Saturday, August 28, 2010

Most Americans Just Don’t Get It

Tibor R. Machan

It bothers me to no end that millions of Americans simply don’t get just how dangerous this current administration’s views are, especially about the nature of our basic rights.

I suppose I should not be surprised, given the utterly perverted primary and secondary education most people receive now in their government run schools. After all, those very schools and everyone with a job in the system, depend upon the flat out rejection of the idea of our basic, natural rights spelled out in the Declaration of Independence. For if each of us does in fact have an unalienable right to our life, our liberty, our pursuit of our happiness and the rest, then those schools exists in direct contradiction to these rights. They are built with the loot the politicians and bureaucrats confiscate from the citizenry, loot that involves the violation of those basic rights the Declaration states every human being has!

So then in order to continue the confiscation of our resources with impunity at all levels of state, it is required that the confiscators deny those rights. And that is just what has transpired--in our era the White House and its legal team, lead by Harvard Law Professor Cass Sunstein, insist that government creates our rights, that we have none based on our human nature. That we if one complains about these people extorting from us our life-times and our property, i.e., a chunk of our very lives, the politicians and bureaucrats can retort that these are not really ours at all, we have no rights apart from what they decide we have! (This is exactly what some of the stars of contemporary political theory preach!) That is what it means to claim that government creates our rights and we have none based on our humanity! That is what it means to claim that instead of governments being instituted so as to secure our basic natural, prelegal rights, governments just happen to exist and do with us as they please, like monarchs, tsars, dictators, pharaohs and Caesars used to, proclaiming that they have the divinely obtained authority to do so. When Thomas Hobbes strove to defend the unlimited authority of government without appealing to its divine appointment, he retained the core authoritarian idea that genuine rights are the product of the sovereign's will and that, therefore, no subject could have rights against the sovereign. The anti-authoritarian resistance to tyrannical government that was manifested in 17th and 18th century Ango-American political history was grounded in the idea that government itself is subject to moral constraints that it neither creates nor can abrogate.

This is why this utter distortion of the nature of government and our basic rights must be something to which American citizens should pay the utmost attention instead of dosing through the experience. They do appear to be in a semi coma about it, except for a few, like Judge Napolitano at Fox-TV. But the vast majority are clueless about just how dangerous is the current administration’s legal philosophy. Incredibly they behave like those sad peons of past centuries who tended to accept without much question that some human beings are mysteriously authorized to rule them and they have no justification to call this rule into question. All those ideas and ideals with which American had been associated, albeit even then not closely enough, about how when governments begin to act as tyrants they may be dismissed from their job, seem to have been forgotten. Instead the vast majority has come to accept their reactionary status as mere subjects to whom governments simply promise--though rarely deliver--various benefits in return for their silence and compliance.

Any protests, as put forth by some of the Tea Party people, are dismissed by the elite--writing in forums such as The New York Review of Books, The New York Times, etc.--with the sneers and snootiness of an untouchable elite. (And even the few well positioned conservative skeptics tend to refuse to truly challenge all this, apparently because they, too, want not to reaffirm universal, unalienable individual rights but to wrest power and establish their Right wing version of coercive statism.)

Although in the long haul there is still cause for some optimism--after all, the American system of government, dedicated as it was supposed to be, to the protection of the individual rights of the citizenry, is a very radical notion and its principles require a great deal of ongoing vigilance to be fully realized--for the time being it does appear that the truly exceptional Americanism that distinguished the country from those around the globe (including, especially, the European top down systems the Founders and Framers wanted to disown) is under full assault.

The currently fashionable European system of democratic socialism--which, in practice, comes to nothing else but a type of fascism--is all the rage in Washington. And this country’s exceptional standing is now scoffed at by our political thinkers and leaders. It is time to wake up to this travesty and to do something decisive about it. And that must start in the hearts and minds of the citizenry.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Society’s Rules Don’t Create Wealth

Tibor R. Machan

In olden days people were forced to labor for the king and his minions in return for being allowed to live within the realm. This kind of extortion finally got tossed over and people’s basic right to their lives became acknowledged--in the political philosophy of John Locke and the Declaration of Independence, for example. You don’t belong to society, to other people. Your life is yours to live as you choose, although, admittedly, you could live it bad or well but not in terms set by others who claim a portion of it.

But this realization that each individual has the right to his or her life got a bit arrested when later thinkers, like Auguste Comte and Karl Marx, argued that your property does belong to everyone else, not you. (In the case of Marx this didn’t quite fit his labor theory of value, but skip that for now.) Among some of today’s most prominently placed intellectuals, such as Professors Cass Sunstein of the Harvard Law School and Thomas Nagel of New York University, private property rights are taken to be nothing but a myth. (As one of Nagel’s co-authored book, The Myth of Ownership, announces, wealth is a collective phenomenon, never mind that some produce hardly any while others make gobs of it!)

Since one’s life is intimately dependent upon property--no way to live without some stuff, to be plain about it--if all property is owned by the public at large, collectively, that pretty much means one’s life is too. So the liberation from serfdom, one of the greatest achievements of classical liberal thinking, is to be undermined, reversed, by the idea that it is after all society that owns our resources, not we individually or corporately (in each others voluntary company). Taxes, then, amount not to a coercive taking but a rightful claim by the government that’s standing in for society as a whole (or so statists love to pretend). Taking private property for public use need not be very carefully justified as the fifth amendment to the U. S. Constitution insists, no. Such taking is really just government’s way of affirming its ownership of everything while generously leaving bits of it for the people to use.

But this is all nonsense and a ruse, to boot. For there is no society as such apart from the people who comprise it. Like my classes at the colleges where I teach--they do not exists as some kind of separate entity, only as a group of individual students with a common purpose. So then when it is argued that in fact society owns all the resources, the cash value of this is that some people who have laid claim to speaking for the rest of us own it all or at least get to use it as they see fit.

One retort to this is that without society’s rules and laws property could not exist. So society must, after all, own the stuff. But this is like claiming that because without the rules of tennis or football or any other game there could not be points scored or touchdowns run, it really isn’t the players who score the points or achieve the touchdowns but the referees! This is complete bunk. The referees, like governments, have a job, namely, to make sure the rules are observed as the people or players go about their tasks. They aren't’ the ones who carry out those tasks and may not lay a claim to the results, either.

There have always been those who were insistent on lording it over other people, including their lives and property. In ancient times they rationalized this by reference to some alleged special status among us--natural aristocracy, superior race or class, God’s assignments, etc. But then it was discovered and finally driven home in many places that no one has any claim to lording over others, not without their consent (as when members of an orchestra consent to the conductor’s role). But this doesn’t sit too well with those who wish to rule us all. So they are now inventing different reasons, such as their supposed role of speaking for society, which is used by them justify their rule. Let us not fall for this, please.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Stoning & The Times

Tibor R. Machan

Do I search for hypocrisies among my adversaries? Not especially, only when it is too obvious to miss. And what if anything is wrong with hypocrisy? So what if you are a liar but make a big deal about condemning lying in your neighbor? Why is that a problem?

In this era when major political figures denounce ideological--by which they of course have in mind principled--thinking, why should one be consistent, show integrity? Those are not the virtues of sophisticates. Those are pedestrian ideals. As our president pointed out--in the pedagogical, finger-wagging fashion he tends to employ--"the stale political arguments that have consumed us for so long no longer apply. The question we ask today is not whether our government is too big or too small, but whether it works...." So whether the government is a totalitarian tyranny or a dictatorship isn’t of concern--the only issue is, does it work, which leaves entirely unaddressed what it is supposed to work for!

Anyway my issue here is hypocrisy and my candidate for the hypocrite of the week is The New York Times, which in last Sunday’s Week in Review section ran an essay titled “Crime (Sex) and Punishment (Stoning).” Maybe I am overly suspicious but this piece struck me as bending over backwards not to be too harsh on those societies in which stoning people--especially women--for sex crimes is acceptable. But what makes me suspicious?

Well, consider just a few remarks from the piece. “Much of the outrage these [stoning] cases generated--apart from the sheer anachronism of stoning in the 21st century--seems to stem from the gulf between sexual attitudes in the West and parts of the Islamic world, where radical movements have turned to draconian punishments, and a vision of restoring a long-lost past, in their search for religious authenticity.” “Stoning is not practiced only among Muslims, nor did it begin with Islam.” “Stoning is a legal punishment in only a handful of Muslim countries--in addition to Iran, they include Saudi Arabia, Somalia, Sudan, Pakistan and Nigeria, but it is very rarely put to use.” “But Islamic law requires very strict conditions for a stoning sentence....” “Some scholars even argue that the stoning penalty is meant more as a symbolic warning against misbehavior....” and “In any case, societies evolve....”

As I see it these bits tell a story of temptation, the temptation of reckless multiculturalism, of cultural and legal relativism. OK, but so what? Well, I was thinking as I was reading these sentences in the Old Gray Lady how would it go over if this is how some writer discussed, say, slavery, ethnic prejudice or the subjugation of women in the West? I doubt it would fly so well.

This bending over backwards so as to be understanding toward cultures in which stoning human beings is regarded as a proper form of punishment--right now in the 21st century--seems to me to show an ideological bias on the part of the editors of The Times. And that bias is that whenever flaws in American history, law, social practices, and such are being discussed, there is no mercy; Americans are held to far higher standards than are those in Muslim cultures, for example.

Not only is this objectionable because it is unjust toward America but also because it is insulting toward Muslims. Somehow the latter do not qualify to be judged by the standards of humanity applicable to Americans and Westerners, it appears. Are they not human enough for that? Is there something inferior about Muslims so when they act in brutal, barbaric ways what is important to mention is that societies evolve? Should this kind of tolerance be accepted vis-a-vis Muslims but not antebellum Southerners who felt, often most sincerely, that slavery was OK? What about all the male chauvinists who thought of women as too emotional for scientific and other kind of work? Are we to think of them all as simply part of “societies [that] evolve”?

I am not about to venture to try to solve the problem of cultural diversity concerning some important human practices and institutions but I thought it worth calling attention to the anti-Western, anti-American bias at The Times.
Column on Principles vs. Pragmatism viz. the Mosque

Tibor R. Machan

It’s not my preference to beat a dead horse but this topic goes to the heart of certain features of our current political and legal climate.

When one is in some doubt about what to do--and there can be many situations that one isn’t well prepared for--a way to act is to consider one’s basic principles. Take someone married who is suddenly strongly attracted to someone other than a spouse. It happens but if those marriage vows matter at all, such a situation would be when they would come in most clearly. One is pulled toward breaching an oath but since it is an oath, presumably taken in earnest, one will refuse to yield to the temptation. Or if one is tempted to do a bit of shoplifting or prevaricating. This is when one’s principles come into play, however strongly one may feel like circumventing them.

If it is true that men and women in human communities ought not to intrude on their fellow citizens’ liberties, then that idea would come in full strength just when it is most tempting to butt in. So, given how strongly millions of Americans feel that those planning to build a Mosque near Ground Zero are misguided, the upright thing for them to do is to refuse to yield to such a feeling and go with the principle that everyone has a right to freedom of religion even when that religion leads one astray. Yes, it is difficult and very tempting to toss such a principle and ban the plan but so are numerous other principles very difficult to abide by. That’s just what makes them principles--they must not be treated lightly, they must apply even when one is really tempted to ignore them.

Now all this applies when one sees human beings guided by moral and political principles but not if one sees them as pragmatists for whom principles do not apply. As the joke goes with traffic lights, if they are only suggestions, not firm rules of the road, then by all means dodge them as you wish, if you can get away with doing so.

The famous American pragmatist philosopher and psychologist William James argued once that if breaching the truth gives one serious satisfaction, then one should breach it. As he put it in his famous essay, “The Meaning of Truth,” “The suspicion is in the air nowadays that the superiority of one of our formulas to another may not consist so much in its literal ‘objectivity,’ as in subjective qualities like its usefulness, its ‘elegance,’ or its congruity with our residual beliefs” (p. 41). So it isn’t what’s objectively true that counts for us but what is subjectively useful. When it comes to dealing with such matters as whether to incarcerate Japanese Americans, regardless of whether they have been proven guilty of anything, or to ban a mosque near Ground Zero, never mind that no one has shown that anyone’s rights are being violated, the pragmatist can always go around the principle and say, but do it if it feels good.

I am not here going to attempt to show the superiority of the principled as distinct from the pragmatic approach to human conduct or public policies in a human community. What I want to call attention to is how addressing issues pragmatically differs from how someone with principles would address them. Pragmatists distrust principles, thinking them to be a result of loose, ideological, and dogmatic thinking, while those who stress principles insist that what they rely upon for guidance has gone through centuries of trial and error and by now deserve to be heeded even when they appear to be inconvenient.

Most of the American founders were convinced that certain well considered principles apply to how a human community must be governed, how citizens ought to deal with one another, no matter what. Many today seem to scoff at such an attitude. Of course they usually make exceptions, for example, when they oppose torture or rape or child molestation, and it is unclear how can they square these exceptions with their avowed pragmatism in other areas. But they do try. We are witnessing how this drama plays out about something many Americans feel strongly about.