Friday, February 05, 2010

Avatar's (and Sandel's) Misanthropy

Tibor R. Machan

Perhaps it isn't all people but only Americans that Avatar presents in an unfavorable light but the movie clearly suggests that human beings are largely no good, except for just a few of them and they only barely. In contrast, the natives are all the sweetest, nicest, most loving type one can imagine. Kind of like those who inhabited Paradise before the Fall. Evil is unknown to these creatures, so that even their silliest superstitions are depicted as worthy, benign. It is an ancient myth, of course, that the ideal human being would be one who melds in seamlessly with the rest and humanity is really just this beehive type of huge community, with some benevolent dictators in the leadership driving it toward some glorious end. Every dictator, tsar, king, and the like has tried to sell us on this vision.

Even as Avatar is seducing the critics--if one can call a bunch of swooning admirers in the media "critics"--PBS, the government funded television service, is showing a program on justice that broadcasts the Harvard University lectures of Professor Michael Sandel, the Anne T. and Robert M. Bass Professor there, who unhesitatingly takes advantage of his captive audience of adolescents by preaching to them the virtues of his version of communitarianism and never misses the opportunity to put down the idea of free consent. (Yes, here we are, taxpayers, funding what is quite a clever bit of indoctrination since no one else but Sandel is featured and he is unabashedly partisan, insisting over and over again that what he considers justice is the real McCoy. And why, when he doesn't believe in free consent, should he be concerned that other people are coerced into funding his PBS lectures? That would be granting some credence to the idea that the consent of the citizenry is important, a notion that would undermine Professor Sandel's political philosophy of coercive communitarianism.)

The central message Sandel is preaching is that we all have obligations to society--or government or the state--that we have never chosen, that can be enforced on us without asking for our consent. This is the beehive or the anthill notion of community, wherein you belong wether you want to or not, and those who are the leaders can make us do what they deem is in the public interest, pursue the common good, never mind pursuing our own happiness.

And the ideal community, as depicted in Avatar by how the natives live (whose land is being raped and pillaged by the terrible American looking humans) is just like that. Everyone submits, everyone is a part, everyone belongs, no one stands for his or her own agenda, no one is unique, no one has an individual, personal vision for that would distract from the common purpose everyone must pursue. The idea doesn't even come up.

Both the most prominent Hollywood fiction and the most prominent public philosophy today are messages about how the American notion of individualism--whereby you and I and everyone has a right to his or her life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness--is misguided and in need of being purged from our midst. Yes, that is the message of both. Your consent, which is such a highly valued ingredient of justice according the Declaration of Independence, the American founding, is an obstacle to justice!

It isn't even considered that perhaps real justice is not really like what Professor Sandel is promoting, that real justice involves everyone's liberty to strive to realize his or her individual human good, some of which unites us all but a good deal of it includes a very large dosage of one's purely personal agenda.

While not endorsing it outright, Professor Sandel gleefully quotes the political philosopher Montesquieu who observed that in an ideal world no one would have any friends since friendship involves a prejudice in favor of some people and in justice we owe loyalty to everyone, intimate or stranger alike. He didn't mention how exhausting life would be with everyone on intimate terms, how we would no sooner celebrate someone's good fortune then we would have to rush off to lament another's loss.

Human beings aren't fit to be close associates of everyone! It is quite right that they would have but few close friends and render to others respect for their rights or liberties, period. Neither Sandel nor Avatar gave a nod to this quintessentially American notion, the most liberating idea of human political history. Not a good omen, I'd say

Wednesday, February 03, 2010

Are Corporations Persons?

Tibor R. Machan

Actually, no one thinks corporations are persons but some do believe they are groups of persons. No one thinks orchestras, or football teams or universities are persons but many do think they are variously configured people. If this is so, then they, as groups of persons, have rights, including the right to private property and freedom of speech.

When people come together for some common purpose, they do not lose their basic human rights. So all the hollering about how the recent Supreme Court ruling about whether corporations have the right to engage in political advocacy, based on the allegation that corporations aren’t persons, is off base.

Even those who oppose the ruling implicitly acknowledge the above. Thus Justice Stevens, the major dissenter on the Court, wrote, that “[T]he distinctive potential of corporations to corrupt the electoral process [has] long been recognized.” But only persons can corrupt something! Theodore Roosevelt advocated prohibiting "all contributions by corporations to any political committee or for any political purpose." And this, too, implies that corporations are made up of people, people who have rights! There is no other way corporations can make contributions--buildings, trees, land, the sea, none of these can make contributions, only people can. Ergo, corporations are people!

In any case, I have no idea what else corporations would be. Yes, they have some kind of legal identity but that is completely derivative of their being made up of people. Usually, it is a bunch of people who get together and incorporate--now that monarchs no longer create such associations--which is to say they form a specific type of organization, usually involving pooling some resources and hiring specialists to administer these resources either for profitable or non-profitable purposes. But whichever it is, it is persons who are doing this and nothing else. You may not like those types of persons but in a democracy they have the right to obtain and wield political power.

Now it is true that when people unite with one another, they tend to gain in influence, even power, if power is at issue. Sadly, given how much politics is not a matter of upholding principles, as the American Founders envisioned it, but of confiscating funds and then distributing them--that whole redistribution thing that candidate Obama had out with Joe "the Plumber"--having united powers can go a long way to gaining political clout. But this has nothing to do with corporations as such, which are perfectly benign outfits unless they commit crimes, just as this is so with individual citizens.

So then what is up with all the corporate bashing? Mostly that if you aren't a part of the corporation but a lot of others are, it is they and not you who will wield more political power. And if one believes in democratic politics, why complain about this? If a huge company, owned by thousands of stockholders and other investors, exerts power, such is democracy. You cannot cherry pick which group of citizens should get democratic power and which should be ignored.

The remedy for out of control corporate political influence and power is to limit democracy to very few tasks in the country, such as the selection of public officials. They will then represent those who elected them but not by doing them special favors but by helping in extending the principles of the country to new and uncharted areas of the law.

I am no corporate attorney, nor a constitutional scholar but our legal system must make sense to all citizens, not just to experts. And as a plain, ordinary citizen it seems to me that all the derision extended toward corporations amounts to rank prejudice, bias, as a generalized dislike of movie actors or farmers would be. This is nothing to be proud of, that's for sure, even if it is widely accepted and practiced. So was racial prejudice once. Not that those who have shares or manage corporations are all fine people, not by a long shot, but neither are all doctors, teachers, engineers or bureaucrats upstanding citizens. At any given time the bulk of the members of a professional could be engaged in malpractice or be decent in how they conduct themselves.

But there is no reason to suspect those who own or run corporations of any greater predilection toward malpractice than anyone else. Sometimes, of course, they operate in a system that encourages corruption, which the welfare state clearly does, what with all the selling and buying of political favors it involves. And big firms will probably be able to get more from politicians than little ones. That, however, is the problem of the system, not of any given profession.

Monday, February 01, 2010

The Face of Envy

Tibor R. Machan

In THE WEEK, January 16, 2010, the item "The last word" is given to someone whose attitudes and ideas have always put me off. I am speaking of Barbara Ehrenreich, a prolific author whose major theme tends to be that the world needs to make equality its primary public purpose and until that comes about, let everyone be miserable.

Her latest book appears to reinforce this impression. Her Smile or Die: How Positive Thinking Fooled America and the World (Granta, 2010) is a relentless, over the top rant against a group of authors and advocates who have produced much print aiming to ease the agony of those who are suffering from cancer. Ehrenreich herself had recently survived a bout with breast cancer and as most good writer-entrepreneurs are wont to do, made this experience the basis of a book which expresses her exquisitely sour outlook on life by dissing all those who would wish to inject some measure of relief into the lives of those who have been hit with the often fatal malady. No doubt there is much hokum in these books, which essentially follow the doctrine promoted most prominently by Norman Vincent Peale's 1952 The Power of Positive Thinking. Many of them have a desperate tone, especially the one by Anne McNervey titled The Gift of Cancer: A Call to Awakening.

Yet who could begrudge the effort, albeit at times inept and desperate, of authors and readers alike to find some solace in the midst of fear and pain? Who would make a fuss, spend precious time writing an entire book debunking those who try to manage and even flourish in the midst of their calamity?

It would be Barbara Ehrenreich, of course, the quintessential sourpuss of American popular culture. In THE WEEK article, which is excerpted from her book, she is actually depicted in a photograph from the UK newspaper, The Guardian, frowning out at the reader holding, you may not believe this, a happy face balloon! Talk about making a concerted effort to rain on other people's parade!

Yet this is no surprise, not at least to those who have followed Ehrenreich's paper trail, the numerous books she has penned which attack bourgeois society for even caring about the enjoyment of life! And no one can accuse Ehrenreich with false advertising--one of her books of essays is called The Snarling Citizen, a very apt description of her indeed. Yet despite this admittedly accurate self-assessment, Ehrenreich lacks a crucial quality of a sound cultural commentator, especially one whose focus is America. This is the realization that one size does not fit all. Perhaps for some folks the dour attitude of a Barbara Ehrenreich makes sense but it certainly does not make sense for everyone struck by misfortune. And since many, many folks will shake off a negative disposition even while undergoing hardship and distress, Ehrenreich appears to want to make them all feel bad, just as she prefers to feel. It seems to her to be even a sign of astuteness and erudition to reject a pleasant state of mind, or so at least would her writings suggest. But why?

I am not personally privy to the details of Ehrenreich's personality and so I do not want to guess at what in her life may have supported her morose outlook. But I do suggest that whatever reason she has for apparently feeling so down all of the time, as a matter of intellectual discipline she ought to resist trying to recruit everyone to share the feeling. Because recruiting is just what she is after, especially with this latest book of hers. And that suggests a profound sense of envy toward all those who, unlike her, manage to have a fairly bright outlook on their lives even while in trouble. I suggest the more power to them and the less to Ehrenreich.

Fortunately my reaction to Ehrenreich's efforts to spread her attitude of doom and gloom is shared by some who have access to prominent publications. Thus Amy Bloom provides a nice antithesis to Ehrenreich's preaching, in her essay "The Rap on Happiness" (The New York Times Book Review, January 31, 2010). Bloom is not endorsing the peddling of false hope, not by any means. But she recognizes that Ehrenreich's pitch is shrill and not needed at all. As she concludes, "I don't see how even the most high-minded, cynical or curmudgeonly person could argue with" the reasonable understanding of human happiness Bloom presents in her short missive, one that identifies five components of such a state, namely, having basic necessities, getting enough sleep, having relationships that matter (i.e., not spreading oneself thin), extending generosity to others just as prudence to oneself, and going to work on stuff one is interested in. Not a bad list, me thinks--reminiscent, in fact, of Aristotle.