Saturday, June 26, 2010

My Perennial Puzzles

Tibor R. Machan

I no longer recall whether I chose philosophy as the discipline I wanted to explore because of some puzzles I encountered or whether I found the puzzles in the field once a got to do work in it. I think it is the former since I recall some odd questions I raised when I was very young--like whether people I was looking at and thinking about without their knowledge of this would then have to be described in a biography with this fact mentioned about them. Or if I looked in a certain direction from the earth and then found myself on the object I was looking at and then did this on and on and on, would it ever come to an end? Or, again, if one wants to know oneself completely, would the bit about wanting to do so be part of what one would have to know and does that not lead to an infinite regress? I once figured, while sitting in church, that the only way I could be truly selfless, as I was being urged repeatedly by the priest giving the sermon, is by murdering all those who just took communion. That way they would all ascend to heaven and I would surely end up in hell, a very selfless thing for me. (But then I was informed that my good intentions might bail me out after all.)

OK, so these are pretty infantile issues probably most of us grow up considering on and off but I kept at it and found a line of work where I could continue keeping at it. Since then I have run across somewhat more intriguing puzzles. Here are a few:

How come so many serious scientists in psychology and neuroscience propose that we are all completely prejudiced when that clearly reflects very badly on the very findings they themselves produce?

Or how is it that people who believe we are hardwired to think and do everything we think and do keep insisting that other people should stop thinking as they do and change their minds--how could that make sense if they are all hardwired?

And how is it that these same people don’t step up to defend BP, tobacco executives and the like by writing Op Ed pieces on how no one can really do anything other than what he or she does do?

In ethics I am always baffled when I hear people urging everyone to be selfless but do not recognizes that others’ selflessness can turn out to be very selfish for them. If you always work to help others, those others will benefit from this, no? Why are those others so deserving of one’s help when one isn’t deserving of it?

In politics one outstanding oddity for me is how people who insist that everyone should be treated as an equal tend mostly to hog very favorable academic positions, at Harvard, Chicago, Princeton, and so forth, without finding this in the slightest quite hypocritical? How come they do not volunteer to exchange their swell positions with those who are at far less prestigious institutions, at least for a while (say switch places with someone at a junior college for, say, a term or two)? I know people who insist that no one deserves his or her advantages in life since we are where we are largely as a matter of pure accident, yet they do absolutely nothing to change this other than to keep proposing government programs that allegedly produce greater equality. Why not start your egalitarianism where you can do something about it, at home or at your place of work?

I once asked a very well positioned and avowed Marxist political philosopher--I believe he was teaching at Cornell University and living a very plush life indeed--how it is he does nothing to help the proletariat and he told me that this is because only when the revolution has succeeded will it be necessary to implement Marxian ideas. I thought, how convenient! Perhaps I should start racking in all the government grants and benefits I, a libertarian, have resisted applying for because I actually believe it is morally insidious to force other people to help me with my life and scholarly work? It maybe that I am simply naive about this--the thing to do is preach one thing and do quite another and everyone will see you as a sophisticated intellectual.

Maybe, as one of my very good friends, a young woman with a sharp mind and a Harvard degree in public administration, told me, I just ponder things to death and should relax more and let things be. But then I would not be me, I figure and I do like it this way, all other options considered.

Monday, June 21, 2010

Friends & Politics

Tibor R. Machan

Yes, most of my friends have similar political convictions to mine. Actually, not just political but also more general philosophical ones, bearing on the theory of being, knowledge, the human good and even the nature of art. But not all. I do have some genuine friends who disagree with me on important matters, including politics. How is that possible for someone who takes politics as seriously as I do?

Well, for lovers of human liberty an implication of their outlook is not to push people too heard about their convictions. Yes, one can try to argue them into holding different ideas from those they do hold, although it rarely pays off and even when it does, it takes years. Serious folks, which doesn’t mean morose or ornery ones, do hold on to their convictions more vigilantly than others, partly because they came about holding them through hard work, elaborate reflection, experimentation, study and so forth. To just change would be unlikely.

Even the few people I know of, both in the history of human thought and among ordinary folks, who have gone through major changes, there is something that remains pretty steadfast. I know one famous English thinker who moved politically from out and out classical liberal to radical Leftist. He would seem to contradict the idea of not changing one’s mind about important matters. And indeed at a certainly level of thinking he hasn’t changed, ever. He has always been a radical skeptic, someone who believed that people really cannot know the world well enough to be sure about it. So he has found it easier to change his mind on particular matters because what he believed didn’t amount to something he actually thought he knew to be true, only an opinion (and he thought everyone else, too, only had such rather flexible opinions even when they thought otherwise).

Anyway, I have some friends who actually believe of themselves that they are out and out socialists while I am of course a firm capitalist or libertarian. In certain cases the reason we can be friends is that on many other fronts we see eye to eye, like about raising children, being responsible in one’s personal affairs instead of dumping on others, keeping one’s word and so forth. But, yes, in matters of politics these friends reject what I embrace--and they vote that way, support politicians and legislation accordingly. We then tend to stay away from these topics or when we just no longer can do so, we deal with them gingerly, delicately, in very civil terms. But most of the time we agree to disagree and our friendship rests on other things, like our personalities, tastes and preferences in sports and our equal devotion to our families.

I have even maintained pretty solid ties with people who are deeply religious, while I am totally tone deaf to religion, cannot ultimately fathom what it is about. Yet life has so many facets to it that can be kept within their own compartments that our friendship, though wobbly at times, can continue.

About certain old friends, whom I have known and loved since we were teens, who call themselves socialists there is something else that makes it not too difficult to keep up our friendship. In my view they misunderstand socialism and think it means something like being kind and considerate toward those in dire straits, people who have been unlucky and need a helping hand. This attitude of kindness and compassion is often, in my view quite mistakenly, associated with the politics of the Left. But that is really a mistake.

The bulk of the political Left isn’t so much kind, generous, compassionate, and helpful but supports the kind of public policies we have been hearing about a lot lately, namely, coercive, state enforced wealth redistribution. Robbing Peter to help out Paul isn’t being generous, although it may appear so if one focuses only on motivation, since often the robbing comes initially from wanting to lend a hand. People then tend to overlook the robbery and concentrate only on the benign intentions, often forgetting that if anyone they knew actually went about committing burglaries or robberies in their neighborhoods with the excuse that they will give away the loot to the needy, they would probably not approve of this. (It is useful to remember here that even Robin Hood didn’t rob the rich but those who ripped off the poor, indeed, that tax takers!)

Still, the association of socialism with kindness will probably continue because it is so easy to judge things by appearances alone without going into the details. In this case the detail is that while one usually reaches out to help others from one’s own resources, including one’s time and skills, under socialism it is powerful politicians who forcibly dip into other people’s pockets to carry out their helpful policies.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

There’s no Level Playing Field or Equal Opportunity

Tibor R. Machan

Yet another excuse for some people to gain power over others is this idea of the level playing field. It’s a metaphor, of course, but used often to mean starting in a race with no advantages for any of the participants. Another term by which to indicate this is equal opportunity. Even those who see through the ruse of peddling equality for all people tend to cave in to this one, agreeing that at least everyone has the right to an equal opportunity. The opportunity for what is not often spelled out but it may include obtaining a job, entering a school, embarking on travel, winning a contest or whatnot. The image that’s called to mind is that when people start out to achieve some goal, none may be favored or disfavored, none may have special advantages or disadvantages, etc.

But the the idea is hopeless. In no actual or even imaginable endeavor do people enjoy the level playing field or an equal opportunity. Take those who begin a marathon race at the same starting point. Looks like they are enjoying an equal opportunity or level playing field since none is provided with extra time or less distance to complete the race. Surely this amounts to treating all those in the race as equals.

Not really. Some of them will have gotten a good night’s sleep, others tossed and turned for who knows what reason that’s certainly unavailable for control by those who organize the race fairly. Some will have had a decent breakfast, others were too nervous to keep any food down; some had loving fans seeing them off to the races, others went it alone. There are, in short, innumerable sources of inequality right from the get go. People are simply too different and face different situations as they embark on various tasks that others, too, attempt.

But by holding out some vain hope for the true level playing field or genuine equal opportunity, meddlers can insist that they must butt in and that their legally mandated manipulations and interference are needed for the noble purposes of serving this utterly misconceived version of justice. It is all bunk. Not only are there predictable differences among virtually all people who embark on similar missions but there are always fortune and misfortune, like the weather or just a plain old cold, that can hit and tilt the odds in favor or disfavor of certain of the participants. Even in sports wherein every possible effort is made to put all participants on a level playing field, this is an unrealistic aspiration. Everyone knows that it is unattainable and any serious attempt to attain it will be futile.

Then quite apart from the natural, given, and unavoidable inequalities that place people into different categories with different chances of winning, there is also other people’s preferences, wants, hopes, and such that upset the apple cart all the time--some athletes are loved by fans, others aren’t so much. Or the sex appeal is simply missing.

More significantly, say you are a farmer planting and harvesting a crop but the purchasing public just lost interest in it and the price you can ask for it plummets, while the efforts of others, say those diving for seafood, are in high demand all of a sudden? Maybe this is because a popular TV chef has come up with some very appealing seafood dishes on the show and the audience is now smitten and demand for the the farmer’s crop has subsided markedly. Surely this upsets any hope for a level playing field between farmers and seafood merchants.

So how is all this to be rearranged without sending in the police who will have no clue what to do about it all but will insist on trying to do something, anything, so as to seem important? And how will the disparity between the power of those embarking on the rearrangement and those who are subject to it be eliminated so that equality obtains between them? Impossible.

The dream of full, robust equality is a nightmare, let’s face it, and it is best to distance ourselves from it as far as possible.