Archive for October, 2010

Column on The Observers

The Observers

Tibor R. Machan

Many contemporary intellectuals have a problem. They are theoretically committed to the idea that they can be no more than observers of human life and make no value judgments about it. This is because the philosophical basis for evaluating people, their conduct, and their institutions has been destroyed by the view that all that we can do is observe, say what is the case based on what our senses tell us; evaluations, beliefs and statements about what is good and bad, right and wrong are unavailable to us since they cannot be derived from observations alone. They amount to little more than how we feel about something, or how the community to which we belong does. The disciplines in which human affairs are studied have no place for evaluation, only for description. And if there is more, it must come from religion. But religion rests mostly on faith and the faiths of people are too varied to put them on the same page with their judgments and, in any case, who can argue about faith?

Of course, all of this has exceptions but those are not what dominate among our culture’s thinkers. The dominant view is that only observations are intellectually, philosophically respectable. Nothing else is well grounded, nothing else warrants our allegiance. It is this outlook about how our minds work that carries conviction with most academics and those who have studied with them.

This is so even though no one can really stick to the position for very long. Most people, even those who profess to be nothing other than observers–such as university researchers, news reporters or analysts–do have values, often quite pronounced ones, and they rarely can hold them back, keep them out of what they think, say, or write about human affairs. This is especially so with the elite media, be it print or broadcast. On the Internet, too, people–though not all–tend mainly to vent and emote instead of argue for their values because, well, values cannot be defended logically, rationally, or so many have been taught at our institutions of higher learning.

So how do these people then go about trying to apply their felt values? What do they do to influence the world, especially political trends? Mostly by imply and intimate that they are superior observers to those with whom they disagree. And why would this be so? Because they have superior upbringing, education, occupations, and, of course, culture.

You want to have your value judgments taken seriously? Well, then, get go to Harvard or Princeton and get a job at The New York Times or The Washington Post or The Atlantic or NPR, PBS and some other snooty outfit. You will then be able to skip having to argue for your views–your gravitas will do it for you. And all those with whom you disagree, whose values you dislike or disdain, will simply have to slouch away sheepishly as not up to snuff. No one will need to demonstrate that his or her ideas about how we should act and what policies should be pursued are better than the ideas of those who they find objectionable. That will not be necessary. You will simply need to make sure that you are in the company of the elite. Why are they the elite? Never mind that, it cannot be known since that would mean that one could know about which values are superior and which are inferior, just the stuff that is off limits in the contemporary philosophical, intellectual climate.

At one time this outlook tended to engender tolerance for all viewpoints and there was some hope in that so long as the really obnoxious viewpoints were held by just a few in one’s community. And those abroad could be ignored, except, of course, when they grew into large masses of disagreeable folks like Nazis and Communists. But even then, they were mostly kept at arms length, so arguing with them wasn’t necessary.

Now, however, the very disagreeable folks are close up and personal, quite often. Not only do they bring their hostile attitudes to our universities and communities but they actually lash out at us, physically, fatally at times. And that is difficult to deal with by just ignoring it all, sticking one’s head in the sand. So the preferred response, again, is a kind of effeteness, a posture of superciliousness. Spread the idea that the elites will figure it out, they will be able to manage it all, so long as they are in power. And for that to happen their critics must be fended off, marginalized.

The best way to do this when one cannot demonstrate that one’s position is right, that one’s values are indeed sound and should therefore prevail, is to pretend that these opponents are inferior human beings, small and narrow minded.

The observers, they do hold values but they will not argue for them, only insist that their stature and social rank must be honored more than the views of those who are not of their type.

And people are surprised when there is no respectful political discourse in the air during political campaigns! How can there be when the observers have read all others out of the arena and have reserved for themselves the position of, well, observers, with just some refined feelings to spread around that they need not stand up for and justify.

Column on A Blatant Lie at The New York Times

A Blatant Lie at The New York Times

Tibor R. Machan

Nearly every day I check out The New York Times on line and there is no doubt in my mind that the paper is firmly partisan in favor of egalitarian and other mostly Leftist causes, as well as, of course, the politicians who promote them. The paper just the other day editorialized about how fair and balanced are NPR and PBS. Poppycock!

I do not follow NPR–National Public Radio–except when I am on the road driving a rented car, which happens to be quite often. (I call these my masochistic hours because, well, NPR irritates me to no end.) First of all, the fact that it gets money from the government, money extorted from me and millions of other citizens, is an unforgivable vice of the outfit (as it is of any other that takes part in such a policy, such as PPS, various corporations and individuals on the dole, etc.). I would have no interest in any broadcasters using “public” funds to support what they do even if their reporting and other programming were impeccable other then for purposes of keeping my fingers on the pulse of the nation. (Some of the music on NPR stations is, actually, excellent!) But in addition to using extorted funds to support its programming, NPR’s various news and reportorial programs are about as partisan as The New York Times if not more so–say like what is found in The Nation.

Take their “Fresh Air” segment in which one of their highly polished interviewers finds a favored author or other public intellectual to toss softballs to–reminding me of the saying “throwing Christians to Christians” or something. Hardly any scrutiny is shown of those who champion yet another government program promoting some Left of Center or Left Wing program. The books “reviewed” are always friends to statism and on the few occasions that a book is examined with a free market theme, it is confronted with searching questions mostly about how awful it is that freedom makes it possible to neglect the poor and needy and noble causes like the greening of the globe.

NPR’s staff has absolutely no concern about the heavy hand of government except in cases where it is deployed against terrorist suspects or their defenders. NPR’s minimum support for individual liberty focuses mainly on the press, although given its own reliance on government subsidies it understandably doesn’t address the matter in great depth.

Now my exposure to NPR is not continuous, so I am not able to swear to it that the outfit is uniformly partisan in favor of more government, of statism. But my sample is a pretty good one, especially when you add to my exposure to NPR during my pre-iPod years–when, as I have already noted, I liked the classical music, jazz, and blues many of the stations offered, especially when their home was some university or college campus. This, by the way, is another insidious aspect of NPR, its intimate relationship with university and college radio programming where it is beaming propaganda to young people as if it were scientifically established truth.

In America’s mixed political economy NPR is no big surprise and if it were not a matter of corrupting news reporting and commentary, it would not amount to something especially hazardous to the country. After all, so many other institutions–think of virtually all public education, from elementary to post graduate varieties–are infected with the statist point of view! (Arguably the first item on the agenda to turn the country toward greater loyalty to its initial classical liberal politics and culture would be to eliminate its virtually fully socialized educational system.)

Yet contrary to the recent editorial lie in The New York Times, NPR is really quite a corrosive feature of the country. Not only is its nearly one-sided viewpoint statist to the core–more so that Fox TV news is right wing but which notably has plenty of competitors out there; there is also its annoying snootiness. Has anyone ever encountered someone with a Southern accent on an NPR station (apart from some special guest, a novelist or poet from a place such as New Orleans)? I certainly haven’t.

If I am not mistaken much of European journalism is unabashedly partisan and this futile effort to uphold the standard of neutrality in America’s media just makes little sense. People are always involved in taking sides on various topics and to attempt to purge the news medial of this is hopeless.

The one sound way to address the matter of balance is via competition and that is just what NPR opposes from its ideological stance but also has no way of practicing, what with its special advantage of receiving extorted funds from the government!

Column on Equality is Only A Cheap Dream

Equality Is Only A Cheap Dream

Tibor R. Machan

Two academic researchers, both of them psychologists, have recently rekindled all the fuss about inequality of income in the United States of America. Mostly this topic has been the province of political philosophers, economists and theorists, many of whom have been urging the government to engage in more aggressive coercive resource redistribution. (Such redistribution is, of course, what happens routinely in the marketplace–where people take their wealth and use it to obtain various goods and services, thereby handing to the providers wealth that they, in turn, will redistribute–without any coercion involved.)

But the peaceful wealth redistribution of a free society and market doesn’t sit well with these avid egalitarians because free men and women spend their resources without worrying about distributing it equally, evenly, or fairly, only with doing it peacefully, voluntarily and productively. So the goal of economic equality isn’t served vigorously enough for them, thus they want the government to nationalize the process, take it out of private hands.

OK, so these two psychologists went around asking people about what kind of society they would like to live in and the responses to the question, “What kind of country would you like to live in?” convinced them that most people, as Bloomberg Businessweek reports in its 10/25-31, 2010 issue, “shared a similar vision of what they thought America looked like and what a fairer society would be.” The bulk, “Rich and poor, Republican and Democrats” tend toward egalitarianism.

Well that may be what many people wish for in their dreams. It is fairly cheep to dream like this. But the two researchers–Professor Dan Airely of Duke and Michael I. Norton of the Harvard Business School–did not ask the pertinent question, namely, “Would you prefer a fairer, more egalitarian, society if it meant that your liberty to use your life, time, labor and resources would be severely curtailed by the government as it undertakes making people equal?” But this question wasn’t asked and accordingly the conclusion the researchers reached is completely useless.

People have always had dreams of equality in their view of social life, starting with Plato (who had Socrates imagine the perfect society wherein equality reigned supreme). But as most Plato scholars know, the Republic presents an impossible society, a highly distorted one. Then, more recently, we have Karl Marx whose communist society is supposed to be populated by fully equal citizens who love one another intimately and for whom the principle “from each according to his ability, to each according to his need” governs the realm. This is not a formula for perfect equality but for a great deal more of it than any free market system would generate. However, people forget that Karl Marx imagined communist society as populated not by men and women such as we are but by what he called “the new man,” a different kind of (specie) being from us. Those “human” beings would love the society above all, love everyone as only intimate friends do now. Marx realized that an egalitarian society cannot be the home to ordinary, normal human beings but only to those who fit his idea of the new man.

Our champions of egalitarianism fail to appreciate the significance of the point Karl Marx made. They do not realize that human nature would need to be re-engineered before an egalitarian social-political-economic system could come about. The so called findings of the two researchers also fail to show any appreciation for the point Marx did appreciate. And the price of this error is that the sort of equality they think is so desirable would require the systematic coercive remaking of human beings (something Stalin once envisioned when he hoped that Lysenko, his agricultural guru, could remake us to fit the communist dream).

If the subjects of their study had been apprised of what Marx knew and what has always been true, namely, that making people equal conflicts with their liberty, it is doubtful that they would have jumped on board of the egalitarian ideological train.

Column on Charity and Generosity that Aren’t

Charity and Generosity that Aren’t

Tibor R. Machan

In a recent stump speech urging people to keep Democrats in power, President Obama told his audience that America is a country based in large measure on the principle that “we are all our brothers’ keepers.” This is not true, but even if it were and even if that idea were itself a good one, President Obama’s political philosophy has nothing to do with it.

What the president and those who share his politics believe in is the coercive welfare state, not in charity or generosity. For both of these are strictly voluntary–one cannot be charitable or generous by putting a gun to the heads of other people and ordering them to part with their resources for the purpose of supporting various endeavors that these other people haven’t chosen to support. Neither the enforcers nor the victims can claim to be charitable or generous, not by a long shot.

Why, then, does a perfectly well educated man like President Obama, who clearly must know better, insist on characterizing what he favors as charity and generosity? It is very likely a ruse, a way to disguise the real truth which is that he and his cohorts aren’t in favor of charity and generosity at all but in favor of coercing other people to part with their resources to support programs they have not chosen to promote.

Take Obamacare, as an example, which by all accounts isn’t favored by most Americans. Even if it were clearly morally commendable to give health care and health insurance to people who aren’t able to afford it, there is nothing morally praiseworthy in making such “giving” a matter of law and public policy that one isn’t permitted by the government to withdraw from or reject.

The hallmark of morality is to do the right thing of one’s own free will. It isn’t morality when one is regimented to do what is right, it is tyranny! Such regimentation deprives the deed of its moral significance–at most it becomes desirable behavior, at worst involuntary servitude.

But for some reason these facts are systematically disguised when people like the President try to defend the coercive welfare state. The effort to make it all look like a matter of charity and generosity instead of what it is, robbing Peter to benefit Paul (but not before a good portion of the take is handed to the coercive agents themselves), most likely aims to fool people by making them feel like they are greedy, cold hearted, and stingy if they don’t support the program.

This the people clearly need to reject, disown, big time. There is nothing greedy about rejecting the coercive welfare state, not at all. It amounts, instead, to rejecting criminal confiscation of one’s resources, a confiscation that in fact makes the victims less and less able to be charitable and generous and enables the criminals to do with the resources what they please.

Back in the days when pharaohs, kings and czars claimed they owned the countries they ruled, including all its wealth–never mind that they had little to do with producing any of it themselves–government may have seemed to be charitable and generous when it handed over some of this wealth to certain of its subjects. (Even then it was mostly for favors gained from them, not to be helpful!) This is because these monarchs did in fact have legal–though rarely moral–title to the wealth under their control. So their handing it to some (few) needy others could plausibly look like charity and generosity.

But there is no justification for this view seeing that the idea that the government owns the country’s wealth is pure poppycock (despite what some prominent legal scholars claim). It is the citizenry that owns the wealth, not the government (apart from some of the politicians’ private holdings which they rarely part with other than so as to help them gain power).

In our day it is pretty clear that government does nothing much that’s productive. It may, if it does its job right, provide protection for its citizenry from those who would violate their rights, including their property rights. But as it now stands this proper job of government is nearly everywhere corrupted and government has joined the criminal gangs that embark upon extortion, theft, confiscation and oppression, not on what the Declaration stated as its task, the securing of our rights.

Column on Democracy and Human Rights

Democracy and Human Rights

Tibor R. Machan

Tim Snyder made a very important observation on democracy and human rights in a recent piece for The New York Review of Books. He wrote, “As important as democratic procedures might be, opponents of communism in Eastern Europe spoke more often of human rights. Without human rights, democracy can be, as they say in Eastern Europe, managed. And above all, to be free means to find that cool place under the bridge, and remain there despite the current…” (“In Darkest Belarus,” 10/28/2010) This point is crucial to keep in mind as one considers the ways that individual liberty can be given its proper intellectual support.

Among some very influential thinkers today, like the Harvard University Nobel Laureate Amartya Sen, the most crucial feature of a just community is democracy, meaning the right of everyone to take part in the most widespread discussion of public policy. As Sen says, “participation in political decisions and social choice … have to be understood as constitutive parts of the ends of development in themselves” (p. 291). And Sen holds that the legal order of a country is to be decided upon by way of a democratic or national conversation. The governing laws emerge from such a discussion so there are here no pre-legal principles in place such as those the American Founders believed in, basic individual rights that all must respect and governments must secure. Everything seems for the likes of Sen to be open for debate or discussion and only after this has concluded can we talk of constitutional principles, fundamental laws, justice and the like. As he puts it,

Indeed, the connection between public reasoning and the formulation and use of human rights is extremely important to understand. Any general plausibility that these ethical claims, or their denials, have is dependent, on this theory, on their survival and flourishing when they encounter unobstructed discussion and scrutiny, along with adequately wide informational availability (“Elements of a Theory of Rights,” Philosophy & Public Affairs 32.4 [2004] p. 349).

Sen does also hold that one’s right to one’s liberty is basic but because public discussion would, as he puts it, “sustain it.” Yet any other rights, such as the right to private property that is so vital to market operations and other elements of human liberty, or (one may assume) the right to travel and such are not for him basic. As he explains, “There is a priority of liberty … but it arises from the conviction that reasoning in public would sustain it…. I do [however] disagree [about] the inclusion of property rights within the realm of personal liberty….”

Sen evidently does not appreciate what the Eastern Europeans realized when faced with communism, namely, that “to be free means to find that cool place under the bridge, and remain there despite the current.…”

The right to private property, in other words, is the right that holds off even the majority when the majority refuses to respect the freedom of the individual. As Snyder notes, anti-Communist dissidents placed the emphasis on individuality, on human rights, because if these are secure, one is free even from the majority. That right–just as the similarly basic ones such as the right to freedom of religion, of speech, of association, and so forth–serves as the principle by reference to which human beings are free in the concrete, practical sense that others must obtain consent from them in order to involve them in their projects, no matter how important to them those projects happen to be. No majority may override any individual’s right to liberty, including the liberty to seek, obtain and hold property. Indeed, it is such property that makes effective independence possible in the midst of human communities.

The reason democracy appears to be more important to some than are human rights is that for the longest time in human history the vast number of human beings were not “permitted”–the very idea is offensive–by their rulers to influence public policy, which was something rightfully resented and in time resisted. But while this may explain the popularity of democracy, it is no substitute for the more basic regard one should have for human individual rights, including the right to private property, the ultimate bulwark against tyranny.