Saturday, June 23, 2012
Why Are there Theories? Tibor R. Machan Over the years, especially since the Internet became prominent and widely used, my own ideas have received a lot of challenges. Some of these come from people with different positions on this or that but quite a few actually come from people who find advancing theories to be mistaken. They often just wish to pick and choose from among the innumerable ideas circulating and find fault with formulating a system or general position. They champion adopting the smorgasbord as the model for how one ought to think about the world. Rhyme or reason are shunned as somehow obsolete, old fashioned and instead a hodgepodge of ideas is favored, never mind internal contradictions, inconsistencies, etc. This disposition is not all that surprising. After all, among the hundreds and hundreds of “isms” that have been advanced throughout the history of ideas, there has rarely emerged one that received universal or even widespread ascent among those who work to get it right. One reason is pretty clear--the standards of adequacy for theories in all sorts of disciplines or regions of human interests were initially impossible to satisfy. Platonism contributed to this by insisting that the right viewpoint or theory had to be complete, final and timeless, something that is impossible to achieve since human beings, who concoct the theories are mortals and cannot show that the views they hold will forever be adequate. But even once this is granted and a less demanding criteria of success is invoked, a lot of people wish to cast the idea of a coherent, consistent even if provisional viewpoint aside and just stick to this idea of a hodgepodge. But that just cannot work at all. As mindful beings, humans are in need for ideas about the world in which they carry on so as to navigate it with some measure of success. Like the maps we use to travel around--they may never be completely accurate, final, incorrigible or such but they have to be workable, help us get about. In time the less successful get identified as such and get updated, properly modified but, of course, never finished forever. For those who find this inadequate there really is no relief. The world is no static geometrical plane, no formal system that is complete. Some of the best theorists have made note of this--I think Kurt Godel's incompleteness proof is really about this, a critique of the Platonist idealism that demands of a good theory that it be perfect, finished. But, as that wise saying has it, the perfect is the enemy of the good! If this idea were properly deployed, I believe there would be fewer skeptics, pessimists, cynics, most-modernists, and such among us and many more of us would be doing work on the provisionally successful ideas that can be identified (if the impossible isn’t being demanded) instead of taking up arms, intellectually, against those who are hard at work trying to figure things out. One sign of misguided thinking along the lines I have in mind is when someone keeps putting up obstacles against a set of pretty good ideas with the preface, “But isn’t it possible that such and such could happen and require you to give up your ideas?” Up to a point there is nothing wrong with this tact but if it continues on and on, without some indication of what will suffice for the skeptic, the exercise is basically pointless. Most theorists put up with these sorts of objections because they realize that they may have missed something their theories needed to address. But that approach can become pathological. I like what Professor Gilbert Harman once wrote about this matter. He warned that we must “take care not to adopt a very skeptical attitude nor become too lenient about what is to count as knowledge” (Gilbert Harman, Thought [Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1976], 145). Following this advice would, I am confident, help repel those who want to give up on reason and good sense in the approach to understanding the world and one’s place in it.
Thursday, June 21, 2012
The Left and Women's Reproductive Rights Tibor R. Machan At the outset I will declare my commitment to the right of women to terminate pregnancies prior to the time a human being has developed in their bodies (roughly the 25th week*) But then I am also someone who holds that every adult individual has a full, unalienable right to his or her life. (Who else would?) But one of the contemporary Left’s favorite doctrines, communitarianism doesn’t agree. By their standards we belong to the community. Check out what Charles Taylor says about this in his book Sources of the Self or, even better, read the famous American Leftist, Cora Weiss, who was a prominent American anti war advocate during the Vietnam era, and claimed that refugees who have fled Vietnam were traitors, because, she argued, “Every country is entitled to its people [who are] the basic resource that belongs to the country.” (Washington Post, May 29, 1978) Weiss was by no means alone in her views. The East Germans argued they had full moral authority to shoot those trying to scale the Berlin Wall because such people were stealing themselves from East Germany, from the country. Then there is the famous Marxist doctrine of the labor theory of property according to which the source of all value is human labor which, however, is public property since it is the major means of production that under socialism is collectively owned. Softer Leftists, such as communitarian Michael Sandel, also contend that our lives are from birth beholden to the community and we do not have the full right to it. This reiterates the views of the father of sociology, Auguste Comte who wrote this about the topic: "Everything we have belongs then to Humanity…[Comte’s] 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. OK, so what of this? Well, it is entirely inconsistent with the stance on abortion of most of those on the political Left in American. They are pro choice. But pro choice means having the right to do with one’s life as one wants, provided it is peaceful. And so long as abortion isn’t homicide, it is peaceful and every woman has a right to get one if she so chooses. However, if one’s life belongs to humanity or society or the community or the state, this pro choice position on abortion--and on innumerable other matters--makes no sense. In general, the Left rejects the idea that choices is a vital element of human life. Instead what matters is obligation (or duty) to others (or to humanity or society)! This idea is the ancient one, whereby everyone belongs to the country, the king, the tzar and so certainly it is utterly selfish to insist that one’s life is one’s own and that from this certain rights follow, even the right to terminate a pregnancy at an early stage. The left simply has no basis for insisting on this. (Not that the Right is much better. But I leave that for another time.) *This isn’t geometry but biology so the exactitude is appropriately fuzzy!
Wednesday, June 20, 2012
A Note on Libertarianism and Abortion Tibor R. Machan His pro-life abortion stance has only been a remote problem for Representative Ron Paul and only with some libertarians. Here is why: If a conceptus or zygote has the rights of a human infant--especially the right to life, so that no one may end its life, including the pregnant woman carrying--then the issue is not a matter of a strictly private decision. If I have an infant in my home I have no right to end its life, not unless it is a direct, unambiguous threat to my own life (like a violent intruder would be). Self-defense would be the only justification for having an abortion. Otherwise terminating a pregnancy with the result of the death of the zygote would amount to homicide, possibly out and out murder. And anything along those lines opens the matter to a criminal inquiry, which is certainly invasive and contrary to what libertarians consider justified by law enforcement agencies. So it is clear that the pro-life position has problems with the libertarian stance that a government or a law enforcement agency must stay out of one’s life, including the life of a pregnant woman. The pro-choice stance doesn’t have this problem since it generally doesn’t recognize a zygote as in possession of the right to life. Zygotes are potential but not actual human beings, although they are, of course, human zygotes! But being that they do not have the rights of, say, babies or infants. Now accordingly a pro-life position such as that of Ron Paul has altogether too much statism involved in it. Government or law enforcement would be authorized to defend the zygote from anyone who would choose to destroy it; even its accidental death, as in a miscarriage, would arguably be subject to legal scrutiny, as would that of any human infant. While Ron Paul is relatively silent about his stance on these matters, should he become a serious presidential candidate, with prospects of reaching the White House, the surrounding issues could not be avoided. They should not be! Sadly, I do not believe anyone associated with Dr. Paul has fully addressed these matters.
Tuesday, June 19, 2012
Machan’s Archives: Troubles with “Public” Resources Tibor R. Machan So some insist that street vendors around the country should be banned? Why? Because the majority of those doing business adjacent to the street want them to be. The issue has come up in most major cities, including New York, NY, and Santa Ana, California. We are talking about public places, of course, where everyone is entitled to do his or her thing provided the local politicians or bureaucrats can be appeased and give their permission. (Why exactly do free men and women require the permission of such folks to do anything at all?) In the 4th century B. C. Aristotle identified a very important principle of community life. He demonstrated the social value of the right to private property. This is how he summarized his case: "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. Everyone 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) This same idea was clarified by the late Professor Garrett Hardin, in his 1968 article, "The Tragedy of the Commons," published in the prestigious magazine Science. Hardin gave the example of a common grazing area used by several owners of cattle to feed their livestock. Because there are no borders identifying what area belongs to which cattle owner, the commons tend to be overused, not because of what is commonly assumed, the greed of the cattle owners, but because each cattle owners want to achieve the best possible results, namely, feed the cattle as well as possible. The principle at issue has been very fruitfully applied to environmental problems and the conclusion has been drawn by many scholars that without extensive privatization of what are now treated as public properties -- lakes, rivers, beaches, forests, and even the air mass -- environmental problems will remain quite serious and the ecosystem will deteriorate. Arguably, everyone knows that a problem exists with common ownership. Such ordinary phenomena as littering and the neglect of public parks and beaches, not to mention rentals properties, make the problem evident to us, even if we do not often reflect on the matter. The problem is that nothing much can be done about it without changing what is publicly owned to private property. And it is nearly inconceivable in some cases that valued resources can be subjected to privatization, never mind the issue of whether such a policy could be squared with the more prominent conceptions of justice that would trump the practical solutions proposed. Accordingly, even among those who are fully persuaded of the need for privatization, the political will and savvy to achieve the solution is lagging far behind the analysis that identified the solution. Still, in this area, at least, such an identification has occurred. What would be required to carry on along the lines suggested by the tragedy of the commons insight is a theory of justice that squares with it. Libertarianism is the only such theory afoot and that alone indicates what the prospects for such developments are. Since I have made the attempt to place on record a libertarian theory of justice*, I shall not dwell on that topic here. Instead I wish to provide another illustration of the tragedy of the commons with respect to public resources. In this case those resources will be less geographically and more economically telling. Still, recognizing the applicability of the analysis to this area, namely, public finance, we can perhaps consider the universality of some features of economic analysis. That might incline us to look upon the tragedy of the commons as more significant than has been thought for purposes of gleaning some insights about the nature of justice itself. Aristotle, for example, might be viewed in the passage above not as pointing to mere practical problems but also hinting at where the just solution might lie. If, furthermore, we consider the significance of "ought implies can" for a theory of justice, it could turn out that some currently popular theories, e.g., egalitarianism, will have to be seriously rethought. The Treasury as the Commons. What has not been widely noticed is that a tragedy of the commons exists, as well, in our national treasury. We have here what by law amounts to a common pool of resources from which members of the political community will try to extract as much as will best serve their purposes. Be it for purposes of artistic, educational, scientific, agricultural, athletic, medical, or general moral and social progress, the treasury stands to be dipped into by all citizens in a democratic society. And everyone has very sound reasons to try to dip into it -- their goals are usually well enough thought out so they have confidence in their plans. They know that if they receive support from the treasury, they can further their goals. So they will do whatever they can to do just that, namely, extract from the commons as much for their purposes as is feasible.’ But, as both Aristotle and Professor Hardin knew, the commons are going to be exploited without regard to standards or limits: "that which is common to the greatest number has the least care bestowed upon it." Which explains, at least in part, why the treasuries of most Western democracies are being slowly depleted and deficits are growing without any sign of restraint. Greece, Spain, even Japan, Germany and Great Britain as well as the United States of America are all experiencing this, as are numerous other societies that make their treasuries available to the public to use for sheer private purposes. For how else can we construe education, scientific research, the building of athletic parks, the upkeep of beaches, forests and so forth than as the pursuit of special private goals by way of a common treasury? Some might try to obscure this by claiming that all these goals involve a public dimension. Of course. So does nearly every private purpose--including the widely decried phenomenon of industrial activity that produces the negative public side-effect of pollution and contributes to the depletion of a quality environment. Private goals can have public benefits and costs. But their goal is to serve the specific objectives of some individuals. When AIDS research is supported from the public treasury, the first beneficiaries of success would be those with AIDS, not those who haven't contracted the disease. When theater groups gain support from the National Endowment for the Arts, there may be beneficiaries beyond those obtaining funding but they are still the ones who benefit directly, immediately. When milk producers gain a federal subsidy by having the price of milk fixed or their withholding of production compensated, the year the first to gain from this, not some wider public. And so on with thousands of other "public" projects -- they are, actually, supporting private or special goals, first and foremost. One need only observe who lobbies for them. But because the treasury is public property, there is no way to rationally allocate what’s in there with rational budgetary constraints. Instead politicians embark on deficit spending -- taking non-existing funds, ones not yet collected but only uncertainly anticipated, and funding the requests without restraint. And there is no end in sight. Only when the country no longer has the credit-worthiness in the world community, so that its bonds will no longer be bought by hopeful lenders, will the Ponzi scheme be called to a screeching halt. We will have to declare bankruptcy and those of our citizens who had nothing at all to do with the enterprise will be left to hold the empty bag, namely, our grandchildren. Road to Solutions There is no quick and handy way to approach the problem of the tragedy of the commons. The suggestion of privatization and laissez-faire is too jarring to many people to take very seriously. Yet the problem itself seems quite intractable. Any effort to handle it by way of democratic or republican public policy seems to be a band aid, postponing a real solution for a while. Soon, however, the tragedy re-emerges because of the way that political organizations adjust -- e.g., via lobbying and special interest pressure -- to the obstacles placed before those who value such projects and will vigilantly pursue the way to fund them from the public treasury. In the case of public finance, not unless the treasury stops allowing private projects to be funded from its coffers, confining itself to the support of constitutionally specified, bona fide public projects -- the courts, the military, and police -- will there be an end that avoids the perhaps greatest tragedy of the commons. To reach such a position of financial responsibility, governments will have to sell off all the unwisely held common assets -- lands, parks, beaches, buildings, forests, lakes and such -- to private, profit seeking parties. They will thus liberate members of our future generations from the tragedy that has been so irresponsibly placed upon them by means of the proliferation of the commons. This by itself does not solve all problems that face us in the wake of the tragedy of the commons. The air and water masses of the globe aren't easily privatizable, at least not for the time being. The way to discourage their abuse will have to be researched. It may be found in the law of personal injury and trespass. People who traverse the public realm will have to confine their conduct to what is peaceful, non-injurious, lest they find themselves charged with criminal assault and trespass. In any case, the acknowledgment of the tragedy of the commons will have to precede any serious research program that needs to be mounted in order to inch closer to a peaceful and just solution. *See my book Libertarianism Defended (Ashgate, 2006), summarized in “Libertarian Justice,” Hoover Digest (No. 4, Fall, 2006): 220-224.