Saturday, December 05, 2009

Sanity from Science

Tibor R. Machan

Despite its unabashed and relentless championing of ripping off taxpayers for any and every scientific or technological project, Science News is still mostly an educational publication, a little magazine that comes around with the most up to date news about what the various sciences have discovered lately. (I have been a reader for I cannot remember how long, even had some letters published in the magazine's pages. But recently I have been bothered by how eagerly the editor turns to government for funding science instead of relying on research and development money from the private sector.) Still, as I say, nothing else quite manages to make the various sciences so accessible to an amateur like me.

Furthermore, there is at times talk in the pages of Science News that warms the tabernacles of my heart. Take the following, for example, from December 17, 2009, issue:

"New observations establish a supercluster centered on the cluster CL0016+16 as the largest galactic congregation ever found, astronomers report in Astronomy & Astrophysics. The supercluster extends even farther than previously thought, and it’s drawing in more and more galaxies. CL0016+16 lies about 6.7 billion light-years away from Earth. That cluster was first observed in 1981, and later observations hinted that it might be just one of a cluster of clusters. Observations by David Koo of the University of California, Santa Cruz in 1996 pointed to a large structure extending from the main cluster.

“'There are many predictions for large-scale structure in the universe, but nobody has really confirmed that this large-scale cluster exists in the distant universe,' says Masayuki Tanaka from the European Southern Observatory, a coauthor of the new report. 'We actually see this massive structure in the distant universe. Not theory, not prediction — this is the real universe'.” [my emphasis]

Why would this be so gratifying? Because in the philosophy of science there has for a very long time been a movement according to which scientists do not make discoveries but, instead, produce inventions; the various items of the different sciences are said by some of the most prestigious philosophers of science to be no more than theoretical entities, which means, entities only in the collective mind of the scientific community. Philosophers such as Berkeley and Kant, as well as more recent ones like the recently deceased Paul Feyerabend, have been on the side of the devil, for my money, by proclaiming what is best described as the anti-realist conception of the objects of scientific study. Out of this inter-subjectivist movement have emerged some rather bizarre ideas, indeed. One that always gives me trouble is that there are multiple universes and that even possible universes are in some way just as real as is, well, the universe in which we live and have had our history evolve. (But "the universe" means just that, everything that is, so "other universes" is nonsense.)

Then there are some other philosophers of science who have claimed that logic has nothing to do with reality at all--the most famous of these was Columbia University's Ernest Nagel who in 1944 wrote the seminal paper, "Logic Without Ontology," that rejected any firm relationship between reality and logic, a view that rejected Aristotle's, that of the ancient philosopher most responsible for developing logic as a method for guiding us toward an understand of reality. (It does so, indeed, because its bases are the most fundamental laws of reality!)

The anti-realist movement in the philosophy of science hasn't managed to purge all realists, especially not among working scientists as distinct from philosophers of science. But even the working scientists have tended to follow the ideas of, for example, the late Thomas S. Kuhn whose book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (University of Chicago Press, 1962) made a huge splash and made the term "paradigm" part of both ordinary and technical English language. Kuhn went so far as to claim that scientists do not discover or know a world but create one each time a revolution occurs (such as Einstein's relativistic [which overthrew Newton's mechanistic] physics).

So, it is quite rewarding to read about a scientist who comes right out and talks about "the real universe." In my view this is the right way to understand the world and the more scientists who testify as did Masayuki Tanaka above, the more responsible and relevant will science be in all fields.

Friday, December 04, 2009

A Bit of Good News

Tibor R. Machan

It came from New York State, that bastion of modern liberalism and American statism (Senator Chuck Schumer's fiefdom)! As The New York Times reported on Friday, December 4, 2009, "In a 3-to-2 decision, a panel of the Appellate Division of [NY] State Supreme Court in Manhattan annulled the state's 2008 decision to take property for the [Columbia University] expansion project, saying that its condemnation procedure was unconstitutional." And how right that is! The Times goes on reporting, "The majority opinion was scathing in its appraisal of how the 'scheme was hatched,' using terms like 'sophistry' and 'idiocy' in describing how the state went about declaring the neighborhood blighted, the main prerequisite for eminent domain."

Not that this has the legal capacity to undermine that equally sophistic and idiotic ruling by the U. S. Supreme Court back in July 2005, in the case of Kilo v. City of New London, CT, where the good city fathers condemned private property so as to lease it to some big prospective tax payer (a scheme that ended with the property lying there unused to this day). But it may just slow down the perverted progress of the reactionary use of eminent domain law, placing a small monkey wrench in that evil bulldozer.

Private property rights are the bedrock of a bona fide free country. Just for starters, the rights to freedom of religion and the press directly depend on it--if private property can lawfully be taken by state agencies, based on spurious, subjective grounds like blight, any religious or journalistic practice not approved of by state agents becomes vulnerable to censorship or worse. The right to private property, if respected and competently protected, renders it possible for the right to liberty to be secure in innumerable realms. Liberty's legal defense requires it. With such a right given legal recognition and protection, dissidents and minorities have the ability to escape retaliation from an angry majority that finds the dissent and refusal to join them to thwart its agenda.

If the history of authoritarian and totalitarian rule has taught anything, one vital fact is that this right, identified throughout human history--by the likes of Aristotle and Thucydides and, later more systematically by the English philosopher John Locke (who taught the American founders about it)--is the major bulwark against tyranny. Of course the right to one's life is more basic and if it is ignored and violated as it is by the institution of slavery, then all bets are off and the law of the land deserves zero respect, let alone obedience. But the right to private property is nearly as fundamental as that since if one has no legal right to keep others out of one's own realm, one is for all practical purposes being placed into servitude, almost made a slave.

This is why the Kilo decision by the U. S. Supreme Court was such a catastrophic blow to liberty in the United States of America and why even a short step away from it, as the NY Appellate Division's ruling took, can only be a welcome development where human liberty is concerned. But it should by no means lead to complacency!

Everywhere in legal circles, not the least in President Barack Obama's team of legal associates, basic rights are under full assault. These rights are dismissed as mere creatures of government (as they were in the time of full blown monarchies where they king was seen as having the authority to grant or withhold them and the idea that they might be natural to human community life was scoffed at). Yes, Virginia, in the current administration's legal opinion, forged by the likes of Harvard Law Professor Cass Sunstein, individual rights are void and done for, mere inventions as per the permission government may or may not grant its subjects!

With the New York Court's ruling a bit of hope has become justified. But as with liberty in general, here, too, eternal vigilance is the price and other courts and potential guardians of human liberty must not relent as they work hard to reaffirm that Americans--indeed, all human beings--are sovereign agents and have basic rights, among them the right to private property.

Wednesday, December 02, 2009

On the American People

Tibor R. Machan

No sooner did President Obama conclude his address on Tuesday evening, December 1, 2009, than hordes of public officials rushed into print or to the microphones to respond. And that is, of course, what sadly one should expect. This is the time when one's opinion might just catch that wave that will carry it to significant numbers of people and might even have a bit of influence or at least place on at center stage of the controversy.

I was paying a bit of attention to this not so much because I expected great wisdom to emerge but because I wanted to hear how the comments are phrased. And sure enough many were framed in just the way I would have feared, namely, in terms of what "the American people want." As if the commentator, some Senator from here, another from there, and so forth, had done a thorough investigation and concluded from it that Americans are all this or that way about what the president proposed to do over there in Afghanistan.

So I heard numerous declaration about what we Americans all want to happen though there was certainly no time to do the kind of research that would justify conclusions about it. Nor is there a currently valid method for taking stock of what all adult Americans want.

So why then are such commentators issuing proclamations about what "the American people want"? One of them confidently announced that the American people do not want to carry on with the war in Afghanistan, another just the opposite. And it seems no one is paying any attention to such brazen presumptuousness, so many folks assuming to be in a position to say what "the American people" want, think, believe, hope, etc. I heard no commentator protesting this kind of language, yet I listened all night and morning quite closely to what was being said on many TV and radio stations and on even more Op Ed and editorial pages. Why is it so readily accepted that some senator or whoever is in the position to tell what the American people think or want?

I assume that this kind of thinking, as fallacious as it clearly is, just comes naturally to those who want to chime in on public policy matters. They may have the idea that they do have the facility to discern what the American people want, never mind that they do not. The delusion from which all these folks appear to suffer is certainly hazardous to public discourse since it is so blatantly off the mark that anyone with but the mildest of critical attitude about the opinions being promulgated will readily dismiss nearly all of it as nonsense, given that there is no way that it could be confirmed or denied.

This is a massive country, with millions of people many of them with backgrounds from all corners of the globe, belonging to different religions, holding diverse political persuasions, and often agnostic about issues involved since there is no time for them to figure things out sufficiently to form a credible opinion. So why do so many public figures pretend to know what "the American people want"? Is it a mere fallacy of projecting one's own views on to everyone else, never mind whether any evidence backs it up or not? Do these public officials who come forth so hastily with statements no one could possibly verify have such a low opinion of those who run across their remarks as to think they can get away with spewing forth their empty rhetoric?

I guess so and that is a pretty telling point. It does suggest that these public officials have a very low opinion of their constituents, which is probably why they are so eager to rush in to "represent" them. They can proceed unchecked with their own agenda, never mind what "the American people" really want.
Positive Externalities of Riches

Tibor R. Machan (from my archives)

Although I came to America as a poor immigrant and after leaving home at 18 became dirt poor, with no family support, I have also been fortunate as well as industrious enough to do reasonably well in my life. From the start it seemed to me that a chance such as I faced (namely, to make my way in the country of nearly every poor foreigner's dreams) demanded the best effort on my part, lest I blow it. Not that everything went smoothly but all in all I got nearly all I set out to obtain, including a superb education, a career that could be many people's envy, wonderful children, a great deal of travel, some of the best friends one could ask for, and at least a tolerable economic life that sustains me well enough albeit by no means in luxury.

What all this leads me to suggest is that clearly there are many who are far more prosperous than I, even if I doubt that too many have enjoyed the degree of happiness I have been fortunate to experience thus far. Still, I could easily benefit from having a good deal more money, pretty much like everyone else. Yet, I have never felt envy in my life. Somehow the sight of greater wealth on the part of others has never lead me to desire to exchange their lives for mine. Nor, especially, have I ever felt ill will toward those who are rich. On the contrary, I have been thoroughly pleased that the very rich are with us. And there are some good reasons for my pleasure with them, even if I can barely think of myself in their shoes.

For one, the rich remind me that if I wanted to aspire to be one of them, I would have a decent chance at it. I know some rich people and some of these started nearly as low if not lower on the economic ladder as I did. But they wanted to be well off and found a way to do this while also gaining satisfaction from their work. I know some people who are millionaires, a few who probably have a billion or so, and in each case I know that the way movies or sitcoms or pulp novels depict them is grossly inaccurate. None of these folks is mean or greedy or amoral, quite the opposite. I know that if I had wanted to concentrate my energies on securing wealth and great prosperity--e.g., by means of expertise in finance or corporate management--I could have given that a decent shot, with not too bad a chance at success.

Another reason I welcome the existence of the rich in our society--near enough to the lives of my family and friends to witness what their lives are like - is that without them we and millions of others would scarcely have a chance to occasional luxury, a taste of the finer aspects of nourishment, entertainment, decoration, art and culture in general.

Who but the rich sustain good restaurants? Who but the rich make fine porcelain or jazz clubs or beautiful rugs or fancy furniture, not to mention stunning architecture and enthralling theater possible? I cannot afford to support artists, musicians, actors, great chefs, and the other people who create and produce some of the marvelous features of our culture, nor can my equally middle level and poor income earning friends. But once in a blue moon we all manage to go to a great French restaurant, an art gallery, a neighborhood where fashionable estates are located, or a shopping center that features exquisite merchandise.

It is wonderful to go to an elegant mall such as those strewn about in the New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, Washington, Boston, and other areas of the country where these businesses can count on enough wealthy folks to sustain them. I, and others like me would not be able to support elegant ocean cruisers, superb automobiles, and great sports events such as Wimbledon or the America Cup. But there are those who can and I, for one, am extremely glad for that.

This is one of the reasons--although not the main one--for my distress about the kind of rich bashing that is so common in our culture. I find it disgusting how the envious among us would rather destroy the rich than witness the gap between their own modest economic status and that of the very wealthy. It is especially loathsome how so many American politicians, who ought to know better, gladly capitalize on this envy and persist on using the rich as a scapegoat of their own unwillingness to do the right thing, namely, concentrate on defending us from foreign and domestic aggressors and leave us be to fend for ourselves in peace, however much economic disparity this may generate--far less, incidentally, than is generated in societies where politicians try to even things out and run the country to the ground.

Of course, the first thing to be said about the rich is that they have every right to seek their kind of life, so long as they do this in peace. But there is also this point, namely, that their existence is of enormous benefit to the rest of us, not just in jobs and national wealth (especially in times when, unlike now, politicians haven't mucked things up) but in keeping culture at a level that is there for all of us to enjoy, to save up for a bit of luxury once in a while, even if we do not wish to live as some of them are, namely, in persistent pursuit of abundance.

Tuesday, December 01, 2009

Recent Skepticism About Property Rights

Tibor R. Machan

In a wide ranging review essay of Amartya Sen's recent ambitious book, The Idea of Justice (Harvard, 2009), Moshe Halbertal, a philosopher from the Hebrew University, unleashes some arguments against the right to private property that are supposed to be even stronger than those Sen himself offers. Sen himself regards this right as a strong one but not decisive, so some considerations can be morally powerful enough to overturn it. To block even a moderately friendly view of the right to private property, Professor Halbertal writes:

"Let us assume that ... at stake for distribution is a rare medicine that Clara, the brilliant and productive child, somehow managed to invent. She is willing to provide the medicine to Anne, who is very sick, but only for an outrageous compensation. If she does not get her coveted [medicine], then Anne will die; and nobody--this is the libertarian claim--can take the medicine away from her, since she has ownership rights as a producer. In such a story, it seems clear that sticking solely to the libertarian approach to ownership rights, regardless of the outcome, is wrong. Even if we assert that there are such rights, surely, they should not be absolute...." [The New Republic, 12/2/09, p. 42]

This is certainly not the first time that the right to private property has been challenged along such lines. The needs of others have always seemed morally superior to some, versus the rights of those who can fulfill those needs without drastic loss to themselves. And in certain dire circumstances even libertarians will grant that a one-time theft should be morally acceptable provided efforts are made later to compensate for it. What the libertarian--or most of them, since they are a diverse lot themselves--insists upon is that a legal system make no systemic allowance for such takings. Though it is understandable that the takings would occur on rare--emergency--occasions, what is completely wrong is to build into a legal system this acceptability. (In some parts of France, which is largely a socialist country, extreme need serves as a legal justification for such takings!)

The case Halbertal offers has some problems to start with, though relatively minor. No one denies, libertarian or otherwise, that somebody "can take the medicine away." It is not whether they can but whether they are morally (and should be legally) justified to do so. Criminals, after all, perpetrate such takings all the time, when they murder, rape, kidnap, and steal. Rights violations are possible but not justified, according to libertarianism.

More important is the way Halbertal misunderstands what libertarian political philosophers aim to do when they lay out a proper legal system. They aren't discussing ethics or morality but politics or law. They are investigating what system of principles should govern a human community, what constitutional provisions should be included in a just system. That here and there an exception is possible to those principles is never disputed--such thinkers as Locke, Rand, Den Uyl and Rasmussen and I, routinely discuss emergencies and note that what's at issue are general principles, not specific cases that may have elements that remove it from the norm.

It is interesting that just this element of the classical liberal, libertarian political approach is thoroughly investigated by Douglas B. Rasmussen and Douglas J. Den Uyl in their brilliant book, Norms of Liberty, A Perfectionist Basis for Non-Perfectionist Politics (Penn State University Press, 2005). Sadly, in the typical fashion of contemporary academics, Professor Halbertal settles for star gazing and pays no heed to Norms of Liberty, a work the theme of which would have informed him about how a classical liberal, libertarian would deal with matters such as he focuses upon.

The gist of the approach is that while difficult cases admittedly exist, instead of attempting to lay out some grand (ideal) moral theory that handles every conceivable situation (a strict moral geometry), they offer a system of metanorms--their term--by which a just society should be governed. These metanorms are principles of government or basic laws that everyone ought to choose so as to make possible a just social life for both oneself and everyone else--every other human being, in other words--based on our knowledge of human nature and what community life requires.

But getting back to Halbertal's case, what would the classical liberal, non-Utopian approach to political philosophy advise about it? It might, for example, propose that Clara should not have her invention taken from her even in an emergency because although Anne desperately needs it, making it possible to violate Clara's property right with impunity (and thus setting a precedent) will undermine the system of justice that keeps a free society intact. Or it could propose that an exception be made, via judicial discretion or some other device of the law, without allowing it to undermine normal legal procedures. And then there is the rarely considered option, as we see in both Sen's and Halbertal's discussions, of managing the problem without recourse to the law, mostly by relying on voluntary actions such as raising the funds and pressuring Clara by such means as a serious, organized boycott (with the leadership of, say, Sen and Halbertal).

It is interesting that both Sen and Halbertal are avid about their rejection of perfectionist politics yet do not appear to have much sympathy for solving dilemmas without insisting on a perfect resolution, one that guarantees that a perfect enforceable solution will be reached. This is a clear case of the perfect being the enemy of the good! Yes, Clara may have to be tolerated in her greed and lack of generosity but that is because the system in which one is free to be greedy and ungenerous is superior to one that aims to impose, by means of government--thus risking tyranny and undermining morality--the only right solution.

So it would appear that a system of law in which the right to private property is fully protected is better than one in which exceptions are permitted, thus leaving it open to government not by law but by men (who would ultimately be responsible to weight all the alternatives based on their intuitions, something Halbertal appears to grant at one point in his review essay.