Saturday, June 19, 2010

No Excuse for Coercion

Tibor R. Machan

I am always baffled and now and then really angered when people defend using coercion against other people. (Some will say I must be biased since I come from several early years of tyranny and since one of my parents was an out and out brute. How could I be objective then, about the merits of coercive force?)

For my money coercive force is not only when someone threatens to beat up or kill another unless that other does as told. I start much earlier, when someone presumes to have the authority to entice or nudge his or her fellow human beings to do as told (hoped for)! I don’t see that the importance of the project that’s to be served by such coercive force has anything to do with it--people aren’t supposed to be other people’s tools, unwilling devices for the sake of achieving even the most magnificent objectives. Certainly no one is made a morally better individual by way of being beaten or threatened to be beaten into being such, to do what is morally right. How could they, since moral goodness, if it amounts to anything intelligible at all, must involve the agent’s free choice. Without the chance to choose to do the right or wrong thing any kind of worthwhile conduct amounts at most to good behavior, like what we want from dogs or horses.

But never mind the complications--nearly everything in human life can be made to appear utterly complicated, so that people can be intimidated into thinking they have no way to tell right from wrong about it. Sophistry is a very potent motivation for withdrawing from the moral game, as some philosophers would put it. Make it all appear to be incomprehensible to us, a matter of the facts and laws of highly specialized science, at best, or beyond the pale altogether and only to be intuited by leaders. As the late Harvard psychologist B. F. Skinner proposed, only technologists of human behavior can be entrusted with the authority to make us all do what is desirable to do. Since, of course, there are umpteen schools of psychologists who are candidates for this role, using force to decide in the end who shall be our technologists is immediately unavoidable. So power will decide!

What really gets to me is how casually these advocates of nudging, manipulating, incentivizing, and so forth think past the idea that they are proposing using force on other people, not all of whom will protest but many others who would not comply other than from fear for their lives and liberties and that of their loved ones. How they can just get past the policies for how to treat people that their ideas imply? They have to do some serious evading, since one cannot easily imagine that they would advocate such coercive policies concerning themselves or those they respect and love. And would they happily embrace the idea of, say, rape, pedophilia, kidnapping, assault, torture, etc., since all these are but variations of coercive conduct toward other people in support of some kind of desired objective? How can their defense of coercive policies against other human beings--be they filthy rich, unfairly tall, racists, and anyone who does anything morally wrong that doesn’t qualify as violating anyone’s right to life and liberty--be sustained when they must know that when human beings are involved, what is due them is civilized persuasion, not coercion. So integrity, clearly, is not a strong virtue for such folks. Yes, I think some serious evasion is afoot here, people really failing to live up to principles that aren’t mysterious but plainly enough the foundation of civilized human interaction. To be civilized is to deploy not coercive force in how one acts toward others but rational persuasion, often indeed patient and prolonged rational persuasion.

Some will say, “Well all this preference of coercion is simply the natural hunger for power in human nature,” but that surely can’t be right since millions have no such hunger at all, quite the contrary. What millions and millions have yearned for and are yearning for is peaceful, civilized interaction with others but with a fraction--albeit influential faction--choosing the shortcut of coercive force.

Yes, there are cases that make it difficult to tell the difference between such untoward, barbaric ways of acting and the civilized ways but that is one reason we have minds, namely, to work on figuring out the distinction and to act and shape policies and institutions accordingly. It is no excuse for continuing with coercion against one’s fellows that now and then coercion isn’t easy to differentiate from peaceful interaction and that perhaps once in a billion it seems justified. Most human endeavors pose such difficulties, borderline cases as philosophers have dubbed them, yet they manage with building skyscrapers, massive dams, MRI and Cat Scan devices--you name them and people have handled them all despite the occasional difficulties and even quandaries.

So, no, there is no excuse for coercive treatment of one’s fellows, not in 99.99% of the cases where such treatment is deployed. Let no sophistry distract anyone from that.
Why Welfare States Hemorrhage

Tibor R. Machan

One central reason welfare states--or call them social democracies or whatever runaway mob rule most developed and developing countries are subject to these days (for the last thing they are is capitalist)--go broke is a basic flaw of the system, not the particular fault of politicians or bureaucrats or the devil.

Nearly all democracies now are unlimited, illiberal, and unrestrained by firm constitutional principles that prohibit spending more than what the treasury can bear. So the politicians are impelled by democratic forces to dole out support for their constituents without any regard for budgetary constraints. No budgets can be enforced since the very lawmakers and bureaucrats who would do the enforcement are themselves impelled by the democratic process to drain the treasury beyond rhyme or reason. Also, people just cannot be taxed endlessly--in time they just give up seeking to prosper.

Just imagine a family of five, with each using a copy of a credit card but none imposing self-discipline, so that whenever one of them wants to make a purchase, it’ll be done. Together the purchases reach way beyond the family’s financial resources, so, no surprise, the card will be maxed out in no time. Of course, credit card companies impose limits on card-holders but most families can obtain a half a dozen or more credit cards, so maxing out one doesn’t serve to discipline them, either individually or collectively.

Now add to this analogy the fact that when it comes to national treasuries, these are generally subject to carrying enormous debts and deficits. And those who are in time responsible for covering these are not yet alive or are very young, so they aren’t even in a position to express their protest about being saddled with these obligations they did not assume either individually or collectively. They are trapped into shouldering obligations very likely way beyond their capacity to cover. (There, by the way, goes “no taxation without representation”!) This is all exacerbated by the tragedy of the commons, since everyone also believes in getting as much out of the common treasury as possible with no thought about replenishing it. After all, what is in the treasury is all ours, a public resource, just as the resources around us in the wilds or the air mass belong to all of us, so that no private property rights serve to put borders around what people have available to use. Furthermore, public choice theory shows that politicians and bureaucrats work mainly to advance their own limitless agendas, having no clue at all what is in the public interest. So the pressures on the treasury are enormous.

There is a school of economic thought that aims to remedy matters, called constitutional economics--lead by George Mason University Nobel Laureate economist, James Buchanan--with the public policy objective to putting constitutional limits on spending. Some states of the union make an attempt at this but usually without much success, again because the democratic process tends to override all attempts at restraint. If politicians can ensure their own elections and reelections by promising to raid the treasury “for the benefit of voters”--never mind that altogether this is not really feasible but only a deceptive promise--they will do whatever they can to accomplish this goal. Those on their staffs or whom they appoint are not likely to stand in their way since they will be fired in a jiffy if they try.

It comes out to be a proverbial Hobbesian war of all (groups) against all. Labor, business, education, science, the arts, farming, you name it, and everyone is asking to gain support from the treasury and the politicians proudly assume it to be their duty to accommodate the requests however impossible this is.

The late Mancur Olson, a brilliant student of the welfare state, argued (in his book The Logic of Collective Action [U. of Michigan Press, 1965]) that this process is literally unstoppable and only a major meltdown can put a halt to it, followed by, perhaps, some revolutionary changes in the system. But so long as the democratic process continues (me thinks), everything will just repeat itself (even though now the meltdown may well be on its way globally).

I know of no solution to all this other than to insist that the very problem be communicated to the citizenry, relentlessly, repeatedly, and vigilantly, so that despite everyone's tendency to get on the dole, wisdom and prudence would in time prevail.

All of this needs to begin at home, but sadly macro-economists--including our current president--are telling everyone to spend, spend, and spend some more, for therein, miraculously, lies our salvation. Yet, contrary to this nonsense, in the end the best cliche to follow is that one just cannot get blood out of a turnip.

Friday, June 18, 2010

Justice and BP

Tibor R. Machan

It is very probable that BP and its associated firms will be found guilty of malpractice and assessed major fines and punishment. However, this hasn't yet happened so it’s premature to punish BP at this point. Nor is it the role of the President of the U.S. to act as prosecutor, judge and jury in this case or any other. Where is due process in all of what he and Congress have been doing lately? Or has an anti-British or anti-business attitude wiped out the need for justice? Urging or imploring--even attempting to persuade--BP to set up the $20 billion fund could be a good idea but treating this as demanded by justice is utterly misguided. There should be no compromise of principle even in the heat of anger and the grips of outrage and sorrow. It is imperative to wait until the verdict is in.

Many moons ago President Richard Nixon lashed out at Charles Manson after he learned of the carnage but before the law could get at the mass murderer. The president told reporters that Manson was "guilty, directly or indirectly of eight murders." Manson's defense team then went on to argue in court that such a statement by the president undermined the possibility of a fair trial. The defense motioned for a mistrial, insisting that the charges against Manson be dropped but the judge, Older, denied it.
Interestingly the following day in court Manson displayed a paper, headlined "Manson Guilty, Nixon Declares," presumably in the hopes of producing a mistrial but instead the judge questioned jurors concerning their reactions and determined that they could remain impartial. He did sentence one of the attorneys to three nights in jail as punishment for leaving the paper in Manson's reach.

Why mention all this? A case like the oil spill will generate a long and intricate legal process and many of those who have suffered from the explosion and the spill will need to have it heard and decided expeditiously and President Obama’s and Congress’ treatment of BP could very well pose obstacles to a speedy resolution and due compensation. It is doubtful that this would be welcome, especially by those most effected by the catastrophe.

It seems, however, that politicians cannot resist capitalizing on events like this one. Just as White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel suggested, do not let a disaster go unexploited. However, there can be serious downside to this attitude, since rushing to judgment can backfire and BP’s attorneys, who would naturally want to lessen any losses this disaster will cost the company, could exploit it in the course of the trials sure to follow. Nor need one view this cynically--it is, first of all, the job of those attorney’s to see to it that BP gets what amounts to a legal fair shake; second, objectively speaking, it is still to be determined what and who is responsible for what happened.

Yes, one would wish to be able to point a finger with no complications but that could turn out to be a pipe dream here. However painful this is, especially to the families of those 11 who perished in the initial explosion and to all those who are suffering from the impact of the spill throughout the Gulf region, justice cannot be achieved without examining the situation in full. And that could take time.

Sadly, many, including most of the mainstream media, are more interested in a show of strong feelings from President Obama instead of warning him about muddying the legal waters of this case. In the long run, however, it will be far more important that true justice be done instead of publicly parading sincere yet very possibly badly targeted emotions.

One may suppose that those who have suffered from all this will be impervious to all such niceties as due process of law but even in the most extreme circumstances, as after a plane crash and a building or bridge collapse, the human thing to do is to remain as civilized as bearable. Emotions are perfectly appropriate, of course, but they are no substitute for what justice demands.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Revisiting Free Will

Tibor R. Machan

In an essay for The New Republic, “Oh, the humanity,” Bradford Plumer writes as follows:

"Take your pick on what's most infuriating about the oil crisis in the Gulf. There's the growing evidence that the platform blowout that caused all that crude to erupt out of the ocean floor was entirely preventable and should never have happened in the first place. BP cut corners on safety to save money, and regulators barely seemed to care. And now no one has any real clue how to contain the spill--we just have to watch helplessly as the ever-expanding oil slick poisons fisheries and kills off marshlands and coral reefs. What's especially unnerving, though, is that the recklessness that helped bring about the spill, and the political reaction that followed, seem to indicate a larger inability to prevent and cope with other large-scale ecological catastrophes--particularly climate change."

Here you have yet another instance of never allowing a good disaster to go unexploited for political purposes, a policy endorsed a while ago by White House Chief Rahm Emanuel. But I will leave that aside for now and focus once again on the curious phenomenon of defenders of determinism remaining completely silent when it comes to defending those who are accused of wrong-doing on the grounds that, well, there is nothing they could have done differently. Saying that the blowout “was entirely preventable” clearly assume free will--that those responsible for operating and managing the operations at the rig could have done otherwise than they did. All this finger pointing, charges of recklessness--at BP and the regulators and whoever was near to the events and might be a candidate for malpractice charges--seems to be entirely fine with the academic defenders of determinism, such as Paul and Patricia Churchland, Ted Honderich, Daniel Dennett and their innumerable supporters in this controversy.

The doctrine of free will is not faring very well these days among most philosophers, although a few who work on the topic, even among neuro-scientists, do defend it. I am one of them. I have written books, scholarly papers, and essays on the topic but each time I make my case, quite a few people dismiss my thesis as implausible, wrong, even disingenuous. (In these discussions many do not stick to topic and veer off into name calling, sadly, or charging their opponents with duplicitous conduct, specious argumentation, etc., instead of leaving it at trying to show that their adversaries’ position is wrong. That is itself odd, since a determinist could not really sustain the claim that the opponent could have done other than he or she did, namely, defend free will!)

But back to BP and the oil catastrophe. If one maintains that it was all preventable, one must hold that those involved could have done things differently from what they actually did, that they were free to choose to act other than they did act. And that is to reject determinism. So, all those famous determinists I have named above and their allies might be expected to be rushing to the defense of the idea that what happened in the Gulf of Mexico simply had to happen--no alternative course of conduct was possible.

There was one famous American who did come forth in a notorious case, the murder trial of Leopold and Loeb, namely, Clarence Darrow, and defended the accused on the grounds that no one can help what he or she does and criminals are not exempt from this principle. Leopold and Loeb were two wealthy University of Chicago students who murdered 14-year-old Bobby Franks in 1924, supposedly because they believed in some contorted version of Nietzsche’s doctrine of the overman and to put it into practice they decided to do the perfect crime. Darrow, in turn, defended them in part on the very general grounds that there is nothing anyone can do differently from what he or she does in fact do.

One may disagree with Darrow’s line of defense but there is certainly one commendable thing about it: it shows integrity. Darrow put his money where his mouth was, as it were, even though it was a very unpopular position and, indeed, he lost the case for his defendants.

But perhaps coming to the defense of BP would be far more unpopular, given how there is a considerable populist atmosphere in the country and big corporations are pretty much guilty before having been proven so of whatever they are accused. (It is probably true that BP and some of its associates will be found guilty of grievous malpractice in this case, although it is too early to be convinced of this now.)

What is curious to me, as a minor public intellectual--someone who takes one’s theories outside the halls of the academy and applies them quite directly to actual issues in the world--is that these famous defenders of determinism, many of whom make fun of the idea of free will (e.g., call it spooky and magical), do not step up in defense of their idea when it matters most, in a concrete case like the Gulf of Mexico oil disaster.
Liberty and Hard Cases*

Tibor R. Machan

What if a tornado hits? What if a lot of tornadoes hit? The issue isn’t very complicated, but it is challenging. The free society is supposed to be governed with an eye to securing the rights to life, liberty, the pursuit of happiness and other rights not enumerated in, say, the Bill of Rights. Briefly, such a society rests on principles derived from the fact that human beings at all times, in all places, are first and foremost sovereign individuals with the capacity for self-rule, self-directedness. This capacity is a defining attribute of human beings, not merely specific to certain cultures, as some critics of classical liberalism would have it. An adult human being needs to and is capable of learning how to live and flourish independently. Any community worthy of being considered a human one must accommodate this fact about us. We are also social beings, but not just any kind of society will do our individuality justice. The novelty of the American political vision, however ill or well realized it has been, is an affirmation of the sovereignty of individuals and an established legal order in which this sovereignty is to be secured, protected, and maintained.

But what do we do when disaster strikes? Natural calamities—earthquakes, floods, tidal waves, hurricanes, tornadoes, typhoons, and the like—seem to warrant an expansion of governmental authority beyond what a free society would sanction. And government has indeed habitually stepped in with all sorts of measures whenever and wherever disasters have struck. Flood control measures are usually deemed to be its business. Few batted an eye even when the U.S. Army was called out to battle Hurricane Andrew in Florida. What is government for if not to come to the aid of citizens in such circumstances? Charles Dunlap argues that deploying the military for extraneous, non-defense purposes is likely to convince military leaders and enthusiasts that they, not civilians, ought to be governing the country. (See Charles J. Dunlap Jr., “The Origins of the American Military Coup of 2012,” Parameters, winter 1992– 93, pp. 2–20.)

Even in personal affairs, using physical force can sometimes be justifiable—for example, when one needs to yank an unsuspecting person from the path of imminent deadly danger. John Stuart Mill argued that physically blocking someone from stepping onto a collapsing bridge is justified even in the context of adhering to the basic principles of individual liberty and minimal government.

Yet as Robert Higgs (in Crisis and Leviathan) and others have shown, it is nearly impossible to reestablish limits on government once it has acquired the legal authority to expand its powers for the sake of handling emergencies. In the law and in the making of public policy, precedent counts for a great deal; there is a slippery slope here. Once an approach is legitimized, extensions of power beyond the particular and special areas originally intended are almost inevitable. The definition of what constitutes an eligible emergency tends to broaden. Eventually, lawmakers may neglect no dire need whatever. What might slow or reverse such encroachment is a change of heart, some fear of going too far or the like. But once the logic of intervening in a particular special case has been established, it is difficult to offer a persuasive rationale for declining to apply the same logic to similar cases—unless the legitimacy of the original intervention itself is challenged. As a result, most “temporary powers” assumed by government remain part of its permanent repertoire.

Consider gun control legislation. The Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution was undermined early on in our legislative history. And now, especially in the wake of tragic shootings—at schools, restaurants, post offices, amusement parks—it has become harder and harder to raise principled objections against more and more restrictions on the right of self-defense. Vocal members of the citizenry demand it, and the politicians have precedents.

Such decline and fall of political principles serves to underscore the integrity of those principles. They can’t normally be violated, even a little, with impunity; minor incursions tend to snowball, especially when hallowed in law. Even so, a powerful tradition of political thinking challenges the value of such integrity. In contemporary U.S. politics and, indeed, around the world, it is often deemed to be a good thing to be “flexible.” Many sophisticated thinkers dismiss principled politics as “mere ideology.” Instead of ideology, they argue, we should embrace pragmatism. (Prominent jurists with different substantive views hold to this notion—e.g., Judge Richard Posner and Obama’s regulation czar, Harvard Professor Cass Sunstein!)

The term ideology is burdened by a number of pejorative connotations, often imported into the implicit definition of the term. For example, there is Marx’s claim that principled economic and political thinking can be nothing but rationalization for class interest (with his own economic and political thinking somehow granted exemption from this indictment, however). Those who defend a substantially laissez-faire, free market system—such as Adam Smith and David Ricardo—are on this view merely doing so to promote the class interest of capitalist, wealthy people served by such a system. Their principled advocacy amounts to nothing more than special pleading.

“Ideology” is also supposed to be the hobbyhorse of the simplistic thinker, inclining one to provide knee-jerk solutions to complex problems. This is the charge lodged against those who would apply political principles to judge what public officials ought to do in particular cases. Presumably, the resort to principle allows one, perhaps even encourages one, to ignore details of the specific context at hand.

An objective definition of political ideology (i.e., one that doesn’t import various charges against believers in a particular ideology) might be “a set of political values and doctrines advanced in support of a particular social-political system.” The definition says nothing about what those values and doctrines might be or whether their justification of a particular social system is successful. That has to be evaluated independently (i.e., the sheer fact of possessing a belief cannot be taken as proof of the falsehood or disingenuousness of that belief; it may well be that even if a capitalist says 2 plus 2 is 4, it really is 4.) And, to be sure, even the critics of ideology have ideologies of their own. Of course, theirs is usually construed as being the result of long and hard thinking and observations about community life, productive of sound judgments and evaluations; it’s the other person with the other ideology who is the thoughtless propagandist for rigid and unworkable answers.

One doesn’t have to choose between facts of the case and principles that govern, however. Politics, in fact, requires both principled thinking and proper flexibility in applying those principles to the relevant context. Just as in our personal lives, so in politics and law, we need basic ideas that serve as the foundation for understanding how human communities ought to function. And we need to practice and abide by those ideas. If they’re valid, we ought not ignore them even when the tough cases come along and it is tempting to sacrifice the long-term benefits of principled action for the sake of short-term convenience. Yet it is also vital that cases be considered in light of the detailed facts, many of which may be new and might even require some modification of the principles that guide legal decision-making. New ways of communicating, new religious movements, and new forms of artistic expression all require the application of familiar principles (such as those embodied in the First Amendment) in imaginative yet consistent ways.

Certainly, it is unrealistic to expect that either the flexible case-by-case assessment alone, or rigid and unreflective application of principles alone, could be sufficient to formulate sound public policy. Prominent contemporary political intellectuals, clearly, largely eschew the principled approach. However, many do regard every problem as unique, thus fostering public policies and legal decisions that do not in practice conform to any basic principles (except perhaps the principle of pragmatism itself). (There are exceptions—as when some declared pragmatists oppose water boarding or torture, never mind the results they may produce!)

As a result, those who administer public policy and law more and more have become the ultimate arbiters of what will be acceptable public policy. And that, in turn, defeats the ideal of the rule of law, the only reasonable alternative to the rule of arbitrary human will, whether of a majority, a king, or a single ruling party. The rule of law allows everyone to participate in the assessment of public policy and legal decision-making; we can all evaluate whether our policy and lawmakers are doing the right thing by reference to a knowable, objective standard. If no principles apply, then anything goes. Usually, the most emotionally appealing choice of the moment is accepted, which means that those who are most adept at expressing and manipulating emotions—the demagogues—are the ones who tend to carry the day. In emergencies, especially massive emergencies that have a wide impact on a society, the opportunities for such demagoguery abound.

Is the championing of flexibility a good idea? Is it a valid approach to politics and law making? A hint that it might not be is the fact that even pragmatists may recoil from their own approach when they think the values at stake are too important to be forsaken even a little. No self-respecting moral theorist would propose that when a man forces a woman to have sex with him, the moral and legal status of the act should be mulled anew with each case. Instead everyone accepts the principle that a person has the right to choose with whom he or she will have sex and thus that any clear violation of this right is grounds for sanction. But this is the opposite of being pragmatically flexible without regard for principle.

Imagine how members of a jury in a rape case might deliberate if they were eager to be flexible and avoid being “rigid.” They would steer clear of blind obedience to “dogmatic” principles—such as the need to respect the rights of the victim or to be objective about the evidence for the guilt of the defendant. Rather, the jurors would attend to such emotionally resonant considerations as whether the perpetrator is a nice person, has appealing attributes, serves the community vigilantly, promotes economic prosperity, paints well, or throws a football well. The distress of the victim may or may not enter into such a calculation. After all, what if the victim has a checkered past, is rude to the bailiff, or just doesn’t emote well on the stand? By the standard of pragmatic flexibility, basing decisions on such factors may well be unimpeachable. By contrast, a principled approach would not gainsay that it is a violation of basic human rights to rape someone or that determining the guilt of the defendant on this score is the only purpose of the proceedings.

Is being principled “mere ideology”? Is it “simplistic”? Is it deficient in appropriate flexibility? No. Nor would it be simplistically ideological and excessively rigid to judge various other social matters by reference to certain tried and true principles, ones we have learned over many years of human experience with community life.

Thus, for example, when someone objects to government intrusion in the marketplace, regarding it as a violation of our economic freedom, this objection is grounded in arguably well-developed and well-established principled thinking about public economic policy. Similarly, to criticize restraint of trade because it violates private property rights and freedom of contract is no less based on tried and true principles—not as they apply to one’s sovereignty over sexual matters but as they apply to one’s sovereignty over economic matters.

If we accept the validity and force of moral principles in every case that the principles legitimately govern, there would be no basis for excusing lying, cheating, fraud, rape, murder, assault, kidnap- ping, and any of the other myriad ways people can damage their fellows. In politics, no less so than in ethics or morality, general principles come into play as we evaluate how people conduct themselves. It is not a matter of whether we need principles, only of which principles we in fact need.

Principles are tested by hard cases. Despite the temptation to abandon the principle of limited government when it comes to calamities—such as the Exxon-Valdez mess, Katrina, and the Gulf of Mexico oil catastrophe precipitated, in appears, mainly by the giant oil corporation, British Petroleum—it may best be to encourage the development of institutions that meet the problems without the involvement of the government (private insurance policies are one such institution). Of course, the temptation to use government power is difficult to resist, and it is legitimate to ask whether the use of government power in such cases can ever be proper and consistent with the ideal of limited government or whether it must always generate that slippery slope.

None of us is unfamiliar with the hazards of the slippery slope in our own personal lives. If a man hits his child in some alleged emergency, the very act of doing so may render him more amenable to smacking the kid under more typical circumstances. Slapping someone who is hysterical may make it easier to slap someone who is only very upset or recalcitrant or annoying or just too slow fetching the beer from the refrigerator. Similarly, a “minor” breach of trust can beget more of the same; a little white lie here and there can beget lying as a routine, and so forth. Moral habits promote a principled course of action even in cases where bending or breaking the principle might not seem too harmful to other parties or to our own integrity. On the other hand, granting ourselves “reasonable” exceptions tends to weaken our moral habits; as we seek to rationalize past action, differences of kind tend to devolve into differences of degree. Each new exception provides the precedent for the next, until we lose our principles altogether and doing what is right be- comes a matter of happenstance and mood rather than of loyalty to enduring values.

The same is true of public action. When citizens of a country delegate to government, by means of democratic and judicial processes, the power to forge paternalistic public policies such as banning drug abuse, imposing censorship, restraining undesirable trade, and supporting desirable trade, the bureaucratic and police actions increasingly rely on the kind of violence and intrusiveness that no free citizenry ought to experience or foster. And the bureaucrats and the police tell themselves, no doubt, that what they’re doing is perfectly just and right.

Consider, for starters, that when no one complains about a crime—because it is not perpetrated against someone but rather involves breaking a paternalistic law—to even detect the “crime” requires methods that are usually invasive. Instead of charges being brought by wronged parties, phone tapping, snooping, anonymous reporting, and undercover work are among the dubious means that lead to prosecution. Thus the role of the police shifts from protection and peacekeeping to supervision, regimentation, and reprimand. No wonder, then, that officers of the law are often caught brutalizing suspects instead of merely apprehending them. Under a paternalistic regime, their goals have multiplied, and thus the means they see as necessary to achieving those goals multiply too.

The same general danger of corrupting a free society’s system of laws may arise when government is called on to deal with calamities. There is the perception, of course, that in such circumstances the superior powers of government are indispensable, given the immediateness of the danger. The immediate benefits—a life saved by a marine—are evident. Yet the dangers of extensive involvement by legal authorities in the handling of non-judicial problems are no less evident, if less immediate in impact.

The contributors to this work set out to explore (a) whether government action is indispensable under such circumstances and (b) what might be done to restrain the expansion of the scope of governmental power if indeed emergency circumstances warrant governmental intervention.

This is a work in normative political theory and public policy. Contributors are at times examining imaginary cases, doing thought experiments, with the aid of what might be considered approximations of historical models.

This approach is typical not only in scholarship and research on normative human affairs (where experimentation is precluded unless conducted on volunteers) but also in ordinary life. We often wonder how we might best acquit ourselves under difficult circumstances, even if we realize that rarely does everyone do his or her best at the task. The point is we might do our best if we prepare well. Asking “what if?” helps us prepare.

So what if a fully free society were battered by calamities? Could it preserve its liberty while also handling the emergencies promptly and well? This is the question taken up by contributors to the volume I edited, Liberty and Hard Cases (Hoover Institution Press, 2002).

* This essay is based on the Introduction to the above volume in which policy matters are fully explored.

N. Scott Arnold, The Role of Government in Responding to Natural Catastrophes
Barun S. Mitra, Dealing with Natural Disaster
John Ahrens, A Fool’s Errand?
Aeon J. Skoble, Liberty, Policy, and Natural Disasters
Sandel Says Rumor is False

Tibor R. Machan

A while ago a rumor was circulating about Michael Sandel, the Harvard University political theorist who is an avid advocate of egalitarianism. He supposedly refused to allow his children to play competitive sports because these instill the wrong, anti-egalitarian values in them.

I mentioned this in a column, saying “Michael Sandel reportedly refused to let his own child play sports because that would teach them the idea that some people are better athletes than others and that this matters somewhat in one's life.” Then I went on to criticize the policy and the philosophy behind it.

The column appears to have just recently come to Sandel’s attention, so he sent me an email saying that “this [the report] is false.” I am, in turn, reporting what he said so as to let others know that he despite the report. If I mislead anyone, I apologize. (My hedge, “reported,” may not have been sufficient to warn people that this was just a rumor.)

As to the substance of the issue, an egalitarian would quite naturally object to competitive sports which emphasize differences among people, not their similarities. (They would prefer being a member of a choir, one may assume.) Whatever competitive sport one might consider, in the end some turn out to have outdone the rest, proven themselves better than their competitors. The idea that eliminating such sports might contribute to the elimination of the meritocratic aspects of one’s society is certainly very plausible.

Egalitarians like Sandel’s former colleague, the late John Rawls, explicitly reject the idea that people could deserve their advantages in life. Rawls has written, in his very famous A Theory of Justice, that “The assertion that a man deserves the superior character that enables him to make the effort to cultivate his abilities is … problematic; for his character depends in large part upon fortunate family and social circumstances for which he can claim now credit.” (104) This surely implies, also, that any attribute one has that leads one to win in a competitive sport is also “in large part” a matter of fortunate circumstance and thus permitting children to believe that they have earned their victories in such sports would be to foster a seriously mistaken social point of view. (This is why the rumor about how the egalitarian political theorist Sandel’ rears his children appeared quite plausible to me.)

Nonetheless, I didn’t check out the rumor. Given that I was writing an opinion column and not a scholarly paper, I figured it is the substance that matters, not the veracity of the story. But I can appreciate that Sandel would not agree, so I want to make sure that his denial gets at least some circulation. It does bear mentioning, however, that Sandel himself has characterized libertarianism in seriously misleading ways, suggesting, on his TV program “Justice,” that for libertarians there are no moral responsibilities apart from ones that one agrees to shoulder.

Yet, of course, libertarians hold that at the minimum everyone is obligated not to violate the rights of others. Furthermore, libertarians are political and not moral theorists so they do not spell out any specific moral position that we ought to abide by. They do agree, on the whole, that whatever moral responsibilities one has need to be carried out voluntarily even if they do bind one to act in certain ways. Any kind of coerced conduct loses moral significance, which is another reason for insisting on the regime of individual liberty and on rejecting Sandel’s enforced egalitarianism.

So never mind Sandel, just mind his egalitarianism, which he is well positioned, at Harvard University and on PBS-TV, to promulgate. So it is worth pointing out the flaws of Sandel’s position, including their misguided implications for public policy. We can accept Sandel’s denial of what he was rumored to do concerning his children’s playing competitive sports; yet the idea that this follows from his philosophy is worth pointing out.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Laws versus Regulations

Tibor R. Machan

Many moons ago I directed a conference on government regulation, out of which the book edited by me and the late M. Bruce Johnson, Rights and Regulation (Ballinger, 1983) was created. In this book some of those who supported government regulation--and most mainstream contributors did so--maintained that being opposed to government regulations is like being opposed to laws. And since laws are necessary for a just society, the inference was drawn that so are government regulations.

The logic is not impeccable but there is some plausibility to the argument until one considers just how different laws and government regulations really are.

The major difference is that most laws, especially those that comprise the criminal system, are prohibitions, bans on doing certain kind of things like murdering, robbing, assaulting, kidnapping and so forth. These are forbidden because they amount to the violation of people's rights, intruding upon them and their realm, as when one trespasses on their private property. Government regulations are something else entirely.

When the government regulates our conduct, it sets certain standards for how the conduct must be carried out. Government regulations do just what they say, regulate, manipulate, regiment, nudge and so forth, mostly conduct that is peaceful, non-invasive, and non-aggressive, although sometimes risky. If one is a money manager or investment advisor or auto mechanic or TV repairer, government regulations amount to dictating how one should perform one's professional responsibilities, how one should do one's job. As if government had some kind of superior understanding to which others must be made to conform. This is why regulators usually need to poke into people's lives, send out inspectors, trap people, etc., because there need be no victims when government regulations are not followed.

One of the essays in Rights and Regulation, by J. C. Smith then of the University of British Columbia, titled "The Process of Adjudication and Regulation, A Comparison," argued that instead of approaching the concerns that supposedly motivate advocates of government regulation by means of meddling preemptively with the conduct of the regulated, the way to handle it is to have a system of tort and similar law that strongly discourages people from any kind of malpractice. This avoids one of the central injustices of government regulation, namely prior restraint.

This legal concept is usually associated with slapping restrictions on those engaged in writing for newspapers before it has been shown that their writing will do violence to innocent people and is considered unjust. Similarly, government regulations impose controls on how people conduct themselves before anyone has been harmed, hurt, imposed upon or the like. Government regulations are, in other words, precautionary and escape the restraint of due process of law.

Because of this, such regulations assume that government regulators are in fact more skilled and have better moral character than the targets of the regulations, an assumption that is entirely unwarranted. Such an assumption belongs in the political era of monarchies in which the members of the royal court were deemed to be anointed, selected by God to care for the realm. Even today it is a relic of this viewpoint, the idea of the police power, that serves as one of the legal justifications of government regulation. The government is viewed as the keeper of the realm--the Nanny, in short, who knows everything better than the members of the citizenry and whose intent is always pure.

Yes, there are arguments against government regulations that are based on how notoriously inept regulators really are, how very often they are in bed with the very people whom they are supposed to regulate, and yet other features of regulations that make them fail throughout the system. But the most important objection, as far as I have been able to discern, is that government regulations assume that government is a superhuman institution and that when things are risky or could go wrong, let's just call upon the regulators and it's all going to be fine. Well, that's total bunk.

There is nothing in principle wrong with a society of law and order provided no preemptive laws are deployed, ones that prejudicially assume that those carrying on with their occupations, jobs, careers and so forth in the market place just are not decent and skilled enough people and may not be left to their own resources to do their work. Yes, sometimes they are careless and too ambitious and produce some havoc. But certainly far less so than do agents of governments--any familiarity with human political history ought to make this very clear indeed. And when they do actually misbehave, the law should come down on them good and hard, but not beforehand.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Like Changing the Course of Aircraft Carriers
Tibor R. Machan

In the effort to move the world toward human liberty–to induce countries around the globe to implement the regime of individual rights to life, liberty, etc.–the image of turn around an aircraft carrier, redirecting which way it will move in the middle of the ocean, easily comes to mind. Those of use who have focused intensely on the merits of a bona fide, fully free country are often exasperated about how slow the progress goes, indeed, on whether there is much progress at all. Just listen to typical politicians, especially those who champion greater scope of authority for governments to manage people’s lives, and watch for how easily these people make use of the royal “we” as they discuss the affairs of the nation. They treat countries as their fiefdoms, realms they must manage, control, manipulate, direct, reform, clean up, etc. They look upon you and me as figures in a puppet show, to be moved around at their will.

A good case in point is the constant, incessant calls for government regulation whenever some problem arises in society. Such calls assume that (a) governments have the full authority to run everyone’s affairs, (b) governments have the skill to do this, and (c) governments are far more virtuous and decent than the rest of us when it comes to running anything at all. None of these assumptions is true, not a single solitary one, yet the assumptions are very rarely questioned by mainstream politicians, such as Nancy Pelosi, Barrack Obama, Harry Reed, et al. When these folks open their mouths about anything of concern to Americans or indeed people anywhere, they exhibit this tendency of looking upon themselves as supreme commanders, as folks anointed to be in charge of us all, as if we were all still mere subjects in a monarchy, meaning subject to the will of the royal court.

When politicians discuss fiscal policy, they so easily slip into this mode, treating as they do nearly always the wealth of the country as some kind of big pie they are authorized to divvy up in ways they deem proper. This is not done with equal ease when it comes to moving around the productive personnel in society since that is likely to wake people up to how much they are being simply used regardless of their consent. So, for example, national service, including conscription into the military, is rarely brought up now here in America. The idea is too directly an attack on human liberty. But the same reluctance isn’t evident when it comes to considering how governments will order around people on Wall Street, Main Street, on the farms, in factories and plants and office buildings. Citizens in these areas of society can be discussed as if they were mere objects on, say, a board game like Monopoly.

Those who know that this is and has always been wrong, that such pushing around of human beings by other human beings is intolerable, more or less tyrannical, dictatorial, find it very difficult to grasp why so many others live with it all quite placidly, complying with the dictates as if they were children being guided and ordered by parents or nannies. (Hence the idea of the Nanny State!) Are people really best suited for lives of servitude, after all, so that events such as the American Revolution amounted to something quite unnatural, in defiance of human nature?

More likely, it is this matter of the governmental habit that’s implanted itself in the hearts and minds of millions of human beings. To wean them from this habit is akin to trying to turn around the proverbial aircraft carrier and will take time even if it is indeed a very proper, desirable thing to do. So despite the slow speed–sometimes no speed at all–with which a free society is being pursued around the globe and even in the U.S.A. that basically put the idea into circulation over the last several centuries, no permanent pessimism is warranted. Instead that old vigilance must be called up, eternally, which is the price of liberty.s, no permanent pessimism is warranted. Instead that old vigilance must be called up, eternally, which is the price of liberty.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Utopian Attractions

Tibor R. Machan

Former submarine officer and author of My Nuclear Family, Christopher J. Brownfield, gave an interview in The New York Times Magazine (6/12/2010). In one of his comments--indicating clearly why The Times would feature him--he described his submarine life and interviewer Deborah Solomon, who loves to throw softball questions at all those she interviews who agree with her basic outlook, says to him: "You make it sound liek a commune," to which Brownfield replied, "It's weird, but it does have that collective feel. Everyone is in the same boat [no pun intended I assume]. There are lots of analogies to be drawn between the way we live on a sub and the way the world needs to live together."

Never mind that this ex-solidere once swore to protect the ideals laid out in the U. S. Constitution but here he is defending a distinctively Marxist communist political vision. Because, yes, by Marx's account the best of all human societies, one we will only be able to establish when human nature will have changed and the New Man comes into being, is a literal worldwide commune. Everyone will be a cell in this huge commune--what Marx himself called an "organic whole (or body)"--and no one will have a private life, no private property for sure, and everyone will love everyone else equally! The public interest will trump all others and not even as a matter of free choice but by instinct, hard-wiring, via a built-in drive the new man will have had implanted in him by history's deterministic revolutionary forces.

That is indeed what it appears this former soldier of the United States of America, home of the philosophy of humanistic individualism--where one supposedly is recognized as having a right to one's life, liberty, pursuit of happiness, etc.--wants. And, of course, The Times is only too happy to give him a platform. (Am I saying The Times is peddling communism? I don't think the publisher and editors there have much of a clue about communism but their sentiments do run in that direction, clearly, judging by how much their editorial writers and columnists insist on blaming every malady in the world, every failure, on human liberty, free markets, and freedom of choice!)

If you take a peak at this interview what you will see is a picture of a nice young man, seemingly just out of a fraternity, wearing the uniform of a yuppie, not an ex-submarine officer, of course. Yet the ideas flowing from this man are anything but what his appearance suggest he harbors in his mind and heart. No, he wants the world to be a commune!

Does he not realize that that would squash all the cherished diversity, plurality, individuality--all the spice--from the human species and render it akin to an ant colony, kind of like what one witnesses in North Korea when millions of subjects are ordered around to march in the same blue pajamas to communicate to the world their communist identity? It appears not; nor does Ms. Solomon have the presence of mind to bring it up to him and ask him how his professed global communal ideal squares with his former self-assumed duty to defend the constitution of the world's most--though by no means sufficiently--individualist country?

I would really like to be the interviewer of such a fellow! I could tell him a thing or two about this wonderful commune that he envisions for us all to live in. I would be unwilling to restrain myself from mentioning of some of the more bizarre consequences of this ideal, such as having to celebrate every single human being's birthday, wedding, graduation, and so forth, and having to attend billions of funerals all at the same time, which is what one does with the few close friends, intimates in normal, largely individualist societies and in those occasional communal associations that have a perfectly good place in them, provided they are not used to fantasize the communist ideal!

But I guess Mr. Brownfield never bothered to consider the implications of his dreamworld!
Self-Delusions of Statists

Tibor R. Machan

There is a provocative recent comment attributed to Harvard University and Nobel Laureate economist Amartya Sen in The Philosopher's Magazine (3rd Quarter 2010, p. 12 and taken from what he reported wrote in the New Statesman magazine). It is that "The nature of the present economic crisis illustrates very clearly the need for departures from unmitigated and unrestrained self-seeking in order to have a decent society" and it is extremely disappointing.

Sen, who used to co-teach courses at Harvard University with the libertarian political philosopher Robert Nozick and therefore must have a pretty clear grasp of free market ideas and of libertarianis, must also know that no one who defends the free market advocates any sort of system he is caricaturing here, not Milton Friedman, not F. A. Hayek, and not even the late Ayn Rand.

Moreover, even those who do talk of market agents' self-interest as the driving force in a free market economic system, such a good many economists, mostly mean nothing more by that than that free market agents would seek to do what they want to do, leaving it entirely open what that would be (if they really did operate in such a system rather than in the mixed economy where they do work and where the financial fiasco occurred recently).

In many cases, so called self-interested conduct in fact would promote various causes, objectives, goals that have absolutely nothing to do with self-enrichment. Moreover, even self-enrichment would often serve the function of enabling one to pursue goals that are generous, philanthropic, and focused on the arts, sciences, culture, and so forth. Even blatantly, overtly self-interested conduct often promotes one's very useful skills and abilities which get translated into very valuable and, yes, socially beneficial actions. Self-interested conduct is what leads on to go to college, to major in some preferred discipline, to graduate with honors, etc., and all this has many desirable side-effects for those other than the agent of such self-interestedness.

If, indeed, people did pay heed to their bona fide self-interest, this world would be far more decent than it is with all the meddlers running around, pace Amartya Sen. The free market, if that is what is the target in Sen's comment, merely leaves the decision as to what goals should be advanced to the ones who own the resources--including their own time and skills--instead of to politicians and bureaucrats who would regiment them. And that is nearly always a good policy.

One reason statists--and sadly Professor Sen has joined them wholeheartedly (it appears from the above quote form him)--use the language management so readily is that they pretend, in contrast to what a free market embodies, that it is the job of politicians and bureaucrats to regiment the country like one might manage a football team or a company or in the role of a life-trainer. Such managerial jobs usually voluntarily authorize the managers to move around personnel and resources as if they owned these or had power of attorney to do so. It doesn't matter to them that they are actually pushing people and resources around without this authority. To evade this, they have persuaded themselves that the bloated democratic process is natural and to protest what they are doing could at best amount to professional criticism, mostly a matter of technicalities, never of the proper scope of their authority which, to them, is limitless. They do not believe in a government that's firmly limited in its role in our lives. They are like runaway dentists who, once hired to fix teeth, mistake this as having been hired to take over the management of one's life.

It's malpractice, of course, but with their self-delusion they can block out that fact easily enough, especially given that their academic cheerleaders, like Professor Sen, keep encouraging them in these delusions.

In the end they need a fundamental reorientation--a revolution--in their thinking. This shows up, also, in how readily these academic cheerleaders make fun of the Tea Party, missing its central point and focusing on how the party members dress, what food they eat, and their manner of speech.

What is needed is a revitalization of individualism, the idea that one's life is one's own and one's actions must be left to the person to govern and may only be governed--"mitigated and restrained"--by others with full consent, not via the democratic process.