Saturday, December 13, 2008

Philosophy and Public Policy

Tibor R. Machan

When elections roll around, not to mention when dictators try to rationalize their rule, talk of the public interest becomes endless. Indeed, anytime that pundits chime in with their missives about politics, there is bound to be reference to the common good or public interest. As an example, check out Gail Collins’s Op Ed in The New York Times, Saturday December 13. It’s misleadingly title “The Dreaded Fairness Doctrine’’--it has nothing to do with broadcasting but with the auto bailout the defeat of which the previous day in the US Senate Ms. Collins laments. By her account, the reason the bill failed is that too many folks were obsessing about fairness, which she rightly suggests is a non-starter when it comes to public policy. But then she jumps from the frying pan right into the fire, writing that “The real human trick is to get past the quid pro quo [i. e., fairness] and try to focus on the common good.”

What's that? Given the immense diversity among human beings and any subdivision of them, such as people connected to the auto industry, whatever is good has virtually nothing common about it. The only common good, upon close inspection, is the protection of everyone's right to life, liberty and property. The American Founders had that right--we all benefit from the protection of our basic rights but beyond that what's good for us varies from person to person, or at least group to group, community to community, and so forth. That is the great and ultimately peacemaking insight of American individualism--eliminate the tribe or clan or ethnic group as the focus of concern and focus on the individual. About nearly everything other than our basic rights we differ so much from one another that talk of the common good or public interest has to be some trick to gain power, nothing substantial. And that is indeed what folks who pose as defenders or cheerleaders of the public or common good are after, the imposition of their idea of how everyone ought to live, what everyone ought to be devoted to.

But by pretending that they are concerned about the public good or interest, they get to posture as being above petty concerns of this or that group or individual. They are above all that trivia!

Fact is, however, that the individual’s well being is not trivial, quite the opposite. In human affairs it is the most important thing and virtually everything--apart from our common basic but very general rights--that pretends to trump it is a phony, an excuse for some individuals to lord it over other individuals, with the excuse that they are speaking for the public or common good.

This point needs to be stressed in public debates, over and over again. Those who keep invoking the public or common good are perpetrating a ruse! And they are aiding and abetting the power seekers even if they do it unintentionally. Das Folk, the Working Class, the People, humanity--there are many ways in which the mythical entity of the public is invoked by these deluded or sneaky people. And they all converge on the practical result that some will be put into positions of power over others with the excuse that we must all care about something greater than ourselves. But, once and for all, there is nothing on earth greater than ourselves, nada. We are it, each of us individually!

Sure there are many goals we can pursue that are very worthy but they are all our goals and the peaceable goals of some are no worse than the peaceable goals of others. That is the real meaning of a pluralistic society, by the way, not ethnic, racial, or national diversity and such.

Will you be duped into thinking that the ones who harangue us all about the public interest are really after something other than their own agenda? I hope not. Because therein lies the danger of demagoguery! And that’s not something that’s compatible with a free society.

However, none of this can be grasped without a bit of philosophy and some other adjacent disciplines where we learn whether individualism or collectivism is the sound social philosophy for human beings. Those who hope to do without such inquiry as they approach politics are doomed to fail and indeed wreak confusion.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Pragmatism Questioned

Tibor R. Machan

One of the standard features of ethics is that one ought to stick to principles or standards of right conduct even when it is difficult, when there is strong temptation not to. Being principled is generally thought to be a plus for a human being. It works toward reducing wrongdoing because such a person does what’s right regardless--or at least there are very, very circumstances when breaking those principles would be proper, justified. Such an individual is also said to have integrity.

Since the latter part of the 19th century, however, a powerful movement in philosophy, including ethics and politics, disputes all this. The name of this movement, often considered home grown in America, is pragmatism. Pragmatists dispute that basic principles or standards can be found in any area of human concern, be this the most basic one of metaphysics or the more practical one of ethics or politics. Every alleged basic principle, the pragmatist argues, can be successfully challenged and so it is not really a basic principle at all. At most it would be a heuristic policy or rule of thumb--be honest (when you can or it isn’t to troublesome); be courageous (unless its too dangerous); respect people’s rights (unless it costs you too much), etc.

Today this pragmatic attitude is widely associated with successful politicians such as Barack Obama and Tony Blair. Instead of being what is pejoratively called “an ideologue,” namely someone who upholds certain basic principles even against great pressure to cave in, president-elect Obama and many who admire and would emulate him claim to be pragmatists.

In the current political economic fiasco this comes out as not minding stepping on various economic principles or laws when it’s deemed something possibly workable not to do so. Prudence? Forget about it. Thrifty? Another idea up for sale! Private property rights? Never mind those, especially. The integrity of money? You old fuddy-duddy, don’t go there. Certainly the principles of the free market economy--which include that businesses quit that cannot keep solvent while answering to customers’ needs--are dispensable.

Now it isn’t always clear just how far pragmatists like Barack Obama will go to jettison morality and political justice but perhaps the governor of Illinois, Rod Blagojevich who apparently was willing to breach his oath of office right and left, didn’t realize that pragmatism has it own limits. Or he didn’t know what they are.

Most pragmatists will not go so far as to claim that the prohibition of, say, rape is provisional or situational and may be overlooked under certain circumstances, say when the rapist is terribly eager or important. Or murder. And, I am sure, most of those who admire Barack Obama’s pragmatism would not claim that we ought to have a pragmatic attitude toward torture.

But why not? Why are some principles exempted from the pragmatic rule that all principles are subject to violation in cases where upholding them is difficult or complicated?

The reason is that pragmatism is rarely fully accepted by those who profess it. Their own values, what they regard is truly worthy, may not be abandoned but those that others embrace, well they are OK to violate. So the principles of the free market economy are by no means something to fret a lot about when millions of voters ask for bailouts, never mind how economically and otherwise unwise and wrong this is. On the other hand, however, the right to have an abortion, that is inviolate, pragmatism or no pragmatism! And the prohibition of torturing suspected terrorists--no pragmatism about that!

Bottom line is that pragmatism is unworkable as any guide to human action or public policy. To do whatever works begs the question. It fails to inform us about the principles or standards by which to figure out what we ought to strive for and use to determine whether some conduct or policy works. (Works for what?) Remember, pragmatists deny there are stable, firm lasting principles or standards of ethics and politics--they are flexible about such matters (unless the flexibility doesn’t suit them).

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Bailout Is No Public Good

Tibor R. Machan

One of the many benefits of realizing that people are most of all individuals is that they are unique or members of distinct communities, teams, families, etc., all very different, nearly all with their unique goals and attributes. So what is good for some won’t be for others except very rarely. Even medicine acknowledges that cures and fitness programs are often highly specific to those who are to be helped. Once one gets into even more complex areas, like education, careers, living spaces, vacations, nutrition, dress, and the rest of the zillions of concerns of people, uniformity is gone. Sure, all of us need to eat but exactly what is known but ourselves, a few intimates, special consultants, and so forth. There is no general good except in very general terms that need to be spelled out for them to have clear meaning and practical implications. (Of course the idea of a general good is tempting and places like the Third Reich, the Soviet Union, North Korea have had disastrous histories with trying to implement them despite the symbolism of uniformity in all their parades and such!)

The failures are a very good reason to stop all this wealth redistribution and government regimentation--those folks up there in Washington, Sacramento, Brussels, and the like just haven’t clue and thus all they can do when they insist on “doing something” is to muddle about, pose, pretend, or fake. The proposed auto bailout is a good example. It is entirely unclear that saving the Big Three is a good thing, even for those in Detroit. Sure, it can tie some folks over to be bailed out but if conditions persist and consumers will no longer want what the American automakers produce, this is folly on a great many fronts! Kind of like bailing out a failing restaurant or bowling alleys where people no longer want to do business. Sure enough, establishment of these kinds go out of business by the hundreds, even thousands, month by month and the only answer to earning a living for those involved is to find some other line of work, one for which there are costumers. (And those who love getting personal about these matters, yes I’ve held about a dozen different jobs over my more than half a century of life.)

All of us need to be entrepreneurs at times, taking up the task of discovering what we can do that others want. People’s buying practices and habits change, they develop and grow and discover new areas of life to explore, and those who can provide them with what they want will succeed in making a decent living while those who don’t won’t. That’s one lesson of the starving artists who keep producing works no one cares for--they must change their line of work or derive sustenance from the doing of it and not expect a sumptuous live style. That can, of course, be very rewarding but it will not generate a steady cash flow!

Why should autoworkers and executives be exempt from these simple laws of economics? And, more importantly, why should the rest of us be sacrificed to their unwillingness to realign their careers? Because bailouts mean nothing other than wealth transfers that are involuntary. A costumer decides to downsize his or her means of transportation but instead of saving a few bucks for the effort is then penalized by higher taxes and inflation and all the results of governments going into debt, basically prevented from making changes as a consumer.

This is really an obscene disregard of individual rights, a violation of one’s liberty to use one’s own labor and resources as one sees fit. If all those going out of business could just rob their neighbors blind with the approval of governments, that would be a truly crime ridden society. And ours, as many others, are becoming more and more crime ridden in this pseudo-civilized fashion, where the crimes are committed under the disguise of legality.

Consider, also, that under the equal protection clause of the 14th amendment to the U. S. Constitution the preferential treatment of members of the auto-industry has to be totally unjust. Why not the waiter who had to be laid off because costumers left the restaurant so as to save a bit? Why not everyone whose job evaporated because the economy changed? It’s the old but expanded practice of featherbedding, nothing else.

And who will foot the bill for that? How do these supporters of bailouts imagine that the funds used are created? Printing money is what forgers do and when government does it without the money having solid backing, they join a gang of criminals once again.

The supporters of the bailout just do not address these matters. No wonder--there simply is no way to allay the concerns involved. The only answer is to face the music and learn new steps for a new dance.

Tuesday, December 09, 2008

Biased Protectionism

Tibor R. Machan

These days I have to work out regularly, lest I lose my whim and vigor and won’t be able to keep writing and lecturing and otherwise enjoying life and earning a living. So I have a treadmill in my garage, along with a small TV to watch news and even listen to music channels while I struggle to remain fit.
Of course, even during these workouts raw reality is not far from consciousness. Thus I have discovered that one of the least protected crafts in America is classical music.

The TV “Music Choice” channel I like to watch most is called “Light Classical” and wouldn’t you know it, most of the fare offered has been composed and performed outside the United States of America. Composers and performers from around the globe have their works featured 27/7 and by my account it is nearly all highly desirable, entertaining stuff. I won’t even try to list all the artist, with Mozart, Hayden, Beethoven, Schubert, Chopin and the rest on the top of the list, of course, but hundreds of less well known artist right alongside these stars, nearly all of them from some, you guessed it, foreign country. They have over the decades, centuries, invaded the American artist market and all those neglected domestic musicians have no one to blame but themselves since they failed to built a strong special interest lobby that would have enacted tariffs and duties and other protectionist measures to keep out these darned gatecrashers.

Not that there is no government help for artists--the National Endowment for the Arts and more local government agencies do provide sizable subsidies to various groups of musicians, painters, actors and directors who populate the American art scene. But it is hardly enough! If only all those foreign composers and orchestras were kept out of the country, thousands of American ones might well be featured on, for example, the Music Choice station I watch so diligently and which often inspires me to purchase CDs so I can listen to the works over and over again. (Of course, on the more than 40 music channels, plenty of Americans are represented, sometimes exclusively--in Jazz, Blues, Musicals, Blue Grass, etc.)

While I am one of those who considers it scandalous to keep foreign vendors away from us, to favor domestic automakers and ban other productive people from the American market place, it occurs to me that by American legal traditions, it is actually unlawful to favor some people with protection against competitors while leaving others exposed. (You know, the 14th Amendment and such!)

The American classical music community is, then, a group the government discriminates against big time by its totally open door policy toward foreign classical music artists. And that may be true for other artists, as well, ones who manage to fill the museums and galleries across the country, keeping struggling American artists outside those forums where works would come to the attention to the public, whereby they could make a decent living. Why, for example, should Detroit automakers get special help and thus have their competitive tasks eased while American classical composers and performers are not provided with protection? How about some kind of embargo against all those German and Australian and New Zealander symphony orchestras so that domestic ones can flourish unimpeded by rivalries?

For my money this is all nonsense. In art, science, and much else we live in a world marketplace, a global--indeed, fully globalized--arena where the participants are judged mostly by audiences, viewers, and art buyers, not by some agency of the government that decides whether their contributions will be kept away so that others, mainly the domestic folks, can have a chance. Sadly, however, in other areas, such as farming and car manufacture there is no hesitation about introducing politics and subverting the free exchange of goods and services. Not that the arts don’t participate in that great wealth redistribution feast of the welfare state. But at least protectionism isn’t their main crime.

I submit that nearly all those who favor bailouts and the like forget about this when they carry on about other purchases, such as work in the fine arts, literature, even the movies. (Of course, abroad the same kind of bias is imposed sometimes, as in France where the government limits how much foreign fare can get on TV!) I guess getting used to, let alone admiring, the free flow of all kinds of goods and services is not yet common in the world, not even in our so called free country!

Monday, December 08, 2008

Another Bad Argument

Tibor R. Machan

Let me focus for a bit on the following lines in an article in that wonderful magazine, Science News: “[T]he 19th century English historian Henry Thomas Buckle ridiculed such logic [namely, that because we can make up our own minds whether to believe in free will, therefore we have it], pointing out that consciousness is often fallible. Some people profess to have consciousness of the presence of ghosts, for example. ‘If this boasted faculty deceives us in some things, what security have we that it will not deceive us in others?’ Buckle asked.” [12/6/08, p. 28]

This is chuck full of errors, the least of which is to invoke Buckle as some kind of authority on the issue of free will. He is not. But then to take his argument as decisive is a real problem. One need not believe at all that consciousness is infallible to conclude, reasonably, that it is reliable on any given occasion. That the mind is fallible means only that it can make mistakes, not that it is rampant with mistakes. More strictly, moving from “this faculty deceived us in some cases,” to “therefore there is no security that it will be reliable in the future” is invalid. Of course, one cannot prove a negative, namely, that the mind “will not deceive us.” But need one do this so as to have reasonable confidence in it?

Lord Chesterfield has a good reply to this: “Examine carefully, and re-consider all your notions of things; analyze them, and discover their component parts, and see if habit and prejudice are not the principal ones; weigh the matter, upon which you are to form your opinion, in the equal and important scales of reason.” ( If one investigates issues this way, one can come to know, reach certainty beyond a reasonable doubt.

What Buckle asks for is what Descartes and some other philosophers demanded, namely certainty beyond a shadow of doubt. But if that were our standard for knowledge, we could know nothing, including that we can know nothing. The very idea that Buckle proposes, namely, skepticism about our own faculty of reason, depends on knowing that we have made mistakes in the past. But if certainty beyond a shadow of doubt were required to know anything at all, than we could never know that we have made a mistake--it cannot be ruled out by mere logic that what we consider to have been a mistake will in the future turn out to have been correct, after all.

None of this serves to justify full confidence in the belief that we have free will. That confidence would have to come from doing what Lord Chesterfield recommends and that would take a lengthy inquiry. However, there is what I have argued elsewhere, namely, that there is great peril with denying that people can choose. For if the denial is true, then that denial itself is something unavoidable, something the proponent could not have helped making, just as the skeptic cannot help being a skeptic. And then all questions about truth and falsehood appear to vanish. Robots do not say what is true or false but only what they must, akin to a parrot or a tape recorder.

In order to be in the business of truth seeking and discovering, human beings seem to need mental independence, just as jurors need it if they are to come up with true verdicts instead of mere prejudice. Scientists need to be in the position to freely assess the evidence and arguments bearing on their work, otherwise what they “discover” is but a claim they cannot help make. But what use is such a claim to us? It would all come to a standstill--I have to assert X while you had to assert not-X and neither of us is free to do otherwise.

Buckle’s error is to hold up an ideal of human knowledge that is plainly impossible to satisfy, ever, namely, irrefutable, absolute, timeless, perfect certainty. Maybe there is some knowledge like that, say, concerning very basic facts about the world--such as, “A is A” or that “It cannot be that A is not-A.” But knowledge of nearly everything else is not like this, not “absolute”--there is always the possibility of needing to modify what we know, although this does not mean that everything is to be doubted.

As the early 20th century philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein pointed out, in his posthumously published book On Certainty, to doubt something for which one has good evidence requires a reason, not merely the paranoia that one might perhaps be mistaken.
Can We Choose?

Tibor R. Machan

Although philosophical topics rarely get direct attention in popular culture, they are nonetheless touched upon on several fronts. There is the ubiquitous question of God’s existence, of course, that rarely leaves the arena at home or abroad. Such issues as whether torture is ever justified touch on several philosophical questions, such as how do we tell what we ought and ought not to do. The narrower field of political philosophy is never very far from consciousness, as for example when the famous Watergate episode is revisited and Nixon is recalled saying that if the president does it, it cannot be illegal (an idea not that far from something John Locke, the granddad of American political thought, discussed quite directly).

Currently there is also quite a lot of discussion of the old conundrum about whether genuine, authentic free choice is possible to human beings. That’s because the brain, where all mental processes are supposed to take place, is under very close scrutiny with the assistance of more and more sophisticated tools. In some popular forums where we mostly get news about current scientific work, various non-philosophers chime in about free will without much compunction. Thus, Tom Siegfried, the editor-in-chief of my favorite news magazine about the sciences, Science News, writes in a recent issue:

“'Free will' is not the defining feature of humanness, modern neuroscience implies, but is rather an illusion that endures only because biochemical complexity conceals the mechanisms of decision making."

And he goes on to tell readers that “free will seems merely to emerge from electromagnetic networks of neuronal interactions.” Siegfried makes these observations in connection with his discussion of a little known aspect of the human brain, namely, the habenula, “an obscure structure found deep in the brain, beneath the corpus callosum near the thalamus and in front of the pineal gland….” What stands out in his discussion is how readily the contribution of philosophy to the free will debate is dismissed because, as Siegfried claims, “the original question about free will is ill posed.” He tells us that asking whether we "have free will is like asking which came first, chicken or egg. It’s not a meaningful question.” (Actually, both are quite meaningful!)

Sometimes those in diverse disciplines need to ward off the temptation of intellectual imperialism, the belief that theirs is, in fact, the only valid field of study. Many have made the mistake of advocating this idea--sociologists, psychologists, economists and, yes, philosophers. But the world is complicated and can use being studied from several different perspectives.

One thing philosophy might still manage to contribute to the free will discussion is to point out that there is a logical difficulty with denying that people can choose. For if the denial is true, then that denial itself is something unavoidable, something the proponent cannot help making, just as the skeptic cannot help being a skeptic. And then all questions about truth and falsehood appear to vanish. Robots do not say what is true or false but only what they must, akin to a parrot or a tape recorder.

In order to be in the business of truth seeking and discovering, human beings seem top need mental independence, just as jurors need it if they are to come up with true verdicts instead of mere prejudice. Scientists need to be in the position to freely assess the evidence and arguments bearing on their work, otherwise what they “discover” is no more than a claim they cannot help but make. But what use is such a claim to us? It would all come to a standstill--I have to assert X while you had to assert not-X and neither of us is free to do otherwise.

This is just one bit of philosophical, logical aspect of the free will discussion that is quite pertinent and will not be replaced by any neuroscientific work, only supplemented by it.

No, the free will issue is not simple, although at one level the common sense idea that we, normally, have free will is telling. If we didn’t have free will, then a belief about whether we do or do not is itself just an event that had to happen, like rain falling from the sky. Which is an odd idea, isn't it?

Machan wrote Initiative--Human Agency and Society (2000).

Sunday, December 07, 2008

The FDR "Solution"

Tibor R. Machan

` It is a very scary prospect but if president-elect Barack Obama is serious about admiring President Franklin Delano Roosevelt for how the latter dealt with America’s Great Depression, then America and the world may be in for some very ugly times indeed. This is because by the most reliable historical accounts, FDR managed to overcome the economic crisis of his day not by his Keynesian political economic policies (of government spending and extensive government funded public works). Instead it was World War II that brought the economy back into shape, and that only several years after the end of the war.

In her book, The Forgotten Man: A New History of the Great Depression, Amity Shlaes demonstrates that it is a widespread myth that FDR lead the country to economic recovery by means of his public policies--by way of agricultural price supports, new mortgage markets, working-hours legislation, securities regulation, etc., etc., as well as innumerable projects funded by the federal government, mostly focused on the country’s infrastructure.

Even defenders of it, such as Eric Rauchway writing for Slate (7/05/07), admit that The New Deal “did not end the Great Depression. The war did that. Open the authoritative reference work Historical Statistics of the United States and you will find that the unemployment rate did not return to its 1929 level until 1943.” This despite the fact that unemployment, which reached 23% at the height of the Great Depression, did begin to subside for most of the years of FDR’s presidency (except 1937-38).

All in all, though, what brought America out of its economic malaise was not The New Deal but the highly revved up war economy. At what price? Well, at the price of approximately 300,000 fallen Americans, along with about as many wounded and, of course, the dead and wounded of Germany, Italy, and Japan. Yes, arguably the war was a just one for America, given that Germany declared war on it. But however one assesses the causes of the war, its impact on the American economy does not seem to offset its enormous destructiveness. Nor, as far as historians can determine, did FDR get America into the World War so as to revive the American economy. Nonetheless it is a cautionary fact for us all that war and not the Keynesian economic policies of The New Deal appears to have been the instrument by which the country recovered economically.

By the way, the essence of those policies amounts to using money taken in from and borrowed against future taxes to stimulate the economy, to get people to work, to spend funds on various types of production--precisely what many in Washington insist is needed today. The fact that such an approach is wholly unproductive because government takes resources from the economy and uses these as politicians judge best, while those who owned the resources are prevented from using them according to theirs. (No doubt, sometimes this can bear some useful fruit--the original owners of the resources may not have wanted to spend it and thus refused to stimulate growth just the way politicians imagined it should be stimulated. Even thieves can at times spend usefully the loot they take from their victims!)

My worry is that in desperation, after all the government tinkering with the economy will prove to have been ineffective, there may be a strong, even irresistible temptation to get entangled in various military endeavors in part so as to obscure that fact. It would be sheer naïve idealism to think that American politicians are immune to such a development. So it is better to be vigilant than complacent.

There is a theory of public affairs that focuses not on what politicians and public officials intend but on the unintended consequences of their policies. It might best be supplement with the realization that once certain policies are initiated by politicians, given their power to tax and otherwise coerce the population, they are likely to stick to them no matter what.
Stubbornness isn’t just some quirk of certain individuals but can actually drive public policy.