Saturday, July 04, 2009

Why Sacrifice?

Tibor R. Machan

I just don't know what exactly President Obama means when he says "We must all expect to sacrifice during these times" or something equivalent. Never mind why we must do this--does he want to enact laws that force us all to sacrifice? Is that his job? But, as I said, never mind such tiny details. What exactly does the president consider a sacrifice? Does reducing our standard of living amount to a sacrifice? Even if it brings one peace of mind or eventual greater prosperity? Or does a sacrifice mean suffering net losses, no gains at all? So we must expect to get worse and worse off from now on, as time passes? Why? Even if in the recent past the various pubic policies and some private imprudence have produced the need to cut back on most Americans' standard of living, does this cut back amount to some good in itself so we must all seek it and make it permanent? Why?

In most eras of human history the vast majority of people were dirt poor, died early, lived rather unhappy lives, carried forth mainly because of a promises that they'd get into heaven after their bum ride. It is doubtful that without this belief they would have accepted their lot and many, indeed, did not and tried to rebel against those they blamed for keeping them poor and unhappy.

In time in various places ways of organizing wealth and work were identified that promised to improve matters for nearly everyone, for some by huge margins, for others by moderate ones. Still, for the last few centuries the welfare of the large majority of human beings on earth has experienced significant improvement. That was one result of taking to heart the teachings of someone like Adam Smith whose most famous book, The Wealth of Nations--published, ironically, in 1776 when some other pearls of wisdom came our way--showed that reducing the hand of government in the economy is the best bet for improving the wealth in a country, any country! In consequence of this and similar teachings, the world took off on a vigorous pursuit of prosperity, health, education, entertainment, and a host of other good things that made life no longer merely a prelude to happiness after it.

There have always been detractors of this journey, of course. Many religions proudly advocate embracing poverty as one's way of life. Some very recent secular faiths proclaim it to be a great virtue to be self-denying, even to renounce happiness and instead pursue melancholia! In the arts misanthropy has always been a tempting theme, although with significant exceptions (especially in music and literature).

Nevertheless among the poor of the world very, very few have proclaimed poverty a preferred circumstance. Most yearn to achieve at least moderate prosperity and some are quite pleased to do even better, or at least leave their children with the prospect of flourishing economically and otherwise. But now we have a president here in the most successful economy in human history who meets the challenge of some widespread mismanagement, primarily brought about by politicians and bureaucrats, by insisting that we must expect to sacrifice. Which I take to mean to give up on our aspirations for continued prosperity.

I think this is nuts. If anything the opposite would serve the purpose of recovery much better. Most of us probably should renew our commitment to serious wealth-creating work and not lower our expectations and desist in our efforts to improve our lives on all fronts.

Politicians are generally able only to ruin a country's economy, hardly ever to improve on it--that requires the citizenry itself, not some mesmerizing leader. But politicians could perhaps serve in one useful capacity since they have the eyes and ears of the media turned on them all the time: they could teach us something about where prosperity comes from, for example. It seems like President Obama will not even take up this modest challenge. Instead he is embracing defeatism, preparing us all for a return to the bad times of centuries ago when sacrifice was in massive demand in the name of a fabulous afterlife.
Declaration of independence: Positive vs. negative rights


After so many years of Americans aspiring to live up to the principles of the Declaration of Independence, with much success, critics of America have changed their tune. It used to be that this country failed to be true to those principles but as that has gradually - and at times abruptly - changed, critics had to find something else to beef about.

And, sure enough, they found it, in that highly questionable doctrine of "positive rights" first laid out in 1944 in President Franklin D. Roosevelt's so-called Second Bill of Rights. The tact now is to say, yes, the founders did promote the doctrine of individual negative rights - which are prohibitions barring people from intruding on others, recognizing everyone's rights to life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness (property) - but these aren't really the rights in need of government protection. What needs to be protected, they argue, are the entitlements everyone has to material support from government, for which others must pay through taxes. In short, these new "rights" amount to nothing less than the imposition of involuntary servitude on taxpayers!

But this is a hoax. No such rights exist. Indeed, the entire point of rights talk is to set borders around each of us, borders that may only be crossed with permission. For example, someone needs to ask your permission to enter your home or drive your car. If somebody asks you to stop saying or writing certain things - you must consent or they must desist. Those are examples of the negative, or freedom, rights all humans have because of their nature as moral agents. A moral agent requires the freedom to exercise moral choice, for better or for worse.

Only if a person invades another's realm is there justification for interference (in self-defense). This is an individualist social-political outlook closely associated with the American founding but it is now being drastically undermined.

These days, no sooner does one speak up in support of individualism than one will be accused of wanting to isolate individuals, to destroy human community life. This is plain wrong and either a misunderstanding or an out-an-out attempt at distortion. Just because adults require independence of mind and a sphere of personal authority, which is secured by protecting their basic rights, it doesn't mean people do not greatly benefit from community life. There is little that's more satisfying than the associations people forge with their fellows: marriage, family, companies, teams, choruses, orchestras and myriad others.

Alas, there is one way of forming communities that is unsuited to people: coercively, when they are herded into groups they do not choose based on their own understanding and goals - that is, by violating their rights. Prisons are such involuntary communities, and the only reason they are supposed to exist is to house people who refuse to live peacefully with their fellows.

None but the crudest defense of individualism omits that when individuals come together, much of what makes their lives worth living stems from their togetherness. And, yes, as children we are involuntary members of one community, the family, at least until we grow up and have free choice. That, indeed, is what parents and guardians ought to aim for when they raise children, to prepare them all for becoming competent, loving, responsible and adventurous independent adults.

Yet forcibly grouping people immediately undermines this by depriving the young of their opportunity to hone their skills at making decisions for themselves, decisions that are usually quite unlike the decisions others need to make. That's because we all are unique in many respects, while at the same time also much alike. As one of my favorite philosophers, the comic actor Steve Martin, put it in his novel "The Pleasure of My Company": "People, I thought. These are people. Their general uniformity was interrupted only by their individual variety."

Of course, much of this is evident from the history of the more Draconian and brutal attempts to make us all one, from ancient Sparta to societies in the 20th century. But, sadly, too many people hold on to the vision of human associations without remembering that the "human" must be very closely heeded when one embarks on community life.

Human beings, more than anything else in the world, are individuals, with minds of their own, which, however much they learn from others, must get into operation from their own initiative. While other beings are pretty much hardwired to do the right thing by their nature, our nature is that we must learn what that right thing is and then embark on doing it of our own free will. This, mainly, is the source of individuality.

Forgive me for bringing in a bit of personal history, but I do have some experience to draw upon here, having lived under communism for much of my early years. And my father was an avid fascist, supporting the Nazis. Neither of these political systems offer a promising community life; nor do communities that try to go just a bit in those political directions.

Human communities are, indeed, marvelous but only when they do not quash the human individual. When they do, when they try to compromise the principles of individualism, look out. They will try to lie and cheat and bamboozle since only in doing so can coercive community life be made credible. They will emphasize the fabulous goals and forget about the vicious means by which they propose to reach them, like conscript armies or schools or any other collective endeavors we are forced to join.

The American founders knew that the central public good is securing for us our rights. Everything else in society is to be done by individuals and voluntary groups, not the government. This false doctrine of entitlements, of positive "rights," fundamentally undermines their project.

Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Truncated "Liberty"

Tibor R. Machan

Some people seem to believe that when they aren't being directly oppressed, meddled with, intruded upon, interfered with and so on, they are then free. Americans often have this conception of being free because their various governments often leave them be. Only 40 percent of their resources is being taxed! Their bars can be open until 1 AM or even later in some places. Blue laws apply only here and there, on certain days. So, hurray, we are free!

And compared to people in many regions of the globe and to most eras of human history it is understandable that such relatively irregular forms of subjugation are misunderstood as forms of liberty. And maybe one ought to count one's blessings, given all this. Yet, it is very hazardous to mistake the permissiveness of some governments--of those who hold but may not always exercise legally backed power--for genuine liberty. Such liberty is indivisible. If some slaves got half a day off to do what they felt like doing while others in the neighboring plantation received only a couple of hours from their masters, the former were by no means free individuals, not by a long shot.

Genuine liberty means being in full control of one's life not being accorded the privilege of not always suffering the intrusions of one's oppressors. But, of course, oppressors are very likely to try to fool us into thinking we are fully free by not being on our case 24/7. And by always pointing out how much worse off are those in other ages and other lands. A good case in point is when one mentions the tax burdens of Americans. Defenders of heavy taxation in America routinely roll out their statistics about the rest of the world and how much more people are taxed in, say, Germany, France, Sweden and so forth. This is just like telling the slave with more hours to himself that he shouldn't complain. After all, those other in the neighboring plantations have fewer such hours.

But the point about liberty is that everyone--apart from violent criminals (which does include Bernie Madoff)--is owed every bit of it and no one is authorized to limit it, nohow, ever. It makes no difference that our oppressors are kinder and gentler, that they only nudge instead of bully, that they steal only a half rather than three quarters of what is ours. Sure, in comparable terms most Americans, but by no means all of them throughout American history, have been less subjected to the will of their governments than have people elsewhere and in different times but this only means that they need to be reminded more often that, no, they aren't really free, that they are being lured into thinking they are by folks who want to rule them with effective enough kids gloves.

Examples of this kind of ruse are all around us. Kids in school may be more or less bullied but even those who experience it in small doses shouldn't at all. It is no excuse that others are getting it good and hard, all of the time. So what if the German or French government intrudes on the citizenry there far more extensively than does the American on American citizens? It is a dirty trick played on human beings by those who wish to run their lives with little protest from them.

In public finance there is a trick well captured by the famous Laffer Curve. Up to a certain point people will tolerate being taxed and then, after that point, they won't take it any longer. So governments do well if they identify that point (not an easy thing because our tolerance level is not the same).

The same goes with oppression. Up to a point a great many folks will just sit by while governments run rough shod over them. And government thugs are good enough at gauging that point so they are left alone while they do their dirty business. Perhaps in time folks will learn to prize their liberty to its full value!

Sunday, June 28, 2009

The Subjectivist Paradox

Tibor R. Machan

Although most people encounter philosophy primarily in college, the discipline has a way of sneaking up on them elsewhere as well. A simple and familiar example is when one says that "Beauty is in the eye of the beholder," meaning that when one judges something to be beautiful or ugly one is just expressing how things seem to be to oneself. Making such judgments, the idea goes, is really impossible--at best they amount to stating what one feels or believes but without the possibility of proving it true. Indeed, by this account truth and falsehood do not apply to aesthetic judgments.

Some go much further and claim that all our judgments are of this sort, subjective or mere statements of personal outlook or preference, not of anything that could be true or false. Not just beauty but the ascription of any property is merely in the eye of the beholder. Although well represented throughout the history of philosophy, most people tend to shy away from embracing such a position directly. But indirectly they often endorse it, as when someone claims that "From his (or her) point of view, something is difficult or easy or whatever." As if the property of being difficult or easy where merely some personal aspect. Is tennis easy? Well, depends on your point of view. But even this is a relatively mild version of subjectivism.

The more global variety would claim that anything you think you know is really just imputed by you about the world and doesn't actually amount to knowing things at all. In short, objective or real knowledge is impossible, it's all subjective. So that no one is really wrong or right about what he or she claims, since that is all dependent on the subject's viewpoint--shaped by culture, race, geography, gender, age, or whatever.

In a atmosphere of multiculturalism this attitude is in fact widespread. And, oddly, it is widespread among educated people, so much so that it influences the policies of colleges and universities, even governments. But there is a problem with this, big time.

After all, the claim that everything--all judgments about anything at all--is subjective is itself aspiring to be an objective judgment. The subjectivist is, in fact, pretending, for a moment at least, to have escaped subjectivity! But if it is possible for the subjectivist to escape it, then why not for the rest of us and about a lot more than about how we know the world around us? Because what the subjectivist claims is that only he or she knows how the human mind relates to the world, namely, by imposing its categories or properties instead of by perceiving and understanding how things really are. So it is one's point of view that makes reality instead of reality being apprehended by one. (Of course, even if each of us does have the capacity to know the world as it really is it doesn't follow that we are going to succeed--many people don't care enough to know, are happy in their ignorance, or like their prejudices too much to figure things out correctly.)

This is a theory about the human mind, after all. As the British psychologist Bannister once wrote, a theorist “... cannot present a picture of man which patently contradicts his behavior in presenting that picture.” And that is just what a subjectivist does, presents a picture of the human mind which contradicts the behavior of correctly identifying the human mind (since correct means accurate, objectively true, the opposite of subjective).

OK, but of it? Why should anyone care about this outside of obscure philosophical discussions? Aside from the already mentioned issue of multiculturalism there is the problem of the relationship between members of different groups, religions, nations and so forth. If subjectivism is even remotely true, no mutual understanding, no tolerance, nothing that solves problems among us, either in our personal lives or more broadly, is possible. Everyone is stuck with his or her point of view which cannot be escaped. Tolerance, for example, is impossible since one cannot gain even a minimal understanding of what others believe, let alone might know.

In the end the only "solution" to the inescapable global human diversity would be power--some with a certain viewpoint will overpower the rest and impose theirs, no questioned asked. And that prospect is truly horrifying.