Archive for June, 2010

Column on There’s no Level Playing Field nor Equal Opportunity

There’s no Level Playing Field or Equal Opportunity

Tibor R. Machan

Yet another excuse for some people to gain power over others is this idea of the level playing field. It’s a metaphor, of course, but used often to mean starting in a race with no advantages for any of the participants. Another term by which to indicate this is equal opportunity. Even those who see through the ruse of peddling equality for all people tend to cave in to this one, agreeing that at least everyone has the right to an equal opportunity. The opportunity for what is not often spelled out but it may include obtaining a job, entering a school, embarking on travel, winning a contest or whatnot. The image that’s called to mind is that when people start out to achieve some goal, none may be favored or disfavored, none may have special advantages or disadvantages, etc.

But the the idea is hopeless. In no actual or even imaginable endeavor do people enjoy the level playing field or an equal opportunity. Take those who begin a marathon race at the same starting point. Looks like they are enjoying an equal opportunity or level playing field since none is provided with extra time or less distance to complete the race. Surely this amounts to treating all those in the race as equals.

Not really. Some of them will have gotten a good night’s sleep, others tossed and turned for who knows what reason that’s certainly unavailable for control by those who organize the race fairly. Some will have had a decent breakfast, others were too nervous to keep any food down; some had loving fans seeing them off to the races, others went it alone. There are, in short, innumerable sources of inequality right from the get go. People are simply too different and face different situations as they embark on various tasks that others, too, attempt.

But by holding out some vain hope for the true level playing field or genuine equal opportunity, meddlers can insist that they must butt in and that their legally mandated manipulations and interference are needed for the noble purposes of serving this utterly misconceived version of justice. It is all bunk. Not only are there predictable differences among virtually all people who embark on similar missions but there are always fortune and misfortune, like the weather or just a plain old cold, that can hit and tilt the odds in favor or disfavor of certain of the participants. Even in sports wherein every possible effort is made to put all participants on a level playing field, this is an unrealistic aspiration. Everyone knows that it is unattainable and any serious attempt to attain it will be futile.

Then quite apart from the natural, given, and unavoidable inequalities that place people into different categories with different chances of winning, there is also other people’s preferences, wants, hopes, and such that upset the apple cart all the time–some athletes are loved by fans, others aren’t so much. Or the sex appeal is simply missing.

More significantly, say you are a farmer planting and harvesting a crop but the purchasing public just lost interest in it and the price you can ask for it plummets, while the efforts of others, say those diving for seafood, are in high demand all of a sudden? Maybe this is because a popular TV chef has come up with some very appealing seafood dishes on the show and the audience is now smitten and demand for the the farmer’s crop has subsided markedly. Surely this upsets any hope for a level playing field between farmers and seafood merchants.

So how is all this to be rearranged without sending in the police who will have no clue what to do about it all but will insist on trying to do something, anything, so as to seem important? And how will the disparity between the power of those embarking on the rearrangement and those who are subject to it be eliminated so that equality obtains between them? Impossible.

The dream of full, robust equality is a nightmare, let’s face it, and it is best to distance ourselves from it as far as possible.

Column on No Excuse for Coercion

No Excuse for Coercion

Tibor R. Machan

I am always baffled and now and then really angered when people defend using coercion against other people. (Some will say I must be biased since I come from several early years of tyranny and since one of my parents was an out and out brute. How could I be objective then, about the merits of coercive force?)

For my money coercive force is not only when someone threatens to beat up or kill another unless that other does as told. I start much earlier, when someone presumes to have the authority to entice or nudge his or her fellow human beings to do as told (hoped for)! I don’t see that the importance of the project that’s to be served by such coercive force has anything to do with it–people aren’t supposed to be other people’s tools, unwilling devices for the sake of achieving even the most magnificent objectives. Certainly no one is made a morally better individual by way of being beaten or threatened to be beaten into being such, to do what is morally right. How could they, since moral goodness, if it amounts to anything intelligible at all, must involve the agent’s free choice. Without the chance to choose to do the right or wrong thing any kind of worthwhile conduct amounts at most to good behavior, like what we want from dogs or horses.

But never mind the complications–nearly everything in human life can be made to appear utterly complicated, so that people can be intimidated into thinking they have no way to tell right from wrong about it. Sophistry is a very potent motivation for withdrawing from the moral game, as some philosophers would put it. Make it all appear to be incomprehensible to us, a matter of the facts and laws of highly specialized science, at best, or beyond the pale altogether and only to be intuited by leaders. As the late Harvard psychologist B. F. Skinner proposed, only technologists of human behavior can be entrusted with the authority to make us all do what is desirable to do. Since, of course, there are umpteen schools of psychologists who are candidates for this role, using force to decide in the end who shall be our technologists is immediately unavoidable. So power will decide!

What really gets to me is how casually these advocates of nudging, manipulating, incentivizing, and so forth think past the idea that they are proposing using force on other people, not all of whom will protest but many others who would not comply other than from fear for their lives and liberties and that of their loved ones. How they can just get past the policies for how to treat people that their ideas imply? They have to do some serious evading, since one cannot easily imagine that they would advocate such coercive policies concerning themselves or those they respect and love. And would they happily embrace the idea of, say, rape, pedophilia, kidnapping, assault, torture, etc., since all these are but variations of coercive conduct toward other people in support of some kind of desired objective? How can their defense of coercive policies against other human beings–be they filthy rich, unfairly tall, racists, and anyone who does anything morally wrong that doesn’t qualify as violating anyone’s right to life and liberty–be sustained when they must know that when human beings are involved, what is due them is civilized persuasion, not coercion. So integrity, clearly, is not a strong virtue for such folks. Yes, I think some serious evasion is afoot here, people really failing to live up to principles that aren’t mysterious but plainly enough the foundation of civilized human interaction. To be civilized is to deploy not coercive force in how one acts toward others but rational persuasion, often indeed patient and prolonged rational persuasion.

Some will say, “Well all this preference of coercion is simply the natural hunger for power in human nature,” but that surely can’t be right since millions have no such hunger at all, quite the contrary. What millions and millions have yearned for and are yearning for is peaceful, civilized interaction with others but with a fraction–albeit influential faction–choosing the shortcut of coercive force.

Yes, there are cases that make it difficult to tell the difference between such untoward, barbaric ways of acting and the civilized ways but that is one reason we have minds, namely, to work on figuring out the distinction and to act and shape policies and institutions accordingly. It is no excuse for continuing with coercion against one’s fellows that now and then coercion isn’t easy to differentiate from peaceful interaction and that perhaps once in a billion it seems justified. Most human endeavors pose such difficulties, borderline cases as philosophers have dubbed them, yet they manage with building skyscrapers, massive dams, MRI and Cat Scan devices–you name them and people have handled them all despite the occasional difficulties and even quandaries.

So, no, there is no excuse for coercive treatment of one’s fellows, not in 99.99% of the cases where such treatment is deployed. Let no sophistry distract anyone from that.

Column on Why Welfare States Hemorrhage

Why Welfare States Hemorrhage

Tibor R. Machan

One central reason welfare states–or call them social democracies or whatever runaway mob rule most developed and developing countries are subject to these days (for the last thing they are is capitalist)–go broke is a basic flaw of the system, not the particular fault of politicians or bureaucrats or the devil.

Nearly all democracies now are unlimited, illiberal, and unrestrained by firm constitutional principles that prohibit spending more than what the treasury can bear. So the politicians are impelled by democratic forces to dole out support for their constituents without any regard for budgetary constraints. No budgets can be enforced since the very lawmakers and bureaucrats who would do the enforcement are themselves impelled by the democratic process to drain the treasury beyond rhyme or reason. Also, people just cannot be taxed endlessly–in time they just give up seeking to prosper.

Just imagine a family of five, with each using a copy of a credit card but none imposing self-discipline, so that whenever one of them wants to make a purchase, it’ll be done. Together the purchases reach way beyond the family’s financial resources, so, no surprise, the card will be maxed out in no time. Of course, credit card companies impose limits on card-holders but most families can obtain a half a dozen or more credit cards, so maxing out one doesn’t serve to discipline them, either individually or collectively.

Now add to this analogy the fact that when it comes to national treasuries, these are generally subject to carrying enormous debts and deficits. And those who are in time responsible for covering these are not yet alive or are very young, so they aren’t even in a position to express their protest about being saddled with these obligations they did not assume either individually or collectively. They are trapped into shouldering obligations very likely way beyond their capacity to cover. (There, by the way, goes “no taxation without representation”!) This is all exacerbated by the tragedy of the commons, since everyone also believes in getting as much out of the common treasury as possible with no thought about replenishing it. After all, what is in the treasury is all ours, a public resource, just as the resources around us in the wilds or the air mass belong to all of us, so that no private property rights serve to put borders around what people have available to use. Furthermore, public choice theory shows that politicians and bureaucrats work mainly to advance their own limitless agendas, having no clue at all what is in the public interest. So the pressures on the treasury are enormous.

There is a school of economic thought that aims to remedy matters, called constitutional economics–lead by George Mason University Nobel Laureate economist, James Buchanan–with the public policy objective to putting constitutional limits on spending. Some states of the union make an attempt at this but usually without much success, again because the democratic process tends to override all attempts at restraint. If politicians can ensure their own elections and reelections by promising to raid the treasury “for the benefit of voters”–never mind that altogether this is not really feasible but only a deceptive promise–they will do whatever they can to accomplish this goal. Those on their staffs or whom they appoint are not likely to stand in their way since they will be fired in a jiffy if they try.

It comes out to be a proverbial Hobbesian war of all (groups) against all. Labor, business, education, science, the arts, farming, you name it, and everyone is asking to gain support from the treasury and the politicians proudly assume it to be their duty to accommodate the requests however impossible this is.

The late Mancur Olson, a brilliant student of the welfare state, argued (in his book The Logic of Collective Action [U. of Michigan Press, 1965]) that this process is literally unstoppable and only a major meltdown can put a halt to it, followed by, perhaps, some revolutionary changes in the system. But so long as the democratic process continues (me thinks), everything will just repeat itself (even though now the meltdown may well be on its way globally).

I know of no solution to all this other than to insist that the very problem be communicated to the citizenry, relentlessly, repeatedly, and vigilantly, so that despite everyone’s tendency to get on the dole, wisdom and prudence would in time prevail.

All of this needs to begin at home, but sadly macro-economists–including our current president–are telling everyone to spend, spend, and spend some more, for therein, miraculously, lies our salvation. Yet, contrary to this nonsense, in the end the best cliche to follow is that one just cannot get blood out of a turnip.

Column on Justice & BP

Justice and BP

Tibor R. Machan

It is very probable that BP and its associated firms will be found guilty of malpractice and assessed major fines and punishment. However, this hasn’t yet happened so it’s premature to punish BP at this point. Nor is it the role of the President of the U.S. to act as prosecutor, judge and jury in this case or any other. Where is due process in all of what he and Congress have been doing lately? Or has an anti-British or anti-business attitude wiped out the need for justice? Urging or imploring–even attempting to persuade–BP to set up the $20 billion fund could be a good idea but treating this as demanded by justice is utterly misguided. There should be no compromise of principle even in the heat of anger and the grips of outrage and sorrow. It is imperative to wait until the verdict is in.

Many moons ago President Richard Nixon lashed out at Charles Manson after he learned of the carnage but before the law could get at the mass murderer. The president told reporters that Manson was “guilty, directly or indirectly of eight murders.” Manson’s defense team then went on to argue in court that such a statement by the president undermined the possibility of a fair trial. The defense motioned for a mistrial, insisting that the charges against Manson be dropped but the judge, Older, denied it.
Interestingly the following day in court Manson displayed a paper, headlined “Manson Guilty, Nixon Declares,” presumably in the hopes of producing a mistrial but instead the judge questioned jurors concerning their reactions and determined that they could remain impartial. He did sentence one of the attorneys to three nights in jail as punishment for leaving the paper in Manson’s reach.

Why mention all this? A case like the oil spill will generate a long and intricate legal process and many of those who have suffered from the explosion and the spill will need to have it heard and decided expeditiously and President Obama’s and Congress’ treatment of BP could very well pose obstacles to a speedy resolution and due compensation. It is doubtful that this would be welcome, especially by those most effected by the catastrophe.

It seems, however, that politicians cannot resist capitalizing on events like this one. Just as White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel suggested, do not let a disaster go unexploited. However, there can be serious downside to this attitude, since rushing to judgment can backfire and BP’s attorneys, who would naturally want to lessen any losses this disaster will cost the company, could exploit it in the course of the trials sure to follow. Nor need one view this cynically–it is, first of all, the job of those attorney’s to see to it that BP gets what amounts to a legal fair shake; second, objectively speaking, it is still to be determined what and who is responsible for what happened.

Yes, one would wish to be able to point a finger with no complications but that could turn out to be a pipe dream here. However painful this is, especially to the families of those 11 who perished in the initial explosion and to all those who are suffering from the impact of the spill throughout the Gulf region, justice cannot be achieved without examining the situation in full. And that could take time.

Sadly, many, including most of the mainstream media, are more interested in a show of strong feelings from President Obama instead of warning him about muddying the legal waters of this case. In the long run, however, it will be far more important that true justice be done instead of publicly parading sincere yet very possibly badly targeted emotions.

One may suppose that those who have suffered from all this will be impervious to all such niceties as due process of law but even in the most extreme circumstances, as after a plane crash and a building or bridge collapse, the human thing to do is to remain as civilized as bearable. Emotions are perfectly appropriate, of course, but they are no substitute for what justice demands.

Column on Revisiting Free Will

Revisiting Free Will

Tibor R. Machan

In an essay for The New Republic, “Oh, the humanity,” Bradford Plumer writes as follows:

“Take your pick on what’s most infuriating about the oil crisis in the Gulf. There’s the growing evidence that the platform blowout that caused all that crude to erupt out of the ocean floor was entirely preventable and should never have happened in the first place. BP cut corners on safety to save money, and regulators barely seemed to care. And now no one has any real clue how to contain the spill–we just have to watch helplessly as the ever-expanding oil slick poisons fisheries and kills off marshlands and coral reefs. What’s especially unnerving, though, is that the recklessness that helped bring about the spill, and the political reaction that followed, seem to indicate a larger inability to prevent and cope with other large-scale ecological catastrophes–particularly climate change.”

Here you have yet another instance of never allowing a good disaster to go unexploited for political purposes, a policy endorsed a while ago by White House Chief Rahm Emanuel. But I will leave that aside for now and focus once again on the curious phenomenon of defenders of determinism remaining completely silent when it comes to defending those who are accused of wrong-doing on the grounds that, well, there is nothing they could have done differently. Saying that the blowout “was entirely preventable” clearly assume free will–that those responsible for operating and managing the operations at the rig could have done otherwise than they did. All this finger pointing, charges of recklessness–at BP and the regulators and whoever was near to the events and might be a candidate for malpractice charges–seems to be entirely fine with the academic defenders of determinism, such as Paul and Patricia Churchland, Ted Honderich, Daniel Dennett and their innumerable supporters in this controversy.

The doctrine of free will is not faring very well these days among most philosophers, although a few who work on the topic, even among neuro-scientists, do defend it. I am one of them. I have written books, scholarly papers, and essays on the topic but each time I make my case, quite a few people dismiss my thesis as implausible, wrong, even disingenuous. (In these discussions many do not stick to topic and veer off into name calling, sadly, or charging their opponents with duplicitous conduct, specious argumentation, etc., instead of leaving it at trying to show that their adversaries’ position is wrong. That is itself odd, since a determinist could not really sustain the claim that the opponent could have done other than he or she did, namely, defend free will!)

But back to BP and the oil catastrophe. If one maintains that it was all preventable, one must hold that those involved could have done things differently from what they actually did, that they were free to choose to act other than they did act. And that is to reject determinism. So, all those famous determinists I have named above and their allies might be expected to be rushing to the defense of the idea that what happened in the Gulf of Mexico simply had to happen–no alternative course of conduct was possible.

There was one famous American who did come forth in a notorious case, the murder trial of Leopold and Loeb, namely, Clarence Darrow, and defended the accused on the grounds that no one can help what he or she does and criminals are not exempt from this principle. Leopold and Loeb were two wealthy University of Chicago students who murdered 14-year-old Bobby Franks in 1924, supposedly because they believed in some contorted version of Nietzsche’s doctrine of the overman and to put it into practice they decided to do the perfect crime. Darrow, in turn, defended them in part on the very general grounds that there is nothing anyone can do differently from what he or she does in fact do.

One may disagree with Darrow’s line of defense but there is certainly one commendable thing about it: it shows integrity. Darrow put his money where his mouth was, as it were, even though it was a very unpopular position and, indeed, he lost the case for his defendants.

But perhaps coming to the defense of BP would be far more unpopular, given how there is a considerable populist atmosphere in the country and big corporations are pretty much guilty before having been proven so of whatever they are accused. (It is probably true that BP and some of its associates will be found guilty of grievous malpractice in this case, although it is too early to be convinced of this now.)

What is curious to me, as a minor public intellectual–someone who takes one’s theories outside the halls of the academy and applies them quite directly to actual issues in the world–is that these famous defenders of determinism, many of whom make fun of the idea of free will (e.g., call it spooky and magical), do not step up in defense of their idea when it matters most, in a concrete case like the Gulf of Mexico oil disaster.