Saturday, January 24, 2009

Jon Stewart is Correect

Tibor R. Machan

One day last week I decided to check out The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, given that it is a popular left of center offering totally devoted to Barack Obama and virulently contemptuous of the American Right. Sure enough one segment feature a stream of clips and stills of various Right wing luminaries, such as Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck, Bill O'Reilly and Dennis Miller. At the clip with O'Railly Stewart stopped and embarked on a fairly length lecture about values. This is because O'Reilly was depicted saying that yes, now and then, our security requires the sacrifice of our values. This sentiment is naturally quite controversial and is its refutation is nicely suggested in that famous quote from Benjamin Franklin, to wit, "They who would give up an essential liberty for temporary security, deserve neither liberty or security."

Franklin's idea actually hedges the issue by talking about "an essential liberty for temporary security" since it doesn't address the case of an essential liberty for long term security but never mind. I am on the same page with those who take Franklin to have suggested that violating our right to liberty for the purpose of gaining security is going to backfire, so we ought not do it.

Jon Stewart's little lecture focused on a similar them, namely, that if something is a bona fide value, a fundamental principles of ethics or politics, there is no excuse for breaching it. And I pretty much agree, although there may be certain very exception cases when such a breach could be proper. Still, it isn't a fundamental value, a basic principle, if one may discard it in the face of difficulties. The whole point of ethical and political, including valid legal, principles is that they must be the guide to conduct under all circumstances. Its like principles of good health or nutrition--these aren't to be tossed aside for any reason but ought to be loyally followed.

The curious thing about Jon Stewart's lecture about values is that the side he has been supporting in our political confrontations in this country doesn't believe at all what he was telling his audience. Indeed, a prominent virtue of Barack Obama, for example, is supposed to be his pragmatism and lack of ideology. This latter is simply a derogatory term for principled thinking--those who have an ideology and follow it loyally are people who believe in certain principles no matter what. They think such principles are the right guidelines to coping with the challenges of ethical and political life and to sacrifice them means caving in the the temptation to become unprincipled, disloyal to the right ways to act.

Of course, many people who champion pragmatism are also inconsistent in this and go on to announce their loyalty to certain select principles. And on such occasions they wish to cash in on the general notion that being principled in matters of ethics and politics is a good thing. This is what America's modern liberals do when they stand up and righteously denounce torture, for instance, pretending for the time being that they care about a principled opposition to such policies. Of course, when it comes to basic individual rights, such as the right to private property, they have no problem with being unprincipled--just consider how readily they back eminent domain policies that violate our property rights if such violation aims to cleaning up blight or promoting a higher tax base for government.

No Jon Stewart may not be a source of serious political and ethical thought but he does seem to have a sizable following among Americans and it may be useful to point out that integrity isn't one of the virtues and his side of the political debate cherish much.
The Liberal Hawk

Tibor R. Machan

Professor Alan Wolfe, the well known and widely published political scientists from Boston College, has written an interesting essay on liberal interventionism in the journal World Affairs (Winter 2009), arguing that this "species" is now endangered. In the course of his discussion he makes a point that is worth pondering, namely, that "Liberals believe--I believe--that we are under a moral obligation to help people who are oppressed." An apparently very straightforward if troublesome statement, this is.

Moral obligations attend to individuals, in answer to how they ought to live their lives. Mostly they vary a lot since individuals are not all alike, face different options and are differently constituted--a father has different moral obligations from someone who has no children, for example. The claim laid out by Professor Wolfe is full of ambiguity, despite its apparent directness and clarity, although it does smack of altruism, the moral doctrine that our lives must be devoted to helping others. It modifies this sentiment somewhat by imploring us the help only those who are oppressed.

Of course, just because liberals--or some of them--believe something it doesn't follow that it's right. On this score, as on others, liberals may well be wrong. (And Wolfe is here speaking not of classical liberals, today's libertarians, but of welfare state, domestically interventionist liberals who are on record with their belief in the "buttinsky" state!) Altruism itself is full of problems as an ethical doctrine. Why should the well being of others be our priority when others are in essential respects like us and we surely know better our own situations--needs, wants, abilities, options--than that of other people? It calls to mind that famous quip from W. H. Auden, "We are here on earth to do good for others. What the others are here for, I don't know."

Now if one is serious about following altruism, one is almost necessarily going to embrace the liberal view on military policy. This, however, is still a thesis about what individuals should do, not what we should do collectively or what the role of government ought to be. In a civilized society, force is supposed to be a last resort to solving problems and mostly to be avoided. Indeed, in the older, classical liberal tradition good behavior was supposed to be encouraged but not mandated, with government providing the protection of everyone's right to choose how to live, or everyone right to be free.

While it is quite right that when government becomes oppressive it has abrogated its duty to protect the rights of the citizens, it doesn't follow from this that other governments are now authorized or obligated to intervene. This is not because the oppressive governments enjoy sovereignty, so they may oppress their populations or do other violent things. Once they are oppressive, they have lost their legitimacy and may be opposed, even forcefully. The reason other governments may not interfere unless the oppressors have attacked them is that governments must serve the people who have established and maintain them. Just like body guards serve their clients, governments serve their citizens. Going off to serve the oppressed in other countries would in effect amount to going AWOL, leaving their proper posts.

There can be situations, of course, when governments ought to attend to oppressive foreign governments, namely, when those governments pose a clear and present danger to the citizens whom they must serve. (This, by the way, is why it was so vital to the Bush administration to find weapons of mass destruction--such weapons do pose a clear and present danger when possessed by a hostile foreign country, one that's on record aiming to do damage.) Also, if one government, in a peaceful country, has entered into agreements with others to share one another's defense, this, too, would serve to justify taking action against another government if it has attacked or poses a clear and present danger against the friendly country with whom such an agreement is in place. Mutual defense alliances are all about such circumstances.

None of this, however, amounts to becoming the guardian angel of the world. Just as ordinary citizens have no moral obligation to seek out oppressive neighbors and involve themselves--except perhaps in some very dire cases and when this is something they are capable of doing without neglecting their own families--so governments are bound to defend their own citizens, first and foremost. But while governments are duty bound to stand by to defend their own citizens, the citizens themselves may embark on measures that will help oppressed people abroad. Still, they, too, do not have a general moral obligation or duty to do so. What could possibly motivate their lending a hand is generosity, compassion, empathy, and other virtues of civilized people. Self-sacrifice or the unqualified moral obligation to help people who are oppressed, however, isn't such a virtue. Any help would have to come from a sense of fellow feeling, of camaraderie, not a sense of duty!

Thursday, January 22, 2009

The Genesis of Tyranny

Tibor R. Machan

One of my neighbors has built a small shed next to her home, maybe 8x8X8, if that much. Its not connected to her house. Indeed, it is nearly invisible from the outside--you must actually be snooping in order to get a decent look at it. The purpose of it, I have been told, is to store a stroller and some other objects associated with her young children. It couldn't possible be a hazard to anyone near or far.

Nonetheless a neighbor of hers down the street, roughly 120 yards from her on the other side, snitched on her, calling the local county authorities and reporting that not everything about the shed is in full compliance with what the planners like. By doing this our nasty neighbor will have imposed several thousand dollars worth of totally useless expense on the family that built the shed.

When I found out about this I asked what on earth might have motivated the snitch and was told that it was politics--the folks who built the shed are conservative-libertarians and the snitch is a statist through and through (which I could confirm from the bumper stickers on her vehicles, including a nifty BMW SUV). I believe, though do not know it for sure, that this snitch works at a local community college whihc is why one of her bumper stickers lamented that education doesn't receive enough funding form the government (a self-dealing complaint for sure).

This episode in my little community goes to illustrate several aspects of political philosophy. One is the utter utopianism of that currently prominent doctrine called communitarianism. It is this doctrine today that has replaced the utopianism of communism--indeed it amounts to small scale communism. It worships at the altar of community harmony, fraternity, promoting the notion that unlike in capitalist markets, under communitarianism people will share and support one another without rivalry, without hostility. Give me a break.

Another element of this episode is just how in the absence of strictly protected individual--especially private property--rights, citizens lack protection against the prejudices and ill will of their fellows. I recall back in communist Hungary--as well as in Nazi Germany--wherein the idea of social solidarity ruled, all kinds of assaults on people were carried out by folks who didn't like their politics or religions or just their style of life, all in the name of community solidarity, of having to follow some kind of pseudo-common good that the powerful members of society laid down for everyone. The suspicions this reaped within the population of various communities was felt by everyone--is my next move going to provoke someone to turn me into the government? Will someone report my private actions, even thoughts, to the authorities who will then intrude on my and my intimates' lives good and hard?

So much for communitarianism, so much for the false ideal of harmony within all neighborhoods! This is just what a system within which privacy--individual rights to life, liberty and property--is respected and protected is meant to avoid. No one can do away with nosy neighbors, with their gossip and ill thoughts but their attempt to impose their ideas on others will have no legal standing in a society wherein such rights are respected and protected. This false ideal of community is based on a misunderstanding or at least total lack of appreciation of human individuality. It fails to recognize and respect genuine human diversity, so that, for example, my or my neighbor's small shed in our front or back yards may be built even if others frown upon its style or purpose.

Another lesson from this episode in my neck of the woods is that it's not always politicians or bureaucrats who champion coercion--many citizens do, as well, so long as it serves their hostile purposes, so long as it serve to impose on others what they prefer, even if only to express their prejudices and dislikes of whatever kind, including political. This is, after all, one way that one can retaliate against those in one's community who refuse to bend to one's will!

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

The Celebrated vs. The Obscure

Tibor R. Machan

It bothered me a bit when President Obama said, in his inaugural address, that “it has been the risk-takers, the doers, the makers of things—some celebrated but more often men and women obscure in their labor, who have carried us up the long, rugged path towards prosperity and freedom” because, well, I am not sure how broad his categories are. After all, I am a doer of sorts, as I produce books, teach my students, write my columns, organize my conferences and so forth. But perhaps these don’t qualify as “doing” something. Do they involve taking risks? Sure—in the career of most writers, both fiction and non-fiction, much time is spent on crafting sentences, paragraphs, and chapters with no assurance that anyone will read these, that they will see the light of day in a publication, that reviewers—assuming there will be any—will have the slightest appreciation for what one has labored to produce. The teaching people like me do is also rather risky since all that work, albeit usually paid for, may simply be ignored by one’s students, the subjects covered merely skimmed if even that. Once again, one risks wasting one’s energy, intelligence, learning on doing what will not be appreciated very much at all.

And what about those conferences we produce? Sure, they will be attended by some people but then what? Who knows if the talent we bring together reaches anyone in the meager audiences that attend.

But this is not all. What about all those managers who deal with task in organizations, people whose work consists of making arrangements, who think mostly rather than “do”? Are these folks included by Mr. Obama? Are they worthy?

My impression is that the passage I have quoted above from our new president continues the misimpression that the worthy kind of work must be physical labor. No doubt, such work is worthwhile. Nonetheless the work done by entrepreneurs and inventors and architects, work that’s largely intellectual and not so physical must not be overlooked.

Of course, very few of us have their work celebrated other than by a few family members, friends and perhaps some colleagues. Which is one reason that most parents wish for their children to find work that is satisfying quite apart from being celebrated, even well paid. When they day is done, such work will probably escape the attention of most people, certainly those in the media who might make it prominent, who could promote it to a celebratory status, as that happens with movie actors, famous painters, musicians, and others who manage to catch the public’s attention.

Most of us are indeed hardly celebrated but surely that’s not very significant because if we do work that is compensated, worthwhile, productive, creative, inventive and shows a bit of flare, that’s reward enough unless we suffer from an obsessive need to be appreciated by other people. No doubt there are such people and sometimes their need can lead them to be crowd pleasers, which can involve doing some valuable things. But there isn’t all that much room “at the top.” If we all had to get to such a position before we could gain self-respect, most societies would suffer from much malaise. Instead we are best off having the conviction that what we do is a good thing whether it is widely hailed, whether it is announced to the world. And fortunately many of us are able to gain such self-esteem independently of pleasing too many others apart from some intimates.

President Obama’s efforts to curry favor with the unappreciated, uncelebrated masses does not, for me, ring true. In any case, I would hope that it is not much needed by Americans who work at significant jobs, be these mostly physical or, instead, intellectual. One can only hope that quite without what the likes of President Obama wish to do for them they are happy with their lot. Indeed, for the President of the United States of America it is really somewhat out of line to make it appear that what most of us need is for him to show us his care. It is far more important, I would suggest, to gain the care and love and appreciation of those who know us well, not only as anonymous members of the working masses.

Machan holds the R. C. Hoiles Chair in business ethics and free enterprise at Chapman University, Orange, CA. His collection of columns (unproofed) may be found at
“Our” ambitions?

Tibor R. Machan

In his inaugural address our new president averred that “Now, there are some who question the scale of our ambitions—who suggest that our system cannot tolerate too many big plans. Their memories are short. For they have forgotten what this country has already done; what free men and women can achieve when imagination is joined to common purpose, and necessity to courage.”

I take some exception to Mr. Obama’s implicit assertion that what matters in a good society is that there be some kind of large scale ambition afoot, some sort of big plan. Frankly, it smacks to me of those famous Five Year Plans that the Soviet Union was constantly rolling out and conscripting everyone to serve. Usually these “big plans” are not of our making at all but only those of some of us, a few who take it upon themselves to speak for everyone, who imagine that they can forge such collective endeavors without really consulting us at all.

The uniqueness of the American system of government includes not making plans for us all but making it possible for us to pursue our own plans. This recognizes the diversity of the citizenry, with all of its varied big and small plans that can be pursued in mutually harmonious ways without an attitude of “one size fits all.”

When the Declaration of Independence lists as one of the basic human individual rights all of us have the “pursuit of happiness,” it acknowledges, at least implicitly, that in a big country very different ways to attain happiness are possible. What the public good amounts to in such a free society is that everyone’s rights are secured so they may all go about their big or small plans without being driven by some leader, king, tsar or “Fuhrer.”

The American political tradition rejects the idea that for our lives to be meaningful we must get on board a train that goes to just one common place. It recognizes, instead, that human beings have some common purposes, yes, but mostly pursue their happiness in many different ways with ends that are themselves quite varied.

So if President Obama understood well this tradition—including his role in it—he would stop talking about big plans as if they were the only worthwhile ones and focus, instead, on the plain and at once glorious fact that in a free country there will be millions and millions of small plans and no big one at all apart from making the pursuit of those small plans possible.

Not that this idea is simple to grasp and appreciate. For too many people what is worthwhile has to be big, large, massive, colossal, like the pyramids, Hoover Dam, the Eiffel Tower. The illusions created by these large projects tend to be that they aren’t just big but very important, more important than the “puny plans” of individuals.

The American political tradition rejects this and does not prejudge what kind of plan is meaningful and worthwhile for you and me and millions and millions of others. It serves, rather, to provide a setting in which all of us have the right to pursue our plans, provided they are peaceful and meet certain standards appropriate for those whose tasks they are--artists, scientists, educators, managers, foremen, home makers, and the lot.

Please let’s stop being condescending toward all these folks because they aren’t part of some big plan. Their varied individual plans are quite worthwhile, thank you, Mr. President.

Machan holds the R. C. Hoiles Chair in business ethics and free enterprise at Chapman University, Orange, CA. His collection of columns (unproofed) may be found at
Up To No Good (and Knowing It)

Tibor R. Machan

In my efforts to explain that taxation is extortion and a relic of the feudal age when it was the rent landowners--mostly monarchs and lords--collected from people, I have met with much resistance. It is mostly based on the widespread belief that without taxation the functions of government could not be paid for. Now this is wrong. If governments did just what they are supposed to--"secure our rights"--there would be no problem paying for their services by contract fees, for example. That enormous amount would fund the judicial, police and military branches, all that a free country ought to have from its government.

Sounds a bit incredible but then so did abolishing serfdom and slavery at one time! Or the draft! But all these are imperatives of a free society, however difficult it is to imagine them for those with the governmental habit. And curiously enough, some of the best minds defending taxation know this very well--they know that there is something amiss with taking from people their honest belongings, their resources, earnings, etc. That is why quite a few of them have taken a different approach to crafting their apologetics!

They now argue that no one owns anything, after all, and everything belongs to the government. Professors Liam Murphy and Thomas Nagel of New York University did just this in their book, The Myth of Ownership (Oxford University Press, 2004), maintaining that the country owns the wealth in it, not individuals, and since the country is represented by the government, it gets to allocate the wealth, not you or I. We only get a bit of it that's left over once the government takes what supposedly belong to it.

This is like in the days before the American revolution, when government owned the country and even the people in it or at least treated them all as subjects instead of citizens. Such a reactionary view is now being advocated, including by the likely first nominee to the U. S. Supreme Court, Professor Cass Sunstein of the Harvard Law School (formerly a colleague of President Obama at the University of Chicago). In the book he co-authored with Stephen Holmes, Cost of Rights: Why Liberty Depends on Taxes (W.W. Norton, 2006), they also argue that our rights are granted to us by the all mighty government and can be revoked by that some government whenever its officials deem it necessary. (They don't put it in such stark terms but it all mounts to this!) I myself have done a bit of work on the issue, in my books Individuals and Their Rights (Open Court, 1989) and The Right to Private Property (Hoover Institution Pres, 2002) which, of course, these fine scholars manage to completely ignore as they proceeded to try to demolish the most powerful idea that stands in the way of tyranny.

But whatever their scholarly ethics, one thing is for sure: these folks know well and goo--just as did Karl Marx and Frederich Engels in their book, The Communist Manifesto--that they must abolish the concept of private property in order to secure government's legitimacy as it extorts our resources. Otherwise, if it's ours, if we do have the right to private property, by what authority does a government--a bunch of human beings with a limited job to do--take from people what belongs to them?

Of course it takes many decades, even centuries, for a revolution to gain its full impact where it has occured and so even in the United States of America the old notion that government is sovereign, not you and I, retains a hold on people's thinking. It is, however, wrong, just as wrong as the belief that governments own us, or that some people own some others.

Monday, January 19, 2009

Unromantic Politics

Tibor R. Machan

Many of us are pretty much convinced that politics must be corrupt. So we are cynics and will never accept that politicians really mean what they say when they describe their goals in glowing terms, when they offer themselves and their colleagues up as saviors. I didn't accept that line back when John F. Kennedy was inaugurated--I was then in the US Air Force stationed at Andrews AFB, the "president's airport"--and I don't accept this rose colored view of politics today, coming from Barrack Obama and his supporters.

Yet, I am no cynic. The sort of view of politics we get from, for example, the famous American

essayist H. L. Mencken is over the top. As a cautionary perspective it is useful but as a true characterization of the vocation it is an exaggeration. It's comparable to considering all of medicine quackery and all doctors quacks. Wrong.

So what is a more modest, sensible way of looking at politics, one that's neither blindly romantic nor cynical?

Well, once politics is understood as a specific, limited kind of task that doesn't easily go astray and thus doesn't attract manipulators--the equivalent of quacks in that field--there is a decent chance for politics without corruption. The term "politics" comes from the ancient Greek word "polis," which was used by the likes of Aristotle to designate an organized, well structured human community, one neither tyrannical nor anarchistic. Something remains of this meaning as the term "police officer" is also rendered "peace officer." In other words, properly understood, politics is supposed to be about securing peace within human communities which, in turn, requires an understanding of how that could be done.

Throughout most of the history of human community life the belief dominated that communities could be organized by being ruled by strong, wise, and virtuous people or those who laid claim to these attributes. Sadly, this led to tyrannies, dictatorships, mob rule, and other forms of brutally run community affairs wherein peace was achieved by means of oppression--like the peace we find in prisons and jails, totally unsuited to human life. And this pretty much meant that nearly all politics was put into the service of corrupt rulers. Thus the cynicism about politics.

The revolutionary insight of the American Founders--by no means original since it had been proposed in ancient times by Lao Tzu and Alcibiades, just to mention two of its advocates--was that viable, uncorrupted politics comes from delimiting the scope of the task of keeping the peace to containing aggressive human conduct but not regulating, regimenting all of it. John Locke, the English political philosopher, identified the standards of such limited politics as the natural rights of human individuals. If those rights are respected and protected, the power required to keep the peace would be contained and not allowed to spill over into improper use. Such politics would not be corrupt because the force needed to keep the peace would only be used for its designated purpose--as the Founders put it, "to secure these rights," defensively.

Where politics goes astray is by being allowed to infest much of human relations in our communities. Science, health care, sports, the arts, education, and so forth are thus run and regulated by governments--by kings, tsars, majorities, politburos, and others who embark on taking over the managing of all our lives. This is what was wrong with the monarchy the American Founders unseated and it is the trouble with contemporary politics, as well. Not until it is learned that politics must be limited in its scope, and applied accordingly to law and public policy, will politics escape nearly universal corruption.

As with all legitimate tasks and occupations, politics can be thoroughly corrupt and the likelihood that it would be is considerable, seeing that it amounts to deploying coercive force in virtually all human affairs, something easily abused (just think of all the rouge cops). But unlike the cynic believes, it need not be so. Politics isn't necessarily corrupt, only largely so because of how easily it lends itself to abuse.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Very Mixed Feelings

Tibor R. Machan

Clearly I am not euphoric about the inauguration of Barack Obama, certainly not the way that millions appear to be across America. In fact some of this euphoria is very disappointing to me because, well, it is too tribal, too much a matter of “one of us got elected.” Never mind his political vision, his prospective policies, his way of conceiving of his job.

Then, too, the fact that Mr. Obama is talking about a “new Declaration of Independence” is frightening--what on earth would he want to change about the old one? Don’t human beings have basic, unalienable rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of their happiness? Aren’t governments supposed to exist so as to secure these rights? Are they not supposed to derive their just powers from the consent of the governed? So, you can see I am very suspicious about the wisdom of this upcoming presidency.

On the other hand it is something welcome that a member of a minority group that had had it very bad over most of the history of the United States of America managed to become the presiding officer of the government of this country. It’s about time, I agree. The de facto and de jure disenfranchisement of African Americans in America’s political history has been a shameful thing and it is high time to give it up. So the symbolism of Mr. Obama’s presidency is worth celebration, even by those who find most--though not everything--of what he is likely to champion in his high office questionable.

But then I reflect again on some of the negatives of these developments, such as how much Mr. Obama appears still to rely not on any substance but mere style. The man looks like he walked off the cover of GQ but, as with many who adorn the covers of that and other magazines featuring beautiful people, there is no evidence of any in depth political wisdom coming from him. All that talk about change was bunk--no change of any importance is likely to come from the Obama administration apart from what is expected from any liberal democratic presidency. And that kind of change I find nothing but repugnant--a nostalgic throwback to the New Deal, for example, and an open embrace of the idea of wealth redistribution.

And while mentioning the New Deal, let’s make it clear that there is nothing in the policies of that era that promises to solve any of this country’s economic problems. As Alan Brinkley wrote recently in, of all places, The New Republic, “....Roosevelt’s initiatives did not, in the end, left the country out of the Great Depression. At no time in the first eight years of the New Deal did unemployment drop below 15 percent. At no time did economic activity reach levels comparable to those of a decade earlier; and, while there were periods when the economy seemed to be recovering, none of them lasted very long. And so this bold, active, and creative moment in our history proved to be a failure at its central task. Understanding what went wrong could help us avoid making the same mistakes today....” (December 31, 2008), p. 12.

Yet most of the economists surrounding Mr. Obama are proud Keynesians, economists who believe one can work out of economic downturns by artificial, government spending, spending that ultimately amounts to stealing from the American taxpayer and handing the funds to politicians and bureaucrats who claim, for reasons that are totally mysterious, to have a good idea how to spend it (after they have skimmed a good deal of it off for themselves).

What would be a good thing, and make the Obama presidency something truly promising, is if he listened to economists who do not fantasize about producing prosperity by means of wealth redistribution. These economists teach that entrusting our resources to politicians and bureaucrats is futile because these men and women have no clue what Americans want and thus will necessarily, even if they don’t always intend to, serve a special and very narrow agenda, usually that of their own most influential constituents.

In short, these economists argue that the public interest is pursued best by, guess what, the public! And Mr. Obama appears thus far to reject this idea and that means economic malaise, not any kind of recovery.