Saturday, March 13, 2010

The Free Market of Ideas

Tibor R. Machan

As my career in academia winds down, hopefully not too rapidly, I reflect on just how odd it is that in the United States of America, the leaders of which often boast of being the freest country in human political history, most of education is the province of government. It is like it is in too many other countries across the globe which, however, do not claim to be leaders of the free world. And certainly it is a shame that in the U. S. A. such a vital element of culture as education is mostly directed, ultimately, by politicians and their appointees. Thus we have the scandalous spectacle of the textbook fights in Texas, the various battles about creationism or ID versus the theory or theories of natural selection, prayers versus secularism in the public schools, etc., and so forth.

Consider, in contrast, a sphere of culture in the country that is mostly free of government interference, magazine (or book and newspaper) publishing. (There are some others, such as religion and the production of various, though by no means all, consumer goods.) When one walks by a magazine rack in a book or drug store or a kiosk, one witnesses genuine freedom on display. Hundreds of different, often competing, publications in innumerable areas such as science, art, politics, culture and the rest are available to us. One can select from these what one finds most appealing, most instructive, most sound, most entertaining and no one from the government is authorized to force one to pay for or subscribe to any of them. Nor, and this is most important, are there any government bodies debating what should be the content in these publications, what editorial policies they ought to have, what writers they must feature or exclude. It is all--or mostly all, except when it concerns public libraries--a matter of how it comes out from the free market process. Unlike it was in the Soviet Union and its colonies, in the United States and many other countries when it comes to ideas, the free market is where decisions are made, independent of what the government might prefer.

A few weeks ago, as an example of how this works, I decided not to renew my subscription to a magazine I have been reading regularly for several decades. It is concerned with reporting the latest developments in the hard sciences and written accessibly to lay readers like me. However, over time I have noticed that the editors have included more and more political commentary, pushing a certain agenda for the government to pursue in science-funding and even in which theory is the best on in some fields of science. I found this unwelcome, so I stopped getting the magazine and subscribed, instead, to a different one that has a similar mission, namely, of informing readers about developments in the natural sciences. There are several such publications on the market and others are free to select ones for themselves different from what I have.

This is also what is possible in the realm of religious worship--one may join a church or leave one with no one from government telling one what one must do. But not so with education, not at the primary, secondary or higher education levels, although with somewhat different types of interference in place. But in all cases, citizens are legally required to support the government run institutions, be they elementary schools, high schools, colleges or universities administered by the various governments across the land. Even the federal government is involved, what with various military schools it runs and the huge sums of monies it hands out in research grants and scholarships, all paid for by citizens who have no choice but to fund what the government decides should be funded.

It may be pretty early in America's experiment with a reasonably free country, given that throughout human history in most regions of the globe governments have run nearly everything, extorting the funds needed for this from citizens (subjects!) who have only very limited powers to give them direction. It would seem, however, that part of that experiment should by now extend to education, just as it is so clearly manifest in the publishing sphere. Here is a part of culture that addresses the human mind and if there is anywhere that government ought to have zero influence it is precisely here. Coercion and thought to do mix at all. A free mind is essential to a flourishing, humane society and government run and administered education is anathema to this, just as would be government run and administered magazine, newspaper or book publishing, or religious worship.

Tuesday, March 09, 2010

Texas Textbook Troubles

Tibor R. Machan

In my own field of work, university education, there are a great many who scoff at the idea of privatization, something that is exactly how a free society should handle all education from primary to post graduate schools. There is no excuse for government to be responsible for educating young people or anyone else for that matter. Not only is it destructive of educational impartiality to entrust schools to governments--only if there is variety can impartiality be at least approximated--but the threat of out and out indoctrination is most real when one monolithic agency, with the power to coercively collect funds for its operations and conscript its students, runs "education."

Yes, thousands of professor and teachers want the government to be in charge but after this has been accomplished, as it has for a couple of centuries throughout America and elsewhere, there is no escaping the turf fight that takes over educational policy, especially when it comes to such courses as history, civics, and even biology and the textbooks teachers are required to use in them.

In a free and open society there will be a great variety of ways that people, even the most highly educated ones, will see the country's history, especially when it comes to politics and economics, as well as whatever other disciplines study. Few Americans could miss the current fracas about whether, for example, the New Deal was a valuable or destructive policy of the federal government. Yes, even Prohibition, with its bloody history, has its defenders. A good many scholars and citizens in general find themselves in different camps about the civil war, so much so that there is much controversy even about whether it should have as its name "Civil War" or "The War between the States." Innumerable other topics covered in various elementary, high school and college courses are fraught with controversies among sincere minded citizens and scholars--no one could miss the battles fought over the nature of biological evolution.

The idea that one can simply override all this with some kind of governmental policy--as it is being tried right now in Texas where there is a fight brewing among those who have their agendas concerning what should be taught to students in all sorts of subjects--is absurd. One need not be a subscriber to post-modernism--with its claim that there is no objective reality at all and the world as all in the eye of the beholder (be this in history, English literature, philosophy, or government studies)--in order to admit that there are many seriously divergent educated opinions and beliefs in what is the truth of the matter in a discipline. And in a free society the way this is supposed to be dealt with and acknowledged is by making it possible for all of them to compete in the marketplace of ideas without even a whiff of government intrusion (i.e., censorship).

No such marketplace can exist, however, if government education dominates, as it does everywhere in the country. The United States of America is practically not much different from the old Soviet Union or the current North Korea when it comes to how young people are being educated--they basically get some politically palatable stories, some banal compromises reached within the halls of government, instead of the outcome of scholarly and academic conferences where the different sides of the various controversies are presented and from which scholars return to their classrooms throughout the academic landscape and proceed to teach what they earnestly believe students should learn. What some of them will teach will dismay, even outrage, certain others; although often teachers know well and good how to give different sides a fair presentation and thus make it possible for their pupils to arrive at answers of their own.

But this cannot go on with government ordering what is to be taught and what the textbooks must contain. The wielding of political power in the field of education is no less insidious than it would be for government to run the profession of journalism, the publication of books and magazines, and so forth. None of that is acceptable in a genuine free country. Nor should government-run schools be.

Monday, March 08, 2010

Is Quality Health Care a Fundamental Right?

Tibor R. Machan

In a famous essay, published in the July 27 2009, issue of Newsweek magazine, the late Senator Ted Kennedy reiterated a message with which he has come to be very closely associated. As he wrote in that essay, "This is the cause of my life. It is a key reason that I defied my illness last summer to speak at the Democratic convention in Denver—to support Barack Obama, but also to make sure, as I said, 'that we will break the old gridlock and guarantee that every American…will have decent, quality health care as a fundamental right and not just a privilege.' For four decades I have carried this cause—from the floor of the United States Senate to every part of this country. It has never been merely a question of policy; it goes to the heart of my belief in a just society. Now the issue has more meaning for me—and more urgency—than ever before. But it's always been deeply personal, because the importance of health care has been a recurrent lesson throughout most of my 77 years."

The idea that health care and other welfare measures are fundamental rights everyone has goes back a couple of centuries. I believe it was the English philosopher T. H. Green who first articulated it (in his "Lecture on Liberal Legislation and Freedom of Contract"):

"We shall probably all agree that freedom, rightly understood, is the greatest of blessings; that its attainment is the true end of all our efforts as citizens. But when we thus speak of freedom, we should consider carefully what we mean by it. We do not mean merely freedom from restraint or compulsion. We do not mean merely freedom to do as we like irrespective of what it is that we like. We do not mean a freedom that can be enjoyed by one man or one set of men at the cost of a loss of freedom to others. When we speak of freedom as something to be so highly prized, we mean a positive power or capacity of doing or enjoying something worth doing or enjoying, and that, too, something that we do or enjoy in common with others. We mean by it a power which each man exercises through the help or security given him by his fellow-men, and which he in turn helps to secure for them. When we measure the progress of a society by its growth in freedom, we measure it by the increasing development and exercise on the whole of those powers of contributing to social good with which we believe the members of the society to be endowed; in short, by the greater power on the part of the citizens as a body to make the most and best of themselves."

The position Green lays out in this passage is the foundation underlying the late senator's view on health care as a fundamental right. Green himself was what came to be referred to as a right wing Hegelian, although this particular passage is actually more aligned with left wing political theory. In that theory human beings are viewed as prisoners of their circumstances. The poor are unable to rise from poverty unless they are liberated by the government or state, unless they are supplied with the tools by which they can escape their poverty, and the supplier of those tools are seen as governments because they are in possession of the power to make things happen. Certainly civilians, too, can help with this but unless they are forced to make the required provisions, the freedom to which the poor are entitled will be a matter merely of privilege based on generosity or philanthropy.

The crucial premise in all this is that unless people are moved by powerful agents out of their unfavorable circumstances, they will remain there, period. The poor, disadvantaged, sick, underprivileged, and so forth have no power of their own. Protecting their right to liberty as envisioned in classical liberal or libertarian political theory, as laid out by John Locke and the American founders, just won't help them at all. They need provisions, support, from other people. Since that is their only means of escape, they must receive it from the only source capable of securing it for them, namely, the government.

When the American founders spoke of government's task to secure the rights of the citizens, they had in mind the negative rights, rights not to be interfered with, the rights Green finds inadequate to the task at hand. As Green put it, by the right to freedom or liberty "We [meaning he and his allies] do not mean merely freedom from restraint or compulsion." No, "We mean by it a power which each man exercises through the help or security given him by his fellow-men, and which he in turn helps to secure for them."

Yet not even this tells the full story because it suggests that such power may be given to those who require it, as a matter of the free choice of those who can give it. No, if it is a proper fundamental right, it must be secured from those who can secure it as a matter of a legal mandate, just as the right to negative liberty must be. It isn't a matter of other people's generosity or kindness that they must respect one's right to one's life, liberty and property and neither is this so concerning their right to such provisions as health care, not at least in Green's political thought. So, then, it isn't optional but mandatory that positive rights be protected; so governments or whatever agency is responsible for upholding the laws of the land may use force to make sure that these rights are secure. And for Green and his followers, including the late Senator Ted Kennedy and President Barrack Obama the same thing holds true about positive rights such as the supposed right to health care.

Now the big problem with this is that while respect for another's right to life or liberty requires nothing more from someone than to abstain from killing (or assaulting or kidnapping) that individual while respecting the right to, say, health care requires actual work from health care professionals or those who will be required to pay their salaries. And that amounts to placing these providers into involuntary servitude.

However valuable it is for those who need it to receive health care or insurance, it is impermissible to treat those who can provide such care and insurance to be coerced into doing so. The protection of positive rights, so called, amounts to nothing less than a policy of forced labor--not different from slavery, actually--something that is completely wrong, entirely impermissible, regardless of how much others may benefit from it, how urgent their need is for it. And it also misunderstands human nature since it denies that the poor can escape poverty on their own initiative. That is plainly false.