Saturday, March 09, 2013

Revisiting Our Basic Rights

Revisiting Our Basic Rights

Tibor R. Machan

Professor Lynn Hunt’s recently published book on rights, titled Inventing Human Rights, is filled with a great deal of very useful important information about the emergence of the idea of basic human, individual rights, but it also perpetuates, perhaps entirely unconsciously, a very serious and hazardous error.   

Moral and political ideas are not all that different from ones in the various sciences. Based on better and better information about the world, various new concepts need to be formed.  Electrons, for example, hadn’t been identified until after atoms were.  The prefrontal lobe wasn’t known until instruments were created that helped to search the brain thoroughly enough to take a comprehensive inventory of its innumerable parts. Initially all that was known is that there is a brain and only gradually did its busy life and large number of attributes and properties come into focus.  

In morality something similar happens.  From early times it has been clear enough that some kinds of conduct are morally wrong and that some are right.  Broadly speaking, whatever promotes the human life of an individual is right, whatever thwarts it wrong.  But the details were slow to come to light.  Politically, too, the concept of justice was in place quite early in human history — an institution or policy is just if it secures what is deserved among human beings.  But this isn’t enough to take account of the many details of the idea of justice.  In time — starting quite a long time ago, actually — it gradually became clear that human beings have certain rights, based on their nature, which then provided a fuller understanding of justice.

But, of course, there is a problem with all this.  Unlike in the physical sciences, in normative spheres there is a great deal of disagreement, some if not most of it stemming from the input from those who want to undermine the very notion of basic norms of human life.  So even if at some point human rights had been discovered — not invented — there were many who didn’t welcome this fact and mounted all sorts of ways to obscure it.  A little of this can also been detected in even the hardest science, such as physics, chemistry or astronomy.  But in the area of morality and politics it is far more prevalent since the basis of these areas of focus are more complicated and very widely and frequently disputed.

One way to undermine a moral concept, of course, is to maintain that it is merely an invention, a fabrication that serves not to help us understand how to lead a human life but merely to further some special interest.  Accordingly, for example, Karl Marx and his followers argued that the human right to private property was invented so as to aid the ruling bourgeois classes to obtain and hold control of other people. Others claim that moral notions are conventional, something people come up with or invent, not anything discovered.

Judging by her book it is doubtful that Professor Hunt had this same agenda in mind. Yet the claim that human rights are an invention plays into the hands of those who would just as soon dismiss these rights as being without any basis in facts of reality but simply a concocted myth — or, as Jeremy Bentham characterized them, “nonsense upon stilts.”

In the case of Dr. Hunt, a historian at UCLA, there is another way that the status of human rights is undermined.  She makes a lot of the fact that the Declaration of Independence associates our basic rights with self-evidence.  If they were self-evident, as she claims the Founders said they were, then they need not be argued for.  A self-evident fact needs no proof.  Thus the fact of the existence of the universe needs no proof — any effort to prove it would already acknowledge that it is true. That’s why it is a self-evident truth.

What the Declaration states, of course, is that “We hold these truths to be self-evident,” not that they are self-evident. And for purposes of a brief, succinct, inspiring announcement — a declaration — that’s all that is needed, namely, to treat those truths as if they were (that is, to hold them to be), self-evident.  

In fact, however, they are anything but. Just as John Locke and all of his followers who have labored long and hard to prove that these rights exist knew well and good.  The existence of our rights must be demonstrated, shown. It’s not enough to assume them. 

Dr. Hunt, however, claims that the Founders believed that it is self-evident that we have these rights and proposes that they function, therefore, as religious truths based on faith, not as discoveries — as inventions not as something discovered and real.  But this will not wash.  Over the centuries basic human rights were gradually identified, as a result of a better and better knowledge of human relations and community life and its role in human affairs. So by now most of us know that all of us have these rights in our communities, apart from some rare cases of crucially incapacitated people. And we can therefore confidently state, for example, that a country in which these rights are not acknowledged and protected fails at being fully just. 

          It would have been only prudent for Dr. Hunt to have seen the matter along such lines.  As it is, she is aiding and abetting those who want to support regimes wherein human rights are violated, left and right since they are deemed to be invented, not discovered.  If they are a mere invention, what could be wrong with setting them aside and inviting something else, such as the rule of leaders or committees?

Monday, March 04, 2013

I've Fired The Times

I’ve fired The New York Times, etc.

Tibor R. Machan

For years I subscribed to The New York Times online.  Then I took the Sunday Times only for a couple of years but they managed to annoy me nearly as much as the daily edition.  (I still have the online version mainly so that I can check in on the latest balderdash by Paul Krugman and leave a comment busting his bubble once in awhile. (Of course, his head is far too big to ever pay attention to readers’ comments!)

In time I decided I want to see less and less of The Times in any form, so I subscribed to The New York Observer and The New York Sun.  I get both online as well as.  They are both more easily read, since they aren’t pretending to cover the universe and so readers can keep up with their offerings.

OK, so what’s the problem. Nothing much except that in a recent editorial in The New York Observer One of those critiques of impossible public policies is offered but without the proper moral high ground backing it.  This one, titled “It’s the Economy, Silly,” published in the February 25th issue, goes after Mr. Obama for his insistence that the minimum wage be raised, nationwide.  It points out a lot of problems with the idea of the minimum wage per se, how it leads to unemployment among the unskilled throughout the country, how it often bankrupts businesses that just cannot afford it, and how it mostly costs customers on whom the increased costs are of course dumped by businesses that cannot absorb the extra production cost imposed on them in this artificial way.

OK, then what is wrong?  Well, The New York Observer ends it proper and meaty critique with the following sheepish statement: “Mr. Obama’s goal of a prosperous work force is admirable.  But he must reconsider the best way of achieving it.” Wrong!

There is nothing admirable about the government even just trying to impose a wage policy upon businesses in a supposedly free market economy.  And I remember very clearly when Mr. Obama stood up during the first election campaign for the presidency and announce to the American people that contrary to his unfair critics, he is a champion of the free market. But of course he is nothing of the sort.

No one who advocates governments imposing labor costs or wages in any country could possibly be a champion of the free market system of economics.  It is a flat out contradiction to make that claim while advocating minimum wage laws and hikes! It’s akin to claiming to be opposed to slavery except from 4 to 11 PM every day!  

          What is worse is that none of the mainstream media identifies this outlook by the president and those who share his views as something bizarre and unjust, indeed tyrannical. Even the The New York Observer, with its pretty sensible economic philosophy, cannot bite the bullet and fess up to the fact that imposing a minimum wage on the country is morally vicious, reminiscent not of free market advocacy but of elements of the Soviet planned economy!