Saturday, November 07, 2009

Corporation Phobia

Tibor R. Machan

It is not altogether new that business corporations are besmirched. This isn't some particular attack on a bad company but a general dissing of corporate commerce, by the likes of movie maker Michael Moore and, earlier (and still), by consumer meddler Ralph Nader.

Moore explained to Sean Hannity of Fox TV News that he is not so much against capitalism as against corporatism, crony capitalism, and so far so good--so am I and so are many who champion free market capitalism. This is because business corporations often gain favors from governments, in return for their support of political candidates. Corporate contributions to campaigns are quite staggering, yes, and they may well tip the balance in favor of their interests as legislators write laws and regulations.

But why stop with business corporations? Universities are no less eager to influence legislators and regulators and often are more successful since they tend to be more circumspect about seeking support. Science departments are perhaps the most unabashed about soliciting funds, always, of course, because of how important their work is to the public. But farmers aren't far behind, nor indeed is nearly every segment of society--e.g., museums, theater groups, etc.

In our day and age it is routine for groups seeking resources to go to the government for them, as well as to private donors. Few in the public sphere who enjoy widespread respect and clout make the point that these efforts amount to blatant rip-offs. To demand that ordinary citizens be taxed for the benefit of these institutions is crass extortion--the politicians can ask because they have clout and could hurt them all with various public policies.

Such rent-seeking, as economists refer to it, really is dirty pool--not much different from players or teams in various sports insisting that the referees rule in their favor and against their opponents even without any infractions, in return for some payoffs. Or those in court battles approaching the judge and jury to insist that they tilt in their favor for a bribe.

Those yielding to the pleas, however, are far worse, much more guilty of malpractice, than those extending them. It is, after all, officials of the game and of those who govern society who took an oath to stay loyal to their calling. And what is that? To uphold the rules fairly and, the case of the latter, to protect the rights of the citizenry without favor or bias toward any of them. But the very nature of our welfare state undermines that oath since it involves robbing Peter to support Paul, while those who are administering this corruption skim off a good share of the loot.

Yes, indeed, it is wrong for business corporations to receive funds and other kinds of favors from government officials but what is far worse is for those officials to hand these out to a select number or group of them. It is, after all, they who are going directly against what they swore to do, namely, uphold the U. S. Constitution (which demands that everyone be treated as equal under the law, equal as the government administers its rules and regulations).

But, of course, that goal cannot be served in a welfare state, especially not when resources are scarce. So corruption is built into the system from the start. But it isn't mainly due to the rent seeking of business corporations but due to the willingness--no, out and out eagerness--of politicians to be bought by segments of the citizenry.

What would be cool, actually, is if both Michael Moore and Ralph Nader, as well as their admirers, recognized that the bad guys are mainly those in power, the politicians and bureaucrats, not the citizens who, various grouped, are trying to get in on the game of wealth redistribution. Sure, the citizenry mostly supports this but politicians and bureaucrats not only are free to but have the responsibility to refuse their pleas for such support. Let them find it among other citizens who would be parting with their own resources, not that of the public.

Yes, yes, I am sort of dreaming but not a completely unfamiliar dream. It is really what the American Founders were trying to bring about. I am simply insisting that they were right.
Does our Background Count?

Tibor R. Machan

In its November 7, 2009 (Saturday's), issue The New York Times ran an editorial tutoring its readers in how they ought to ignore the background of the accused murderer of the soldiers in Texas. All that matters is what he did, not what groups he joined in the past. So, his being Muslim should be ignored and nothing should be concluded about any Muslims in the light of his actions.

Now this advice has a ring of truth to it except that it is wrong. Certainly not all Muslims may be suspected of bad intentions in light of what one Muslim does. Not without some additional information. Did the shooter's motivation stem from his Islamic convictions? Maybe a version of Islam, a radical variety, had something to do with how he felt or what he believed about his victims. If so, then his "background" certainly needs to be attended to. It all depends what aspect of his background one has in mind.

If someone's background includes having joined the KKK or the Nazis, and even the Democrat or Republican Party, surely it makes sense to consider this fact as one evaluates the person and consider what he or she is or was likely to do. Is this not the case here? Being a radical Muslim isn't like being black. It is what one chooses to be, like being a KKK member or indeed a member of any other partisan group. And as one M. D. Kruger put it, at The New York Times on line, warning about invoking the perpetrator's background, as The Times' editors did, appears to be no more than "the politically correct line." As Kruger goes on to say, "personally, I'm pretty tired of the same cast of very bad actors that never seem to include a baptist minister's wife, a disgruntled rodeo cowboy, a rogue Chinese food delivery man, a gay cake decorator or the Swedish consul general from San Francisco."

In any case, being Muslim is not something one was born to be, like being a woman or black or a New Zealander. No one can help these matters, so holding it against someone is plainly unjust. But when one is a Roman Catholic, a Republican or Democrat or Jew, these are associations in one's own power to enter into or the exit. If the convictions associated with such membership are morally or politically objectionable, it is perfectly sensible to consider them as one evaluates someone as a potential associate or friend or spouse. There can, of course, be some gray areas--most of us are brought up by parents who exert enormous influence on us while we are effectively helpless, including on what religion or politics we will have. But after a while a person is no longer captive of such influence and becomes fully responsible for either accepting or rejecting it.

Contrary, then, to The New York Times' politically correct mantra, it is quite appropriate to ask after a person's chosen convictions as one tries to understand what he or she did, why and so forth. As someone with very clear cut and strong positions on numerous issues, I am constantly being criticized for what I hold to be true. And very often the critics make no bones about their disdain for me, their considering me guilty for sticking with such views.

A radical Muslim, whose views promotes violence against innocent infidels, can also be held responsible and be blamed for the results of his or her convictions. And this should be pretty obvious, considering how millions of people blame their fellows for even just holding views espoused on Fox TV or by Rush Limbaugh or the editors of The New York Times. Or are we to accept the highly paradoxical notion that no one is responsible for what he or she thinks and for the actions that are guided by such thinking? I don't think that makes any sense--people aren't like parrots, having been trained by others to mouth opinions. They certainly have a hand in holding them (other than in the rare cases of having been brainwashed).
American Right Wing

Tibor R. Machan

When those on the political Left refer to defenders of the free market system as "right wingers," there is understandable concern about how the term is being abused. Classical liberals, the supporters of both economic and civil libertarianism, have been anything but "right wingers," quite the opposite.

In European political history the Right has been royalists, fascist, traditionalists, and even militarist, while the Left included mainly socialists, communists, and welfare statists. Those who champion free market capitalism do not fall within either of these groups because they tend, in the main, to oppose statism or the use of the government for purposes of problem solving. For the classical liberal the problems in a society are best addressed within the private sector.

In America the classifications are different because America's distinctive tradition includes classical liberalism. The right wing in the USA isn't mostly fascist or royalists but religious and traditionalist but since a central feature of tradition in American politics is classical liberal or libertarian, labeling champions of the fully free system "right wingers" makes a certain amount of sense. But it can also serve a dubious agenda of the Left, namely, to associate free market capitalism with right wing statism, as if the likes of F. A. Hayek, Milton Friedman, Ayn Rand, and so on had anything at all in common with fascists and royalists. (The Left here is very eager to make it seem that Milton Friedman "Chicago Boys" embraced General Pinochet of Chile rather than the other way around!) But the association serves the not so hidden purpose of smearing them in virtue of how the Right elsewhere does veer very close toward fascism and royalism.

In the current dispute about the vast and rapid expansion of the role of government in society, increasing government's scope by leaps and bounds, charging opponents with being right-wingers comes in handy. These opponents are indeed a coalition of libertarians and American conservatives because libertarians oppose statism on principle and also for a variety of practical reasons and American conservatives oppose it as a matter of the American political tradition--for example, the Declaration of Independence and the Bill of rights. But the American right is quite selective about embracing liberty. Mostly American conservatives support free markets but not so much civil libertarianism. On that score the American Left is more like the libertarians, although mainly for opportunistic reasons.

This is evident on how readily the American Left, along with others on the Left across the globe, supports the likes of Venezuela's strong man Hugo Chavez as well as Fidel Castro. In the case of these political figures, the Left abandons its apparent support for civil libertarian ideals, mainly because the American Left tends to share the revolutionary goals of other Left wingers around the globe and any revolution, Left or Right, would be slowed down by principled civil libertarian policies. So while civil libertarianism is useful for the Left as it combats general right wing measures such as those included in the more hysterical elements of the homeland security, it is likely to be abandoned once the Left gains power in the USA. For example, the White House's overt attacks on Fox TV news, or global warming skeptics, or its badmouthing of the opponents of Obama & Co.'s health care ideas--instead of doing honest debate with them--shows how little the American Left cares about civil libertarianism. Yes, opposition to George W. Bush's policies vis-a-vis terrorism suspects has the ring of civil libertarianism about it. But at bottom that does not seem to be the main reason for it. We can tell that from how readily similar policies by Leftist governments around the globe do not disturb many on the Left. Political categorization is not always easy and there are too many exceptions in nearly all instances of it. (A Left oriented public figure and commentator such as Nat Hentoff cannot be considered merely opportunistic about civil liberties!)

In America the category of "right wing" is complicated by the fact that the American political tradition is classical liberal, not at all royalist or fascist. But without making this clear, those who label their opponents right wingers capitalize on the fact that the Right includes racists and anti-Semites, thus giving champions of free market capitalism a bad name by including them on the Right.

Friday, November 06, 2009

On Responsibility and Ethics

Tibor R. Machan

The basic task of ethics is to answer the question, “How should I act?” “What standards apply to me as I conduct my life?” “What are the fundamental principles that I should follow?” Those are pretty much equivalent questions but the answers are extremely complicated and multi-faceted. There are a lot of thinkers who have answered it in very different ways.

Almost every major philosopher throughout the history of philosophy, east and west, has advanced an ethical theory or ideal; a theory about or ideal of how human beings should conduct themselves. This is one thing that philosophers do. Some even contend that ethics is but a branch of politics which is prior to it, although the opposite is how most view it today.

There are, however, also philosophers and other thinkers who deny that there is anything like ethics. In fact for many philosophers, as well as many social scientists and natural scientists, the entire field of ethics is bogus. It’s kind of like astrology--though I don’t want to step on any toes here but I regard it a bogus field--and a lot of social scientists and natural scientists feel the same way about ethics. There is no such thing as ought. Ought is an incoherent concept. There is no such thing because most of the time those skeptics about ethics deny that there is any choice we have about our lives that we can make decisions as to what we will do, and thus for them ethics is a non-starter (like astrology). But the bulk of philosophers (and I would say the bulk of human beings) have a concern with ethics and they take it seriously. They don’t dismiss it as bogus. They tend to think there is some answer to the question, “How should I act?” “How should I conduct my life?” “What principles should guide me?” I’m sure that’s true for many of you although some of you probably are skeptics about this.

One of the reasons that ethics arises for us (not uncontroversial) is that we don’t have instincts prompting us to behave as we need to in order to survive and flourish in our lives. Other animals (and I’m not going to get into the big debate as to whether there are some borderline cases) have these instincts, these hard-wirings, so that say, in winter they fly south. Human beings on the other hand have to figure out what they should do, how they should conduct themselves. When you’re a parent you have to make a choice too be a good one. The issue of what are the right things to do and what are the wrong things to avoid doing always faces us. That is what editorials are about, that is what all the plays and novels are about. Almost anything interesting in life tends to revolve around ethics.

Responsibility underlies any school of ethics whether utilitarian, altruist, egoist, Aristotelian, Kantian, Christian or Hindu. However one answers the question, “How ought I conduct myself?” the issue of responsibility is central. What does it mean?
There are many uses of the word responsibility. Sometimes crop failures are ascribed to the weather so the weather is responsible for them. Buildings collapse because of earthquakes so earthquakes are responsible for them. In this sense what we mean by responsibility is merely that these are the causes of certain happenings. Some things happen because of this or that.

There's a relationship between this use of the term “responsible” and the one that bears on ethics, a controversial one, because in the case of human beings, ethics tends to assume one of the most contentious ideas, namely, that human beings have what's usually called free will, that we can act one way or the other and it is up to us how. It is one of the earliest ideas of ethics in any region of the world whether it’s east, west, north, or south. Wherever people write about ethics, it is understood that we have to do the right thing of our own free will. You don’t have to be an academic philosopher to appreciate that when human beings worry about their lives they worry about something over which they believe they have a say. Both ethics and morality concern themselves with right as distinguished from wrong conduct.

The famous German philosopher Immanuel Kant coined a motto, “Ought implies can.” It just means that if you ought to do something, it has to be something that you can do. It is nonsense to say you ought to jump 30 feet into the air unassisted because that is impossible. You couldn’t very well have a moral responsibility to do the impossible. But not only must one be free to do the right thing so that one isn't not compelled one way or another but what is the right thing to do has to be knowable because obviously if there is no answer to the question, “what is the right thing for me to do?” or “what ought I to do?” then one can’t do it. So if ought does imply can, then it also requires that there be some standards of proper conduct, of proper behavior.

Moreover, if one ought to do one thing rather than another, one may not be forced to do it. Forcing people to do the right thing, other than to abstain from interfering with others, renders them morally impotent. People have to be free and there has to be some standard by which their conduct is to be evaluated. Otherwise there is no ethics.

Ethics is bogus without responsibility and liberty, if you cannot be free to choose the right course and if you cannot determine what the right course is.

Sunday, November 01, 2009

A Bit of Nietzsche Will Help

Tibor R. Machan

A distinguishing feature of Nietzsche’s thought was that he believed humankind needed to overturn the old, mostly theological ethics and transform values to something new. He didn’t say what that would have to be but since he identified Christian ethics with radical altruism, advising us all to live for others first and foremost, it is not unreasonable to conclude that he was thinking of a less misanthropic morality than altruism is, the view that involves “…assuming a duty to relieve the distress and promote the happiness of our fellows.... Altruism is to ... maintain quite simply that a man may and should discount altogether his own pleasure or happiness as such when he is deciding what course of action to pursue.” W. G. Maclagan, “Self and Others: A Defense of Altruism,” Philosophical Quarterly 4 (1954): 109-127.

Does morality need to be reconceived? If one considers what horrible deeds have been perpetrated in the name of serving others, there is little doubt that morality needs a serious reexamination. All the major tyrannies have been perpetrated in the name of making us serve others instead of ourselves. Every call to submit to czars and tyrants goes hand in hand with the idea that everyone needs to serve something bigger than himself in his life! That would be God or society or humanity. The individual certainly comes off as deserving little love from himself. From commencement speeches to sermons and political oratory galore, one's self doesn’t much matter, only other people do. As the poet W. H. Auden quipped, “We were put here on earth to serve other people, what the other people were put here for I don’t know.”

Altruism made a little sense when original sin had been a serious idea and from childhood on each of us seemed to be in need of socialization. Then came the materialists, like Thomas Hobbes—and later Freud—who also claimed we all serve ourselves first and foremost. To counter this egotism it made sense that people needed to be taught to be generous and charitable before anything else.

But the original sin notion is without any foundation at all—how could a baby come into the world already guilty of having sinned? And the idea that we automatically serve our own selves is demonstrably false—the world would be a pretty good place, all around, if it were true. The real story is, instead, that we don’t have a built-in disposition to be selfish or selfless. We come to be one or the other or something in between as we grow up.

So given the pervasiveness of altruism as the preferred ethics of theologians and philosophers, as well as many novelists of note—just consider Graham Green’s protagonist’s claim that “None of us has a right to forget anyone. Except ourselves” (in Looser Takes All [Penguin, 1993, p. 51])—Nietzsche’s advice seems sound. Along with the political revolution that ushered in the abolition of slavery and involuntary servitude and undermined the case for monarchy and other types of statism, it is time to revamp morality too. A healthy ethical egoism—as laid out by, say, David L. Norton in his brilliant Personal Destinies, A Philosophy of Ethical Individualism (Princeton, 1976) and even earlier, by Ayn Rand who argued for a neo-Aristotelian ethics, in her The Virtue of Selfishness (Signet, 1964) whereby a robust selfishness is the proper morality for human beings—is probably very timely by now.

Sadly it has to be noted that, despite the clarity of both philosophers' prose, the selfishness of Norton and Rand is unlike the economic man type, which is not a moral thesis at all but an attempt to describe what motivates us all, all the time (along the lines Hobbes laid down). The neo-Aristotelian selfishness, one that implores everyone to strive to be a happy individual, acknowledges that human beings are social—belong to families, communities, fraternities, etc.—and to strive for one’s own success in life must involve the social virtues as well as the personal ones—generosity and compassion, not only prudence and ambition. With such a morality at hand, the human race would be in far better shape than it is with all the scolding it receives for not being selfless enough.