Saturday, December 19, 2009

Stossel's Blues

TIbor R. Machan

John Stossel is a fine journalist with a serious libertarian political orientation. (I once worked with him on his ABC-TV Special, "John Stossel Goes to Washington," broadcast a few years ago and still in circulation.) He has just moved to the cable station, Fox Business News, where he hosted a pretty good program on the health care and insurance topics recently. Stossel and Whole Foods owners John Mackey were quite effective in laying out the case for a free market in the fields of both health care and health insurance, at least until they came up against a rabid and smart enough statist, Russell Mokhiber, who demonstrated that if you aren't fully consistent in your support of human liberty, you are going to be utterly vulnerable to the arguments of the detractors.

If you have been around the block a while trying to show folks that living in a fully free society is not only more economical but also more just than living in alternative systems, you will know that if you give even a millimeter to a statist, he or she will grab your arm and swallow it up good and hard. So when Stossel and Mackey insisted that there is plenty wrong with the prevailing approach to health care and health insurance in these United States, and that no Canadian system can compare to one based on the principles of the free society, this well prepared adversary, activists Mokhiber, stopped them in their tacks by asking such questions as, "Would you privatize the national forests?" "How about a free market in education and roads?" and "What about the public funding of thousands of parks across the country?"

Stossel may be a libertarian in the depths of his mind and heart but he is working at what is in the end still a mainstream TV network. And extending the principles of the free society to education, parks, forests, roads and the like is so way out there for most people, even those most loyal to the principles of the Declaration of Independence, taking on these rebuttals is just too taxing. And Mokhiber knew this very well and never let go of the idea--so that in the last analysis John Stossel and John Mackey were trapped in a dilemma: they either embrace a pure libertarian position in which there is no room for any wealth redistribution and public works--everything must be privatized apart from the judicial system and the military--or they have to accept the socialist health care proposals of the liberal Democrats, better known as Obamacare, as just another task the government can take over.

Stossel tried to escape his dilemma by saying that the issue is big versus limited government but this won't work. It isn't the size of government, really, that is of concern but its proper scope. Matters pertaining to the protection of the basic and derivative rights of the citizenry are the government's purview but nothing else, including parks, forests, lakes, roads, and so forth. But this consistent libertarian idea, implicit in the Declaration of Independence but not explicated by the American Founders--indeed, compromised by them when they wrote the Constitution and tolerated slavery, for example--still doesn't sit well with most Americans, including the audience that watches John Stossel on the Fox Business Network. The sad truth is that millions of people around the globe, including in America, want to be free up to a point but not completely. They will sell their right to liberty for some allegedly guaranteed security by way of Medicare, unemployment compensation, social security, etc. and so forth.

And once these compromises on the right to liberty are accepted, it becomes impossible to give liberty a principled defense. "How come you are willing to tolerate coercing people to pay for public parks and forests and Medicare but not Obamacare?" Indeed, how come. Once the principle is abridged, those who don't want any liberty at all for anyone have a clear path before them. Sure, they might like some liberty for themselves but for that all they need to be is pragmatists, just as Mr. Obama and those with him proudly claim to be.

I do not envy Mr. Stossel who I am sure would gladly go all the way with liberty but working in a more or less mainstream industry he feels he cannot do so. Maybe he ought to try anyway.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Rand and Libertarianism

Tibor R. Machan

The question still comes up, "What does Rand have to Contribute to Libertarianism?" Of course, late in her life Rand tried to disassociate herself from libertarians, whom she called "hippies of the Right." In fact, of course, what she found most objectionable about libertarians is their alleged disdain for a philosophical foundation for their political ideas and ideals. Rand was convinced that philosophy matters very much in the defense of a free society. She stressed, moreover, that in the last analysis she was not a capitalist, not an egoist, not even an individualist but, first and foremost, a champion of human reason. From this, she argued, one can infer most of what really matters to us all, including the vital importance of a free society.

Libertarians, however, tend to want to have an open door policy--they don't want to exclude people from the rank of those who defend liberty even if their defense is wrong or weak or really badly put. Be you a Moonie or Christian or even socialist in your personal viewpoint, libertarians want to extend an invitation to you. This seems only sensible, strategically prudent--it will swell the ranks of those who will support human liberty, never mind why. Yes, hippies, too, were welcome and still are, as are Mormons and prostitutes and bowlers. The more the merrier. It is quantity that matters, not quality, since libertarianism is a political movement, primarily. It needs to have its supporters swell in numbers as far as possible.

Rand, however, believed that without the best case for liberty, liberty would lose out no matter how good the numbers. No ill founded doctrine of liberty can hold up against all the attacks from the various sophists who are eager to show how flimsy the defense of human liberty really is. Today it is the communitarian, especially, who mounts a sophisticated case against freedom by first attempting to discredit elements of libertarianism such as individualism. For Rand unless a sound case for these elements exist, it makes no difference how large the number of libertarians is. In the end it is the soundness of the argument that matters most, or so she believed, because she held that human beings are rational animals and only when ultimately something appeals to their reason, will they give it long term support.

One aspect of Rand's position that has not managed to make itself heard clearly is her view that what you think isn't the result of your personal history and, indeed, this idea follows the long appreciated view of most philosophers that one ought not to commit the genetic fallacy, of judging a viewpoint by the history and origin of those who advance it. Rand is now being more and more judged, even by sympathizes such as the authors of the two recent biographies, one from Doubleday, the other from Oxford, not so much by whether her case for her ideas is sound but by reference to her upbringing or history. Since she was raised in Soviet Russia, she is often deemed to be captive of her origins. This is nonsense, of course, considering how many others who find her ideas sound didn't share her history at all. I did and that has been held against me by adversaries all my career, but they have used it mostly as a ploy since they new that many of those whom they embraced, refugees from right wing dictatorships, were not biased by their history, only educated by the experience of it. And that holds for the likes of Ayn Rand and me. But to acknowledge this would mean giving up a possibly effective weapon against our ideas!

But why do her recent biographers keep insisting on committing the genetic fallacy? I think the reason is that contemporary biographies are all written under the influence of scientism, the view that everything must be explained (away?) by means of efficient causes in a person's life--upbringing, nutrition, climate, economy (a la Marx), psychology (a law Freud), etc. To understand Ayn Rand, then, amounts to have explained her along such lines. This is what is demanded by modern (mechanistic) science (though not by contemporary science, which has largely shed its mechanist premises).

There is an important scholar of recent times who fought against such a way of understanding thinkers of the past. Leo Strauss, of the University of Chicago's Committee of Social Thought, insisted that those who try to understand Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, and many other great thinkers by these means fail miserably and miss out on their valuable teachings. And, of course, they are also facing a fatal paradox: If the subjects of their study are to be understood by explaining away their thinking, then so must be the biographers, as well. And that would leave truth out of the equation completely.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

On Distributive Justice

Tibor R. Machan

For a long time political philosophers and such were interested in identifying the nature of justice. It started with Socrates and lasted to when John Stuart Mill did his work, although by that time there had been talk of this thing called distributive justice. By now most political theorists dwell on little else.

Yet I have never quite understood why the idea has become so prominent since it is clearly question-begging. Distribution is something done by people who have things to distribute, who are legitimate, rightful owners of what may be wanted from them about town. Money, mainly. So in our day government takes money from people--the resources they have made, earned, found, won or whatever--and hands it to some other people (after taking a good cut for itself). How the distribution goes may be judged as arbitrary, fair, unfair, corrupt, or, just. But all this couldn't even begin if it were determined that the initial taking of the resources is wrong. And as I have managed to figure these matters, taxing people is wrong. That means that distributing what is taken in taxes is also wrong. Accordingly distributive justice could not be justice at all. It is at most something touched by a bit of generosity, as when bank robbers divvy up their loot among some needy folks, in what is taken to be a Robin Hoodish way (but Robin just took money back that had been taken in taxes instead of taxed people).

Why is taxation wrong? It is depriving people of what belongs to them without their consent. Sure, some people in a society may consent, by voting for it, to the taking of other people's resources but that couldn't possibly make the taking anything better than confiscation, an unjust taking because it involves coercion and lacks the consent of the owners. And this is what had been realized, more or less, when individual rights were finally clearly enough understood and affirmed by some political philosophers. Few came right out and condemned taxation because they held the mistaken belief that the administration of a just legal system required it, but it does not. They had similar ideas about slavery in various places until finally they gave that up. They should have given up taxation along with its conceptual sibling, serfdom. Both of these had their home under feudalism and other types of monarchy since in such systems the government--king, czar, pharaoh, dictator, ruler, politburo or whatnot--owns everything and thus when people live and work withing the realm, they are made to pay taxes as their rent and fees. Government in such systems permits people to live and work and charges them for this by making them serve in the military, subjecting them to forced labor, etc., etc. The benefits government provides are privileges, grants from the sovereign to the subjects. Such systems do not recognize individual rights!

Distributive justice is a weird hybrid that combines feudal or monarchical features with those of a fully free society, one in which it is individuals citizens who are sovereign, not the government. But the two, wealth-distribution by government and justice plainly enough don't mix, despite how sophisticated folks claim they do. Justice requires acknowledging the sovereignty or self-rule of individuals, with what little government is warranted existing with the full consent of the governed. This government has no rightful authority to do any confiscation or conscription at all. Its sole function is that of a protector of individual rights or, as the American Founders put the matter, to "secure [the]... rights" everyone has by virtue of his or her human nature. (In America much of this was discussed but sadly not fully applied since a bunch of perverse ideas, held by powerful recalcitrant people, needed to be accommodated for the sake of establishing a sustainable country.)

When one hears of distributive justice--or another version of this oxymoron, social justice--it is best to conjure up the idea of a square circle or worse, a free slave. Governments that have resources to distribute came by it unjustly, by seizing it from people who are the just holders of those resources.

As to how legal services might be paid for, well, that is important but the answer cannot be "by confiscating the resources of those for whom they are being administered."