Friday, May 22, 2009

Are There Basic Principles?

Tibor R. Machan

Some of President Obama's recent speeches have raised a vital issue that often lies in the background of particular policy discussions. For example, the president has made it abundantly clear that he is a pragmatist, especially about economic matters. (He does not appear to be pragmatic about waterboarding or torture, more generally!) And there is a perennial question involved here: Are there any permanent, lasting, stable principles of human life, including ethics and politics?

Some, of course, will immediately invoke God and Biblical pronouncements. But this doesn't settle anything since among human beings there are really quite a few religions and some have very different ideas about morality and politics. Which of these is to be treated as fundamental? Within each religion the answer is easy enough but when we have numerous religions facing us, how do we choose? Some answer this by talking about faith. Yet faith, sadly, varies too much among us and has the problem of not offering a common basis. Which is why there are so many different faiths. And while the sciences are often in dispute, also, at least in principle they adhere to a common method, one accessible to anyone who isn't afflicted with some malady.

Apart from religion, then, are there fundamental truths? Over the long history of human thought few principles have remained unchanging excepting very few. I am thinking here of the principles of logic. Very few people, very few schools of thought, dispute that logic is fundamental to everything. In every discipline, in every concern of ours, if one makes a logical mistake one's case crumbles. Just think of the courtroom where if a witness is caught in a contradiction, his or her testimony is immediately discredited. Why? Because a contradiction is impossible--reality will not tolerate it. A thing is what it is, no exception! Nothing can both have and at the same time lack a property or feature--it's got to be one or the other.

But logic is so general in its scope that it doesn't point to very specific information. All it says is that whatever we know, it cannot violate the laws of logic. Is there anything more specific that is stable, lasting? For example, what about the principles of ethics? Or the U. S. Constitution? Are these simply some matters that hold fast for some people but others are exempt? For example, is torture really altogether unacceptable, evil? Or is that only given American values? Are those values applicable to all human communities? Why?

The answer the American Founders and their followers have given is that the basic principles laid out in the Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights are pretty close to being indeed applicable to all human communities because, well, they rest on human nature, something that is stable, lasting in the world. Yes, there are disputes but they are all conducted with the expectation that some right answer will be found. (Consider a recent book by the Harvard psychologist, Steven Pinker, The Blank Slate. It defends the idea of a reasonably permanent human nature. And consider common sense, also. After all, we still read the works of human beings from centuries ago, just as if they were working from within the very same frame of reference, with but minor variations, from which we work!)

So long as we are consider human affairs, there will be some principles that will be basic simply because we are dealing with a fairly stable part of the world. And that's so, also, with other fields of inquiry and knowledge; we may be quite ignorant about much of what makes up the world, some of it we have managed to grasp pretty well--at least when we make use of the knowledge we seem to meet with considerable success in, say, medicine, farming, manufacture, building, even child-raising!

So, yes, there are some principles we have managed to identify over the span of human history that are stable, lasting enough, so we should hang on to them unless there are very, very good reasons to change our minds. And some of these principles may be economic ones, so being entirely pragmatic about economics, as Mr. Obama insists on being, is not a good idea--it tosses overboard centuries of learning in that field of human knowledge.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Libertarianism Reaffirmed

Tibor R. Machan

So the other day I was awoken from my occasional complacency and shocked to be told that Glenn Beck, Fox TV's most recent addition of conservative commentators, has been calling himself a libertarian. Wow. That's all libertarianism needs, to have become the victim of this confusion or perhaps out and out distortion. Therefore let me spend a few paragraphs again on just what libertarianism is.

The libertarian political philosophy is defined as one according to which the most fundamental principle of public affairs, admitting of no official compromise, is that the right to individual liberty of everyone in society is the most precious value to be upheld, protected and promoted by the law. If you read the Declaration of Independence carefully, its basic theme is libertarianism, plain and simple. Everyone has basic, unalienable rights, to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness (among other, less fundamental rights). This includes all men and women who carry on peacefully in their lives, however much their personal conduct may or may not conform to a given ethical or religious code. The political philosophy of libertarianism, along with the ideas sketched in the Declaration, are what a genuine free country is about.

Libertarianism is not an aesthetics, not a religion, not a personal ethical code, not even first and foremost an economic theory. Abraham Lincoln captured this when he said that "[The American system...] has a philosophical cause. Without the Constitution and the Union, we could not have attained the result; but even these, are not the primary cause of our great prosperity. There is something back of these, entwined itself more closely about the human heart. That something, is the principle 'Liberty for all'--the principle that clears the path to all--gives hope to all--and, by consequences, enterprise, and industry to all.”

One of the major elements of libertarianism, especially crucial to recall when considering whether conservatives are libertarians, is that it is committed to a purely defensive foreign and military policy for a county; no aggression is acceptable by the standards of a bona fide free country. (George Washington's farewell address, in which he warns about entanglements with foreign countries, is a precursor of libertarianism vis-a-vis foreign affairs.)

More germane to my motivating point here is that libertarianism tolerates no public policies that deny the right to liberty to any segment of society, none. And it refuses to let governments interfere with people's private conduct, including their ill advised private conduct such as the consumption of anything that can produce harm for them. That's not a political project in a free society. Nor is the prohibition of gambling, prostitution, tobacco smoking when this does not involve dumping harm on others, censorship, religious heretic-ism, nothing. It is all about individual liberty.

And it is this that makes libertarianism so revolutionary, so much the advancement of the achievements of the American founders, something that altered the focus and tone of public policy throughout the world. And this also explains why libertarianism is so difficult to promote, since the bulk of humanity was raised under regimes wherein the right to individual liberty was systematically denied. The governmental habit, which is so evident throughout American society today, not to mention elsewhere around the globe, is not easy to change. Too many people hope to gain advantages in life by forcibly--though not always brutally--imposing their ideas and ideals on others. (Recently supporters of such impositions have come up with a new term, "nudging," to serve their purpose of making their version of tyranny palatable.)

No, Mr. Beck is no libertarian. But no one in a free society is permitted to force him to change his corrupt use of the term. All that can be done is to engage in that eternal task of vigilance in support of the proper understanding of the free, libertarian society. Which also shows, clearly, why libertarianism is not utopian--it doesn't promise to solve political problems permanently. The defense of liberty can never end, never conclude in a final triumph.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

"Rewards" of Determinism?

Tibor R. Machan

A few weeks ago I speculated on the motives of certain researchers at UCSB's new neuroscience center, suggesting that they are there's something "cooking at some of America's higher education institutions." The wording here can imply that those involved are up to no good or something a little circumspect, even devious. Someone to whom I showed this column as I was preparing it took issue with me. writing that what is suggested "leaves a bad taste. It patronizes hundreds of legal and moral scholars, which is especially unbecoming given that many of them (including those at UCSB, whom I know well) have already given enormous thought to the issues you raise, and are not in fact refuted by your attempted 'gotcha'."

Anytime in arguments among intellectuals motivations are introduced, one risks taking a false step. First, few people know why others champion a position on some controversial topic, although sometimes one can guess fairly well. Still, it is strictly speaking bad form to raise the issue of motives. (Yes, yes, it is done all the time but still, doing it can indeed leave a bad taste.)

Of course, the history of ideas is filled with discussions that do indeed impute questionable motives to one's adversary. Most notable is Karl Marx who in fact built the ascription of dubious motives to those whose views he criticized right smack into his theories. For example, he labeled those with whom he disagreed ideologues, meaning they invented respectable sounding ideas just to hide their true motives of wanting to exploit the workers and rule the realm. (In the end there wasn't a lot else to many of Marx's "arguments" but these kinds of ad hominems.)

As to the people I criticized and charged with being up to something, well, really, I don't know but a few personally. (A most famous early one of their ilk, the late Harvard psychologist B. F. Skinner, was actually after gaining control over other people by his promotion of the notion of a technology of behavior!) Yet, I believe a little caution in considering the program at UCSB is in order. After all, the bulk of those who will be spending the $10 million grant their institute received are determinists, people who deny that we human beings have free will, can originate our ideas and actions and are moved by impersonal forces such as genes, neuron firings in the brain, environmental stimuli, etc.
What, you may wonder, could anyone gain from looking at people in this way, depriving them of control over their lives?

Several agenda's could be advanced by determinism. A good example comes to mind with the late Harvard University political philosopher, John Rawls, who championed a largely egalitarian society in part because, as he wrote in his famous book, A Theory of Justice (Harvard University Press, 1971), "The assertion that a man deserves the superior character that enables him to make the effort to cultivate his abilities is ... problematic; for his character depends in large part upon fortunate family and social circumstances for which he can claim no credit." Which then suggests that those who are well off couldn't have earned it, nor could anyone actually deserve any credit for what he or she has achieved. And such a view is taken by many to justify wealth redistribution, something often deemed best left to well educated men and women in government (often fetched out of academia).

Of course the opposite position, which ascribes freedom of the will to people (normally) has its own public policy suggestions, even perhaps implications, such as that the more deserving among us should have more power to rule, to set the society's priorities and obtain the "society's wealth." Indeed, as a libertarian I am often charged with being but a mouthpiece of the rich because in a free society there would be no justification for taking from those who are well off so as to benefit those who aren't. Not that this has anything to do with the merits or demerits of libertarianism but many people still insist that such a "gotcha" move is powerful in at least discrediting someone with a given position in political economic matters.

Still, arguably considering the motivation that leads someone to advance an argument the very ethics of sound scholarship and argumentation regards it best not to bother with it. What ought to count is whether someone's position is justified, not whether he or she may by chance achieve some hidden agenda by it.