Archive for December, 2010

Revisiting A Fruitful Idea in Ethics

Revisiting A Fruitful Idea about Morality

Tibor R. Machan

As someone who often teaches the topic of ethics or morality in colleges and universities, I have noticed that most of my beginning students entertain conflicting positions about the subject. They see it either as a one-size-fits-all system of guidelines, wherein everyone has to act the same way or they are bad people, or as purely subjective, wherein nothing is either right or wrong and it’s all a matter of one’s opinion.

And this is understandable. If there are right answers to questions about how we should conduct ourselves, it seems to many those answers must apply to us all, equally. Otherwise how could they be right? So they are pulled toward what is often called moral absolutism. But it also seems quite reasonable that certain answers as to how one ought to act do not apply to all people the same way since they differ in significant ways from one another. That suggests subjectivism.

How can both of these valid insights be satisfied?

One possibility is that a sound, correct ethics offers perhaps just one set of very basic principles that are broad enough to apply to everyone simply in virtue of us all being human. But this morality would also recognize that different individuals need different guidelines, given their special situations, including their unique individuality, culture, even the climate in which they live.

We have this, for example, in medicine and nutrition. There are basic principles in these areas but when they are applied to different people, accommodations must be made to the individuals in question–are they men or women, young or old, tall or short, of a certain metabolism or another, allergic to this or that? So, while the basics of medicine and nutrition are taught pretty much the same everywhere, when they are applied, things begin to vary quite a bit.

In morality or ethics, also, we may well have certain very basic principles that we all need to heed and practice–such as “Think things through before you act,” or “Be honest with yourself” or “Don’t deceive anyone,” “Do onto others as you have would have them do onto you,” or “Pursue excellence in life.” (I leave aside now which might actually be those few sound and universal guiding principles–that takes a lot of figuring out.) But as applied to particular, individual persons, what specific guidance would emerge from such basic principles will not be the same from one person to the next.

Yet something very important about both the concerns expressed by my students and many others would be satisfied in so understanding morality: there would indeed be something absolute or invariant about how we ought to act; yet this wouldn’t amount to an artificially detailed one-size-fits-all code.

Indeed, the idea would help with many things that concern us all: a just legal system would not have many general laws, only a few, because citizens are quite different from one another and have just a few things in common as citizens. The market place would make sense, what with all its highly varied goods and services aiming to fit different customers and using the varied talents of producers. Even art might benefit from this outlook: We all tend to think, I believe, that some things really are artistically excellent while others lack this quality; yet we also realize that different people, with various special attributes, backgrounds, and so forth, will appreciate different excellent works of art. Instead of thinking that everyone is artistically blind who fails to respond to some work favorably that one admires, a great variety of works will be seen as having artistic merit to different sorts of people, varied talents will produce varied yet still artistically excellent works. Yet, there will still remain plenty of room for concluding that some artists’ creations do not cut it at all.

Anyway, there isn’t much hope of settling big issues like this in a brief discussion but perhaps some hints toward a sound approach could at least be established. Very formidable thinkers throughout human history have grappled with these matters and studying their reflections would be a prerequisite for making headway. What I’ve tried here is no more than sketch out some promising initial ideas.

Column on The Struggle

The struggle–the long arc of advances in human liberty

Tibor R. Machan

Here is some good news: The march of liberty has so far proven to be generally unstoppable. Over the span of human history there have been periods during which hardly any sign of respect for human liberty had been in evidence. In other eras the globe has seen advances toward human liberty by leaps and bounds. That is to say, in some periods clear evidence can be pointed to showing that some men and women–such as kings, queens, czars, Pharaohs, Caesars, dictators, tyrants, politburos, political bodies of all types and uncivil majorities–have began to recede in their efforts to suppress other men and women, to treat them as their tools, instruments, subjects, and such. In other periods the opposite trend has been in evidence.

Still, overall the trend has been toward the spread of liberty. More and more of us have become masters of our own lives, fewer and fewer are in the position of ruling others. Even when in some areas, such as national economic policy, liberty has taken a beating, there are others where fewer impositions and restrictions are made into public policy–for example, the basic rights of members of minorities, women, gays, natives, the press, etc., are being recognized and provided legal protection alongside onerous economic policies. And globally, while the former beacon of human liberty, the United States of America–itself, sadly, never fully committed–is now rather halting in its defense of human freedom, other communities–for instance, the former Soviet and other colonies–are slowly but surely shedding the idea and practice that would have some people run roughshod over others, especially as a matter of official public policy.

Now this is not all that surprising. In any area of their lives people can do better or worse or just linger in some kind of mediocre limbo. And this is so when it comes to political matters. Sometimes, in fact, there can be improvement in one sphere of human life and a decline in others–for instance, while economic liberty can widen, it is possible for personal or cultural fulfilment to be on hold for many. Not everything is moving in the same direction at once and with the same speed. (One can easily confirm this by just checking one’s own life and noticing that there can be advances in one area while another can be faltering–one’s career can even soar while one’s health might not improve.)

All this is enhanced by the sheer fact that the surrounding natural world in which men and women may struggle to strive, to flourish, isn’t uniformly supportive–storms, floods, tsunamis, earthquakes, hurricanes, diseases and other adversities not of our making are often complicit in making life not so triumphant for us all. Fortunately, here, if men and women are substantially free to live their lives without being oppressed by others, they tend to do better at figuring out how to deal with these non-human adversities–the sciences, philosophy, technology, education, and other features of life tend to get improved treatment when we are free, less time needs to be spent on fending off the intrusive ones among us.

So, as one contemplates developments in one’s immediate or the broader human sphere, it is a good idea to keep in mind how even without a inevitable trend toward a better and better existence, in the long run human beings are experiencing a better and better life (just as the late Julian Simon and his students (e.g., Matt Ridley) have been stressing in the midst of the endless doom-sayings of the likes of Paul Ehrlich and Paul Krugman).

Quite often predictions of doom come from politically disgruntled folks, those who still believe that they should be in charge of others and not respect the rights of everyone to sovereignty, self-government. Also, as one gets older and senses that ones own life is slowly declining, one may be tempted to project this on to the rest of the world and declare it all going to hell in a hand basket.

No, there isn’t a guarantee of a steady march toward liberty–it is truly a matter of eternal vigilance. But fortunately there are many, many people who exhibit this vigilance in various parts of their lives, throughout human history and around the globe, and thus help keep afoot the advances toward greater and greater freedom and, alongside, a better chance of overall improvement in human affairs.

Column on One Swallow

One Swallow

Tibor R. Machan

Those who have paid a bit of attention to my writings on public policy probably know that I have always been an opponent of preemptive petty tyrannies of government regulations, the sort that force people to follow certain standards of professional conduct, including manufacture, regardless of whether or not they have deserved to be coerced.

In the criminal law such prior restraint is seriously frowned upon but in administrative law it is not, mainly because of two legal notions. These are the police power–a feudal relic if there ever was one–and the arguably distorted provision of the U.S. Constitution, Article 1, Section 8, the interstate commerce clause.

The former made sense only when the monarch had been thought to be in charge of us all, when government ruled the lives of all the subjects as if they were children, invalids or inferiors. The latter appeared at first to mean only that Congress is authorized to regularize commerce among the several states so that these states do not behave as economically warring or protectionist political bodies. No duties may be imposed between New York and Pennsylvania (etc.) was the idea, no tariffs, nada.

OK, now instead of tossing this police power feudal notion and being faithful to the rational meaning of the interstate commerce clause, both developed as weapons in the arsenals of government planners and interventionists despite the classical liberal revolution. This despite the fact that neither legal measure has a leg to stand on in the court of justice.

But perhaps practically they are unexceptionable, no? Why would that be? Because, just as now and then a bit of violence among people can be useful, so can government intervention or regulation bear some valuable fruit.

Consider what Elizabeth Kolbert wrote some time ago for the New Yorker Web site concerning President Obama’s choice for energy secretary, Steven Chu, and his enthusiastic defense of government intervention:

“In the mid-1970s, California–the state Chu lived in–set about establishing the country’s first refrigerator-efficiency standards. Refrigerator manufacturers, of course, fought them. The standards couldn’t be met, they said, at anything like a price consumers could afford. California imposed the standards anyway, and then what happened, as Chu observed, is that ‘the manufacturers had to assign the job to the engineers, instead of to the lobbyists.’ The following decade, standards were imposed for refrigerators nationwide. Since then, the size of the average American refrigerator has increased by more than 10 percent, while the price, in inflation-adjusted dollars, has been cut in half. Meanwhile, energy use has dropped by two-thirds.”

Let’s give Chu credit for at least making the effort to defend government regulation–post bureaucrats treat it as their God given authority. But I am also tempted to mention here how Benito Mussolini was able to make the trains run on time back in the days he ruled Italy as a fascist dictator. Thus it is important here to recall a wise saying by the ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle, namely, that “One swallow does not make a summer, nor does one day; and so too one day, or a short time, does not make a man blessed and happy” (NE I.1098a18). And again, true enough, now and then smacking someone who is acting hysterically could calm him down, yet it would be folly to adopt smacking people around as a general policy by which to help them cope.

Or again, a bit more technically, the imposition of the refrigeration manufacturing standards in California is used by Mr. Chu as an explanation of both the increase in the efficiency of refrigerators nationwide and the cut in half of their price since the imposition was made. But there is a famous fallacy of informal logic that’s in evidence in Mr. Chu’s reasoning, namely, post hoc, ergo propter hoc (after this, therefore on account of this). No one could tell at the time the California government imposed these standards that only by doing so will the desired efficiency and price drop be produced. Indeed, in many cases in which government intrudes by establishing, by law, standards like this the market has already begun to do it, albeit peacefully, without the use of coercive force and the heavy cost of bureaucracy (like ho cigarette smoking began to subside way before government waged its war on smokers).

I am convinced that government regulation is an improper way to run people’s lives, even if now and then it may appear or even prove to be a bit helpful. Would be good thing of Mr Chu & Co. would agree with this.

Education: Philosophical vs. Political Correctness (an update)

Education: Philosophical versus Political Correctness (an update)

Tibor R. Machan

You will know what I am after here when I tell you how much I dislike it when people talk of “her majesty” or “his highness” or, especially, “ruler” as they refer to various pretenders to heads of countries around the globe and throughout human history. For me such terms are like ones out of fairy tales because, well, there are no kings or queens or any such thing except in myths and fabricated political regimes. In other words kings are really not what they pretend to be, namely, God’s chosen leaders here on earth. In fact they are nearly always out and out tyrants or despots although sometimes they are just wastrels.

As with all in-born status that places some above others not in height or even talent but in political authority—so that some may rule and others will be ruled—the whole monarchical idea is a lie. Yet even now one can encounter references to these pretenders, right here in the United States of America, as if these were the real McCoy! Poppycock. Was it not the American Founders who participated in the revolution that demoted, demythologized these pretenders and declared that no one is by nature the ruler of someone else?

Of course in all of history, wherever there have been human inhabitants, such pretentious ruses and the accompanying distortions of language have been ubiquitous. It is not that the thought of and verbal reference to it ought to be banned by law. No ideas should be regarded as subject to censorship, which is the ultimate objective of construing certain ideas as politically incorrect. The Pope, the Reverend Moon, Father this and Sister that—all these are titles dependent on a dubious narrative. Most of them are phony offices with no rational reason for them. But the idea of them all, however debatable, has to be tolerated in a free country, even if those ideas are a threat to the freedom that’s so central to such a country.

Yes, then, folks ought to give them all up, just as they have given up superstitions of any sort. However, this has to happen through enlightenment, education, reflection, conversation and other peaceful means, not through government intervention. A free country defers to the market place of ideas when it comes to what ideas will be deemed worthy of embrace even if the market place doesn’t always produce sterling results. So, for example, it should not be government that chooses between creationism and Charles Darwin’s evolutionary theory, any more than it should be government that chooses between one or another religion or ethics.

It is another thing, however, for citizens themselves, independently of government, to consider some ideas philosophically incorrect. Just what is and what is not will, most probably, be subject to eternal disputation, especially in societies where the expression and verbal use of ideas of any kind have the protection of the legal system. Even racist ideas, or anti-Semitic ones—indeed any kind of bigotry—must be given legal protection and their criticism needs to be confined to argumentation, ostracism, disputation, debate and such.

There is just one big problem with this in our time. When a country tries to combine freedom of thought and speech with government-administered education, there will be irresolvable conflict. In a system of private education competition among schools would take care of philosophical correctness. In some schools certain books will be featured in the library, in others they will not, and students and their parents will be able to select which they want to be exposed to. Biology will be taught as creationists wish or as Darwinians do. No official doctrine will be imposed, period.

But when government delivers a coercive system of “education”—actually mostly indoctrination, since no alternative is available to the bulk of us who have to pay for and use such a system—any selection of books, magazines, films shown in classes and so forth will amount to censorship of the materials not chosen. They will, in effect, have been banned—whereas in a private system selection by the administrators of some schools, library officials, or teachers will not preclude exclusion by others. It is government’s nearly one-size-fits-all approach to education that stands in the way of free inquiry.

Unfortunately, in many societies people want to mix elements of liberty with elements of coercion, as if that were something trouble free—health food with some poison! It isn’t—the courts will struggle forever with trying to square that circle and politicians will engage in varieties of demagoguery to gain the power over the “educational” turf.

Only by getting government out of education can that matter be made consistent with the principles of a free society and fit for human beings whose minds must forever be free to think. And please don’t even think that government schooling is for the poor among us. There are innumerable sources of help to get poor students educated and, in any case, government is simply no substitute for education.

Column on Krugman’s Trashy Debating Style

Krugman’s Trashy Debating Style

Tibor R. Machan

Looks like critics of the free market are at their whit’s end. At least one of the most prominent of them clearly appears to be.

Princeton economics professor and columnist for The New York Times Paul Krugman has always been discourteous to those with whom he disagrees but his latest exhibition of his way of going about debating issues takes the cake. It used to be that he would call everyone who finds even the slightest merit in free market economic theory a “market fundamentalist,” suggesting thereby that such folks are, like all fundamentalists, mindless in their convictions and merely blindly follow some sacred text or book of instructions. Besides wishing to score points for his statist economic politics by smearing the ideas and methods of his intellectual adversaries, he also regularly distorts the scholarly lay of the land by claiming that America is in the grip of such fundamentalism. This basically meant that throughout the academic landscape departments of economics are filled by people who hold and teach views similar to those held by the late Milton Friedman, F. A. Hayek and Ludwig von Mises (among others).

While these thinkers did consider the free market superior to its statist alternatives–ones that give a decisive role to government intervention in the lives and activities of market agents–they did not, of course, hold identical views. Nonetheless, Krugman lumps them all as fundamentalists. Moreover, he rarely takes on living supporters of the free market, such as James Buchanan or Gary Becker, not to mention such current members of the Austrian School as NYU’s Israel Kirzner. Might we suppose that he doesn’t wish to engage anyone in a dialogue about economic policy but merely discredit them once they could not respond? (Just after Milton Friedman died, he and his frequent co-author Robin Wells penned an extensive and it turns out demonstrably inaccurate essay on Friedman for The New York Review of Books.) Also, despite Krugman’s allegation, there is plainly no dominance of free market thinking in American universities. Mainstream economists are mostly followers of such notables as Paul Samuelson and, of course, John Maynard Keynes, with quite a few who are influenced by the political economics of welfare statism. At the universities where I have taught throughout the last 40 plus years, economists may have been respectful toward free market theorists but were by no means fully in line with their views. So even in this elementary matter, Krugman has it wrong.

But the claim that the country is in the grips of market fundamentalism is also mistaken if it’s meant to apply to official public policies bearing on economic matters. Just for starters, the financial market place has been heavily regulated for over a hundred years–consistent free market theorists usually don’t favor a central bank such as the country’s Federal Reserve Bank (even though, somewhat paradoxically, Alan Greenspan had been such a consistent free market thinker before he was selected to head up the Fed). Furthermore, the plethora of government regulation of various elements of the economy, including virtually all professions (apart from the clergy, journalism, and writers of all stripes who are protected against such regulation by the First Amendment of the U. S. Constitution), is decisive evidence that free market thinking does not dominate public policy in America.

Yet, despite all this, here is a Nobel Laureate and professor from a most prestigious academic institution and columnist for a most distinguished newspaper who keeps trying to distort reality. Why? But I will not speculate, again. Who knows what Krugman’s agenda is.

One thing does clearly stand out in his approach to making a case for more and more government involvement in the economy. This is that he relies extensively on name calling, on besmirching those with whom he disagrees. In a recent column he went so far as to dismiss all those who hold views opposed to his as zombies! Yes, zombies. That means that people, some very distinguished scholars, who are convinced that a public policy of laissez-faire when it comes to a country’s economic affairs is best are all mindless. They do not merely think mistakenly but cannot think at all.

When a critic of a position needs to resort to this kind of technique with which to attract readers of his missives to his own outlook, it suggests that the intellectual merits of that position are truly hopeless. And that is precisely so. Statism in economics has for a long time been proven and shown to be utterly unsupportable, be this the Draconian sort one found in Soviet Russia and finds in North Korea or the less drastic kind that has just produced the worldwide financial meltdown, namely the more or less interventionist welfare state.