Friday, March 04, 2011

Free Speech is a Basic Human Right

Tibor R. Machan

The New York Times reported recently that "John Galliano, the talented and troubled designer who was fired by the fashion house Christian Dior for making anti-Semitic remarks in a drunken rant at a bar, will be put on trial for the offenses, the Paris prosecutors office said Wednesday." This is of interest to all those who realize that the right to freedom of speech isn’t merely some odd American idea, as some multiculturalists might maintain, but a basic individual human right. It is a basic right that is always under assault from dictators and also, sadly, from earnest but misguided champions of various causes.

For example, former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak said a while back, in a meeting with intellectuals and writers at [a] book fair’s opening: “There are freedoms, but they can’t contradict our traditions … We must guarantee that freedom of expression agrees with our values.” [From the Christian Science Monitor] Unfortunately such sentiments aren’t confined to dictators but are embraced by many who feel strongly about their values in a country, such as the United States of America, that provides the right to freedom of speech with strong legal protection.

Those who believe that American soldiers who fell in wars fighting for the country’s various objectives need to be honored have found the recent ruling of the U. S. Supreme Court upholding the rights of protesters near the funerals of such soldiers quite outrageous. But instead of directing their outrage at the perverse views of the protesters, they have targeted the Supreme Court for its correct interpretation of the First Amendment to the U. S. Constitution (which aims to secure everyone’s right to freedom of speech).

It is in fact baffling that the the champions of the fallen soldiers would be so upset about the ruling protecting freedom of speech when what the soldiers supposedly fought and died for is the political system that includes as one of its central ideas that everyone has that right and may exercise it even if such exercise displeases or offends many people. The complaint with the ruling betrays a fundamental misunderstanding of the principles of the American system as laid out in the Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights.

Having the right to speak freely has absolutely nothing to do with the merits of what is being said. Indeed, if speech has obvious merits, it hardly needs protection. Only when it prompts some people--who fail to grasp what it is to have such a right--to move to legally silence those whose views they find objectionable does the protection of the right achieve its central objective.

It is interesting to compare how American constitutional law deals with seriously objectionable speech and demonstration with how French law does. It seems that Mr. Galliano's human right to hold whatever despicable views he choose to hold, just like the views of those protesters who agitate at funerals of American soldiers--making the ridiculous claim that the deaths are God's punishment for the support American law gives to gays--are going to be ignored by French prosecutors. Surely if the maniacs here in America have rights--and I do believe they do (while I hold my nose)--so does Mr. Galliano.

Furthermore, if the French government doesn't recognize Mr. Galliano’s right to hold his opinions and express them, it may be time for The New York Times itself to criticize France's legal system, as it often criticizes the legal systems and practices of other countries--e.g., the former South Africa, Chile when it was ruled by General Pinochet, and others. It shows a lack of integrity when editorial writers at The Times stand up only for some people’s basic rights instead of for everyone’s.

But then, of course, The Times and others who share its political philosophy have been doing this for ages: loudly protesting rights violations of some citizens and ignoring such violations when others are the targets (such as those citizens whom the Obama Administration is attempting to compel to purchase health insurance and thus whose right to liberty is being attacked).

Wednesday, March 02, 2011

Tunisia’s Free Trade Revolt

Tibor R. Machan

In many circles it is a prominent mantra that property rights are not human rights. The rights to private property and to trade it are treated by many political thinkers and jurists as far from binding on us. So, for example, the US Supreme Court ruled in 2005, City of New London, CT, v. Kelo, that taking a person’s land for development by another private party--who might pay higher taxes on it--is just fine. In the current controversy about whether the government is authorized by the US Constitution to force citizens to purchase health insurance, the right to trade freely--or refrain from doing so--is at issue and defenders of President Obama’s position insist that the commerce clause--Article 1, Sec. 8--of the US Constitution should be so interpreted as to authorize such state coercion.

Then, of course, thousands of regulatory edicts, rules and commands from governments at all levels, are defended by many prominent academics as quite OK. This despite the fact that government regulations are tantamount to the unjust practice of prior restraint--interfering with people’s conduct not because it is illegal but because it might be.

The legal history of rationalizing such regulation--what should, in fact, be called regimentation--to authorize such unrelenting intrusiveness and interference in people’s lives is quite tortured. Initially “regulate” was taken to mean “regularize,” and sensibly so since the point was to eliminate tariffs and duties between states that had been colonies and as such used to engage in economic warfare. Once united into one country, all this made no sense and also undermined the free flow of commerce and its contribution to prosperity, so it was wise to regularize all peaceful trade.

In time, however, once interventionism became popular and the US Supreme Court started to back this up--in part because it was thought that such intervention was needed to abolish slavery and segregation--the term “regulate” was interpreted to mean “regiment” instead of “regularize.” And that is the dominant current reading of the clause, with only a few justices, legal scholars, and jurists critical of it. The recent rulings by a few federal judges invalidating President Obama’s health care policy because it orders people to engage in trade with insurance companies has made some use of the older rendition of “to regulate” but opposition to it has been frantic. (The New Republic’s Jonathan Chait referred to it as “laughable”!)

How ill conceived it is that government is thought to be authorized to regiment people’s economic activities and affairs should be plain to anyone who understands a thing or two about human liberty. But what happened in Tunisia to set off the recent rebellion might illuminate the point a bit. Here is what we find in the pages of THE WEEK (February 19, 2011, p. 48), originally published in The Times/N.I. Syndication:

“[Mohamed Bouazizi, the] young [street] trader had been in trouble with the authorities before....Under the dictatorship of President Ben Ali, permits were required for every form of business activity, often accompanied by a bribe. Bouazizi’s family would later claim that he had refused to pay the bribe demanded by the officials....According to other fruit and vegetable pedlars, vendors have a choice when faced with a municipal inspector: they can flee, and leave behind both borrow and merchandise; pay a fine equivalent to several days’ earnings, or fork out a bribe. Bouazizi, it seems, was not inclined to do any of these. When [a 45 year old female inspector] Hamdi began seizing his applies, he tried to grab them back, and she slapped him in the face....”

After this event all hell broke loose and escalated and ended, eventually, in the ouster of President Ben Ali’s government. So, by any reasonable account what brought about the Tunisian upheaval is the government’s intervention with freedom of trade, exactly the kind of conduct by government officials that a good many American jurists, political thinkers and politicians claim is constitutional and certainly not dictatorial. So then all those who try to rationalize such intervention based on a distorted fascistic or socialist ideological reading of the commerce clause, should by all rights defend President Ben Ali’s government, just as they are so willing to defend government’s commercial regimentation throughout America or, indeed, anywhere else where governments embark upon such policies. And it makes no difference whether the policies have the support of the majority, for the same reason that lynching is not justified even if the whole town supports it.

Monday, February 28, 2011

Multiple Universes Anyone?

Tibor R. Machan

An issue that has puzzled many philosophers and cosmologists is whether there is just one universe or might there be many. On first inspection the puzzle appears to be bogus. After all, by “universe” is meant “everything that is.” Other terms used for this are “existence,” “reality,” “the world,” and so forth. But leave it to the very bright men and women in some of the least accessible disciplines to come up with notions that are very odd, at least to those who like to be grounded on Terra firma in their thinking.

However, without some of these apparent flights of fancy certain valuable discoveries of the past would have been overlooked. So the question is, does the idea of multiple universes qualify as one of these apparent flights of fancy or is it per chance a bona fide and promising flight of fancy?

One way that some people come to believe in multiple universes is by considering whether there is anything contradictory in postulating it. Thus, for example, married bachelors or square circles would not qualify since these are outright self-contradictory. Nothing married can also be a bachelor, nothing that’s square can also be a circle. Impossible. So is the idea of multiple universes like these, out and out self-contradictory?

Arguably it is not but then perhaps it is almost. If the meaning of “universe” is “all that exists,” then multiple universes would be a self-contradictory idea since if some other thing existed that’s like a universe, it would just be part of the universe, not an additional universe. After all, “everything” means just that, everything without exception. But if “universe” means something specifiable, with borders or limits, like a playground or sphere, then it would not be out and out self-contradictory to suppose that there are others beside this one we are familiar with.

Yet, this latter approach relies on changing the meaning of “universe.” It no longer is used to mean “everything that exists” but, rather, whatever exists in a certain way and then, quite possibly, other things might exists that way too. Not that there is any reason to think they do only that there could be no objection to the possibility of their existence. As many cosmologists and philosophers would put it, multiple universes are logically possible--there is no formal contradiction in thinking they exist.

Yet, of course, that alone doesn’t establish that multiple universes exist, actually, in reality, as it were. They would be, instead, conceivable, thinkable, perhaps. Like three legged ducks on Mars are--thinkable but with no reason to believe they exist.

But some think that anytime one comes up with some idea that might--just barely might--be realized, it should be treated as in fact existent for in the long run, through eternity, everything possible would in fact be (at some time). Eternity is, after all, a very long time and that gives anything that’s even remotely possible some chance of being actual, at some time at least. Who could rule it out--no one could traps around the whole shebang to establish the matter once and for all.

Yet, are we supposed to form our beliefs based on such flimsy possibilities, ones that are deemed possible only because they cannot be ruled out entirely? It seems that the more reasonable thing to do is to regard such logical possibilities--of what might just be possible but no one knows if they are--as mere fancies instead of something worthy of belief. After all, by such reasoning the mere fact that someone might be guilty of a crime of which he or she is accused would justify regarding the person as possibly guilty. This could then lead to their being treated as suspects who should be investigated. Would that be justified? Would it not, instead, amount to harassment?

So the real challenge is what is reasonable to believe in. Many things that do not qualify might possibly be, at some point, somewhere, but unless solid evidence of their reality is at hand, we should most likely postpone any decision about whether they exist. Which, seems to me, goes for multiple universes.
“The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters”*

Tibor R. Machan

In basic reasoning courses one learns that certain ways of thinking are fallacious, others are sound. Sadly, most students don’t actually remember much of what they learn here because these courses are taught too early in their college years, just at the time they are still celebrating no longer being in high school. (Yes, for nearly two years many students pay hardly any attention to their studies, having been incarcerated in school for 12 years prior to entering college!)

Had they been educated about reasoning well versus badly, they might catch some of the howlers committed by members of the media (or anyone else). As a case in point, I had the distinct displeasure of watching Bill O’Reilly during the 2000 presidential election, when the mess in Florida with those hanging chads was going down. In his ponderous and pompous manner, which apparently many people welcome for some reason, O’Reilly announced in the middle of his coverage of the events that journalistic objectivity is a total myth, that everyone is biased, including him. And not just when they are voicing their particular viewpoint. Also, when they report on facts.

Now here is a good case of muddled and fallacious reasoning. It is inconsistent for a journalist to both make a report about journalism--e.g., that it is always biased--while also claiming that all such reports are biased, which is to say unreliable, distorted, one-sided, partisan or subjective. If the latter were true, than the former could not be treated as also true since it would also fall victim to distortion or bias. And why would anyone trust a journalist who distorts the facts he is supposed to be reporting to us? We could find something far more productive to do.

More generally, any kind of corruption in a profession, such as journalism, cannot be inherent. If it were, no distinction between distorted and dependable reporting could be identified. At least the possibility of credible reporting must exist. It’s like food--not all of it could be poisonous; nor could we all be sick all the time. These pairs of concepts, like poisonous versus healthy, corrupt versus honest, biased versus objective, etc., and so forth are meaningful only if both were possible. Just one of them on its own makes no sense. Like beginning versus end, or up versus down--they make sense only when paired.

Anyway, quite a few people get tripped up by forgetting these and many other elementary points of human reasoning. They will accept the idea, for example, that all human thought is fallacious; that everyone is always lying; that our minds are innately defective, etc. None of this could be so, in part because then these reports about us would themselves be unreliable since we made them with our human minds (and our human minds, remember, always distort everything, etc., etc.).

Why is there so much of this sort of babbling about when it is so flawed? (Another infamous case in point is “All property is theft” since theft presupposes the existence of untainted property.) One reason is that a great many people are misanthropes. They are very eager to demean humanity, to put it down as something worthless or inherently flawed. So they attack our most vital faculty, the human mind. (Maybe in fact they are projecting!)

The most prominent example of this is a certain version of the idea of original sin, in the form that states that human beings are basically and thoroughly sinful from the git-go. (If all it means is that human beings are capable of being wicked, well that’s no news!) Another source is the famous and famously misunderstood idea the comes to us from Socrates, the main character of all those great Platonic dialogues. Socrates is supposed to have said, if Plato is to be believed, that the only thing he knows is that he knows nothing (and that no one who thinks he is wise is really wise, including he).

These are very paradoxical claims to make and, most probably, their point is ironic not literal. They could be one approach to keeping hubris in check, making sure no one takes himself too seriously, no one gets carried away with his or her cleverness. This is also where the idea “sophistry” comes from, of cleverness masquerading as wisdom. Sophists in Plato’s time where those who pretended to be wise but in fact merely exhibited technical skill in argumentation, a bit like attorneys are reputed to do.

It would be nice if all those hours of sitting in basic reasoning classes actually left their mark on all students. But since you can become a famous anchor on TV while committing lacunae galore, I suppose many fail to see the benefit from it.

*Francisco José de Goya y Lucientes.