Thursday, May 05, 2011

Why Can’t I see Bin Laden’s Dead Body?

Tibor R. Machan

I am baffled by this secrecy surrounding Bin Ladens’ death. Someone needs to do more explaining than has been done thus far.

Why when American taxpayers have funded a massive manhunt and eventual assassination of Osama bin Laden are they forbidden to see Bin Laden’s dead body? Why does president Obama’s presumed personal discomfort about seeing Bin Laden’s dead body determine whether American citizens may see it? What kind of law authorizes the White House to dictate to American citizens whether they may or may not view Bin Laden’s dead body? And I am sure there are many other questions roughly along lines of the above ones that could be asked and for which answers are arguably due us.

Over the nearly ten years since 9/11 there have been all sorts of conspiracy theories circulating about just who ordered the vicious attacks on the Twin Towers and the completely unjustified murder of the airline passengers and World Trade Center workers. Some of the doubters of the official story are difficult to dismiss but arguably certain alternative accounts are far less credible than the official account.

Nevertheless hiding Bin Laden’s dead body from us all contributes to suspicions about the entire matter. Why did President Obama make a unilateral decision about how Bin Laden’s body was to be buried? Is there any legal justification for what he did and if so why isn’t it communicated to Americans and the rest of the world?

And why is it so important to be deferential to Bin Laden’s followers concerning how Bin Laden’s body should be treated? Since when do supporters of mass murderers get to decide on such matters? Since when do their feelings take precedence of the feelings of those who have been targeted by such mass murderers and by those who may be left without a proper closure because of how President Obama decided to handle this?

My questions above aren’t rhetorical ones. I am giving voice to questions I know others have been raising and to which no answers have been made available by the White House. The exact protocol seems to be shrouded in mystery and none of the officials in the know seem to want to provide a solution to it. Not only is this fuel for conspiracy theorists but it also amounts to a level of official arrogance on the part of those who are dealing with the matter.

It was President Obama who not very long ago made a lot of noise about how the American people need to share the responsibility for the recent economic fiasco; if so why don’t they get to share in the knowledge about Osama bin Laden’s death? Why is the White House so intent on enjoying exclusivity about all this? Who does President Obama think he is, our ruler or our president--the presiding officer of the government? Why does he get to say that he is strong enough to cope with the sight of Bin Laden’s dead body but the rest of us aren’t?

Clearly some explaining is needed here. Even if most citizens are satisfied with how Mr. Obama has handled this, not all of them are and they are entitled to have their preferences honored, not just those who think nothing is amiss with it all. Not to mention its being dubious public policy in a democracy to leave millions of citizens shut out of the proceedings.

Also, those who don’t want to view Bin Laden’s bullet riddled body do not have to look at any pictures the White House could show us. No one would be forcing them to look. But it is clear that the White House is forcing those who do want to see to remain dissatisfied.

I recall being told by Mr. Obama during his campaign for the presidency and thereafter that he favors transparency on the part of the federal government. This instance belies that declaration point blank. And it continues providing those who keep casting doubt upon his veracity with ammunition. Could it be that he likes it just that way? Maybe he is testing just how much manipulation of the American citizenry he can get away with. Maybe he is planning other deceptions he’d like to know he can get away with.
Review of Tim Sandefur’s The Right to Earn a Living, Economic Freedom and the Law (Washington, D.C., Cato Institute, 2011). $25.95

By Tibor R. Machan

Tim Sandefur’s The Right to Earn a Living is so far as I can judge a flawless, superb discussion of how a proper understanding of American constitutional law implies that in this country everyone has a basic right to earn a living. Although this isn’t my specialty, I am well enough versed to be able to tell that Sandefur has a far better handle on the issue than, say, Cass Sunstein or all those who keep defending the contrary thesis in, say, The New York Review of Books.

I have been following Mr. Sandefur’s career for a while—he has given lectures in my university’s law school, which he also attended after doing his undergraduate studies at Hillsdale College in Michigan. The lectures he has given that I have heard have been excellent--clear and well informed, passionate yet also intellectually well crafted. This to my knowledge is his second book for the same publisher, the Cato Institute, where his Cornerstone of Liberty: Property Rights in 21st Century America came out in 2006.

Although most of this book focuses on the law—and Sandefur explores thoroughly the way the law in America has been influenced by ideas completely alien to the nation’s political-economic tradition (e.g., by that thoroughly misnamed movement, progressivism)—there is an underlying normative thrust to it on which the legal philosophy of the author rests. That normative thrust is Lockean natural rights theory.

As the author makes clear, the right to earn a living is actually implied by the American founders' reworking of John Locke’s list of natural rights, as per James Madison’s rendering in the Virginia Declaration of Rights where we are told that “all men are by nature equally free and independent, and have certain inherent rights.” These include “the enjoyment of life and liberty, with the means of acquiring and possessing property, and pursing and obtaining happiness and safety.”

I find the book so agreeable that I will now spend just a few paragraphs discussing one possible misunderstanding that could arise from its title and some of what the author says in the spirit of that title. Much of the work is spent on discussing legal, in particular constitutional, topics focused on private property rights. The history of the U. S. Supreme Court’s way of addressing the topic is not a very pretty picture and may even raise the question of what is the use of a written constitution if justices are going to vacillate so drastically in how they read it. Isn’t a written constitution supposed to facilitate stability and predictability in a country’s legal affairs so citizens can make long range decisions?

Let me leave this issue to the likes of Mr. Sandefur, who focus their attention more on jurisprudence than on general political philosophy. I do wish now to address one area of basic political philosophy that some elements of this book leaves unexplored, namely, just how intimate is the connection between earning a living and ownership.

Quite a few people, both now and in the past, defend the right to private property, to individual ownership, based on the idea that whatever one earns—or creates, or makes, or produces—surely is one’s own property and others have no right to it. And up to a point this carries conviction but it doesn’t at all go far enough. The problem is that there is a lot that an individual owns without having earned--made, created, or produced—it. Yet it still is one’s private property and no one is authorized to take it from one. By risking leaving the impression that ownership arises from having earned what one owns, one may be taken to suggest that only if one has earned what one owns can it be legitimately one’s property. And this suggestion will then be exploited by those who would just as soon confiscate from individuals any property they have not earned—such as what they have inherited.

Let’s start with the simple cases. How about one’s second eye that another may well have great use for? Or one’s second kidney? Or indeed one’s heart if one is some kind of no good, lazy loafer and another who’s an ambitious genius with noble aspirations to save the world could make good use of? Then what about what one was given as a gift? Not always earned at all! Or what about what one has found, free and clear, by chance?

There are quite a few political philosophers and theorists, even moralists, whose views imply that if you didn’t earn it, others are entirely free to take it from you. And if what you own is not being put to proper use, then, too, it can be confiscated by the authorities and transferred to someone who is deemed to make wiser use of it. The famous City of New London, CT v. Kelo U. S. Supreme Court case (of July 2005) whereby city bureaucrats confiscated private property from citizens and gave it to others was decided on such spurious grounds. In the famous Harvard University professor John Rawls’ book, A Theory of Justice (Harvard University Press, 1971) the same idea emerges. Because no one actually earns all of his or her assets in life but comes by them through luck or fortunate upbringing, there is nothing objectionable in depriving people of what they are taken to own. After all, as Rawls put it, “The assertions that a man deserves the superior character that enables him to make the effort to cultivate his abilities is … problematic; for his character depends in large part upon fortunate family and social circumstances for which he can claim now credit” (104).

Nothing at all follows about other people having the authority to take from one something one hasn’t come by through hard work, through having actually earned, produced, or made it all. That’s plainly a non-sequitor. Only if one came by something through theft, extortion, robbery, burglary or similar violation of another’s rights is there justification for such taking.

Yes, one way to come to own something is by having produced or earned it—something that is made very clear in Sandefur’s book—but there are others, including having been born with it, having it as part of one’s very identity as the human individual who one happens to be, or having been given it. That’s enough. Others just have no warrant for butting in, however great their goals, be it the will of the people or of wise leaders or anything like that.

Private property rights flow from one’s having an unalienable right to one’s life, a life that is one’s own and no one else’s, not the family’s, not the tribe’s, not the clan’s, nor of the nation or community or some other group of other people who already own exactly what they have a right to, namely, their own lives. Sandefur suggests nothing other than this but still, it is important to make clear that it would be to misunderstand the nature of property rights to suggest that only when one earns property is it in fact one’s property.

So having come by something without having stolen or extorted it from someone is plenty or warrant for owning it. And then, of course, if one has put one’s mind to making good use of something no one else owns, that is also an excellent reason to be deemed its owner. It is also one of the best incentives for productive work.

All the supposed scholarship favoring collective, public, or community ownership results, mostly, in providing some private individuals with free goods—a type of rent seeking—who want to confiscate the property of other private individuals under the illusion or guise that they represent the public or the general will or some fathom entity like that. No, those groups are no more than a group of other people who want what doesn’t belong to them. Mostly they wish to promote the idea through the myth of the superior importance of the greater numbers. But there’s no substance to it—millions of people can all be plain takers, lead by misguided thinkers who just want to come by wealth without having to meet the terms of those who own it.

The right to private property applies not only to owning what one has created—although few of us create something entirely anew, from scratch—but also to what emanates from us, from who we are. So if by total accident I am a good-looking bloke and can cash in on it by getting a paid appearance on the cover of GQ, nobody is justified to take from me of my proceeds, not my neighbor, not the government, no one.

Some defenders of our private property rights are tempted to link ownership rights too intimately to merit but that’s folly for we are not always the owners of things—including our lives and limbs as well as much else we own free and clear—as a matter of merit. It can all still be our property if it isn’t anyone else’s. And whatever we do own others better keep away from unless we permit them to do otherwise. Any system of “laws” that fails to heed this point is, as Mr. Sandefur demonstrates in this excellent volume, ultimately illegitimate.

Wednesday, May 04, 2011

Some Consequences of Mixed Systems

Tibor R. Machan

China is what political economists call a market socialist country, with political socialism at a virtual dictatorial level (as distinct from, say, democratic socialist and liberal democratic countries) and is thus very precarious when it comes to its political stability, kind of like Chile was under General Pinochet. The rulers will keep trying to square the circle, having a largely free, capitalist economy and a one party socialist political regime. But everyone knows this is very vulnerable to upheavals, especially once the economic side of the equation makes enough ordinary people wealthy so they no longer look to the government to sustain their way of life.

When a country is politically socialist, this means that officially what is most important is the well being of society as a whole. Karl Marx referred to a socialist society as an organic whole or body and this implies that the different elements of it, the limbs, organs, cells, etc., are all subordinate to the whole society. This is why such a country is also called collectivist--it is the collection of everything, including people, land, natural resources, culture and achievements, that is important. Certainly the individual citizens are not except as they contribute to the society as a whole. By such an understanding of a society or country, anyone who isn’t fully on board with where the society is headed--as determined by the rulers who are, officially, the head of the organic body--is deemed to be mentally ill. Sometimes so much so that like some tumor in a human individual, such an individual might need to be cut out or otherwise pacified. Any idea that such an individual might simply be a legitimate dissident is officially alien in a bona fide socialist country.

Of course, there has never been a fully functioning socialist country--even in contemporary North Korea, which comes the closest to the idea, small segments of the population manage to function outside of the system. In the economy there is a sizable black market that operates without the full involvement of the government (which is the official policy). Indeed, in all the political economies around the globe referred to as “capitalist,” “socialist,” “fascist,” “communist,” or “welfare statist” the correspondence between what the theory requires and what exists in reality is rather loose.

Still, it is undeniable that when the legal system conforms mainly to socialist tenets--when the public sector is deemed to be far more important than the private sector--this will have practical consequences. In the official rhetoric of the rulers and their supporters there will be routine endorsements of the superior significance of the public versus the private interest in society. Non-profit endeavors will be favored, at least in official discussions. The idea that people are all a tiny part of the country--and that, for example, they ought not to ask what the country can do for them but ask what they can do for the country--will be embraced and seeking to advance one’s own agenda will be deemed objectionable, greedy, selfish, and narrowly individualist.

The welfare state, in turn, is indeed an explicit attempt to combine certain socialist and some capitalist political economic features. A more complicated mixed economy will have elements of most political economic systems combined in it, a kind of smorgasbord in which some of the items may not co-exist well with others and where if troubles arise it is difficult to tell which element made the greatest contribution to it. Nor will the successes be easily traced to their causes.

For example, the recent financial fiasco--some call it a meltdown--comes from a mixed system and not from the policies of one political economic arrangement and so to tell which of the various elements that have been in place for decades on end--or which combination of them--is responsible is very difficult to determine. This is one clear reason why when the likes of Paul Krugman point fingers at the free market elements, such as a bit of economic deregulation, as responsible for the mess, their claims can be seen as purely ideological, meaning indicative of their prior, unexamined commitment to anti-market economic policies. No one who is honest could tell from a quick examination that the meltdown or whatever one calls it was caused by one or another type of economic ingredient of the mixture that has been in operation for a very long time. It is possible to figure that out but it would take meticulous study since the different elements of the mixture do not operate in isolation from each other. It is as if one tried to determine why one caught food poisoning after a sumptuous smorgasbord. Any one or some combination of the items on the menu could have been responsible.

A statist will tend to blame the free market elements whereas a free market champion will look to statist elements to explain the mess. And this is not without good reason, since both have gained confidence in their ideas over time and do not consider it plausible that elements they champion would have produced havoc.

That is just one of the consequences of a mixed economic system.