Thursday, December 31, 2009

Rights are to Act Freely

Tibor R. Machan

I do not have a right to my car but I do have a right to buy, keep, trade and otherwise act in relation to my car. Rights are what define our range of free actions. In some cases the right to act garners us huge wealth, in others, fame, and in yet others it will gain us knowledge, health and happiness.

If I had a right to my car as such, I would get to have my car even if I paid nothing for it. Rights need not be paid for. For example, my right to my liberty--to sing to smile to think to worship and so forth--isn't something I need to pay for. Nor can I lose such a right. Even if I end in jail for assaulting someone, it is because I acted, freely, so as to land me there. Sounds a bit odd but still true! It can be appreciated by considering that prisoners retain their rights to due process, representation, and so forth while they are in prison. They do not lose their rights but when they exercise them in certain ways, there are unwelcome consequences. As when one exercises one's right to liberty by getting married and henceforth is no longer free to fool around.

So those who would insist that our rights be limited are advocating that other people, usually those in government, have the authority to violate our rights, that some people be in control over other people in disregard of their rights. There is no escaping this conclusion. Those who are naively thinking that "limiting" rights will just happen, by way of some cosmic power instead of human beings who would want to control others, need to realize that they are supporting involuntary servitude, plain and simple.

Such general points need sometimes be noted because of all the sophistic and dangerous loose talk about how rights are limited, not absolute. This is merely an excuse for not respecting and protecting people's rights, for violating them at the discretion of certain citizens who find the rights of other citizens inconvenient because they stand in the way of making use of these other people for their own purposes.

For example, to claim that one's right to the use and disposal of one's property is limited to only a percentage of what one owns, in fact, is merely to offer a spurious reason to take what belongs to others and use it for purposes to which they have not agreed. Saying that no one has absolute rights to what he or she owns is bunk--"absolute" has nothing to do with this. Either one has the right to keep and hold and trade and otherwise use and dispose of one's belongings or one does not and others then are given free reign over these (and allow one some usage). If I do have a right to my resources, then when others take these from me without my permission, they are violating my rights. And that's exactly what happens when taxes are confiscated from us all. No fancy talk about no one having absolute rights excuses it--taxation is a kind of extortion: you must hand over part of what you own and ought to be able to keep, hold, trade, etc., otherwise you are going to be imprisoned or otherwise harmed. Sure, you may get some benefits from those who confiscate your belongings but that is irrelevant. What is relevant is that you didn't give your consent.

At this point democracy tends to come up because the sophistic, spurious arguments for these ill gotten gains never ends. So if a whole bunch of other people--the majority of those who vote--agree that your belongings may be taken from you, it is supposed to be OK? Of course not. But because democracy concerning the selection of political representatives is highly prized, this same method is used for expropriating people's lives, liberties, and property. It should not be. Multiplying the number of the criminals doesn't eliminate the crime.

These matters are not very simple to integrate with our lives in complex societies where our actions are a mixture of free and coerced, often quite imperceptibly. Who can keep track of what we must do because otherwise we will be assaulted by the powers that be and what we do of our own free will because we have decided it is a good idea? As one goes through one's life, with all the task one faces, it is nearly impossible to tell which of the task were freely assumed and which were imposed on one by governments (of which one is surrounded everywhere). And since some of what governments do can be of considerable value, those running government have an edge--they know that hardly anyone wants to give up the security offered by the police and the military, so they tend not to protest when these agencies abuse their powers. But those who notice have the responsibility to do so!

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

The Myth of Surplus Wealth

Tibor R. Machan

Over the last couple of decades a colleague from a famous university has challenged me about my view that everyone has the unalienable right to private property. Now this position, derived from such sources as John Locke, the American Founders, Ayn Rand, and many others in the classical liberal, libertarian political tradition, amounts to the idea that in a just human community every adult human being is free to pursue prosperity in the form he or she desires--material wealth, intellectual resources, land, items produced by humans or nature, and so forth. The right to private property is a right of action, an extension of the more general right to liberty: everyone must be left free to pursue wealth, to take those peaceful actions that could result in prosperity (although there is no guarantee that they will). And this right to freedom of action is itself based on the yet broader right to one's life. Life is an ongoing process of action which, for human beings, needs to be initiated by the living agent. We have to do stuff to live, in short. And having the right to live entails being free to do so.

Now this critic of my thinking has argued against this idea at least in cases when some people are in dire straits, in serious need of resources through no fault of their own. And that certainly can happen, although it is far more likely to when people are oppressed, barred from taking the action needed to prosper, than when they are not imposed upon by others, especially by armed governments. What he has been maintaining is that if those in dire straits are forbidden to take from those who have what he dubs surplus wealth, then they are effectively no in possession of their own right to liberty. As it is sometimes put, those without resources are effectively on bondage. They lack the freedom to take the actions that could advance their lives. And this means that although everyone has the unalienable right to life, liberty, property and so forth, those in dire straits actually do not.

In particular my critic has stressed that those in dire straits, in serious need through no fault of their own, may not be stopped from taking some of the surplus wealth of the wealthy. And this, indeed, is roughly how people justify not just ordinary but progressive taxation--the wealthy must give up some of their wealth to those in dire straits because only that way will the latter be able to enjoy their own basic rights.

I have replied to the criticism in a variety of ways. One is by pointing out that the absence of resources is not the same as the violation of rights. I have no resources to buy myself a yacht but I do have a right to buy myself a yacht and no one would be authorized to stop me from doing so if and when I become wealthy enough to do so. In other words, I am have the right to liberty to seek a yacht for myself by peaceful means, although, again, I may not succeed.

Indeed, this is pretty plain since one may be struck down by all sorts of natural impediments--disease, calamity, earthquakes, hurricanes, and so forth--for which no one is responsible and so no one may be penalized or fined for having caused them. Those who encounter such natural impediments are, well, unfortunate, that is for sure. But this does not authorize them to impose any burdens on those who have not deserved it even if they are, indeed, in a position to alleviate the hardship. They may and probably should request help, support, assistance, and so forth. They may even organize campaigns to urge that their bad luck be addressed by their fellows. But they have no rightful authority to take anything from them, not even so called surplus resources--an idea that is, in any case, vague and subject to systematic abuse. (Is my second kidney an article of surplus wealth? My second eye? My back-up golf set? My collected vintage cars?)

It isn't true that surplus wealth makes no sense at all but only the most intimate knowledge of someone could enable us to tell if that person is in possession of wealth that he or she can easily do without. Maybe the individual is saving for a rainy day, for a time when he or she will be giving this wealth away to relatives or favorite causes. Maybe such an individual is powerfully enriched, psychologically, by holding on to wealth beyond what others may consider reasonable.

Having the right to private property means, in large measure, that the individual with that right is the one who is free to decide to what purposes his or her property will be devoted. It is a matter of who is to choose. Without this basic, unalienable right one's freedom of directing one's right is undermined not by natural causes, which can impeded anyone, but by others who are at liberty to refrain from doing so and, given this right, ought to so refrain.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Impractical Pragmatism?

Tibor R. Machan

Yes, it sounds paradoxical because by "pragmatic" is usually meant "practical, workable, functional." So when President Obama made it clear last year that he is a loyal pragmatist when it comes to economic policy, he received praise from some, especially those who denounce ideology or ideological thinking.

Yet this is not a sound approach to life or public policy because telling where one should be pragmatic and where one should hold on to one's principles no matter what is impossible. If, say, one is ideological about a woman's right to choose whether to continue her pregnancy beyond a certain point, or, alternatively, whether to preserve the life of a budding human being no matter what, is that all to the good or not? Or if one opposes rape under any and all circumstances, is one being ideological, dogmatic, a fundamentalist in the bad sense meant by the likes of Professor Paul Krugman who think that market fundamentalism is something really, really bad? What about parents who insist that their children tell the truth and not lie, ever? Are they dogmatic, mindless people and is their child rearing seriously flawed?

Yet when it comes to confiscating the resources of people for various supposedly public purposes, as per the U. S. Supreme Court's ruling in 2005 in Kelo v. City of New London Connecticut, serious legal scholars claim this is wise pragmatism, a sensible rejection of mindless market fundamentalism or ideological thinking? Why is the principle of private property rights less binding on us all than the principle of the integrity of a woman's body? Why are these same intellectuals not being pragmatic about torture or child molestation, why don't they condemn those who insist that under no circumstances may anyone commit statutory rape, as crass dogmatists?

Could it be that these folks find it convenient, to their and their preferred people's advantage, to downplay the principles of private property rights? That is surely what one would think about anyone who would counsel flexibility about matters such as rape or child abuse. There is no excuse to abandon principled thinking and conduct about such practices but for some reason it is OK to accept stealing a bit here, robbing a bit there and dogmatism or ideological to oppose that attitude?

The bottom line is that pragmatism is fatally flawed. No champion of it can identify where it is permissible or acceptable to be pragmatic and where pragmatism would be something odious and intolerable. In the case of President Obama and his public policy cheerleaders they, too, have no clue when principled thinking and conduct are required and when it is dogmatic or ideological to strictly adhere to principles. No clue at all, which then gives them carte blanche about how they should carry on with public policies or even personal conduct. Bill Clinton and Tiger Woods then can cry out, but why are they condemning us for breaking our marriage wows when they break all sorts of principles? And, worse, supporters of water boarding or even more Draconian forms of torture can invoke pragmatism, saying well it works sometimes, so given the importance of getting information from the victims it would be dogmatic or ideological to forbid it. Where is the line between conduct that may follow the pragmatic approach and conduct that may not? Where is principled conduct expendable? And why there and not someplace else?

It seems that champions of pragmatism like President Obama and his intellectual supporters have a problem here and if they think that a president should lead by example, they could be guilty of providing an impossible example for others to follow. Indeed, it is an interesting question just what Mr. and Mrs. Obama teach their own children about principles--may they be tossed whenever they become inconvenient, wherever they stand in the way of pursuing certain desired objectives like bailing out banks and auto companies with other peoples' money?

Looks like pragmatism is not at all practical, the very thing for which it is often praised. It cannot be practiced consistently, coherently, in either personal or public affairs.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

No Insurance at Gun Point

Tibor R. Machan

No one is as fond of affordability as I am--well, may this is wrong but I am very fond of it. That extends to insurance. My home, car, health and sometimes travel insurance would at their best be something I can well afford. But then this is so with whatever it is that I am in the market for, shoes, food, furniture, electronics, whatever. Bottom line is I like a good deal and it would not surprise me if everyone else does too.

Now and then I do engage in a little bit of charity purchase, as when I buy some wine from those who spend some of what they gain on supporting breast cancer research or patronize a restaurant because I would like it to keep going in hard times. Even the people who come to clean my house could come less often but I just hate to take them down a notch if I can afford keeping them working.

But most of the time I want to make a good deal, no charity, no kindness, no generosity unless friends and relatives are at the other end of the trade. Thus when I hear about how the government will force insurance companies to keep selling insurance to people whom the firms judge too expensive to insure, I am outraged. After all, people who own insurance companies aren't in the business so as to do anyone a favor. No, they see a business opportunity and hope that they can come out ahead, along with those whom they insure. But if they no longer see a decent return on their investment, they would, naturally, cut deals elsewhere, just as most people would (with those minor exceptions involving intimates). Not that people in the insurance business might not wish to provide everyone with good insurance whether they can pay what is needed to make this happen. We all have wishes like that but to realize them it would be necessary to impose a deal on people who have decided they would rather make different deals, with people who can sustain their provisions of the pertinent professional service.

People who work at insurance firms need to be paid so they can feed their children, send them to school, go on vacation, buy clothing and their own insurance and whatnot. And so do those who own insurance companies and invest in them--it is all for purposes of a reasonable deal. And what is and is not a reasonable deal for all these folks is not something anyone other than they can determine. Yes, some might wish to charge more than they do but if the industry is competitive, they will not be able to do this. But to have governments coerce people to take less from a deal than they can based on the free, voluntary agreements reached with customers is just plain criminal, no different from coercing a barber to take less from a client than they freely agree would be the right amount.

Yes, it is sad that some people are so ill that covering them with insurance would require the insurer to take a loss but unless insurers have agreed to do this, freely, voluntarily, no one has the moral authority to force them into such deals. Just because it would be very desirable for such people to get covered when they need to obtain health care, it does not follow at all that insurance companies or anyone else may be forced to come to their support. Life isn't always accommodating to such hopes and wishes and aspirations. No one welcomes a huge medical expense but unless one can find some generous people, generous of their own free will instead of being forced to act as if they were generous, that's the way it has to be.

One reason people should begin to get insured early in their lives is that they are less likely to need services at that point and they can get deals from which insurance companies can profit, just as they would want to profit from them when they have a need for medical care. Forcing either the provider or the provided to get into deals they do not judge to be sound for them is tyranny, not help.

It is too bad that in a so called free country such elementary points are all forgotten, especially once government enters the fray. (And in insurance deals governments keep things expensive by, for example, forbidding us to buy insurance from outside the state in which we live, a perfectly artificial imposition on us all.)

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Stossel's Blues

TIbor R. Machan

John Stossel is a fine journalist with a serious libertarian political orientation. (I once worked with him on his ABC-TV Special, "John Stossel Goes to Washington," broadcast a few years ago and still in circulation.) He has just moved to the cable station, Fox Business News, where he hosted a pretty good program on the health care and insurance topics recently. Stossel and Whole Foods owners John Mackey were quite effective in laying out the case for a free market in the fields of both health care and health insurance, at least until they came up against a rabid and smart enough statist, Russell Mokhiber, who demonstrated that if you aren't fully consistent in your support of human liberty, you are going to be utterly vulnerable to the arguments of the detractors.

If you have been around the block a while trying to show folks that living in a fully free society is not only more economical but also more just than living in alternative systems, you will know that if you give even a millimeter to a statist, he or she will grab your arm and swallow it up good and hard. So when Stossel and Mackey insisted that there is plenty wrong with the prevailing approach to health care and health insurance in these United States, and that no Canadian system can compare to one based on the principles of the free society, this well prepared adversary, activists Mokhiber, stopped them in their tacks by asking such questions as, "Would you privatize the national forests?" "How about a free market in education and roads?" and "What about the public funding of thousands of parks across the country?"

Stossel may be a libertarian in the depths of his mind and heart but he is working at what is in the end still a mainstream TV network. And extending the principles of the free society to education, parks, forests, roads and the like is so way out there for most people, even those most loyal to the principles of the Declaration of Independence, taking on these rebuttals is just too taxing. And Mokhiber knew this very well and never let go of the idea--so that in the last analysis John Stossel and John Mackey were trapped in a dilemma: they either embrace a pure libertarian position in which there is no room for any wealth redistribution and public works--everything must be privatized apart from the judicial system and the military--or they have to accept the socialist health care proposals of the liberal Democrats, better known as Obamacare, as just another task the government can take over.

Stossel tried to escape his dilemma by saying that the issue is big versus limited government but this won't work. It isn't the size of government, really, that is of concern but its proper scope. Matters pertaining to the protection of the basic and derivative rights of the citizenry are the government's purview but nothing else, including parks, forests, lakes, roads, and so forth. But this consistent libertarian idea, implicit in the Declaration of Independence but not explicated by the American Founders--indeed, compromised by them when they wrote the Constitution and tolerated slavery, for example--still doesn't sit well with most Americans, including the audience that watches John Stossel on the Fox Business Network. The sad truth is that millions of people around the globe, including in America, want to be free up to a point but not completely. They will sell their right to liberty for some allegedly guaranteed security by way of Medicare, unemployment compensation, social security, etc. and so forth.

And once these compromises on the right to liberty are accepted, it becomes impossible to give liberty a principled defense. "How come you are willing to tolerate coercing people to pay for public parks and forests and Medicare but not Obamacare?" Indeed, how come. Once the principle is abridged, those who don't want any liberty at all for anyone have a clear path before them. Sure, they might like some liberty for themselves but for that all they need to be is pragmatists, just as Mr. Obama and those with him proudly claim to be.

I do not envy Mr. Stossel who I am sure would gladly go all the way with liberty but working in a more or less mainstream industry he feels he cannot do so. Maybe he ought to try anyway.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Rand and Libertarianism

Tibor R. Machan

The question still comes up, "What does Rand have to Contribute to Libertarianism?" Of course, late in her life Rand tried to disassociate herself from libertarians, whom she called "hippies of the Right." In fact, of course, what she found most objectionable about libertarians is their alleged disdain for a philosophical foundation for their political ideas and ideals. Rand was convinced that philosophy matters very much in the defense of a free society. She stressed, moreover, that in the last analysis she was not a capitalist, not an egoist, not even an individualist but, first and foremost, a champion of human reason. From this, she argued, one can infer most of what really matters to us all, including the vital importance of a free society.

Libertarians, however, tend to want to have an open door policy--they don't want to exclude people from the rank of those who defend liberty even if their defense is wrong or weak or really badly put. Be you a Moonie or Christian or even socialist in your personal viewpoint, libertarians want to extend an invitation to you. This seems only sensible, strategically prudent--it will swell the ranks of those who will support human liberty, never mind why. Yes, hippies, too, were welcome and still are, as are Mormons and prostitutes and bowlers. The more the merrier. It is quantity that matters, not quality, since libertarianism is a political movement, primarily. It needs to have its supporters swell in numbers as far as possible.

Rand, however, believed that without the best case for liberty, liberty would lose out no matter how good the numbers. No ill founded doctrine of liberty can hold up against all the attacks from the various sophists who are eager to show how flimsy the defense of human liberty really is. Today it is the communitarian, especially, who mounts a sophisticated case against freedom by first attempting to discredit elements of libertarianism such as individualism. For Rand unless a sound case for these elements exist, it makes no difference how large the number of libertarians is. In the end it is the soundness of the argument that matters most, or so she believed, because she held that human beings are rational animals and only when ultimately something appeals to their reason, will they give it long term support.

One aspect of Rand's position that has not managed to make itself heard clearly is her view that what you think isn't the result of your personal history and, indeed, this idea follows the long appreciated view of most philosophers that one ought not to commit the genetic fallacy, of judging a viewpoint by the history and origin of those who advance it. Rand is now being more and more judged, even by sympathizes such as the authors of the two recent biographies, one from Doubleday, the other from Oxford, not so much by whether her case for her ideas is sound but by reference to her upbringing or history. Since she was raised in Soviet Russia, she is often deemed to be captive of her origins. This is nonsense, of course, considering how many others who find her ideas sound didn't share her history at all. I did and that has been held against me by adversaries all my career, but they have used it mostly as a ploy since they new that many of those whom they embraced, refugees from right wing dictatorships, were not biased by their history, only educated by the experience of it. And that holds for the likes of Ayn Rand and me. But to acknowledge this would mean giving up a possibly effective weapon against our ideas!

But why do her recent biographers keep insisting on committing the genetic fallacy? I think the reason is that contemporary biographies are all written under the influence of scientism, the view that everything must be explained (away?) by means of efficient causes in a person's life--upbringing, nutrition, climate, economy (a la Marx), psychology (a law Freud), etc. To understand Ayn Rand, then, amounts to have explained her along such lines. This is what is demanded by modern (mechanistic) science (though not by contemporary science, which has largely shed its mechanist premises).

There is an important scholar of recent times who fought against such a way of understanding thinkers of the past. Leo Strauss, of the University of Chicago's Committee of Social Thought, insisted that those who try to understand Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, and many other great thinkers by these means fail miserably and miss out on their valuable teachings. And, of course, they are also facing a fatal paradox: If the subjects of their study are to be understood by explaining away their thinking, then so must be the biographers, as well. And that would leave truth out of the equation completely.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

On Distributive Justice

Tibor R. Machan

For a long time political philosophers and such were interested in identifying the nature of justice. It started with Socrates and lasted to when John Stuart Mill did his work, although by that time there had been talk of this thing called distributive justice. By now most political theorists dwell on little else.

Yet I have never quite understood why the idea has become so prominent since it is clearly question-begging. Distribution is something done by people who have things to distribute, who are legitimate, rightful owners of what may be wanted from them about town. Money, mainly. So in our day government takes money from people--the resources they have made, earned, found, won or whatever--and hands it to some other people (after taking a good cut for itself). How the distribution goes may be judged as arbitrary, fair, unfair, corrupt, or, just. But all this couldn't even begin if it were determined that the initial taking of the resources is wrong. And as I have managed to figure these matters, taxing people is wrong. That means that distributing what is taken in taxes is also wrong. Accordingly distributive justice could not be justice at all. It is at most something touched by a bit of generosity, as when bank robbers divvy up their loot among some needy folks, in what is taken to be a Robin Hoodish way (but Robin just took money back that had been taken in taxes instead of taxed people).

Why is taxation wrong? It is depriving people of what belongs to them without their consent. Sure, some people in a society may consent, by voting for it, to the taking of other people's resources but that couldn't possibly make the taking anything better than confiscation, an unjust taking because it involves coercion and lacks the consent of the owners. And this is what had been realized, more or less, when individual rights were finally clearly enough understood and affirmed by some political philosophers. Few came right out and condemned taxation because they held the mistaken belief that the administration of a just legal system required it, but it does not. They had similar ideas about slavery in various places until finally they gave that up. They should have given up taxation along with its conceptual sibling, serfdom. Both of these had their home under feudalism and other types of monarchy since in such systems the government--king, czar, pharaoh, dictator, ruler, politburo or whatnot--owns everything and thus when people live and work withing the realm, they are made to pay taxes as their rent and fees. Government in such systems permits people to live and work and charges them for this by making them serve in the military, subjecting them to forced labor, etc., etc. The benefits government provides are privileges, grants from the sovereign to the subjects. Such systems do not recognize individual rights!

Distributive justice is a weird hybrid that combines feudal or monarchical features with those of a fully free society, one in which it is individuals citizens who are sovereign, not the government. But the two, wealth-distribution by government and justice plainly enough don't mix, despite how sophisticated folks claim they do. Justice requires acknowledging the sovereignty or self-rule of individuals, with what little government is warranted existing with the full consent of the governed. This government has no rightful authority to do any confiscation or conscription at all. Its sole function is that of a protector of individual rights or, as the American Founders put the matter, to "secure [the]... rights" everyone has by virtue of his or her human nature. (In America much of this was discussed but sadly not fully applied since a bunch of perverse ideas, held by powerful recalcitrant people, needed to be accommodated for the sake of establishing a sustainable country.)

When one hears of distributive justice--or another version of this oxymoron, social justice--it is best to conjure up the idea of a square circle or worse, a free slave. Governments that have resources to distribute came by it unjustly, by seizing it from people who are the just holders of those resources.

As to how legal services might be paid for, well, that is important but the answer cannot be "by confiscating the resources of those for whom they are being administered."

Wednesday, December 09, 2009

Equality is Irrelevant

Tibor R. Machan

Equality is a deceptive political concept. In the hands of the American Founders it had great merit since it was based on those aspects of human nature that everyone not crucially impeded does in fact share, namely, everyone's basic rights.You and I and all the billions of people in the world and throughout human history are and have, of course, been quite different from one another while we also possess our basic rights to life, liberty and property.

In certain respects the difference among people stems from the plain fact that human individuals are at a certain level utterly unique, irreplaceable. This is why no substitution can be made for a deceased friend, a spouse, a member of one's family. Once you grow close to someone and know him or her intimately, there is just no one like that person. Which is one reason the deceased are mourned so much--they will be missed because no substitution for them is possible.

Human beings are in some limited respects the same but in most respects different. And this is further complicated by the fact that some of their differences as well as some of their similarities are innate, just a matter of what they were born to be, so to speak, or accidental, due to circumstances over which they have no control at all; other differences and similarities are the result of their choices, be these good or bad ones, by they trivial or morally significant.

So both equality and uniqueness are part of normal human life. The results of this can be extremely wide-ranging and the last thing that would be sensible to expect is that some pattern of equality, be it economic, social, religious, ethical, medical or anything of this sort can be implemented or should be attempted. The Procrustean temptation is an incredibly hazardous one. Its sources are many, some benign and some mendacious but all to be guarded against.

For example, often people find a way to carry on in their lives, including how they drive, bring up kids, cook dinner, arrange the furniture, choose a career, invest in the market, etc., and so forth, and this often suggests to them that others need to follow suit. Wouldn't the world be just swell if everyone followed one's example, seeing how it has been so fruitful for oneself? But, of course, different folks, different strokes, more often than not. Different people will enjoy different sports, entertainment, tourist attractions, cuisine and all. And even more importantly, they will actually be better off pursuing different objectives, ones that really suit them well but not their fellows, certainly not most of the time. Indeed, this is well borne out by the fact that when people recommend things, they can usually do a creditable job only when they do so to someone they know very well, at least within the sphere of the recommendation. "You just have to see this movie or go to this store or eat at this restaurant or take your vacation here, etc., etc.," said to a total stranger tends to be quite risky, even reckless.

On the continuum from what is universal, applicable to us all as human beings, to what is only right for a given individual human being, there is a vast array of options suited all the way from what suits millions to what only some here and there and, finally, to just a solitary single one individual. This is what the American Founders, guided by their study of political history and thought, especially the ideas of John Locke, suggested, which is why their claim that we are all created equal had to do with "equal with respect to having certain basic rights" and not with equal opportunities, equal conditions, equal consequences and the like. Equality under the law, of course, is what their idea clearly implies but not other kinds of equality promoted to much these days.

Yes, Virginia, there are those very influential, even powerful ones, who want us all to be engineered into one type, all to be serviced by the same public policies ("options" is a really insulting term since they are not optional for citizens to, say, pay for!). Yet, what a just society is characterized by is that its principles are suited to an incredible variety of citizens, all carrying on as they choose, provided they do this in peace, without invading others or their realms. Egalitarians would toss all this out to institute their one-size-fits-all policies, except of course for one element, namely, that they alone should run the show, no one else. Sharing power isn't on their agenda, especially sharing it with everyone by letting everyone enjoy sovereignty.

Finally, in answer to the claim that equality is necessary to stop envy, I wish to quote Nobel Laureate Edmund S. Phelps:

"The idea that ordinary people are anguished by the thought that other people have extraordinary wealth is also cultivated in fashionable circles without the presentation of any evidence. Most people are practical enough to see that when, say, they have to go to the hospital for tests, what matters is whether the right kind of diagnostic machine is there for them, not whether there is a better machine for others somewhere else."

Monday, December 07, 2009

Is Health Care Reform Constitutional?

Tibor R. Machan

On this occasion I wish to address some of Dean Erwin Chemerinsky's points made in an article he wrote for the December 2009 edition of Saturday Night magazine, in a guest column title "The Constitution and Health Care Reform," one that defends the constitutionality of health care "reforms" currently under way.

Before I begin I wish to enter a protest about calling the health care policies being advocated by President Obama and the Democratic leadership in Congress reforms. In my view they are not any kind of reforms, bits of adjustment here and there, of the approach Americans take to to securing health care and health insurance for themselves. It is rather a major, even revolutionary, change because while in the past some of health care (Medicare and local county hospital policies) has had government involvement, this time the objective is to establish what is called "a public option," meaning a form of health care that is provided by the federal government, just as, say, the Interstate Highway system is provided by the federal government.

But what about Dean Erwin Chemerinsky's major points in this piece? First, though, it should be noted that while the dean comes with impeccable credentials, this should not mislead readers to think that equally well credentialed American constitutional law professors do not disagree with him. For example, the University of Chicago Law School's Professor Richard Epstein takes a diametrically opposed view on the topic. He has published articles and books critical of government regulations of all parts of American society and makes a powerful case that such regulations are indeed unconstitutional. He has even defended the highly controversial idea that anti-discrimination laws violate individual rights (to, for example, freedom of association).

Second, Dean Chemerisnky's argument assumes that the interstate commerce clause authorized the federal congress to regulate--that is to say, aggressively interfere with--commerce (among the several states). Yet, arguably what that clause did is to authorize Congress to regularize such commerce, meaning, to abolish tariffs and duties that had been imposed by the colonies prior to the creation of the union. What Congress was authorized to do, then, is to establish a free market in the United States of America not to obstruct it. Not that this is a popular view among constitutional scholars but we aren't discussing what is popular or not but what makes the best sense, objectively, including in the light of American political and legal history. After all, for a long time the constitutional treatment of African Americans followed precedents that eventually were overturned because they were deemed to be grossly unjust. Well, the kind of welfare statism advocated by Dean Chemerinsky may well be similarly unjust, given how aggressively it promotes violating the private property rights of American citizens. I am not complaining of the dean's embrace of such views, though I object to them, but I protest his assertion that welfare statism is sanctioned by the U. S. Constitution and the political philosophy of the American Founders.

Third, contrary to what the dean implies, the Ninth Amendment to the U. S. Constitution makes clear that there are unenumerated rights--ones not listed in that document--which citizens also have. Recent rulings concerning the use of contraception and engaging in sodomy have relied on this reading. And that is, of course, as it must be in light of the political tradition that underlies the Constitution, one in which one's rights, basic and derivative, are pre-legal, with the law resting on them not the other way around. Since we have many rights by virtue of our human nature, the Ninth Amendment makes eminently good sense.

Fourth, and more generally, in a free country citizens may never be placed into involuntary servitude to their fellows as this health care reform movement intends to do. It makes no difference about the precedence--again, many precedents do not deserve to be followed and those that support a confiscatory, intrusive welfare state could well be among them.
The Cell Phone Hazard

Tibor R. Machan

For a while now I have been observing all the alarm about the use of cell phones while driving a car, truck, bus, etc. And there is hardly any doubt that doing so is hazardous. In his essay for The New York Times, Monday, December 7, 2009, Matt Richtel chronicles some of this and reports, among other matters, that "Bob Lucky, an executive director at Bell Labs from 1982-92, said he knew that drivers talking on cellphones were not focused fully on the road. But he did not think much about it or discuss it and supposed others did not, either, given the industry’s booming fortunes. “'If you’re an engineer, you don’t want to outlaw the great technology you’ve been working on,' said Mr. Lucky, now 73. 'If you’re a marketing person, you don’t want to outlaw the thing you’ve been trying to sell. If you’re a C.E.O., you don’t want to outlaw the thing that’s been making a lot of money'." Mr. Richtel goes back even further and reports how worries about the safety of using cell phones while driving goes back to the 1960s!

Mr. Lucky's line of reasoning is, of course, the favorite one to produce about those who defend some private industry--what they do is mainly to recklessly promote their own economic interests, never mind safety, never mind the interest of customers, never mind good sense--just pursue profit and be done with it.

But this is a caricature, born of cynical theory not of real life. While of course most people first think of how something will help them with their own projects and the pursuit of their own goals, there is nothing in this that shows their indifference to and neglect of other concerns, some of them indeed having to do with how other people are affected.

In the ongoing concern with the use of hand-held and hands free cell phone use while driving a car, the focus seems to be all on what such use does to one's driving and the comparison is nearly always between such use and no distractions at all. But what about the possibility that cell phone use in cars may not be any more hazardous than, say, changing CDs or cassette tapes, tucking in the baby in the back, checking the map, looking for something in the glove compartment, or having a heated discussion with one's passenger, while driving one's vehicle. Indeed, this is probably true but not easily tested and confirmed (or dis-confirmed).

Imposing restrictions on drivers concerning these other possible distractions would, no doubt, be somewhat problematic since all those are mainly personal distractions and no big industry can be held complicit. Deep pockets are missing there, too. Instead these other distractions seem quite normal, just part of life on the road and have been with us since automobile and similar vehicle use itself has been.

Not that I have had the chance to make a thorough comparison except in my own case where I have found that using a cell is, yes, hazardous but then so is checking out one's driving directions, looking for a house number (especially at night), examining a map, going through a personal address or phone book, etc., etc., and so forth. All such activities, while driving, require attention and concentrating on driving at the same time can be challenging; since doing so is not on everyone's agenda as a general rule, why expect something different from people when they have the option to use their cell phones while they are driving?

Forgive me my suspicious nature, but am I seeing here, once again, the eagerness of some political and bureaucratic types to rush in an micromanage us all? Given how silent they appear to be about how cell phone use in cars compares with all those other, more customary distractions, I think my suspicion isn't ill founded. A word to the wise should suffice--it may not be about safety as much as it is about control, about the age old government habit.

Sunday, December 06, 2009

Misusing Emergencies

Tibor R. Machan

There are fewer fallacies as widely used as those captured by the saying, "Hard cases make bad law." This includes all the types mentioned by those who would sanction the systematic violation of individual rights just because they can imagine and maybe even find some instance in which strict respect for these rights is pretty much impossible. Even John Locke, the greatest theorist of natural individual human rights in the history of modern political philosophy acknowledged that one may need to disregard rights when "politics is impossible." Such as in the middle of an earthquake or on a raft in the ocean.

The most frequently deployed emergency case involves people who are in dire straits through no fault of their own and only if they gain provisions from others who have them can they survive and flourish, at least for a time. In my career as an academic philosopher these kinds of cases have dominated the political discussions I've had, both in the journals and at conferences, with those who reject the principles of the free society in favor of the welfare state or even more draconian regimes that violate individual rights galore. It is always some nearly unthinkable cases, since the actual ones people face or know about are mainly explainable by the very violation of individual rights that are meant to be undermined by them.

Why are so many people in dire straits? Mostly because other people have oppressed or subjugated them, made them into slaves, subjected them to involuntary servitude or serfdom or otherwise refused to respect their rights to their lives, liberty and property. In the modern welfare states which are mainly given philosophical support by reference to such extreme, emergency cases, the major culprit in producing poverty is, you guessed it, government's immense appetite for people's resources, taken from them by way of taxation and by the expenses they need to incur from having to deal with government regulations and other interferences in their lives they have no earned at all. And, of course, no matter how long the welfare states have existed (because, supposedly, they are necessary to give support to those in dire straits), the homeless and indigent and unemployed and all others who cannot fend for themselves keep not disappearing, not escaping their bad circumstances.

One reason, of course, is that the administrators of the welfare state are not at all shy about taking their cut from the taxes they collect before they let any of it go to those in whose name the taxes are levied. And as the economists who conceived of public choice theory have demonstrated, these administrators are more likely to devote the resources they take from citizens to advance some agenda of their own than they are to support those who need help. (Needless to say, one reason is that they probably haven't a clue as to what really would help, what program might actually eliminate poverty and indigence and such! So they just do what they know, which amounts to pursuing projects of their own.)

Now rules, principles and such are discovered to help understand the way things behave normally, or how we ought to carry on in normal circumstances. This is true in medicine, fitness, nutrition, driving, raising children, gardening and anywhere where people need some stable, dependable means for pursuing worthy goals. And obviously, for all rules there are some exceptions--extreme, yet unheard of or similar cases the rules do not cover. But this does not mean the rules are unsound, only that reality is not some geometrical system where no borderline cases, anomalies, or emergencies can be found. Yet, one does not act wisely by abandoning the rules so as to accommodate the rare exceptions, especially when these exceptions can best be understood as the regrettable consequences of violating the rules or principles in the first place.

This is why I am not very responsive when I am told that in some cases may someone's right to private property may need to be disregarded, even violated, so as to remedy matters. So what? It doesn't follow from this that well established, tried and true principles should be tossed into the dustbin of bad ideas, that s system governed by them should be abandoned. And since much of the time advocating tossing generally sound principles of liberty goes hand in hand with entrusting certain people with special powers over other people, I am naturally skeptical about what is being advocated. But, yes, now and then these principles may not hold--as when once in a rare while initiating a bit of physical assault against an innocent party can solve a problem (say, of someone who is being hysterical). We aren't dealing with principles of pure, formal logic, more likely with those of biology and psychology.

So I suggest not to get bent out of shape if someone finds some obscure counterexample to a swell principle of ethics, politics or law. As Aristotle is supposed to have put the point, one swallow does not a springtime make.

Saturday, December 05, 2009

Sanity from Science

Tibor R. Machan

Despite its unabashed and relentless championing of ripping off taxpayers for any and every scientific or technological project, Science News is still mostly an educational publication, a little magazine that comes around with the most up to date news about what the various sciences have discovered lately. (I have been a reader for I cannot remember how long, even had some letters published in the magazine's pages. But recently I have been bothered by how eagerly the editor turns to government for funding science instead of relying on research and development money from the private sector.) Still, as I say, nothing else quite manages to make the various sciences so accessible to an amateur like me.

Furthermore, there is at times talk in the pages of Science News that warms the tabernacles of my heart. Take the following, for example, from December 17, 2009, issue:

"New observations establish a supercluster centered on the cluster CL0016+16 as the largest galactic congregation ever found, astronomers report in Astronomy & Astrophysics. The supercluster extends even farther than previously thought, and it’s drawing in more and more galaxies. CL0016+16 lies about 6.7 billion light-years away from Earth. That cluster was first observed in 1981, and later observations hinted that it might be just one of a cluster of clusters. Observations by David Koo of the University of California, Santa Cruz in 1996 pointed to a large structure extending from the main cluster.

“'There are many predictions for large-scale structure in the universe, but nobody has really confirmed that this large-scale cluster exists in the distant universe,' says Masayuki Tanaka from the European Southern Observatory, a coauthor of the new report. 'We actually see this massive structure in the distant universe. Not theory, not prediction — this is the real universe'.” [my emphasis]

Why would this be so gratifying? Because in the philosophy of science there has for a very long time been a movement according to which scientists do not make discoveries but, instead, produce inventions; the various items of the different sciences are said by some of the most prestigious philosophers of science to be no more than theoretical entities, which means, entities only in the collective mind of the scientific community. Philosophers such as Berkeley and Kant, as well as more recent ones like the recently deceased Paul Feyerabend, have been on the side of the devil, for my money, by proclaiming what is best described as the anti-realist conception of the objects of scientific study. Out of this inter-subjectivist movement have emerged some rather bizarre ideas, indeed. One that always gives me trouble is that there are multiple universes and that even possible universes are in some way just as real as is, well, the universe in which we live and have had our history evolve. (But "the universe" means just that, everything that is, so "other universes" is nonsense.)

Then there are some other philosophers of science who have claimed that logic has nothing to do with reality at all--the most famous of these was Columbia University's Ernest Nagel who in 1944 wrote the seminal paper, "Logic Without Ontology," that rejected any firm relationship between reality and logic, a view that rejected Aristotle's, that of the ancient philosopher most responsible for developing logic as a method for guiding us toward an understand of reality. (It does so, indeed, because its bases are the most fundamental laws of reality!)

The anti-realist movement in the philosophy of science hasn't managed to purge all realists, especially not among working scientists as distinct from philosophers of science. But even the working scientists have tended to follow the ideas of, for example, the late Thomas S. Kuhn whose book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (University of Chicago Press, 1962) made a huge splash and made the term "paradigm" part of both ordinary and technical English language. Kuhn went so far as to claim that scientists do not discover or know a world but create one each time a revolution occurs (such as Einstein's relativistic [which overthrew Newton's mechanistic] physics).

So, it is quite rewarding to read about a scientist who comes right out and talks about "the real universe." In my view this is the right way to understand the world and the more scientists who testify as did Masayuki Tanaka above, the more responsible and relevant will science be in all fields.

Friday, December 04, 2009

A Bit of Good News

Tibor R. Machan

It came from New York State, that bastion of modern liberalism and American statism (Senator Chuck Schumer's fiefdom)! As The New York Times reported on Friday, December 4, 2009, "In a 3-to-2 decision, a panel of the Appellate Division of [NY] State Supreme Court in Manhattan annulled the state's 2008 decision to take property for the [Columbia University] expansion project, saying that its condemnation procedure was unconstitutional." And how right that is! The Times goes on reporting, "The majority opinion was scathing in its appraisal of how the 'scheme was hatched,' using terms like 'sophistry' and 'idiocy' in describing how the state went about declaring the neighborhood blighted, the main prerequisite for eminent domain."

Not that this has the legal capacity to undermine that equally sophistic and idiotic ruling by the U. S. Supreme Court back in July 2005, in the case of Kilo v. City of New London, CT, where the good city fathers condemned private property so as to lease it to some big prospective tax payer (a scheme that ended with the property lying there unused to this day). But it may just slow down the perverted progress of the reactionary use of eminent domain law, placing a small monkey wrench in that evil bulldozer.

Private property rights are the bedrock of a bona fide free country. Just for starters, the rights to freedom of religion and the press directly depend on it--if private property can lawfully be taken by state agencies, based on spurious, subjective grounds like blight, any religious or journalistic practice not approved of by state agents becomes vulnerable to censorship or worse. The right to private property, if respected and competently protected, renders it possible for the right to liberty to be secure in innumerable realms. Liberty's legal defense requires it. With such a right given legal recognition and protection, dissidents and minorities have the ability to escape retaliation from an angry majority that finds the dissent and refusal to join them to thwart its agenda.

If the history of authoritarian and totalitarian rule has taught anything, one vital fact is that this right, identified throughout human history--by the likes of Aristotle and Thucydides and, later more systematically by the English philosopher John Locke (who taught the American founders about it)--is the major bulwark against tyranny. Of course the right to one's life is more basic and if it is ignored and violated as it is by the institution of slavery, then all bets are off and the law of the land deserves zero respect, let alone obedience. But the right to private property is nearly as fundamental as that since if one has no legal right to keep others out of one's own realm, one is for all practical purposes being placed into servitude, almost made a slave.

This is why the Kilo decision by the U. S. Supreme Court was such a catastrophic blow to liberty in the United States of America and why even a short step away from it, as the NY Appellate Division's ruling took, can only be a welcome development where human liberty is concerned. But it should by no means lead to complacency!

Everywhere in legal circles, not the least in President Barack Obama's team of legal associates, basic rights are under full assault. These rights are dismissed as mere creatures of government (as they were in the time of full blown monarchies where they king was seen as having the authority to grant or withhold them and the idea that they might be natural to human community life was scoffed at). Yes, Virginia, in the current administration's legal opinion, forged by the likes of Harvard Law Professor Cass Sunstein, individual rights are void and done for, mere inventions as per the permission government may or may not grant its subjects!

With the New York Court's ruling a bit of hope has become justified. But as with liberty in general, here, too, eternal vigilance is the price and other courts and potential guardians of human liberty must not relent as they work hard to reaffirm that Americans--indeed, all human beings--are sovereign agents and have basic rights, among them the right to private property.

Wednesday, December 02, 2009

On the American People

Tibor R. Machan

No sooner did President Obama conclude his address on Tuesday evening, December 1, 2009, than hordes of public officials rushed into print or to the microphones to respond. And that is, of course, what sadly one should expect. This is the time when one's opinion might just catch that wave that will carry it to significant numbers of people and might even have a bit of influence or at least place on at center stage of the controversy.

I was paying a bit of attention to this not so much because I expected great wisdom to emerge but because I wanted to hear how the comments are phrased. And sure enough many were framed in just the way I would have feared, namely, in terms of what "the American people want." As if the commentator, some Senator from here, another from there, and so forth, had done a thorough investigation and concluded from it that Americans are all this or that way about what the president proposed to do over there in Afghanistan.

So I heard numerous declaration about what we Americans all want to happen though there was certainly no time to do the kind of research that would justify conclusions about it. Nor is there a currently valid method for taking stock of what all adult Americans want.

So why then are such commentators issuing proclamations about what "the American people want"? One of them confidently announced that the American people do not want to carry on with the war in Afghanistan, another just the opposite. And it seems no one is paying any attention to such brazen presumptuousness, so many folks assuming to be in a position to say what "the American people" want, think, believe, hope, etc. I heard no commentator protesting this kind of language, yet I listened all night and morning quite closely to what was being said on many TV and radio stations and on even more Op Ed and editorial pages. Why is it so readily accepted that some senator or whoever is in the position to tell what the American people think or want?

I assume that this kind of thinking, as fallacious as it clearly is, just comes naturally to those who want to chime in on public policy matters. They may have the idea that they do have the facility to discern what the American people want, never mind that they do not. The delusion from which all these folks appear to suffer is certainly hazardous to public discourse since it is so blatantly off the mark that anyone with but the mildest of critical attitude about the opinions being promulgated will readily dismiss nearly all of it as nonsense, given that there is no way that it could be confirmed or denied.

This is a massive country, with millions of people many of them with backgrounds from all corners of the globe, belonging to different religions, holding diverse political persuasions, and often agnostic about issues involved since there is no time for them to figure things out sufficiently to form a credible opinion. So why do so many public figures pretend to know what "the American people want"? Is it a mere fallacy of projecting one's own views on to everyone else, never mind whether any evidence backs it up or not? Do these public officials who come forth so hastily with statements no one could possibly verify have such a low opinion of those who run across their remarks as to think they can get away with spewing forth their empty rhetoric?

I guess so and that is a pretty telling point. It does suggest that these public officials have a very low opinion of their constituents, which is probably why they are so eager to rush in to "represent" them. They can proceed unchecked with their own agenda, never mind what "the American people" really want.
Positive Externalities of Riches

Tibor R. Machan (from my archives)

Although I came to America as a poor immigrant and after leaving home at 18 became dirt poor, with no family support, I have also been fortunate as well as industrious enough to do reasonably well in my life. From the start it seemed to me that a chance such as I faced (namely, to make my way in the country of nearly every poor foreigner's dreams) demanded the best effort on my part, lest I blow it. Not that everything went smoothly but all in all I got nearly all I set out to obtain, including a superb education, a career that could be many people's envy, wonderful children, a great deal of travel, some of the best friends one could ask for, and at least a tolerable economic life that sustains me well enough albeit by no means in luxury.

What all this leads me to suggest is that clearly there are many who are far more prosperous than I, even if I doubt that too many have enjoyed the degree of happiness I have been fortunate to experience thus far. Still, I could easily benefit from having a good deal more money, pretty much like everyone else. Yet, I have never felt envy in my life. Somehow the sight of greater wealth on the part of others has never lead me to desire to exchange their lives for mine. Nor, especially, have I ever felt ill will toward those who are rich. On the contrary, I have been thoroughly pleased that the very rich are with us. And there are some good reasons for my pleasure with them, even if I can barely think of myself in their shoes.

For one, the rich remind me that if I wanted to aspire to be one of them, I would have a decent chance at it. I know some rich people and some of these started nearly as low if not lower on the economic ladder as I did. But they wanted to be well off and found a way to do this while also gaining satisfaction from their work. I know some people who are millionaires, a few who probably have a billion or so, and in each case I know that the way movies or sitcoms or pulp novels depict them is grossly inaccurate. None of these folks is mean or greedy or amoral, quite the opposite. I know that if I had wanted to concentrate my energies on securing wealth and great prosperity--e.g., by means of expertise in finance or corporate management--I could have given that a decent shot, with not too bad a chance at success.

Another reason I welcome the existence of the rich in our society--near enough to the lives of my family and friends to witness what their lives are like - is that without them we and millions of others would scarcely have a chance to occasional luxury, a taste of the finer aspects of nourishment, entertainment, decoration, art and culture in general.

Who but the rich sustain good restaurants? Who but the rich make fine porcelain or jazz clubs or beautiful rugs or fancy furniture, not to mention stunning architecture and enthralling theater possible? I cannot afford to support artists, musicians, actors, great chefs, and the other people who create and produce some of the marvelous features of our culture, nor can my equally middle level and poor income earning friends. But once in a blue moon we all manage to go to a great French restaurant, an art gallery, a neighborhood where fashionable estates are located, or a shopping center that features exquisite merchandise.

It is wonderful to go to an elegant mall such as those strewn about in the New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, Washington, Boston, and other areas of the country where these businesses can count on enough wealthy folks to sustain them. I, and others like me would not be able to support elegant ocean cruisers, superb automobiles, and great sports events such as Wimbledon or the America Cup. But there are those who can and I, for one, am extremely glad for that.

This is one of the reasons--although not the main one--for my distress about the kind of rich bashing that is so common in our culture. I find it disgusting how the envious among us would rather destroy the rich than witness the gap between their own modest economic status and that of the very wealthy. It is especially loathsome how so many American politicians, who ought to know better, gladly capitalize on this envy and persist on using the rich as a scapegoat of their own unwillingness to do the right thing, namely, concentrate on defending us from foreign and domestic aggressors and leave us be to fend for ourselves in peace, however much economic disparity this may generate--far less, incidentally, than is generated in societies where politicians try to even things out and run the country to the ground.

Of course, the first thing to be said about the rich is that they have every right to seek their kind of life, so long as they do this in peace. But there is also this point, namely, that their existence is of enormous benefit to the rest of us, not just in jobs and national wealth (especially in times when, unlike now, politicians haven't mucked things up) but in keeping culture at a level that is there for all of us to enjoy, to save up for a bit of luxury once in a while, even if we do not wish to live as some of them are, namely, in persistent pursuit of abundance.

Tuesday, December 01, 2009

Recent Skepticism About Property Rights

Tibor R. Machan

In a wide ranging review essay of Amartya Sen's recent ambitious book, The Idea of Justice (Harvard, 2009), Moshe Halbertal, a philosopher from the Hebrew University, unleashes some arguments against the right to private property that are supposed to be even stronger than those Sen himself offers. Sen himself regards this right as a strong one but not decisive, so some considerations can be morally powerful enough to overturn it. To block even a moderately friendly view of the right to private property, Professor Halbertal writes:

"Let us assume that ... at stake for distribution is a rare medicine that Clara, the brilliant and productive child, somehow managed to invent. She is willing to provide the medicine to Anne, who is very sick, but only for an outrageous compensation. If she does not get her coveted [medicine], then Anne will die; and nobody--this is the libertarian claim--can take the medicine away from her, since she has ownership rights as a producer. In such a story, it seems clear that sticking solely to the libertarian approach to ownership rights, regardless of the outcome, is wrong. Even if we assert that there are such rights, surely, they should not be absolute...." [The New Republic, 12/2/09, p. 42]

This is certainly not the first time that the right to private property has been challenged along such lines. The needs of others have always seemed morally superior to some, versus the rights of those who can fulfill those needs without drastic loss to themselves. And in certain dire circumstances even libertarians will grant that a one-time theft should be morally acceptable provided efforts are made later to compensate for it. What the libertarian--or most of them, since they are a diverse lot themselves--insists upon is that a legal system make no systemic allowance for such takings. Though it is understandable that the takings would occur on rare--emergency--occasions, what is completely wrong is to build into a legal system this acceptability. (In some parts of France, which is largely a socialist country, extreme need serves as a legal justification for such takings!)

The case Halbertal offers has some problems to start with, though relatively minor. No one denies, libertarian or otherwise, that somebody "can take the medicine away." It is not whether they can but whether they are morally (and should be legally) justified to do so. Criminals, after all, perpetrate such takings all the time, when they murder, rape, kidnap, and steal. Rights violations are possible but not justified, according to libertarianism.

More important is the way Halbertal misunderstands what libertarian political philosophers aim to do when they lay out a proper legal system. They aren't discussing ethics or morality but politics or law. They are investigating what system of principles should govern a human community, what constitutional provisions should be included in a just system. That here and there an exception is possible to those principles is never disputed--such thinkers as Locke, Rand, Den Uyl and Rasmussen and I, routinely discuss emergencies and note that what's at issue are general principles, not specific cases that may have elements that remove it from the norm.

It is interesting that just this element of the classical liberal, libertarian political approach is thoroughly investigated by Douglas B. Rasmussen and Douglas J. Den Uyl in their brilliant book, Norms of Liberty, A Perfectionist Basis for Non-Perfectionist Politics (Penn State University Press, 2005). Sadly, in the typical fashion of contemporary academics, Professor Halbertal settles for star gazing and pays no heed to Norms of Liberty, a work the theme of which would have informed him about how a classical liberal, libertarian would deal with matters such as he focuses upon.

The gist of the approach is that while difficult cases admittedly exist, instead of attempting to lay out some grand (ideal) moral theory that handles every conceivable situation (a strict moral geometry), they offer a system of metanorms--their term--by which a just society should be governed. These metanorms are principles of government or basic laws that everyone ought to choose so as to make possible a just social life for both oneself and everyone else--every other human being, in other words--based on our knowledge of human nature and what community life requires.

But getting back to Halbertal's case, what would the classical liberal, non-Utopian approach to political philosophy advise about it? It might, for example, propose that Clara should not have her invention taken from her even in an emergency because although Anne desperately needs it, making it possible to violate Clara's property right with impunity (and thus setting a precedent) will undermine the system of justice that keeps a free society intact. Or it could propose that an exception be made, via judicial discretion or some other device of the law, without allowing it to undermine normal legal procedures. And then there is the rarely considered option, as we see in both Sen's and Halbertal's discussions, of managing the problem without recourse to the law, mostly by relying on voluntary actions such as raising the funds and pressuring Clara by such means as a serious, organized boycott (with the leadership of, say, Sen and Halbertal).

It is interesting that both Sen and Halbertal are avid about their rejection of perfectionist politics yet do not appear to have much sympathy for solving dilemmas without insisting on a perfect resolution, one that guarantees that a perfect enforceable solution will be reached. This is a clear case of the perfect being the enemy of the good! Yes, Clara may have to be tolerated in her greed and lack of generosity but that is because the system in which one is free to be greedy and ungenerous is superior to one that aims to impose, by means of government--thus risking tyranny and undermining morality--the only right solution.

So it would appear that a system of law in which the right to private property is fully protected is better than one in which exceptions are permitted, thus leaving it open to government not by law but by men (who would ultimately be responsible to weight all the alternatives based on their intuitions, something Halbertal appears to grant at one point in his review essay.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

My Palin Problem

Tibor R. Machan

I have always had problems voting. Not only have I been influenced by the likes of Professor Gordon Tullock about how ineffectual one's vote tends to be but I have very rarely found any candidate who articulates clear and unambiguous principles of liberty to which he or she is fully committed, which in my view is the only way to gain justified trust from voters.

Recently I expressed my dismay about Sarah Palin, based mainly on my inability to find any sound political principles articulated by her. I simply wasn't able to discover anything like a genuine American political philosophy or even ideology coming from the former Alaskan governor. When I pointed this out to a friend who considers her very promising, he listed for me a number of Palin's achievements which, he believes, should lead me to change my mind. Here is what he identified as indications of Palin's desirability for those who champion a fully free society:

* She sued the EPA for misusing the Endangered Species Act (no other governor has had the guts to do that)
* Advocated building nuclear power plants, clean coal and pipelines (all of them essential for energy independence and basic economic rationality)
* Came out against the punitive windfall tax on oil companies as a tax on investment.
* Approved of government subsidies only for market-proven alternative energies.
* Said publicly that global warming, even if true, is not anthropogenic.
* Spoke out forcefully and repeatedly in favor of free trade.
* Achieved 7% spending reduction as governor and instituted a hiring freeze.
* Vetoed half a billion of pork projects.
* Called for labor unions to ask permission from their members for political donations.
* Instituted an "ethics in government" reform which was opposed vigorously by the political establishment, left and right.
* Argued that adoption should be a state not a federal issue.
* Supported giving parents the right to opt out of school books they found offensive.
* Passed the most innovative energy bill of any state called the Alaska Gas Inducement Act including a 1715 mile gas pipeline to make available North Slope natural gas (currently being burnt) to the rest of the country.
* Advocated forcefully for drilling in ANWR and offshore waters.
* Opposed spousal benefits for same-sex couples, but vetoed bill denying benefits to gays as unconstitutional.
* Opposed setting up state boards on creationism despite her well-known views on creation.

Admittedly this is an impressive record of going against the current tied of relentless political correctness and bad piecemeal public policy. However, from the viewpoint of someone who believes in a very strict adherence to the principles of the American founding, those that restrict government to but on central task, namely, the securing of our basic (and derivative) individual rights, these achievements do not qualify someone as a dependable political candidate. To whit, there should be no EPA at all! Nuclear plants should be a private sector project, not something for government to mess with. Not only should there be no windfall taxes on oil companies and any tax on investments but the entire policy of extortion by taxation should be scrapped, just as another feudal institutions was, namely, serfdom. And so on and so forth. Every one of the policies listed above as Ms. Palin's achievements is, as far as someone who is committed to a fully free society is concerned, but a small and uncertain step in the right direction with no full commitment to the free society in sight.

Of course, we live in a world in which advocating the kind of society that is built on the principles of the Declaration of Independence is hardly going to open the door to a political career. Instead it will not even get one on Fox TV, let alone any other mainstream media outfit from which one might champion one's cause. But then so what? I have decided many moons ago to fight for a fully free society and not some compromise and half-way measure. At least some citizens must insist on the whole shebang, even if it be unrealistic and quite contrary to realpolitik. Others may well dedicate themselves to taking the small, gradual and admittedly needed steps toward such a socio-political system but one size doesn't fit all. There needs to be at least a substantial number of citizens who insist on nothing but the best, which is a country in which society, including science, the arts, the economy, and so forth, are totally divorced from government (the job of which must be restricted to protecting our rights, period) and on politicians who fight for this, nothing less.

Then, of course, there is Ms. Palin's very odd reported conviction that creationism is a position comparable to Darwinian evolutionary theory, which is blatantly false. She has said, "Teach both (evolution and intelligent design). You know, don't be afraid of information. Healthy debate is so important, and it's so valuable in our schools. I am a proponent of teaching both." As far as I am concerned, this is a regrettable aspect of the lady's education and renders her intelligence suspect. But, admittedly, this is not directly relevant--one could be a Moonie or Pentecostalist and still be loyal to the principles of a free society. So I mention the matter only to come clean with my own response to the lady.

Bottom line is that I will stick to working on the best society and its numerous often complicated features and keep championing these and let others take care of the intermediate task of identifying and supporting close-but-no-cigar folks to carry the torch for a second or third best system.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

No Good News

Tibor R. Machan

For a while now I have been concerned with the issue of whether any argument advanced in support of violating private property rights might just have something going for it. Some argue, for example, that since one's private property isn't always the result of one's own work and often even stems from plain old luck--as when the price on one's home rises because of market conditions one had no hand in--one's property rights cannot be inviolate, let alone inalienable. Others claim that when majorities decide, after widespread public consideration and discussion that someone's resources or wealth should be taken from them for some important project, this suffices to limit or even void the right to private property.

The second argument underlies the very recent ruling of New York State's Court of Appeals in support of the decision of the Empire State Development Corporation to condemn privately owned homes and small businesses so as to replace these with Mr. Bruce Ratner's "Atlantic Yards" project of 16 huge skyscrapers. The court didn't rule exactly as did the U. S. Supreme Court back in July 2005, in the case of Kelo v. City of New London, CT, which opened the door to take property simply to develop it better that how it is being used. The New York case backed the taking of private property because it is considered to be blighted. This is the "reasoning" of the lynch mob. And it is ominous because the very point of basic rights to one's life, liberty, property (or whatever is involved in governing one's own affairs--in other words, one's sovereignty) is to bar others from being intruders, no matter what. The point of rights is to secure for individual's their own realm of authority, wherein they and not others make choices, be these wise or not, prudent or not, generous or not. That is what it means to have jurisdiction over one's own life and the only way to intrude on it is first to demonstrate beyond any reasonable doubt that one has violated someone else's rights and needs to pay for this with one's liberty or property. Having a bunch of other people decide about how important or sensible is one's use of one's belongings is no better, actually, than having them do this vis-a-vis one's life! You aren't living it as well as we believe you should, so we will take it over and direct it ourselves for far better purposes. What a crock this line of reasoning is!

As to the other line of argument, that, too, simply a gross non-sequitur. After all, no one has produced one's own liver, heart, eyes, or most other personal attributes, so are these now to be available for others to take? The fact that I came by my pretty face or sturdy heart with no effort by me confers absolutely no authority on others to deprive me of any of these. Yet somehow certain influential people make just such an allegation. It seems to me that it is nothing but sophistry since logic, reason, common sense or anything else that might support a conclusion gives this no credibility whatsoever. That kind of reasoning serves to support an atmosphere of arbitrary intrusion by everyone into the lives of all, a Hobbesian war of all against all, with just a bit of legalistic window dressing. Talk about an uncivilized society!

Unfortunately the American Founders, who learned their political philosophy from classical liberals--most especially John Locke--didn't manage to teach later Americans enough about the merits of the theory and principles underlying the founding documents of the country, the Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights. And there were some conflicts between those principles and the widely championed ethics of "service to others" or altruism, which helped to undermine a free American society. Never mind that most people actually act as if they believed that helping others comes after one has taken decent care of oneself and one's loved ones. The rhetoric of morality has tended always to be altruistic since people attend to moral matters mostly when it concerns how other people ought to serve them! Yes, altruism gets much of its support from an insidious kind of narrow egoism: "Tell everyone to serve others since that will suggest to them to care for me!"

So there is a lack of solid ethical support for the ideals of individualism, and that weakens the support for individual rights. People consider standing up for those rights too selfish! And since this looks bad on their ethical CV, they do not put up a fight against those who would impose involuntary servitude on them, not at least until it may be too late.

Now we see the consequences: despite the superiority of the rights based free society when it's compared to all other types, Americans are slowly losing their liberty and letting a bunch of dubious arguments disarm them. It is not too late to turn this around but, sadly, the prospects are minimal, judging by how nearly all the professional thinkers in universities and colleges favor an anti-individualist, anti rights-based society, collectivist.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Can We Cause Our Actions?

Tibor R. Machan

In a recent Op Ed column for Free Inquiry magazine--December 09/January10--Mr. Thomas Clark claims that the defense of human agency that some folks, including me, have been advancing for many years involves what he terms “contra-causal” free will. It does not.

But let me put the matter in context. In the age old debate about whether free will exists one line of argument against the idea has stressed that if we did have free will, this would violate the universal law of causality. This universal law is that everything that occurs has a cause, no exceptions. It is also put at times by stating that all things are caused or that every event has a cause. While these are nearly equivalent claims, they are not, actually.

In certain versions of the law of universal causation (or causality) there exist in nature n endless conjunction of events, moving from time immemorial to the end of existence. Indeed, by this account reality is but this endless chain of connections between events, one following another necessarily, on and on. The evidence for this is just that events do have causes, although no one of course has witnessed them all or is likely to do so. So the doctrine of such universal causation is not a discovery of science or any other discipline of study. It is an inference from numerous well established cases to the all that rest that are not established at all.

This is really the most popular idea of universal causality but not the only one. Another version of it is that whatever occurs has to have been caused to occur--it didn't just pop into existence all on its own. This idea makes room for the former notion of causation but is not exhausted by it--some kinds of causes could exist that are not events or happenings. For example, when a beaver constructs a dam, the beaver is the cause of the dam, just as when Rembrandt painted his works, he created or produced them. All creative and productive activities involve such causation, one referred to as agent causality.

In a book I wrote nearly 10 years ago, Initiative–Human Agency and Society (Hoover Institution Press, 2000), I argued that human beings are agents and they can normally, unless crucially damaged, think and act on their own initiative. Others have defended this idea, also, such as the late psycho-physicist and Nobel Laureate Roger W. Sperry (e.g., in his Science and Moral Priority [Columbia University Press, 1983]) and Timothy O'Connor (in Persons & Causes, The Metaphysics of Free Will [Oxford University Press, 2000]). This does not involve any kind of contra-causation but is a form or type of causation. So, as already suggested, when Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart composed, Mark Twain wrote, Paul Cezanne painted and Mr. Clark produces philosophical essays, they are being agents who cause things to happen in the world. True, this means that people can be first causes in some instances but that is just one type of causation among others.

To maintain, as Mr. Clark does implicitly and as many others who take part in this debate do also, that only a single kind of causation exists in the world is contrary to what one can confirm in one’s own life, history, and most of one’s experiences with other people and other parts of nature. It is to hold, contrary to overwhelming evidence, that the kind of causality we find on a pool table, taking place between billiard balls, is the sole sort in all of reality. This is not a discovery but an dubious extrapolation, certainly not a scientific finding.

What is far more sensible to hold is that depending on what kind of thing something is, it can take part in causal relationships but not all of them are the same kind. And the reason is that not everything is the same kind of thing. Thus when a tennis ball is hit with a tennis racket the results will differ from when a billiard ball is hit with a cue stick. The nature of causality depends on the nature of what is involved in a causal relationship and since there are a great variety of kinds and types of things--that is, there are beings with a great variety of different natures--there is likely to be causal connections of a great variety as well.

Human beings, arguably, have a form of consciousness, based on a very complicated organ, namely, the human brain, that can produce certain unique actions, some of them out and out original--such as when someone writes a never before heard of short story or composes brand new music or designs a building with a unique architecture. Even the day-to-day production of ideas, words, theories, conjectures, speculations and such that surround us everywhere in the human world testify to the existence of this form of causation, one that does not at all resemble what happens on the pool table when balls collide and produce the behavior of rolling apart from each other.

This is by no means the end of the story here--the debate will continue. But it helps to have a brief outline of a certain view of universal causation, one that does not preclude human free will but treats it as a type of (original) cause in the world.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Self-Corrections in Markets and Journalism

Tibor R. Machan

In the American legal tradition the press may not be regulated, nor may religion. No one would maintain, though, that these are flawless institutions, not by a long shot. At The New York Times, for example, scandals over the years prove the point and there is no end to how badly some of the clergy can behave.

Yet few would insist, especially among the editors and columnists at The Times, that to handle these malpractices what is needed is some kind of government regulatory remedy. I certainly have never read anything in The Times recommending such supervision or oversight. Instead, what The Times does is exactly what it dismisses as useless when it comes to remedying problems in markets; it uses its public editor to propose self-regulation; He is an ombudsman, in house at the paper, who writes reprimands and suggests various corrective measures that then, hopefully, help the paper stay on the right side of various aspects journalism.

But of course such self-knowledge isn't what The Times likes to invoke as it scolds everybody in the market place, no. When it comes to other professionals in society, The Times doesn't hesitate to advocate the equivalent of censorship, namely, government regulation. Indeed, its editors and columnists constantly fail to see that what they take for granted, namely, an unregulated arena of journalistic operations, is not something others in the society may enjoy. Those at The Times--as well as at many, many other newspapers--evidently believe they are mature and disciplined enough to engage in self-regulation but others, outside their media operations are too inept, too childlike, to enjoy the same rights.

And such blatant inconsistency is not unusual at The Times. In a recent column of his ("Free to Lose," November 13, 2009), Krugman wrote that policies to promote "job sharing" are "worthy of consideration" in order to remedy the country's unemployment problems. To this absurd idea Professor Don Boudreaux of George Mason University responded with characteristically impeccable logic:

"Let's start at the New York Times. I know several PhD economists currently without jobs (and certainly without regular newspaper columns). I propose that Times Co. chairman Arthur Ochs Sulzberger, Jr. reduce Mr. Krugman's presence on the page to, say, one column per year. The remaining hundred or so columns that Mr. Krugman would otherwise have written for the NYT can be written by unemployed economists."

Do you believe there is any chance at all that Professor Krugman will bite the bullet and take Professor Boudreaux's suggestion to heart? Do you think the editors who give Professor Krugman his space in The Times will heed the advice to remedy employment problems in the press by having the good Princeton Professor, who is already holding down several different jobs, to participate in job sharing? If you do, I have this bridge in New York I would like to sell you.

Government regulation is nothing but a version of prior restraint, an imposition of burdens on market agents that they have done nothing to deserve, something that in the criminal law is forbidden by due process! Moreover, government regulation simply places some citizens in power over others, something that is clearly prohibited by the 14th Amendment to the U. S. Constitution that mandates treating all citizens as equal under the law.

To have a bunch of bureaucrats look over the shoulders of various professionals, all of the U. S. citizens, and order them to do this and that without their having been proven guilty of any criminal conduct, is plain unjust. And the folks at The New York Times would never stand for it in their work. But they routinely advocate more and more government regulation professionals outside of journalism and the clergy. They appear to be totally blind to just how inconsistent this is and how, indeed, the U. S. Constitution is itself inconsistent by permitting government regulation of nearly every other profession not protected by the First Amendment.

It would be interesting if this subject would be broached on the pages of The Times, say in an Op Ed column. But please do not hold your breath.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Was It Snubbing?

Tibor R. Machan

On Monday, November 9, I took part in a panel discussion of the collapse of the Soviet empire, in the company of several others who have managed to escape the system, two former Cubans and one former Russian. We discussed our own personal experience under the system--which I hesitate to call "communist" since communism has never existed; aiming to bring it about has been used as an excuse for some of the greatest horrors of human history.

For my money the greatest lesson of the Soviet debacle is that collectivism breeds the worst of human relations while individualism makes possible nearly any sort and discourages the worst. Yes, an individualist society, were it ever realized--and the bits of it evident throughout recent human history prove this--does not erase all evil in human life. Nor does it promise to do so, since in freedom men and women can certainly make bad choices, even in how they treat one another (although evil is diminished since one may not legally dump one's malpractice on others with impunity). But individualism teaches that everyone who does not violate the rights of others is of value and even those who do must first be convicted by means of a fair trial to be treated badly (incarcerated, for example).

Individualism is often derided by the sophists among us because it runs the risk of leading to human alienation. And, true, individualism has its corrupt versions. But it need not be any means go there. Because in individualist societies men and women have their right to liberty secured, which makes it possible that they mismanage their lives, of course, and some will do just that.

But in socialist, communist and other collectivist systems people's lives are systematically, necessarily mismanaged by those who step up to rule them against their will. For that is what collectivism comes to, even the mildest version of it, such as communitarianism or democratic socialism. Some will make the deceptive claim to be speaking and acting on behalf of all and thus gain power over all. In fact, no collectivist system is actually possible; instead what we get under them is the rule of some folks over the rest. Collectivism would only be possible if human nature were to change so that it would resemble the nature of bees or termites. (Karl Marx fully realized this so he predicted that in time, when communism arrives, humanity will develop what he called "the new man.")

OK, all of this I mention here out because just as all these refugees from communism met to celebrate the fall of the Berlin Wall 20 years ago, we learned, also, that President Barack Obama decided not to join other Western leaders in celebrating this event. Instead he delivered some rather uninspired words from his home, The White House, looking very much like he would much rather have been doing something quite different--say making another pitch to bring the Olympics to Chicago (a noble goal in support of which he did fly to Denmark not long ago). But he would not take the trip so as to commemorate one of the most pivotal international events in recent time, one that's comparable only to the defeat of Nazi Germany.

The collapse of the Soviet Union apparently has not been all that welcome by Mr. Obama's political base, the extreme Left Wing of American liberals. These folks have always had a soft spot in their hearts and minds for experiments in collectivism. Any anti-individualist polity is for these folks a progressive undertaking since by their lights humanity makes progress when it moves toward lumping all of us into a huge mass to be guided by the likes of Stalin, Hugo Chavez, or Fidel Castro, all of whom want to impose on it a one-size-fits-all way of life.

So it is very likely that skipping the celebration of the fall of the Berlin Wall was a calculated decision. It was, after all, the leader of the East German state who once answered a journalist, who asked him why they were shooting at those trying to escape across the wall, by saying, "Well those people are stealing from us." "Stealing what?" "Themselves."

You see, in that kind of system people literally belong to the state and when they try to leave, it amounts to theft.