Saturday, September 06, 2008

Another Problem with Welfare Rights

Tibor R. Machan

A welfare or positive right, so called, is something that can only be protected by coercing others to provide it. Consider the right to health care. This supposed right can only be honored by making health care professionals provide services for those who have need for it.

In contrast, a negative right, such as the right to one’s life, may be respected and protected without making anyone do anything. To respect a negative right one need do nothing at all, merely abstain from doing something, like killing or assaulting or robbing someone. Respecting negative rights is what happens when there is peace among people, when none is intruding upon others.

The practical import of this is that a government that secures our human rights acts only to repel criminals or foreign aggressors whereas a government that is supposed to secure positive rights acts to force people to do service to one another. Your supposed right to health care requires that health care professionals or those who have to pay for their work be forced to do what they do not choose to do. Your right to your life or liberty or property, in contrast, requires no such intrusiveness from government.

It is interesting to realize that those who advocate negative basic rights, the kind listed in the Declaration of Independence and identified by the English political philosopher John Locke, have no difficulty generalizing these rights to all human beings--they are, after all, human rights. As Locke argued, just because of one’s nature as a human being, one has these rights.

On the other hand, so called positive rights cannot be advocated for all. So, for example, Hillary Clinton’s defense of the right to health care applied only to Americans not to human beings as such. She could no more defend such an alleged right for Germans or Koreans than she could defend a minimum wage for them. That’s because she was seeking an office that would empower her to force people to provide health services to their fellow citizens but not to non-Americans. While as far as the right to life is concerned, Mrs. Clinton could easily advocate it for all people everywhere since all that right requires is for people to abstain from murder.

It is true, as some have noted, that to secure negative rights, governments or some similar agencies need to stand ready to respond to those who would violate them. But all that amounts to is a prohibition of aggressive conduct among people and that is why governments are like body guards, agents who seek to secure one’s basic negative rights by repelling aggression. Like body guards, such governments do not have the authority to force anyone to do various things that others need.

Consider, also, that no gratitude or compensation is required when people respect each others’ negative rights. If you do not kill me, I owe you no thanks, no money, nothing, whereas if you provide me with medical care you need at least to be thanked but more likely you need to be paid (since that is how you earn your living). This means that to secure such alleged rights, people’s resources must be confiscated from them so as to pay the providers (unless they are directly conscripted to serve).

What so called positive or welfare rights really are is services some people want from others for which they do not want to pay. They do not want them to earn a living for what they provide but simply give it away. And while such generosity is not unreasonably asked of relatives and other intimates--though even then it should not be abused--it must not be coerced from strangers.

In a free country negative rights are all that the law is concerned about, unless a contract has been freely entered into so as to secure the provision of services. So medical services are not free--no one has a right to other people’s free professional services! Not as they have a right to other people abstention from aggressive conduct.

Friday, September 05, 2008

Bad v. Good Pitch to Votes

Tibor R. Machan

Do voters actually believe it when candidates promise them health, happiness, vacations, clean air, and all those other goodies while also demanding that they stop being selfish, stop joining special interest groups and dedicate themselves only to the public good? I doubt it very much. This sort of pitch seems to me to put most reasonable voters on guard. Something is up, a ruse is afoot, for no one can deliver on these promises. (Or are voters like all those gamblers flocking to Las Vegas who think they will come away big winners?) So a great many people stay away from the voting booth and it's all left in the hands of dreamers.

I am not sure if candidates have actually given this a try but I would count on a different strategy. How about promising voters just one thing, namely, a competent defense against the violence of those of their fellows who are inclined to be violent, against those who wreak crime and war. And then urge them not to stop being selfish but to be intelligently self-interested. That would be thinking of some broad benefits that we all should be striving for, such as freedom, the security of our rights, peace, and justice. These are benefits all voters would gain from big time! So they are objectives that are quite reasonably considered self-interested, for everyone.

But such self-interested benefits need some education to be effectively appealing to voters. Too many people shun being thought of as selfish because they associate selfishness with trivial pursuits. Yet, genuine, serious, big time selfishness is about broad, lasting values such as justice and peace. Those are what is really good for us all!

In that very famous movie, Casablanca, Rick, the character of Humphrey Bogart, turns to Ilsa, the character of Ingrid Bergman, near the end of the film and delivers a little speech that goes like this: “Ilsa, I'm no good at being noble, but it doesn't take much to see that the problems of three little people don't amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world. Someday you'll understand that. Now, now... Here's looking at you kid….”

Unfortunately a great many who’ve seen the film take Rick to be talking of self-sacrifice whereas, in fact, what he is talking about is devotion to great values, such as liberty and justice--values that Ilsa will in time realize outweigh those she would like to have now, namely, romantic bliss.

If those running for office were truly devoted to high ideals, they could explain to voters that these high ideals are of great importance to all. They are to everyone’s self-interest both short and long term.

That is what proper, uncorrupted politics is about: devotion to very high human community values, such as rights, liberty, justice, the rule of law, peace and all those conditions that are indispensable for people aiming to live flourishing lives in their communities. To think that devoting oneself to these amounts to unselfishness, self-sacrifice, is bizarre. These are everyone’s most important values, with everything else--including (and this comes from a died in the wool romantic) a great romance--paling in comparison.

Urging people to renounce their self-interest will simply never fly for very long. The idea that serving others is more important than serving oneself just sounds nice--yes, nice--but is by no means noble. Noble objectives are all elevating to those who pursue them. Saving one’s child from a blazing fire is noble but not because it is unselfish. (Is there anything that’s more genuinely selfish than saving one’s family from disaster? And one’s friends, and sometimes even strangers?)

No, candidates need to educate voters about how utterly selfish and proper it is for them to vote for those who will secure for them justice, the protection of their rights, peace and other social conditions that make a decent, good human life possible for us all. And if they cannot do this, then they are not good candidates for political office. Then they are merely vying to gain power so as to implement some kind of agenda they can never fulfill.

Bona fide politicians, serving us as honest political representatives, are very much to our self-interest. And the candidate who can deliver on that promise must also see it as something of grave importance to him or her! That is the way constituents and politicians can come together without cynicism, without suspicion.

Thursday, September 04, 2008

Leadership is a Pseudo Issue

Tibor R. Machan

Both pairs of current major candidates, Democrat and Republican, make much noise about leadership. As if the point of national politics in a free society were about who should lead the citizenry. Lead them where? For what purpose? No mention is made of that. Somehow leadership is supposed to be its own justification, a self-evidently desirable attribute in a candidate. But that is a drastic misconception, an misunderstanding of the job description of politicians in a genuine free society.

Yet this is easily seen to be a very bad mistake--never even mind that the term "leader" is just what "Fuhrer" means in German, what Hitler was supposed to be called by everyone! Yes, in the old regimes political executives were supposed to leaders of sorts because countries were assumed to be on the march to some goal, as if they were a corporation or team or club. Yes, the Boy Scouts need leaders, as does General Motors and the U. S. Olympic fencing team. There are all organizations with a purpose, with a goal their members strive to attain and for which it is useful to have leaders, guides, captains or such. And when a government is conceived of along such lines, it makes sense to think a lot about getting a good leader for it, someone who knows where the people--the subjects of leadership--are supposed to be headed.

Free societies are different. Government, as John Locke and the American Founders understood it, don't exist so as to lead the citizenry anywhere. Citizens have their own purposes, goals, directions in life. What they need from government is protection from criminals and invaders, people who would interfere with their pursuit of their own ends. As the Declaration of Independence states so precisely, governments are instituted so as to secure our rights. That doesn't amount to leading citizens anywhere--not even economic prosperity, nor cultural or scientific or artistic progress, is something governments are supposed to pursue; it's the task of citizens to choose if they want to be solvent or serene or contemplative or something else in their lives, with the government, the cop on the beat, making sure no one gets in their way. Even when there are pressing issues, such as medical emergencies, bad weather, whatever--these are problems the citizenry is supposed to face on its own, by way of the innumerable voluntary agencies they are free to establish.

Politics is something that comes from the ancient Greek understanding of the value of organized human community life. But the point of organization is not spelled out--it is a subject of much debate in political philosophy or theory. What was so innovative, radically so, in the American idea of politics is that government had been demoted from the role of leaders of society to protectors, a professional group that's supposed to take care that their is peace in the country which then makes it possible for all the citizens to pursue their own goals, to be their own leaders or to find some specially skilled fellow citizens to lead them where they wanted to go (so long as it was a peaceful pursuit).

In short, free men and women need no political leaders! John Locke realized that what makes politics necessary is that there are violent people among us who would intrude upon us, try to conscript us to their purposes and prevent us from pursuing ours. To reduce this as much as possible, governments may be established but only for this limited purpose, not to be our saviors, not to lead us on various ventures the candidates and their misguided supporters think up.

It is sad that among the major candidates, within the major political parties, no one now understands politics in this properly limited way. Instead they are all vying to be leaders, our Fuhrer! Sad indeed.

Sunday, August 31, 2008

Ayn Rand & Selfishness

Tibor R. Machan

For more than forty years I have been seriously interested in the ideas of Ayn Rand, ever since I read her novels and later her non-fiction works. This despite the fact that Miss Rand once declared me “persona non grata” for writing her a disagreeable letter. Oh well, but her ideas never ceased to intrigue me and after much study and reflection I still think her philosophy of Objectivism is largely right.

One element of Rand’s idea is the notion that selfishness is good, which clearly runs counter to received opinion both Left and Right. And she has received a great deal of rebuke for finding self-interest a proper pursuit for all human beings. I think, however, that this is due to a colossal misunderstanding of Rand’s position.

One of Rand’s non-fiction books is titled, quite deliberately, The Virtue of Selfishness, A New Concept of Egoism (New American Library, 1964). The title is still widely misunderstood, despite Rand’s attempt to warn readers, by way of the subtitle, that she is advocating something unusual.

The terms “selfishness” and “self-interest” are not simple ones because the meaning of the term “self” is very much in dispute. In fact it is one of the most controversial ideas in human history. Another and similarly controversial idea is “individual.” These are what some philosophers have called essentially contestable concepts. That means they are by their very nature always being argued about, like “liberty,” “justice,” “democracy,” or “morality.”

In ancient Greece the self was understood as the human soul and while it meant the soul of the individual, it was also taken as a social concept--the human self was supposed to be something intimately tied to the social group within which one lived. A good self, for example, was understood as one that’s gregarious, liberal, generous, and engaging. In the ethical writings of Aristotle, for example, the system of principles one should live by was called eudemonia, the set of guidelines for achieving a good self or soul, or, in other words, happiness. And that implied living rationally, governed by the rules of reason, the virtues, some of which had to do with self-perfection, some with considerateness.

This was all changed in the 17th century, mostly at the hands of the English philosopher Thomas Hobbes. For him the human self consisted of raw impulses or beastly drives to gain power in life. Thus the term “selfish” changed its meaning, too. Instead of implying eudemonia--a decent, benevolent self--it came to imply something closer to hedonism, pleasure seeking and power hunger at all cost. The self lost its connection to reason. Instead it became connected to mindless feeling or passion. So a selfish act would come to be one that is driven by someone’s feelings, passions, or emotions, not someone’s good judgment.

Ayn Rand tried to do the nearly impossible thing of returning the concept of the human self to what it used to mean for the ancient Greeks with but a few amendments added based on modern psychology. But the bulk of the world had by then accepted the Hobbesian idea and used “selfish” to mean “self-indulgent,” ruled by one’s feelings or emotions.

So, sadly, despite her efforts to make herself clear--not just by the subtitle of her book but, especially, by its content--Rand left the impression that she was advocating a Hobbesian idea of the human self or ego--a kind of wild, unruly, irrational element that drove one to do anything one damn well felt like doing.

Rand’s one time intellectual partner, Nathaniel Branden, tried to undue the damage by writing his book, Honoring the Self: Personal Integrity and the Heroic Potentials of Human Nature (Los Angeles : J.P. Tarcher, 1983). Unfortunately, the work didn’t manage to alter the way most people, especially the anti-individualist intellectuals in the culture, used the term “self.”

Still, it is perhaps useful now and then to try to set the record straight. Ayn Rand, a very popular novelist and thinker, was not advocating rapacious, nasty, brutal, inconsiderate “selfishness” as her detractors maintain. That’s because she had a noble view of the human self. Those who are interested in doing justice to Rand’s views, even if they disagree with her in the end, might well like to remember this.
My Summer "Vacations"

Tibor R. Machan

Every summer since 1989 I have flown to Europe where I take part in a seminar on political economy organized by the Institute for Economic Studies, Europe, a classical liberal think tank in France. The objective is to familiarize students from around the globe with the principles and implications of classical liberalism-libertarianism by way of lectures by several scholars from different disciplines.

Initially students came mostly from the former Soviet bloc countries. More recently they have come from across the globe. These week-long seminars take place in various countries and are attended by about 35 students each. The language varies—some are held in French, some in English. The lecturers are philosophers, economists, historians, and legal theorists.

Aside from these seminars I also lecture around the USA and numerous countries, such as South Africa, New Zealand, Argentina, the Republic of Georgia and Armenia, mostly covering elements of liberty. What has appealed to me about these venues is just how interested and intelligent are the students who attend. Although the focus is on the free society, a great deal of time is spent on considering alternatives and challenges. While the faculty is largely in agreement about the superiority of the libertarian alternative, there are numerous disagreements as well, certainly many details to be ironed out. And, of course, there are always the traditional questions about whether it is even possible to reach firm conclusions in a complex field such as political economy.

Most of the seminars amount to a brain storming session—every lecture of about 45 minutes is followed by a Q&A for which questions are carefully prepared by the students and this then gives rise to many challenges and follow-up discussions. Even once the formal sessions are over, there follow exploration of the related ideas.

Although on and off someone jokes about these being indoctrination sessions, in fact there is wide open contribution from a great many political and economic positions. If they aren't introduced by students, the lecturers will discuss them, usually with scrupulous fairness--what's the point of dealing with critics whose views are distorted? Even those who make no bones about their commitment to certain principles have no trouble playing devil’s advocate. Aside from the several classical liberal thinkers who are routinely examined, such as Hayek, Mises, Rand, Rothbard, Friedman, Locke, Smith, Schumpeter, et al., the ideas of many others such as Habermas, Sen, Rawls, Dworkin, Sunstein and the like are also explored.

I am extremely eager to take part in these seminars and for a variety of reasons (not excluding the fee I receive, which is, however, quite modest). For one, getting classical liberal ideas seriously considered is the best way to give them a chance in time to be tried out in practice. My own thinking about the issues can always use the challenge from thoughtful and seriously interested young people. I get a chance to travel and even visit the few members of my family still living in Europe. And there is also the opportunity to see how different places across the globe deal with various common and diverse human problems.

There is, of course, no guarantee that even the most competent discussion and defense of classical liberal ideas will lead to concrete results. But the chance of it is far greater when the ideas get a good run for their money.

I cannot pretend, and would not even be tempted to, that I am indifferent to the success of classical liberal-libertarian ideas, that all this is merely some kind of academic exercise to me. As far as I have been able to discern, these are the best ideas when it comes to understanding and shaping a decent, just human community. Not that it is highly likely that they will triumph but just the chance that they might is enough to keep those like me going, hammering away on the task of changing minds and hearts.