Thursday, March 18, 2010

Is the U. S. Self-Interested?

Tibor R. Machan

It baffles me why so many people are apologetic about the U. S. having a self-interested foreign policy. When President Obama recently declared that the U. S. "is not a self-interested empire," the part about being self-interested, pace Obama, sounded just right to me. (It is the "empire" portion that would be disturbing since an empire is a country that aims needlessly to lord it over other countries.) Being self-interested could mean no more than being vigilant in the defense of one's country, making sure it is safe from invasion or attack.

Who can dispute that self-defense is self-interested? Of course, with the prominence of altruism among intellectuals and public figures, it is probably no great surprise that Mr. Obama would reject characterizing American foreign policy as self-interested. "Selfish" has this bad odor about it and has had that since when philosophers, theologians and psychologists have decided that the human self is something malign.

At one time, of course, it used to be a good thing for one to be self-interested. I am thinking of ancient Greece where both Socrates, as presented by his pupil Plato, and later Aristotle defended self-interest and self-love, respectively. That's because the ancient Greeks tended to view human nature favorably, not as innately tending toward evil, something that became more in vogue later in the history of Western thought. Both religious and secular thinking veered off in this misanthropic direction in part through the doctrine of original sin and then with Thomas Hobbes' idea that everyone is basically motivated by a fierce passion for power, including, especially, power over other persons. If that is indeed what the human self aims for, then no wonder it doesn't have a sterling reputation and selfishness or being self-interested no longer amounts to something honorable as Socrates thought it was.

Yet even in our time something of the ancient Greek attitude remains in play. Just notice how often people say "You take care now" or "Take care of yourself" as their parting words to each other. I have been noticing this for many years and just a few days ago it was in evidence again as I watched some saying farewell. No hesitation at all: Go and make sure you do well for yourself! So self-interest, prudence, taking care of oneself cannot be taken to be all that bad by most of us, even though the sentiment isn't given much support among those who write on morality and public policy, including American foreign affairs.

For some it is just a matter of cynical realism to accept that a country's foreign policy will be dictated by its international interests. But is this something one must apologize for or even deny, as Mr. Obama apparently feels necessary to do?

Only if self-interested conduct, including in matters of diplomacy and military policy, must be reckless. But must it be? Does one's country really benefit from a reckless, loose cannon foreign or military policy? No. Properly conceived and undertaken self-interested foreign and military policy, just as personal conduct, needs to be decent, guided by virtues or moral principles. Indeed, as Socrates, Plato, Aristotle and others have maintained--but recently with only a few such as Ayn Rand and quite a few psychotherapists joining them--the virtues are necessary to advance one's proper self-interest. Morality for these thinkers is about making it possible to succeed in one's human life, doing well at living as a human individual. It includes the virtues of prudence, honesty, moderation, temperance, courage, and such but also generosity, compassion, and even charity when it is needed. Only with these virtues in full display in one's life will someone accomplish that most vital task in of being morally good, being a good person.

The same, it can be argued, applies to foreign and, especially, military affairs. A country's foreign policy must not aim for martyrdom, for self-sacrifice. Thus, putting this into practice, General George C. Patton Jr. is supposed to have told his troop, "The object of war is not to die for your country but to make the other guy die for his.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Democracy and Liberty

Tibor R. Machan

The point deserves to be made over and over: majorities have no just authority to trump individual rights! That old dependable standby of the lynch mob is a perfect illustration of this. Just because the whole town wants to hang the suspect, it doesn't follow that it would be right to do so. The sheriff will defend the process due the accused because justice demands it. Why? Because no one may be punished or indeed imposed upon without it first having been demonstrated that the punishment or imposition is justified, deserved, or warranted.

Of course, this line of thinking takes it as a fact that individuals and their basic rights matter most than the popular will. Yet that should not be very difficult to grasp. So another old saying has it wrong--50 millions frenchmen can indeed be wrong! Millions of Nazis and communists and people around the globe with all kinds of superstitions can be and are wrong.

However, if one is wrong within one's own sphere of authority, on one's own property for example, or in one's own religious or philosophical convictions, that's no one else's business to fix except perhaps one's best friend or a family member who cares and would nudge one in the right direction. But being wrong is an individual right! The US Constitution attests to this with its First Amendment which certainly protects everyone who may be wrong about religion or other matters of belief.

Individual rights apply to all, including, especially, to those in the minority. In a bona fide free country one is free to be and do what one choses provided this doesn't impose on others something they do not deserve coming to them. So when someone doesn't want to carry health insurance, that is something he or she has a perfect right to do. (The example of car insurance is a bad one since the roads are government run, so the government may make the rules for who may or may not use them. One's body and health doesn't belong to the government!)

A few years ago the journalist and Newsweek International's editor Fareed Zakaria published a book, The Future of Freedom in which he worked out a pretty good set of criteria for which countries are liberal and which are illiberal democracies. I think he was too easy on some topics so he allowed for a lot more democratic meddling in people's lives than is justified, morally or politically. Nonetheless, the distinction Zakaria worked with is a very instructive one. When democracy intrudes on individual liberty, it is wrong--it amounts to mob rule, period, however civilized it may appear to be. But when democracy operates without such intrusiveness, it is a permissible method (though not always the soundest) for making decisions in small or large groups.

The American Founders identified every human being as equal in respect of having certain unalienable rights, among them to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. This pretty much amounts to the best guide as to what may not be done to the citizens of a country--their lives, liberty and their choice of what is important to them may not be voted on. It is for them to decide and no one else, other than as advisors or consultants or teachers. Certainly not as daddies or nannies, even if they are in the majority. As the US Supreme Court once ruled, "One’s right to life, liberty, and property . . . and other fundamental rights may not be submitted to a vote; they depend on the outcome of no elections." (U. S. Supreme Court 319 U. S. 62, 638)

It is in fact a quintessential feature of the American political tradition, this insistence on individual rights, something that irks so many rulers and their apologists across the globe and even here in the U.S.A. The fact that everyone has these rights is clearly the greatest bulwark against tyranny. Sadly, this element of the American political tradition has never been fully accepted even in America, let alone elsewhere, so one must constantly be vigilant in opposition to those who would ignore it, from the Right or the Left or indeed any circle of enthusiasts who want to ride roughshod over us.