Archive for December, 2009

Column on Rights are to Freely Act

Rights are to Act Freely

Tibor R. Machan

I do not have a right to my car but I do have a right to buy, keep, trade and otherwise act in relation to my car. Rights are what define our range of free actions. In some cases the right to act garners us huge wealth, in others, fame, and in yet others it will gain us knowledge, health and happiness.

If I had a right to my car as such, I would get to have my car even if I paid nothing for it. Rights need not be paid for. For example, my right to my liberty–to sing to smile to think to worship and so forth–isn’t something I need to pay for. Nor can I lose such a right. Even if I end in jail for assaulting someone, it is because I acted, freely, so as to land me there. Sounds a bit odd but still true! It can be appreciated by considering that prisoners retain their rights to due process, representation, and so forth while they are in prison. They do not lose their rights but when they exercise them in certain ways, there are unwelcome consequences. As when one exercises one’s right to liberty by getting married and henceforth is no longer free to fool around.

So those who would insist that our rights be limited are advocating that other people, usually those in government, have the authority to violate our rights, that some people be in control over other people in disregard of their rights. There is no escaping this conclusion. Those who are naively thinking that “limiting” rights will just happen, by way of some cosmic power instead of human beings who would want to control others, need to realize that they are supporting involuntary servitude, plain and simple.

Such general points need sometimes be noted because of all the sophistic and dangerous loose talk about how rights are limited, not absolute. This is merely an excuse for not respecting and protecting people’s rights, for violating them at the discretion of certain citizens who find the rights of other citizens inconvenient because they stand in the way of making use of these other people for their own purposes.

For example, to claim that one’s right to the use and disposal of one’s property is limited to only a percentage of what one owns, in fact, is merely to offer a spurious reason to take what belongs to others and use it for purposes to which they have not agreed. Saying that no one has absolute rights to what he or she owns is bunk–”absolute” has nothing to do with this. Either one has the right to keep and hold and trade and otherwise use and dispose of one’s belongings or one does not and others then are given free reign over these (and allow one some usage). If I do have a right to my resources, then when others take these from me without my permission, they are violating my rights. And that’s exactly what happens when taxes are confiscated from us all. No fancy talk about no one having absolute rights excuses it–taxation is a kind of extortion: you must hand over part of what you own and ought to be able to keep, hold, trade, etc., otherwise you are going to be imprisoned or otherwise harmed. Sure, you may get some benefits from those who confiscate your belongings but that is irrelevant. What is relevant is that you didn’t give your consent.

At this point democracy tends to come up because the sophistic, spurious arguments for these ill gotten gains never ends. So if a whole bunch of other people–the majority of those who vote–agree that your belongings may be taken from you, it is supposed to be OK? Of course not. But because democracy concerning the selection of political representatives is highly prized, this same method is used for expropriating people’s lives, liberties, and property. It should not be. Multiplying the number of the criminals doesn’t eliminate the crime.

These matters are not very simple to integrate with our lives in complex societies where our actions are a mixture of free and coerced, often quite imperceptibly. Who can keep track of what we must do because otherwise we will be assaulted by the powers that be and what we do of our own free will because we have decided it is a good idea? As one goes through one’s life, with all the task one faces, it is nearly impossible to tell which of the task were freely assumed and which were imposed on one by governments (of which one is surrounded everywhere). And since some of what governments do can be of considerable value, those running government have an edge–they know that hardly anyone wants to give up the security offered by the police and the military, so they tend not to protest when these agencies abuse their powers. But those who notice have the responsibility to do so!

Column on The Myth of Surplus Wealth

The Myth of Surplus Wealth

Tibor R. Machan

Over the last couple of decades a colleague from a famous university has challenged me about my view that everyone has the unalienable right to private property. Now this position, derived from such sources as John Locke, the American Founders, Ayn Rand, and many others in the classical liberal, libertarian political tradition, amounts to the idea that in a just human community every adult human being is free to pursue prosperity in the form he or she desires–material wealth, intellectual resources, land, items produced by humans or nature, and so forth. The right to private property is a right of action, an extension of the more general right to liberty: everyone must be left free to pursue wealth, to take those peaceful actions that could result in prosperity (although there is no guarantee that they will). And this right to freedom of action is itself based on the yet broader right to one’s life. Life is an ongoing process of action which, for human beings, needs to be initiated by the living agent. We have to do stuff to live, in short. And having the right to live entails being free to do so.

Now this critic of my thinking has argued against this idea at least in cases when some people are in dire straits, in serious need of resources through no fault of their own. And that certainly can happen, although it is far more likely to when people are oppressed, barred from taking the action needed to prosper, than when they are not imposed upon by others, especially by armed governments. What he has been maintaining is that if those in dire straits are forbidden to take from those who have what he dubs surplus wealth, then they are effectively not in possession of their own right to liberty. As it is sometimes put, those without resources are effectively in bondage. They lack the freedom to take the actions that could advance their lives. And this means that although everyone has the unalienable right to life, liberty, property and so forth, those in dire straits actually do not.

In particular my critic has stressed that those in dire straits, in serious need through no fault of their own, may not be stopped from taking some of the surplus wealth of the wealthy. And this, indeed, is roughly how people justify not just ordinary but progressive taxation–the wealthy must give up some of their wealth to those in dire straits because only that way will the latter be able to enjoy their own basic rights.

I have replied to the criticism in a variety of ways. One is by pointing out that the absence of resources is not the same as the violation of rights. I have no resources to buy myself a yacht but I do have a right to buy myself a yacht and no one would be authorized to stop me from doing so if and when I become wealthy enough to do so. In other words, I have the right to liberty to seek a yacht for myself by peaceful means, although, again, I may not succeed.

Indeed, this is pretty plain since one may be struck down by all sorts of natural impediments–disease, calamity, earthquakes, hurricanes, and so forth–for which no one is responsible and so no one may be penalized or fined for having caused them. Those who encounter such natural impediments are, well, unfortunate, that is for sure. But this does not authorize them to impose any burdens on those who have not deserved it even if they are, indeed, in a position to alleviate the hardship. They may and probably should request help, support, assistance, and so forth. They may even organize campaigns to urge that their bad luck be addressed by their fellows. But they have no rightful authority to take anything from them, not even so called surplus resources–an idea that is, in any case, vague and subject to systematic abuse. (Is my second kidney an article of surplus wealth? My second eye? My back-up golf set? My collected vintage cars?)

It isn’t true that surplus wealth makes no sense at all but only the most intimate knowledge of someone could enable us to tell if that person is in possession of wealth that he or she can easily do without. Maybe the individual is saving for a rainy day, for a time when he or she will be giving this wealth away to relatives or favorite causes. Maybe such an individual is powerfully enriched, psychologically, by holding on to wealth beyond what others may consider reasonable.

Having the right to private property means, in large measure, that the individual with that right is the one who is free to decide to what purposes his or her property will be devoted. It is a matter of who is to choose. Without this basic, unalienable right one’s freedom of directing one’s life is undermined not by natural causes, which can impeded anyone, but by others who are at liberty to refrain from doing so and, given this right, ought to so refrain.

Column on the Impracticality of Pragmatism

Impractical Pragmatism?

Tibor R. Machan

Yes, it sounds paradoxical because by “pragmatic” is usually meant “practical, workable, functional.” So when President Obama made it clear last year that he is a loyal pragmatist when it comes to economic policy, he received praise from some, especially those who denounce ideology or ideological thinking.

Yet this is not a sound approach to life or public policy because telling where one should be pragmatic and where one should hold on to one’s principles no matter what is impossible. If, say, one is ideological about a woman’s right to choose whether to continue her pregnancy beyond a certain point, or, alternatively, whether to preserve the life of a budding human being no matter what, is that all to the good or not? Or if one opposes rape under any and all circumstances, is one being ideological, dogmatic, a fundamentalist in the bad sense meant by the likes of Professor Paul Krugman who think that market fundamentalism is something really, really bad? What about parents who insist that their children tell the truth and not lie, ever? Are they dogmatic, mindless people and is their child rearing seriously flawed?

Yet when it comes to confiscating the resources of people for various supposedly public purposes, as per the U. S. Supreme Court’s ruling in 2005 in Kelo v. City of New London Connecticut, serious legal scholars claim this is wise pragmatism, a sensible rejection of mindless market fundamentalism or ideological thinking? Why is the principle of private property rights less binding on us all than the principle of the integrity of a woman’s body? Why are these same intellectuals not being pragmatic about torture or child molestation, why don’t they condemn those who insist that under no circumstances may anyone commit statutory rape, as crass dogmatists?

Could it be that these folks find it convenient, to their and their preferred people’s advantage, to downplay the principles of private property rights? That is surely what one would think about anyone who would counsel flexibility about matters such as rape or child abuse. There is no excuse to abandon principled thinking and conduct about such practices but for some reason it is OK to accept stealing a bit here, robbing a bit there and dogmatism or ideological to oppose that attitude?

The bottom line is that pragmatism is fatally flawed. No champion of it can identify where it is permissible or acceptable to be pragmatic and where pragmatism would be something odious and intolerable. In the case of President Obama and his public policy cheerleaders they, too, have no clue when principled thinking and conduct are required and when it is dogmatic or ideological to strictly adhere to principles. No clue at all, which then gives them carte blanche about how they should carry on with public policies or even personal conduct. Bill Clinton and Tiger Woods then can cry out, but why are they condemning us for breaking our marriage wows when they break all sorts of principles? And, worse, supporters of water boarding or even more Draconian forms of torture can invoke pragmatism, saying well it works sometimes, so given the importance of getting information from the victims it would be dogmatic or ideological to forbid it. Where is the line between conduct that may follow the pragmatic approach and conduct that may not? Where is principled conduct expendable? And why there and not someplace else?

It seems that champions of pragmatism like President Obama and his intellectual supporters have a problem here and if they think that a president should lead by example, they could be guilty of providing an impossible example for others to follow. Indeed, it is an interesting question just what Mr. and Mrs. Obama teach their own children about principles–may they be tossed whenever they become inconvenient, wherever they stand in the way of pursuing certain desired objectives like bailing out banks and auto companies with other peoples’ money?

Looks like pragmatism is not at all practical, the very thing for which it is often praised. It cannot be practiced consistently, coherently, in either personal or public affairs.

Column on No Insurance at Gun Point

No Insurance at Gun Point

Tibor R. Machan

No one is as fond of affordability as I am–well, may this is wrong but I am very fond of it. That extends to insurance. My home, car, health and sometimes travel insurance would at their best be something I can well afford. But then this is so with whatever it is that I am in the market for, shoes, food, furniture, electronics, whatever. Bottom line is I like a good deal and it would not surprise me if everyone else does too.

Now and then I do engage in a little bit of charity purchase, as when I buy some wine from those who spend some of what they gain on supporting breast cancer research or patronize a restaurant because I would like it to keep going in hard times. Even the people who come to clean my house could come less often but I just hate to take them down a notch if I can afford keeping them working.

But most of the time I want to make a good deal, no charity, no kindness, no generosity unless friends and relatives are at the other end of the trade. Thus when I hear about how the government will force insurance companies to keep selling insurance to people whom the firms judge too expensive to insure, I am outraged. After all, people who own insurance companies aren’t in the business so as to do anyone a favor. No, they see a business opportunity and hope that they can come out ahead, along with those whom they insure. But if they no longer see a decent return on their investment, they would, naturally, cut deals elsewhere, just as most people would (with those minor exceptions involving intimates). Not that people in the insurance business might not wish to provide everyone with good insurance whether they can pay what is needed to make this happen. We all have wishes like that but to realize them it would be necessary to impose a deal on people who have decided they would rather make different deals, with people who can sustain their provisions of the pertinent professional service.

People who work at insurance firms need to be paid so they can feed their children, send them to school, go on vacation, buy clothing and their own insurance and whatnot. And so do those who own insurance companies and invest in them–it is all for purposes of a reasonable deal. And what is and is not a reasonable deal for all these folks is not something anyone other than they can determine. Yes, some might wish to charge more than they do but if the industry is competitive, they will not be able to do this. But to have governments coerce people to take less from a deal than they can based on the free, voluntary agreements reached with customers is just plain criminal, no different from coercing a barber to take less from a client than they freely agree would be the right amount.

Yes, it is sad that some people are so ill that covering them with insurance would require the insurer to take a loss but unless insurers have agreed to do this, freely, voluntarily, no one has the moral authority to force them into such deals. Just because it would be very desirable for such people to get covered when they need to obtain health care, it does not follow at all that insurance companies or anyone else may be forced to come to their support. Life isn’t always accommodating to such hopes and wishes and aspirations. No one welcomes a huge medical expense but unless one can find some generous people, generous of their own free will instead of being forced to act as if they were generous, that’s the way it has to be.

One reason people should begin to get insured early in their lives is that they are less likely to need services at that point and they can get deals from which insurance companies can profit, just as they would want to profit from them when they have a need for medical care. Forcing either the provider or the provided to get into deals they do not judge to be sound for them is tyranny, not help.

It is too bad that in a so called free country such elementary points are all forgotten, especially once government enters the fray. (And in insurance deals governments keep things expensive by, for example, forbidding us to buy insurance from outside the state in which we live, a perfectly artificial imposition on us all.)

Interview by The Daily Bell (URL)