Archive for July, 2010

Column on What Irritates the Statists

What Irritates the Statists

Tibor R. Machan

Speculating about motives isn’t my cup of tea. I really don’t know why so many folks find it attractive to run other people’s lives, to dictate to them, to regiment or regulate them endlessly. Ultimately I suspect this deepest of the deeper of human flaws has to do with a failure, a serious omission, the absence of a sufficiently fulfilled life, something that is really up to each individual to achieve within his or her particular circumstance provided other people aren’t intruding and make it impossible for the individual.

Still, bit and pieces of reasons for wanting to always bothering others with one’s agenda—or as some statists now wish to call it, nudging people to behave well—do come to light now and then without some grand theory of human motivation. A tiny example of what I have in mind stares one in the face a good deal everywhere one encounters one’s fellow human beings. I am thinking of the enormous variety of accessories people display. Take just one of these such as their wristwatches.

Nearly everyone manages to find one of these that no one else is wearing, at least no one nearby—at the same party or office or doctor’s waiting room or, well, you get the point. I would say in most developed societies people have managed to find just the watch they want and doesn’t replicate their friends’ and colleagues’ watches.

And as I travel about, which I do a great deal, I run across watch stores and other places where watches can be purchased and these are normally filled to the rim with the most incredibly varied examples of the article, most of them quite attractive as far as I can tell, some, of course, a bit hideous and silly looking.

I am of course focusing here on something those who know Karl Marx’s criticism of the free market capitalist economic system are quite familiar with. It is also something soft Marxists, such as the late John Kenneth Galbraith, implicitly criticized about the system. Marx called it commodity fetishism and Galbraith, also a socialist of sorts, _lamented the phenomenon in light of how it distracts most of us from our far more important “public” goals, the ones that get neglected because we spend so much money on private goods. (For Galbraith it was one of the major failures of the free market, namely, that we are at liberty to focus on satisfying our private desires and thus “deprive” the public treasuries of our resources that would, by Galbraith’s and his cohorts’ account be much better spent on public goods like schools, roads, forests, monuments, welfare payments, subsidies, or whatever publicly minded folks would spend our resources on.

Now all this is very irritating to those who have in mind taking the resources from those of us who have ideas of our own concerning what they ought to be spent on and using it for what they deem to be of far greater public significance. Or so they would have us think about it all.

In fact, however, this public versus private purpose is a ruse. There are just very, very few bona fide public purposes for which some small portion of our wealth could be devoted—such as courthouses, police, stations, the military, and so forth. Everything else is private! Which is what most of our resources go to secure for us and, indeed, should do so! The idea that what a J. K. Galbraith or Karl Marx has designated as a public good is indeed that is completely off the wall. Virtually every benefit to be obtained by way of forking out our wealth is a private benefit, something that serve the interest of some human individual in a society—maybe many of them, sometimes many of them all at once, but all are private individuals and that includes Marx and Galbraith and all their pals who are so eager to confiscated everyone else’s resources for purposes they deem to be important. If they think these are important purposes, they ought to get up a collection and convinced their fellows to part with what is needed to obtain them. That includes environmentalists who are eager to confiscate the land of others to they can carry on with whatever environmentally friendly project them prefer!

But it is so much simpler to send out the police to collect these funds rather than to raise them by means of convincing us of the worth of these projects. When this isn’t accepted much by the citizenry, the statists are deeply miffed. Too bad but it isn’t their stuff to spend as they think proper.

Column on Two Insidious Trends in America

Two Insidious Trends in America

Tibor R. Machan

Two powerful intellectual developments are ruining America. One is egalitarianism, the other pragmatism.

The former is an effort at the highest levels of American education, at institutions such as Harvard University and the University of Chicago, for example, to help establish a regime or political system that has as its firm and unrelenting goal to make all people equal in the benefits and burdens they enjoy and shoulder in their lives–economic, educational, medical, psychological, etc. The clarion call of this movement is to demand government mandated fairness for everyone.

The latter, pragmatism, is also being promulgated at some of the most prominent and prestigious institutions of higher education. This is a broad philosophical school of thought, originally forged on American soil by the likes of Charles Peirce, William James, C. I. Lewis, John Dewey, and numerous others, including the most radical member of the school, the later Richard Rorty; it insists that no basic principles can be identified in any area of human concern, not in ethics, not politics, not even metaphysics or epistemology (or theory of knowledge). Instead of finding basic principles on which to rest one’s reasoning and actions–in morality or law, for instance–an attitude of practical expediency is all that human beings can hope for.
“Whatever works,” is the simplified motto of pragmatism but there is a big problem with this, since things work always with respect to some goal and certain goals are clearly not worth pursuing, others are. Pragmatism insists, however, that there is no way to tell which goals are important, which are trivial and which are out and out insidious. That is all a matter of the intuitions of those who are in charge of calling the shots. (Currently, for example, President Obama and his team–most notably Professor Cass Sunstein of the Harvard Law School–proclaim the superior merit of pragmatism and pursue workable approaches to solving problems they feel need solving.)

Both egalitarianism and pragmatism tend to unleash an army of government regulators upon members of society, in the effort to cut everyone down to the same size and achieve goals the leaders believe need to be achieved, respectively. But both of these outlooks are hopeless, futile and must produce confusion and the tyranny of some people over others. As a result, the egalitarian objectives will mostly turn out exactly as George Orwell indicated in his novella, Animal Farm, namely, a group of members of society will be running the show and thus defeat the very idea of equality among human beings. And given how unprincipled conduct also encourages the rise of elites and petty tyrants, pragmatism also produces very bad public policies. Moreover, the pragmatist agenda flies directly in the face of some of the most noble aspects of the American political tradition, namely, the rule of law and the Founders’ declaration of the vital need for basic principles, such as individual human rights within the legal system. (Cass Sunstein explicitly insists that such rights do not exists and the only “rights” you have is what the government grants you!)

What might be put in oppositions to these two clearly dangerous movements so widely embraced by elite public philosophers? A renewed commitment to the American Founders’ idea that human beings all have basic rights–in this respect they are indeed equal–and the most vital public good or purpose is the protection of their basic rights to life, liberty, the pursuit of happiness, etc. Some adjustment will have to be made on the Founders’ ideas but very little. One point to keep in mind is that just because basic principles can indeed be identified in areas such as ethics, law and politics, it doesn’t mean they are going to be timelessly fixed, unalterable. (That is the point of the amendment process)

Unfortunately the education of American students is mostly in the hands of those who embrace both egalitarianism and pragmatism, so it isn’t going to be easy to rekindle the commitment to the Founders’ ideas and ideals. Still, that is the most significant way to counter the drift of the country toward greater and greater government regimentation. Everyone who understands this needs to discover ways to arrest that drift. It is an eternal struggle but worth it.

Column on “I earned it, it’s mine”

On “I earned it, it’s mine!”

Tibor R. Machan

In my political circles quite a few people, both now and in the past, defend the right to private property, to individual ownership, based on the idea that whatever one earns–or creates, or makes, or produces–surely is one’s own property and others have no right to it. And up to a point this carries conviction but it doesn’t at all go far enough. There is a lot that one owns that one hadn’t earned, made, created, produced or the like. It still is one’s private property and no one is authorized to take it from one.

Let’s start with the simple cases. How about one’s second eye that another may well have great use for? Or one’s second kidney? Or indeed one’s heart if one is some kind of no good, lazy loafer and another who’s an ambitious genius with noble aspirations to save the world could make good use of? Then what about what one was given as a gift or has inherited? Not always earned at all! Or what about what one has found, free and clear?

There are quite a few political philosophers and theorists, even moralists, whose views imply that if you didn’t earn it, others are entirely free to take it from you. And if what you own is not being put to proper use, then, too, it can be confiscated by the authorities and transferred to someone who is deemed to make wiser use of it. The famous City of New London, CT v. Kelo U. S. Supreme Court case (of July 2005) whereby a bunch of city bureaucrats confiscated private property from citizens and gave it to others was decided on such spurious grounds.

Now, to start with, nothing at all follows about other people having the authority to take from one something one hasn’t come by through hard work, through having earned or produced or made it all. It is a complete non-sequitor. Yes, one way to come to own something is by having produced or earned it but there are others, including having been born with it, having it as part of one’s very identity as the human individual who one happens to be, or having been given it. That’s enough. Others just have no warrant for butting in, however great their goals, be it the will of the people or of wise leaders or anything like that.

Private property rights flow from one’s having an unalienable right to one’s life, a life that is one’s own and no one else’s, not the family’s, not the tribe’s, not the clan’s, nor of the nation or community or some other group of other people who already own exactly what they have a right to, namely, their own lives.

So having come by something without having stolen or extorted it from someone is plenty of warrant for owning it. And then, of course, if one has put one’s mind to making good use of something no one else owns, that is also an excellent reason to be deemed its owner.

All this propaganda in favor of collective, public or community ownership is, in fact, mostly a ruse by various private individuals who want to confiscate the property of other private individuals under some kind of guise that they represent the public or the general will or some fathom thing like that. No, those groups are no more than a gang of other people who want what doesn’t belong to them and wish to sell the idea through the myth of the superior importance of the greater numbers. But there’s no substance to it–millions of people can all be plain thieves, lead by hoodlums who just want to come by stuff by violent means.

The right to private property applies not only to owning what one has created–although few of us create something entirely anew, from scratch–but also to what emanates from us, from who we are. So if by total accident I am a good-looking bloke and can cash in on it by getting a paid gig on the cover of GQ, nobody is justified robbing me of my proceeds, not my neighbor, not the government, no one.

Some defenders of our private property rights are tempted to link ownership rights to some kind of merit but that’s a trap, for we are not always the owners of things, including our lives and limbs, as a matter of merit. It is still who we are, sovereign individuals, and what we own and others better keep off.