Archive for November, 2010

Column on Private vs. State Schools & Free Speech

Private vs. State Schools & Free Speech

Tibor R. Machan

Much fuss is afoot now about how various schools, especially colleges and universities, are dealing with the airing of controversial topics. Although by my count this isn’t some kind of epidemic, in several schools the administrators have decided they do not want students to air ideas (or invite guest speakers to do so) when the ideas are controversial or a possible source of emotional reaction from some members of the community. So, for example, when students at Bucknell University tried to make a point about mandated affirmative action policies by differentiating the price of certain items for sale on campus, they were told by the administration to desist. Something similar has happened at UC Irvine, presumably all so as to spare offending some members of the college community.

This phenomenon, though not quite new, has been noticed by some news reporters and commentators, for example Fox Business Network’s John Stossel, who have found it paradoxical that some speech is being regulated, even banned, by administrators at institutions that are supposedly committed to the examination of controversial issues. Some administrations have attempted to cope with the problem by creating “free speech zones” on campus, which effectively moves those who present controversial ideas–mostly, it seems, ones held by conservative student groups and their guests (e.g., Anne Coulter)–into special areas on campus, away from the general population, where they aren’t likely to offend people with insulting ideas.

Of course, such ideas could be about anything but mostly they would have to do with certain politically correct issues, such as race, ethnicity, gender, and so forth. Affirmative action policies, when imposed by law, are a favorite target of conservative speakers when they apply the principles of differentiation to some unexpected areas of life, such as pricing goods and services, even though these same principles are deployed under the protection of the law in the treatment of students and faculty at the institution in question. The idea is, “How come you find it offensive when, say, blacks and whites are charged different amounts of money for the same items for sale even though you think they should be treated differently in the admission or promotion process at your institution?”

One matter that’s often overlooked in discussing all this is the difference between public and private institutions. Public institutions are funded by funds confiscated from all taxpayers, while private institutions are not, which can make a difference in what policies are legally justified at them.

A private college, for example, has the right to institute a policy concerning the airing of controversial ideas that its administrators believe might work to facilitate the educational mission there, while a public institution must abide by the principles of the US Constitution. This is like the fact that in your own home you can restrict and ban speech–say by refusing to allow some guest to talk about some subject–whereas you don’t have the authority to do this when someone speaks out in public, say at a city park. Broadly put, the former isn’t under the jurisdiction of the US Constitution whereas the latter is.

When a private college administration deems it wise and prudent to keep discussion of certain topics confined to special places, it may do offense to the spirit of academic freedom and the tradition of open discussion associated with educational institutions but there is nothing in this that violates either the spirit or letter of the American legal system. But if a public university does the same, that same legal system’s principles are being violated. Yes, even there the administration has some discretion but normally it may not decide in ways that do offense to the public philosophy of American law.

So, then, if a private university institutes a policy of keeping speakers on controversial topics away from the general population, at some kind of “free speech” region, this can be justified in the American legal tradition but if a public university does the same it cannot. That fact may shed some light on how the issue of airing offensive ideas at colleges and universities is being dealt with across the nation’s higher educational institutions.

Column on Besmirch & Divert

Besmirch & Divert

Tibor R. Machan

Ever since President Obama took office, his proposed public policies have been defended doggedly by all those who favor an increasing large scope for the federal government. Health care/insurance is just one of these policies but, of course, his way of dealing with the recession conforms to it as well. Bail them out, increase their regulation, order their CEO’s to take lower pay than they agreed they would receive, etc., etc. All these are fully consistent with a program of making government–all of the employees of which are, of course, infinitely competent and supremely moral–an all mighty force in the lives of American citizens.

This reactionary approach to the presidency–one that, if successful, will return the country to the age of George III, a former monarch with actually less power than the current federal government has over us–is very difficult to justify in general political terms. It goes directly against America’s founding principles, as they were identified in the Declaration of Independence, and it’s oppressive and economically suicidal to boot. And sure enough, the defenders of Mr. Obama, such as economist Paul Krugman, The New Republic, The New York Times, The New York Review of Books, to mention but the more visible ones among them, do not have any arguments to offer, so instead they engage in besmirching those who offer arguments against the policies they favor. Same goes for Professor Gary Wills (see it here:

A recent case in point was where an author supporting Mr. Obama insisted that despite their efforts to hide the fact, the Tea Party folks are mostly racists. This author kept repeating this charge, thus managing to divert attention from the substance of the criticism. The examples given included criticism of policies such as the welfare state which supposedly comes to nothing other than wishing ill for most African Americans. So opposition to small or limited government then amounts to racism-in-disguise.

This way of defending unwise, wrongheaded public policies can produce the result of diverting attention for the substance at issue, namely, whether the welfare state and similar measures pushed for by the president and his cheerleaders is a sound idea by which to govern a country. Never mind that! Let’s make it appear that what is going on is insidious racism. That pretty much consigns the critics to the ranks of the ultimately vicious among us with whom there is no need to argue. No one, after all, argues with Nazis! No one argues with people who regard other people morally inferior by virtue not of what they do wrong, their malpractice, but because of their color or ethnicity. Such people then can be viewed as unworthy of the respect that’s shown to someone with whom one chooses to engage in argument, whose views one decides to take seriously enough to confront intellectually. No, let’s just dismiss the critics as bigots or racists or fundamentally, incorrigibly vicious; that way we ca avoid having to answer their substantive criticism of our public policies.

Maybe this shows just how unsuccessful are all those college and university courses that most students are required to take, namely, basic reasoning, elementary logic, and the like wherein the formal and informal fallacies are discussed and it is shown just why they are fallacies and should be avoided in presenting one’s viewpoint or criticism. Besmirching one’s critics is what is called an ad hominem argument, one that demeans or attacks the person who advances a point instead of the case made in support of it. And such attacks have no bearing on the validity, soundness or related merits or demerits of a case being made.

If Mr. Obama and his accolades cannot produce anything that’s better than charges of racism and bigotry against their political or intellectual adversaries, they are in effect admitting that their viewpoint is bankrupt. No one with even a modicum of merit to his or her argument will resort to ad hominems. The arguments being advanced are supposed to carry the weight of the position and there would be no need for trying to discredit with smears those who oppose it.

Not everyone, of course, resorts to these methods of attempting to shore up the case for Mr. Obama’s public policies but enough do that the conclusion is difficult to escape that they are being a tad desperate. When a Nobel Laureate professor of economics at one of America’s most prestigious universities, Princeton, keeps attacking the character and personality of the likes of Sarah Palin in numerous forums instead of taking issue with them point by point with no reliance on badmouthing them, that suggests, strongly, that what the man has to offer against the criticisms is pretty empty of substance.

Column on Entitlement Foibles

Entitlement Foibles

Tibor R. Machan

Gloating as they are too often wont to do, modern welfare state liberals are eager to point out that when it comes to proposing cuts in government spending, many who advocate it will not be specific. Even more telling, the liberals hold, is the fact that few if any will proclaim Social Security and Medicare a target of such cuts.

Perhaps this makes sense even when one sincerely wants the government to reduce it scope of involvement in society–to become, in short, truly limited as the American Founders wanted it to be and as, in any case, it ought to be. Let’s see.

Social security is often believed to be an insurance program, albeit one that is forced on people, yet still, the money taken for it is regarded by most who paid into it as theirs, so getting it out is naturally seen as simply having one’s funds returned in old age. Perhaps the idea of cutting social security is viewed with suspicion, as a way to rob people of what belongs to them and not as a reduction of government spending at all. Moreover, very likely few people have a clue just how the program could be removed from the government, how it might be privatized, especially after the “liberals”–it always sticks in my throat to call them that–have been working overtime demonizing privatization (even when it would only involve a relatively small percentage of the amount now taken from those who must pay into the system).

Medicare, too, has become something of a fixture and while there are pretty clear cut ways in which the free market could handle the insurance it amounts to, one can easily appreciate that few people have looked closely and hard at just how that might be done. Once people get used to being on the dole, especially for something the demagogues insist is their due by now, the very notion that they might get rid of it will strike most of them as implausible. Just float the idea of privatizing public education, or even public libraries, not to mention public parks and forests and airports! Most folks are unfamiliar with the work that has been done to show that all of this is quite feasible.

I remember when as a teen I was living in Germany where television and radio, not to mention trains and planes and virtually all other means of transport, were government run. To even suggest that this is not only economically silly but also an unjust sharing of benefits and burdens among people with very different needs and desire was met with incredulity. Surely this is to be expected of people whose ancestors were the mere subjects of various rulers, ones who rarely considered them to be self-responsible, who treated them as invalids or infants in most matters of concern.

In short, the governmental habit is difficult to shake–just like any narcotic–once one becomes acclimated to the benefits. The burdens are often hidden, or sold as part of being a citizen (or some similar ruse). And in comparison to how most people throughout the globe used to be treated by their rulers (!), the welfare state is a relatively mild oppressor. So when dismantling it is widely promoted to be cruel and nasty, the fact that doing so would be quite unusual, too, can make advocating such dismantling rather onerous, politically hazardous.

Ayn Rand once wrote a column, if I recall right, titled “It’s Earlier Than You Think,” suggesting that even Americans, with their unique and exceptional political tradition stressing individual rights, aren’t quite ready to accept the responsibility of living in a bona fide free country. They are still suffering from the illusions associated with ancient regimes and with modern statism, given how many reputable people–at colleges and universities and in the media across the land–clamor for these. (Just consider that nearly all of our educational institutions live off government!)

So it is a cheap shot to point out that critics of the bloated state do not always know quite what to say when asked for what in particular they would remove from its jurisdiction. Virtually everything, I think, can be done by people throughout the rest of society and government should only handle what the Founders said, “to secure our rights.” But this is still a revolutionary notion, not comfortable on the lips of politicians and the people considering supporting them

Column on Tree Hugger Hypocrisy

Tree Hugger Hypocrisy

Tibor R. Machan

I live in Silverado Canyon, about 7 miles east of Irvine Lake in Orange County, California, and it is a very pleasant place except for the fact that there is a small group of residents who want to dominate the place with their personal life style. They are bent on imposing their private preferences and policies on everyone else without, however, footing the cost of doing so.

Like most canyon communities, Silverado Canyon, an unincorporated part of Orange County located on the edge of the Cleveland National Forest, is populated by a highly diverse group of residents. Rich and poor, professional and amateur, nature lover and hermit, and so forth, there are all kinds of people who live there. And most of them confine their influence to the region they rightfully occupy and for which they paid and keep paying good money. So long as they do not dump any harmful activities or their results on their neighbors, this is just as it should be.

By all rights and common sense, if I want to start managing my neighbors’ lands, I must buy it from them. I do not get to select the TV programs they watch, the garden they wish to cultivate, the stuff they store in their garage, etc., etc. unless I obtain permission from them. That is what property rights mean–you get to decide what you do with or to your property, not others around you unless you gave them permission to butt in.

But the people who are intent on forcing their ideas on everyone else in Silverado Canyon do not have any respect for human rights. One may wonder whether they also believe that women have no rights over their own bodies, or newspapers over the content of their editorials, or authors over the plots of their novels. It makes sense that if they think they are authorized to determine the use of my property in Silverad Canyon, they would also believe they are authorized to determine the use of whatever else is mine, including my body, my novel, my column, etc. I have to assume, then, that they pose a serious hazard to our freedom on all fronts since they believe others’ freedom to make use of their land is open to them to violate just because they feel like it.

Yes, sometimes one’s neighbors engage in undesirable activities on their property but unless this intrudes on others, violates other people’s rights, they must use friendly persuasion to dissuade them, not coercive force. At one time a neighbor of mine across the street from my home in Santa Barbara kept filling up his front yard with a lot of junk auto parts and I finally had enough, so I wrote to him, a friendly but pretty firm letter imploring him to clean up the mess. But I also acknowledged that the front yard belongs to him, not to me, so I need to ask his cooperation and not simply impose my will on him–maybe sneak over in the middle of the night and clear it of the mess on my own. I did not have this authority, not by any reasonable morality and certainly not by any just law. So I asked, implored, urged, and did not demand! And I did actually manage to convince my neighbor and the front yard got cleaned up in no time. And I expressed my sincere appreciation and we remained cordial neighbors for years thereafter.

Alas, the group in Silverado Canyon, members of which refer to themselves as Tree Huggers, does not possess the kind of civility that my Santa Barbara neighbor and I did. Instead of going through the proper process of buying up the land they wish to control or persuading their neighbors to fall in line with their plans, they just make use of all kinds of legal technicalities and pressures that circumvent the rights of their neighbors so as to get their way.

That is the method of an unruly mob, not of citizens of a free society. That is how barbarians behave, not people who have an awareness of the rights of their fellow human beings. And since they refuse to move away from the lands they wish to preserve, keep rural, they are rank hypocrites to boot.

Column on Two Cheers for the Gridlock

Two Cheers for the Gridlock

Tibor R. Machan

On one of those few occasions that I have managed to rub elbows with a hero of mine, I caught Milton Friedman on a TV program endorsing the gridlock in Washington during a recent administration–I believe it was President Bill Clinton’s second term. One point he made was that any gridlock in Washington or elsewhere is a good thing, given that the belief that government can solve all kinds of problems if the politicians only cooperate is poppycock.

I have been writing in favor of gridlocks for some time, at least as a second best option to the one wherein the government is in the hands of an administration that is fully committed to limited powers. So I went to my computer and send Dr. Friedman a message thanking him for promoting the second best alternative of the gridlock in Washington. I was very please when he jokingly replied, saying “Great minds run in the same gutter.”

Although I wasn’t thrilled with the outcome on November 2, 2010, that Harry Reid and Barbara Boxer, among others, would be headed back to the nation’s capitol to try to continue to shore up the government’s powers, at least the election had the favorable result of producing a gridlocked regime for a while. I say, let them be bogged own in their partisan bickering. This may have the unintended consequence of making life less regimented for most Americans, even free up our productive energies somewhat.

Yes, a free society is probably too much to hope for as the outcome of a democratic election, especially when all around the globe–Venezuela, Brazil, and other places–people keep investing government with powers, guided by a blind faith in statism. Even in the countries that have experienced the most clear cut implications of empowering government to run people’s lives, those formerly ruled by the Soviet Union, a great many citizens keep clamoring for entitlements, security, and benefits for which other people must be forced to work and pay. The governmental habit is far from extinguished even for those who have been victimized by it. And even if some of the victims came away with the lesson well learned, their offspring are by no means the wiser–hope for the impossible tends to reside in the hearts of too many everywhere and prudence is not an inherited virtue. So they give power to monsters like Hugo Chavez and even worse people, some of them, like Chavez, outright madmen. And even in the country at times–thought less so than before–labeled “leader of the free world,” committed statists such as Nancy Pelosy, Harry Reid, Jerry Brown, et al., are entrusted with powers no sane person should bestow on anyone apart from one’s physician, perhaps, and only for a little while if at all.

So then it is perhaps understandable that some of us follow the lead of the likes of the late Dr. Friedman and support a gridlock which, maybe unintentionally but nonetheless consequentially, promises to tie the politicians into knots of disputation, maneuvering, dealings, and so forth that may make it possible for the rest of us to go about our business. Even those who are in the grips of the governmental habit might benefit from this, indirectly, when they discover that government inaction is actually quite a good thing.

Some years back the police went on strike in San Francisco and, lo and behold, despite the prediction of alarmists that crime would run rampant throughout the city, very little increase in crime actually occurred. Maybe even the one proper role of government, keeping at bay violent criminals, doesn’t require huge force and expenditure.

But it is always important to remember in these kinds of discussions that over most of human history the state was revered, especially by the elite, meaning of course that the elite felt that their power is needed to run things properly. This despite the fact that from time immemorial it has also been widely known that this attitude mostly promotes despotism and no good government at all.

So, then, I say: bring on the gridlock. Therein lies our salvation for the time being.