Saturday, April 09, 2011

Morality and Freedom Again

Tibor R. Machan

Quite a few people, among them some who are pretty bright and thoughtful, hold that people have moral responsibilities, that these aren’t mere preferences, and that a society that fails to accommodate this is flawed. For some who take morality seriously these responsibilities concern conduct that people ought to carry out for various ends or goals, such as fulfilling God’s will, helping others, promoting the public interest, creating beauty, advancing world peace, eliminating poverty, and so forth and so on.

Not that everyone accepts that people have any such responsibilities. Some influential thinkers are amoralists--they deny that there is any such thing as morality or ethics, that all talk about these matters is either outright bogus or merely a disguised way to discuss aspects of human psychology or sociology. In the social sciences most professionals and academics have held this view and still do, hoping that what they can do is show that a concern for how people ought to or should act is really about mental health or social adjustment, both manageable without recourse to talk about moral or ethical responsibilities, duties or human virtues. Hard core physical scientists, too, tend to deny morality and focus, instead, on the physical sources of desirable or undesirable conduct.

Almost needless to say, the denial of morality doesn’t easily square with much of public discourse. In politics and diplomacy, for example, nearly all parties openly blame their adversaries and praise their allies. Wall street is a favorite target of moral condemnation, as is Congress or the rich or Republicans or Democrats or so called market fundamentalists or socialists. No end of moralizing occurs in the editorials and columns published in newspapers, magazines, even in scientific ones such as Science News, Science, Scientific American, Nature, or Discover (at least whenever those who ask for reducing funding for science come under scrutiny).

But let me not dwell on moral skepticism here. Instead I want to explore the ideas of those who readily admit that people have moral responsibilities or duties. Some of these folks make the case that such moral responsibilities or duties are part and parcel of human life itself and when one is born, one already has these (although they are to be fulfilled only once one reaches maturity). My most favorite statement of this view comes from the French “father of sociology,” Auguste Comte, although others, such as the Harvard University professor of government Michael J. Sandel or Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor, could be cited. Here is Comte classic statement:

"Everything we have belongs then to Humanity…Positivism never admits anything but duties, of all to all. For its social point of view cannot tolerate the notion of right[s], constantly based on individualism. We are born loaded with obligations of every kind, to our predecessors, to our successors, to our contemporaries. Later they only grow or accumulate before we can return any service.” From The Catechism of Positive Religion (Clifton, NJ: Augustus M. Kelley Publ., 1973), pp. 212-30.

For now I do not wish to dispute the moral position Comte and many others hold, namely, that people ought to serve others. It does pose some dilemmas, of course, such as the one apparently pointed out by the poet W. H. Auden who reportedly exclaimed: “We are here on earth to do good for others. What the others are here for, I don't know.” Instead I wish to point to an inconsistency about one use to which the position that we are obligated to society or others (or whomever) is put, namely, to support coercive measures that make fulfilling such an alleged obligation legally mandatory. This is that moral choice must be made freely, without anyone making another do the morally right thing. It is impossible to do the morally right thing at the point of a gun. Coerced morality is a contradiction in terms. Only when one does what is right or wrong voluntarily, of one’s own free will or initiative, does it amount to something morally significant.

However much someone believes that we should all serve God, society, the arts, the poor or any other possible beneficiary of our conduct, the last thing this could possibly justify is using coercive force against those who are supposed to comply with the edict.

What may mislead some to overlook this is the term “obligation.” It suggests something legally enforceable but that is not so when it pertains to ethics or morality, only when it applies to law. One may be obligated to respect other people’s rights and this may be legally required, made part of the law. But if one has a moral obligation to help one’s unfortunate fellows, promote the arts, conserve resources, or guard against the destruction of ancient ruins--all of that and anything similar has to be undertaken voluntarily, not at gunpoint. That’s the nature of moral or ethical obligations and responsibilities.

Friday, April 08, 2011

The Story of Entitlement Addiction

Tibor R. Machan

Welfare states rely on a complacent population, like spoiled children on spineless parents. So when finally the jig is up, no more vital fluids to leach, it is impossible to change course without serious pain. What the Republicans are asking for now is that the Democrats and their constituents agree to simple withdrawal and not scream from the pain of it all. With the public philosophy of the Democrats this is hopeless since they have been preaching that all you need to pay for it all is to rip off the rich, to rob them of their wealth and redistribute it throughout the land. But no amount of confiscation from the rich is going to fulfill the expectations of the millions of people who have become hooked on entitlements.

Of course, for a good while this entitlement mania could be satisfied because its comeuppance could be kicked down the path for the next generation to deal with. Social security, medicare, subsidies of all sorts, unemployment compensation, funding of wildly speculative and minimally productive scientific adventures, price supports for farmers, military adventures, nearly limitless support for state colleges and universities, foreign aid, and so on and so forth--all this piled up and now the chicken are coming home to roost. And politicians and their bureaucrats didn’t prepare the population for it, so it just crashed upon the country even though many marginalized smart and decent people who knew better kept warning us. One good example was F. A. Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom, not to mention several of Ludwig von Mises’s long and short books. And then there was Ayn Rand’s monumental novel of 1957, Atlas Shrugged, that pretty much foretold what we are now witnessing and must tell about to our children and grandchildren who will be the most severely hit by it all. All these warnings were waved aside by the entitlement pushers, the ones who wanted to be elected and to run the managerial state. They misunderstood or more likely refused to see how it goes when one postpones coming to terms with Draconian profligacy.

Even today the statists among us are blaming everything on freedom, on the admittedly present but certainly not decisive corruptions that occur in the welfare state’s market place--which lack the proper institutional restrains of a genuine free market. All one needs to do is follow the writings of Paul Krugman, the most avid and visible contemporary apologist for the welfare state--the more his chicken come home, the more he advocates stricter controls of people’s economic conduct. Yes, control, control and more control is the statist’s answer to everything, as if statists had a clue how to manage things without running them to the ground like virtually all statists systems (that do not benefit from cheap oil or other vital resources) do eventually.

Truth is we are in for a rough ride and few people will weather it well. And our leaders--would be rulers, in fact--don’t want to admit it since they always want to reserve the right to restart the welfare state so they can continue to pretend to serve the public. But as I recently discovered Charles de Gaulle to have said, "In order to become the master, the politician poses as the servant." We all will be asked for sacrifices and to accept that those in charge of the public treasury are blameless; they were merely responding to their constituents and hadn’t a chance to inform them of the facts of economic life, the plainest of them being that one just cannot get blood out of a turnip.

One bit of silver lining: all this isn’t new; states throughout human history have gone bankrupt and somehow climbed out but mainly because they did not hesitate to subdue and plunder neighboring countries, to kill and maim their populations without mercy just to stay the course. But in our time, at least in the West, that option is no longer welcome a great deal; it is generally frowned upon to start a war to rip off largely peaceful countries. Instead, rulers resort to financial chicanery which ultimately amount to trying to square circles around the globe. All in the name of serving the people!

Still, lessons might be learned and the very slow and oft-interrupted road to liberation may continue.

Tuesday, April 05, 2011

Statism vs. Labor & Persons

Tibor R. Machan

Under hard line statism, such as centrally planned socialism and absolute monarchy, everyone belongs to society--there are no individuals, no privacy, no private property, etc. Thus, for instance, in Marxism all vital property is collectively owned and administered by the state/government. Since the most vital of all property is human productive labor, everyone's productive labor belongs to the society and must be administered by the state/government. (The late Robert Heilbroner, the author of The Worldly Philosophers, a book that for many decades was required reading for many incoming college freshmen, is one Western Marxist who acknowledged this in his book Marxism: For and Against.) It follows from it that those who tried to escape from Easter Germany were officially taken to be stealing the state's property, taking it to the West, and this had to be opposed and prevented. Shooting those who tried to scale the Berlin Wall amounted to shooting thieves!

Given Marx’s labor theory of value, it follows that a socialist system involves public ownership of human labor. And that pretty much implies the public ownership of human beings.

Yet it isn’t only Marxists who are philosophically committed to the idea that people belong to society. Charles Taylor, the Canadian communitarian philosopher from McGill University holds that people belong to their communities. Just what counts as one’s community is difficult to be sure about--in one sense everyone belongs to innumerable communities, such as families, neighborhoods, professions, political parties, drivers of Volkswagens, joggers, twenty-somethings and on and on. None of these have a claim on any human beings beyond being associated with many, many others who share in a common purpose or in some common activities. All are associations that are voluntarily entered into or continued and are easily ended.

The kind of belonging Taylor and others have in mind is more forceful, coercive, the sort one cannot unilaterally end. Like being from a certain country or being a member of an age group or, again, having a given ethnicity. These communities are part of what some would call one’s identity and by the communitarian account have a claim on one’s life, labor, resources and such. One might even say that one belongs in such cases as one might belong to a proprietor. It calls to mind slavery or at least serfdom. It comes, as communitarians such as Harvard University’s famous Professor Michael J. Sandel (the host of the program Justice on PBS TV and author of a book by that title) holds, with unchosen obligations, duties that government may enforce, like doing military service to the country or paying taxes.

It is this element of communitarianism that qualifies it as mainly a statist political position and indeed there are some conservative champions of the doctrine as well. Even the avowed individualist conservative, the late William F. Buckley, Jr., advocated national service for teens! In either case it is, pace Buckley, the source of hostility toward individualism, be that the mild one according to which everyone has the basic right to choose on his or her own initiative what kind of life he or she will live, or the more radical type which holds that we are all self-sufficient, independent persons. The extreme version of the communitarian idea is th that we all belong to society or humanity or humankind. And here the “belong” is meant in the proprietary sense.

The most forceful statement of this collectivist view was put forth by Auguste Comte, the French “father of sociology” in the following passage:

"Everything we have belongs then to Humanity…Positivism never admits anything but duties, of all to all. For its social point of view cannot tolerate the notion of right, constantly based on individualism. We are born loaded with obligations of every kind, to our predecessors, to our successors, to our contemporaries. Later they only grow or accumulate before we can return any service. On what human foundation then could rest the idea of right, which in reason should imply some previous efficiency? Whatever may be our efforts, the longest life well employed will never enable us to pay back but an imperceptible part of what we have received. And yet it would only be after a complete return that we should be justly authorized to require reciprocity for the new services. All human rights then are as absurd as they are immoral. This ["to live for others"], the definitive formula of human morality, gives a direct sanction exclusively to our instincts of benevolence, the common source of happiness and duty. [Man must serve] Humanity, whose we are entirely." Auguste Comte, The Catechism of Positive Religion (Clifton, NJ: Augustus M. Kelley Publ., 1973), pp. 212-30. (It was Comte who coined the term “altruism”!)

What was unique in the American political tradition, which drew on John Locke instead of the likes of Comte, is the rejection of this reactionary idea! That is what made America exceptional, albeit, sadly, incompletely so.

Monday, April 04, 2011

It may be of some interest to you that I have been asked to be interviewed on C-Span’s *Book TV/In Depth*, a three hour call-in program, on Sunday, May 1, 2011, focusing on my books. A week before this I will learn the phone numbers, e-mail address and related information that will enable viewers to reach me and ask me question, offer criticism, etc., etc. My recent writings are stored at & and Google Search takes you to,or.r_gc.r_pw.&fp=80ab9cbe03966427 for additional information about me.

Tibor R. Machan

Sunday, April 03, 2011

Extortion in the Name of Science

Tibor R. Machan

While the country is going into more and more debt by the seconds, and while some even in Washington are beginning to be concerned--after all, their share of the loot taken from citizens year round and culminating on April 15th each year could shrink just as will everyone’s who leaches off taxpayers--I admit I have heard nothing at all about cutting funding for science.

That science’s take is huge can be gleaned just from the fact that, according to Nature magazine, within a small segment of it, synthetic biology, the funding in America since 2005 came to about $430 million (compared to all of Europe’s $160 million). Why is there no discussion of this, not even on Fox TV? Is science the sacred cow of our time so when scientists get support from the government’s confiscation of our resources, it is left unscrutinized?

A most recent copy of a prominent science magazine--I subscribe to a few but all contain these tidbits and several go on record after every presidential election to insist that no reduction in what is spent on science should be on the agenda of the new administration--reports that one recent study showed the vital finding that “For pythons, indulging in a meal not only distorts physique, it also reshapes microbial communities living in the gut” (Nature, June 2010, p. 849). Dozens and more of such items are reported and I do not see how the majority of the research being funded and conducted bears in the slightest on what the job of government ought to be, protection of our rights. This job could require some scientific research, of course, in forensics, military hardware, etc., etc. But hardly any of the money being used to fund science goes for such expenses. The bulk goes to university science schools and their departments or to research labs, with all their theorists and researchers doing admittedly (at least sometimes) interesting--maybe even ultimately useful--work. None of it seems to me to justify taking it from others who haven’t chosen to make it their responsibility.

But that goes for me without saying. I am someone who considers extorting funds from innocent citizens for even the most noble purposes thoroughly immoral and not at all the function of a government of a free country. Am I, however, completely out of line with my stand here?

Well, judging by the deafening silence in the mainstream media it appears that I definitely am. (When I edited the book Liberty and R & D for the Hoover Institution Press, back in 2002, I had the hardest time finding just a few scientists who would join me in critically examining the practice of science funding by governments.) One reason, I suspect, is that most fields of science are so terribly esoteric, so crammed with the kind of jargon that no ordinary citizen can understand, that to take a look at the area with a critical eye, focused even just on its funding, is intimidating. And even among skeptics a blanket rejection of government funding of non-military, non-police related science work appears too radical--surely some work in the sciences is important enough to warrant the transfer of resource from the citizenry at large to the scientific community, even at the point of the gun!

Well, no it isn’t. But the governmental habit is very, very old. Since time immemorial governments (i.e., rulers) have wrested for themselves the task of doing a great deal of the work of a society--science, the arts, religion, education, transportation, etc., etc. Weening scientists from their traditional sources of funding, confiscated resources of the citizenry that used to be so natural under monarchies, would appear to be an impossible task, maybe comparable to supporting gay marriages! (But, hey, these are no longer taboo!)

It is time, I think, for knowledgeable folks, to follow the lead of the likes of Terrence Kealey (see his courageous book, The Economic Laws of Scientific Research [Macmillan, 1996]) and go on record with the case for science without government--without coercion, in other words. Criticisms from the likes of me are too easy to wave off since we are not among the initiated in this highly specialized area of human concern, namely, scientific research.
Libertarian Civics Lesson #438

Tibor R. Machan

It is customary, sadly, for critics of a viewpoint to distort it, caricature it, besmirch it and the like--or at least to mention only aspects of it that could turn out to be untoward some human interests. So, of course, with libertarianism which is the most radical, novel political idea around--in contrast to the relentlessly statist ideas and practices that have dominated human political history. So you will hear that libertarians are crass individualist, mindless egotists, anti-social, atomistic, and the like. And while one can find one or two such people among those calling themselves libertarian, the charge is largely bogus. Every viewpoint has its least palatable versions and some will go the distance of affirming it, if only out of frustration and spite. (Professor Walter Block, an economist at Loyola University of New Orleans, did this with his book Defending the Undefendable [1976]) in which, for example, he championed littering on public roads as a kind of civil disobedience!)

The charge that libertarianism is anti-social, etc., is palpably false. The thing about that irks many people is that social relations within a prospective libertarian country would all have to be voluntary, never coerced. (One famous scholar who finds this very annoying is Professor Michael J. Sandel, so much so that his recently published, Justice, What is the Right Thing to do? [Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2009], based on his very popular PBS TV and Harvard University lectures by that same term, begins with a frontal attack on libertarianism [a la the late Robert Nozick].) Sandel’s central complaint is that libertarianism doesn’t acknowledge that everyone has unchosen obligations to society. The famous American and classical liberal idea that government must be consented to by the governed is tossed aside for this reactionary idea that when you are born you are already legally ensnared in innumerable duties to others which, of course, government is authorized to extract from you. The idea, most forcefully defended by the French father of sociology, Auguste Comte, is a ruse and used mostly to make people into serfs, subject them to involuntary servitude, however noble sounding the sentiments behind it.

In any case, I just have a small example to present in which the claim that libertarians are anti-social, un-neighborly is shown to be false. I have a deck on which I spend a good deal of time. My neighbor’s roof is nearly even with it so that when his fireplace is used, the smoke is often sent to where I sit. And it can get a bit annoying even while there is that nice rustic smell to it which I actually like. (Who knows what it is doing to my lungs!)

If I were terribly sensitive to the smoke, I would just go to my neighbor and request that the smoke be redirected or contained. (Economists call it a negative externality if it does indeed cause damage and sometimes worry that such externalities may not always be internalizable, contained, in other words.) My other neighbor has done exactly this when he found my stereo blasting too loudly in the middle of the night--gave me a call and asked me to turn it down, which I did, of course. Similar mini-altercations occur across my neighborhood and, of course, throughout the world and once it is clear who is in charge of the realms being affected, they are managed with no fuss in I would assume 90% cases. Only small minded folks fail to cope with them, or ignorant ones or ones who have a gripe against a neighbor to start with.

If, however, one experiences such minor incursions on public places, the situation changes. The old tragedy of the commons arises for no one knows who is in charge and whose desires should be honored. Some head honcho needs to be selected and the hope will spread that this individual or committee will make a fair determination of just how much annoyance everyone must accept for the sake of the community (it is always said). And no end of grumbling comes from this arrangement. No one tends to like the outcome since everyone thinks his or her share of burdens is too great and benefits too little. As Aristotle noted some 3000 years ago:

“That all persons call the same thing mine in the sense in which each does so may be a fine thing, but it is impracticable; or if the words are taken in the other sense, such a unity in no way conduces to harmony. And there is another objection to the proposal. For that which is common to the greatest number has the least care bestowed upon it. Every one thinks chiefly of his own, hardly at all of the common interest; and only when he is himself concerned as an individual. For besides other considerations, everybody is more inclined to neglect the duty which he expects another to fulfill; as in families many attendants are often less useful than a few." (Politics, 1262a30-37)

So stop it already about how anti-social the free society would be. Quite the contrary is true.
Machan Archives: Published Letters to The New York Times since 1986

August 3, 1986
Ayn Rand's Philosophy
To the Editor:
In his review of Barbara Branden's ''Passion of Ayn Rand'' (July 6), Peter L. Berger betrays his ignorance of Objectivism by dismissing it as simple without even a morsel of evidence or argument.
In fact, from the initial outline Ayn Rand provided, a very rich and powerful philosophy emerges - e.g., it solves such problems as science versus free will and moral responsibility, knowledge versus the fact of fallibility. Merely because Rand's ideas were not born in academe or developed in full detail by her, it cannot be concluded that they are unsound. TIBOR R. MACHAN Auburn, Ala.

November 7, 1988
Thinking in Hungarian
LEAD: To the Editor:
To the Editor:
''As any student of etymology knows,'' Debra J. Silberstein asserts, ''the words we use represent how we think'' (letter, Oct. 17). What does she say, then, about a culture, such as Hungary's, wherein male chauvinism is rampant, but the language is gender neutral? TIBOR R. MACHAN Auburn University, Ala., Oct. 17, 1988.

February 26, 1997
Evolving China Merely Resembles a Dynasty
To the Editor:
You argue (Week in Review, Feb. 23) that China is a fascist, not a Communist, system. This recalls Susan Sontag's pithy statement that ''Communism is successful fascism,'' presumably by virtue of its being more totalitarian, leaving no loopholes by which to transform itself into a democratic system.
Of course, fascism is not capitalism -- no one has the right to private property, and people own things only when the government finds this conducive to public policy. Since China was about to go belly-up economically after Mao Zedong, no wonder its leaders felt the need to open things up.
The bottom line, though, is that citizens are still treated as children, not as adults. Under capitalism the opposite is the bottom line: people's economic decisions are not dictated by the state.

Orange, Calif., Feb. 24, 1997

January 28, 1998
Why Programming Skill Is Cheap; No Discrimination

To the Editor:
Norman Matloff (Op-Ed, Jan. 26) regards hiring mostly young programmers as ''rampant age discrimination'' and notes that companies are ''focusing their hiring on new or recent college graduates, who are cheaper and can work lots of overtime.'' But age discrimination means refusing to hire solely on grounds of age. When it is a matter of salaries and greater availability of employees, that is economics, and employers owe their shareholders precisely the service of finding such employees so as to bring in better returns on investment.
While it might be nice to hire workers of any age, this is a luxury that many companies cannot afford. To regard this as age discrimination is to belittle their legitimate concerns.

Orange, Calif., Jan. 26, 1998

The writer is a professor of business ethics at Chapman University.

July 5, 2000
Black, White, Gray: America Talks About Race; The Newsroom

To the Editor:
Re ''Between the Lines, a Measure of Hurt: A Newsroom Divides After a Healing Series on Race'' (''How Race Is Lived in America,'' front page, June 29):
The dispute between the black journalist and the white journalist over the word ''niggardly'' is really about what people owe one another. If you know that someone is going to be upset by the use of a word and you can use another word with equal profit to what you want to say, it is thoughtless or even callous for you to go ahead and use it. But if you aren't aware of some particular sensitivity about a word on the part of your audience, need you go to considerable lengths to learn what words will upset them and then avoid using those?
This is a question of ethics, not race. Not every issue between blacks and whites is necessarily a racial one.

Silverado, Calif., June 29, 2000