Thursday, September 03, 2009

What you "Owe to Society"

Tibor R. Machan

Sadly this is an ancient thesis that's being revived now in a country that was founded on denying it. The idea is well expressed in a recent book by Professor William E. Hudson, titled, The Libertarian Illusion: Ideology, Public Policy, and the Assault on the Common Good (Washington, DC: CQ Press, 2008). Hudson states, on page 43, that “The ability that any of us have to earn income and acquire wealth depends only partly on our own individual efforts. It relies as well on the operation of political, economic, and social institutions that make it possible for any of us to ‘earn a living.’ . . .Viewed in this light, those deductions from my paycheck can be seen as reimbursements to society for that portion of my earnings derived from social goods.” The very same idea has been championed for years by one of President Obama's favorite intellectuals, Cass Sunstein, for example in the book the latter co-authored with Stephen Holmes, The Cost of Rights: Why Liberty Depends on Taxes (W. W. Norton & Co., 1999).

Reimbursements to society! What a lie that is, given that society is nothing more than all of us together as individuals and that what we own, so long as we stole it from no one, ought to be left to each of us to allocate as he or she judges proper, not to the likes of the sneaky professor and his gang in centers of political power.

A long time ago it was the French father of sociology and avid champion of a huge system of socialism, Auguste Comte (1798-1857), who maintained that very same thesis. As he put it, in his book The Catechism of Positive Religion (Clifton, NJ: Augustus M. Kelley Publ., 1973),

"Everything we have belongs then to Humanity…[my system] never admits anything but duties, of all to all. For its social point of view cannot tolerate the notion of right, constantly based on individualism. We are born loaded with obligations of every kind, to our predecessors, to our successors, to our contemporaries. Later they only grow or accumulate before we can return any service. On what human foundation then could rest the idea of right, which in reason should imply some previous efficiency? Whatever may be our efforts, the longest life well employed will never enable us to pay back but an imperceptible part of what we have received. And yet it would only be after a complete return that we should be justly authorized to require reciprocity for the new services. All human rights then are as absurd as they are immoral. This ["to live for others"], the definitive formula of human morality, gives a direct sanction exclusively to our instincts of benevolence, the common source of happiness and duty. [Man must serve] Humanity, whose we are entirely" (212-30).

Both Comte and his contemporary followers--who, by the way keep calling themselves progressives even though what they advocate is about as reactionary as it could get--maintain the fallacy that because people made major contributions with their works to our lives--the scientists, artists, farmers, inventors, and the lot--we now are obligated to give up our resources, our labor, indeed our very lives, and let a bunch of our contemporaries whom we don't know and often have never met, decide what is to be done with it all. What a ruse this is!

In fact, of course, the contributions made by all those productive, creative folks of the past were not made with the provision that members of far off future generations will be held in bondage to them somehow, in consequence. And notice, the debt is not said be to those who made those great contributions, no sir. The debt is to be paid to these contemporaries who have done little or nothing at all for you and me other than to send out tax collectors to raid our more or less substantial wealth. All because, well, we didn't earn all the value of this wealth on our but had benefited from those folks from the past. (By that argument you don't own your health, beauty, talents, nothing you didn't produce on your own!)

Exactly why any of this should entitle this current bunch to any of what you and I and the rest of us they want to rip off have come by, whether by luck or personal effort, I cannot fathom. The argument they put forth, from Comte to Hudson, just does not prove any such obligation, none at all, certainly not to those who now collect the reimbursement--i.e., perpetrate the extortion, which is what it in reality amounts to.

I greatly enjoy the works of many artists and performers who have long since died, via old movies, reproduction of their paintings, music, literature, and the rest. I mean they literally keep thrilling me, as I listen, watch and read. Quite spontaneously I often wish I could shake their hands, hug them, thank them for having done so much that gives me pleasure in my life. (I am especially fond of the works of some novelist, musicians, actors, painters with whose work I have surrounded my life for decades.)

By what perverted line of reasoning, if one can even call it that, do the likes of Comte, Sunstein and Hudson make a claim on me in the name of these wonderful folks? Who on earth entrusted them with this job?

No one, that's who. They are trying to perpetrate an out and out ruse, that's what they are about. If one falls for their deception, they will have gained power and resources they certainly did not earn and do not deserve. And it will not be luck that landed them all of what they are attempting to gain from us but trickery, sophistry, and ruthless indifference to our own right to make the effort to carve out a decent life for ourselves.

I hope they do not win, at least not for much longer.
It's Not Capitalism, Stupid

Tibor R. Machan

When the economic mess came to light about a year ago, a good many friends of the welfare state and its full expression, social democracy (a type of socialism), seized the opportunity and claimed that it is all the fault of capitalism, of free market economics. James Galbraith, the political scientist son of the late John Kenneth Galbraith, a professor at the University of Texas, Austin TX, gave a talk in which he gleefully referred to the late Milton Friedman as someone who contributed to "the bust," hoping to get some laughs out of his audience at Chapman University where Friedman not only has a small bust displayed in the courtyard but whose president, James Doti, studied with Uncle Miltie. All because Galbraith believed, along with such luminaries as Princeton University Nobel Laureate in economic science and New York Times columnist Paul Krugman, that it is indeed the free market that's to blame.

One central flaw in this line of analysis, if one should even call such outbursts by that term, is the plain fact that there has never been any kind of full blown free market capitalism implemented in the United States of America. Among the many elements of the country's economy that clearly diverge severely from that system was slavery.

Under free market capitalism all persons in the market place must be free to trade, to sell and buy the valuables they own and no human being may be treated as anyone's property (other than, perhaps, one's own--in the fashion, as it is sometime put, self-ownership). Any kind of subsidy, a standard policy of various levels of American governments--whereby the government confiscates some citizens' resources and hands these to other citizens--violates the principles of the free market. Those from whom the resources are confiscated have lost their liberty to make use of them in their own market activities. Protectionism, which has been practiced in this country on and off from the beginning, is also a practice that violates free market principles, preventing citizens from the freedom to buy goods and services from abroad and forcing them to pay whatever domestic vendors ask for what they might have obtained elsewhere. And there are a great many other such breaches of capitalism that have been features of the American economy, including all those local restrictions of free trade that come from blue laws, various ordinances as to where one may build homes, businesses, etc.

Oh, you may say, but these are all results of democratic politicking and should not be objected to in a country like America where democracy is the method for determining public policy. Well, if so then at least admit, I would argue, that democracy has been trumping the free market system from the nation's birth, making the claim that there's has been rampant free market capitalism afoot here utterly false. Yes, compared to many countries across the globe and throughout human history, America has had a freer economic system. Before the birth of the USA most countries operated with a mercantilist system wherein the monarch and his minions decide on important social, including economic, matters--in science, religion, publishing, trade with foreign nations, etc. and so forth. So compared with that the citizens of this country obviously enjoyed more liberty (except, of course, those kept enslaved).

But just because of the relative greater economic freedom here, it is not true that there has been free market capitalism in America. In some regions of the economy freedom has been progressively eroded, such as in banking and finance which have become nearly nationalized under the rules of the central bank, the Federal Reserve system, since the early 1900s. Again, the point here isn't whether this was something right, just as the point about democracy in the political system isn't about whether that is just or proper. The issue here is only whether those who loudly blame the current fiasco on free market capitalism have any kind of case at all. And they do not.

Making references to the late Milton Friedman, as did Professor Galbraith, is also quite disingenuous because while the great economist from the University of Chicago did advocate a virtually fully free market capitalist economy, his recommendations were hardly followed and, instead, he was listened to mainly concerning certain technical monetary policies, rules laid down by the Federal Reserve. But following those rules by no means gave the country a free market economy.

The task of figuring out how various results are produced in a mixed economy such as America's is a difficult one. Many claim, of example--and not at all implausibly--that what largely brought about the current mess is the federal government's insistence that banks lend money to people who were utterly unprepared to repay it and how this policy spawned others, mostly in the financial markets, so that they led to the mess we now face. But whatever is the right explanation, it simply cannot be that free market capitalism cause it all since, well, there has not ever been free market capitalism in America, especially not in the financial sector.

Tuesday, September 01, 2009

Darwin's helpers

Tibor R. Machan

My familiarity with Charles Darwin's theory of natural selection as the driving force of biological evolution on earth comes mainly from some colleges courses I took many moons ago and my reading of certain recent books focusing on the controversy about whether Darwin's work is theoretically adequate for its purpose. In short, I am no expert. However, I do not doubt that creationism is no substitute since that view accounts for the same phenomena by way of a first big cause--God or some other creator--which then would need to be explained by some other creator, ad infinitum. And that has its own theoretical difficulties.

There are some matters, though, that Darwinians seem not to have dealt with satisfactorily, no doubt--theories like these which have so many aspects and cover so much territory, can always use updating, modification, improvement, etc., in light of new discoveries. Indeed, no such theory is ever complete, not until the end of the world arrives and nothing new will be forthcoming that will need to be integrated with it. That will be, as the saying goes, the end of the day when we can close the book for good. But until then it needs to be kept open.

I am curious, however, about how Darwinian evolutionary theory, even its most up to date version, squares with the efforts of many people to interfere with what they consider the natural world or, what I call, the wilds. If evolutionary theory is sound and natural selection drives all the living world, how would it work for people to interfere--say, by preserving endangered species or refurbishing meadows in the Scottish Highlands (where periodically old grass is replaced by people with new grass that's been cultivated by human beings for that purpose) or conservation or finding cures for maladies caused by viruses? Would such measures taken by people themselves amount to features of natural selection? But then wouldn't zoos and wildlife parks and keeping pets and, indeed, whatever happens by dint of what people do in the world count, also, as aspects of natural selection? Wouldn't it also mean that anything that happens is a feature of that process, be it untouched by people or a function of their intervention? People being part of the world interact with the rest of the world and by Darwin's account would need to be included in the evolutionary process whatever the result. If people wipe out whales, for example, well then that's natural selection. If they preserve the bald eagle, that too fits. Natural selection is what drives it all, so complaining about the loss of this species or another or cheering the recovery of another is like complaining about or rooting for some planetary motion or the shape of a galaxy.

I have asked around among friends who champion a strong Darwinian position, one that's supposed to take care of all the nooks and crannies of how the living world works, and I never find their answers very satisfactory. It is especially odd, for my money, that environmentalists fret and fuss about what happens, stuff they dislike, stuff they want to improve upon. What is going on here? Sure, whether the sun shines or not can be pleasing or not but certainly it has to be what it is, no one can be blamed, no laments make any sense, none that imply that things ought to go some other way.

Indeed, is criticism of human interference, the kind that supposedly causes global warming or climate change--or whatever the last term is that is used, by which human beings are roundly indicted for mishandling the wilds--even intelligible? Can one meaningfully criticize what has to be and cannot be otherwise?

Just thought I'd ask because some of this simply fails to hang together coherently and folks might like to think about that, especially when certain people, say Al Gore, tear into them--including into their businesses and corporations--so vehemently for doing what they shouldn't--or not doing what they should--be doing. But if it is all que sera, sera, as strong Darwinians argue, how could this kind of chiding make any sense at all--like chiding folks for how tall they are, their skin color or where they were born.

Go figure.

Monday, August 31, 2009

Egoistic Benevolence Anyone?

Tibor R. Machan

A popular, indeed highly respectable, view of ethics is that it's all about serving others. Even if this were true of ethics, it is seriously doubtful that those who preach the idea actually practice it. As the famous poet W. H. Auden put the point so adroitly, "We are here on earth to do good for others. What the others are here for, I don't know." Which pretty much points up how impossible the notion is that altruism is the ethics by which all of us must be guided in our lives.

Anyway, I have a practice that many might regard as altruistic but I don't believe it is at all. Whenever I travel in places teeming with tourists, I offer to take pictures of couples when I see them taking pictures of each other and seem to be missing out having pictures taken of them both together. I started doing this as far back as the late 60s when I first visited Europe following my immigration from there to the USA many years earlier. I went back and took trains all over the place, partly for fun, partly because I needed to kill time between my arrival and departure on the cheap charter flight I managed to book for myself. I was then going back to meet my mother who for the first time was permitted by the communists to come West to meet her family in Germany. I got one of those cheap flights and met her after not having seen her for about 15 years.

But between when my flight arrived and when I could finally meet with her, I had to wander around a good deal, and on the cheap--I couldn't really afford to be a proper tourist but had to settle for being a bit of a vagrant. I bought one of those passes on Europe's trains and went wherever the trains took me for a couple of weeks before i could meet my mother in Hamburg.

And it is while bumming around this way that I noticed how many couples kept taking pictures of one another but no one took pictures of them both. And it occurred to me that they might welcome some help in this matter and began to offer it all over the place--Paris, Lisbon, Monaco, Munich, Vienna. Tbilisi, Hong Kong and so forth. I rarely ever got off the train other than to walk around or to catch a street car and take it from where I boarded it all the way back there, a round trip, as it were.

In all these travels not only did I take in the sights--although I am not one who uncritically admires the palaces and castles and churches one can visit on such trips, given that I could never get rid of my apprehensiveness about how those got built in the first place, by a lot of serfs and otherwise oppressed folks in feudal systems--but often, actually rather spontaneously, offered to take pictures of those couples that hadn't a way to capture their memories on film together. As time went by, and I made trips to places like South Africa, New Zealand, Armenia, Greece, and so on and so forth--by this time mostly to make various presentations, give lectures, attend conferences, and so on--the practice of providing this photographic service became a routine, even a habit. Not the least because it was so much appreciated by those to whom I extended it. And even this late in the day, on my recent trip to Scotland and France, I continued it and found that most folks were very surprised at the offer and also quite appreciative. (Once in a while I have found the need to assure them that I am not going to steal their camera!)

Anyway, none of this is any kind of grand generosity, more of a minor gesture of friendliness in a world that's all too much filled with suspicion and hostility among people. As I mentioned, often it comes up spontaneously, without much deliberation, nearly second nature. And why not? It doesn't take all that much to stop and do this little favor to total strangers.

Unfortunately, some will make of it much more than it is, as if it showed how nifty altruism really is. But there is no self-denial, self-sacrifice, unselfishness in any of it, none. What it involves is a certain measure of thoughtfulness and generosity, OK. But then why not? Most folks are pretty nice so extending a bit of help to them even if not expressly wanted can do no harm and can brighten things up for them a bit. I figure, carry on!
Misanthropy Revisited

Tibor R. Machan

It seems to me that among too many scientists and champions of science there is a pointless misanthropy afoot, as if somehow to defend proper science against its pseudo variety one needed to take humanity a notch or two. It seems to be doubtless that human beings have special (enough) capacities, attributes, and so forth that classifying them as quite unlike all other animals known to us makes eminently good sense. Just take a few examples of what makes them so: it is human beings who do science, not dogs or orangutans or crows. It is they who build museums, produce movies, write novels, teach courses in anthropology and biology, etc., etc. Yes, people also are known to be quite destructive and, as Aristotle said some 2500 years ago, "If there is anyone who holds that the study of the animal is an unworthy pursuit, he ought to go farther and hold the same opinion about the study of himself." But while we are all animals, there is a lot that is quite different about people, different from other animals, and much of it is quite beneficial, even admirable at times. (Think of the works of Newton, Einstein, Mozart, Hugo, Degas, among others, in support of this point.)

In a recent essay, in the magazine Science News (8/29/09, p. 5) by science writer Bruce Bower about how crows use sticks, stones, etc., as tools, much is made of what crows can do as something that "has debunked the traditional view that tool use is a defining human characteristic." Unfortunately, no example is given of any traditional view Mr. Bower may have in mind but, in any case, the one that defines human beings by reference to the capacity to use tools is at most just one and certainly not the only traditional view. (Bower's subsequent reference to one of Aesop's fables in his essay--in support of a separate point--"in which a thirsty crow plunked rocks into a pitcher to raise the water level," indicates clearly that some traditional views see nothing odd about nonhuman animals using tools.)

Now, just because some traditional views elevate human beings toward some superhuman status, it doesn't follow that human beings do not in fact belong above many if not all the rest of the animals in the hierarchy of living beings. Who can reasonably deny that people do far more interesting and complicated things than at least the bulk of other animals? I mean, it amount to sticking one's head in the sand to deny this. And such self-imposed ignorance is quite unbecoming of scientists, even science writers. After all, the evidence shows, even in what scientists themselves, as well as science writers, do that people are special. But then so is an eagle in comparison with, say, a slug. Indeed, what is all too evident, as we look around and study the world, is that there is a great deal of diversity and among all the diverse living beings some have capacities to do far more complicated and indeed valuable things than do others.

I believe if writers like Bower concentrated more on reporting and avoided gratuitous polemics, Science News would be a better magazine of science. There is now altogether too much misanthropy in the world, including in too many science magazines! As to what human beings should be defined as, certainly at least one tradition states is that they are essentially rational animals, which means they survive and flourish mainly by their capacity for conceptual awareness, for thinking by means of complex ideas, theories, etc. And this does seem quite right, does it not?

Yes, there is a continuum involved here. But between what crows and other nonhuman animals can do a vast distance exists before one gets to what humans can, such as editing magazines, building museums, and running research centers in the great variety of disciplines Science News, among other magazines, covers.