Saturday, June 05, 2010

Equality versus Diversity

Tibor R. Machan

For the last couple or so decades the universities and colleges where I have taught--and by all accounts, most of them in the USA--have had two mutually exclusive social objectives. (Yes, Virginia, higher education is now mostly embarked upon pursuing social policies, not so much educating students.) These two are equality and diversity.

On the one hand there is a big push toward eliminating any kind of inequality in the way students are being regarded and treated. Everyone is equal, just as Barrack Obama's Vice President Joseph Biden insisted in one of his rallying cries. As he put it in the course of a moving eulogy for his mother (according to the Associated Press), "My mother's creed is the American creed: No one is better than you," he said. "Everyone is your equal, and everyone is equal to you. My parents taught us to live our faith, and to treasure our families. We learned the dignity of work, and we were told that anyone can make it if they just try hard enough."

Of course Mr. Biden didn't mean we are all equal today or will be tomorrow. What he meant is that in a rightly ordered world, one ruled by him and his associates, there would be total equality among human beings, on the model of, say, ants in their colony (excepting the chief ant, of course, just as this would be and has been the case with any large scale egalitarian experiment). I am not exaggerating. Just go and read Vice President Biden's comment in full--( check out the many very prominently published books on the issue denouncing such dastardly inequalities, among others, as being more beautiful than someone else. Take, for example, Naomi Wolff's The Beauty Myth from the 1980s and the recently published work of Deborah L. Rhode, The Beauty Bias (2010).

But at the same time that the push for full equality among people is carried out with official support, we also find widespread academic support for the idea of diversity--an idea that assumes, of course, that people aren't the same at all but quite different--so our various prominent institutions must be inclusive of widely different people.

The differences at issue tend, of course, to be controversial. Some support ideological or philosophical or religious differences, so that those with different ideas, faiths, convictions and the like need all to be included. Some focus upon diversity in racial or ethnic or gender membership. Some stress differences in socio-economic status.

Whatever is the sort of diversity being considered, it is evident beyond any reasonable doubt that people are not equal by a long shot and their unequal status needs to be taken account of in how the relevant institutions--universities, high schools, clubs, corporations, etc.--are being managed, administered or governed. This is not merely a fact of life but a celebrated fact of life, given how so much of educational policy and administration is devoted to doing it justice. One need but take account of the demographics of the United States of America, let alone the globe, in order to apprehend the underlying basis of this fact. People are not only of the same species, homo sapiens, but are at the same time individuals and members of innumerable special groups, most of them entirely legitimate (unlike, say, membership in the Ku Klux Klan or the Mafia). As a favorite social philosopher of mine, Steve Martin the very inventive and funny actor and writer, put it in the novel, The Pleasure of My Company, "People, I thought. These are people. Their general uniformity was interrupted only by their individual variety."

So, on the one hand the objective is supposed to be, as VP Biden suggests, to erase all differences and render everyone equal in all important respects. On the other hand, as much of educational administrative policy suggests, diversity is to be celebrated, and the homogeneity that would be part and parcel of an egalitarian world, is to be rejected.

So then which will it be? An acknowledgement of benign human diversity or an insistence of homogenization so as to fulfill the egalitarian dream? There is no doubt about it for me: diversity is not just a fact of human life but a highly welcome one at that.

Thursday, June 03, 2010

What Do We Cherish "as Americans"?

Tibor R. Machan

In a recent talk, responding to the Arizona law that's said to be aimed at containing illegal immigration, President Barrack Obama stated that this piece of legislation "threatens to undermine basic notions of fairness that we cherish as Americans….” I am not enough of a student of the Arizona law to pass judgment on it now but I am definitely skeptical about the claim that Americans as such cherish "basic notions of fairness".

To start with, there is nothing in any basic American political document that mandates fairness across the land. Neither the Declaration of Independence, nor the Bill of Rights (or the U. S. Constitution) insists that Americans be fair. And a good thing that is, since such a demand cannot be met. Fairness is a fantasy, a dream, one that has been widely shown to be impossible, not only throughout recent human political history but also in some of the most politically astute literature. It barely works at the level of family life, let alone in a huge country.

As to the former, the attempt to institute a system of total fairness across a major society went miserably astray in the former Soviet Union and its colonies. It is a failure in all remaining socialist systems such as those in North Korea, Cuba, and Venezuela, each of which has leaders that stick to the rhetoric of fairness and equality as they keep their countries in a perpetual state of underdevelopment and act like fascist dictators (which certainly doesn't follow egalitarian principles).

As to the latter, George Orwell's masterful novella, Animal Farm, amounts to, among other things, a fierce indictment of the effort to politically engineer a society to be equal. Ayn Rand's novella, Anthem, is no less a superb fictional work that shows the viciousness of such an effort. And Kurt Vonnegut's Harrison Bergeron is a fine presentation of both the pros and the cons of a completely egalitarian world in which even good looks must be eliminated so as not to leave some folks disadvantaged.

Among the classic political economic works defending egalitarianism one will find that Rousseau's Social Contract, Karl Marx and Frederick Engel's The Communist Manifesto, R. H. Tawney's Equality, and Ronald Dworkin's Sovereign Virtue are some of the most prominently published and widely embraced in political philosophical circles. Not each lays out the same position and, Marx and Engels, especially, present a somewhat nuanced type of equality as the social norm. But they all champion equality above individual liberty as the prime principle of social organization.

Today the dream of egalitarianism is with us in full force via Hollywood's political culture--the movie Avatar, for example, presents a idyllic society of species of near-humans who behave as one might imagine those in a society wherein everyone is equal, and indeed uniform, akin to all the bees in a bee hive.

What is so off about President Obama's remark is that America is precisely the country which is distinctive among most others for placing individual liberty as the first political principle that must be implemented and which government must secure. The equality Americans prize is "equality under the law," manifest, most evidently, in how before a court no one accused of a crime is supposed to be treated either favorably or unfavorably because of his or her race, sex, place of birth, and so forth--what in jurisprudence is referred to procedural equality, not the substantial type fantasized by egalitarians.

Rightly or wrongly, Americans as Americans do not cherish equality but individual liberty--that is what comes closest to being the official political philosophy of the nation. If Mr. Obama finds this misguided, he should state it instead of lying about the matter, which is what it amounts to saying that Americans as Americans cherish basic notions of fairness that. It is especially bizarre to make such an allegation in connection with the criticism of the Arizona law since immigrants to this country, be these legal or illegal, do not in the main cherish equality but liberty. The great majority of them come here because their liberty is routinely curtailed in their native countries and they hope that they will be able to live as free men and women and choose to pursue their happiness according to their own, not their government's, lights.
Ignorance vs. Intervention

Tibor R. Machan

Some of the most prominent and influential defenders of the regime of individual liberty, such as F. A. Hayek, Milton Friedman, Richard Epstein, Don Boudreaux and others, have argued that the main reason adult men and women must be left free from others' interference is that we are all ignorant when it comes to how people ought to conduct themselves, how they should act. So, for example, after surveying arguments for a strictly limited government, English classical liberal jurist F.W. Maitland reportedly concluded: "But after all, the most powerful argument is that based on the ignorance, the necessary ignorance, of our rulers." The ignorance would be about right versus wrong ways to act!

Trouble is, now and then there will be some people who really do know a good deal, at least about some special matters like in the sciences or engineering. And this makes sense--just look around you and see the marvels of human creations and tending (e.g., to the sick or to harvesting nature). Certainly when juries reach a verdict about someone's guilt, they, too, lay claim to knowing right from wrong, at least so far as how we should act toward one another--e.g., that murderers should not murder, thieves should not steal, etc.

Of course, the kind of knowledge rulers, politicians, and government regulators lay claim to is different--they pretend to know how we, each and every single solitary one of us, ought to live from moment to moment, and this is impossible. Should I eat salty foods? Exercise regularly? Follow a diet? Go green? Drive an SUV? Save my money or spend it? Become a high school teacher or a Wall Street operator?

The little bit of this kind of knowledge that's available is only local, knowledge that intimates have of intimates (and even then much of it is speculative) and never authorizes people to regiment others' lives except when it comes to parents vis-a-vis their children and those who have been given the authority by people they might choose to instruct (doctors or trainers from patients and clients, respectively).

Such intimate and rare knowledge by no means implies the usual belief of the totalitarian sort that is so popular with governments, of people's proper goals in their lives and the means by which to reach these goals. Furthermore, the kind of knowledge one might have of how another should act does not imply that it should be imposed on people by laws and regulations. Simply as a matter of sound reasoning, logic, from the fact that one has knowledge of how another ought to act it does not follow that this knowledge may be imposed, used to justify ruling another. It is a non sequitur to think otherwise; it just doesn't follow!

So the ignorance-based defense of limited government needs to be supplemented with the rights-based defense in line with which even in those rare cases when others may well know a thing or two about how another ought to act, it is not up to these others to put that knowledge into practice but up to the agents themselves. (My doctor does know a bit about what it is that I ought to do to be well, yet he may only advise me, not force me!)

If all one relies on in the defense of liberty is widespread human ignorance of how other people should live their lives, there are simply too many cases that don't fit the situation. It is often enough that one knows that a friend or neighbor or colleague is doing something wrong and should stop this. It doesn't follow that one may do the stopping for another. It at most implies that those who care for their intimates need to try, sometimes persistently, to convince these intimates, to persuade them, to change some of their conduct. Resorting to coercive force is actually being lazy in these matters of aiming to reform people! All those reformers who want to change us need to confine themselves to educating, imploring their fellows and give up their paternalist habits (even if it is just nudging people around).

Attempting to make other people do the right thing, apart from when they embark upon violating the rights of their fellows (in which case it is a case of defensive intervention) is to deny them their moral sovereignty, to treat them as invalids or children instead of grown ups who, admittedly, may sometimes do the wrong thing and need to stop this of their own volition.

Monday, May 31, 2010

Tea Party versus ACORN, etc.

Tibor R. Machan

It looks like the way the Right despises ACORN, the Left does the Tea Party. It may not even be so much about their political stances, although that is part of it for sure. It is sad, though, that supporters of Mr. Obama had no problem with--indeed were proud of--his history of community organization but forget about this completely as they deride the Tea Party. And I am not just talking about Leftist talk show hosts and hostesses but snooty publications like The New Republic and The New York Review of Books. Instead of celebrating this clearly democratic phenomenon, the Left is demonizing it.

It is one thing to be against the ideas of some organization, quite another to be against organizing itself. Why would organizing be proper and commendable for Leftist causes but not for those of the Right? The Tea Party isn't some criminal gang burning down building, upending cars, and so forth--they march, mostly, and now and then shout out loud.

But I suppose what is good for the goose isn't always good for the gander, right? Well, let me add something then to objections against ACORN. Unlike the Tea Party phenomenon, ACORN has a history of freely dipping into public funds in support of its activities, never mind that these are certainly not approved of by all the taxpayers whose funds are being used by the organization. So while the Tea Party has that integrity about it, namely, supporting its mission by voluntary means, the means it advocates for solving problems in society, you cannot say this for ACORN and a whole lot of other Leftists outfits that have no problem with using their critics' funds.

This is something about which the Left has been very hypocritical over the years I have been aware of its political efforts in America and even before. On the one hand the Left, or most of them, opposed, say, the War in Vietnam and wanted to be able to refuse to pay the portion of taxes that funded this war. Yet when it comes to the Right's objection to government funded abortion clinics, this doesn't sit well with them at all. Indeed, whereas many on the Left would wish to withdraw government funding of whatever it is they oppose--subsidies to industries, bailouts, etc.--they seem to have no problem with using such funding for their own objectives.

But this is nothing very new, vis-a-vis the Left's political philosophy. From as long as there has been a Left, the official position has opposed the individual's basic right to private property--the first on the list of what must be abolished, according the Marx and Engels in their The Communist Manifesto. But at the same time the Left insists that the labor of the working classes is being ripped off by capitalists in the employment relationship.

So it seems the right to private property is just fine and dandy when it comes to the labor of the proletariat! However, when it comes to governing actual socialist societies, the Left has no problem with treating labor as anything but private property. No labor is public property; so that the East Germans who were attempting to flee the country could be considered thieves because they were stealing labor from the public! (This is one excuse the government gave for shooting those trying to scale the Berlin Wall back in those days!)

Maybe this is just another feature of a substantially pragmatic political outlook--never mind any principles, just forget ahead any which way you can get away with. Here is how it was put by Lenin: "Only one thing is needed to enable us to march forward more surely and more firmly to victory: namely, the full and complete thought of our appreciation by all communists in all countries of the necessity of displaying the utmost flexibility in their tactics. The strictest loyalty to the ideas of communism must be combined with the ability to make all the necessary practical compromises, to attack, to make agreements, zigzags, retreats, etc." [Lenin, "Left Wing Communism," 1920].