Archive for February, 2010

Column on Tiger Woods Dishonored Himself

Tiger Woods Dishonored Himself

Tibor R. Machan

So Tiger Woods apologized for his “selfish behavior.” Of course, what he did was to dishonor himself, his human self that is, not benefit it at all. Indeed, this allegedly selfish conduct of Mr. Woods has produced a few hours of sensual pleasure at the expense of his very own happiness at home, millions of dollars, a stellar reputation, etc., and so froth. Nothing really selfish about it, if you think it over responsibly.

Dr. Nathaniel Branden, the well known psychologist and reported father of the self-esteem movement in his discipline–he wrote The Psychology of Self-Esteem back in 1969 (Nash Publishing)–wrote a wonderful book in which this stuff about the alleged selfishness of cads like Woods is ably cleared up once and for all. The very apt title of this work is Honoring the Self (Bantam 1985). It discusses extensively and brilliantly just how the concept of the human self became debased in modern intellectual history.

Consider, for example, what the world famous ancient Greek philosopher Socrates told his pupil Crito (in his dialogue Phadeo) about the way his students could best please him–meaning live up to his ethical expectations–namely: “follow my old recipe, my friend: do yourselves concern yourselves with your own true self-interest; then you will oblige me, and mine and yourself too.” The reason Socrates believed that following one’s self-interest is morally proper is that he held a view of the human self that included honorable attributes, traits the development of which would make for someone who is practicing the highest virtues. Human nature, for Socrates, Plato, Aristotle and many early thinkers–some of them those detested “dead white males”–amounted to having the potential for excellence, even greatness. While this did include generosity and liberality as praiseworthy ways to be, it was, first and foremost, a matter of being rational, of thinking about one’s life and acting by the guidance of that thinking rather than haphazardly, recklessly. That’s the way to living a successful human life!

It all changed with the very influential English philosopher Thomas Hobbes, not to mention the Italian Niccolo Machiavelli. For these thinkers people were mostly potentially bad, power-seeking, driving by untamed passions like brutal animals in the wilds. Even the influence of Christianity enhanced a lowly view of the human self, what with the stress on original sin, on how once Adam and Eve tasted the apple of the tree of knowledge, they became sinners and we have all inherited their sin and need to be purged of it (e.g., by being baptized).

Then came, a bit later, Sigmund Freud, the notorious father of psychoanalysis for whom deep down we are all driven by a death wish and by other unsavory motives. No wonder the human self acquired a lousy reputation. How could something so constituted act for oneself and exhibit any virtues at all? By such a conception of the human self Tiger Woods and members of the Mafia and all the other vicious people are indeed selfish. They are servicing, after all, something loathsome. This modern idea breads one of the most prominent views in our time, namely, rank misanthrope, hatred for humanity, including oneself.

But is this idea right? Are people by their basic nature evil and loathsome? No. They have to become either good or evil but have no predilection toward either to start with although at first they are mostly innocent, gentle and lovable–just recall most any baby you have met! And if they are taught to acquire pleasant attributes rather than detestable ones, these babies are very likely to grow up pretty nice, if not out and out admirable.

Sadly, the dogma of the mean and nasty human self is widespread. Among other things, it aids and abets those among us who are eager to rule others, who spread the lie that it is only with their intervention that people can be made likable. (Politicians and the clergy love this idea!) In fact, however, Tiger Woods was anything but properly selfish. He caused himself immense harm, as well as those who loved or even just liked him. Shame on him.

Column on From Health Care to Tyranny

From Health Care to Tyranny

Tibor R. Machan

Once government takes over the health care and health insurance provision system in a country, it is very easy to move on toward a regime of practically total micromanagement of the citizenry’s life.

Do you remember when helmet laws began to be enacted and there were those motorcyclists who protested? Their pitch was simply, “We love to feel the wind in our faces and our hair; we associate it with freedom. Do not rob us of this feeling.”

“Ah,” came back the quite predictable answer, “but you are driving on public roads where government is the boss. Moreover, any mishap on public roads leads to some county hospital where the government usually picks up the bill for the medical care you receive. So don’t whine to us about your freedom when we, the government, pay the bills for your indulgences.”

Now since there are very few private roads and highways available to people where they might pay an extra premium to cover the risk of a traffic mishap, this argument has initial plausibility. Also, if you take seriously the connection between property ownership and responsibility, then so long as governments own the roads, they will have to be responsible for how these roads are managed, for keeping down costs, etc., etc. How then could you defend the liberty of some wild motorcyclists to abstain from taking care to be as safe as possible?

Well, once government takes over the total health care system, as the current administration would like it to–always, of course, out of a sense of public service, doing good to everyone, never out of a desire to wield power over anyone–the idea that you ought to be free to eat as you choose, to exercise or not, to dress warmly or not so warmly winter or summer–all this will no longer plausibly be something that must be up to the citizenry. Their near total dependence on government will have rendered them children of the state who need to answer to their politicians and bureaucrats on all matters that could relate to their health.

I can already see us all being herded out on various parade grounds and sports fields, like those millions of North Koreans in their blue pajamas in our day and those millions of Germans under the rule of the Third Reich or Young Pioneers under the Soviets, so that we keep as fit as we can and avoid imposing the cost of any possible health problems on the public that is footing the bill for the care and insurance. Any protests that this may well be a massive extension of governmental power over the citizenry will readily be met with the retort, “Well, but you asked for it when you accepted government’s provision for your physical well being.” Similar retorts are being made already to complaints about bans on smoking–”Just consider who will be paying your medical bills when smoking will have taken its toll on your health! We cannot let this be. He who pays the piper….” Well, you know the rest.

There are numerous lies involved in such retorts, starting with the one about having asked for it. Maybe some folks are asking to have their medical care be handled by government but a whole lot of them are being threatened with being pressed into such a system, like it or not. Then there is the issue of not everyone being better of by being supervised about health care and insurance matters–they are managing it just fine themselves. But the most important lie is that using public facilities like roads and highways implies having given up one’s liberty.

Certainly not everyone is choosing to make use of those facilities; they were imposed on us by ancient habits of thought and practices that took it for granted that government is the sole possible provider of roads and highways. And even if it were, there was no package deal involved–”You provide the roads and highways and now you get to rule us to your heart’s content!” The idea of limited government, so much a part of the American political tradition, was meant precisely to rebuff such package deals. Yes, some government, a little bit of it, but by no means total rule! This is not some benign dictatorship we have here in these United States of America, no paternalistic monarchy, no nanny state, even! Some few matters have been left to government to manage, maybe not wisely but only from the governmental habit that hasn’t quite been given up. Maybe it is also a huge confusion between government as the protector of our rights and government as dictator of our way of life!

But mark my words–soon we will have more and more, even Draconian, intrusion, shortly after the health care and insurance systems have been appropriated by those people. One may well wonder, with the young Anne Frank, “I wonder how they let people like them grow so powerful?”

Column on Sandel’s Misguided Thinking

On Sandel’s Misguided Thinking

Tibor R. Machan

In 2004–not that long before he got to be a TV star on PBS– Michael J. Sandel, the Harvard University professor of political philosophy got the enviable job of presenting his views on justice via the support of PBS television to a great number of viewers, made the following observation: “Today, in the thrall of markets and market-oriented thinking, we are all too tempted to think of democracy in economic terms alone. That is why it is worth asking whether we are a commonwealth still. To put that question at the center of our public debate, we need to remind ourselves of the civic goods that markets do not honor and money cannot buy.”

All this sounds very kind and gentle–who, after all, could object to civic goods? Who could find anything wrong with the idea of a commonwealth? These are the marks of civilized society where instead of the rule of force, we have the rule of law. But don’t be fooled. If you have listened to Professor Sandel’s PBS lectures on justice you have by now realized that what the very prominently placed educator actually favors is a highly regimented society, one in which the idea of the consent of the governed is royally demeaned. Instead of choice and freedom, what Sandel champions is order and lock step pursuit of some kind of one size fits all public good that the market allegedly doesn’t sell.

It is scandalous how this man, using a good bit of taxpayer funds, gets to preach his message of collectivism and show his contempt for American values of individualism and liberty all in the middle of the country he seems to dislike and which he seems to enjoy misrepresenting in the middle of his so called educational endeavors.

Just consider the above claim that America is “in the thrall of markets and market-oriented thinking.” If so, how come the majority of Americans elected Barack Obama their president, a man who has been quite up front in his dislike of markets and what he likes to dub the ideology of free markets, not any kind of “market-oriented thinking”? How cam Americans, on the whole, embrace public–government administered and conducted–education from the fist grade all the way to graduate school? How come their only passenger train service is provided by a government funded (and pretty much bankrupt) rail system, Amtrak? And why are they completely complacent about having a government postal service that prohibits anyone else from providing first class mail service? And how come these Americans who are “in the thrall of markets and market-oriented thinking” did not rise up in protest against the federal governments purchase of General Motors Corporation and bailout of banks and other enterprises that are by no stretch of the imagination market institutions?

What kind of a highly honored educator engages in this kind of rank distortion? Market-oriented thinking my foot! Most Americans, including especially the educated ones and those doing the education of America’s youth, do not like the free market. (I have been in the midst of American higher education since 1965 and have found nearly uniform disdain toward the free market except by some economists who defend it mainly because they focus on which system manages to be more productive, more consumer friendly. As some Russians who came to visit American universities after the fall of the Soviet Union pointed out, there are far more Marxists and near Marxists in American higher education than there have ever been in the Soviet bloc!)

Now, of course, professor Sandel has the basic human right to be wrong about what Americans are in thrall of, a right he seems very eager to exercise. In a free society one doesn’t get punished for misguided thinking except by the reality that is likely to bite one in the butt in consequence of it.

But while Sandel is free to be wrong, the rest of us don’t have to sit at his feet and complacently accept his misinformation, even if it has the prestige of Harvard University and PBS television supporting it. No, we are still free to protest what Sandel is peddling. And we are also still free to point out the specious manner in which he does his peddling, namely wrapping it in the vocabulary of civility and democracy.

Let us, please, not let the man fool us. Freedom and democracy do go hand in hand–it takes freedom for the people to be involved in politics! And freedom is not divisible–you cannot have freedom of religion, speech, and thought without free markets in which books, educational equipment, buildings for churches and newspapers, printing presses, and the labor of educators are available to be purchased instead of conscripted as in the collectivist paradise—a warped commonwealth–that Sandel wishes to impose on us all.

What Sandel has convinced himself of is that he is for the good, the public good, while those who tend to favor the American political tradition are only for human liberty, almost license. But this is bunk.

There can be no human good without human liberty for doing what is good requires the freedom to choose it. Otherwise the good is being pursued at the point of a gun and not as a matter of one’s own convictions, the only way it means anything.

Machan Archives

Machan Archives from The Freeman, Feb. 1988
Tibor R. Machan, Chapman University

One of the greatest benefits many Western political systems bestow upon their citizens is a substantially free market economy. In this system individuals are not legally prevented from seeking their economic advantage in the company of others who may be counted on to do the same thing. While there is no purely free economic system anywhere, surely the main difference between Western liberal democracy and other political systems is the presence of the economic opportunity afforded by a relatively free market.

There are those who dispute this. However, even these critics usually do not deny the presence of greater economic opportunity in the West. Rather, they frown on the value of this opportunity. Critics from Left and Right have alleged the corrupting influence of a political system that does not hinder the pursuit of commercial prosperity.

These critics tend to see the free market as catering to base human inclinations—self-interest, greed, lust, and so on. When one is not much hindered, let alone prevented, from pursuing wealth, one will, the critics say, focus all one’s attentions on this pursuit. Thus, we are told, free market systems give us the commercialization of everything from religion to art. Doctors do not worry so much about medicine as about prospering economically. Lawyers, evangelists, educators, scientists, artists, politicians—members of all vocations and professions with talent and skill concentrate predominantly on the bottom line.

Now there is something to this charge, if we look only at the evidence before us in most Western societies. But it is unfair to judge the matter from a narrow empirical framework. For example, it needs to be stressed that economic liberty is a recent phenomenon, following centuries of repression and oppression during which prosperity was out of the question for most people in the world, it is therefore not surprising that for a few centuries people would focus their attention on attaining reasonable material prosperity, besides a number of other goals that are important to them.

In any case, my concern here is not so much with defending the free market system but with discussing one of the prominent ways in which it is defended against a persistent indictment. Professor Paul Samuelson, a critic, of the free market system, has made the following serious charge against the free market: “The Invisible Hand will only maximize total social utility provided the state intervenes so as to make the initial distribution of dollar votes ethically proper.” (Collected Scientific Papers [Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1966], p. 1410 [emphasis in original])

In other words, the justice of such a system is predicated on the presence of a strong government that first distributes wealth equitably. If we start out with some people having much more than others, with no moral justification, then the results of market processes will be contaminated with this initial defect of unjust distribution. From this indictment follow almost all the other indictments leveled at the free market—the rich get richer while the poor get poorer, the important professions lack support while trivial pursuits are well rewarded, and so on.

The Economist’s View

Defenders of the market offer different replies but one of them is very prominent, coming from the best placed group of such defenders: economists. Professor Murray N. Rothbard summarized this defense most aptly when he wrote, “There is no distributional process apart from the production and exchange processes of the market; hence the very concept of ‘distribution’ becomes meaningless on the free market. Since ‘distribution’ is simply the result of the free exchange process, and since this process benefits all participants on the market and increases social utility, it follows directly that the ‘distributional’ results of the free market also increase social utility.” (“Toward a Reconstruction of Utility and Welfare Economics,” in Mary Sennholz, ed., On Freedom and Free Enterprise [New York: D. Van Nostrand, 1956], p. 251)

The crux of this defense is that apart from what people actually choose to do in a free market, there is no other measure of what is good for them. Putting it more generally, this is the subjective value theory defense: How can we dispute the free judgments of market agents as to what are the best decisions for them to make apart from the decisions they actually do make as they carry out their commercial transactions? And if there is no way to criticize those decisions, how could anyone propose that the overall results of market transactions are defective and require state intervention? There is, in short, no justification for state intervention because there is no standard of value other than what people in fact individually and freely invoke—and thus the result of such judgments that characterize collective or “social utility”—in free market systems.

But there is a serious implausibility about this defense. People may often be subjectivists in their general outlook, but in particular matters they are not. They may say that everything is relative as far as value-judgments are concerned—like beauty, goodness is merely in the eyes of the beholder. But when they see someone indulging in reckless purchases such as accumulating eight Rolls Royces, as did the late Liberace, or obtaining cocaine or pornographic books, they are perfectly willing to say that, contrary to the economist’s theory, these people do not really benefit themselves in trade but are guilty of fadism, fetishism, excesses, immoderation, and so on.

These people will conclude, if they are without a contrary theory that accepts the legitimacy of ethical criticism of market behavior, that any society that makes it possible for people to be so indulgent must be ethically flawed. People quite reasonably dispute that “[the exchange] process benefits all participants on the market and increases social utility,” at least as they observe the market in their particular situations.

They then go on to share the view of social critic John Kenneth Galbraith that the market produces many failures of distribution—people often fail to benefit themselves and their society when ‘they produce and sell in the free market. Would it not be better that the money spent on pornography or heroin or even Michael Jackson gloves go to medical research, the arts, or economic education? Perhaps they won’t know how to give a thorough philosophical defense of this conviction, but they will nevertheless hold it.

And they are right to do so. Free men and women can indeed make very bad, even evil judgments—there is no guarantee that when people enjoy freedom from the dictation of others, they will always choose to do the right thing. Anyone who proposes this view, as some economists do, will fly in the face of un-shakable convictions and common sense. The very idea of freedom implies that one can do both good and evil while carrying on as a market agent. The details could only be known from close up, but they are no mystery—self-indulgent people are a dime a dozen. Misallocation of resources, therefore, is easy to conceive in free markets.

But does this not concede the case to those who wish to intervene in the market?

Not by a long shot. First of all, just as market agents can make bad judgments, so can those who would intervene with the behavior of market agents. And there are fewer pressures on these latter than on the former, since they enjoy “sovereign immunity” (e.g., government regulators cannot be sued when a mishap occurs in an industry they regulate, as is clear from recent accidents in airline transportation, chemical manufacturing, and so on).

But even more important, it is meaningless to talk of good human conduct without freedom. Persons who are fully or even only partially enslaved—dictated and forced to behave by others—simply cannot be given credit for good or evil conduct. They are in effect reduced to the status of robots.

Thus an unfree system is to the extent of its lack of freedom a dehumanized system. What needs to be accepted is that the utopian dream of making people perfect through limiting or regulating voluntary, self- regarding conduct is a dangerous dream, not some beautiful ideal as many suppose.

So the market must be seen as the best that we can do. Whatever failures it is exposed to can only be resisted by education, exhortation, example, but not by coercion. It will not do to deny that it is open to failure, as economists sometimes do, or to try to eliminate the failures by state intervention. And this should not be surprising—the quintessential human characteristic, after all, is our capacity for good or evil. Why should we expect any different from such a perfectly human enterprise as the pursuit of economic welfare?

Are Our “Leaders” Superior?

Are our “Leaders” Superior?

Tibor R. Machan

When people talk about how market agents need to be regulated because, well, without it they could do bad things, it never fails to amaze me how narrow-minded is this line of reasoning. When human beings are fit for regulation by others, they are usually children and the others are their parents or guardians. So it has to do with who is an adult, who is not. Makes sense.

But when it is about adult citizens allegedly requiring regulation by other adult citizens, it is simply baffling. It used to be, back in the really old days (and in some regions of the globe even now), that societies were segmented into separate classes, upper, middle, lower and such, but that is all nonsense. While we may not all be equal in our intelligence, beauty, health, and the like, it is pretty clear now that as far as our rights to our lives and liberties are concerned, we are indeed equal. That means no one gets to rule someone else, not any other adult, not unless there has been someone who is to be ruled has done something criminal, violated another’s rights in the first place or consent has been given as we give it to our surgeon. But barring this, no one is supposed to rule anyone else. Equal liberty all around, that is the principle of a free society.

So then where does all this government regulation come from? Does our mutual equality disappear simply because a lot of people may wish to intrude on a bunch of others? Does democracy trump our mutual rights to equal liberty? How could it, when democracy itself is based on such rights–that why we all have the right to participate in public affairs, because we all have equal rights and no one is superior to another in the matter of having rights or authority. Self-rule is the name of the game, not a bigger group ruling a smaller one.

So bigger numbers do not justify greater, unequal authority. Nor does expertise. One’s doctor or dentist or butcher or plumber is an expert at something one may know nothing about or only very little but that doesn’t support the doctor’s or dentist’s or butcher’s rule over others who lack their skills. They still require full consent from those they guide, their patients or customers. Consent is central to the way civilized adult people interact. You must gain another’s permission to give him or her orders, to have them comply with your orders. That is the way of a free society.

But this bothers many people who think that we are all beholden to others, especially past generations, and thus we have obligations to fulfill. And it is indeed plausible to hold that many people owe much to their elders, both intimates and strangers. Surely the inventions and creations from past generations have produced enormous benefits to members of the current one and maybe this creates some obligations, duties, that the current population needs to fulfill.

What is not true is that this entitles anyone to enforce those obligations. Adult human beings must come to see that they owe something to others. That’s the origin of contract law. We enter into binding agreements with others. No third party gets to determine these obligations without our consent. And certainly no one gets to force us to comply with obligations we haven’t freely assumed except when we are children and cannot be expected to fend for ourselves.

Well then what about all this government regulation being imposed on innumerable professionals, regulation that a great many haven’t ever been asked to accept let alone given their consent to? Notice, the government regulations are pre-emptive–those being regulated haven’t done anything wrong, so they haven’t deserved the regulation, the impositions, the burdens the regulators meet out. (In the criminal law no one gets to be punished or penalized unless it is shown, in line with due process, that they have done something to deserve punishment or penalties. Why not with government regulation?)

How come the regulators–or rather rulers–get to tell people what to do? Never mind that they haven’t the moral authority to do this, nor some kind of special status–more naturally virtuous than the rest of us, perhaps–that would justify their intrusions into other people’s lives. Never mind that they are all just as capable of making mistakes as are market agents and, indeed, more so because they have power over people which, as Lord Acton noted, tends to corrupt.

So you think free men and women are susceptible to making mistakes? Well, their rulers are far more susceptible to do so, something that is borne out by even a cursory study of human history.