Saturday, April 17, 2010

Predicting Free Actions

Tibor R. Machan

For several centuries there has been a widespread infatuation with approaching every topic scientifically, meaning along lines used in the natural science. The experimental method is indeed widely used in the social sciences even if its full applicability is sometimes in doubt. So we have in the field of economics a branch now called "experimental economics," in which the recommended method is to test out hypothesis with different groups of people to see if making predictions about human conduct within the realm of economics is feasible. (At my own university there is an entire institute devoted to doing such studies, under the leadership of several prominent figures in the field, including a Nobel Laureate.)

The courses I teach include business ethics, which is a branch of professional ethics that is itself a division of the ancient discipline of ethics or morality. Other courses like these include medical, legal, engineering, military ethics, and so forth. There may appear to be something of a divide if not out and out conflict between professional ethics of any kind and the supposedly scientific study of, say, business, law, medicine, engineering, or warfare.

Since such scientific studies--which warrant their designation as "social sciences"--aspire to be like what is done in such natural sciences as physics, chemistry, biology, anatomy and so forth, there is a powerful impetus among those doing work in these areas propose general laws by which the behavior of people involved in them can be explained, described, and predicted. Whereas in the fields of professional ethics it is unlikely that what is sought is explanation, description, and prediction. Instead what ethics focuses upon is principles by which what professionals do should or ought to be guided, with a distinct emphasis on "should" or "ought." And, of course, if it is possible to make sense of such terms at all, it is necessary to make room for two important supposed elements of human life, namely, freedom of choice and standards of right versus wrong.

To claim that a person engaging in business ought to be honest, prudent, fair, conscientious, or whatever means that this is how such a person should choose to behave. The claim assumes that such a person is free to choose and that predictions of his or her conduct may not be possible along lines that the prediction of some phenomena in biology or zoology is. While people should be guided by the ethics of their profession, they might not choose to be, which is why we can sometimes make sense of their engaging in malpractice or wrongful conduct. In contrast, there is no wrongful conduct in chemistry or biology! Things happen as they must, no choice about them.

But if so, then perhaps no such thing as a scientific prediction is possible in economics or sociology or political science. Yet this is not quite right either.

We can make statistical predictions about human behavior, mainly because even where people are free to choose, their choices often amount to committing themselves to a certain long range course of conduct, an ongoing course of behavior that will henceforth be predictable.

Consider a commitment to become a medical doctor or a teacher or a business professional. Each of these involves certain ways of behaving and once such a commitment--let's call it "an oath of office"--has been made, what the professional is likely to do can be expected, anticipated, even (probabilistically) predicted. Just as with people who take a marriage wow, who can be expected, on the whole, to refrain from dating people or seeking further romantic adventures. Yet there are, of course, exceptions--think of Tiger Woods.

Free men and women, who give direction to their own lives instead of simply being prodded to behave in certain ways, can be subject to predictions because they themselves have decided to carry on in certain regular ways. So even without the assumption that we are all determined by impersonal forces to behave in certain ways, how we do behave is at least roughly predictable. And that may be all that the social sciences need to be proper sciences.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Protection versus Coercion

Tibor R. Machan

In matters of human conduct it is vital to distinguish between actions that coerce others to do something they must be in charge of choosing either to do or not do, versus resisting their attempts to coerce someone. If I try to make you eat your vegetables and you aren't my child for whose health I am responsible, I am being coercive. I am lording it over you. If, however, you come after me with a knife to cut me up and I successfully resist your attack, this isn't my being coercive but acting in self-defense, protecting myself.

The criminal law recognizes this pretty clearly--assault versus self-defense! But it seems like many people don't. They insist that when other people are acting badly, even if peacefully, they may interfere. So the city of New York may force people to refrain from eating foods cooked in trans-fats. Or California and many other states may force people to abstain from gambling or using dope. These, however, are not actions that amount to attacks on anyone. If you ruin yourself by gambling, that may be lamentable, even morally repugnant, but it is just the sort of issue that must be up to you as a free human being. Otherwise you are being treated like a child, not as an adult. If you are an adult, other adults may not coerce you unless you permit them. You may permit a fellow boxer to beat you up and down in the boxing rink or a dentist to drill your teeth; so they then may do what otherwise would amount to assaulting you.

All that talk in the American political tradition about the consent of the governed has to do with this. Only what a citizen has consented to may be imposed on his or her by another citizen. It is impermissible, not just morally but criminally wrong to coerce another adult to obey one's will. That is what slavery involves, or involuntary servitude.

Of course, there are some borderline cases but those couldn't even be identified if there were no clear-cut ones as well. If you are bumped on the sidewalk, does that amount to coercing you? Probably not unless there is intent to assaulting you in evidence. Otherwise it is a minor mishap. And there are some serious problems with such matters as, say, date rape. Might some kind of consent be given implicitly rather then explicitly?

The important point is that when someone else is doing something wrong--being lazy, swearing too much, gambling, living in hazardous ways--if it is peaceful, doesn't involve an intrusion on others, no one may stop it. One may advocate against it, of course, which is what editorial writers and columnists do a lot. But what vice squad officers do is really something quite impermissible. If a prostitute and her John want to engage in debasing sexual unions, so be it. One can try to persuade them not to but to intrude is to treat the parties as if they had no will of their own, did not possess sovereignty. But free men and women do possess sovereignty.

Now the fact that one can know that someone else is doing something wrong doesn't change any of this. Even if one knows well and good that other people are acting badly, if it is peaceful no one may intrude. Much of what people do wrong upsets others, of course, even if these aren't out and out invasive things, even if they do not involve dumping one's malpractice on other people. But you can tell that some of the conduct targeted by those advocating coercion is, even if offensive, quite peaceful since when challenged, those who want to control it tend to invent some theory of how some people's misconduct makes others misbehave as well. So If George here smokes pot or sells his body or is a lazy bum, this is often portrayed as leading to other people doing likewise. And at times that may be the case but the responsibility for picking up someone's bad behavior lies with the one who's doing the picking up, not the one who carried on badly but peacefully. Influencing others isn't coercing them!

So the bottom line is that only when others act violently, coercively may their conduct be thwarted. If they act peacefully though badly, all that's available among free men and women is persuasion. If this idea were widely adhered to, we would be living in a significantly different world. It would be a more civilized world, that's for sure.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Misunderstanding the Fiasco

Tibor R. Machan

My concern here isn't with identifying who or what produced the recent financial fiasco but with whether and how one might produce such an identification.

It is my contention that in a thoroughly mixed economic system such as that of the U.S.A., untangling the macroeconomic or general cause and effect process is nearly impossible. It is not possible, in any case, without a comprehensive theory of how an economy works in terms of which one could then determine, despite the mass of confusing data, what could have gone amiss. Unless one has a good theory about such matters, the mere listing of events and factors just will not suffice. All that gives is hints, at most.

In the Sunday New York Times of April 11, 2010, Frank Rich tries again, as have many others, to assign responsibility of what happened as is still happening to such people as former Fed Chief Greenspan and treasury secretary Rubin. But once one appreciates the difficulty involved in sorting out what did and did not contribute to what went down, which public policies, the decisions of which public officials, the practices of which market institutions or the actions of which market agents--of whom there were, of course, millions--it can been conjectures with considerable confidence that Rubin and, especially, Greenspan are mere stand-ins in a philosophical and macroeconomic conflict between those who trust everything to government and those who have confidence in free institutions.

Because Greenspan was once associated with radical capitalist thinking, such as Ayn Rand's Objectivism, he is constantly being derided. But it's pure politics or ideology; no one really knows what or who in this country's terribly mixed economy brought about the recent financial fiasco. Most who seek to blame are scapegoating, nothing more, using the occasion to score points against what they disapprove of. (Greenspan was generally approved of by most as the Fed's chief even though he himself never made much of the job--just read his 1997 lecture about central banking to the Association of Private Enterprise Education at Frank Rich himself is but a latecomer here. It is Paul Krugman, his colleague at The Times, who puts forth the most dogmatically stated blame, namely, that what is responsible is the legacy of Reaganomics and so called market fundamentalism, a phony whipping boy if there ever was one.

When wide ranging events of very serious harmful impact occur in a mixed economy, to be able to figure out which portion of the mixture was most responsible is very tough. One needs, oddly enough, a general framework, just the sort that the likes of Krugman and Mr. Obama disparage constantly. These people are avowed pragmatists and for them any theoretical analysis of such events amounts to nothing more than cheap ideology.

By "ideology" they mean something unspecified--I have never read anything by either Krugman or Obama that explains their use of the term, as if it were a simple concept, which it isn't. One can only infer their meaning indirectly, from the fact that they tend to contrast it with pragmatism and "pragmatism" does have a pretty specific, commonly understood meaning. It refers to an intellectual disposition that rejects systematic analysis of events and things in the world. "Unprincipled" may capture it correctly and the reason for this is that a serious, traditional pragmatist claims there simply are no fundamental principles in such disciplines as economics, political economy, or even philosophy. All that's possible is a kind of catch-as-catch-can approach, a focus on what happens to bring about what one likes to bring about.

The general framework approach would start with the development of certain theories of human economic life that produce such systems of analysis as laissez-faire capitalism, socialism, fascism, communism, communitarianism, the welfare state and the like (with the ultimate goal of applying the best to actual public policy). From extensive historical study and sorting out of data, thinkers arrive at such broad systems and use these to analyze the very messy world in which economic events occur.

There simply is no way to escape theorizing, contrary to pragmatism. And so the only approach to figuring out what happened is by deploying the best of these general accounts of human economic life and see what it tells us. Yes, in this case theory comes before adequate understanding (but the theory has to be a sound one, which is no easy requirement to meet).

Until such an approach is recognized as the sort needed to figure things out, all that will be in evidence is a nearly random but emphatic finger pointing, with the hope to clinching the case for one's partisan analysis through intimidation.