Thursday, October 07, 2010

The Times’ Phony Integrity

Tibor R. Machan

In its October 6, 2010, editorial, “Lamentable Speech,” The New York Times stood up for a hard line stance on the right to free speech. As the editors wrote, “To the American Nazi Party, Hustler Magazine, and other odious figures in Supreme Court history, add the Rev. Fred Phelps Sr. and the members of the Westboro Baptist Church in Topeka, Kan. Their antigay protests at the funeral of a soldier slain in Iraq were deeply repugnant but protected by the First Amendment. All of the sympathy in the case of Snyder v. Phelps, which was argued on Wednesday at the Supreme Court, goes to the family of Lance Cpl. Matthew Snyder, the fallen Marine. But as the appeals court in the case observed, using words of Justice Felix Frankfurter, ‘It is a fair summary of history to say that the safeguards of liberty have often been forged in controversies involving not very nice people’.”

OK, so far so good except, as one comment on the editorial pointed out, where has The New York Times been when hate speech laws were being passed? Why didn’t it defend the right of those uttering hateful opinions about blacks? Well, one can only suppose that those folks do not deserve the same protection that was provided to the American Nazi Party or, in this case, the Rev. Fred Phelps Sr. and the members of the Westboro Baptists Church. It would have been politically incorrect or, to use the old fashioned term, impolitic to argue for that.

Even more obvious is The Time’s very partial support of constitutional integrity when one thinks where it stands on the takings clause of the Fifth Amendment which suffered a major blow from the U. S. Supreme Court back in July of 2005, in the case of Kelo v. City of New London Connecticut, when it supported the confiscation of private property for the purpose of bolstering the City’s tax based by approving its taking of private property to be given to a private firm that was to develop it and then pay big bucks to the city in taxes. (BTW, to this day the property hasn’t been developed!) So while it is OK for the court to insist on the full protection of the free speech rights of a group of nasty bigots, it isn’t OK for it to insist on the full protection of the equally vital constitutional principle private property rights against the intrusiveness of city governments. Not a sign of true integrity, me thinks; more a matter of the philosophy of “a living constitution”!

So what is it with The Times and others who appear to hold that the right of freedom of speech is vital--well, except when hate speech is involved--but the right to private property, which actually supports the former right (because, after all, unless property rights are secure, freedom of speech or religion isn’t either), can be dispensed with? I hazard to guess that the cherry picking of rights is in the spirit of The Times’ pragmatic philosophy, one that actually has no respect for basic principles in any sphere of reality. To pragmatists everything is negotiable. And that doesn’t preclude posturing as defenders of principle now and then, when some agenda one is favoring may benefit from it.

What agenda might be served by insisting on upholding the principle of the right to freedom of speech in this case? Well, what pops to mind is that perhaps those soldiers and their families who are being harangued by Rev. Fred Phelps Sr. and the members of the Westboro Baptists Church aren’t fighting in a war that The Times approves of. Another might be that The Times is not very fond of the US Military in general. Yet another might be that freedom of speech is only of special interest to The Times--after all, it mostly operates under the protection of the First Amendment as it editorializes and opines about innumerable subjects. (But to come out and defend hate speech would be too much--The Times is too committed to the special interests of certain groups at which such speech is often aimed.)

No, I do not for a moment believe that The New York Times has come to see the significance of principled adherence to the Bill of Rights no matter how readily its editorial quotes Justice Felix Frankfurter. Pragmatism does not forbid making use of principles when it serves the special purpose to which a pragmatist is devoted, just as Communists and Nazis have no trouble making use of the US Constitution as they defend those principles that make it possible for them to attack the very political system that’s founded on them.

One needs to be careful not to be taken in by the phony parading of principles by those who really, in the end, care not a whit for principles, for whom integrity is deep down but a sign of naive fundamentalism--consider how defending free market capitalism is ridiculed as “market fundamentalism” by one of the favorite columnists of The Times even though most who stand up for that system do so as a matter of their commitment to principle!

Wednesday, October 06, 2010

The Cost of Lack of Trust

Tibor R. Machan

Over the last couple of days a bunch of announcements came from our government, including warning about travel to Europe where terror plans are said to be afoot by Al-Qaeda. Another warning came from the man convicted of trying to blow up Times Square--he said after he was sentenced to life in prison that Americans will be victims of terror big time. And I could go on but my point can be made with just these cases. I do not trust the warnings from our government although neither do I know them to be unjustified.

The government of the United States of America is on a power crusade, taking every opportunity it can to deprive its citizens of their resources and control over their own lives and seem to be intent on imposing on them endless rules and regulations. These are, I am convinced, true believers in state fundamentalism: Every problems must be solved by means of expanded government, both in size and, especially, in scope. So how can I believe it when the government declares that there is increasing danger around us, all of which seems routinely to require that government gain greater and greater power over us?

I am no conspiracy buff and don’t have the idea that what these folks do is done deliberately simply so as to gain raw power over others--most people need some kind of tall tale to tell themselves in order to rationalize such power--but I do believe firmly that their sincere convictions lead them in that direction, whether these be about how the economy needs more of their regulation or how they must have greater access to our lives (including it appears to all our electronic communication capabilities), or how without them we would all be left helpless in the world, or how some other problems faced by us all requires exactly their expertise and good will and, most of all, legal power over us. I am eager to be disproved about their basic political corruption, in part because of my belief that human beings in all walks of life can do well or badly or somewhere on the continuum in between and I do not see politicians to be fundamentally evil.

Not being an anarchist, I do not hold that all who work for governments must be vicious--judges, the police, soldiers, bailiffs, border guards, or whoever. But those in government--especially in offices that have no business existing in the first place since they have nothing to do with protecting our basic rights--do seem to me to be much more tempted to seek power over other people than are the rest of us. And they do very often yield to this temptation, with long stories about why what they are doing is no vice but a virtue! They have mostly convinced themselves that all the more or less coercive meddling in our lives is a good thing for them to carry out--regulators, however much they fumble around trying to figure out what on earth their efforts could do to improve matters, are probably quite proud of what they do in their jobs. Maybe even IRS employees consider their work honorable!

I recall an associate of mine at the Reason Foundation had gotten a post in one regulatory office of the federal government and she came back to report on just how impressed she was with all the hard work she witnessed by the people who worked where she became one of the officials, despite the fact that she never gave up her idea that government regulations are ultimately more harmful than helpful! Pretty amazing.

The seductiveness of government work appears to be very powerful, even with those who are sworn to uphold principles that fly in the face of what the officials are called upon to do. Perhaps this is in part because many people hold to the belief in life that it is “the thought that counts,” never mind how destructive the results over which they believe we have little control. (This, by the way, is the common sense version of the famous doctrine of the highly influential 17th Century German philosopher Immanuel Kant who taught that there is only one absolutely good thing in the universe, namely, the good will, i.e., the sincere intention to do the right thing whatever it may be.)

With all the misconduct that emanates from seats of political power, all the BS produced by politicians and their apologists, all the out and out corruption evident throughout the land by politicians and bureaucrats, it is awfully difficult to suddenly become trusting when these same people tell us that there is danger lurking from terrorists. And frankly even if there is, is it more severe than the danger we face from fellow drivers on the roads where we would be spending time if instead of traveling abroad we stayed home? (Why, BTW, are there no studies publicized about that? Back during the brief scare from Libyan terrorism in Europe in Spring of 1986 I believe it was, after the US had an altercation with that country, an economist calculated the probability of death or injury from terrorism to American tourists traveling in Europe versus from road crashes here at home where they would be spending their time instead and it appeared that the latter posed a great threat than the former!)

When government is as big, corrupt, and unruly as America’s is these days, how can you trust anything said by government officials?