Saturday, August 01, 2009

Dismissing Your Thoughts

Tibor R. Machan

When I entered college, after a four year stint in the US Air Force, I discovered that a great many intelligent people commit what is called the genetic fallacy. As the entry in Wikipedia puts it, this fallacy is committed when "a conclusion is suggested based solely on something or someone's origin rather than its current meaning or context. This overlooks any difference to be found in the present situation, typically transferring the positive or negative esteem from the earlier context."

Whenever I would voice any of my views about politics, economics, child rearing or whatever, these folks explained it away by my origins, my having been born and raised in Budapest, Hungary, then a Soviet (communist) satellite. Everything I thought and said was deemed to have been caused by my background.

This approach to understanding what people think and do has one very serious problem: the person's views who is doing the explaining would then also be subject to such an explanation; indeed, the explanation would have to be considered caused by that person's background. In the 20th century such a way of coming to understand people became very popular, mainly because how so many people were taken by Sigmund Freud's doctrine of unconscious motivation. By Freud's account, most of what we think and do is so motivated and our explicit convictions and claims to understanding can be pretty much dismissed. Notice how this undermines Freud's own views!

I always had personal misgivings about having my own ideas treated along these lines since they made my own thinking, reasoning, research and such all irrelevant--all that counts is where I was brought up and by whom. No one need actually come to terms even with any arguments I put forward since they have no impact on my thinking and conduct. (Karl Marx had a similar idea with his economic determinism according to which what people think is due to the economic circumstances in which they live! Once again, this would seem to undermine his own ideas but Marx was at least aware of this and tried hard to exempt himself by claiming that unlike all others, he had a proper methodology for figuring things out which made him immune to economic determinism.)

When I got to graduate school I read a wonderful book by Leo Strauss, Natural Right and History (U. of Chicago, 1953), which fully supported my own rejection of any of the many uses of the genetic fallacy. Strauss found it very objectionable that so many historians of ideas would study Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Aquinas, Descartes and most other major philosophers by attributing their views to the environmental influences on them. Sure, at times this is a valid point to make but it needs showing in each particular case, not simply assumed about everybody.

In 1962, before I entered college, I had a half hour meeting with the novelist philosopher Ayn Rand whose novels I encountered in the Air Force and liked a lot and I said to her something like, "Maybe the reason I like your books so much is that like you, I too escaped to the West from a communist country." Rand very politely objected saying, in effect, her novels and the ideas in them spring mainly from her mind and her careful reflections, not from her environment. She observed that her aim is to make points that hold for human beings, not just for her and others who escaped from tyrannies.

Over the last couple or so decades several biographies have appeared about Ayn Rand. The one that I think largely respects Rand's and Strauss's points about how to understand a thinker is Barbara Branden's The Passion of Ayn Rand (Doubleday, 1986). The other two, one by Dr. Chris Matthew Sciabarra, Ayn Rand, The Russian Radical (Penn State University Press, 1995), and the just completed Ayn Rand and the World She Made (Doubleday, 2009), by Anne C. Heller, both give an account of Rand's life and thinking mostly by reference to her history--her childhood circumstances and upbringing.

It seems, however, that these authors do not fully appreciate that if they deal with Ayn Rand this way, they, too, invite being so treated--what Sciabarra and Heller say can then be simply explained away as coming from their own upbringing. And that means the issue of whether what they say is true is moot.

I hope that someone outside her own circle of admirers would someday write a book about Ayn Rand that approaches her in her own terms--examining whether her ideas are sound, not what caused them.

Friday, July 31, 2009

Real Economic History

Tibor R. Machan

Although I am no historian, I do have an interest in what happened and why, especially involving big economic events of the past. One such event is the Great Depression. I just attended a superb week long conference, Cato University, where not only did I present a couple of lectures of my own, n the field of political philosophy but listened to quite a few others mainly about history.

Usually I am surrounded by writings and broadcasts that fawn over President Obama's policies and the philosophical and economic ideas surrounding them but this time I spend an entire week during which extremely knowledgeable people presented carefully reasoned analyses about some other periods of American history during which the American and indeed the world economy was going through various gyrations and people were, as usual, blaming it all on "greed" and freedom just as many mainstream, Obama supporting commentators do today.

I will not attempt to reproduced what I heard and learned but I do wish to recommend at least one piece of reading material that could, if paid close attention to, set the record straight about how America got into its various economic messes. I have in mind Professor Robert Higgs' path breaking Crisis and Leviathan (Oxford University Press, 1987). This book is a real gem. It shows with extensive research and analysis that those running governments repeatedly--and often deliberately--take advantage of economic troubles so as to amass power and once the troubles have subsided rarely return the power to their populations. Instead they hoard it.

Some of the lectures I heard included power point presentations and it was fascinating to see direct quotations and sometimes video and audio records of major government officials being openly gleeful about how the current economic fiasco provides them with the chance to grab power. They didn't even think of disguising their opinions but declared unabashedly that this is a great time to take advantage, for all those who like meddlesome government.

Something else that was clear from many of the lectures is that a great many people in American government, both at the time of the New Deal and now, reject completely the ideas and ideals of the major American Founders and believe, with the likes of Alexander Hamilton, that America should be a top down political system, a monarchy. Hamilton, you see, was disappointed when George Washington would not allow himself to be appointed king of this country, as were many who stood with Hamilton and wished that America simply took on the form of government of Great Britain. All this stuff about individual rights, based on a foundation of a mostly unchanging human nature, didn't set well with these folks back then, just as it doesn't sit well with Obama's team of legal theorists today (such as Harvard Law Professor Cass Sunstein). Such people denied then, and do now, that individuals have any rights except the privileges granted to them by administrators of governments (just as in the past such people believed that it is the king who hands out privileges, selects the favored in the population, with no regard to anything like natural, individual rights).

In one of my own lectures I laid out how the Lockean theory of individual rights presents us all with bulwarks against tyranny by requiring the limitation of governmental powers. Because of this revolutionary theory, based on Locke's excellent understanding of human nature--our nature as morally responsible beings, not mere puppets of the state--the U. S. Constitution laid out a very limited set of powers for government and recognized that it is citizens who have sovereignty, not states. Accordingly, government may only deal with certain tasks in a society, ones assigned to it by a process of the consent of the governed--mostly how to fend off criminals and foreign aggressors--and must leave all the other projects that are to benefit the people for the people themselves to handle in mutual peace, never coercively.

Just now, of course, this idea is not even given the slightest respect by Obama & Co. When, for example, Obama claimed that all economists agree with him about the need for a massive stimulus, some researchers at the Cato Institute produced a document with the names of about 250 respected professors of economics from universities and colleges around the country who disputed the wisdom of the stimulus. This flatly contradicted Mr. Obama's claim, yet he never acknowledged the existence of these scholars and kept repeating the lie about how there exists a consensus about the economic wisdom of his stimulus plans.

What was especially fascinating about the historical lectures at Cato University is that they showed that the same kind of preverications dominated previous episodes of economic crises even though in every case the cause of them was widely known to be earlier government malpractice. Despite this, the lies are now repeated by some of the most prestigious academic cheerleaders of Mr. Obama's policies!

I only wish everyone in this country could attend an event such as Cato University. It might contribute to the rescue of the country from the control exercised by people like Mr. Obama who are nearly certain to cause more mischief than produce anything sound and useful.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Sound Revolutions Rest on the Past

Tibor R. Machan

The idea may appear to be an oxymoron but it isn't. The seeds of a sound revolution do not come out of a vacuum. Although the American Founders did upend the previous practice of entrusting countries into the hands of monarchs, czars, and other potential despots, the roots of the individualism with which they achieved this were already in place.

It all came out of the idea of personal responsibility, something the ancient Greek philosophers, Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle--as well as some less well know ones, such as Alcibiades--embraced and championed. There was, however, a disjoint afoot. Only ethics, the concern about how persons ought to act, was influenced significantly by the notion, not politics. At least not much of it. The morally virtuous life championed by these thinkers had been individualist--after all, to be morally virtuous had to be something that individuals had to choose. There is no ethical life without choice. Aristotle, who is often said to have been a kind of communitarian in his politics was, in fact, an individualist when it came to ethics. Moral virtues such as prudence, honesty, generosity, courage and even justice--more a political than an ethical virtue--depend for their practice on individuals thinking and acting right. Being forced to be virtuous is indeed an oxymoron--ethics presupposes free choice, a free will on the part of the agent.

But while this ethical individualism had been strongly suggested way back then, the corresponding political individualism lagged behind. One may assume this to have been one result of, among other things, a great deal of tribal thinking--people tended to worry mostly about their group's survival, which was the main if not only approach to personal survival. (In time this changed but habits die hard!) And the ethical demands placed on people were already substantially individualistic--they were responsible personally, as individuals ultimately, to do the right thing and blameworthy if they failed to do it.

However, this came into conflict with the demands of politics which often put citizens into a position of subservience. (Sparta was the quintessential case in point.) Nonetheless, this element of ethical individualism--so well discussed by the late David L. Norton, in his superb book, Personal Destinies, A Philosophy of Ethical Individualism (Princeton University Press, 1976)--eventually bloomed into the social and political individualism that the American Founders laid down as the foundation of their new country. Yes, it was revolutionary but, no, it wasn't without earlier philosophical foundations.

The problem is, of course, that the political collectivism of the past keeps resurfacing whenever people turn to politics, especially in scary times like now. The teachings of the Founders haven’t managed to thoroughly sink in, so that many people still believe that politics cannot be individualistic especially in times of trouble, even if in fact only an individualist politics will help them out of their messes.

Many misguidedly think that in scary times solutions have to be socialist, communitarian, social democratic, or some other modern version of collectivist--and thus coercive—public policy, instead of the classical liberal idea of limited government that rests on a social, economic, legal and other form of individualism.

Still, over time the individualist, classical liberal political economy has shown (to anyone who pays close attention) that it really is the best way to handle problems of human community life. The public good is indeed what the American Founders believed, the protection of the basic rights of individuals. Yes, there is such a thing as the public good or interest but it is limited to providing everyone with the protection of his or her rights to life, liberty and property. Other problems can best be solved when this appropriately limited public good is secured and not when governments assume responsibility for everything.

The truth of individualism is not that nothing but individuals matter but that they matter the most. So whatever else matters must not interfere with the conditions that make their flourishing possible.
Affirmative Actions & Related Collectivisms

Tibor R. Machan

The Obama regime is not very difficult to figure out because Obama & Co. have a very straightforward collectivist outlook. For example, they are evidently determined to even the score between white and black Americans. Since back then the whites--or a lot of them--did blacks very wrong, it is time to do whites very wrong at the hands of blacks--or at least some blacks. Slavery and segregation weren't malpractices by certain, many, white individuals but by the white race. And now this race needs to pay. It is all very tribal, like virtually every other issue Obama & Co. deal with.

This is not simply a mistake on this or that score, like laying in on the police in Boston because one has done something in the Henry Louis Gates episode that Mr. Obama considers unjustifiable. Indeed, because a black person, an eminent one at that, had a confrontation with a white one, a police officer who believed he was doing his duty, the details don't matter. Even if Mr. Obama was ignorant of the details, as he admitted he was, what matters to his tribal mentality is just that one of the people was black, the other white. Or so it appears from everything known about the situation.

For collectivists individuals don't matter, groups do. For some it is the entire human race that is of sole concern, for others it is members of a given race or nation or ethnic or some other smaller group. Collectivists have an explicit doctrine about this, no one need to be guessing. Individuals are figments of our social imagination. They exist no more than do cells in our bodies exist as independent, sovereign entities. Sovereignty, the right of self-government, belongs only to the group. You and I and the rest of individuals are parts or elements, just as ants are in an ant colony or bees in a bee hive. The colony or the hive matters. This is why collectivists always fret about society or community. For them these are not what people individually choose to be part of, no way. These are what all "individuals" literally belong to.

Apart from Karl Marx and Auguste Comte of years gone by, in our own time the most powerful advocate of this point of view is Professor Charles Taylor, who teaches philosophy in Canada (last I knew he taught at McGill University). Among his followers, either explicitly or implicitly, are several of the more famous people on the Obama team such as the recently appointed regulation czar Cass Sunstein, a very prolific and inventive legal theorists who is now a professor at the Harvard Law School (probably on leave while working with Obama). Among his latest ideas is to restrict expression on the Internet because much of it amounts to rumors and derails the discussions he wants for us to have. His forthcoming book, On Rumors: How Falsehoods Spread, Why We Believe Them, What Can Be Done, makes no bones about the need for supervision of the Web. Recently he and a co-author laid out the theory of nudging, whereby government is supposed to manage the citizenry via subtle, difficult to detect prompters that regulators would put in place in line with the purposes of the executive branch.

Collectivism is, of course, false--people are, in fact, individuals and when they are members of groups this is largely of their own doing. And they normally enjoy the exit option, unless constrained by other individuals. And these other, power hungry individuals always choose to represent themselves as speaking for the group. That is exactly the style of Obama & Co. That is why most of the time he speaks of public policies he insists on speaking as "we" and not as "I". But now and then the I does slip out, as when the president tells his audience that "I want health care [or insurance or whatever] reform by such and such a date." The dictatorial tone is unmistakable.

The individualist revolution that overthrew the earlier versions of collectivism (such as czarism and other forms of monarchy--which, oddly, were more honest than the current types) is still struggling to make its mark. And just now it is experiencing a serious setback. Only the proverbial eternal diligence will resuscitate it.