Tuesday, February 08, 2011

Besmirching Libertarianism

Tibor R. Machan

Now that libertarianism has gotten some publicity in mainstream forums, those who are convinced of its merit have much work to do. This is because of the well publicized distortions of the position in prominent forums, especially by well credentialed academics in law, political economy, ethics, philosophy, and other disciplines bearing a public policy. You see, the idea that no one ought to coerce another even for noble purposes is pretty much common sense in America. Sure, some folks disagree, among them many highfalutin academics with great skills at sophistry. But the bulk of those who vote pretty much agree that when you want something from your fellows, you need to ask them instead of robbing them. So when this is being denied, lots of fancy footwork needs to be deployed, which is just what’s being done by numerous pundits at The New York Times and other outfits that champion all kinds of coerced wealth redistribution. (Of course, wealth redistribution goes on peacefully all the time, but that’s not under these statists’ control, so they don’t like it!)

What you can expect from these people is fancy discussions about how, in fact, the American system gives the legal authority to Congress and others in government to take, take, and take anything they want from you and me, as well as to force you to do what they want you to, “for the public interest.” And to make their case more palatable, they need to make it appear that the libertarian reading of the US political tradition--that reading that made it exceptional instead of just a watered down version of feudalism--is callous, heartless, and bent on undermining the public good at every turn. By besmirching the position this way, the unsophisticated citizenry, whose members are libertarian at the gut or second nature level, might then get turned around and give the statists the power they clamor for.

But here is an important piece of information that one can use to rebut this underhanded effort to discredit human liberty and to empower the statists: the American political system has a very clear doctrine of the public good (or interest). It is stated in the Declaration of Independence and it consists of a system of laws that secure the natural rights of the citizenry. That’s the American version of the public interest, namely, protecting everyone’s liberty to live his or her life by his or her own judgment. That is why a legal system is instituted, not to serve other ends, the bulk of which are, of course, on the agendas of the statists. What the Founders did so brilliantly is discern the public good or interest correctly, based on what in fact all members of the public will benefit from. And this is their being free from aggression by other people even when such aggression would be deployed for high sounding objectives.

Now it is very tempting to designate everything someone badly desires as being in the public interest. Just listen to all those lobbyists who march to centers of power peddle their special interests as in need of being pursued for the public good. But this is a ruse and it is precisely in the proper public interest to unmask and resist it, which is everyone’s basic right to life, liberty and property. That is what everyone benefits from without any cost to anyone else. That is a bona fide public good, not some trumped up version which always amounts to ripping some people off so that the goals of some others get served.

All this is vital to remember as one witnesses the desperate efforts of sophisticated statists to discredit human liberty, to label it “fundamentalism” and other ad hominems. Sadly the prominent, prestigious forums are mostly in the hands of statists so there will not be much of a chance to do intellectual battle with these sophists on the turfs them dominate. Have you ever read anyone in The New York Review of Books who had a nice thing to say about individual liberty or free markets? Just like Karl Marx did with the right to property--which he dubbed a right of selfishness that makes all sorts of mischief possible (omitting all the wonderful things this right serves as well and depending on the nasty version of "selfishness" so popular since Hobbes rendered the self something nasty and brutish)--these statists only stress the relatively rare misconduct that men and women engage in when they are free. So they will not permit anyone to say otherwise in those forums they dominate (which, by the ways, they could not do without the right to private property being well protected).

Libertarianism is a sound political idea but it faces an uphill fight given how its embrace means the demotion of all sorts of tyrants, Draconian or petty, who are very reluctant to give up their well entrenched power.
Big Guns for Statism

Tibor R. Machan

Since some federal judges have ruled against the constitutionality of Obamacare, there has been a bit of panic in the ranks of defenders of American statism. Thus, for example, Harvard Law School's Lawrence Tribe has chimed in, on the pages of The New York Times, with the predictable observation that "Since the New Deal, the court has consistently held that Congress has broad constitutional power to regulate interstate commerce. This includes authority over not just goods moving across state lines, but also the economic choices of individuals within states that have significant effects on interstate markets. By that standard, this law’s constitutionality is open and shut. Does anyone doubt that the multitrillion-dollar health insurance industry is an interstate market that Congress has the power to regulate?" Well, yes, those of us who champion individual rights as against collectivism do!

David Cole made his pitch in The New York Review of Books, claiming that these rulings were far too libertarian and thus not really consistent with the way the U. S. Constitution has been read of late. As he wrote, "The objections to health care reform are ultimately founded not on a genuine concern about preserving state prerogative, but on a libertarian opposition to compelling individuals to act for the collective good, no matter who imposes the obligation." Indeed, and that’s all to the good! Who on earth wants to defend state prerogative other than some crypto-monarchists!

Both apologists for statism are correct, of course, but they are also beside the point. Just because justices have been appointed who have favored expansive powers for the federal government--and, indeed, for governments as such--doesn't prove anything about whether that is how they ought to rule on, for instance, Obamacare's constitutionality.

In earlier years the courts have interpreted the constitution as limiting the power of governments, including the power to regulate--let's call it what it is, namely, to regiment--interstate commerce. They used to view Article I, Section 8, the interstate commerce clause, as authorizing Congress to regularize commerce, not to regulate it--that is to say, to establish uniform free market conditions for doing business within the borders of the country and across state lines. Prior to the formation of the union the states often behaved in highly protectionist ways but once united into one country this became a serious restriction on the exercise of individual property rights and an impediment to the free flow of commerce. Ergo, it had to be stopped, given the broad principles of community life laid out in the Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights. It was a revolution, after all, not a minor putsch.

In later times, under the reactionary influence of the populists and other statists, the courts started to reintroduce the principles of government that had been in practice for many centuries, principles that rationalized the power of government over the citizenry in contrast to what the revolution aimed at, namely, the demotion of the state, placing sovereignty in the hands of citizens rather than governments. Of course it didn't happen all at once, nor completely, radically, but more like changing the course of an aircraft carrier, gradually. The aim was revolutionary but the process was slow just as with the abolition of slavery.

Clearly some elements of the legal order of the new country needed major overhaul, such as the permission for the states to support slavery, a permission that contradicted the ideals of the revolution. To the extent that this required some temporary broad powers on the part of the federal government, it amounted to nothing more than carrying out the implementation of the ideals of the founding. State rights, while a good federalist idea in certain respects, also had the unfortunate side effect of standing in the way of a nationwide renunciation of slavery.

Because in this instance federal power was used for purposes of of expanding human liberty, those who champion statism jumped at the chance to argue that statism itself was consistent with the basic principles of the founders. Its like arguing that because it is permissible to deploy force against others in self-defense, it is perfectly OK to deploy it aggressively, too.

No doubt, some founders felt that way, such as maybe Alexander Hamilton. They were not all of one mind. But it is sheer sophistry to argue, as Tribe and Cole do, that the needed adjustments on America's legal system were meant to reintroduce into the country broad powers for the federal government under the distorted, albeit prominent, reading of the interstate commerce clause.

Nonetheless, these eager statists are continuing what has amounted to a counterrevolutionary legal trend, one that reestablishes the government--the king, Congress, the state--as the sovereign in the country, making the citizenry once again subjects, people who could be ordered by other people to purchase health insurance on the grounds that the public interest demands this. No wonder people ask if forcing us to exercise or to eat broccoli will come next, as per the enlightened polices of the Third Reich.

Such is the nature of statism, sacrificing the rights of individuals for some alleged public good, one that reduces, in the end, to the private agendas of the statists and has nothing to do with the public at large.

Monday, February 07, 2011

Can People be Objective?

Tibor R. Machan

Even to ask whether people can be objective suggests that they can be because such a question assumes that an answer can be given and what use would an answer be if it were not objective? But forever the idea that people can be objective, as they attempt to grasp what’s what, has been challenged. Never mind that such challenges would themselves be moot if objectivity is impossible--who would care to get an answer if it were just someone’s subjective opinion, one that’s no better or worse than the answer given by some drunk or mentally deranged individual?

But it is understandable, nevertheless, why the possibility of objectivity is widely doubted. For one, what counts as objective knowledge has often been confused with what is supposed to be absolute, timeless, unchangeable knowledge (the God’s eye point of view). This last is very doubtful, that’s true, since none of us who seeks to know anything stays around forever to make sure an answer will never change.

As the saying goes, the perfect is the enemy of the good. Perfect knowledge, as imagined by Plato, for example, is an impossible dream, kind of like the perfect mate or job. But there can be good ones, of course. Objective is what the good kind of knowledge must be, the knowledge untainted by prejudice, by preconception, by bias and the like. Objective knowledge need not be final or perfect, only the best and most dependable for the time being.

But some object to this by claiming that since we are all using our human faculties to figure things out, how could we expect objectivity?

That reply, however, embodies an unwarranted assumption. It is that using our minds and our senses, indeed all our tools of knowledge, turns out to be an impediment rather than a proper means by which knowledge is to be gained. It is like claiming that because to move sand, one must use some kind of tool, like a shovel, moving it is impossible. Moving sand, truly, would involve using no tools. Or claiming that if one wants to see things accurately, one must not use one’s eyes since the eyes will pose as an obstacle to true seeing!

Now this idea that objectivity is impossible because whenever one attempts to know anything, one needs to make use of various tools or instruments, such as one’s eyes, mind, a microscope or a telescope, is based on the belief that a tool must always impede the process for which it is used. But that’s very odd. Not only does it undercut the claim itself--after all, that claim, too, came from using one’s faculties of understanding--but it assumes that everything used to learn actually impedes learning. So true learning is a kind of mindless, senseless learning. Go figure!

Now, true enough, if one is careless, too hasty or insufficiently cautious, one can fail to notice impediments to how one best uses one’s faculties--that’s one reason to be especially careful when driving in fog. But such impediments aren’t necessarily a part of our approach to understanding the world. Moreover, even to learn that one’s faculties may have been impeded, it is necessary that they are not always impeded, at least not when one discovers such impediments.

Of course, with this issue, like so many others one needs to grapple with, is complicated and has been studied forever. But to resolve it for oneself it isn’t required that one reach a consensus about it. That would dismiss the work of many excellent scientist, researchers, thinkers who have been prescient. Yes, peer review is useful but it could express widespread bias, too. For example, in the debate about climate change--does it happen, how much of it, did people’s conduct make it happen, etc.--both sides tend to insist that their opponents are not objective enough! So back to the drawing board, one might conclude.

In general, the issue of objectivity is important because if one becomes convinced that one cannot be objective, how can one trust one’s own judgments, even carefully made ones, and how can one confidently reject bogus notions and pretenders to authority? After all, then everything could be bogus, which leaves matters to con artists.

Sunday, February 06, 2011

Knowing versus imposing What’s Ethical

Tibor R. Machan

Among those who champion human liberty--the sovereignty of every adult when it comes to managing one’s own life--some hold that if one could know what good conduct amounts to, one would be authorized to impose it on others. Among those who thought this was the world famous classical liberal economist, Milton Friedman. Friedman, who was an avid champion of human liberty, denied that we can "really know what sin is". By this he meant that what for people is the wrong thing to do is not something anyone can know. And he also held that one could not reasonably champion human liberty, the sort that one enjoys when others must abstain from imposing their ideas of how one ought to act, "if you could be absolutely certain that you had the revealed truth." By the “revealed truth” he merely meant whatever it is that others ought or ought not do. If one knew such things, one "could not let another man sin."

Right away there is a problem here because the argument advanced is actually supposed to show how one should act, namely that no one ought to impose himself or herself on another adult human being. So others ought to be left free. And that is, of course, based on the moral knowledge that it is wrong to make people act in ways they don’t choose to. The only exception is when they choose to impose their idea on others. But that is self-defense, not any kind of imposition.

This point actually makes it evident that in some cases we do know what amounts to sinning or doing the wrong thing--for example, when one coerces peaceful others to act as one believes they should. But that is not all. We can pretty well know that when someone wastes away his or her life, say by becoming a junkie or a bum, this isn’t something the person should do. The details may vary but it doesn’t require rocket science to know that people who waste away their lives are normally misbehaving and ought to change. What is crucial here, however, is that it is they who must do the changing, not someone else. So imposing hard work or prudence on them simply cannot improve matters.

Some argue that if you impose worthwhile conduct on others and they later realize that this is indeed worthwhile and they should henceforth conduct themselves accordingly, your imposition is justified. This line of reasoning is advanced precisely because it is widely realized that to have moral significance one's conduct must be freely chosen. So those who want urgently to make other people moral--for example, Professor Robert P. George in his book Making Men Moral (Oxford University Press, 1993)--reject the moral right to act immorally, a right to do what is wrong (provided no one is being victimized). Yet, since morally significant conduct does have to be chosen, be it right or wrong, adult human beings do have such a right. It is not a moral but a political or natural right, however.

The contrary doctrine, namely, libertarian paternalism or nudging, applies only to children. It does not to adults. One is of course welcome to attempt to persuade people to do the morally right thing, maybe even implore or exert peer pressure to encourage another to do what is right. However, in the end an adult must make the choice and not be coerced to do so. That’s part of what it means to respect human dignity. In nearly all major religions this is fully acknowledged. One must choose to accept Christ, for example. Even Stalinists believed that good communists had to voluntarily admit their flaws or ideological crimes before they could be punished meaningfully.

The only serious challenge to the idea that morally significant conduct must be voluntary comes from those who consider all of morality bogus, meaningless. In every known era of human history, including ours, there are serious moral skeptics--a recent issue of the magazine Philosophy Now features five philosophers arguing this position. Today the basis of the case rests mainly with neuroscience which supposedly shows that people are never free to choose to take actions, so in effect nothing they do is really their own doing! (This is what many defense attorneys set out to show about their clients and there are major institutes at universities embarking on research that promises to make the case for them!) But this brings up a whole bunch of other issues for which there is no room in this short essay.