Saturday, May 30, 2009

Education and Philosophical versus Political Correctness

Tibor R. Machan

You will know what I am after here when I tell you how much I dislike it when people talk of "her majesty" or "his highness" as they talk of various pretenders to heads of countries around the globe and throughout human history. For me such terms are like ones out of faerie tales because, well, there are no kings or queens or any such thing except in myths. In other words kings are really not what they pretend to be, namely, God's chosen leaders here on earth. As with all in-born status that places some above others not in height or even talent but in political authority--some may rule and others will be ruled--the whole monarchical idea is a lie. Yet even now one can encounter references to these pretenders, right here in the United States of America, as if they were the real McCoy! Poppycock, I say. Was it not the American Founders who participated in the revolution that demoted these pretenders, who showed that world that no one is by nature the ruler of someone else?

Of course in all of history, wherever there have been human inhabitants, such pretentious ruses and the accompanying distortions of language have been ubiquitous. It is not so much that the thought of it ought to be banned by law. No ideas should be regarded as subject to censorship, which is the ultimate objective of construing certain ideas as politically incorrect. The Pope, the Reverend Moon, Father this and Sister that--all these are titles dependent on a dubious narrative, Most of them are offices with no rational reason for them. But the idea of them all, however debatable, has to be tolerated in a free country, even if those ideas are a threat to the freedom that's so central to such a country. Yes, then, folks ought to give them all up, just as they have given up superstitions of any sort. But this has to happen through enlightenment, education, reflection, conversation and other peaceful means, not through government intervention. A free country defers to the market place of ideas when it comes to what ideas will be deemed worthy of embrace. So, for example, it should not be government that chooses between creationism and Charles Darwin's evolutionary theory, any more than it should be government that chooses between one or another religion or ethics.

It is another thing, however, for citizens themselves, independently of government, to consider some ideas philosophically incorrect. Just what is and what is not will, of course, be subject to eternal disputation, especially in societies where ideas of any kind have the protection of the legal system. Even racist ideas, even anti-Semitic ones, indeed any kind of bigotry must be given legal protection and their criticism needs to be confined to argumentation, ostracism, disputation, debate and such.

There is just one big problem with this. When a country tries to combine freedom of thought and speech with government administered education there will be irresolvable conflict. In a system of private education competition among schools would take care of philosophical correctness. In some schools certain books will be featured in the library, in others they will not, and students and their parents will be able to select which they want to be exposed to.

But when government delivers a coercive system of "education"--actually mostly indoctrination, since no alternative is available to the bulk of us who have to pay for and use such a system--any selection of books, magazines, films shown in classes and so forth will amount to implicit censorship of the materials not chosen. They will be deemed as having been banned--whereas in a private system selection by the administrators of some schools and library officials will not preclude exclusion by others. It is government's one-size-fits-all approach to education that stands in the way of free inquiry.

Unfortunately, in many societies people want to mix elements of liberty with elements of coercion, as if that were something trouble free. It isn't--the courts will struggle forever with trying to square that circle. Only by getting government out of education can that matter be made consistent with the principles of a free society and fit for human beings whose minds must forever be free to think.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

One Size Fits All--Not Really

Tibor Machan

The current--May 23, 2009--issue of Science News is celebrating astronomy and the 400 years of the telescope. And they are all very enthusiastic about it over there at the magazine, so much so that a guest editorial by David H. DeVorkin, senior curator for astronomy and the space sciences at the National Air and Space Museum, is featured seriously promoting the idea that “every person on Earth should look at the night sky through a telescope in 2009, as Galileo did 400 years earlier.” This was a declaration put forth back in 2006, in all earnestness, by Rick Fienberg, former editor of Sky & Telescope magazine.

OK, it is a fine thing indeed that there are enthusiasts like Mr. Fienberg and Mr. DeVorkin in the field of astronomy, just as it is a fine thing indeed that there are enthusiasts in all the sciences and technologies human beings have embarked upon over the centuries. Except for one thing.

This is that such enthusiasts seem too often to convince themselves, without a scintilla of hesitation and skepticism, that everyone else must join them in their excitement about their field. This is a bit like those basketball or baseball or tennis fans who are convinced that their sport is the tops and people who don’t share this outlook must somehow be suffering from a serious blind spot.

It is folks like that, especially outside sports--which, after all, are normally understood as but forms of entertainment and tend to amount to a person’s idiosyncratic preference--who insist that what they are enthusiastic about everyone ought to support and, worst of all, be taxed to fund. These are the people who when a new president moves into the White House have already filled the mailbox there with letters insisting that it is absolutely vital that the object of their enthusiasm gain greater and greater public funding--i. e., get funded at other people’s expense.

So as to make this palatable, these folks will insist that what they are after is in the public interest, not anything for the benefit of private individuals or special interest groups. You wonder what nudges a country toward economic bankruptcy! It is this blindness, this belief that everyone’s object of enthusiasm is deserving of everyone else’s even unwilling support, never mind whether they share the enthusiasm.

No doubt much of what such enthusiasts are excited about is not only interesting but often enough useful, at least eventually. No doubt, too, that astronomy is a great field of study, as are hundreds of others that may just now bear little practical fruit. Nor is it the case that only what does bear such fruit is worth investigation.

But no enthusiast has any right, any moral authority, to compel the rest of us to share his or her choice for what is most vital in human life, in communities, in the world. If they cannot convinced others of the merits of their field of interest, enough so that it will gain material support as a matter of voluntary consent, then they have come to a dead end, morally and politically. Going on to insist that other people’s priorities ought to be subjugated to theirs, that they may dip into other people’s resources even if not welcomed to do so, that is not mere enthusiasm, devotion to a worthy cause. That is, quite simply, larcenous, the unjust expropriation of what belongs to others.

I know that when it comes to these noble goals, it isn’t supposed to matter that each of us has his or her own agenda, goals we value and want to back. Self-sacrifice is deemed to be so elevating, even if one doesn’t engage in it of one’s own free will but at the point of the government’s guns.

But that is simply false. So the enthusiasts need to learn how to go out and raise voluntary support or turn to other pursuits that they can afford and for which they do not need rob and steal from others.
Invitation to Altruism (Again)

Tibor R. Machan

It was when I was in college at Claremont Men's (now McKenna) College that John F. Kennedy got elected president. Very handsome guy, really Camelot in spades, no denying that! But something seemed rotten underneath all that democratic royalty, at least to me. As time went by, Kennedy started to loose the halo around his scull, what with his infidelities and his rather inept political maneuverings, not to mention his detestable holier than though statism. Had he not been so tragically assassinated and thus, like a martyr, gained much unearned adoration from a great number of sympathetic American citizens, he would very likely have turned out to be a politician kind of like Gary Hart--lots of flash but little substance.

When Kennedy came out with his famous, "And so, my fellow Americans, ask not what your country can do for you; as what you can do for your country," I didn't approve of it at all. I believed then as I still do that this sentiment belonged not in a free country but a totalitarian one, in Hitler's Third Reich, for example, or in ancient Sparta. How dare anyone write off the lives of millions of human beings as having as their life's purposes nothing but service to the government (or state)?

Well, very unfortunately, we are back to this once again. The New Republic published a special insert in its June 3, 2009, issue, titled "The Forgotten Masterpieces of Henry Fairlie" (pp. 14-15). One of these alleged gems ends as follows: "Ideas in politics must sometimes go underground for a while; the time is not favorable to them. But underground they gather new energy and still work their way into the roots of the nation's life, until the people again feel the need for them. One day some new president will find other words to summon the people from their private pursuits to remember their obligations to the Union, the Republic, the Res Publica--the state." These lines were written February 3, 1986, just around the time Ronald Reagan reminded us that government isn't the solution but the problem. Mr. Fairlie makes no bones about preferring Kennedy's idea--which harks back to that of most Pharaohs and Caesars with its insidious demeaning of the value of the lives of individuals--to that of Mr. Reagan; nor did The New Republic dig up the Fairlie quote by accident. Clearly the editors meant to tell readers that now, with the presidency of the new Kennedy, Barack Obama, we may be able to reorient the country in the direction where people will swallow the myth that their lives belong to the state.

And TNR's editors are not alone. Numerous books, written by political theorists housed in very prestigious academic institutions, have recently given philosophical meat to the reactionary statism and altruism Kennedy and Mr. Fairlie champion. Peter Singer, the animal liberation activist at Princeton University's department of philosophy, is one of the most voracious advocates of altruism, so much so that he wants people to sacrifice themselves for other non-human living beings whose liberation he considers a priority! There is also Thomas Nagel and Liam Murphy who believe that the state owns everything and it is by its permission that we get to use a bit of it for our well being. Cass Sunstein, the Harvard Law professor who used to have Mr. Obama as a part time colleague at the University of Chicago and now heads up the regulatory regime of the new pres, advocates that we have no rights by virtue of our human nature but only because the government grants us some.

The era in which the American Founders' notion--that government exists to serve individual citizens who have fundamental, inalienable rights no one can take from them and which the government exists to secure for them--has come under serious attack on all fronts. It is frightening. Let us not fiddle while Rome burns, please, let us not!

Monday, May 25, 2009

Power Really Does Corrupt As it Expands

Tibor R. Machan

Lord Acton, the British historian is widely known for at least one of his observations. This is that "Power tends to corrupt; absolute power corrupts absolutely." Acton made this observation amidst a whole lot of insights and analyses that have gone down as the treasures of late classical liberal political thought. His most famous insight has by now become a cliche, a truth that we all know even if we fail to heed it in our daily lives and public affairs.

It is for this reason, among others, that the works of such contemporary libertarians as Professor Robert Higgs are so vital--they give substance to Acton's cliche, if you will, in such books as Crisis and Leviathan (Oxford University Press, 1989), where Higgs demonstrates with umpteen historical examples just how much governments that acquire power during so called emergencies and with the explanation--or excuse--that this power is simply needed to cope with the emergency mostly keep and expand that power after the emergency has stopped and been handled (usually without the need for the expanded powers of governments).

Most of us do not have the time and inclination to do the historical research that a scholar like Higgs makes his daily occupation despite the fact that without a solid background in the study of such history most of us become the gullible pawns of politicians and their academic cheerleaders (of which there are simply a lot more than academics who unearth the nuggets of knowledge that shows us how vicious and useless the use of power is in human affairs). We are just now witnessing exactly what Professor Higgs and some others have pointed out through most of their careers.

Take, for example, Christopher A. Preble, a former commissioned officer in the U.S. Navy and now the director of foreign policy studies at the Washington, DC, Cato Institute, whose recently published The Power Problem (Cornell University Press, 2009) revisits some of the territory Higgs has mined but with a focus on very current foreign and military affairs. The preamble to the book is itself worth its price. It is a quotation from General Colin Powell's My American Journey. Power reports that "Madeleine Albright, our Ambassador to the UN, asked me on frustration 'What's the point of having this superb military that you're always talking about if we can't use it?' I thought," Powell goes on to comment, "I would have an aneurysm. American GIs were not toy soldiers to be moved around on some sort of global game board."

Albright's obscenity does not by any means stand as a rare instance. I personally attended a speech given by Irving Kristol, the godfather of the neo-conservative political movement and a powerful influence in Washington, DC, where Kristol advanced the idea that a country needs a little war now and then so as to light the spirit of its young men! And this talk was the keynote speech for the Philadelphia Society several years ago, before either of the Iraq wars got under way. (A friend of mine who has worked in the field of political philosophy and, in particular, on just war theory, told me after he heard Kristol that it was one of the very few times in his life that he was tempted to physically assault someone for what his speechifying!)

The sad truth is that the power problem is completely non-partisan and today it is President Obama and his team who are churning out rationalizations for building up Washington's arsenal of bureaucracy, with its massive weaponry given by Congress. Although the American Founders had hoped that their arrangement of power in the capitol of the nation would manage to contain the beast, in fact they miscalculated. And what was to be a bone fide free country, with a strictly limited government--limited via the Constitution and various devices of separation of powers--the United States has gravitated from being a promise of liberty for all to a promise of power to a rather large political sector.

It would be a great project to cut this power back to its proper scope and size!