Saturday, October 27, 2012

American Statism

American Statism

Tibor R. Machan

William H. Gass is one of the cheerleaders of American statism and he has done his fair share of work in support of the near total state (having done stints at the White House, if memory serves me right).  His latest efforts are in the November 2012 issue of Harpers Magazine, in a pretty hostile article about George Orwell who is perhaps most famous for his book 1984 and short story Animal Farm, both warnings about the love many intellectuals have for powerful government engineering.  Here is how he concludes his piece:

"We need to see society as an extension of ourselves, an invisible part of our anatomy that assists us every day without dominating us and that, like our own arms and legs, we tend when injured, and whose welfare reconsider at all times.  The relation resembles that of a violinist to his instrument--useful but more than something useful, cared for like an esteemed friend.  If such a part of us fails, we do not discard it for a peg leg, nor are we fired from our job because we cannot play hopscotch.  We may be a disposable member of the symphony, but our violin is us to us.  The relation is somethings--oh dear--called love."  William H. Gass, "Double Vision," Harper's Magazine, Oct. 2012, p. 78.

This theme of collectivism spells out Karl Marx’s claim, made in his posthumously published book, Grundrisse (Penguin, 1973) that humanity is an organic whole (or body), a total negation of American individualism wherein you and I and the rest of human beings are understood to be sovereign, independent agents with unalienable rights to their lives, liberty and pursuit of happiness.  Instead, we get the vision of human beings as cells in the body of society or humanity.  (The best little book in modern times laying out the case for this is Lewis Thomas’ Lives of a Cell [New York, Viking Press, 1974].)

The individualist idea rest on the recognition of the fact that human beings have the capacity to govern themselves, to think for themselves and act from their thinking.  Of course, individualism doesn’t contradict the plain fact that we all draw on advice and information we receive from other people, starting with members of our family.  But individualist have learned that such learning must itself be initiated by human agents who will draw on it as fuel for their living. Individualism also affirms the capacity we have for free choice.  (I fine little book defending this is Theodosius Dobzhansky’s The Biological Basis of Human Freedom [Columbia University Press, 1956].)

In point of fact the collectivist position is, just as Gass notes, the reactionary kind, going all the way back to Socrates and before when people found it of great advantage to unite into groups so as to have a better chance at survival and flourishing.  Indeed, uniting into groups has always been a prudent move for people unless the group in question, e.g., Nazi Germany or the Soviet Union, happens to be the enemy of the members of the group.

Individualist have always had to fight off the distortions evident in positions such as the one laid out by Mr. Gass.  These views are dangerous because in the name of the collective it is usually a number of “leaders” who offer their own agendas as the state’s business, agendas that are coercively imposed on society.  Such leaders are not willing to use peaceful means by which to recruit support for their visions and thus they mostly champion what amounts to a police state.  Everyone must be made to conform to the collective vision they insist is the one size that fits us all.

The right approach is, of course, one that acknowledges that human beings are a species and have a common nature up to a point.  But it also acknowledges that a distinctive aspect of the human being is its individuality!  It is confirmed every minute within human communities, of course, as millions present ideas of their own by which to carry on their living.  (Even Mr. Gass testifies to this by presenting his own particular take on the collectivist idea!)

Sadly Mr. Gass’s position is widely shared among intellectuals at some of the most prominent educational institutions.  (It animates the thought of Mr. Obama, for example, who is very weak in his endorsement of individual initiative, entrepreneurship, on the economic front and enthusiastic about mandates.)

Monday, October 22, 2012

Another try at voiding our basic rights

Another Effort to Void Our Basic Rights

Tibor R. Machan*
      In this short essay I address an argument concerning welfare rights made against the late Robert Nozick by Adrian Bardon a while back.[i]
Bardon brings up an issue that’s central concerning the nature of basic individual rights that the American founders proposed as the foundations of a constitutional government (and were, in fact, partly incorporated and elaborated in the Bill of Rights).

      Bardon argues that he has successfully “cast doubt on that approach to rights” that holds that “there are negative rights that cannot be outweighed.”[ii] Interestingly there is no need to go much further since Bardon’s way of putting his point already shows how wide off the mark he is concerning an essential feature or nature of rights. Specifically, individual rights, the unalienable sort the Declaration lists, aren’t like other good things—such as ice skating, volleyball, dinner at home or at a restaurant, a vacation in Hawaii or one in Italy—which may be weighed and compared. It’s a category mistake to think they are, not unlike thinking that one can weigh seconds or that fingers can think about something.

        Consider a very widely accepted right, that of a woman to be free of rape. What would it mean to have such a right outweighed?  Bardon’s conception of such a basic right raises the possibility that someone might weigh it against, say, a desperate male’s desire to gain sexual satisfaction by using her against her will.  But this is quite out of the question—the two are incomparable, incommensurate. The right to be free is a principle—a firm limit or a basic standard of just conduct if you will—which identifies the fact that women are free to do as they choose involving their own bodies, that they are sovereign authorities concerning how to live their sex lives, regarding to whom they will give their consent to engage in sex, etc.[iii]
       Of course, Bardon is concerned with property rights but he forgets that these, too, are rights to action, not rights to objects. As Ayn Rand makes clear, “the right to property is a right to action, like all the others: it is not the right to an object, but to the action and the consequences of producing or earning that object. It is not a guarantee that a man will earn any property, but only a guarantee that he will own it if he earns it. It is the right to gain, to keep, to use and to dispose of material values.”[iv]
        Put another way, the right to private property is a right to acquire and to hold—which are both actions—various items no one has previously acquired and is holding—or ones others who have acquired them and are holding are willing, freely, to part with (another action).

       So, in fact, private property rights are akin to rights to act freely—as when one acts to engage in consensual sex or work or recreation. In the case of property rights, one acts to engage in, as it were, consensual acquisition or holding of some items. (Notice, no one may impose ownership on another against his or her consent because of this right to freedom of actions such as acquisition and holding.)

       Thus, property rights identify someone’s sphere or range of freedom of action vis-à-vis items in the world, not unlike the manner in which the right to freedom of speech spells out spheres of freedom of action vis-à-vis verbal or written expression of ideas. Indeed, these latter presuppose the right to private property, for speeches need to be given someplace to which one has a right or gained permission from those who do, and writing takes places on materials (paper, blackboards, sand, computers, etc.)
        Now it is true that others could well desperately need the items someone has come to own by exercising the right to acquisition and holding but since that exercise may not be interfered with and interference with it would place others in the position of violating the agent’s basic rights—that is, sovereignty—consent needs to be secured in order to obtain even such desperately needed items. A need cannot be weighed against a right, anymore than a wish or desire or urgent want can be weighed against a right.

        There can be no weighing involved, not between rights, nor between rights and needs, etc., although a rights holder could very well weigh whether to hang on to what he or she owns, contribute it to the person in dire need, to some cause or project, or otherwise dispose of it in light of his or her weighing of the importance of these alternative possibilities. The weighing is not of different rights or different people’s rights but of the importance or value of the goals to which one may contribute what one has the right to freely acquire.

        Here is what would happen if the weighing were about rights. Someone would have to do the weighing. By what right would such a person weigh other people’s rights? Would that person’s right to weigh also be open to being weighed? By whom? The whole process would amount to a conceptual and public policy mess.

        In fact, the role—or conceptual point—of basic individual rights is to remove from public policy, based on constitutional laws that rest on rights, the element of arbitrariness by basing decisions on self-consistent, compossible principles—that is, on the rule of law—instead. The very conceptual point of rights within the sphere of social, political and legal policy is lost if they are subject to being weighed since they are supposed to be the rock bottom of public policy decision making—if I have a right to do X, this is the end of the story—none may act against me as I do X.

        There is no such thing as “weighing rights”—the idea is what philosophers call a category mistake, akin to talk about weighing, say, time or concepts. Indeed, to even consider weighing rights is to suggest that the importance of human beings, vis-à-vis their place in the citizenry, may be weighed against each other within the realm of politics, something that had been abandoned once the idea of inherent status was jettisoned, finally, so no one could justly claim to be more important than someone else as far as the law of the land is concerned.

* Tibor Machan is the R. C. Hoiles Professor of Business Ethics & Free Enterprise at the Argyros School of Business & Economics, Chapman University, Orange, CA  92866.

Socialism as Elitism

Machan’s Archives: A Note on Socialism as Elitism*

Tibor R. Machan

Since ancient times some people have considered the market place an unruly forum in which to determine whose work and what commodities are worth how much. With Marxism this view acquired a pseudo-scientific status. The complaint that when free individuals and groups exchange goods and services some will get more for their contributions than they deserve reaches the level of a total ideology.

Before this complaint and its ideological expression are dismissed, it is important to understand their appeal. It isn’t very difficult to empathize with the complaint when we restrict it to individual instances. Most people have experienced a feeling of dismay with what certain producers in the market receive for their work. The pop music groups make millions of dollars for grinding out a few pleasant but clearly not phenomenal songs. A boxer gets millions of dollars for going eight or so rounds before knocking out his opponent. A television commentator collects some $200,000 a year for uttering two minutes worth of banalities twice or three times a week for about half the season. A New York Times columnist makes a bundle from writing flawed economic commentaries!  Surely these folks are not worth all that money – or so the thought occurs to some of us. Especially when others, who make far more worthy contributions, receive far more modest remunerations for their efforts.

These sorts of considerations are natural, even if not fully justified in the total context. We cannot deny that monetarily speaking the worth of many a product and producer is in some sense over or under estimated. Out of this impression, natural enough in individual instances, grows a very dangerous ideological perspective. But one must appreciate that some of the individual instances make sense.

Now really—what foolishness prompts people to pay that kind of money for such frivolous results or charge so little for the same? And it is not unreasonable, now and then, to question the wisdom of various people when they do shell out enormous sums of money for goods or services while other, quite objectively more worthwhile products (even to them individually) could have been purchased for a more sensible price and some sell something quite worthwhile for but a nominal price.

From these impressions the jump is made, by Marxists and other statists that something must be done to stop such alleged miscalculations. And then, very quickly, the suggestion is made that if only some wise folks could make sure that the objective value of work and products is identified, matters could be remedied in a jiffy.

Since, however, persuasion does not guarantee results—people can ignore the advice of the wisest of men – the appeal to coercion is readily welcome. The conclusion to this effect is highly questionable—indeed, an out and out non-sequitor—admittedly. But as with all questionable hypotheses, the ground from which they stem is usually firm enough. Otherwise generally sensible human beings would never pick up on the broader theory advanced. It helps to recall this when we want to understand why so many people are sympathetic toward socialist/egalitarian political measures and doctrine.

Yet understanding the ground for the sympathy does not lead a rational person to accepting the broader inferences drawn. There is one particularly odious implication that follows from what is inferred from these understandable impressions. Others may be found as well, but this one will pinpoint a clear-cut inconsistency in the broader picture advanced by socialists.

The complaint begins by noting that free people tend at times to overrate the work and products of their fellows. True enough, they do. (There are advocates of the free market who would deny this on grounds that no objective values exist. But this is self-defeating, since they also hold that the free market is of objective value to us.) The suggestion advanced in turn is that we should have a central governing body of people who will make certain that such mistakes do not happen—even if it takes the use of firing squads to accomplish this noble result. Yet if the premise is true—that people make mistakes by over and underrating others’ work and products—then the conclusion cannot follow—that people will make certain that such mistakes do not happen.  This is because what people will do is tied to what they can do. The body of select people is no less a body of people than the body of people that makes up the free market place!

Here is where the odious implications of the broader picture emerge. We are asked to believe that some people are inherently different from the rest of us.  We are told that the select group—the leaders of socialist/egalitarian governments via their schemes of distribution and equalization—is immune from the errors of the rest of us. That the likes of Ralph Nader, Chuck Schumer, Joe Biden, et al., are really inherently better and wiser folk than are we all is what the citizenry is supposed to accept!

The conclusion is interesting. Because starting from a desire for equality—fair pricing, lessening the frequency of over- and underestimation of work, etc. – we are led to the establishment of public policies that grant some people the legalized position of institutionalizing their (elitist) errors. It is this conclusion that is never justified. It is the view that this select group of individuals can and will do better than free people in voluntary association at determining what is good or bad within the realm of production and exchange.

The simple fact is—known since the time of Thomas Aquinas—that we are best off taking the risk with the free market. The “utopian vision” of perfect judgments needs to be abandoned. We should all try to implement the best judgments we can make, at least within our own market activities, and maybe even in cases where our help is asked for or freely accepted.

It is futile to argue that market decisions could not be better than they are. But it is far sillier to hold that institutionalizing the will of some of us can produce a guaranteed utopia. In that path lies disaster—and we are now tasting its beginnings in our own land.

*Published in The Intercollegiate Review, Fall, 1975, pp. 33-34.

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Capitalism, Socialism & Human Dignity

Capitalism, Socialism & Human Dignity*

Tibor R. Machan

        Capitalism means human individual freedom, especially in the sphere of striving to become prosperous. To defend the system is a challenge because of its ties to individualism, even ethical egoism. For centuries the ethical and moral guidelines people have been urged to live by have been some kind of communitarianism, such as altruism, utilitarianism, socialism, communism, etc. The individualism associated with capitalism had been thought as atomistic, seeing people as isolated from and indeed hostile toward one another.

        Socialism is the political economic order that sees human beings as part of a larger entity, society, to which they are all beholden and which they must serve not of their own free will but as a matter of coerced duty.

        The common sense appeal of communal systems as guiding human action comes from the historical need for collective conduct in the face of threats from groups that would overpower those who are vulnerable. (F. A. Hayek makes this point well in his works.) Once it turned out that individuals who unite of their free will provide better protection to the group, individualism began to gain support.  It is better suited to human life, with individuals being the source of solutions to most problems.

        In time individualism surpassed other schools of ethical thought, especially once it became evident that voluntarily choosing to be part of a group--tribe, clan, nation--ensured greater loyalty than is possible via coercive unisons.

        It also became evident that all the talk about the need to unite and sacrifice for the group has served largely to secure power for a few over the rest.  Thus individualism became more civilized, less primitive. As public choice theory suggests, efforts to serve the public interest usually come to no more than serving the interest of influential, powerful people at the expense of others.

        Protesting about having to serve the public or community is difficult because the alternative, of serving oneself, the individual, seems to be arbitrary and self-indulgent. But today a sophisticated ethical (as opposed to psychological) egoism, such as what we find in David L. Norton’s Personal Destinies, A Philosophy of Ethical Individualism (Princeton UP, 1976), can overcome all known objections to individualism. (See, also, Tibor Machan’s, Classical Individualism [Routledge, 1998].) This, however, hasn’t reached popular consciousness--instead, most people are schizophrenic and preach collectivism while practice individualism.

        The individualism or egoism forged most fully by Norton, as well as by Ayn Rand in her book, The Virtue of Selfishness, A New Concept of Egoism (1967), and others, stresses an Aristotelian idea of the human individual, not a Hobbesian one (which is found mostly in economics). An implication of this is that virtues such as generosity, kindness, gregariousness, etc., are entirely compatible with seeking to flourish as the human individual one is and self-interest is understood by reference to what is proper for a rational animal, not a beast driven to seek power over others.

        This development, though not yet widely acknowledged, puts an end to the charge that egoism or individualism, as a central element of free market capitalism, must be a crass, anti-social viewpoint and must generate a social climate of mutual hostility and alienation.

        When it comes to competition in the free market, for example, the model isn’t the boxing ring, as widely assumed in caricatures of capitalism, but the marathon race! Thus, for instance, friendship would easily be seen as fully compatible with individualism, indeed, implicit in it. (See also the work of the philosopher Neera Badhwar for this.)

        The dignity of the human individual is far more elevated than that of the human social animal as seen in socialism and other collectivist political regimes. The hallmark of this social-political outlook is that individuals come together voluntarily and aren’t herded into communities by rulers or dictators.

*Based on a lecture given at the Summer Leadership Academy, in Bercel, Hungary, Summer 2012.