Saturday, October 06, 2012

Perils of Originality

Perils of Originality

Tibor R. Machan

At the outset I should confess that this may be something of a self-justification.  I am not one whose ideas have been or have been meant to be original.  At first this was just a plain matter of circumstance.  Too many of the thoughts that I had were clearly unoriginal yet had a lot of merit.  So why aim for originality, then?  On its own, it occurred to me in time, being original is no virtue.

As I went through my several stages of formal education I noticed that there was a lot of praise issued for anything original yet apart from that the ideas in question didn’t appear to be very worthwhile.  They were on the order of trivial novelty items instead of important insights, findings, discoveries or such.  In graduate school, especially, where we all had to come up with reasonably interesting topics for our doctoral dissertations, I noticed that while original enough, most of the topics were pretty pointless.  Comparing Wittgenstein with Heidegger or Sartre with Feyerabend?  So what?  

In time I figured that this kind of graduate school work had more to do with habit than merit.  Somehow there were simply too many people trying to come up with something no one has discussed, so originality served as a substitute for value.  But maybe it was just that I wasn’t coming up with anything that was original, especially since I wasn’t trying.  It was more important and interesting to me to be right, to land on an idea that made good sense, fit the facts and solved a problem. Get it right was my motto, more than find something novel.

I did think I came up with one novel thing in my first book, the one taking apart the ideas of the Harvard behaviorist psychologists B. F. Skinner (The Pseudoscience of B. F. Skinner, 1973).  I called it “the blow-up fallacy.”  It involved finding something true about a small thing and then elevating it into a major thing but sacrificing the truth in the process.  Even this wasn’t quite original since it just amounted to the old fallacy of invalid extrapolation or hasty generalization.

Later on I did think of something that seemed to be novel enough, though not all that important, truth be told.  I figured out that nostalgia held out appeal mainly because when people remember past situations in their lives, they rarely if ever include the anxiety they experienced about the future.  After all, by the time they were recalling those past situations, the future had passed by and the anxieties went away.  So why bother recalling them?  It would merely be a fly in the ointment, ruining the memory.  But it ran the risk, of course, of not recalling the past correctly, accurately, of committing “the good old days fallacy.”  And it lead to the tendency, nicely pointed out by Woody Allen in his recent movie, Midnight in Paris, of believing that the past had been so very nice.

There is only one other matter I thought of that may be original with me, though I cannot be sure. This has to do with trying to provide an explanation of economic problems when one is examining a mixed economy like most of those in Western countries.  During the recent financial fiasco a lot of people were arguing that their favorite scapegoat is responsible for it all, namely, free market capitalism (even while such a system wasn’t anywhere in evidence during the period in question).  

It occurred to me that providing a proper explanation for the fiasco was a bit like trying to find the cause of food poisoning after one has eaten a bunch of items on one of those Scandinavian ferry boats with a smorgasbord for each meal.  Too many possible causes!  It will take a long time to trace the culprit, especially with all that seafood one is likely to have consumed. Mixed economies contain elements of a great variety of economic systems and which of these or which combination lead to problems isn’t simple to figure out.

          OK, no big deal.  But perhaps original.  And perhaps my own idea about originality also qualifies as such.  But again, probably no big deal.

Friday, October 05, 2012

Atlas Shrugged (the movie) Part II

Atlas Shrugged (the movie) Part II

Tibor R. Machan

This could have been a movie review but I am not quite qualified to write one given that we are talking here about a craft, namely, movie making, which I am not sufficiently familiar with.  What I am writing, instead, is a simple thank you note to the producer John Aglialoro and his crew, technicians, writers, actors, director, et al., who against all odds brought the movie to screen.  After all, given the Hollywood elites’ hostility to Ayn Rand’s ideas--especially the ideas of rational individualism and free market capitalism that are both on very stark display in the movie--the project should be a bit of relief to anyone who champions the human individual and a bona fide free society. It is out and out heroic to have become the producer if this movie.

I saw Part 2 last evening (10/04/2012) in Hollywood--courtesy an invite from David Nott, president of the Reason Foundation, an outfit I helped launch back in 1969--and it was very entertaining and stimulating.  (I saw Part I over a year ago, courtesy the Cato Institute at a donor’s bash in Southern California.)

Since I have been close to AS since 1961 when I first read it, even wrote a little book (Ayn Rand, Peter Lang, 2001) on its author, it might have been tough to make the movie exciting for me but, very honestly, it was surprisingly riveting, especially the second part.

My one wish while watching the movie was that all those allegedly independent voters could see it before November 6.  They might be inspired to think twice before they jump on board with those who want to sell America down the river, lead by Obama & Co.  Sadly the opposition offers very little hope for providing the free society a needed defense, given its conservative, traditionalist bent of mind. Rand’s unabashed, unapologetic humanism, her rejection of the prevailing misanthropy among the bulk of the country’s intellectuals, is a badly needed antidote to what mainstream thinkers and artists peddle.  Her ideas still are the freshest, in line with the revolutionary ideas of the American founders and all those who appreciate what it is to stand up for the proper life of human beings.

           If you get the chance, go out and see the movie, all of it eventually (once it is available), and at least get a respite from what is promoted by the New York Times editors and columnists and the MSNBC--now renamed Celebrate what all is possible if we only wake up to the great potential within us.

Wednesday, October 03, 2012

Government in America

Government in America!

Tibor R. Machan

The central achievement of the American revolution was to demote government to a role of cop on the beat.  The monarch stopped being the sovereign, the citizen became sovereign instead.  Self-government became an aspiration for all people not just rulers.

The idea became prominent, at least for a while, that government’s proper role is to secure the natural rights of the citizenry.  There was nothing there about a nanny or a regulatory state.  John Locke, who identified the most principled version of the classical liberal conception of government, argued that since in “the state of nature”--i.e., prior to civilized society--some people may pose a serious threat others, a system of laws is needed so as to mark everyone’s sphere of authority, a region within which one is in full charge and which others must respect instead of trespass upon.  

One’s life is the beginning of this sphere, one’s liberty follows as does one’s private property.  What a government is needed for is to keep these safe, to secure the rights to life, liberty, property and whatever derives from these.  That is the point of government, nothing else.  It is a vital function since without it criminal conduct would very likely go unchecked.  But like referees at a sports event, government isn’t meant to get involved in the game, only to make sure it goes on peacefully, with everyone’s sovereignty secured.

This view of government was, of course, radical to the core.  Instead of the century’s old top-down rule, by some king or tzar or gang, everyone is supposed to rule oneself and his or her dominion.  All interactions among people would in time be voluntary and peaceful.  And from this arrangement would emerge a productive, creative, free community and not a hive or colony as with bees or termites.  

That is what is individualist about the American system, namely, that a country is to serve the objectives of a great variety of unique citizens and that one particular way of living was not to be imposed on all by a ruler.  Government is to serve the citizenry, not the other way around.  And contrary to some thinking on the topic, we are not all in it together as in North Korea and other collectivist political communities.  Instead of being a sphere for just one kind of life dictated to by a ruler, America was to be a sphere for an immense variety of different lives coexisting peacefully, competing and cooperating, not marching to the same tune.  

The details of the American idea course would of course be complicated and diverse but one idea was at the center of it all: None may violate the basic principles on which such a system rests, the basic rights of every individual.  The only role for force was to be defensive and retaliatory.  No one may initiate it with impunity, not even for noble goals a leader might wish to force upon the rest.

That is the American political alternative, the American political tradition, not the collectivist ideal pursued by some political thinkers and “leaders.” 

Sunday, September 30, 2012

Unlimited Democracy

Unlimited Democracy

Tibor R. Machan

The Magna Carta was an early attempt to rein in government, reduce the scope of monarchical rule.  Constitutional monarchy was the result in many countries.

When democracies replaced monarchies, the urgency to limit their scope of power waned even though there are many political theorists who warned that democracies can turn out to be quite tyrannical.  The tyrannies of majorities are well known.  Most recently there was plenty of talk about that in connection with developments in Egypt and elsewhere in the Middle East.  The election of Hamas, for example, bode ill for limited democracy!

Even in countries such as the United States of America the form of government that emerged was labeled “illiberal democracy.”  Fareed Zakaria’s book The Future of Freedom: Illiberal Democracy at Home and Abroad discussed the difference between liberal and illiberal democracies in the context of geopolitics but the idea had been the focus of Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America over a century ago.

Of course there is something very wrong with unlimited democracies.  There is simply no justification for the majority of the population in a country imposing its will on everyone.  The idea is completely misguided.  Why on earth should a great number of people have the authority to force a small number to obey them?  There is no argument anywhere in the history of political philosophy and theory that would make out the case for this?  If it were a valid point, it would imply that a large number of thugs somehow have the right to subdue other people to serve them.  The famous example of the lynch mob that hangs an accused person make the point without difficulty.  Expanding the will of vicious people doesn’t make it virtuous. And even if what the larger group wants is actually virtuous, forcing it on others is still not justified since they would have to make the free choice to be virtuous.  Human virtue must be a matter of free choice.  Only in self-defense may force be applied to others!

The election process in so called democratic countries is anything but justified or moral.  Even when it hides behind the term “we” as it tries to do in too many instances--just listen to politicians anywhere around the globe and notice how often they pretend to be speaking for and acting in behalf of everyone--the will of the majority simply has no moral authority, none!  Anyone who can dodge it successfully is perfectly justified to do so!