Archive for September, 2010

Column on Misguided Distinction–or Not?

A Misguided Distinction–or Not?

Tibor R. Machan

When working out what should guide public institutions and policies in our lives and human communities, those who chime in from ancient to contemporary times have advanced various proposals and they have often been divided into two groups. Members of one of these advance certain basic principles that ought to ground the institutions and policies, while those of the other suggest that the way to decide is by focusing on the anticipated consequences, never mind any purportedly firm principles (which tend, in any case, to become obsolete or misapplied).

In the United States and in other developed countries the former group is called deontologists while the latter consequentialists. (In the history of political ideas Immanuel Kant is deemed to be the quintessential deontologist while John Stuart Mill the most prominent consequentialist.) Deontologists try to identify principles by which we ought to live and guide our public affairs–for example, a set of basic rights everyone supposedly has and which may never be violated; this will, argues the deontologist, insure justice and other good things in community affairs. For the consequentialist the idea that should govern is whether some policy most effectively promotes what is desirable–for example, spend whatever is necessary so as to eliminate poverty and sickness, never mind if anyone’s rights are violated in the process since those rights mostly tend to be obstacles to what needs to be done.

Is this a good, useful distinction? I have my doubts. For one, no one can tell for sure what the result or consequence of a course of action or public policy will be down the line, not certainly in any detail. And when it is possible to tell, it is because we have discovered that following some principle is likely to bring forth a given result. The actual actions or policies are not available for inspection until after they have been tried. So if we are to be guided by anything, it cannot be the results, which lie in the future and are mostly speculative. It would have to be certain rules or principles that we have found to be helpful in the past when we deployed them.

On the other hand, principles are always limited by the fact that they were discovered during the past that may not quite be like the present and future or, even more likely, the scopes of which are limited by what we know so far. Thus, for example, take the U. S. Constitution that contains a set of principles (especially in the Bill of Rights). It is subject to amendments in part so as to update these principles in light of new knowledge and new issues in need of being addressed. Once amendments are seen as possible, even necessary, strict reliance on the principles is admittedly hopeless.

So then what about the two kind of approaches, deontological versus consquentialist? Neither is really adequate to what human beings need to guide their lives. Yes, they will have to identify certain ethical, political, legal and other principles–e.g., in medicine, engineering, or automobile driving–but once they have done so they will still need to keep vigilant so as to make sure they aren’t missing some good reason for updating these. However, focusing entirely on the consequences of their actions and policies will not do the job either since those are not yet here to deal with. They will have to ease up to them with the help of the principles, more or less complete, that they have found to be soundly based on their knowledge of the past.

Fortunately, although our knowledge is rarely complete–and never final–about anything that surrounds us in the world, the world itself tends to be fairly steady and predictable (once one has studied it carefully, without bias or prejudice such as wishful thinking). It is not possible to escape the need to balance reasonably well established principles and expected consequences. With these in hand, many of our tasks and challenges are likely to be managed pretty well although we need also to be prepared for surprises. There is no substitute for paying close attention.

Column on Rejecting Anti-Natural Rights

Rejecting Anti-Natural Rights

Tibor R. Machan

President Obama’s friend and former colleague Cass Sunstein, now apparently on leave from Harvard Law School, would have us believe that our rights are granted to us by government. Sunstein and his co-author Stephen Holmes have argued in their book, The Cost of Rights (W. W. Norton, 1999) that human beings have no rights until government grants them some. As they put it, “individual rights and freedoms depend fundamentally on vigorous state action” (p. 14) and “Statelessness means rightlessness” (p. 19).

This is just the opposite of what classical liberal natural rights theorists think and what the American Founders thought. In the Declaration they stated, albeit rather succinctly, that we have rights because our very creation as human beings has endowed us with them. And they held that these were unalienable and government is instituted so as to secure them. Clearly, this implies the basic individual human rights come before the government instituted to secure them for us. The two scholars are mounting a major assault on what is perhaps most significant in the American political tradition. They have attempted to undercut this tradition’s most revolutionary and significant features, namely, the demotion of government from its pretense of being the sovereign and the substitution of individual human beings as the true sovereign agents in a just human community.

There are other challenges, some even more deep seated, that have been and still are being levelled at the American style political regime. The late Leo Strauss and many of his followers have been arguing that the entire drift of modern political liberalism, with John Locke at its head, is wrongheaded and we must return to the paternalistic politics that came out of a certain interpretation of Plato’s famous dialogue Republic. Still, the Sunstein-Holmes attack is what is getting serious consideration in our day so I wish to revisit the topic and once more offer a line of defense that seems to be decisive.

But perhaps Holmes and Sunstein are right and the American Founders had it backwards. What can we say, in just a few words, in support of the Founder’s idea? Without rehashing John Locke’s and his followers’ defense of the character of our rights—as derivable from our human nature and the requirements for human community life—there are some simple matters that point to the fact that Holmes and Sunstein have it wrong.

Consider a thought experiment that isn’t at all far fetched: An adult human being is stranded in the wild where there is no law, no police, no courts, nothing. Someone else comes upon him and turns out to be quite aggressive. He is attacked, physically, and all of what he has made for himself out there to survive is under the threat of being taken away from him.

It seems pretty clear that such a person would do the right thing to defend himself, if he could, against the aggressor who is threatening his life, his prospects for a future, maybe his family and friends as well (if we build up the case in more detail). And if he were to be challenged afterwards why he resisted being attacked and robbed, he could well say, “This fellow wasn’t peaceful toward me, didn’t respect my rights as a fellow human being, so I had to resist him, physically, so he couldn’t succeed in his threats,” or something simpler along these lines.

Yet, if our rights depended upon government granting them to us, such a line of argument, justifying self-defense, wouldn’t hold up. Those who challenged the victim of the attack for resisting the aggressor might say, “But, listen here, since government grants people their rights and there is no government out here you have no rights. Not to your life, not to your liberty, not to your property and not to self-defense, certainly. Not, at least, until a government is established and grants you these rights. Until then it is a free for all and no complaints make sense against our actions that you consider aggressive.” (Indeed, that is pretty much how Hobbes, but not Locke, would have understood the situation in the state of nature.

Surely this would be absurd. Yet that is just what would follow if the prominent analysis of individual rights, advanced by the likes of Holmes and Sunstein, would be sound. No one would have any justification putting up any resistance against attackers–including rogue governments–unless some government issued a grant of rights. Given, however, that there are not just imaginable but real circumstances in which human beings interact with no government having been established or in operation (for the time being, at least), and given that some of these people can act violently toward others, there is need for some idea that makes sense of the situation and gives guidance to conduct on the part of those who are victims of the violence. These ideas may not be expressed entirely in the familiar terms of individual rights but that is what they would be intimating, even if somewhat unclearly and undeveloped.

Column on Why Rip Off the Rich?

Why Rip Off The Rich?

Tibor R. Machan

This fracas about letting the Bush tax cut expire for those making more than the arbitrary amount of $250K per year is bizarre. Never mind for now that the entire system of taxation in a bona fide free country is criminal–not different, in principle, from a system of serfdom or involuntary servitude. (Taxation had its place in the same systems that were home to these other types of bondage!) But this unrestrained hatred for those who earn more than $250K is rank bigotry, not different from racial, gender and ethnic prejudice at heart.

Well, yes there is a difference, since when men and women become wealthy, this isn’t unavoidable as when they are black or women or from a given background into which they were born. But neither is becoming wealthy something for which anyone ought to be blamed and punished.

It is, after all, no longer the case that behind every great fortune there must be a great crime. That used to be generally true enough when wealth was obtained primarily via conquest, looting, and robbery perpetrated by armies and navies. One of the great discoveries of Adam Smith, the father of modern economic science, is that wealth is much more efficiently created without such methods, by protecting the equal liberty of everyone to produce and trade. Because we are often so radically different from one another, we can easily find opportunities to gain from others while they are also gaining from us. This is one of the benefits of specialization. Understanding this much should be sufficient to reject the notion that anyone needs to be put in servitude to other people so that these others can find what they need and want. A genuine, unbriddled free market place makes that possible, one in which the government with its monopoly on physical force does not try to cherry pick who gets what and how much and when.

Apart, however, of the irrationality of interfering in people’s freedom of production and exchange, there is in this debate about extending the Bush tax cuts to those who make more than $250K a viciousness that should be entirely unwelcome among civilized men and women. This enviousness that many people harbor and which is then taken advantage of by so many politicians–and fueled by their academic instigators such as The New York Times columnist and Princeton University economist Paul Krugman–is neanderthal, barbaric, totally unbecoming of people who live in a complex society and who have only the faintest idea of how others earn their resources. To have cultivated this envy toward those who are economically better off is really no different from cultivating it toward those who have superior talents or other assets in their lives, such as good health and good looks. To pick on such people is totally unjust and pointless.

Some, of course, try to peddle the notion that the very rich really owe it all to society–which is to say, to politicians and law enforcement–as if it were the referees at a game who scored points! But that is a fabrication and rationalization aimed to sooth one’s guilty conscience for harboring the envy of those who happen to be better off. Nothing good can come from it and a lot of ill will and needless acrimony is fostered by it all.

We have a very fine model for understanding economic differences among people in the field of competitive athletics. Sportsmanship is part of it, whereby competitors at all the different levels of achievement and skill live in harmony instead of hating one another and insisting on placing extra burdens on the successful. (Where there is a policy of handicapping it usually serves the purpose of making the sport more appealing to spectators and has nothing to do with equalization!)

I suggest we get rid of this attitude of rich bashing once and for all and shame those who refuse to do so instead of exploiting their attitude for political purposes.

Column on State Fundamentalism

State Fundamentalism

Tibor R. Machan

True, the idea came to me after having read many of Paul Krugman’s missives, both his columns in The New York Times and essays in such magazines as The New York Review of Books. In his often very polemical writings–for a Nobel Laureate he does seem to indulge in polemics more than do most other academics–he nearly always makes reference to market fundamentalism or market fundamentalists, alleging in the process that here in these United States free market capitalism is widely preferred among those thinking about economics and public policy. And that the free market is the status quot! It is all a crock but everyone has the right to speak his or her mind and that’s so even if one has but a small one.

In point of fact, in American there is probably much more a state fundamentalism afoot than any respect for the free market system. From labor to business, from farming to the sciences, from the arts to nearly every level of education professionals are always clamoring for the state, for government, to step in a fix and even run things. Yes, this is very true of business–major corporations are the country’s most eager welfare clients. Subsidies for this and that, protectionism here, price supports there; there simply is no end to how readily all these elements of our society rush to Congress or the President–or some political body at the local and state levels–so as to bring about health (or at least security) for their industry or firm.

Now, of course, this is just the nature of a mixed economy, which America is, as are all the Western developed countries. Except that no one ever makes the claim that Germany, France, Great Britain, or Australia is in the grip of market fundamentalism, which they are definitely not; but neither is the U. S. Yet the claim is made in many corners, including especially in the American academy. And the motivation for this transparent enough.

Although America’s economy is far from capitalist and American academics, even quite a few economists, are far from convinced that capitalism is a sound political economic system, the foes of capitalism are always worried that capitalism could break out all over in America, especially when the mixed economy has been the massive failure no one can reasonably deny. Under such circumstances foes of capitalism, people who love a controlled economy and would gladly do the controlling themselves, must find some way to make sure no one actually blames the mixed system for the failures, let alone those elements of the mixture that are anything but capitalist–e.g., the federal reserve system, the massive regulatory apparatus, the innumerable government officials charged to mange the economy (often actually called “czars”!). So why not do the old fashioned thing and mount a defense of statism by leading an attack on capitalism, the only innocent party to the fiasco.

These folks, let’s be clear about it, are state fundamentalists. They love government being in charge of the economy, and they are clearly hoping for a hand in this assignment. The more control the government has over the system, the more their Keynesian plans can be put into effect. As Keynes himself made clear, under a system of central planning, Keynesian measure are easy to implement: “[T]he theory of aggregated production, which is the point of the following book, nevertheless can be much easier adapted to the conditions of a totalitarian state [einestotalen Staates] than the theory of production and distribution of a given production put forth under conditions of free competition and a large degree of laissez-faire.” So why not nudge American toward totalitarianism and then implement the policies recommended by such Keynesians as Professor Krugman? Seems like it is reasonable to assume that this is a game plan of the state fundamentalists.

Bottom line: No market fundamentalism anywhere in sight here but plenty of state fundamentalism is in evidence. And unless the state fundamentalists’ fraudulent attacks on free market capitalism are promptly refuted, they may indeed pull off their scam and use the current problems which are the result of the mixed economy to advance their radical statist objectives. (BTW, Keynes himself was not a committed statist–he promoted statist measures only for the short run, unlike many of his epigone.)

Column on Politicians’ Criminal Minds

Politicians’ Criminal Minds

Tibor R. Machan

It may have been either Will Rogers or Mark Twain, I cannot now recall which of the two great American humorists it was, who said all politicians are criminals. But it makes no difference because when something is true, its source is not the main issue. Fact is, politicians are extortionists at heart since their forte is that they will allow you and me to live and work provided we fork out nearly half of what we earn or otherwise obtain honestly so they can then dispose of it as they see fit.

In our time, not entirely unlike in others, the main appeal politicians hold out for millions is that they join them in their resentful bashing of the rich. This is a successful ploy because in the past, of course, most riches came from conquest, from governments and their favorite minions sending out thugs to confiscate whatever they desired from those who had some. As the saying has it, behind every great fortune lies a great crime, including extortion via taxation! This is why Robin Hood became a hero to so many: he went out and recovered what the tax takers took by force and returned it to the rightful owners. (No, Robin Hood didn’t steal from the rich and give to the poor; he repossessed from the ruler and his vicious taxers!)

How can politicians live with the knowledge that they are what they are, confiscators, extortionists? Because they tell themselves the story so many tell themselves when they do the wrong thing–”The intended end justifies the means!” Nearly every criminal thinks this way and so do nearly all who perpetrate evil upon others. Some higher goal than what the victim seems to be pursuing motivates them. They are serving the public interest or God or the common good or the environment or science or culture–you name it, there are hundreds of candidates that make the politician feel at ease.

Criminals also have great goals that will be served by their loot and since their victims are well enough off, they have nothing to complain about. After all, isn’t it selfish to insist on trying to hold on to your own resources, your own time, indeed your own life? Prominent university professors spell this out for us–we are all selfish bastards if we hold on to our own and allocate it was we judge fit. No, they will determine to what end my and your life should be devoted and if we disagree, they will send the politician into the arena who will make laws that compel us all to comply with their noble vision. As Professor Peter Unger wrote in one of his “ethics” books, “On pain of living a life that’s seriously immoral, a typical well-off person, like you and me, must give away most of her financially valuable assets, and much of her income, directing the funds to lessen efficiently the serious suffering of others.”

I personally know numerous such apologists for actions and politics that involve taking from people what is theirs so as to devote it to objectives the takers have failed to convince their victims to contribute to voluntarily. Never mind that–just like criminals, who cares about the rights of these victims when my noble goals are at stake?! And because there are at least some whose wealth was acquired through some shady dealings, one can rest easy in one’s conscience by telling oneself, well they are all guilty of graft and theft, why shouldn’t we then go after them in the same vein? With the likes of the famous French poet Charles Baudelair, who said that “Commerce is satanic, because it is the basest and vilest form of egoism. The spirit of every businessman is completely depraved” providing them the clear conscience they crave as they rob and steal and extort from us, why would politicians think any differently from criminals? In our day the leader of the citizenry has no hesitation about bashing the wealthy, insisting that robbing them of their lives and resources and liberty to dispose of these as they judge proper is perfectly honorable.

Until this attitude about people and their wealth–reminiscent of the days of serfdom and involuntary servitude–seriously abates, the dream of a genuine free country will remain, well, but a dream. The idea that when one is successful, or even simply lucky so far as amassing resources is concerned, others become authorized to forcibly remove one’s wealth and use it without one’s permission for their however desirable ends, is plainly barbaric. It amounts to subjugating others, actually enslaving them. And that has no place in civilized societies.