Archive for February, 2011

Column on Multiple Universes Anyone?

Multiple Universes Anyone?

Tibor R. Machan

An issue that has puzzled many philosophers and cosmologists is whether there is just one universe or might there be many. On first inspection the puzzle appears to be bogus. After all, by “universe” is meant “everything that is.” Other terms used for this are “existence,” “reality,” “the world,” and so forth. But leave it to the very bright men and women in some of the least accessible disciplines to come up with notions that are very odd, at least to those who like to be grounded on Terra firma in their thinking.

However, without some of these apparent flights of fancy certain valuable discoveries of the past would have been overlooked. So the question is, does the idea of multiple universes qualify as one of these apparent flights of fancy or is it per chance a bona fide and promising flight of fancy?

One way that some people come to believe in multiple universes is by considering whether there is anything contradictory in postulating it. Thus, for example, married bachelors or square circles would not qualify since these are outright self-contradictory. Nothing married can also be a bachelor, nothing that’s square can also be a circle. Impossible. So is the idea of multiple universes like these, out and out self-contradictory?

Arguably it is not but then perhaps it is almost. If the meaning of “universe” is “all that exists,” then multiple universes would be a self-contradictory idea since if some other thing existed that’s like a universe, it would just be part of the universe, not an additional universe. After all, “everything” means just that, everything without exception. But if “universe” means something specifiable, with borders or limits, like a playground or sphere, then it would not be out and out self-contradictory to suppose that there are others beside this one we are familiar with.

Yet, this latter approach relies on changing the meaning of “universe.” It no longer is used to mean “everything that exists” but, rather, whatever exists in a certain way and then, quite possibly, other things might exists that way too. Not that there is any reason to think they do only that there could be no objection to the possibility of their existence. As many cosmologists and philosophers would put it, multiple universes are logically possible–there is no formal contradiction in thinking they exist.

Yet, of course, that alone doesn’t establish that multiple universes exist, actually, in reality, as it were. They would be, instead, conceivable, thinkable, perhaps. Like three legged ducks on Mars are–thinkable but with no reason to believe they exist.

But some think that anytime one comes up with some idea that might–just barely might–be realized, it should be treated as in fact existent for in the long run, through eternity, everything possible would in fact be (at some time). Eternity is, after all, a very long time and that gives anything that’s even remotely possible some chance of being actual, at some time at least. Who could rule it out–no one could traps around the whole shebang to establish the matter once and for all.

Yet, are we supposed to form our beliefs based on such flimsy possibilities, ones that are deemed possible only because they cannot be ruled out entirely? It seems that the more reasonable thing to do is to regard such logical possibilities–of what might just be possible but no one knows if they are–as mere fancies instead of something worthy of belief. After all, by such reasoning the mere fact that someone might be guilty of a crime of which he or she is accused would justify regarding the person as possibly guilty. This could then lead to their being treated as suspects who should be investigated. Would that be justified? Would it not, instead, amount to harassment?

So the real challenge is what is reasonable to believe in. Many things that do not qualify might possibly be, at some point, somewhere, but unless solid evidence of their reality is at hand, we should most likely postpone any decision about whether they exist. Which, seems to me, goes for multiple universes.

Column on “The Sleep of Reason…”

“The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters”*

Tibor R. Machan

In basic reasoning courses one learns that certain ways of thinking are fallacious, others are sound. Sadly, most students don’t actually remember much of what they learn here because these courses are taught too early in their college years, just at the time they are still celebrating no longer being in high school. (Yes, for nearly two years many students pay hardly any attention to their studies, having been incarcerated in school for 12 years prior to entering college!)

Had they been educated about reasoning well versus badly, they might catch some of the howlers committed by members of the media (or anyone else). As a case in point, I had the distinct displeasure of watching Bill O’Reilly during the 2000 presidential election, when the mess in Florida with those hanging chads was going down. In his ponderous and pompous manner, which apparently many people welcome for some reason, O’Reilly announced in the middle of his coverage of the events that journalistic objectivity is a total myth, that everyone is biased, including him. And not just when they are voicing their particular viewpoint. Also, when they report on facts.

Now here is a good case of muddled and fallacious reasoning. It is inconsistent for a journalist to both make a report about journalism–e.g., that it is always biased–while also claiming that all such reports are biased, which is to say unreliable, distorted, one-sided, partisan or subjective. If the latter were true, than the former could not be treated as also true since it would also fall victim to distortion or bias. And why would anyone trust a journalist who distorts the facts he is supposed to be reporting to us? We could find something far more productive to do.

More generally, any kind of corruption in a profession, such as journalism, cannot be inherent. If it were, no distinction between distorted and dependable reporting could be identified. At least the possibility of credible reporting must exist. It’s like food–not all of it could be poisonous; nor could we all be sick all the time. These pairs of concepts, like poisonous versus healthy, corrupt versus honest, biased versus objective, etc., and so forth are meaningful only if both were possible. Just one of them on its own makes no sense. Like beginning versus end, or up versus down–they make sense only when paired.

Anyway, quite a few people get tripped up by forgetting these and many other elementary points of human reasoning. They will accept the idea, for example, that all human thought is fallacious; that everyone is always lying; that our minds are innately defective, etc. None of this could be so, in part because then these reports about us would themselves be unreliable since we made them with our human minds (and our human minds, remember, always distort everything, etc., etc.).

Why is there so much of this sort of babbling about when it is so flawed? (Another infamous case in point is “All property is theft” since theft presupposes the existence of untainted property.) One reason is that a great many people are misanthropes. They are very eager to demean humanity, to put it down as something worthless or inherently flawed. So they attack our most vital faculty, the human mind. (Maybe in fact they are projecting!)

The most prominent example of this is a certain version of the idea of original sin, in the form that states that human beings are basically and thoroughly sinful from the git-go. (If all it means is that human beings are capable of being wicked, well that’s no news!) Another source is the famous and famously misunderstood idea the comes to us from Socrates, the main character of all those great Platonic dialogues. Socrates is supposed to have said, if Plato is to be believed, that the only thing he knows is that he knows nothing (and that no one who thinks he is wise is really wise, including he).

These are very paradoxical claims to make and, most probably, their point is ironic not literal. They could be one approach to keeping hubris in check, making sure no one takes himself too seriously, no one gets carried away with his or her cleverness. This is also where the idea “sophistry” comes from, of cleverness masquerading as wisdom. Sophists in Plato’s time where those who pretended to be wise but in fact merely exhibited technical skill in argumentation, a bit like attorneys are reputed to do.

It would be nice if all those hours of sitting in basic reasoning classes actually left their mark on all students. But since you can become a famous anchor on TV while committing lacunae galore, I suppose many fail to see the benefit from it.

*Francisco José de Goya y Lucientes.

Column on Democrats Against Democracy

Democrats Against Democracy?

Tibor R. Machan

Am I alone in finding the Wisconsin Democrats who have been AWOL anything but democratic? Sure, they weren’t doing anything illegal like soldiers who go absent without leave. But that’s a legalism that makes little difference here. What counts is that these Democrats refuse to join their Republican colleagues in an effort to sort out how the state might be brought to its economic senses.

Just think of it like a household where enormous debts have accumulated because some members have spent and committed for future payment way more than the family resources and now something needs to be done so as to put the family back on some kind of manageable budget, which will entail reducing allowances and restricting what can be spent on food, household goods, entertainment, education and the rest. So some of the family call a meeting to discuss just how this should be accomplished but, alas, half of them refuse to show.

Except in Wisconsin it’s worse. In a household the few members who do stay to try to deal with the situation are usually authorized to make decisions without those who refuse to take part but in Wisconsin the rules of the process make this approach impossible–a quorum is required to do anything at all.

Now I believe those who take advantage of this and block the work by going AWOL are not serving their constituents properly at all. Because, remember, you cannot get blood out of a turnip. The coffers are empty. The only alternatives are to default or to impose such high taxes that it will kill Wisconsin’s economy–unemployment will increase, investments will vanish, shops and firms will close by the droves. And who wins? It is the Democrats who seem to have only one objective, namely, not to be legally associated with making cuts that will impact public workers. Why? Because by their lights the constituents are too stupid to realize that, well, you cannot get blood from a turnip! So these citizens will not see the effort to make cuts as a means to save at least some elements of the system, to make substantial retirement payments still possible. No. If you just reduce these retiree’s payments, they will certainly retaliate by voting you out of office.

It is at this point that one can raise the question, where is there some leadership around here? Why don’t the Democrats come back and teach their constituency some elementary accounting, like that one needs to makes cuts when one has no funds with which to keep paying the hefty pensions. Indeed, this is one of the more reasonable roles of politicians, to explain public finance to voters instead of to keep promising to deliver what cannot be delivered!

But the Democrats have chosen another path, at least for a long period until finally the Republican colleagues managed to come up with a few adjustments. As reported in The Washington Post,

“In Ohio, Republican lawmakers agreed to modify a bill that would have banned collective bargaining, allowing state workers to negotiate on wages. Michigan’s GOP governor offered to negotiate with public employees rather than create political gridlock. Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels (R) called on GOP lawmakers to abandon their “right to work” bill that would have made it a misdemeanor for an employer to require workers to become or remain members of a labor union.

“Even in Wisconsin–where more than 60,000 demonstrators have camped out at the Capitol for the past week to protest a budget plan by Gov. Scott Walker (R) to end collective-bargaining rights for public employees–Republicans and Democrats took a small but significant step toward resolving their clash….”

It was about time. What is still a mystery is just how all these phony obligations to public workers, obligations that were known as impossible to fulfill from the git-go, seem acceptable to make in the first place. If you work for me and my budget goes to a certain level but you demand I pay you a lot me, is it not fraud for me to promise that I will pay you way beyond it? How come something like that isn’t the focus of the debate? Why is it even permissible to make such promises? It would seem to me even illegal to do so, no?

But it looks like politicians are held to a far lower standard of negotiation than we ordinary citizens are when we deal with one another. And the Democrats in many states would appear to be willing to corrupt their precious democracy itself so as to try to avoid the problems with their evidently reckless public finance policies. But then they have corrupted the idea of limited government all along, so this isn’t a stretch for them.

Column on Are Public Unions Unjust?

Are Public Unions Unjust?

Tibor R. Machan

Bona fide Labor unions work within a free market system where firms compete for customers who are normally able to switch from sellers of wares and services if they want to. Public works are noncompetitive, however. Workers who belong to public unions conduct their labor negotiations without their employers facing any competitors. The USPS, for example, has a monopoly over first class mail delivery; teachers at public schools are working for monopolistic employers–students must attend school and the funds are confiscated through taxation and not obtained through voluntary exchange. So, as the saying goes, public workers have the taxpayers over a barrel–there are no alternatives and in most cases one cannot refuse to deal with these workers.

So public workers unions are not genuine free market agents. As such they are able to have their terms met by the taxpaying public basically at the point of a gun. The public must deal with these workers otherwise they face legal sanctions. There is nowhere else to go apart from moving out of the state to another where the same situation obtains, where once again public unions possess monopoly powers and costumers have nowhere else they can turn to get a different deal or to avoid dealing altogether.

In a genuine free market place unionization would involve organizing workers in a firm that competes with others for costumers and with which costumers are free not to enter into trade. So the unions would not be able to engage in extortionist practices, making demands that must by law be met. If one’s child attends a public–or, as some prefer calling them, government–school, and teachers decide they want a higher salary or other benefits, the option of leaving the school doesn’t exist because one will be taxed to pay for it anyway. The same basic setup exists when it comes to any public work and unions. So for these folks to unionize is quite unjust.

Indeed, the rationale behind public works is not the same as behind private works. In the latter all the parties are involved so as to get the best deal they can find and bargaining occurs to bring this about. Public works, however, are supposed to amount to public service, something done not for profit but as a commitment to the public good or interest. Anyone who views public work as if it were the same as private work is suffering from a misconception or perpetrating a hoax.

Accordingly, all the people who work for governments, which are all supported through confiscatory payments–that is, taxation–are strictly speaking ineligible for unionization.

Public work in contrast to private business is something legally required and paid for involuntarily. So unlike going to the grocery store, of which there can be several in one’s neighborhood and which one can actually avoid if one decides to do with little food and household supplies, in the case of public services citizens are not free to deal with others or walk away from the providers.

Clearly, then, the original idea of labor organization into unions does not fit the public service situation. Unfortunately, this is rarely kept in mind. Thus when in Wisconsin or anywhere else for that matter public service employees are insisting on retaining the benefits they have obtained through bargaining with the government they were getting a very special deal. Public policy imposed their services on the citizenry and now the citizenry is no longer able to come up with the loot previously extracted from them via what comes to extortionist means. Yet, because much of the population–egged on by people who would very likely just as soon impose public services on everyone in every line of work (just check out Paul Kurgman’s column in The New York Times last Monday [2/21/11])–has sympathy for the usual laborer or worker when these are often dealing with powerful firms in a free market, the unions are getting a free pass in their current conflict with their employers.

This situation needs to be seriously reexamined. It may indeed imply that the entire idea of public service, let alone public service unionization, is misguided.

Column on Making versus Owning

Making versus Owning

Tibor R. Machan

Now it is obvious to most of us that one need not make something so as to own it, fair and square. No one made one’s eyes, kidneys, and other organs and limbs yet they belong rightfully to the person who has them, no one else.

Beyond this of course one way to come to own something is by creating it, like a table or musical composition. So often making something makes it one’s own. But that’s not the only way one can come to own something. One can receive something as a gift! It then belong to one, no one else. One can find something that’s been abandoned or that’s just out there in the wilds. Unless someone else has come upon it and laid claim to it, one can come to own it this way, as well. Certainly if I find a gold nugget on an unowned desert or mountain, I can come to own this and no one may thereafter take it from me with impunity.

While all this would seem to be plain common sense, it needs often to be reiterated because the failure to keep it in mind provides would be confiscators of private property the warped idea that they may get stuff from us if only we didn’t make it. This notion of the public ownership of unearned or unmade holdings has tyrannical consequences.

Those who spread the ruse that we cannot own what we haven’t produced hope to persuade us that they, on the other hand, can. This is, of course, fallacious thinking, the fallacy of the non sequitor–it doesn’t follow! But because ownership and production or creation are so closely associated in our minds, it sounds like there may be something to the idea. There isn’t! And it is vital to remember it because otherwise the notion can unleash tyranny, Draconian and petty, all over the place. The promoters of the notion that you must have made it so as to own it would like nothing more than have you hand over to them whatever you didn’t come by via earning or making it. But it is clear, once considered carefully, that nothing like that follows. They have no right to any of it, you do.

There is, of course, no reasonable doubt that when one makes something one is very likely its owner, although there are quite a few exceptions. If I hire you to be my scout for valuable resources and you come up with such, it is very like that these will belong to me, not to you. What belongs to you is the salary I promised you for your scouting services. But what you discovered will rightfully be mine. (I might also have lost all my investment in you had you come up empty handed!) Also, if you came across some valuable item in my backyard while attending one of my festivities, what you found would not be yours but mine, although you need not call to my attention that you did find it.

Let’s just conclude from these minimal reflections that ownership–the right to private property–can be a fairly complicated matter. While its foundation is simple enough in most cases, its elaboration in a complicated society required a nuanced legal system, with a solid tradition of property law. This is why it is vital that no legislature or court be tolerated when it distorts private property rights (e.g., via misapplied doctrines like eminent domain). And in order to prevent the corruption of the principle of private property rights in a complex society, the citizenry–via research and scholarly centers, schools, punditry, think tanks and so forth–needs to be vigilant. Otherwise the sophistic enemies of freedom will triumph.

And those sophists are not resting, believe me. All one needs to do is read some of the publications–journals, magazines, newsletters, blogs, etc.–produced by these sophists to learn just how diligent they are in their efforts to unravel the private property rights system that had been developed over time under the influence of the classical liberals.