plunder of kings and other monarchs and the dictators such as “communist” Rumania last dictator. Who, then, is the Pope to condemn consumerism which, by my study of history, is a feeble attempt of ordinary human beings, ever since the emerges of relatively free markets, to acquire, honestly, a tiny fraction of the world’s goodies compared to what the upper classes, including religious leaders, of the past got their hands on mostly illicitly.

Yes, just think of it: consumerism amounts mainly to folks making a try at acquiring, fair and square, all sorts of useful and enjoyable goods and services now available to millions of us. In the past comparable stuff was only available to a select few and they didn’t come by it honestly but mostly by plunder and conquest. We today go shopping, after we have earned some coins in the market place doing work that other people freely chose to purchase from us.

Honest trade is a central feature of consumerism and this is what the Pope finds so abhorrent. Would he rather have us return to an era when only the leaders of Church and assorted monarchs were in the position to obtain such merchandise, mostly by intimidation and extortion—such as selling forgiveness to gullible well to do folks who went along with the deal through ignorance and fear rather than free judgment and by threatening subjects within the realm, respectively?

Furthermore is it not curious that the Pope’s pronouncements seem to escape the scrutiny of the chattering classes? Perhaps not, since the bulk of them also lament it endlessly that ordinary human beings would rather go shopping than sacrifice themselves for various more or less dubious objectives like taking precaution with the environment (whatever that grab bag idea really is supposed to mean). Although many of these intellectuals are doubtful about religion, they do share with the myriad of churches a disdain for the popular pursuit of earthly joys.

So no wonder that the Pope condemns popular culture and consumerism—they are in competition with him in the effort to gain people’s devotion and loyalty. Trouble is what the Pope claims to offer is something quite elusive and mysterious, whereas what we find in the market place, at the mall for example, has the advantage of bringing us concrete, clearly understandable satisfaction. No wonder we are implored to feel guilt for wanting it in our lives!

Maybe I am just harboring resentments against the Catholics for having made my childhood and adolescence so full of misery—guilt, shame, self-denial, self-loathing, and so forth. Probably I just wish to warn people off of falling for the ruse I went along with for a couple of decades of my early life.
A Chance for Freedom?

Tibor R. Machan

Lugano, Switzerland: Over the last two and a half decades or so I have been attending conferences organized by the Business & Economics Society International that has its home at Assumption College in New Hampshire. This summer I believe I have attended for the fifth or sixth time, often presenting papers and taking part in discussions about business ethics and political economy.

When I first decided to submit a paper I was very skeptical, given how hostile so many academics are toward a fully free market. And indeed, aside from the organizers who seem to have a penchant for a bit of fireworks at these events, nearly all those who encountered my defense of free markets, private property rights, globalization, free trade agreements, and so forth found what I was saying nearly abhorrent. Nonetheless, given the at least nominal commitment of academics to wide open discussions in their various disciplines, I managed to find some who would carry on a civilized conversation about my radical capitalist, libertarian position. But as far as sympathies for it, there was very little of that to be found and some were pretty hostile, charging me with the usual stuff about being an apologist for the ruling class, etc.

But because I do have a bit of a knack for presenting these ideas in a civil tone, the organizers kept accepting my submissions and in time invited me to give one of the keynote addresses at two or three of these meetings. That is just what happened this year when I presented my critique of stakeholder theory—or Corporate Social Responsibility—to a surprisingly packed house at the conference in Lugano, Switzerland.

Although there were several people who showed their disdain, even hostility toward the position I laid out, I have to say things were quite different this time from what they had been back when I started to attend these meetings. To my very pleasant surprise a great many in this year’s audience were very receptive and even went out of their way to express their approval of someone with my position having been provided with a prominent spot in the proceedings. And some of these were among the ones who showed little patience back a few years ago for anything that smacked of support for free market capitalism.

It is, of course, very difficult to assess whether a set of arguments is gaining favor with a proportionately growing number of people in some field but my impression over the last few years has been that around the globe capitalism is gaining ground, at least as a way to understand how economies should work. Scholars from New Zealand, Saudi Arabia, Taiwan, Armenia, Georgia, Azerbaijan, and many other places who attend these conferences appear to be looking with greater favor at privatization, globalization, the system of private property rights and freedom of contracts than they did just a few years ago. Indeed, it is most often academics from America and Great Britain who voice vehement opposition, even outright hostility, while those from newly emerging countries, ones who are just now beginning to join the international economic and business community as active participants, show much interest and express support.

Of course I am under no illusion that these ideas I find most sensible are sweeping the globe, especially in academic institutions. Even this last time several of the scholars in the audience actually booed me, not just once but repeatedly, when I argued my case for the right of shareholders to set the direction managers should follow instead of having public authorities and folks like Ralph Nader call the shots. The governmental habit is still quite pervasive! This reactionary trust in top down organization and management of the economic affairs of countries, one so reminiscent of mercantilism despite the self-serving term “progressive” its cheerleaders use to call it, is very disconcerting for anyone who wishes economic well being for people throughout the globe.

It always baffles me a bit that a great many educated folks just stick to the faith that when government undertakes to address a problem, there will be solutions bubbling out all over the place, as if those in government possessed magical powers. At the same time, oddly, their distrust of people in business persists, as if free men and women had some innate proclivity toward mendacity the moment they entered the market place.

Still, I am again encouraged and perhaps so should be all those who hold out for the promise of liberty. It is no utopia but beats all alternatives hands down with what it has achieved and has the potential for achieving.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

An Anti-American Paradox

Tibor R. Machan

Over the decades, ever since I got smitten by the American experiment in community life, it has been one of my more masochistic tasks to watch out for criticisms, denunciations, derisions, ridiculing of and expressions of contempt for the country, mostly by erudite intellectuals. It began with my college professors who, nearly without exception, had only disdain for the general ideas that have been associated with America. I am talking, of course, the ideas in the Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights. Scorn is what a long line of such critics—well, that may be too flattering a term for most of them since the bulk merely looked down their noses at the place—expressed in class after class, book after book, paper after paper, and article after article. Even as recently as the early 2000s I ran across a bunch of books in which the purpose was clearly to invalidate notions of liberty, justice, and rights associated with America. Thus we have professors writing books, published by the most prestigious houses, on how ownership—the right to private property so prominently featured in the U. S. Constitution, both explicitly and implicitly—is a myth. Or how the rights listed in the Declaration and the Constitution are far less significant than those invited in, say, the era of the New Deal.

Ok, so there are many critics of the American political tradition at colleges and universities, at magazines that are sold to folks who consider themselves sophisticated way beyond the simpletons who forged the founding documents. That would be something to be expected. Colleges and universities demand of their faculty “original research and scholarship” and nothing passes better for that than tomes attacking the ideas and ideals of the Founders and their teachers, like John Locke. It is beneath the lofty self-image of the bulk of these educated people to actually admit that those people who founded the country had identified true principles of community life. No, instead what they are accused of having done is incorporated their class biases into the foundations of American society. They were, in short, mere ideologues, pretending that their preferences amounted to basic principles—exactly as Karl Marx and his followers had argued about John Locke and Adam Smith. (See, for the clearest instance, Marx’s posthumously published book, Grundrisse.)

Yet if you dig deep enough into the mass of critical works, there is something rather peculiar that becomes evident. Nearly all the critics deploy standards by which to denigrate American society, which are part of the American political tradition itself. Take slavery. It is by reference to the principles of the Declaration of Independence that this institution turns out to be utterly peculiar, as Lincoln understood very well. Or take the oft heard lament that American society has been unjust toward women and minorities. This, too, is a complaint that gains its soundness from taking the principles in the Declaration and the Bill of Rights very seriously. All the concerns in the criminal law about the unjust treatment of suspects make sense in light of the conception of justice that the founding documents embody.

Even the more alien charges, say about the lack of equal pay for equal work or the mistreatment of illegal immigrants, can be related, perhaps a bit awkwardly, to certain notions in the American political and legal tradition. Yes, some of those charges are based on a far more egalitarian political stance that is incorporate in the American viewpoint but they resonate with many Americans because they appear to be based on that viewpoint—“all men [i.e., human beings] are created equal” and “they are endowed by their creator with unalienable rights.” That surely includes both citizens and foreigners!

Even criticisms of America’s frequently ill conceived foreign and military policies gain their strongest backing from distinctly American principles. Of course, from the inception of the country there has been a debate afoot about how best to interpret the founding principles, with some favoring a strong central government—including what this may imply for foreign affairs—some championing limited (though perhaps not necessarily small) government and how that would influence foreign policy. But the basic notions about individual rights, due process, free markets, and equal justice for all found few outright enemies apart from defenders of chattel slavery and some reactionary male chauvinists.

The point to remember here is that anti-American lambastes tended and still tend to rest on America’s very own distinctive principles, ones that may be present to some extent in other societies (Great Britain, Australia, France and some other European countries come to mind). Foreign interventionism is ill fitted for a country that tends to rest on the idea that force may only be used in self-defense. Never mind that this has never been that closely adhered to, mostly with the excuse that survival required expansion or humanitarian concerns imply exporting American ideals abroad. The point is that the operative terms of debate in all these instances arise from the American political and legal tradition, not from those that form the basis of the countries in Europe, Asia, Africa, and the Middle East. When the American government and military are charged with the inhumane treatment, even torture, of “enemy combatants” at Guantanamo Bay, the basic premise underlying the charge is that individuals may not be subjected to harm unless they have been shown to deserve this. Mere “reasons of state” do not suffice to justify such treatment and that is very much a tenet of the individualist social philosophy with which American is so closely associated.

So all the while the intellectuals have frowned on the allegedly simplistic and false 18th century notions drawn from Locke & Co., they have not hesitated making use of those very notions as they have drubbed American left and right. Not a bad record for such an awful system, me thinks, comparatively speaking.

Monday, July 14, 2008

Spain “gives” rights to Great Apes

Tibor R. Machan

A committee of the Spanish government, concerned with environmental issues, has recommended that Spain “give” rights to these animals. The committee is being guided in its thinking about this issue by philosophers Peter Singer (USA) and Paola Cavalieri (Italy) who are directors of the Great Ape Project.

The gist of the legislation is not quite what it seems. Great Apes will not be understood to have the rights the American Founders, following the English philosopher John Locke, identified in the Declaration of Independence. There will not be protection of the right to freedom of speech, freedom of religion, or even the right to life and liberty, which are the central rights Locke and the American Founders set out to secure for human beings. Indeed, the very idea of giving apes rights is alien to the tradition of individual human rights—no one gives us rights; we have them because of our human nature (ergo, “natural” rights).

The basis of these rights is that human beings make choices in their lives, possess free will, and can act responsibly or not. It is to secure their sphere of sovereignty or self-governance that the concept or human rights has been identified. Within their sphere of personal authority they are free to decide what they will do and no one may force them to act against their will. This is necessary because in society fellow human beings can intrude on them, interfere and rob them of their freedom to make their own moral choices. Thus, for example, even though someone may write something obscene or say something offensive, no one may stop that person from doing so other than by peaceful means, such as convincing him or her to do otherwise. Without the acknowledgment of human rights some people, usually oppressive governments, take it upon themselves to make others their subjects, to deny them their sovereignty.

The bottom line is that human beings are, as a rule, moral agents, while no ape has that capacity. Which is why despite all the talk of the rights of great apes, no one seriously proposes that apes be judged morally, that they may be guilty of misdeed or gain credit for commendable actions. That would be to treat them like human beings but despite the fact that the DNA of these animals “is 95 percent to 98.7 percent the same as that of humans,” the difference is crucial. It means no great ape will be taken to court for devouring its young, whereas infanticide when committed by a person is severely punishable because human beings can choose to do the right or wrong thing and are held responsible for this.

Some speak of human beings “deserving” rights but that is wrongheaded. They have them or do not. It’s not as if they did something commendable and so they deserve to be given rights. (Who is to do this giving, anyway? That was something that monarchs might have done, grant a certain standing to some of their subjects. But the authority to make such grants was exposed as a fiction.)

Others rail against the supposed claim that human rights are absolute but that’s a fabrication. It is clear enough that human beings can be so badly damaged that their rights would need to be seriously qualified, as are the rights of children and senile persons. In nearly all realms of human affairs there are borderline cases and fuzzy delineations—for example, between an infant and a child, a child and an adolescent and the latter and an adult. No precise border exist here but intelligent people still know the difference and make ample use of it.

Ultimately the Spanish effort to treat apes as if they were people serves but one clear purpose: it empowers government officials who would eagerly regiment the rest of us who may be dealing with great apes. And the effort is rather ironic, to boot: isn’t it in Spain that there is widespread bull fighting? One might suppose that it is those bulls who need protection from abuse by Spain’s citizens, not great apes (of whom there are but a few in Spanish zoos).