Archive for June, 2010

Column on Risk & Liberty

Risks and Liberty

Tibor R. Machan

The New York Times editorialized in panic, predictably, in the wake of the U. S. Supreme Court ruling striking down Chicago’s ban on handgun ownership. Lamenting the Court’s highly abstract debate about the constitutional clause that needed to be considered, The Times alleged that Monday’s ruling will “undermin[e] Chicago’s [sensible] law” and lead to “results [that] will be all too real and bloody.”

The Times’ central complaint amounted to the claim that the freedom to own handguns is entirely too risky. It threw out some completely discredited statistics that suggest a link between the striking down of such bans and the fostering gun violence. (This allegation is discredited in part by the failure to compare it with the beneficial results of handgun ownership, a result that has by now been demonstrated and published, for example in John Lott’s More Guns, Less Crime: Understanding Crime and Gun-Control Laws [Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998].)

But what is of greater interest is just how ignorant–or is it duplicitous–The Times’ editors appear to be about the connection between liberty and risky conduct. And this is all the more annoying because of course the very liberty so cherished by The Times, the right to the freedom of the press, is one of the most risky liberties in a free society. Need it be chronicled here how the freedom to speak out and write whatever one wants can produce enormous risks. The Times commonly defends the freedom of the press by fully acknowledging this risk, as in the case of Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentegon Papers some many moons ago, while insisting that the risks posed by this freedom simply must be accepted–it’s indeed one of the costs of a free society.

Handgun ownership is, of course, risky, but then so is the disarming of the citizenry. And let us remember that the most risky feature of a society is when government is the only institution that is legally entitled to wield guns while the citizenry is forbidden to do so. Not only is this a blatant case of the unequal application of the law–somehow government people aren’t supposed to pose risks while peaceful citizens are–but it is oblivious to all the studies that show how leaving free citizens armed tends to put criminals are guard, even discourages them from using their own guns.

But even if it were true that gun ownership is more risky, over all, than is the banning of guns, it is a gross non sequitur to claim that this then proves that the right to own guns must be legally invalidated. Just does not follow.

Free men and women are naturally risky types! Freedom is characterized by making it possible for people to make choices, even bad ones, just as in the case of the liberty of the press. Journalists, editorial writers, reporters and the lot who are free to do as they choose can and will do what is risky, and at times what is indeed outright malpractice. Freedom is a precondition of both good and bad human conduct. And so long as such conduct isn’t violent–and the carrying of handguns plainly isn’t, only their aggressive use is–it is the right of adult human beings to have and even use guns.

But The New York Times’ editorial team has no principled commitment to human liberty. It is concerned only with its own protected privileges while government forbids other citizens to be free. Perhaps The Times prints whatever is fit to be printed but has no concern with integrity, namely, keeping loyal to values it promulgates whenever it is convenient for its own agenda.

Of course, in this as in many other matters The Times is in sync with the Zeitgeist. Who in mainstream politics and law steps up vigorously in support of human liberty? Nearly everything favored by the current administration and its cohorts in Congress wreaks of worries about risk, safety, precaution and the like and hardly anyone cares about liberty. Security si, liberty no!

But as it’s been noted by such champions of freedom as Benjamin Franklin, those who would give up liberty so as to obtain security risk both and probably deserve neither.

Column on Why Military Hubris?

Why Military Hubris?

Tibor R. Machan

General McChrystal spoke out of line, though perhaps truth to power. Yet hasn’t the American military been mislead into thinking that it is the answer to most of our problems? In which case his conduct may well be quite understandable, even a prelude to things to come.

I recall when hurricane Andrew struck on the shores of the Gulf of Mexico in the 1980s and the military was called out to cope with it. One Air force lieutenant colonel, Charles J. Dunlap Jr., was by that time convinced that this kind of use of the military bodes ill for the tradition of its civilian control, a tradition central to the government of a free society.

Few batted an eye when the U.S. Army was called out to battle Hurricane Andrew in Florida back then. I assume most people thought, “What is government for if not to come to the aid of citizens in such circumstances?” But Dunlap argued that deploying the military for extraneous, non-defense purposes is likely to convince military leaders and enthusiasts that they, not civilians, ought to be governing the country. (See Charles J. Dunlap Jr., “The Origins of the American Military Coup of 2012,” Parameters, winter 1992– 93, pp. 2–20.)

Arguably this idea can help us understand better what happened in the case of General McChrystal who appeared to feel no need for restraint in badmouthing his civilian employers, including the president of the United States. Never mind for now whether what the general said had merit. It is just not his role to first go public with his concerns. He could take them to his chief, of course, and that may actually have been more productive. If the concerns McChrystal has are valid, taking them to Rolling Stone magazine would appear to be quite counterproductive. It would and indeed did put the president on the defensive, lead to McChrystal’s firing, and most importantly, one may assume, may very well have managed to prevent the criticism from being addressed.

Why is it proper for soldiers to refrain from butting into the management of the military unless they are commanded to do this by their civilian superiors? Because soldiers are arms of the government which is itself supposed to be the servant of the citizenry and would, properly run, convey the citizenry’s appropriate orders. It is, in short, the citizenry who are boss, via a chain of command.

By bucking this chain, General McChrystal sabotaged his own effectiveness as an expert influence on the country’s military affairs. This is probably really too bad since by all accounts the Obama administration could use the very best advice available, given how its military endeavors are faltering big time. (For my money, there really is little justification for carrying on with US military involvement in Afghanistan but what do I know? Here is yet another reason that the general’s input, properly advanced, might have done some serious good!)

One matter that’s quite disturbing about this entire affair is that it speaks ill of the practice of free flowing debate in the country, a practice that’s supposed to be normal in a free society. But it has to be conducted properly, so when this doesn’t happen, the harm can be considerable.

Is the episode symptomatic of the way the Obama administration is falling apart on several fronts? Here is a president with his party in full power and somehow nothing he touches succeeds and his popularity is plummeting. He remains, it seems, not much more than a kind of figurehead, with attractive visuals surroungind him but with little that’s desirable accomplished other than, well, the practical nationalization of the health care and insurance and the financial industries. Not something to be proud of as an American president. Maybe as a Russian one!

Go figure.

Column on My Perennial Puzzles

My Perennial Puzzles

Tibor R. Machan

I no longer recall whether I chose philosophy as the discipline I wanted to explore because of some puzzles I encountered or whether I found the puzzles in the field once a got to do work in it. I think it is the former since I recall some odd questions I raised when I was very young–like whether people I was looking at and thinking about without their knowledge of this would then have to be described in a biography with this fact mentioned about them. Or if I looked in a certain direction from the earth and then found myself on the object I was looking at and then did this on and on and on, would it ever come to an end? Or, again, if one wants to know oneself completely, would the bit about wanting to do so be part of what one would have to know and does that not lead to an infinite regress? I once figured, while sitting in church, that the only way I could be truly selfless, as I was being urged repeatedly by the priest giving the sermon, is by murdering all those who just took communion. That way they would all ascend to heaven and I would surely end up in hell, a very selfless thing for me. (But then I was informed that my good intentions might bail me out after all.)

OK, so these are pretty infantile issues probably most of us grow up considering on and off but I kept at it and found a line of work where I could continue keeping at it. Since then I have run across somewhat more intriguing puzzles. Here are a few:

How come so many serious scientists in psychology and neuroscience propose that we are all completely prejudiced when that clearly reflects very badly on the very findings they themselves produce?

Or how is it that people who believe we are hardwired to think and do everything we think and do keep insisting that other people should stop thinking as they do and change their minds–how could that make sense if they are all hardwired?

And how is it that these same people don’t step up to defend BP, tobacco executives and the like by writing Op Ed pieces on how no one can really do anything other than what he or she does do?

In ethics I am always baffled when I hear people urging everyone to be selfless but do not recognizes that others’ selflessness can turn out to be very selfish for them. If you always work to help others, those others will benefit from this, no? Why are those others so deserving of one’s help when one isn’t deserving of it?

In politics one outstanding oddity for me is how people who insist that everyone should be treated as an equal tend mostly to hog very favorable academic positions, at Harvard, Chicago, Princeton, and so forth, without finding this in the slightest quite hypocritical? How come they do not volunteer to exchange their swell positions with those who are at far less prestigious institutions, at least for a while (say switch places with someone at a junior college for, say, a term or two)? I know people who insist that no one deserves his or her advantages in life since we are where we are largely as a matter of pure accident, yet they do absolutely nothing to change this other than to keep proposing government programs that allegedly produce greater equality. Why not start your egalitarianism where you can do something about it, at home or at your place of work?

I once asked a very well positioned and avowed Marxist political philosopher–I believe he was teaching at Cornell University and living a very plush life indeed–how it is he does nothing to help the proletariat and he told me that this is because only when the revolution has succeeded will it be necessary to implement Marxian ideas. I thought, how convenient! Perhaps I should start racking in all the government grants and benefits I, a libertarian, have resisted applying for because I actually believe it is morally insidious to force other people to help me with my life and scholarly work? It maybe that I am simply naive about this–the thing to do is preach one thing and do quite another and everyone will see you as a sophisticated intellectual.

Maybe, as one of my very good friends, a young woman with a sharp mind and a Harvard degree in public administration, told me, I just ponder things to death and should relax more and let things be. But then I would not be me, I figure and I do like it this way, all other options considered.

Column on Friends and Politics

Friends & Politics

Tibor R. Machan

Yes, most of my friends have similar political convictions to mine. Actually, not just political but also more general philosophical ones, bearing on the theory of being, knowledge, the human good and even the nature of art. But not all. I do have some genuine friends who disagree with me on important matters, including politics. How is that possible for someone who takes politics as seriously as I do?

Well, for lovers of human liberty an implication of their outlook is not to push people too heard about their convictions. Yes, one can try to argue them into holding different ideas from those they do hold, although it rarely pays off and even when it does, it takes years. Serious folks, which doesn’t mean morose or ornery ones, do hold on to their convictions more vigilantly than others, partly because they came about holding them through hard work, elaborate reflection, experimentation, study and so forth. To just change would be unlikely.

Even the few people I know of, both in the history of human thought and among ordinary folks, who have gone through major changes, there is something that remains pretty steadfast. I know one famous English thinker who moved politically from out and out classical liberal to radical Leftist. He would seem to contradict the idea of not changing one’s mind about important matters. And indeed at a certainly level of thinking he hasn’t changed, ever. He has always been a radical skeptic, someone who believed that people really cannot know the world well enough to be sure about it. So he has found it easier to change his mind on particular matters because what he believed didn’t amount to something he actually thought he knew to be true, only an opinion (and he thought everyone else, too, only had such rather flexible opinions even when they thought otherwise).

Anyway, I have some friends who actually believe of themselves that they are out and out socialists while I am of course a firm capitalist or libertarian. In certain cases the reason we can be friends is that on many other fronts we see eye to eye, like about raising children, being responsible in one’s personal affairs instead of dumping on others, keeping one’s word and so forth. But, yes, in matters of politics these friends reject what I embrace–and they vote that way, support politicians and legislation accordingly. We then tend to stay away from these topics or when we just no longer can do so, we deal with them gingerly, delicately, in very civil terms. But most of the time we agree to disagree and our friendship rests on other things, like our personalities, tastes and preferences in sports and our equal devotion to our families.

I have even maintained pretty solid ties with people who are deeply religious, while I am totally tone deaf to religion, cannot ultimately fathom what it is about. Yet life has so many facets to it that can be kept within their own compartments that our friendship, though wobbly at times, can continue.

About certain old friends, whom I have known and loved since we were teens, who call themselves socialists there is something else that makes it not too difficult to keep up our friendship. In my view they misunderstand socialism and think it means something like being kind and considerate toward those in dire straits, people who have been unlucky and need a helping hand. This attitude of kindness and compassion is often, in my view quite mistakenly, associated with the politics of the Left. But that is really a mistake.

The bulk of the political Left isn’t so much kind, generous, compassionate, and helpful but supports the kind of public policies we have been hearing about a lot lately, namely, coercive, state enforced wealth redistribution. Robbing Peter to help out Paul isn’t being generous, although it may appear so if one focuses only on motivation, since often the robbing comes initially from wanting to lend a hand. People then tend to overlook the robbery and concentrate only on the benign intentions, often forgetting that if anyone they knew actually went about committing burglaries or robberies in their neighborhoods with the excuse that they will give away the loot to the needy, they would probably not approve of this. (It is useful to remember here that even Robin Hood didn’t rob the rich but those who ripped off the poor, indeed, that tax takers!)

Still, the association of socialism with kindness will probably continue because it is so easy to judge things by appearances alone without going into the details. In this case the detail is that while one usually reaches out to help others from one’s own resources, including one’s time and skills, under socialism it is powerful politicians who forcibly dip into other people’s pockets to carry out their helpful policies.

Machan’s Archives: Zoning versus Private Property Rights

Machan’s Archives: Zoning versus Private Property Rights

Tibor R. Machan

Among the elements of a free society looms very large the institution of private property rights. It is this element that gives concrete, practical expression to a citizens right to liberty. The reason is that living free means doing what one chooses to do someplace, connected to the world around oneself. John Locke, the major theorists of individual rights in the history of political thought, believed that private property rights punctuate our jurisdiction over our lives since what our lives amount to is to a large extent interacting, mixing our labor, with the rest of nature. If we lack the right to private property, we lack the freedom to live on our own terms. Although he wrote that God owns everything, he also believe that God gave it all to humankind and the principle of private property rights served as the best rationing device henceforth.
No one who defends freedom suffers from the illusion that free men and women always do what is right. And this is true about how they make use of their property. But in a genuinely free society that is one of the troubling yet unavoidable conditions of living with others people. Just as one is, so are others free to use what belongs to them as they judge proper. If this is undermined, so is human freedom.
One of the areas in community life where this element of freedom is often evaded and opposed is the institution of zoning ordinances. Zoning amounts to the regulation of one’s use of one’s land and home and business in favor of how others prefer. In a democratic society these others are usually representatives of the majority, although very often they become nearly independent agents who can dictate the ways land and buildings must be built, decorated, rebuilt, and so forth. Historic preservation groups lobby incessantly to rule us in these regards. The basic reason for this as for most other violations of private property rights has to do with protecting the members of the majority from the choices of members of the minority, choices that the majority would find objectionable. Thus the typical announced objective of a zoning ordinance is to preserve the styles that majority of the community prefers within a neighborhood and to keep out undesirable colors and architectural styles, not to mention business establishments and life styles.
All this is usually put in terms of establishing and maintaining community standards, of course, as if there were such a thing as the community apart from all of its individual members. But there isn’t. So some members of the community decide for all the members whose private property will be used, like it or not. In effect, of course, this means the abolition of private property rights, that great goal that was first on the list of Karl Marx’s and Frederick Engels’s Communist Manifesto. Sure, defenders of zoning laws will insist that they simply want to protect the private properties of members of the neighborhood, against those who would undermine property values and the desirability of the vicinity as a residential, commercial or industrial region. However, whatever their motives, these defenders are still working to undermine and have been succeeding at undermining the institution of private property rights.
A right is a freedom to do what one wants, be this good or bad, provided no one’s rights are violated in the process. Freedom of speech, for example, means one may say anything one wants that amounts to speech, provided it does not violate another’s rights. What is said could be filthy, false, offensive, unwise, and so forth. But free mend and women may not be stopped from speaking out whatever the quality of their speech.
Now perhaps it appears to many that freedom of speech is more important than property rights but this is easily disproved. Indeed, without private property rights, there cannot be freedom of speech. The community would own or control all places where things could be said and published and thus, also, what can be said and published. (This is why, for example, government can regulate television and radio content but not that of magazines and newspapers. They own the electromagnetic spectrum on which broadcast signals travel!)
But perhaps in the case of certain kinds of property, such as land and buildings, the borders between what one person owns and others own cannot be determined, so there really cannot be any private property rights applicable in such spheres. There seems to be something to this mainly because many people think that when they own a piece of land or a house, the surrounding views also belong to them – or at least they ought to have a say as to what happens to whatever is in view. But this is clearly false. If one’s neighbor is a nice looking person but then decides not to remain nice looking, one has no right to stop the person from changing, however disappointing this may be to one. Indeed, this is true about another’s automobile, backyard, and so forth. And that should be the model on which to base our understanding of private property – those who own it must have control over it, otherwise they aren’t free persons but belong to other people who claim to represent the community.
So what now? If zoning ordinances violate certain valid principles of a free society, how can one nevertheless work to keep one’s neighborhood presentable? How can one influence, if not control, other people so that they do not make the neighborhood unpleasant and allow it to deteriorate?
OK, so far I tried to show in rather general terms why zoning laws are inconsistent with a free society’s principles, in particular with the principle of private property rights. Basically they amount to impositions by some people on others of conditions for using property that are the owners’ proper, justified authority to determine. No one has that right, however tempting and desirable it may appear to imagine otherwise.
But what about the perfectly honorable wish to have a nice neighborhood in which to live, work and play? How, besides by means of zoning ordinances, could people protect their neighborhoods?
Before answering this question it must be noted, quite emphatically, that zoning ordinances by no means achieve what their advocates claim justifies their use. In many communities, indeed, that have stringent zoning ordinances there are neighborhoods that are a mess, to put it mildly. Especially right where the zoning provisions change, say from commercial to residential use, the areas are usually in a deteriorating condition. That is where buildings are usually dilapidated, shabby. And it is usually those who lack political clout who must live there.
In more general terms, by no means is the institution of zoning laws a panacea. Just as with the welfare state in general, which simply shoves around the misery it aims to eliminate, zoning laws, too, are mostly an expression of special interest clout. A drive through any of the heavily zoned communities will demonstrate this right away.
In fact, the record of the institution of zoning as far as making areas of residential, commercial and recreational living orderly and pleasant for all is by no means a good one. Let us look at this briefly, without entering the ample scholarship that exists on that topic. (But anyone wishing to check for detailed studies can examine William A. Fishel’s works, The Economics of Zoning Laws : A Property Rights Approach to American Land Use Controls, Regulatory Takings : Law, Economics, and Politics, Do Growth Controls Matter? : A Review of Empirical Evidence on the Effectiveness and Efficiency of Local Government Land Use Regulation, The Economics of Zoning Laws : A Property Rights Approach to American Land Use Controls, and Land Economics : Private Markets Public Decisions, as well as Bernard H. Siegan’s seminal book, Land Use Without Zoning.)
For one, there is a city in the USA that has enjoyed freedom from zoning and has worked pretty well while it lasted. It is Houston, Texas. No disaster, no catastrophe, no mess, no property devaluation, nada. Just a city where what zoning was supposed to achieve had been achieved without it, more peacefully, more through cooperation than through coercion.
Second, a little imagination and history should suffice to teach us all that it is better all around to strive to achieve goals without forcing people to accept what they would freely reject. And this applies as much to education or military service as it does not keeping their neighborhoods in good shape. Free men and women simply do better, on the whole, than do those who are regimented by their fellows, made to act as they do not choose to.
Third, what zoning aims for can easily be achieved through voluntary agreements among members of neighborhoods. Restrictive covenants work to this end wonderfully, provided those concerned make the effort to bring them into play. As with all things, the free approach always appears at first cumbersome – talking someone into a course of conduct takes more time than doing this by beating the person. But in the end the result is much more rewarding – all kinds of political hostilities, vested-interest battles, and politicking in the worst sense of that term can be avoided if agreements are reached peacefully, through mutual effort.
Of course, in most communities this is at best an ideal, but more likely a political fantasy, along lines that abolishing prohibition had been at one time and substituting a private for a public education system is now. But that does not make it any less feasible and right! So in the current dispute about whether this or that kind of zoning ordinance is needed for a community, it is vital that some voices keep announcing what is the truly best solution, after all.
What is needed, once all the infighting has shown itself the fruitless effort it really is, is the abolition of zoning and the institution of market based, voluntary agreements among members of neighborhoods, commercial establishments and so forth to achieve what these members want to achieve. There will, of course, be limits to what is possible – one cannot live in Shangri-La if one isn’t financially equipped to do so; one cannot live far in the woods if one’s budget provides for only an apartment in the middle of town. But within the limits that one must live with in all realms of ordinary life, the solutions reached via voluntary negotiations and bargaining are far superior to those acrimonious ones that are reached via the political process.
Will this be done tomorrow morning at 9 AM? No. But should we stress its desirability and real availability for any community? Yes.