Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Analogies aren't Identities

Tibor R. Machan

When some senators during the hearings on Sonia Sotomayor's nomination to the U. S. Supreme court compared judges to baseball umpires who call balls in or out, supporters of Judge Sotomayor were upset. They, such as Fred Kaplan of Slate, in his Op Ed column for the July 20, 2009, issue of The New York Times, noted that "laws are more complex than strike zones or foul lines, which is why the analogy between judges and umpires is so misleading."

The criticism Kaplan offers of the Senators misfires. When people use analogies, they are not maintaining either explicitly or implicitly that the analogous case is identical to the one they are attempting to explain. No one in his right mind thinks that referees are doing the very same work that's done by members of the United States Supreme Court--or indeed by members of other courts--as they rule on cases that come before them. What is true, however, is that there are elements to their ruling that are similar to the ruling made by umpires. In particular, when an umpire invokes the principle that balls that are outside the region prescribed by the game are unacceptable while those in are, a similar thing happens to when a justice invokes the U. S. Constitution to determine whether a position taken by a litigant before it fits within the principles of the U. S. Constitution (and other relevant documents, such as Supreme Court precedents).

So, of course, cases are far more complex than pitched balls. The point, however, is that just as in baseball the game's basic principles may not be ignored by umpires, so it is with the rulings of the judges and justices of courts. Otherwise the game and the law, respectively, become distorted. Since, however, some people do not like the principles of the U. S. Constitution, they are happy to distort them, consider them, as modern liberal legal theorists have said, part of a living document. By "living" they didn't mean to say it was some kind of biological organism--the Constitution is supposed to be, once again, analogous and not identical to living beings--but that it grows and changes and develops.

Unfortunately, for many such modern liberal legal theorists the U. S. Constitution is more like a cancerous than a living document--it can develop any which way, without rhyme or reason apart from what the judges and justices prefer (based on their own political, moral or pragmatic outlook). The Republican Senators who invoked the analogy of the baseball empire might have known that what they put forth would be jumped all over. This, after all, is a serious dispute. There are some serious people who believe that the principles of the U. S. Constitution are stable and lasting, while there are others who think they are now outmoded, even obsolete. Many conservatives and libertarians belong among the first group while modern liberals among the second.

One area where this is clear and indisputable is with regards to the Bill of Rights. For modern liberal legal theorists, in the main, the original Bill of Rights contains some but by no means all the rights they think human beings have. (Professor Cass Sunstein, the president's friend and strong ally, is one such theorist.) That is why they are so fond of Franklin Delaware Roosevelt's Second Bill of Rights, one that FDR tried to get the U. S. Supreme Court to adopt by packing the court with justices who would agree with him politically.

The original Bill of Rights lists mainly what are called negative individual rights, rights that amount to prohibitions of interference with the liberty of individuals. FDR's Second Bill of Rights lists some of these but mixes in a bunch of new "rights," now called positive. These are what give rise to entitlements. If one has the right, for example, to health care or some other provision of the welfare state, that requires positive action by others, action that will produce the provisions (work, property, creativity, etc.). Negative rights only require that people refrain from doing certain things, like murder, assault, theft, fraud, etc. They don't require service from others to someone. Positive rights, however, do.

The living constitution that modern liberals talk about--the one I have dubbed cancerous--has stripped the idea of individual rights of its original function (e.g., in the thinking of the famous theorist of natural rights, the philosopher John Locke) to fend off government interference, to contain or limit government to certain specific powers. This is just what modern liberals don't want--consider the questioning during the hearings by the new Wisconsin Senator Al Franken who wanted to drive home the point that any powers Congress asserts for itself ought to be granted and not revoked by the U. S. Supreme Court.

So the analogy is a vital one but not because baseball umpires do exactly what judges and justices do--or vice versa--but because in both cases certain basic principles are supposed to guide judgment.

Monday, July 20, 2009

My American Dream

Tibor R. Machan

Now and then one hears or reads reference to "the American Dream," as if there was just one such thing. In fact, however, what is uniquely American is just that Americans are supposed to be free to dream their own dreams, pursue their own happiness as they understand it, instead of falling in line with what some elite or the government declares to be everyone's prime concern.

Very loosely the American dream refers to a certain measure of prosperity, including home and vehicle ownership, along with what makes this possible, namely, a decent line of work, a productive job. These are broadly enough definable so that they do not amount to a one-size-fits-all idea for one to have to buy into. Just like happiness, to the pursuit of which all human beings have a right (as per the Declaration of Independence), the American dream can vary enormously from person to person. It is, however, the American dream because of that very fact, while the dreams of citizens elsewhere tend to be forced or nudged into alignment with the dreams of their political or cultural leaders.

When I first came to the United States of America, I was 17 and a half years old and was very involved in learning about America. I did this even before arriving here, mostly by reading novels by the likes of Zane Gray, Erle Stanley Garner, Mark Twain, and others who were famous among the young even outside of the country. Thinking back on it, I cannot identify any one thing that the novels of these authors agreed on would qualify as the American dream. Certainly nothing specific, nothing concrete. At most they conveyed the notion that in America men and women prize their liberty and prefer taking on the job of governing their own lives as they see fit. Yes, if this is meant by the American dream, there was something like it in the air wherever one came across Americans and their stories, real or fictional. It seemed to me back then that Americans stood out by not concerning themselves with following the herd, with doing routinely what their neighbors did, with reaching some kind of standard of life considered to be the average or mean. They had their own standards of success, or at least they projected this as Americans. And that is one main reason I set my eyes on coming to live here. The envy-driven concern about equality just seemed absent here, while it dominated the countries under the thumb of the Soviets, for example.

Sadly much of this has changed. Now talk of the American dream tends to imply wanting everyone to be equally well of as everyone else is, the dream of egalitarianism. If some have it very good, well, then it's unjust that others don't. Never mind setting out on one's own path, as an artist, engineer, banker, architect, soldier or whatever, because one of those fulfills one's personal aspirations. That would be the old version of the American dream, at least as I understood it.

But truth be told I and others like me who came here from abroad, even from such hell holes as the communist countries were, didn't worry much about some American dream, not if it had anything to do with some one-size-fits-all blueprint to be implemented in one's life. No, it was mostly all about doing what one wants to do, pursuing one's personal dream, one's own, if you will, American dream. And respecting the rights of others do likewise.

Of course America didn't quite live up to this more sensible rendition of "the dream" since many were still disenfranchised, even oppressed, who lived here. But comparatively speaking America made plenty of room for the pursuit of one's dream and still does, judging by how many millions across the globe want to come here to live and work even in the mids of difficult economic times and how many want its institutions emulated. No doubt, there is ample dissent afoot about this, as well. And some would actually embark upon remaking America according to the dictates of certain religious books and leaders. Even while they see the value of economic opportunity in this country, they do not connect it with its basic political philosophy of individualism and individual rights.

For me living my own American dream will do just fine, even if others want to impose something quite different. I just hope my children and indeed all children will still find it possible to do this in the future.
Health Insurance and Collectivism

Tibor R. Machan

Anyone who grasps the political big picture must have figured out that President Obama and his team of so called liberal--but really, social--democrats are collectivists of the first order. For them society is a large bee hive or ant colony, and they are convinced that they have landed the job of the managers of this collective entity. It is a bit ironic, actually, since it is usually liberal democrats who, in America at least, champion "the right of privacy." That is the case when it comes to, say, abortion or sodomy which, of course, are arguably matters of private concern. (The difficulty with abortion is that there is no consensus in the country about when a human being comes into existence--whether, for example, a zygote or embryo or fetus is a human individual and thus has human rights.) Apart, though, from the right to privacy--say, a woman's right to choose whether to continue with her pregnancy or a couple's right to engage in any kind of peaceful sexual escapades--liberal democrats do not acknowledge the existence of individual rights. Most of all they are now nearly unanimous about denying that there are private property rights. (The exception is when it comes to publishing houses and the press. With reference to these they are willing to invoke property rights since that is the best way to ward off censorship!)

So when it comes to providing people with health insurance, liberal democrats dogmatically assume that "the wealth of the country" is for them to use and dispose of as they see proper. Individuals have no rights to their resources, income, or wealth, especially not those individuals who have plenty of these. Once you make more than $250K, say Obama & Co., the wealth is not yours but belongs to us all so society's managers may spend it as they see fit. Sure, there needs to be some decision process in Washington about how the spending will proceed. But the individual citizens who came by the resources, income or wealth--by hard work, good luck, or some other honest means--have no say. As the ailing Senator Teddy Kennedy put it in a recent communique from his sickbed, "Health care is a basic human right!"

Yet this only goes if health care were like liberty--all others need to do to respect one's right to liberty is, well, nothing. Their work would not need to be conscripted so as to ensure that others are not killed, assaulted, or robbed. Just leave them all be and make sure when you interact with them they give their consent. But this isn't how a right to health care or health insurance--and many similar so called entitlements of the welfare state--are secured. To provide people with health care doctors, nurses, hospital personnel, medical researchers, and drug manufacturers, among others, need to be at work and if they are to be compensated for this, the compensation must come from yet some other people's resources. Or, as the liberal democrats see it, from the common pool of the country's wealth. No one's wealth then is really confiscated because they don't own any wealth, only produce it for the commonwealth. Like a family or club or some other collective which is, however, usually held together by the voluntary agreement of all the members.

So for liberal democrats individuals have no property rights--not even rights to their liberty the exercise of which normally creates one's income, small or large. (This is why it is such an obscenity that liberal democrats have hijacked the term "liberal" which used to refer to individual freedom!) While they appear at times to care about rights--as noted above, the right to privacy is one they roll out in certain limited cases--this is by no means their general political stance. Instead, they seem to believe that we ourselves are the property of the country, even the government, which they may lay claim to whatever comes from us, be it work, thought, time, skills, or material resources. And if one insists that there is something awfully wrong with all this, they will insist that one is just being greedy!

When the novelist philosopher Ayn Rand was asked about whether it would be possible to form a political movement in support of a genuine free society her answer was, "It's earlier than you think." What she meant is that the people in this culture--not to mention others around the globe--aren't yet willing to embrace liberty. Too many people embrace, instead, the reactionary idea--not at all progressive, as the Left would like to have everyone believe--that we are all members of a tribe for which we owe unconditional allegiance. This despite the fact that America, of course, is just the country that was founded on the rejection of that outlook and built on the view that individuals are sovereign and everyone must accept this in a civilized country.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Is It All Luck?

Tibor R. Machan

Woody Allen has been peddling the idea that it's all a matter of luck (v. no luck). Several of his movies promote this idea--Match Point and Whatever Works are just two recent ones. Crimes and Misdeameanors is an early one.

Well, much may be luck or its absence but much also isn't. This is a case of what I called in one of my early books, The Pseudo-Science of B. F. Skinner (1973), the blow up fallacy. It involves taking a picture--i. e., considering--some small portion of the world or life and seeing it quite clearly but then making the leap of applying it to everything.

The blow up fallacy, also known by other names (hasty generalization, for example), is very tempting and widely committed, especially by erudite people--a good many economists, sociologists, biologists, and others like them. These folks know a thing or two about some part of the world--their own discipline, usually--and then claim that what they know about it is actually something they know of the entire world.

In this instance of its application, one may find that quite a few things are a matter of luck. Indeed, most of us have lucked out big time in some cases, as when while we turned around and talked to someone in the back seat of the car, no one crossed the street and so we didn't smash into anyone. Or, as in my own case, when a huge brush fire engulfs one's neighborhood, one's house is "spared." And so on and so forth, luck, just as its absence, plays a part in one's life, no doubt about it.

But that surely isn't the whole story. Consider Mr. Allen himself. Although even in the few published and broadcast interviews he has given he insists that it's all luck, the fact that he gets it together quite competently, even at times superbly, whenever he sets out to make his movies belies the point of view he is peddling. And as the British psychologist Bannister remarked about those in his own field, “... [one] cannot present a picture of man which patently contradicts his behavior in presenting that picture.” Woody just cannot claim that it is all a matter of luck when, in point of fact, hardly anything about his own work fits the bill.

Why then make this assertion? I do not know Mr. Allen and haven't some way to accessing the content of his mind, let alone his motivations, yet I venture to guess the reason may well be that he finds it awkward to take credit, just as all those academy award recipients do who wave off the compliment implied by the award they received show--or feign--humility. "No, it is not me, it's my mother, brother, second grade teacher and, of course, all the others associated with the movie!" Or something to this effect.

This calls to mind what W. H. Auden said in another context, namely, "We are here on earth to do good for others. What the others are here for, I don't know." This can be paraphrased, "We are here never to accept compliments, only others may, but then why may they but not us?"

It is, I venture to suggest, mainly a matter of being badly taught about how things get accomplished in this world. The eggheads tend to tell us that we individual persons are nothing to brag about, that it is dangerous pride to take credit, that humility is the name of the game. Never mind that they, the eggheads, tend to have great pride in producing insights like this, or at least they are superbly confident that they get it right! But then they themselves must be taking credit for how well they have figured things out. And if they can take credit for that, why not others for different achievements, great or small?

No, it is only partly luck. And even the part of it that is luck needs to be made good use of before it can be of benefit.
Logic a la Obama

Tibor R. Machan

By now few who pay attention can have missed President Obama's enthusiastic embrace of pragmatism, especially when it comes to the administration's economic policies. Nor is it a secret that nothing much the the President is proposing seems to be working. (To which the answer given by the Obama team is "Things could be much worse." Pretty much an unprovable proposition.)

But if one understands pragmatism at its most essential level, this all is quite easy to grasp. Not only does pragmatism include the denial of any basic principles in politics, ethics, and public policy. It goes much further than that.

Although it was the late Professor Richard Rorty, dubbed by most who knew his work a radical pragmatist, who laid out the position's wildest elements--e.g., that there is no truth apart from what one's community considers to be true, that what matters is solidarity and not rationality--pragmatism was wild way back when it was first invented. Among its wildest elements was the doctrine that logic itself is a mere human invention having no necessary relationship to reality. We elect to use logic but we could just as well use something else entirely.

This position, worked out in considerable detail by the American pragmatist philosopher C. I. Lewis, had some initial impact that showed just how wild it is. For quite a while in the early 20th century there were serious attempts to come up with what was referred to as alternative logics. (The most famous of these efforts was made by a Polish logician by the name of Jan Ɓukasiewicz. In 1917 he made some provocative contributions to logical theory, including that of multivalued logic, a logic in which meaningful statements may be other than just true or false.)

But so far as general philosophy is concerned, it is mainly the pragmatists who spread the idea that no basic principles can be identified in any discipline so what needs to be realized that the best that can be done is to find some heuristic guidelines, to discover whatever works (which is also the philosophically pregnant name of a current Woody Allen movie!). But since what works is always related to some goal--one thing may work to achieve this goal but not that--this did not settle matters much at all. No rational consensus could come from this.

Now all this is important when one considers that our current president is a well educated man for whom being a pragmatist doesn't simply mean being someone who "plays it by ear," the way the term is used in everyday language. No, a serious pragmatist is one who rejects the idea of basic principles in any area, so that no one can hold him or her responsible to be loyal to principles, to fundamental ideas. And this extends all the way to the most basic criterion for theoretical adequacy, namely, to logic.

Normally if a system of thought, including a proposed public policy, is to pan out, it has to be at least logical, internally consistent and complete enough within the context of the concern to which it is address (e.g., economics, public policy, etc.). But with the pragmatic take on these matters this requirement is dispensed with. Policies need not be logical! No consistency is needed. Just see if it might pan out somehow, anyhow, perhaps.

Consider the Obama policy toward health care reform. On the one hand it is supposed to contain, even lower federal health care cost. That is the president's first promise! But then we have the director of the COngressional Budget Office, Douglas Elmendorf, saying that no reduction in federal health spending is possibly forthcoming from the President's plan. And then when this is pointed out to Obama point woman Kathleen Sebelius on Meet the Press by the program's host, she waved it aside. And so she should, as a member of the Obama administration's pragmatic team players. A little contradiction just means nothing since contradictions are human artifacts, inventions anyway; they do not point to serious problems with an idea or policy proposal.

Perhaps you are now thinking of that famous quip by Ralph Waldo Emerson about how consistencies are the hobgoblins of little minds! But what Emerson actually said had to do with "foolish" consistencies, not serious ones, so that will not help here. The bottom line is that the country is now being administered by powerful people who have no interest in any principles, be these matters of ethics, politics or even logic. This is how these folks can remain entirely immune to all criticism!