Friday, April 09, 2010

Defending Liberty the Best Way

Tibor R. Machan

When liberty is attacked by its critics and enemies, often defenders pull out the skeptical ploy: "No one can know right from wrong, so no one may force others to comply with any standards of right versus wrong. Who can tell how we ought to act? And if no one can, as surely no one can, then no one may force anyone to do the right thing. It would be shooting in the dark."

The famous American classical liberal/libertarian, the late Milton Friedman, put it this way in an interview he gave in 1975 in Reason Magazine: "I think that the crucial question that anybody who believes in freedom has to ask himself is whether to let another man be free to sin. If you really know what sin is, if you could be absolutely certain that you had the revealed truth, then you could not let another man sin. You have to stop him." He also wrote, in his famous book, Capitalism and Freedom: “The liberal conceives of men as imperfect beings. He regards the problem of social organization to be as much a negative problem of preventing ‘bad’ people from doing harm as of enabling ‘good’ people to do good; and, of course, ‘bad’ and ‘good’ people may be the same people, depending on who is judging them.”

It is well known that Friedman was a great champion of human liberty. He supported his position, however, by claiming that no one can “really know what sin is.” And he argued that “if you could be absolutely certain that you had the revealed truth, [then] you could not let another man sin.”

This is a pivotal matter and doesn't really help support human liberty very much, although it has some notable champions, such as Professor Richard Epstein of the University of Chicago. In his book Skepticism and Freedom: A Modern Case for Classical Liberalism Epstein lays out in great detail this line of support for the free society. Don't interfere with people so as to promote some valuable goal because, well, you cannot know what is valuable.

There is something seriously amiss with this way of defending human liberty and the free society. It can be made evident without too much difficulty. The bottom line is that very few people actually believe that one cannot know what is right versus wrong. Our criminal law certainly assumes the opposite, so many defendants are sent to prison for doing the criminally wrong thing (which is often supported by our supposedly knowledge of what is morally wrong). Parents, surely, profess to know right versus wrong when they rear their children. And as far as our conduct is concerned, it is totally unrealistic to hold that when we try to do what is right and refrain from doing what is wrong, we could accept that are always in the dark.

But not only is moral skepticism not widely accepted by people throughout the world, it is illogical to maintain the position. To start with a very plain case, even to say that "one should not interfere with others" is to commit oneself to a position on what is right versus wrong. This is the moral imperative requiring respect for others' liberty. You are saying, clearly, that people ought to refrain from intrusive conduct toward their fellows, which is a moral or normative judgment if anything is.

But what about Milton Friedman's claim that if one knows what sin is--what doing wrong is--one must stop it? Well, it is wrong. When people are required to do the right thing or avoid doing what is wrong, they must do this of their own free will. Otherwise their conduct has no moral significance. Forcing others to be good is an oxymoron. Doing what is right or not doing what is wrong has to be a matter of choice to be morally worthwhile. The only time one may intrude on others who do the wrong thing is if what they do amounts to intruding on their fellows, as in murder, theft, assault, rape, etc. When their wrongdoing is peaceful, no interference is justified.

That is what lies at the heart of human freedom: it is absolutely necessary for the morally significant life (although it is also very useful). That is why the nanny state, authoritarianism, paternalism, and totalitarianism are all very bad ideas--they promote treating people without regard to their moral agency, their responsibility to lead a moral life of their own free choices.

Knowing someone else is doing wrong, sinning or being vicious, doesn't justify interference. One may advocate that such people improve themselves but not force them to do so, not unless self-defense of the defense of innocent victims is involved. Everything else that is right needs to be done voluntarily. Otherwise the very humanity of people is being denied.

Tuesday, April 06, 2010

Ralph Nader's Turn About?

Tibor R. Machan

So we have it on the good authority of The London Times that all is well with the Obama Administration's latest interference with the market place. Here is how The Times reported on this long-desired development, admittedly desired by but fraction of those concerned:

"In a coup that achieves something President Clinton promised but never delivered, President Obama has forced the big three US carmakers, and their unions, to accept tough mileage rules for cars and SUVs. The rules will cut emissions from vehicles by more than a third over the next four years. Whether the new rules end America's love affair with huge cars remains to be seen. But they are being introduced at a time when SUV sales are at a fraction of their peak level five years ago. Their demise coincides with the country's first mass-produced 'plug-in' electric car, which finally rolled off a Michigan production line this week. From 2016, new cars and SUVs will have to deliver an average of 35.5 miles per gallon (42.6 miles per British gallon), comparable for the first time with European and Japanese requirements. ... The rules were welcomed yesterday by the industry and environmentalists. The US Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, which had little choice but to accept the standards after the $25 billion bailout of Chrysler and General Motors, said they gave the industry 'a clear road map' instead of a patchwork of differing state rules. The Natural Resources Defense Council said they were 'good for consumers, companies, the country and the planet'. Ray LaHood, Mr. Obama's Transportation Secretary, called them 'historic', claiming they would save consumers $3,000 per new vehicle and cut emissions by 1 billion tons." (Times of London)

Maybe I am just a tad too gleeful here, about the noticeable absence in this discussion of famed consumer defender and frequent American presidential candidate Ralph Nader who back in the mid-1960s penned his path breaking book, Unsafe at Any Speed (Grossman, 1965). Doesn't anyone else recall how vividly Nader condemned small cars back then claiming they are the source of traffic fatalities everywhere? Corvair, I believe, was one of his major targets and there was a huge court case involving that rare vehicle, a small car out of Detroit. (In an ironic twist, though, as recounted by author Bob Helt, "The 1960-63 Corvair compares favorably with contemporary vehicles used in the tests...the handling and stability performance of the 1960-63 Corvair does not result in an abnormal potential for loss of control or rollover, and it is at least as good as the performance of some contemporary vehicles both foreign and domestic.")

I am no expert on the history of this famous episode of one of Nader's influential roles as a consumer activist, one that both made him rich and helped him become a major player in public policy matters. What prompts me to bring up Nader, however, is that by all rights it seems to me that he ought to be a big, vocal defender of Detroit's switch to the production of SUVs, which are by all counts mostly very safe vehicles--the bigger, the safer--ones one would certainly want to be driving if one is going to be in a car crash, which is to say if one is primarily concerned with the safety of the occupants of a vehicle as Ralph Nader made out he was.

But I certainly haven't heard from Nader on this topic. Is it because he changed his mind? Has he come to the conclusion that small cars are, after all, better for us all than the gas guzzling SUVs?

It appears to me that some journalists ought to be curious about this and interview Mr. Nader now that SUVs (what I can only consider his dream cars from the perspective of highway safety for vehicle occupants) are under global assault. Maybe he has changed his views but if I recall correctly he wasn't all that concerned about the cost of safety back then. Maybe, in an interesting twist, he would not be today either.

But hasn't Mr. Nader become a big fan of "green"? If so, then by his current ideological commitments would naturally deride SUVs, after all. In any case, it seems to me that he owes us an explanation of where he stands in this debate--for "green" or for safety.

Monday, April 05, 2010

Democracy Leads to Lies & Worse

Tibor R. Machan

Democracy is not all bad, don't misunderstand me. It is only bad when it becomes the central political principle.

In a free society some democracy is necessary because it amounts to everyone having a say in political matters, something that's their right. To refuse to acknowledge this right is to deny an important freedom to some, those left out.

The real issue about democracy is what is the scope of politics. If it is, as it should be, minimal, the scope that it must have in a free country, there is no problem with democracy. Let us do vote on who gets to be the sheriff, the presiding officer, or on the city council, provided these folks aren't permitted to meddle in matters that are not their proper job.

But once democracy expands its reach beyond this limited realm of minimal politics, it leads to all kinds of corruption. Like facilitating larceny and oppression. If the many vote themselves the belongings of the few, this is corruption. If the many impose their life style, religion, priorities, and other matters on the rest, that is corruption by democracy.

We can see this everywhere when politicians of all kinds keep talking about how "the American people" want this, or don't want that, etc. Take the recent health care measures Obama & Co. pushed through oh so democratically. The Democrats kept saying this is what "the American people want," while the Republicans kept saying "the American people don't want this." How could they both make such claims with even a modicum of credibility?

Well, because once a pretty large number of Americans want something, in a bloated democracy it sounds ok to say that "the American people" want it. Even if it is clearly, unambiguously evident that they do not and that only some of them do.

Maybe it is just laziness. It may simply be too exhausting to have to say "a portion of the American citizenry wants X," while "another portion of the American citizenry does not want X." But is it really so hard? I doubt it but maybe for some it is. Or maybe the fact that the truth is a bit nuanced provides politicians and their cheerleaders an excuse for lying. Because to say "the American people want Obamacare" and "the American people do not want Obamacare" amounts to plain old lying. It is, however, so common, so much a part of the lingo of democracy that the lies come very easy and have become habitual.

Yet, there is no doubt, they are lies. Unless the doctrine that the majority does in fact speak for all of us is true. In that case whatever does gain majority support must be treated as something we all want. But is that for real? Only if this kind of collectivist thinking is sound.

Unfortunately, it is deemed to be sound by many who discuss and teach political science in high schools, colleges and universities. A great many of such folks are seriously convinced that individuals do not actually exists, only groups do. So if you are a dissident, if you reject what the majority wants, you simply do not count for anything. You are this dreaded political virus, an individualist.

Yet democracy itself is, of course, founded on individualism. The demos, the public, cannot exists without its individual components. And it is because these individual have the right to give direction to their lives that they have the right to take part in politics. Ergo, democracy.

And, as already noted, there would be nothing wrong with that provided the scope of politics--where democratic decision making matters--is properly limited. As someone has recently pointed out, what we need is liberal democracies, not illiberal ones. And the former means, strictly speaking, democracies that are contained and constrained by the individual rights of every citizen in the country.

One other problem is that for so many centuries hardly anyone could take part in politics apart from some thugs (at times very well dressed, admittedly). So for millions across the globe just being asked to pitch in a little is quite a lot. It should not be enough but in contrast to the past, it is at least something.

Now if only they realized that it isn't enough, that one would be enough would be if they were all free individuals and protected even from majorities, not just thugs.

Sunday, April 04, 2010

So then Be A Proud Socialist!

Tibor R. Machan

It is disgusting to witness all the dishonesty surrounding the current administration's public policy efforts. Even the new language columnist of The New York Times Magazine is in denial and pretends to consider it some kind of smear--even conspiracy--for those not among Mr. Obama's fan base to refer Obama & Co. as socialists. Why?

Socialism is a well respected political economic alternative for which some of the best minds and hearts of human history have done fierce battle. No, it is not a good political economic system but those who are socialists believe it is. So why don't they and their cheerleaders in the media admit it, even proudly announce it at every turn, that they support socialism? I am not ashamed of being a champion of laissez-faire capitalism, so why do they pretend to be less than enthusiastic about their democratic socialism?

In American history there have been proud socialists aplenty--Normal Thomas being perhaps the most public of them. But there was, also, Michael Harrington who, historians claim, was personally responsible for Lyndon Baines Johnson's "war on poverty" and some other, for my money futile and even hazardous, efforts to drive American more and more toward socialism. Why dishonor these folks with, for example, a bunch of phony denials about what the recently passed Obamacare legislation was about. Of course it was a step toward socialism and Mr. Obama, if he had an ounce of genuine candor and courage, would not keep dodging the issue. (Maybe he wants some kind of goulash socialism, like Janos Kadar of Hungary wanted to goulash communism. But Kadar never denied that what he was aiming for had in it a large dose of communism--actually, socialism, for communism for communists is but a far off goal [dream?].)

In this respect I find European politics more honest than what we have here with the Democrats and Republicans engaging in endless double talk about what they are after. Of course, the Republicans can never figure out what they want because of their internal conflicts as to whether men and women should have their liberty properly protected or be ordered around to serve God or tradition or whatever. Democrats, however, should have no difficulty in coming clean: They want a robust, democratic socialist, welfare state which has to be largely socialist. If men and women do have their basic right to liberty well secured by the legal system, they just might not serve the objectives that are the meat and potatoes of socialism, of having a country be treated like a huge beehive in need of the care and regimentation of its queen bee, the government. This is so evident that invoking a bunch of euphemisms just will not serve long to hide it.

President Obama is aiming for socialism--maybe not the Soviet or North Korean or even Cuban type but at least the sort found in many European countries, associated mainly with the current economic systems of Norway, Sweden, and France. True, even in those countries the champions of socialism are trying to square the circle, to have a substantial measure of individual liberty in the midst of their vigorous Nanny state. But they are not pretending to be in favor of a free market system as Mr. Obama keeps stating he is.

If Obama & Co. were honest about their support of a substantially socialist economic system, they could provide the American citizenry with arguments for this, with reasons why they believe it is a good thing to head in that direction. And then a debate could ensue instead of the dishonest gobbledegook that passes of political dialogue now. Indeed, one reason there can be no serious discussion between Democrats and Republicans is that neither side will level about where it stands on public policy matters, let alone on the fundamental, constitutional principles by which it wants the country to be guided.

I say, let's have it all out, in plain and honest terms, and then have a national debate about it all and see where that leads. I hope the free, capitalist society wins out over welfare statist socialism--with its bizarre form of liberty that is in fact servitude for us all--but at least we would know what the issues are all about.