Archive for July, 2011

Column on Live and Let Live–not in Silverado

Live and Let Live: not in Silverado

Tibor R. Machan

Where I live quite a few neighbors are what are affectionately called Tree Huggers. What such neighbors, by no means even the majority, have in common is that they oppose anything that remotely resembles development (e.g., including a tiny wine tasting structure one of their neighbors wants to erect). But of course their main targets are any new homes that might be built, not to mention any groups of homes someone might build on his or her rightly owned land. It makes no difference at all that the members of the Tree Huggers do not own the land on which the development might occur. No sir. They don’t mean to actually purchase such places, to put their money where there mouths are, only to prevent those who own them to make use of it, especially built any homes there.

It has been a long fight around the globe to establish the institution of private property rights. In most previous eras monarchs owned the realm and ordinary people were sometimes privileged to live and work on it. Private property rights, while always discussed by some political theorists and economists, had for centuries been denied to the bulk of the population. Only select folks could own land and built on it as they deemed desirable. The rest were, essentially, serfs or at least men and women without their rights acknowledged and protected in the law.

Then such developments as the establishment of the United States of America changed things somewhat. The doctrine of individual natural rights was worked out and implemented on the American continent and a few other places, although the assignment of private property had always been controversial. Still, the idea that ordinary citizens could own property–from a shack all the way to a huge ranch or factory–caught on. And when this occurred the liberty of millions became more secure then ever before. On your own land you can do as you will and if the law backs this up, you can be secure in what you choose to do. It is this realm of individual choice–applied to single individuals or voluntary groups of them–that served as a basic liberator. Churches, businesses, homes, recreation facilities, communes, kibbutzes, farms, ranches, and so forth could all exist with substantial legal protection–that, at least, was the idea even if not consistently and fully implemented. But it gained respect and that itself was a big leap forward in the realization of human liberty and independence, not to mention productivity and prosperity.

But this idea never quite became widespread enough public policy. Even the U. S. Constitution mostly assumed it, although it is mentioned in the 5th amendment. And many state constitutions make explicit mention of it and its protection in the law.

Yet, the idea and its institution met with much resistance from those who believe that they may run roughshod over other people and what belongs to them, just as the monarchs did all along when they wouldn’t recognized the private property and other rights of the people who lived in the realms they often brutally ruled. Fancy arguments had been invented and deployed to rationalize the ongoing violation of private property rights. For socialists like Karl Marx and Frederick Engels the denial or abolition of private property rights was a necessary step toward their ideal collectivist system, one in which a few people get to plan how everyone else is to live, work, create, etc.

In our era, at least in the West, it is under the guise of caring for the environment that many eagerly violate individual private property rights. In Silverado, a canyon community in Orange County, California, the Tree Huggers carry on this crusade to plan the lives of others, never mind that they have no proper authority to do so, only sometimes the legal power they have immoral obtained. In protest of this, I have placed a bumper sticker on my car that reads: “Share the Canyons,” indicating that it would be right and proper not to interfere with people who want to come to live here and make use of their land and other property in peaceful ways.

Many of my neighbors have stopped to comment on and quite interestingly approve the idea on that bumper sticker. As long as one doesn’t use one’s property to invade someone else’s or injure another person, there is every reason to uphold and respect private property rights–for everyone. Everyone has a right to liberty and without private property no liberty can flourish, only permissions and privileges granted to people by their more powerful neighbors.

Recently I was picking up my mail at the tiny post office in Silverado and as I was getting back into my vehicle someone from behind shouted out asking what my bumper sticker meant. I told him that it means that whoever can obtain, via free exchange or any other voluntary means, a piece of property in the canyon ought to be at liberty and welcome to do so. Upon having said this the person who posed the question started to shout at me, angrily voicing the idea that he doesn’t want anyone to come into his canyon and do stuff he doesn’t welcome. I don’t recall exactly the sentences he shouted at me but I do recall that he kept repeating the phrase “my canyon” over and over again. It was amazing, actually, since there were a few other canyon residents standing by, observing this, not to mention me who lives there as well. But evidently with no self-awareness whatsoever this person kept shouting as if the canyon community belonged only to him.

Just like the old monarchs, who believed they ruled the realm. Right here in the United States of America, a country founded on the abolition of monarchical rule! Go figure!

Column on Am I A Corporate Shill?

Am I A Corporate Shill?

Tibor R. Machan

It has always been my view that corporations are groups of people united for various purposes, often to benefit from a business venture guided by competent management. Initially I worried little about the legal details, nor even about the legal history. A bunch of people incorporate or form a company to achieve certain perfectly acceptable, even admirable goals. Sometimes this can be done via a partnership, sometimes by incorporating, sometimes for profit, sometimes not.

Then I started to get involved in political philosophy and found that there is a whole lot of hostility toward these outfits, mainly from Leftists but also from some so called left-libertarians. I am not sure why from the latter. I figured why from the former, though, namely because promoting one’s economic prosperity either alone or in the company of a large number of others had to amount to ugly greed. And that I found to be way off course, just the sort of nonsense that they tried drumming into me in my native Hungary back in the lovely days of Stalinism.

These days, for example, if you are not falling in line with the anthropogenic global warming message, it is very likely that you will be labeled by the true believers a shill for corporations. Sure enough, a few days ago I sent some numbers and analyses to someone I know who is an AGW champion because I get along with him reasonably well (although we aren’t friends, merely pals, perhaps) and I always hold out hope that people will consider arguments that go against their beliefs and support mine.

I received an email from this bloke dismissing what I sent to him as the production of corporate shills, specifically people funded by the Koch brothers, Charles and David. The Koch brothers are indeed wealthy from doing very solid business in oil-refinement, I think, but I am not sure. I know both of them just a tad, enough to know that they are honestly convinced of whatever they claim to believe and don’t put the cart before the horse by manufacturing evidence, argument and research so as to buttress their pet notions or personal or economic interests. As with me, so with them, if I recall right, the convictions in the sphere of political economy came way before the chance to make some money from working in support of them. Indeed, I became a libertarian and a defender of the free market system of economics, first and then I did make a few bucks from speaking at some conferences, publishing, etc. While I certainly wish I could have made much more money from all this, I didn’t and the idea of holding some belief about something not because I thought it reasonable and true but because it supported some prejudice of mine would be so self-debasing that I could not do it.

Nonetheless the pal of mine had no trouble implicating me in selling my soul to corporate interests. Just how does he know this? And how does he know that the Koch brothers do not sincerely believe in libertarianism but support it merely because they see economic benefit from it?

Now it is true that even some libertarian economists are reductionists and hold that everything someone does comes from the belief that it will promote one’s economic advantages. On this score Marxists and some free market theorists see eye to eye. But whatever the source of the idea, it is bunk. Most of us haven’t much of a clue about whether holding certain beliefs will advance our prosperity. We may come to accept that there is more hope for us being libertarians than being communitarians or Marxists but no one can be sure. In my own profession, as a university educator, I am pretty sure in retrospect that I would have made out much better financially and in terms of holding a prominent post had I never found libertarianism convincing, had I joined the bulk of academic political philosophers who tend to be located on the Left.

I suppose when you have no arguments it is then tempting to impugn your adversary’s integrity. It’s a coward’s escape, I believe.

Column on The Pleasures of Humiliation?

The Pleasures of Humiliation?

Tibor R. Machan

Call me old fashioned, and in some matters I proudly am, but for me entertainment needs to contain a solid dose of enjoyment. So when I select my movies or TV fare, I usually check whether I will be enjoying what I am about to encounter. Of course, sometimes I want to experience tragedy, information, complexity, and other ingredients in what I chose for my entertainment but even then some upbeat stuff must be a feature of it.

I have only very few contemporary television programs I choose to watch — mostly some science and wilderness shows (the latter usually with the sound muted so I don’t have to hear the lopsided pleadings of environmentalists while I get the benefits of learning about and witnessing the Russian or Alaskan wilderness). Then there are some news programs I watch almost regularly, although if they are too lopsided in their viewpoint, like Bill O’Reilly or Fareed Zakaria, I will quickly, after watching for just several minutes, delete them from my list of recorded shows.

As far as entertainment is concerned, there are again only a few offerings I find pleasurable. One is White Collar, another Burnt Notice (most of the time, especially when Michael’s mother, played by Sharon Gless, who’s a consummate guilt warrior, is absent). Mostly I stick to reruns of Perry Mason, Have Gun Will Travel, Rockford Files, or Maverick. I did enjoy Boston Legal, even though the political and public policy values guiding it, apart from the respectable bits of the rule of law, were often despicable — corporation and profit bashing were running themes.

I usually check out new shows, once or twice, and that’s what I did with the recently begun Suits. So far it has proved to be a disappointment for me, mostly because the two initial shows contained orgies of humiliation among the characters as the primary means of entertainment, of the fun being offered up viewers. Yes, the repartee has been bright and fast but mostly at someone’s expense. Indeed, the most likable character, the one with the brains and with solid work habits and ethics, is constantly subjected to one-upmanship by other characters who are cads and usually play his administrative superiors. And those, then, are also subjected to humiliation by their superiors, and on and on and on. I suspect that somewhere down the line most of these arseholes will get their comeuppance but in the meantime viewers must endure this ongoing torture by the nitwits of their betters. It is like those violent programs, including movies, in which a great deal of brutality is depicted, relentlessly, before finally the perpetrators get what’s coming to them.

I am just not one who finds such cruelty, whether psychological or physical, enjoyable. Some of this may well have to do with me personally, since I have experienced a fairly hefty dosage of both early in my life. And, yes, entertainment is, to a significant extent, personal, maybe even subjective — although that is a misleading characterization of playing to people’s idiosyncrasies. But in fact I am quite baffled when I find that someone I respect and like finds programs enjoyable in which such devices are routinely deployed. In Suits — and the two installments I’ve seen may not be representative of what’s coming — not only is humiliation a constant among the players but there is little of substance beyond it. Boston Legal, even when morally obtuse, had at least the steady dosage of fictional law to keep one’s interest. While most television fiction, as well as movies, dwell too much on relationship issues, at the expense of seeing anyone doing any kind of creative, productive work, the legal fictions tend to have some substance, too. But in the two episodes of Suits there was nothing much to demonstrate the competence of any of the characters. Mostly it was all about mutual and nasty manipulation, with very few admirable attributes on display.

By the way, I am an avid reader of novels, especially WW II spy stories by, among others, Philip Kerr, and also of legal thrillers (when they get to the attempt to solve crimes, resolve disputes in court, etc.), as well as a few plain old whodunits. (I am a fan of Henning Mankell, despite his naive politics. And I am a great fan of Daniel Silva and Alan Furst.) But I also readily put down a novel even if I have reach the halfway point if something annoying starts to dominate it.

The cynicism and misanthropy of the two installments of Suits that I have seen are for me very unpleasant. Still, on the advice of family and friends, I will give the show one or two more chances. Yet time is precious when one gets old and so I think I may be looking for some more reruns, like Barney Miller, perhaps?