Friday, November 23, 2012

Machan's Archives: On Doubting One's Mind

Doubting One’s Mind

Tibor R. Machan

A central topic of philosophy throughout the ages has been whether human
beings can trust their minds, including their sensory awareness and
thinking. Skepticism about this has been a major challenge and many from
Socrates to such recent and current thinkers as Ayn Rand and John Searle
have responded with more or less elaborate arguments defending our
capacity to get things right about the world.

Just now a new source of skepticism has surfaced, from within the field of
neuroscience. In a review essay of several books on the topic, “How
the Mind Works: Revelations,” published in The New York Review of Books
(6/26/08), Israel Rosenfield and Edward Ziff write, “In fact ‘external
reality’ is a construction of the brain.” Several of the authors they
discuss argue this point. As the review notes, “In general, every
recollection refers not only to the remembered event or person or object
but to the person who is remembering,” meaning that memory is not about an
objective reality but of some mishmash of subjective experience and
external influence.

In essence, then, what one understands about the world and oneself is
really not what actually exists but what is constructed by one’s mind with
the use of other cognitive tools. The problem with this is that it makes
no sense in the end because what the researchers are telling us would also
be covered by their claim and so it is also just some mental construction,
which then is also some further mental construction, ad infinitum and ad
nauseum. But that cannot be. At some point the researchers would have to
accept that what they are telling us about the human mind is actually so,
not also just a construct or invention.

In any case, why would there be so much interest in discrediting the human
mind, of writing elaborate tomes that argue that our understanding of the
world and ourselves is fabrication, not objectively true? Why when questioning
the mind is itself done by human beings with human minds who,
presumably, are confident that their own questioning has merit?

Some folks say that to questions like those one needs to answer by
following the money--that is to say, checking who is gaining from
these so-called findings. I am not such a cynic. As far as I can tell, some of
these scientists, philosophers, and the reporters who seem to be so gleeful
about what this skeptical work produces may well be sincere. Yet I also suspect there is
something fishy afoot here and my suspicion is that there is a tendency on
the part of many of these experts to come up with findings that assign to
them a special role in the world. They are, in effect, the only people who
have a clear handle on how things go with human beings. They are the only
reliable source of facts--as Rosenfield and Ziff say, “In fact, ‘external
reality’ is a construction of the brain.” You and I are not up to snuff
about the matter; we are deluded and misguidedly think that when we see a
red coffee cup on the kitchen table, there really is such a cup there. But
Rosenfield and Ziff and the scientists they are reviewing will inform us
that “there are no colors in the world, only electromagnetic waves of many

But if you just think for a moment, this is nonsense. It is like saying
there is no furniture in my living room, only chairs and tables and sofas.
Well, but it is those chairs, tables, and sofas that are the furniture. It
is, then, the electromagnetic waves doing certain work that are the
colors, so colors do indeed exist in the world.

Thus telling someone that there is a red cup on the kitchen table when
that is what a healthy mind is aware of is exactly right! It may not tell the
whole truth and nothing but the truth about what is there but
few people need to have that in order to cope quite well with the world around them.

The same problem faced some physicists who claimed that there is nothing
that’s solid in the world because everything is composed of atoms and
atoms, in turn, are mostly empty space with only very tiny bits of
material substance swirling within them at enormous speeds. Ergo, solidity
is an illusion. But this is to drop the context of discussions where the
distinction between, say, solidity and liquidity comes up. It is misguided
to make the leap from one context to another where the focus is quite

When we ordinary humans notice the world around us, learn to identify what
it contains, begin to understand the forces at work in it, if we pay
attention we can get it right for the purposes that we need this
understanding. To try to undermine this confidence based on highly
specialized research is misguided, ill conceived, and misanthropic to boot.
It appears to assign to some people some special status even though, by their own
accounts, no one ultimately can figure anything out correctly.

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Machan's Archives: The Pitfalls of Public Spheres

Machan's Archives: The Pitfalls of Public Spheres

Tibor R. Machan

"Each fancies that no harm will come to his neglect..." (Thucydides)

Everyone has an incentive to use resources freely available to all...but none has a corresponding incentive to conserve or replenish the resources. Parcels privately held are better cared for. The resource that ends up ravaged will be freedom itself.

"The tragedy of the commons," a phrase coined by Garrett Hardin, in a famous 1968 article, refers to the cumulative depletion or spoliation of natural resources to which no one holds deed but to which everyone may use. The commons in question might be a pasture in which every herdsman's cattle can graze, a lake every fisherman can trawl, a park every tourist can trash or the atmosphere. Because people pursue their goals with the means available to them, perhaps perfectly innocently, everyone has an incentive to use resources that are freely available to all, but none has a corresponding incentive to conserve or replenish the resources.

"Picture a pasture open to all," Hardin notes. "It is to be expected that each herdsman will try to keep as many cattle as possible on the commons. Such an arrangement may work reasonably satisfactorily for centuries because tribal wars, poaching, and disease keep the numbers of both man and beast well below the carrying capacity of the land. Finally, however, comes the day of reckoning, that is, the day when the long-desired goal of social stability becomes a reality. At this point, the inherent logic of the commons remorselessly generates tragedy."

Hardin's principle was known as early as the ancient Greeks (as well as to Thucydides ). "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," explained Aristotle in his Politics. "For that which is common to the greatest number has the least care bestowed upon it…. 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."

When parcels are privately held, owners have good reason to ensure that the resources of their lands are properly cared for. They may, for example, charge users in proportion to the amount of usage. They may plant seeds. They may send in cleaning crews. Because they receive definite benefits as a result of paying the cost of maintenance, they will most likely pay it. So, many agree now that extensive privatization of what are now treated as public properties -- certainly all public enterprises, as well as lakes, rivers, beaches, forests, and even the air mass -- will help sustain those resources and lead to more efficient development and exploitation of them.

Ducks Unlimited, a free-market wildlife conservation organization, was founded in the Great Depression in North America to preserve duck hunting for the next generations. Wildlife biologists were hired to determine the basic problem, which was habitat reduction and degradation from agricultural pressures in the Canadian and American northern plains "pothole country" where the waterfowl breed, and in the American flyways where they rest during their annual migrations.

Ducks Unlimited raises money to purchase sensitive breeding areas and way stations, thereby preventing their development; manages those lands as waterfowl refuges; and works with farmers to manage their lands in ways that will be more hospitable to wildlife populations. The organization has rehabilitated well over 8 million acres of wetland in the US, Canada, and Mexico. It does not practice an unlimited free market: many of its properties are turned over to State and Provincial Fish and Game departments for long-term management, and it contracts with the government for many of its projects. Its shows, though, how an enlightened pursuit of private goals can promote environmental advantage -- even in a 40-percent-plus tax regime.

Worldwide the biggest danger to wildlife populations is the destruction of habitat wrought by the pressures of population growth and agricultural expansion. The problem is exacerbated by the dominant model of wildlife ownership, which is socialist. Wildlife is deemed "property" of the state, even when it inhabits or encroaches upon private property. Then it’s the exerciser of property rights who becomes the endangered species.

The problem is acute in sub-Saharan Africa. There subsistence farmers in the outback must continually if illegally combat the encroachments of "state-owned" wildlife. In many areas, hunting is outlawed, leading to local explosions in wildlife populations, which then spill out of their native habitat. That poaching is rampant under such circumstances should not come as a shock.

The solution? To turn over "ownership" of the wildlife to the villages or landowners. Wildlife then becomes a benefit, bringing in hard currency from tourists, for example. Poachers now benefit from protecting and managing a valuable resource. The results have been a gratifying reduction in poaching, an increase in wildlife populations, and more effective containment of it.

In the US "preservationist" organizations like the Sierra Club seek to “save” swatches of habitat by lobbying the government to purchase environmentally sensitive and exceptionally beautiful land for parks and preserves. But the bulk of ongoing environmental funding has been contributed by those "conservationists" (chiefly hunters and fishers) who believe, not just in the preservation of environmental resources (under glass case, perhaps), but in the wise use of them.

And therein lies both the key to the success of current Fish & Wildlife policy, and a clue as to how a non-coercive, libertarian environmental policy can proceed. For, in spite of the basically socialist ownership scheme, State and Federal Fish & Wildlife programs are almost totally financed by user fees and (more nebulously) excise taxes on sporting arms, ammunition, and fishing tackle. (An excise tax is no voluntary fee but at least it has a plausible connection to the purposes being funded -- if the moneys collected are indeed funneled as promised, something that doesn't always happen with, say, the gas tax.)

User-funded Fish & Game programs are among our biggest environmental success stories. Many big-game species have made quantum leaps from their low points at the turn of the last century–there are more deer in North America now than there were at the time of Columbus, and once-endangered alligators are now endangering golfers in parts of Texas, Louisiana, and Florida! And no managed game species has ever gone extinct since the advent of managed sport hunting early in this century.

These examples from Africa and North America show that the environment would not get short shrift in a private market. It’s very difficult to subject all valued resources, including air and water, to privatization -- although not impossible, as some argue. Personal and property injury law could deal with much of what goes awry in these spheres.

The tragedy of the commons extends far beyond the environment; as Hardin himself argued, it has hitherto been best understood in special cases "which are not sufficiently generalized." The tragedy can afflict any arena in which resources are produced and then used—and in which in the link between causes and effects, benefits and costs, has been severed. Consider the US Treasury, which so many groups work hard to raid.

Even alleged solutions to the tragedy of the commons can suffer that same tragedy. Hardin, for example, despite an otherwise often astute analysis, believed that the way to solve the problem is ratcheting up the government controls. But such controls are themselves imposed by bureaucrats who are not obliged to directly bear the cost of that control. They cause further problems which invite yet more controls as remedy, and so on. If the process continues unchecked, the result is a fully state managed system. Hardin would have shied away from that end game, but he mentioned no principle that could definitively interrupt the approach to full socialization at any point, once the regulatory premise is ceded.

Under such a system all resources whatever are treated as a vast blob of commons. Goods are extracted from all "according to ability," distributed to all "according to need." The link between cause and effect, costs and benefits is severed in such a society-wide commons. As a result, not a mere pasture but an entire economy is devastated (as well as the spirits of the people). The more vigorously a given society strives for the "ideal" of full socialism, the more rapidly the pasture will be plundered.

It's fantasy, of course. There is no way to forcibly refashion human beings into the angelic ants they'd have to be to approach the socialist dream of absolute and full equality. Individuals will rarely think first and foremost of the common interest. Even those who give it a serious try won’t succeed because they will not be able to obtain the needed information to learn exactly what that alleged interest is. The common good consists of a lot of varied individual goods, the requirements for the fulfilling of which can be known best and acted upon best by the individual whose interests they are.

Indeed, the only universal, common good is a general framework that enables everyone to seek that which he deems to be important. The provision of a system of laws makes such diverse pursuits of the good life possible. The American Founders identified such a system, one that accommodates the rights of to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness—with what that pursuit consists of left to each individual.

Welfare states and the tragedy: Although our own welfare state permits much more autonomous action than a fully socialist one would, it manifests the tragedy of the commons as well in the growing public sphere. An individual acting on his own must work hard for his paycheck. He expends time and effort. He may bear further costs if he thoughtlessly fritters away his funds. If he manages his budget responsibly, however, he enjoys peace of mind in addition to the goods and services he can obtain. So there is a direct and cordial relationship between how carefully an individual deploys personally earned resources and the benefits he achieves.

The market rewards those who behave responsibly. By contrast, the only cost that pleaders for government largesse must directly expend in return for the largesse they receive is that involved in pleading for their cut of the take. In other words, they must incur the cost of lobbying. The typical recipient of the benefits of government subsidy or regulation has little economic incentive to spurn what he's "got coming" -- whether or not he or she proclaims, when polled, that taxes are too high or that "something must be done about the federal debt."

The democratic vote itself is an indirect means of seeking benefits from scarce resources without the inconvenience of any limits to what those voting may consume. Whether it's labor unions or educators or scientists, everyone gropes for as much from the public treasury as possible, and many elected officials faithfully play along. Sometimes this means appointed people who favor one’s projects to the appropriate regulatory bodies. Thus the denizens of the Departments of Labor, Agriculture, or Energy may well engage in the same unfettered exploitation as the cattle owners whose cattle graze in a common pasture.*

Wait, there's more. One of the most difficult of legal dilemmas is how to protect individual rights to free expression in public realms. For example, citizens may wish to express their urgent dismay about something on public roads to which others citizens believe they are entitled for purposes of transportation. During the Gulf War, traffic was brought to standstill in San Francisco when residents there wanted to protest U.S. involvement in the conflict; someone suffering a heart attack at the time might have preferred his goal of getting to the hospital.

Perhaps as a matter of common sense public roads must clearly remain available to serve their intended purpose. But other conflicts of interest are more ambiguous. The reason so many conflicts involving religious observance at public schools seem so intractable is that whenever one acts in public spheres, one falls, at least de jure, under the rules of public policy. In a public high school, therefore, any kind of religious expression, even the most innocuous, comes into conflict (or at least is said to come into conflict) with the constitutional prohibition of the state’s establishment of religion. And of late, school officials have even gone so far as to ban the Boy Scouts from their premises, on the grounds that the Boy Scouts discriminate against gays. There may be no constitutional issue there, and it may seem unreasonable to punish local kids for an organization's national policy. But do public officials exercising publicly granted authority in public places have this kind of discretion or not? If you don't like a company's policy, you go somewhere else. That has not been so easy to do under the public school monopoly (especially prior to the recent growth in home schooling, charter schools, vouchers and other educational privatization).

*For more check out Tibor R. Machan, Ed., The Commons: Its Tragedy and Other Follies (Hoover Institution Press, 2001)

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Machan's Archives: What About Wealth Redistribution?

Machan’s Archives: What about Wealth Redistribution?

Tibor R. Machan

        Ever since then candidate Obama’s brief exchange with “Joe the Plumber,” there has been plenty of mention of wealth redistribution in the major media.  Then came the recovery of a 2001 interview in which the former Senator faulted the framers of the U. S Constitution, and the Founders who authored the Declaration of Independence, for not including a right of everyone to be helped with redistributed wealth.  As some have noted, this was all discussed in connection with the Civil Rights legislation which Obama also faulted for its lack of attention to wealth redistribution -- maybe reparation, as some have interpreted him. But the central point was more general, clearly.

        It is useful, then, to consider just what wealth redistribution is all about.  But to do that, we need to consider briefly what wealth is and what amounts to its initial distribution such that some favor its being redistributed.

        Wealth is whatever someone owns that he or she and others consider valuable, useful to themselves or others.  The ownership, in turn, can arise from working on what is given in nature or by way of earnings from marketable labor, or from gifts and inheritance from those who had earnings in the first place, or from good fortune (as when one wins the lottery or unexpectedly finds oil beneath his land), etc. 

        There is an ancient dispute about whether such ownership is best regarded as private or as public.  At first the dispute was carried on in terms of what type of ownership, private or public, would be most useful or productive.  Aristotle gave his defense of private property as follows: “For that which is common to the greatest number has the least care bestowed upon it.  Every one 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)

         The historian Thucydides made a similar point when he spoke about owners of public property. He wrote that “[T]hey devote a very small fraction of the time to the consideration of any public object, most of it to the prosecution of their own objects.  Meanwhile, each fancies that no harm will come to his neglect, that it is the business of somebody else to look after this or that for him; and so, by the same notion being entertained by all separately, the common cause imperceptibly decays. (Thucydides, The History of the Peloponnesian War, bk. I, sec. 141).

         It was, however, not until the English philosopher John Locke laid out his theory of natural rights that more than a utilitarian case was produced in favor the right to private property.  For Locke once someone mixes his or her labor with something in the wilds, that thing stops being public -- or God’s -- and becomes, as a matter of morality, his or her private property.  This is because the work invested is properly rewarded with ownership.  Thereafter the owner has the right to hold on to the property, exchange it for something else with willing others, give it as a gift to someone, bequeath it to his or her offspring, and so forth. (As to wealth come by via luck, no one is justified to take it from those who are lucky, it can be inferred, otherwise people themselves could be enslaved with impunity.)

         A very important feature of Locke’s idea, however, was that property doesn’t belong to the king, state, or government but to God who then transfers it to private individuals.  It is they who work on elements of the natural world, of what is not owned by anyone else, so they are free to obtain it, hold it, trade it, etc.  For others to stop them is wrong, a violation of natural rights.

         Many have criticized all these ideas, especially people who hold that everything belongs to everyone together and so wealth may not be freely used and distributed by individuals, only by "the community."  But, as Aristotle and Thucydides and many others since them have made clear, this idea is seriously flawed and entirely impractical.  It leads to the tragedy of the commons, of people all grabbing what they want from the common wealth and failing to use it productively.

         Both for moral reasons -- the “first come, first gain” principle -- and for practical ones -- community ownership leads to wastefulness -- the principle of private property rights gained influence in Western societies, in their legal and economic systems. This is one main reason that when Senator Obama suggested that what this country needs is systematic wealth redistribution -- routinely taking from private owners their wealth and having governments distribute it to non-owners -- many folks took umbrage.  This is quite an un-American, anti-free market capitalist idea and sounds more like what is preached by socialists and communalists (even communists).

         Of course government initiated wealth redistribution is a big part of existing American society but it is usually defended for special reasons, not as a general policy.  And there is, of course, the distribution of wealth we all carry out as we engage in commerce.  But as to government wealth redistribution, in the wake of wealth confiscation from the citizenry, Mr. Obama elevated what seemed to most to be an exception in this country to a central feature of the society.  And his opponents, of course, couldn’t effectively criticize him because Republicans have been just as willing to confiscate and then redistribute wealth as Democrats, albeit not advocate it as a systematic feature of the legal system as Obama has.