Archive for October, 2010

From the Machan Archives: “Column on Yes, PBS (and NPR), Must Go!”

Yes! PBS (and NPR) Must Go!

We finally have the right idea about public broadcasting in
the air. The New York Times reports that there is now a serious
call in Washington for the total abolition or privatization of
this wholly inappropriate government supported, partially tax
funded medium of Left wing propaganda.
Actually, I don’t care how Left wing any national medium
happens to be, so long as I am not forced to pay even a penny for
its upkeep. There are dozens of very prominent magazines with
a Left wing editorial policy – The Nation, Progressive, Mother
Jones, Utne Report, The New York Review of Books, to name only the
more prominent ones. In the fields of both popular and scholarly
publications, the Left still holds prominent sway, despite all the
talk about the “collapse of Socialism.” But no one is forcing me
to subscribe – I do so, when I do so, because I am interested in
just how wrong intelligent people can be.
PBS and NPR – National Public Radio – in contrast, are massive
broadcast ventures, supported and partly funded by the federal
government, from taxes going to, e.g., the Corporation for Public
Broadcasting.
Contrary to what many conservatives complain about, it is not so
much the lack of balance in the programming that is so insidious. It
is that there exists a first amendment medium that people in this
country are forced to pay for.
Of course, it is undeniably true that both PBS and NPR are run
for the sake of spreading socialist ideology. These people, contrary
to what The New York Times keeps doggedly repeating, are not liberals.
A Liberal believes in, for example, civil liberties and equality of
opportunity, a free press and fairness, among other things. Liberals
lean toward socialism mostly in economic matters. The editorial tone
of nearly all PBS and NPR programming is radically socialist and, more
recently, fascist – especially when it comes to environmental and
feminist matters.
PBS runs innumerable opinion programs, beginning and ending, of
course, with all the opportunities Bill Moyers gets for airing his
pious laments about the universe. Moyers is no liberal but an agitator
for the position that everything that is wrong with the world is due
to the United States of America. His repeated intoning about what
“we, in this country, are doing to …” is so tiresome that I simply
cannot watch him, even when he interviews people I regard interesting.
PBS’s several interesting round table programs on various facets of
our legal system is also very biased toward the left liberal agenda.
The leaders of these discussions, whose panels do manage to be balanced
- if you believe that there are only two viewpoints in America worth
telling the viewers about – are nearly all Harvard law professors and
their orientation tends always toward leftist moralizing. There are
no communists, libertarians, Muslims, Moonies or any other theorists
who don’t fit the mainstream balance, outside of some militant
feminists and multiculturalists on these programs. And, more importantly,
no one outside the Eastern educational establishment ever appears on
them – which, frankly, annoys me, who teaches at a southern university
no one at PBS ever thinks of inviting to appear on their programs.
There are fine things, too, on PBS. And who knows, maybe it does
full justice to the intellectual market place, so balance need by no
means be the standard by which to judge it.
It is only because PBS is a government created and (partially)
funded monopoly that I fully support those who are calling for its
abolition. I would be even more enthusiastic if NPR got the axe – it
has the most whiny, openly Left wing editorial tone among all mainstream
media efforts. Its staff have just one voice, that of the smooth,
velvety Eastern intellectual. (Just listen and try to find someone
with a southern, Bronx or foreign accent, outside a few guest essayists.
But then the same phenomenon would not bother me much if found on ABC,
CNN or A&E, since I am not made to spend a dime of my life on those.)
Let us get the government out of at least one major and very
sensitive industry. There should, in short, be the same policy in
government toward media as there is toward religion – it should neither
ban nor establish any denomination, regardless of its content. Let
all geniuses in the industry like Bill Moyers and Nina Totenberg find
a job on the open market – surely there are plenty of media outlets
now. I look forward to not seeing Bill Moyers, say, on the Discovery
Channel, or, per chance, on Nick at Nite!

Column on Anti-Intellectualism Among Animal Rights Advocates

Anti-Intellectualism among Animal Rights Advocates?

Tibor R. Machan

It is only a small sample but it comes from a significant corner of the academic community, a law school where I was invited to give a talk on the debate about animal rights. I did deliver such a talk at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, law school on October 21, 2010, and I was surprised how few supporters of animal rights showed up for my talk even though several of them were invited and there was even talk of a formal debate.

I mentioned this at the dinner that followed and was told that there had been a concerted effort by local animal rights advocates to boycott my lecture. Word had gone out to members of the community of animal rights advocates, via email and such, about how I have written critical papers and a book on the subject and how no one ought to show up for my talk.

I am, after 40 years of teaching, still a bit naive about the nature of academic life so I was somewhat taken aback because my understanding had always been that it is at universities and colleges that debates and discussions about controversial issues are carried out, usually in an atmosphere of civility. Alas, I must not really be as aware about how universities and colleges work as I would like to be.

The reality seems to be that in many such communities discussions aren’t all that welcome. Instead the attitude is combative: Let’s show those with whom we disagree that we are against them, solidly, that we have no respect for the idea of a philosophical debate on the topic but want to silence, boycott, or exclude those who don’t already fall in line with our position.

It is this attitude that was in evidence here, or so my hosts informed me. I had written papers and a book on the topic of animal rights and environmental ethics in general over the last 20 years. I wrote on animal rights first because I had been working on natural rights theory for a good bit of my career, starting with my doctoral dissertation. When I first heard that there are those who believe that animals have the sort of rights we human beings are said to have, as per the Declaration of Independence and the philosopher John Locke, I wanted to see whether the ground for making this claim exists. If the underlying facts are not there, then no such rights could be supported, I figured, and indeed that is how it turned out when I looked at the matter closely.

Having natural human rights depends on the fact that human beings are moral agents and in human communities they require a sphere of personal moral authority–or what the late Robert Nozick called “moral space.” Natural rights are what circumscribe this sphere, spell out where it is that a person is in charge of what happens and where other people must not enter without being invited to do so. In this “space” people do as they choose and get judged or evaluated based on standards of morality. Unless they enjoy the liberty or freedom to act as they choose, their conduct lacks moral significance. Their moral agency would then be undermined. So their basic rights are necessary conditions for acting in morally significant ways in the company of other people. (Others are free to interfere or refrain from doing so, whereas non-human agents aren’t free to do so.)

Well, this is a controversial position and I have had my critics over the years and have been giving some talks and writing a few papers around college and university communities in America and abroad laying out the case as I see it. In most cases I have met with civil opposition. I did, however, notice that although I discuss them in some detail, neither of the prominent animal rights–or animal liberation–defenders, Professors Tom Regan and Peter Singer–have bothered to acknowledge by arguments (even when we have been invited to contribute to the very same book of collected papers on the topic). I have puzzled over this but thought that perhaps it is due only to these folks being quite busy with various tasks and having no time to deal with what I have written (although they both know me personally).

The experience at Madison was an eye opener. It appears that the lack of attention to my arguments from these prominent figures may be quite deliberate, a kind of boycott instead of an oversight. And that suggests a measure of anti-intellectualism, a refusal to engage on the topic at hand. But why? Is it to marginalize criticism of their views? Is it to play a certain kind of strategy whereby the refusal to take account of criticisms is meant to exclude the criticisms from the discussions? I am not sure–I haven’t asked. But it is an interesting phenomenon for sure.

Column on Why Obama Doesn’t Seem to Relate–emotionally

Why Obama Doesn’t Seem to Relate–emotionally

Tibor R. Machan

Most of the time when I hear about how President Obama lacks
the emotional disposition that most Americans would like to see him
demonstrate, I am disinclined to make much of the point. What I want
from someone in the role of the presidency is good thinking and not
sensitivity.

Nonetheless I have been paying a bit more attention to this
criticism of the President because as I have been following his
efforts to bolster the chances of Democrats to remain in power in
Washington, DC, I have noticed that there is something amiss with how
he comes over emotionally.

As a start, Mr. Obama is always glib, as if nothing on earth
could phase him, as if it is all old hat to him, he is way ahead of
everyone. This comes through, for instance, in his repeated dismissal
of anything that members of the Tea Party complain about. And that’s
just the beginning.

One related steady emotional theme in the president’s talks is
the effort to be accommodating toward critics and enemies of America.
Indeed, the very idea that Mr. Obama would identify anyone as an enemy
of the United States of America seems off base. This is because it
looks like he is mostly interested in building bridges between us and
them, however barbaric they may be.

Mr. Obama is one of those American intellectuals who appears to
be stopped from criticizing anyone abroad because, well, this country
has had slavery and segregation and poverty so how could it justify
being critical of anyone. It shows a spirit of perpetual
self-criticism and mea culpa, attitudes that appear to dominate the
president’s conscience (and we are here talking about appearances).
There is no black and white for the man–no one, not even a vicious
terrorist and a leader of a country in which women are systematically
and barbarically oppressed, justifies for him any sort of firm moral
condemnation. Like those ever-permissive parents who always have an
excuse for what their offspring are doing, no matter how mischievous
or outright evil it manages to be, for Mr. Obama those who attack
America, actually attack innocents everywhere, just could not be all
bad, unworthy of understanding.

This mentality of turning the other cheek, no matter what,
appears to underlie the widespread distrust people have of Mr. Obama’s
emotional makeup. Emotions, although they are ultimately unreliable
guidelines to action, are pretty good clues to what system of values
someone has internalized. If one has to force oneself disapprove of
or condemn vicious conduct and people and it doesn’t arise naturally,
people who do have a sense of just how bad some others can be will
become suspicious.

President Obama and his cheerleaders must realize that
eloquence is no substitute for emotional balance, for being in tune
emotionally with what those deserve who comport themselves
villainously. Being well spoken is not enough. One must also have a
sense of what needs to be said, have substance to communicate, a sense
of justice, if you will.

Or perhaps Mr. Obama just despises being disliked by people,
even by vicious rulers abroad. But that, too, reveals his emotional
priorities. Mr. Obama needs to open himself up to the possibility
that some people should really be hated, that they are evil and not
merely misguided, sick, or deranged.

Human life is distinctive in the world precisely because human
beings have a moral nature and they can act irresponsibly, morally
deplorably, contemptibly, as well as admirably, demonstrating moral
excellence. And while that idea has always had its detractors, the
moral skeptics, they simply cannot sustain their denial that people
are moral agents and capable of doing vile things for which they ought
to be condemned. They do not deserve sympathy but contempt.

And this is evident from the fact that the one exception to the
skeptics’ ambivalence about morality is their own utter contempt for
those who do take morality seriously. They tend to be dismissed, even
derided, as fundamentalists or moralizers, which is clearly and
paradoxically something (morally?) contemptible to the skeptics!

Moral skeptics usually are hoisted on their own petard. Their
amoral stance isn’t philosophically sustainable because human beings
are indeed moral beings, unlike the rest the members of the living
world. And one result of having a moral nature and admitting to it is
that one will openly cope with moral evil as well as moral excellent.
If one denies this, as it seems President Obama does when it comes to
America’s enemies, it will eventually stand in the way of reaching out
to ordinary people.

Column on the Amorality of Macroeconomics

The Amorality of Macroeconomics

Tibor R. Machan

In a surprisingly sensible essay in The New York Times, on Sunday October 17, 2010, David Segal gives a pretty good explanation of why macroeconomics is so unsuccessful. It’s human nature, stupid. People just aren’t predictable–will they do this or that when provided with easy money from the government? Is soaking the rich really a good idea–suppose they would do much more good with their money than would government? Do the poor really deserve a break in tax policy or are some quite irresponsible and thus not good candidates for giving them tax breaks?

As Segal concludes his piece, “But the economy is a hugely complex problem. So we either simplify the problem and offer a solution, or embrace the complexity and do nothing.” Yes indeed, and it is the second alternative that makes the best sense. Why?

Because while “we”–which is to say, governments–may do nothing, that is by no means the end of the story. While governments do nothing, the rest of us may very well do a great deal. Indeed, it is probably in large measure because the government does nothing that most of us do something, something with the funds the government does not extort from us. If we can keep those funds, they will not usually be put under our mattresses but spent on various projects that we want to get done and which then will create jobs that are actually achieving something that is wanted by people instead of the allegedly “shovel ready” jobs no one needs and government merely invents (like all that road work in my neighborhood that involves repairing what does not by any reasonable assessment require being repaired).

One thing that Mr. Segal’s essay brings to light is just how unprincipled is much of macroeconomic theory, the type that fancies itself capable of managing a country’s economy. In one of his passages Segal relates Harvard econ professor N. Gregory Mankiw’s thought experiment from his book Principles of Economics (Thomson/South-Western, 2004), in which “a town must maintain a well. Peter, who earns $100,000, is taxed $10,000, or 10 percent of his income, while Paula, who earns $20,000, hands over $4,000, or 20 per cent of her income.” Never mind that being taxed isn’t exactly “handing over” a portion of one’s income (although such language does show just how thoughtless is a lot of macroeconomic thinking). Notice, instead, that in the thought experiment, which is, all in all, a pretty realistic one, it is taken as given that the town must maintain a well.

But towns are not people. They are not even corporations–they are populated by people, some of whom may not want or need a well at all, some of whom do, and some of whom may find a well useful up to a point, after which they might elect to pay for water brought in from somewhere else. The kind of thinking that treats the people of the town as some kind of beehive or ant colony is way off.

A town–and, of course, a country like the USA which the government macro-economists embark upon managing–is made up of a lot of very different individuals, with very different goals, abilities, virtues and vices, and so forth, and to lump them together is utterly misguided and must produce bad policies. And once the economic issues are treated not as those faced by towns but by various individual human beings in the various groupings of their own choice, the situation presents itself quite differently. For one, ethics enters the picture. And in nearly any ethical code human beings have identified as guidelines to how they ought to conduct themselves, it is unacceptable to confiscate funds from Peter and use it to support Paula unless the two of them reach an agreement to enter some such arrangement. It is not to be dictated from above, as is macroeconomic policy, with no regard for the niceties of ethics or morality. (Which is what’s so bad about centrally planned economies.)

One reason the human race has come up with certain general ethical principles–contained in, for example, Aristotle’s list of virtues, the Ten Commandments, Kant’s categorical imperative, or the various school of morality–is that these are thought to be sound clues to what kind of actions people may take and what they ought to avoid taking. Not everyone will follow the advice but it is no surprise that if they do not, mayhem is produced.

And that is just what happens in interventionist macroeconomic policy. So not doing anything–given the real complexity of human affairs and the broad ethical guidelines that actually prohibit doing what macro-economists propose doing–is a good alternative to simplistic meddling.

Column on The Adversarial System

In Defense of the Adversarial System
Tibor R. Machan

Every once in a while I get sucked into defending the way the legal system aims to secure justice in the criminal law. In particular, why do the accused or suspected criminals get to be defended so vigorously, as if they were always victims of perpetuation rather than pretty much guilty as charged. Defense attorneys, especially, get a lot of flack if they accept as clients people everyone “knows” are guilty as sin. How could they do such a thing? Isn’t that immoral? Does it not in fact make the profession corrupt?

I keep insisting that this normally isn’t so at all. Defense attorneys are committed, professionally, to provide the best defense to anyone who hires them because the system is supposed to work as an adversarial one, whereby justice is supposed to emerge from a debate as to what is the truth of the matter, who did what and was it a crime and how responsible is the defendant if at all. It resembles the Socratic method of inquiry, study or research whereby questions are raised and answers proposed, then criticized, on and on until one reaches the answer that can withstand all reasonable objections for the time being! In the end, given the available context of information and analysis, the result is as good as it gets. Wanting more is unreasonable, even irrational!

So no one can have a rational position on the issues that gave rise to the trial prior to its taking place (and the assorted associated procedures). Sure, people can speculate, even bet on the result that’s likely to be reached once the entire process has played itself out. But before that no one is supposed to know whether the accused defendant is guilty or not, not as far as the law is concerned. The way the system works is supposedly a very effective one for purposes of reaching a sound conclusion. The jury, for example, will have heard pros and cons and all the evidence and arguments for both sides and then can take it upon itself to render a just verdict.

Nor is the justice to be achieved perfect, incontrovertible. That’s what appeals are about. Only once the whole processes has been deployed is there a best result available and that result is not to be regarded as timelessly unassailable, forever the best. No results of human inquiry, be it in ethics, law, science or philosophy can promise a final resolution, not until time has come to an end! That is the human condition and unless someone has the word of an omniscient God to consult about it all, no one can reasonably want anything better.

More generally, human knowledge ought not to be expected to produce the last word on any subject. That’s not knowledge but omniscience! We live in an unfolding universe and whatever knowledge we manage to gain of it must accommodate that fact and not aim for more. Otherwise skepticism and cynicism arise, the belief that no one can know anything and that all human efforts are useless and futile.

Some people would delight in spreading such an idea around since then they might get the chance to convince us that they do have special abilities, mystical insight and such, that entitles them to lord it over the rest of us “mere” humans. But it is ruse since no one has such abilities. Knowledge, the proper kind, needs to be earned through hard work and there will always be room for updating it as time unfolds and new information comes to light.

Here as in many other areas of human affairs it is once again best to remember that the perfect or ideal is the enemy of the good! Wishing for the impossible dream will prevent one from obtaining the very best that’s humanly possible. And that should be all counts be enough.