Archive for March, 2011

Column on Genuine Military Defense Anyone?

Genuine Military Defense Anyone?

Tibor R. Machan

Why, again, is America getting involved in a war abroad, indeed, thousands of miles from its borders? Is the answer nothing more complicated than “It’s oil, stupid?” If so, this is very wrong.

As much as one may object to the Libyan government’s ownership claims to oil within that country — why on earth would a government own anything when its proper function is to protect the rights of its citizens, including to what they own? — America isn’t supposed to be some kind of meta-police! Certainly spending American taxpayers’ funds on conducting military actions against Libya is going way beyond the proper military role of the American government, which is to protect its citizens’ freedom from domestic and foreign criminals.

It bears remembering here that however off course the American government has gone in its role in the country, the real role it has is to be a government strictly limited to the functions laid out in the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution, which is to stand ready to defend the country when it is attacked or when there is a demonstrably clear and present danger that it will be attacked. So the criteria by which one must judge its conduct, both domestic and international, is whether it amounts to such defense.

Sadly, of course, most politicians and bureaucrats, as well as their cheerleaders in the academy and media, don’t give a hoot about restraining the power of government. After all, the same rationale that serves to justify its relentless intervention in our lives at home is what is used to rationalize it abroad. (Does it occur to folks that despite some of the rhetoric of restraint associated with the political thought of President Obama, it is modern liberalism’s interventionism that removes all principled restraint and leads to the imperialist policies of which this Libyan expedition is a case in point?)

I am talking, of course, from the position of someone who has always agreed with President George Washington’s warnings about foreign entanglements, made in his farewell address and implicit in the basic thrust of the American political tradition of limited government. The limitation is not all that tough to grasp: It is self-defense, just as in the case of when people are justified to use force against each other, namely, when they have been attacked, when they encounter an aggressor. This does not include being deprived of someone else’s productive work or resources, including Libya’s oil. If my neighbor refuses to sell me his produce or labor, I have no right to attack him and try to force him to hand these to me because I want them very badly, even need them desperately.

Such is the proper standard of international military policy for a bona fide free society and whether that goes contrary to domestic intellectuals, the community of nations, the UN or whoever else sounds off about it, it makes no difference. None of that is going to make it right and, furthermore, one rotten consequence of it is that all the rhetorical opposition to international banditry is certainly going to sound mighty hollow!

Once a country’s government abandons the stance by which its use of force is kept to national defense and nothing else (however tempting it is to breach it), it has lost its moral authority as it criticizes other aggressors around the globe, including that of the Libyan government against “its own people.” Rogue regimes everywhere, with their rulers aspiring to impose their will upon everyone, will be able to point to the USA and declare, correctly: “Look at the leaders of the free world, see how they butt into all manner of misconduct by their fellow governments, so clearly it must be permissible for us to act likewise when we disapprove of what others do!”

Just as the philosophy that demands restraining government domestically is the most radical and sound political idea — just compare it to all the imperialism throughout human history embarked upon by hundreds of regimes — so this insistence that governments keep to their oath of protecting the rights of their citizens is radical, sound and sadly neglected.

Column on A Crucial Constitutional Fact

A Crucial Constitutional Fact

Tibor R. Machan

In my efforts to defend the free society and its basic principles, the idea of natural individual human rights, I run across the objection–advance by both conservatives and “liberals”–that once a constitution has been accepted, it overrides those principles. Putting it differently, while perhaps human beings do have the basic rights to life, liberty, property and so forth in, as it is called, the state of nature–that is, prior to the formation of a community with a legal foundation–once that state is given up and a community is formed, they no longer have those basic rights. Instead, they have delegated to government or the legal system the authority to limit the previous freedoms they enjoyed. So instead of the constitution limiting the legal authorities or government, it supposedly limits the rights and liberties of the citizenry.

There is some plausibility in this since in the case of contracts when people enter into them they often bind themselves to obligations and responsibilities they didn’t previously have–e.g., when they marry or lease an apartment. So perhaps the constitution is that kind of a document, through which people commit themselves to abide by rules, even serve rulers, they would be free to ignore prior to entering civil society. This certainly is one rationale being advanced in opposition to libertarians who hold that what the constitution achieves, if properly conceived and instituted, is to establish the protection and elaboration of the rights of the citizenry, something they arguably lacked outside civil society.

Yet even in the admittedly murky case of the U. S. Constitution and the founding of the republic, there is evidence any lay person, let alone legal expert, can detect pointing to the libertarian interpretation that a proper constitution does not give away but attempts to secure individual rights. First of all the Declaration of Independence makes it clear what the American founders set out to do with their efforts to institute a government via the U. S. Constitution. The precise road to the establishment of free government may well be complicated but once one realizes that at heart government is supposed to be institute so as to secure the rights laid out in the body of the Declaration, there is little reasonable doubt that the ensuring setting up of a constitutional government wasn’t meat to abolish individual rights, quite the contrary. Government was meant to give security to those rights in light of the plain fact that without a legal system and its competent administration the rights individual have would be at the mercy of anyone bent upon violating them. Yes, people do have those rights in the state of nature or prior to entering civil society but their security would be dependent entirely on how well individuals are able to defend themselves, without the benefit of a specialized body of men and women who could be counted upon to provide the expertise needed to make those right as secure as humanly possible.

If one then looks at the U. S. Constitution itself, there are other clues to reading it along libertarian lines. The Bill of Rights not only mentions several of the rights that are to be safeguarded by the legal system but makes explicit reference to non-enumerated rights, ones the citizenry retains even if they are not mentioned in the document. This, it would appear, makes it clear, unambiguous, that leaving the state of nature does not imply at all giving up the basic, natural, individual human rights all human beings have.

The point of joining civil society as far as the American system is concerned isn’t, then, to give up but to secure the basic and all the derivative rights human beings have. Those who argue otherwise aren’t on solid grounds. That much is pretty clear, so they must reinterpret the American founding to shore up their case for American statism. Yet some of the most influential legal scholars advance this untenable position–namely that the law in the American tradition aims to limit the liberty and rights of the citizenry–and numerous prominent law schools teach it as well.

Let me make a final point about rights. Much communitarian thinking from both Left and Rights laments that Americans are too fond of rights but not of responsibilities or obligations. Yet if one realizes that having rights also implies having obligations, this lament is quite misguided. Everyone has the legal obligation or responsibility to respect the rights to everyone else. And that is just as it should be, with other obligations and responsibilities left to be worked out in the private sector, mainly via morality and contract law.

Column on Self-Debasement is Wrong

Self-Debasement is Wrong

Tibor R. Machan

As a child and teen I had been very seriously abused, especially while in my father’s “care”. He had in mind to make me into a clone, forced me to do athletics relentlessly and when he detected any resistance on my part, beat me mercilessly. None of this resulted in major damage, fortunately, but his constant ranting at me about how worthless I am because I do not live up to his idiosyncratic expectations did have an impact, at least up to a point. I never quite bought into this view but did often feel uneasy for being rebellious, for insisting to follow my own lights. As if this may be a flaw, even as I insisted in carrying on in my contrary ways even when facing the menacing communists back in Hungary. But luckily I did have the wherewithal to run from my father’s home as soon as I reached the right age. And he only had me to tyrannize for a few years anyway. Still, when I began to read a good deal of classical philosophy and literature, what stood out for me most is the material that affirmed my own importance or value as a human individual.

This came to my mind recently when I ran across a review of a book about the sixteenth century French essayist, Michel de Montaigne because his essays were one of those books I devoured when I was about 19 and served in the US Air Force. At that time I discovered this library of Classic Books and bought them and among those was Montaigne’s Essays, as well as works by Plato, Aristotle, Plutarch, Locke, and a host of others, books I found fascinating as I did my rather mundane chores for the Air Force at Andrews Air Force Base near Washington, DC. (It all got less boring when some friends and I on the base established a theater group, Andrews Players, with its regular slate of plays and even its Andy celebrations!)

In the review of the book about Montaigne I ran across a quoted passage that brought back to mind one of the reasons the Essays left such a strong impression on me. Not that all of Montaigne’s ideas appealed to me but his way of putting them certainly did. But this particular passage, which I am about to quote, showed why what Montaigne wrote helped me come to terms with some personal issues and laid the foundation for subsequent thinking and writing in my life. So here is the passage that brought back to me why I was attracted to Montaigne:

“It is against nature that we despise ourselves and care nothing about ourselves. It is a malady peculiar to man, and not seen in any other creature….It is by a similar vanity that we wish to be something other than we are.”

So my rebellion against my dad’s relentless belittling–supported sadly by much of the moralizing I have encountered in my youth from politicians, the pulpit and writings by theologians and ethicists–had some critics after all! That was a very welcome discovery. It inspired me to examine in more detail why so much of moral philosophy and ethics aims at besmirching human beings, why there is so much misanthropy in the air. After all, judging by the evidence surrounding us, people certainly don’t demonstrate some kind of uniform malfeasance. In fact, all in all–when all the science, technology, literature, poetry, entertainment, art and personal matters are taken into account–people come off to be quite respectable, accomplished, and at least decent. Sure there is much viciousness about, too, but it’s perverse to focus only on that.

Maybe worst of all is when some people, especially those in powerful positions over others–e.g., their children–insist on declaring it evil that others do not follow them in their chosen line of work, politics, economics, entertainment, athletics, and such and try to make the dissidents feel guilty for wanting to go it their own way.

I must tip my hat to Montaigne for setting me on a course that rejected what my father tried to inculcate in me, a hatred of myself.

Column on Irrevokable Punishments

On Irrevocable Punishments

Tibor R. Machan

Capital punishment or the death penalty is usually administered for very grave crimes such as high treason, the murder of police officers, serial murders, etc. I want to provide a line of argument opposed to it. I believe the conclusion of this argument deserves close scrutiny and then adoption.

My idea is somewhat unusual in that I do not argue against the death penalty as a cruel and unusual type of punishment, nor do I claim that the death penalty is barbaric or demeans members of societies in which it is practiced. There certainly are people who do not deserve to remain alive among the rest of us, whose evil doings warrant the most terrible, most severe rejection of them by us. In short, some people deserve to die for what they have done, there is not much doubt about this.

What is wrong with the death penalty is that it is a form of punishment we cannot undo if we are mistaken. So what counts firmly against it is that administering it could very easily amount to imprudence, recklessness. And as a general policy the death penalty marks the society in which it is practiced as systematically so.

There is little doubt that defendants are often found guilty even though they may in fact not be guilty. That is because human beings — even twelve of them working diligently together, let alone twelve who may be angry, prejudiced, emotionally out of control, etc., as well as judges of appeals courts and the federal judiciary — can and often do make mistakes. Usually if mistakes have been made in the criminal justice process and are later discovered, reparations can be made to those who have been wronged. But if a defendant’s punishment included execution, there is no way to remedy matters. It is not possible for us to restore someone to life. It is not possible to apologize and make amends. We are left with the burden of guilt for having given ourselves no option in the wake of a very real possibility, namely, having mistakenly convicted and executed someone.

Thus, being against the death penalty on the basis I have outlined does not mean that convicted criminals are being coddled or safeguarded against the consequences of their actions. Nor does this line of reasoning assume that defendants could not deserve being executed — certainly it is arguable that many who have received the death penalty, as well as some who are about to be sentenced, have wronged others so severely, so viciously, that they have no reason left to live.

Not executing even such persons is only to ensure that we, law-abiding citizens, do not find ourselves acting irresponsibly in the face of our fallibility. We need to make sure that we can recover from mistakes. It is only rational for us to anticipate that now and then this will be necessary and avoid policies that make it impossible.

Indeed, in any given case, very likely the defendants have earned the most severe punishment for their crime, although I am not privy enough to most of them to make such a determination myself. Still, the process may have been flawless.

Yet, it is not at all silly to suppose that — given how close knit many communities are, how a legal community is itself a kind of professional fraternity and sorority, and how many connected to a case are part of a de facto cabal which makes for the possibility of a bad designation of venue — one cannot guarantee against mistakes.

And it is vital that we guard against the worst consequence of such a possibility. Not because of the defendant, but because we ought to want to do the right thing, even if only belatedly.

Column on What Western Elites?

What Western Elites?

Tibor R. Machan

Some avid supporters of the free market write a great deal about Western Elites who, among other things, want to impose democracy on the Middle East and are bent on controlling the world’s financial institutions and doings. Since no person or institution is named, at least so far as I am aware, where these Western Elites are mentioned, I am unable to figure out who are these people, what their broader philosophy or ideology amounts to, why they are doing the things they are doing, including attempting to impose democracy on the people of the Middle East and to control the world’s financial affairs.

Nor, come to think of it, am I provided with enough information to learn what the people who make these points about Western Elites actually believe other than their broad commitment to the free market (of which, of course, there is no example anywhere on the globe).

The place where the missives making these references to Western Elites are made is a Web Site where some of my columns supportive of the fully free, libertarian polity are featured. These columns appear on my own websites and on some others, including in some newspapers and magazines. And those who edit the web site where the talk of Western Elites is so prominent have been very kind to me and have always published the columns they have chosen to feature without asking for revisions. (I have also been interviewed by them and all my answers to their questions have been faithfully included in the published interviews.)

I am not interested in getting involved in some kind of cat fight with anyone, especially not with folks who publish many valuable essays about financial issues, specifically about the U. S. Federal Reserve Bank and the banking system of many Western countries. But I am concerned about the fact that these references to Western Elites are so frequent and yet so vague. I am unable to check out for myself what these Western Elites say or think or write. Where are their works published, in what newspapers, blogs, magazines, and books can one find their positions laid out? From reading the discussions where the Western Elites are mentioned–just as “Western Elites”–I cannot go and research the positions of these folks, see if they ever answer the criticism leveled at them, etc.

This disturbs me somewhat because even in short discussions of other people’s views it would be appropriate to indicate what exactly those views are, how they are put by the very people who hold them (instead of by their critics). When some people’s ideas are discussed, it is always helpful to have at least a few direct quotes from the horse’s mouth–some primary as opposed to secondary references. This is why in scholarly treatments one offers footnotes or end notes or other indicators so that readers are able to follow up on the discussion and make sure they are grasping the positions being examined. It also enhances trust.

Of course, columns cannot produces all this–few would want to read a usual column with a bunch of notes at the end–yet even there a name or two could steer the reader in the right direction for purposes of more detailed study. So, I am hoping that the sentiments expressed in this brief missive will reach those who discuss the Western Elites–people who are evidently not friends of liberty, nor of ordinary and unsuspecting folks around the globe–and that they will help out readers of their essays with a few specifics that can be used by them to do one’s own research. I think this isn’t too much to ask for.

One may point out here that I, too, am failing to mention names here but I am not accusing anyone of being bent on imposing anything on anyone or belonging to some elite and, moreover, the folks who are making reference to Western Elites will probably know who they are if they read this missive and could help me out without at this point being named.