Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Defending Ideology

Defending Ideology

Tibor R. Machan

It is very common among intellectuals in our time to demean ideology.  Thus if one supports, say, free trade with foreign firms, one is belittled for doing so on grounds of one’s conviction that free trade is generally better than trade that is regimented by government.  A “free market ideologue” is what one is snidely called in such circumstances.

What is the alternative?  How is one supposed to defend a policy one thinks is a good idea for a country to follow?

The first candidate that jumps to mind is pragmatism.  If it is pragmatically warranted, then it is OK to support it, or so do many vocal and well positioned public figures claim.  And what does that come to?

Pragmatic justifications usually focus on whether a policy works, whether it is practical.  But how is that ascertained?  How do we know whether a policy works?  Well, is there sufficient evidence that it achieves the goal or purpose for which it is proposed.  

In the case of international free trade that goal or purpose would be mutual wealth creation.  If through such trade the parties gain more wealth than by some other means, like government planning--setting quotas, protectionism, etc.--then free trade will have been pragmatically justified or vindicated; it will have been found the practical, workable policy to follow.

Of course, wealth creation could be achieved by way of a policy of invasion, of confiscating the wealth of some country.  It used to be the most prominent approach countries deployed so as to gain wealth in the international arena.  That is one reason wars had been started.  It had been the reason for imperialism in many instances.  

Yet, such approaches are often deemed to be unjustified because they involve the aggression by one country’s government against another.  One might even compare this to sex where if it is uninvited and involves assault or rape, it is understood to be unjustified.  Peacefully pursued, however, it would be quite acceptable but when it involves aggression it is wrong and may be forcibly resisted.

But why?  Well, here is where pragmatism doesn’t help very much.  That’s because whether one ought to attempt to obtain wealth (or sexual satisfaction) peacefully isn’t just a practical matter.  Certainly attempting to do so before one has learned of the consequences would contradict pragmatism (which is based on practice and history, not on moral theory or ideology).  Even if aggression turned out to be effective--so that raping someone gave the rapist great satisfaction--it would be unjustified yet not on pragmatic grounds but on moral or ideological ones.

Granted, most immoral, unethical conduct is also impractical.  It rarely achieves goals the best possible way, most efficiently.  But that’s irrelevant. Moreover, certain objectives or goals are also vile and thus impermissible.  Pursuing them is wrong and may often be banned whether they are practical.

Then, of course, pragmatism is itself an ideology or theory of action wherein what is workable, practical is preferred as against what isn’t.  Why should people proceed only when their objectives are feasible?  Pursuing the impossible dream could well be a good policy for purposes of gaining stamina, for honing one’s tenacity and grit.  

          There is really no hope in resting proper public or even private policies on nothing more than that they are practical.  Human beings need also to be sure that their choices, including those pertaining to public or political policies, are worthy, have overall merit, square with a proper moral outlook.  Belittling that goal by labeling it ideology is a cheap shot.  The issue should be which ideology makes the best sense not whether something is ideological.

Monday, October 29, 2012

It's All About Choices, Stupid

It’s All About Choices, Stupid

Tibor R. Machan

There is a phony conflict afoot that statists are fond of bringing up when they try to discredit the free society.  It is about the individual versus the community.  Champions of human liberty are often mischaracterized as denying the significance of human community life.  As if individualists advocated that people live like hermits, apart from their fellows, in solitude.

Of course, individualists do not advocate anything of the kind. What they insist upon is that human beings be understood as choosing their associations instead of being simply herded into groups that some of them prefer to be part of.  

Nearly everyone is better off living in the company of others.  Hardly any human activity is carried out isolated from others and even when it appears like it, others are usually surrounding it, supporting it, helping it along, and so forth.  Solitary existence isn’t the objective which individualists are promoting.

What individualists are seeking is a kind of society in which people can make a choice as to what groups they will join, for how long, where, etc. And, yes, they also want to be left in peace for a good bit instead of being dragged into the company of others when they’d rather carry forth on their own.  Writers, composers, painters, and the like are among these. Again, the bottom line is that one size doesn’t fit all!  

There are animals that naturally exists linked to others of their species, like ants or termites or many varieties of fish.  But with humans what makes them distinctive is that they make choices about these matters--will one be part of a choir of sing in a trio or alone? Will one be a hiker by oneself or with a bunch of friends?  You get the point.

What the communitarians types want is for them to dictate the kind of groups everyone must be part of.  They detest the possibility of people making up their own minds about such matters since free choice runs the risk of noncompliance and to bring others on board for their journey of their own free will requires successful persuasion, something that cannot be guaranteed.  

The communitarians want to be in charge of everyone’s destiny. Their imperialism is contrary to human nature and whenever they try it, all hell breaks loose and we get gulags and concentration camps instead of peaceful communities and companionships.  Here is a good outline of their social political philosophy:

"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." (See, William H. Gass, "Double Vision," Harper's Magazine, Oct. 2012, p. 78.)

This passage comes from a prominent contemporary public philosopher who I have heard has been close to some Democratic presidents in recent years. In any case, his ideas are close to Mr. Obama’s famous quip that we are all in it together and his repeated blather about how no one achieves success on his own--remember “You didn’t build that.”

The important point is not to argue about how much people draw from each other as they make their way through life.  What is crucial is that in a genuinely free country what they draw from each other they do this of their own free will; they are not lumped together by some philosopher king, like it or not.