Friday, July 02, 2010

On “I earned it, it’s mine!”

Tibor R. Machan

In my political circles quite a few people, both now and in the past, defend the right to private property, to individual ownership, based on the idea that whatever one earns--or creates, or makes, or produces--surely is one’s own property and others have no right to it. And up to a point this carries conviction but it doesn’t at all go far enough. There is a lot that one owns that one hadn’t earned, made, created, produced or the like. It still is one’s private property and no one is authorized to take it from one.

Let’s start with the simple cases. How about one’s second eye that another may well have great use for? Or one’s second kidney? Or indeed one’s heart if one is some kind of no good, lazy loafer and another who’s an ambitious genius with noble aspirations to safe the world could make good use of? Then what about what one was given as a gift or has inherited? Not always earned at all! Or what about what one has found, free and clear?

There are quite a few political philosophers and theorists, even moralists, whose views imply that if you didn’t earn it, others are entirely free to take it from you. And if what you own is not being put to proper use, then, too, it can be confiscated by the authorities and transferred to someone who is deemed to make wiser use of it. The famous City of New London, CT v. Kelo U. S. Supreme Court case (of July 2005) whereby a bunch of city bureaucrats confiscated private property from citizens and gave it to others was decided on such spurious grounds.

Now, to start with, nothing at all follows about other people having the authority to take from one something one hasn’t come by through hard work, through having earned or produced or made it all. It is a complete non-sequitor. Yes, one way to come to own something is by having produced or earned it but there are others, including having been born with it, having it as part of one’s very identity as the human individual who one happens to be, or having been given it. That’s enough. Others just have no warrant for butting in, however great their goals, be it the will of the people or of wise leaders or anything like that.

Private property rights flow from one’s having an unalienable right to one’s life, a life that is one’s own and no one else’s, not the family’s, not the tribe’s, not the clan’s, nor of the nation or community or some other group of other people who already own exactly what they have a right to, namely, their own lives.

So having come by something without having stolen or extorted it from someone is plenty or warrant for owning it. And then, of course, if one has put one’s mind to making good use of something no one else owns, that is also an excellent reason to be deemed its owner.

All this propaganda in favor of collective, public or community ownership is, in fact, mostly a ruse by various private individuals who want to confiscate the property of other private individuals under some kind of guise that they represent the public or the general will or some fathom thing like that. No, those groups are no more than a gang of other people who want what doesn’t belong to them and wish to sell the idea through the myth of the superior importance of the greater numbers. But there’s no substance to it--millions of people can all be plain thieves, lead by hoodlums who just want to come by stuff by violent means.

The right to private property applies not only to owning what one has created--although few of us create something entirely anew, from scratch--but also to what emanates from us, from who we are. So if by total accident I am a good-looking bloke and can cash in on it by getting a paid gig on the cover of GQ, nobody is justified robbing me of my proceeds, not my neighbor, not the government, no one.

Some defenders of our private property rights are tempted to link ownership rights to some kind of merit but that’s a trap, for we are not always the owners of things, including our lives and limbs, as a matter of merit. It is still who we are, sovereign individuals, and what we own and others better keep off.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Risks and Liberty

Tibor R. Machan

The New York Times editorialized in panic, predictably, in the wake of the U. S. Supreme Court ruling striking down Chicago’s ban on handgun ownership. Lamenting the Court’s highly abstract debate about the constitutional clause that needed to be considered, The Times alleged that Monday’s ruling will “undermin[e] Chicago’s [sensible] law” and lead to “results [that] will be all too real and bloody.”

The Times’ central complaint amounted to the claim that the freedom to own handguns is entirely too risky. It threw out some completely discredited statistics that suggest a link between the striking down of such bans and the fostering gun violence. (This allegation is discredited in part by the failure to compare it with the beneficial results of handgun ownership, a result that has by now been demonstrated and published, for example in John Lott’s More Guns, Less Crime: Understanding Crime and Gun-Control Laws [Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998].)

But what is of greater interest is just how ignorant--or is it duplicitous--The Times’ editors appear to be about the connection between liberty and risky conduct. And this is all the more annoying because of course the very liberty so cherished by The Times, the right to the freedom of the press, is one of the most risky liberties in a free society. Need it be chronicled here how the freedom to speak out and write whatever one wants can produce enormous risks. The Times commonly defends the freedom of the press by fully acknowledging this risk, as in the case of Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentegon Papers some many moons ago, while insisting that the risks posed by this freedom simply must be accepted--it’s indeed one of the costs of a free society.

Handgun ownership is, of course, risky, but then so is the disarming of the citizenry. And let us remember that the most risky feature of a society is when government is the only institution that is legally entitled to wield guns while the citizenry is forbidden to do so. Not only is this a blatant case of the unequal application of the law--somehow government people aren’t supposed to pose risks while peaceful citizens are--but it is oblivious to all the studies that show how leaving free citizens armed tends to put criminals are guard, even discourages them from using their own guns.

But even if it were true that gun ownership is more risky, over all, than is the banning of guns, it is a gross non sequitur to claim that this then proves that the right to own guns must be legally invalidated. Just does not follow.

Free men and women are naturally risky types! Freedom is characterized by making it possible for people to make choices, even bad ones, just as in the case of the liberty of the press. Journalists, editorial writers, reporters and the lot who are free to do as they choose can and will do what is risky, and at times what is indeed outright malpractice. Freedom is a precondition of both good and bad human conduct. And so long as such conduct isn’t violent--and the carrying of handguns plainly isn’t, only their aggressive use is--it is the right of adult human beings to have and even use guns.

But The New York Times’ editorial team has no principled commitment to human liberty. It is concerned only with its own protected privileges while government forbids other citizens to be free. Perhaps The Times prints whatever is fit to be printed but has no concern with integrity, namely, keeping loyal to values it promulgates whenever it is convenient for its own agenda.

Of course, in this as in many other matters The Times is in sync with the Zeitgeist. Who in mainstream politics and law steps up vigorously in support of human liberty? Nearly everything favored by the current administration and its cohorts in Congress wreaks of worries about risk, safety, precaution and the like and hardly anyone cares about liberty. Security si, liberty no!

But as it’s been noted by such champions of freedom as Benjamin Franklin, those who would give up liberty so as to obtain security risk both and probably deserve neither.

Monday, June 28, 2010

Why Military Hubris?

Tibor R. Machan

General McChristal spoke out of line, though perhaps truth to power. Yet hasn’t the American military been mislead into thinking that it is the answer to most of our problems? In which case his conduct may well be quite understandable, even a prelude to things to come.

I recall when hurricane Andrew struck on the shores of the Gulf of Mexico in the 1980s and the military was called out to cope with it. One Air force lieutenant colonel, Charles J. Dunlap Jr., was by that time convinced that this kind of use of the military bodes ill for the tradition of its civilian control, a tradition central to the government of a free society.

Few batted an eye when the U.S. Army was called out to battle Hurricane Andrew in Florida back then. I assume most people thought, “What is government for if not to come to the aid of citizens in such circumstances?” But Dunlap argued 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.)

Arguably this idea can help us understand better what happened in the case of General McChristal who appeared to feel no need for restraint in badmouthing his civilian employers, including the president of the United States. Never mind for now whether what the general said had merit. It is just not his role to first go public with his concerns. He could take them to his chief, of course, and that may actually have been more productive. If the concerns McChristal has are valid, taking them to Rolling Stone magazine would appear to be quite counterproductive. It would and indeed did put the president on the defensive, lead to McChristal’s firing, and most importantly, one may assume, may very well have managed to prevent the criticism from being addressed.

Why is it proper for soldiers to refrain from butting into the management of the military unless they are commanded to do this by their civilian superiors? Because soldiers are arms of the government which is itself supposed to be the servant of the citizenry and would, properly run, convey the citizenry’s appropriate orders. It is, in short, the citizenry who are boss, via a chain of command.

By bucking this chain, General McChristal sabotaged his own effectiveness as an expert influence on the country’s military affairs. This is probably really too bad since by all accounts the Obama administration could use the very best advice available, given how its military endeavors are faltering big time. (For my money, there really is little justification for carrying on with US military involvement in Afghanistan but what do I know? Here is yet another reason that the general’s input, properly advanced, might have done some serious good!)

One matter that’s quite disturbing about this entire affair is that it speaks ill of the practice of free flowing debate in the country, a practice that’s supposed to be normal in a free society. But it has to be conducted properly, so when this doesn’t happen, the harm can be considerable.

Is the episode symptomatic of the way the Obama administration is falling apart on several fronts? Here is a president with his party in full power and somehow nothing he touches succeeds and his popularity is plummeting. He remains, it seems, not much more than a kind of figurehead, with attractive visuals surroungind him but with little that’s desirable accomplished other than, well, the practical nationalization of the health care and insurance and the financial industries. Not something to be proud of as an American president. Maybe as a Russian one!

Go figure.