Archive for August, 2010

Column on Tempted by One Size Fits All

Tempted by One Size Fits All

Tibor R. Machan

For most of human history it used to be standard practice for parents to insist that their children not only live by principles the parents have found to be sound but also to adopt all sorts of practices of dress, play, work, taste and so forth that they approve of. Father was a barber so son, too, had to be; mother raised four children, so daughter, too, must bear the same number. Parents liked living by the sea, so the kids too must follow suite. Indeed, if a child had another idea, all hell tended to break loose. And those around the family who didn’t conform were deemed to be weird or inferior or just plain different in that sort of way that ‘s quite intolerant of such a thing.

In some cases this was a useful practice but more often it was a matter of habit, nothing much else. And since there are some matters concerning which one size does indeed fit all–such as certain ways of dealing with other people, certain ways to governing one’s life, and certain ways of setting up a human community, e.g., honestly, prudently, and justly, respectively–the idea has always been somewhat palatable. In nutrition, medicine, engineering, farming and so on some ways clearly are better than others no matter who is doing it.

Yet, it dawned on many folks in time that not everyone should act the same way, work on the same tasks, or wear the same kind of clothes or haircut, if for no other reason than because people faced significantly different situations in their lives. And, most evidently, they were themselves rather different, even unique. So a tall son would not fit well in the kind of clothes worn by a diminutive father. Hat and shoe and glove sizes aren’t the same for all. And once these and other differences got noticed and taken more and more seriously–as individuals were being paid more attention to as individuals–others managed to surface. In time the notion emerged that individuality is itself something important in our lives, that one isn’t replaceable by someone else except in special circumstances–say if one weighs the same as someone else where weight is what counts for most. So while in team sports substitutions are routine, they cannot easily be replicated elsewhere, such as in romantic love or friendship. Once it is clear that it isn’t just what one is but who one is that matters a lot, the one size fits all mentality comes under serious challenge.

But not everyone likes it and bad habits die hard. Even in markets it is very tempting to treat all potential customers as if the same goods and services were proper for them all. Thus we have mass marketing of stuff that really can only benefit some people–a certain type of exercise, a back ache cure, or a headache remedy. The more this is understood, the more the notion starts to make sense that one person’s way of life could well be perfectly well suited for that person without this being an offense to others for whom it is not suitable.

Yet the idea persists that everyone ought to worship alike or admire the same artists or fashion designer’s work. Here the temptation isn’t just a mistake but also a desperate hope since if one size does fit all, those who make that size will be able to cash in on this big time. Everyone should love Pepsi, Coca Cola, a Chevy, a Volkswagen, or a Bentley or take a vow of poverty or love the outdoors. Of course in some cases qualitative considerations do recommend conforming to what others prefer and do but more often what is best for Jerry could well not be best for Harry or, especially, for Sue.

Figuring out when one size does versus does not fit all–or most–isn’t that easy but it is usually worth the trouble, at least if it matters how happy one will be with what one pursues, has, or does in one’s life. For wearing the hat that doesn’t fit one is clearly uncomfortable, to say the least; and pursuing a career that will not be fulfilling can be a major hindrance to living happily.

Column on Frank Rich’s Prejudice

Frank Rich’s Prejudice

Tibor R. Machan

Karl Marx was famous for, among other things, claiming that everyone always promotes his or her economic interest. This is something he actually had in common with non-Marxists classical economists.

Most economists, in fact, believe that we are all motivated by our economic interests, nothing else. Or, rather, everything else that might appear to motivate us really comes down to economics. Consider the following from a few very prominent non-Marxist economists. The late Milton Friedman, one of the modern age’s most famous and diligent students and defenders of the free-market system, said it most directly: “[E]very individual serves his own private interest… The great Saints of history have served their “private interest” just as the most money grubbing miser has served his interest. The private interest is whatever it is that drives an individual.” His colleague, the late George Stigler, another Nobel Prize winner, made the point only slightly differently: “Man is eternally a utility-maximizer—in his home, in his office (be it public or private), in his church, in his scientific work—in short, everywhere.” Finally Nobel laureate Professor Gary Becker, who also embrace this homo economicus viewpoint, underscores the idea as follows: “The combined assumptions of maximizing behavior, market equilibrium, and stable preferences, used relentlessly and unflinchingly, form the heart of the economic approach as I see it.” The bottom line: We are all driven by our desire to fare well economically, first and foremost.

Marx also held to this idea, at least so far as people in the capitalist phase of humanity’s development are concerned. We act to enrich ourselves and whatever else we might claim motivates us, it is really just self-enrichment.

Frank Rich, prominent columnist at The New York Times and a relentless foe of the free market, capitalist economic system, has just now latched on to the story of the brothers Koch of Wichita, Kansas, David and Charles–there is another who isn’t so directly involved in the Koch business enterprises–a story told extensively in The New Yorker recently, by Jane Mayer. Rich is very impressed by this story and interprets it in the way many economists would, namely, that everything done by the brothers Koch has to do with their desire to enhance their wealth. But the economists would say this about all of us, not the the brothers Koch.

Of course, Rich merely infers his claims from the story–he fails to give one solitary good quotation from either David or Charles Koch to substantiate his allegation that they are both interested solely in self-enrichment. No wonder, because it is not so.

I have had the good fortune to make the acquaintance of both of the Koch brothers, although we aren’t fast friends by any means. But way back when I was a graduate student in philosophy, Charles took an interest in my work on my doctoral dissertation and invited me to give a talk about it in Wichita. It had to do with human rights and whether we can know that there are such rights or do some of us simply have a strong feeling in favor of them. Later I served, briefly, on the board of the Reason Foundation (which grew out of Reason Enterprises, the tiny firm that published Reason magazine in its early incarnation) with David Koch. So I can attest without any reasonable doubt that what motivated and likely still motivates the brothers Koch is their firm commitment to the ideas and ideals of a fully free society, a la the Declaration of Independence.

Now it is often held by the likes of Frank Rich–such as Ralph Nader and Kevin Phillips–that those who favor a fully free society are only interested in promoting their own economic welfare. Is this credible?

No. Of course, true enough, a fully free society would also be economically free, just as it would favor religious liberty or freedom of the press or everyone’s right to, say, sing in the shower and marry whoever they want who would want them. Freedom for those of us who love it isn’t divided into economic, religious, journalistic, scientific and other parts. It is indivisible, a general proper condition for human community life, period. This is what the Koch brothers have always championed.

Now just like journalists who favor freedom of the press benefit from such freedom, the Koch’s naturally would benefit from freedom of commerce. But so would we all. Freedom, not surprisingly, is simply good for us all and this includes entrepreneurs such as the brothers Koch. Now do they–do we all who champion a fully free society–support liberty solely because it enhances our economic welfare? No, I am certain of that–I, who have hardly a dime to my name, certainly favor liberty in part because it enables me to earn a living with the support of those of my fellows who freely choose to pay me for my work. But is this the sole reason why I favor liberty? Is it the sole reason the brothers Koch do so? Wrong! Not by a long shot.

Just ask us. Don’t ask Frank Rich, who makes his claims based on his prior beliefs, independently of any evidence from the brothers themselves.

Column on Most Americans Just Don’t Get It

Most Americans Just Don’t Get It

Tibor R. Machan

It bothers me to no end that millions of Americans simply don’t get just how dangerous this current administration’s views are, especially about the nature of our basic rights.

I suppose I should not be surprised, given the utterly perverted primary and secondary education most people receive now in their government run schools. After all, those very schools and everyone with a job in the system, depend upon the flat out rejection of the idea of our basic, natural rights spelled out in the Declaration of Independence. For if each of us does in fact have an unalienable right to our life, our liberty, our pursuit of our happiness and the rest, then those schools exists in direct contradiction to these rights. They are built with the loot the politicians and bureaucrats confiscate from the citizenry, loot that involves the violation of those basic rights the Declaration states every human being has!

So then in order to continue the confiscation of our resources with impunity at all levels of state, it is required that the confiscators deny those rights. And that is just what has transpired–in our era the White House and its legal team, lead by Harvard Law Professor Cass Sunstein, insist that government creates our rights, that we have none based on our human nature. That we if one complains about these people extorting from us our life-times and our property, i.e., a chunk of our very lives, the politicians and bureaucrats can retort that these are not really ours at all, we have no rights apart from what they decide we have! (This is exactly what some of the stars of contemporary political theory preach!) That is what it means to claim that government creates our rights and we have none based on our humanity! That is what it means to claim that instead of governments being instituted so as to secure our basic natural, prelegal rights, governments just happen to exist and do with us as they please, like monarchs, tsars, dictators, pharaohs and Caesars used to, proclaiming that they have the divinely obtained authority to do so. When Thomas Hobbes strove to defend the unlimited authority of government without appealing to its divine appointment, he retained the core authoritarian idea that genuine rights are the product of the sovereign’s will and that, therefore, no subject could have rights against the sovereign. The anti-authoritarian resistance to tyrannical government that was manifested in 17th and 18th century Ango-American political history was grounded in the idea that government itself is subject to moral constraints that it neither creates nor can abrogate.

This is why this utter distortion of the nature of government and our basic rights must be something to which American citizens should pay the utmost attention instead of dosing through the experience. They do appear to be in a semi coma about it, except for a few, like Judge Napolitano at Fox-TV. But the vast majority are clueless about just how dangerous is the current administration’s legal philosophy. Incredibly they behave like those sad peons of past centuries who tended to accept without much question that some human beings are mysteriously authorized to rule them and they have no justification to call this rule into question. All those ideas and ideals with which American had been associated, albeit even then not closely enough, about how when governments begin to act as tyrants they may be dismissed from their job, seem to have been forgotten. Instead the vast majority has come to accept their reactionary status as mere subjects to whom governments simply promise–though rarely deliver–various benefits in return for their silence and compliance.

Any protests, as put forth by some of the Tea Party people, are dismissed by the elite–writing in forums such as The New York Review of Books, The New York Times, etc.–with the sneers and snootiness of an untouchable elite. (And even the few well positioned conservative skeptics tend to refuse to truly challenge all this, apparently because they, too, want not to reaffirm universal, unalienable individual rights but to wrest power and establish their Right wing version of coercive statism.)

Although in the long haul there is still cause for some optimism–after all, the American system of government, dedicated as it was supposed to be, to the protection of the individual rights of the citizenry, is a very radical notion and its principles require a great deal of ongoing vigilance to be fully realized–for the time being it does appear that the truly exceptional Americanism that distinguished the country from those around the globe (including, especially, the European top down systems the Founders and Framers wanted to disown) is under full assault.

The currently fashionable European system of democratic socialism–which, in practice, comes to nothing else but a type of fascism–is all the rage in Washington. And this country’s exceptional standing is now scoffed at by our political thinkers and leaders. It is time to wake up to this travesty and to do something decisive about it. And that must start in the hearts and minds of the citizenry.

Column on Society’s Rules Don’t Create Wealth

Society’s Rules Don’t Create Wealth

Tibor R. Machan

In olden days people were forced to labor for the king and his minions in return for being allowed to live within the realm. This kind of extortion finally got tossed over and people’s basic right to their lives became acknowledged–in the political philosophy of John Locke and the Declaration of Independence, for example. You don’t belong to society, to other people. Your life is yours to live as you choose, although, admittedly, you could live it bad or well but not in terms set by others who claim a portion of it.

But this realization that each individual has the right to his or her life got a bit arrested when later thinkers, like Auguste Comte and Karl Marx, argued that your property does belong to everyone else, not you. (In the case of Marx this didn’t quite fit his labor theory of value, but skip that for now.) Among some of today’s most prominently placed intellectuals, such as Professors Cass Sunstein of the Harvard Law School and Thomas Nagel of New York University, private property rights are taken to be nothing but a myth. (As one of Nagel’s co-authored book, The Myth of Ownership, announces, wealth is a collective phenomenon, never mind that some produce hardly any while others make gobs of it!)

Since one’s life is intimately dependent upon property–no way to live without some stuff, to be plain about it–if all property is owned by the public at large, collectively, that pretty much means one’s life is too. So the liberation from serfdom, one of the greatest achievements of classical liberal thinking, is to be undermined, reversed, by the idea that it is after all society that owns our resources, not we individually or corporately (in each others voluntary company). Taxes, then, amount not to a coercive taking but a rightful claim by the government that’s standing in for society as a whole (or so statists love to pretend). Taking private property for public use need not be very carefully justified as the fifth amendment to the U. S. Constitution insists, no. Such taking is really just government’s way of affirming its ownership of everything while generously leaving bits of it for the people to use.

But this is all nonsense and a ruse, to boot. For there is no society as such apart from the people who comprise it. Like my classes at the colleges where I teach–they do not exists as some kind of separate entity, only as a group of individual students with a common purpose. So then when it is argued that in fact society owns all the resources, the cash value of this is that some people who have laid claim to speaking for the rest of us own it all or at least get to use it as they see fit.

One retort to this is that without society’s rules and laws property could not exist. So society must, after all, own the stuff. But this is like claiming that because without the rules of tennis or football or any other game there could not be points scored or touchdowns run, it really isn’t the players who score the points or achieve the touchdowns but the referees! This is complete bunk. The referees, like governments, have a job, namely, to make sure the rules are observed as the people or players go about their tasks. They aren’t’ the ones who carry out those tasks and may not lay a claim to the results, either.

There have always been those who were insistent on lording it over other people, including their lives and property. In ancient times they rationalized this by reference to some alleged special status among us–natural aristocracy, superior race or class, God’s assignments, etc. But then it was discovered and finally driven home in many places that no one has any claim to lording over others, not without their consent (as when members of an orchestra consent to the conductor’s role). But this doesn’t sit too well with those who wish to rule us all. So they are now inventing different reasons, such as their supposed role of speaking for society, which is used by them justify their rule. Let us not fall for this, please.

Column on Stoning & The Times

Stoning & The Times

Tibor R. Machan

Do I search for hypocrisies among my adversaries? Not especially, only when it is too obvious to miss. And what if anything is wrong with hypocrisy? So what if you are a liar but make a big deal about condemning lying in your neighbor? Why is that a problem?

In this era when major political figures denounce ideological–by which they of course have in mind principled–thinking, why should one be consistent, show integrity? Those are not the virtues of sophisticates. Those are pedestrian ideals. As our president pointed out–in the pedagogical, finger-wagging fashion he tends to employ–”the stale political arguments that have consumed us for so long no longer apply. The question we ask today is not whether our government is too big or too small, but whether it works….” So whether the government is a totalitarian tyranny or a dictatorship isn’t of concern–the only issue is, does it work, which leaves entirely unaddressed what it is supposed to work for!

Anyway my issue here is hypocrisy and my candidate for the hypocrite of the week is The New York Times, which in last Sunday’s Week in Review section ran an essay titled “Crime (Sex) and Punishment (Stoning).” Maybe I am overly suspicious but this piece struck me as bending over backwards not to be too harsh on those societies in which stoning people–especially women–for sex crimes is acceptable. But what makes me suspicious?

Well, consider just a few remarks from the piece. “Much of the outrage these [stoning] cases generated–apart from the sheer anachronism of stoning in the 21st century–seems to stem from the gulf between sexual attitudes in the West and parts of the Islamic world, where radical movements have turned to draconian punishments, and a vision of restoring a long-lost past, in their search for religious authenticity.” “Stoning is not practiced only among Muslims, nor did it begin with Islam.” “Stoning is a legal punishment in only a handful of Muslim countries–in addition to Iran, they include Saudi Arabia, Somalia, Sudan, Pakistan and Nigeria, but it is very rarely put to use.” “But Islamic law requires very strict conditions for a stoning sentence….” “Some scholars even argue that the stoning penalty is meant more as a symbolic warning against misbehavior….” and “In any case, societies evolve….”

As I see it these bits tell a story of temptation, the temptation of reckless multiculturalism, of cultural and legal relativism. OK, but so what? Well, I was thinking as I was reading these sentences in the Old Gray Lady how would it go over if this is how some writer discussed, say, slavery, ethnic prejudice or the subjugation of women in the West? I doubt it would fly so well.

This bending over backwards so as to be understanding toward cultures in which stoning human beings is regarded as a proper form of punishment–right now in the 21st century–seems to me to show an ideological bias on the part of the editors of The Times. And that bias is that whenever flaws in American history, law, social practices, and such are being discussed, there is no mercy; Americans are held to far higher standards than are those in Muslim cultures, for example.

Not only is this objectionable because it is unjust toward America but also because it is insulting toward Muslims. Somehow the latter do not qualify to be judged by the standards of humanity applicable to Americans and Westerners, it appears. Are they not human enough for that? Is there something inferior about Muslims so when they act in brutal, barbaric ways what is important to mention is that societies evolve? Should this kind of tolerance be accepted vis-a-vis Muslims but not antebellum Southerners who felt, often most sincerely, that slavery was OK? What about all the male chauvinists who thought of women as too emotional for scientific and other kind of work? Are we to think of them all as simply part of “societies [that] evolve”?

I am not about to venture to try to solve the problem of cultural diversity concerning some important human practices and institutions but I thought it worth calling attention to the anti-Western, anti-American bias at The Times.