Archive for October, 2011
Markets aren’t Zero Sum Games
Tibor R. Machan
The more I read about “Occupy Wall Street,” including the pundits who apologize for it, the more I find that people still believe that market exchanges are zero-sum games wherein for someone to gain, someone must lose. But this is plain bunk, as economists since Adam Smith have shown conclusively.
But consider–is a marathon race a zero-sum game? Does someone’s running really fast make all others run slow? Clearly not. How fast the winner runs doesn’t slow down or speed up the losers. When a person buys a watch at the mall, both the merchant and the costumer are getting what they want from the other, no one is being ripped off. And the same applies to all honest deals on Wall Street. I buy some shares in a company and it is doing well with its products or services and so the monetary value of the shares increases. Those who didn’t buy these shares do not make the gains I did but not because I prevented them from doing so, only because the purchasing public didn’t want the services or products of the companies in which they bought shares, unlike in the case of my choice of company.
Like marathon races, market processes do not involve what happens in a boxing ring–no one is knocked out so that another may be triumphant. Yet it seems nearly all those who sympathize with the people marching in the Occupy Wall Street parades, as well as the people who speak up for them in their midst, fail to see the difference.
Put bluntly, Bill Gates billions do not make me or anyone else poor. In fact, his billions make it possible for a lot of folks to improve on their economic circumstances. Bill goes out and buys a lot of stuff or just gives his money away in Africa and people will then go out and maker standard purchases with these funds. No one has lost anything, not a dime.
All the wealthy folks in my neighborhood who live on lakes in fancy homes and have yachts and Bentleys aren’t making anyone poor. So resenting them is nothing but sheer envy, a filthy vice! Like hating someone with a great voice when one cannot carry a tune! Or a tall basketball star when one is too short to play the game.
We are often very different from one another–indeed we are all individuals and then gather into groups–and some of this means that what we have stuff and opportunities that others do not, whether they badly want it and even need it. But those who have it aren’t guilty of any wrongdoing except in the fantasy world of egalitarians which is, being a fantasy world, a distortion of the real world in which problems need to be solved. This is, however, a welcome thing to most of us who give it but even a little thought. After all, since you aren’t like me, you will want different stuff from what I will and that way we can trade quite fruitfully, with both of us ahead once the trade is done. Yes, sometimes the market value of what you get from the trade is much lower than of that which I get from it. But so what? If I badly want to have your worn out gloves and am willing to give you my fabulous sunglasses for them, some will see this as a huge rip off but who are they to tell? In most cases they wouldn’t know and in any case they have no business butting in. (They may offer some advice but that’s all.)
Ever since I arrived on these shores many, many moons ago, I have had zero sympathy for people who insisted that we should all enjoy equal wealth, equal advantages, etc. Why? No reason. Maybe what such folks missed out in their education is the study of Orwell’s Animal Farm, Vonegut’s Harrison Bergeron, and Rand’s Anthem. I see get thee back to the classroom and off the streets, especially Wall Street.
Occupy Wall Street’s Lack of Focus
Tibor R. Machan
Rolling Stone magazine ran a piece recently arguing that what OWS is doing doesn’t amount to attacks on money or banking but is aimed at corruption. While this is a spin that may work for some folks, it doesn’t sound credible for me.
When someone, some organization or an institution is charged with corruption, this is a serious matter. It is comparable to accusing some people of malpractice in medicine, education, engineering or the like. And such a charge requires specific proof in order to make it credible. Otherwise is it irresponsible.
All the while OWS has been afoot, however, no specific accusations have been laid out by the participants or leaders or supporters. It is all vague and unfocused. It is much more like scapegoating those on Wall Street, given that the group doesn’t bother to be specific and fails, moreover, to go after the main culprits, for example those in Washington who urged the banks to make borrowing easy. In 1992 Bill Clinton’s administration did, in fact, implore banks to do just that, through Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, for example. So why are these not the targets of OWS?
Of course there is another little thing that’s odious about OWS. This is the use of the term “occupy.” That term is used to refer to what huge, imperialist countries do with some of their neighbors, namely, send in troops to occupy them, to run roughshod over them, and to raid and pilfer them good and hard. Is this what OWS is proposing to do with the firms that are located on Wall Street or associated with them? Are they going to invade these just as Hitler did some of Germany’s neighbors and Stalin did with the Soviet Union’s? I do not believe this is any kind of an attractive image or even analogy. It easily makes OWS out to be aggressors.
There is no doubt that OWS folks can list numerous general failings that have occurred on Wall Street, plenty of misdeeds that have been perpetrated thereabouts, usually with the support of Washington’s politicians and bureaucrats. Yet there doesn’t appear to be much recognition of this within the ranks of the OWS folks. When they are interviewed they tend to lash out imprecisely, even blindly, and mostly at those in American society who are doing reasonably well, economically. The strategy seems to be to garner the sadly widespread prejudice around the country directed at those in the business community. In other words, OWS appears to be but a current version of the age old mentality and practice of business bashing. This is what fueled much of what the Third Reich was all about, including the deadly anti-Semitism evidenced during that era. While OWS doesn’t show direct hostility to Jews, it does appear to pick on those within the business community, giving the clearly guilty politicians a pass at the same time.
Of course there are other problems with many who join OWS, not the least of which is the mentality most of them share about how they are entitled to free goods and services from others in American society. Protesting tuition at higher educational institutions is but a more glaring symptom of this, the belief that others must be forced to pay for the education of young protesters. Why exactly? (Here one failing of the media covering OWS becomes quite evident since hardly any journalists pose the challenging question to protesters about why other people’s resources ought to be confiscated so as to support them?) And if the purpose of some protesters is to complain about unemployment and general economic malaise, wouldn’t it be imperative that they actually figure out who is mostly responsible for these, what policies have produced them? And shouldn’t members of the media press the issue with them when they are being interviewed?
Or is OWS simply a noisy lament with nothing better than ignorance backing it, a kind of shaking one’s fist at the sky when one’s picnic has been rained out? Which isn’t a very useful thing and certainly points at no one who may be guilty of anything at all.
Liberty and Virtue
Tibor R. Machan
In order to begin this essay with a degree of coherence, I need first to discuss two types of liberty. The one kind I will designate as metaphysical liberty; it means the capacity for initiating, starting or being the first cause of movement supposedly possessed by some things in nature–maybe by human beings, maybe by God. That is the first type of liberty that is relevant to the issue of virtue.
The second type of liberty is political. It is the condition that may exist among human beings when they do not intrude on one another, do not limit one another’s choices and/or conduct. Political liberty refers to that state of organized social life in which individuals are not deprived of their sovereignty, autonomy or personal authority, or a sphere of jurisdiction concerning their lives and works.1
These are elementary ways of discussing these two forms of liberty. In order to have a coherent conception of these two types of liberty, one would have to develop an elaborate philosophical analysis. For example, political liberty is easily defined in terms of persons not intruding on one another, but exactly what constitutes an intrusion and what doesn’t is not easy to spell out. Does looking or staring at someone amount to intruding on that person? In some cultures that constitutes an intrusion and in others it does not. Talking to someone is not an intrusion in most cases, but some consider it intrusive to say certain things to women or about God. In some political ideologies conscripting someone’s labor is not an intrusion because it is believed that we all naturally owe one another some services or even belong to society. In others it is intrusive because a person and his or her skills are seen as inviolable. So spelling out exactly the meaning of political liberty by reference to intrusion, or invasion, or violation is not simple. One has to know the borders that are to be placed around people and which are to prohibit entry past those borders, and where permission is needed for entering them and how those borders get established. That is very complicated and most political philosophies in the liberal tradition revolve around spelling out what those borders are.
The liberal idea of the spontaneous order, popularized by F. A. Hayek, depends on the idea of borders, as well, because the conduct or behavior that creates it without macroeconomic planning assumes that the agents are not being regimented, controlled, or coerced. But what is the agent? Does an agent include his or her labor and property? Does it include one’s thought? Put differently, what does “oneself” include in its meaning? What does personal sovereignty amount to? Developments that lead to a spontaneous order presuppose this personal sovereignty which needs to be delineated or described, something very difficult to do.2
The issue of metaphysical liberty is difficult to spell out in detail and coherently, but on the simple level it concerns whether there is free will. Are human beings in some way responsible for what they do as agents or are they merely linked in the infinite chain of causal relationships?
Metaphysical liberty–the possibility of free will–appears, on first inspection, to fly in the face of the idea of universal causation. If the world is structured in some rational form or another, this idea would be indispensable. Now does universal causality allow for metaphysical liberty? Is it possible that despite the existence of such a causal order, individual human beings are in some way responsible for what they do and may therefore be blamed and praised for their behavior?
In any case, the two kinds of liberty, metaphysical and political, are not that simple to identify. Indeed, in a philosophical discussion, to start with definitions is not useful. Most of the disputations occur where definitions come into the picture. How, indeed, should we define things? Is a definition arbitrary, stipulated, conventional, traditional or in some sense real? These are basic philosophical issues, so merely to start with defining liberty, be it metaphysical liberty or political liberty, is of no great use.
Let me note that of the two major schools alleging the existence or possibility of metaphysical liberty, one holds that this liberty exists because some random element exists in the universe. The idea goes all the way back to Lucretius, the student of Epicurus who maintained that although there is an order of nature governed by the laws of physics, tiny random particles also exist that exhibit little swerves in nature. It is these random particles that give rise to liberty or some element of metaphysical freedom.
The other metaphysical account of liberty is held to be compatible with the idea of universal causation, not an exception to it. Here the notion is that although there exists, of course, universal causation, there can be different types of causes. The causal relationship between Mozart and his music is not the same as the causal relationship between, say, a push on a pool stick and the movement of the cue ball that ensues. There are different kinds of causes and the differences depend upon the kind of entities involved in the causal relationship. If it is a human being and music, the causal relationship will be very different from that involved between a dog and the production of its pups, or an earthquake and its destruction of a city. These are all causal relationships but they involve different kinds of causes.
We then can appreciate the idea that there would be some causal relationships where some entities initiate the cause, that is, they may have the capacity to begin a causal relationship. In other words, they may be first causes. Very often people, of course, regard God as a first cause. But some philosophers regard human mental activity as a first cause. And there are some scientists who share this view. Ayn Rand, for example, understood causation this way.3 And Roger W. Sperry, the Nobel Prize winner in connection with his split brain research, also believes that the human mind/brain has the capacity for initiating action and thus is a first cause of the person’s behavior. He calls the kind of causation involved “downward causation.”4
So quite probably universal causation is compatible with free will, that is, with the idea that a human being initiates some of what he or she does in life. One may not find all this persuasive, but it is worth investigating, because theoretically it is more pleasing than either hard determinism or the idea of randomness in nature. The most recent attempt to secure free will via randomness comes by way of the famous Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle.
Werner Heisenberg, the Nobel Laureate physicist who lived in the earlier part of the twentieth century, argued that we aren’t able to establish determinacy in nature at the subatomic level. From this it has been inferred that there may indeed be actual randomness or indeterminacy in nature.
There is a great deal of dispute, however, whether his theorems really imply randomness in the universe. Some maintain that they do and that what he discovered is not just an epistemological limitation which bars us from knowing the determinacy but actually identifies indeterminacy in nature. That’s probably the most recent way of trying to find some account of metaphysical liberty, namely, by means of this doctrine nature contains indeterminacy. (Sir) Karl Popper seems to have found this idea promising.
Throughout the history of ideas different people have played with these two variations of the idea of metaphysical liberty. Of course metaphysical liberty contrasts with the two opposing doctrines: hard determinism and soft determinism.
The idea of metaphysical freedom is closely connected with the notion of virtue and vice, or moral behavior and misbehavior. In contrast, most people tend to accept some version of determinism that rules out free will. Hard determinism is the doctrine that everything in nature behaves analogously to the way bricks are moved when they collide and cause each other’s movements, or the way in which a locomotive causes the movement of the cars that it pulls. This view embraces strict, efficient causation that classical physics describes. Thomas Hobbes is a clear case of a hard determinist, and so are a number of philosophers of the Enlightenment, interestingly enough.
Soft determinism is a kind of indirect hard determinism. The idea here is that unlike in the hard determinist case where the bricks just hit at each other we have a kind of soft, rubbery buffer which then will cause the next movement. There is something that shapes the human will so that it exerts its particular kind of influence on behavior.
Of course, the reason that this is an interesting issue is that human beings continue to hold one another responsible for bad deeds and sometimes for good deeds. The inclination of human beings to attribute free will to one another is unceasing. Is the whole idea of moral responsibility and moral choice and thus moral good and moral evil an illusion that we human beings are stuck with, or is it something that has philosophical, objective validity? That is the substance of our concern about this issue.
Even those who believe in determinism or behaviorism tend to ask us to believe them when they expound their doctrine. And when you talk about “what people should do,” there is an implication that they have some sort of choice about the matter. They may either do it or they may not do it, but they should do it. If it is not implied that they have some freedom, then there would be no question of should or shouldn’t; it is only a matter of whether we can predict that they will or they won’t. “Should” drops out of the question.
There is a famous philosophical slogan which became prominent in post-Kantian philosophy and the slogan goes “ought implies can.” It indicates that if one can meaningfully say that someone ought to do X, then one must also admit that someone has the capacity either to do or not to do X. If you deny the capacity then the meaningfulness that someone ought to do X is canceled.
A good many philosophers who are determinists have concluded that in some sense the idea of moral responsibility is fiction or meaningless. (Logical positivists viewed it that way.) Many have prophesied that the whole field of ethics or moral philosophy will probably be taken over by psychology. There will be no more talk about should and should not or ought and ought not because there simply isn’t any philosophical base for such talk.
One can see why this is a problem. Most of us are divided on the issue of determinism versus freedom in our everyday conduct and reflections, on whether human beings initiate their conduct or not. Suffice it to say that if one does accept the idea that human beings have moral responsibilities that they can fulfill or neglect or corrupt or avoid or in some sense fail at, it commits one to the view that there must be metaphysical freedom.
The metaphysical freedom that I find evident is one that is Aristotelian or Randian. It leaves the law of universal causation intact, as compared to the kind defended by reference to randomness in reality. But if one is a modern physicist, especially of the Niels Bohr and Heisenberg variety, one would prefer the libertarianism of the random theory. But in any case, if one believes in moral responsibility it commits one to some kind of metaphysical liberty.
Now what about political liberty? There are two reasons that determinists–even soft determinists who at least like progress, good health, or prosperity–would defend that at the political level individuals should be free. They would hold that intrusiveness in the lives, behavior, or conduct of people is an obstacle to progress, development, prosperity, the spread of knowledge, and so forth. The reason is that though many determinists do not believe in moral goodness, they do believe in values.
Now values are different from moral values. One might look at it this way. In the universe everything is a kind or type of being. In a small segment there is being-with-value. Then in a smaller segment there is being-with-moral-value. Now this last segment requires metaphysical freedom. Yet if one denies this smaller segment, one still can admit to the existence of being-with-value.
Consider, for example, that in your garden you may find some tomatoes that are good and others that are bad. But they do not possess free will. They are not morally good or morally bad tomatoes; they are just good or bad tomatoes. An ecologist, for example, very often laments the destruction of the ecosystem without blaming the ecosystem for it. One might well blame human beings for it. Because trees don’t have free will, one doesn’t blame an oak tree for having grown defective or unhealthy. But one may blame a human being for having destroyed the oak tree. So one can talk about a bad or good oak tree, or about healthy or sick gazelles or frogs, and so forth. Clearly, then, the idea of good and bad can be meaningful or valid quite independently of the idea of moral goodness or evil. One can hold the view that whatever is alive could either be enhanced or destroyed in its being. Anything alive is subject to this. But of a rock or a bucket of water (unless there is life in it) one cannot meaningfully say that it’s good or bad except in relation to something that has life. A bucket of water may be good for a cow or human being or bad for it, but in and of itself it is not good or bad. A solar system, the Milky Way, or an eruption on the sun is neither good nor bad it just is. There is nothing for which it is good or bad other than some living being that may be affected by it.
So we have three regions of reality at issue here. Even the determinist could leave room for value. Indeed, many philosophers who are often discussed as ethicists or moral theorists are, in fact, more accurately identified as value theorists. Consider, for example, John Stuart Mill, who, living in the age of the ascendancy of science and having been eager to reconcile all facets of his philosophy with the tenets of science, believed in soft determinism. So did David Hume. Spinoza, on the other hand, was a hard determinist, as was Thomas Hobbes. They were all determinists in an era of scientism. The idea of metaphysical freedom had fallen out of favor with all of these thinkers. Some, such as Spinoza, tried to develop a case for what is called compatibilism. But those who did accept free will were mostly religiously oriented. Only by importing another world, one that differed from the natural world, were they able to make room for free will. Those who were naturalists who wanted to keep it all at home so to speak opted for determinism, soft or hard.
Still, they didn’t have to abandon value theory. Certain conditions, behavior or institutions seemed valuable to them. Bentham thought of pleasure this way. Mill argued that the maximization of happiness is of value. Spencer thought that individuation was a value produced by the evolutionary process. Marx believed that the maturation of the human race is of value.
Many of these determinist philosophers believed in values but not in free will and, therefore, in the idea of moral responsibility, blame, or praise. When they reflected on values relating to human conduct and politics they got themselves into a muddle. The reason is that in claiming, for example, that pursuing the greatest happiness of the greatest number is good, if no one could help what he or she did, that good was not in our power to choose to pursue. If something, say pleasure, the maximization of happiness, or the achievement of human emancipation, is good but one can’t help achieving or failing to achieve it, one is really in the same category as the tomatoes, oak trees, or gazelles mentioned above. The good or bad will simply occur, human choice, being nonexistent, can have nothing to do with that. And in the area of personal and public conduct, this means that the world simply is the way it is and will change for the better or worse simply as a matter of forces quite apart from human choice and decision.
The connection between freedom or liberty and morality is evident in those who denied liberty because morality is concerned with responsible conduct, rather than just with goodness or value. Clearly, in criminal law we distinguish between actions that are chosen versus behavior that merely has occurred. These philosophers retained their concerns with value but denigrated, at least by implication, any concern with moral responsibility and with moral blame or praise.
Indeed the major modern philosopher who is an exception, Immanuel Kant, solved the problem of reconciling determinism with morality by dividing reality into two parts. He divided reality into the phenomenal and noumenal realms. The phenomenal part would be the natural world governed by deterministic laws associated with Newtonian mechanics, and studied by empirical observation. But he added that we must assume–though we can never know for certain–the existence of another dimension of reality. The noumenal dimension is where we find freedom. If this assumption is kept firmly in mind, we can discuss moral responsibility, moral blame or praise. This element is in effect supernaturalistic freedom, and secures for us moral responsibility and moral blame, according to Kant.
Now as to political, economic, and civil liberty, Hume, Mill, and a number of the more empirically and scientistically oriented philosophers still affirmed it. The idea of noninterference in what human beings did in the marketplace, for instance, had instrumental value for them. This means that in order to facilitate progress, knowledge, prosperity, riches, or some other goods, we need to leave people alone to pursue or strive to attain–motivated by innate desires–their ends. This is the mechanistic approach to liberty evident in our time in the works of neoclassical economists who defend the free market. It says: the less friction, the more efficient movement. And the more efficient movement, the more efficient pursuit of the ends of those movements whether to achieve prosperity or knowledge or whatever.
So even though one may not accept the idea of the connection between liberty and virtue in the metaphysical sense, one may still accept the connection between political liberty and value in the morally neutral sense. Liberty facilitates the pursuit of value.
Troubles, of course, do arise within the framework of this instrumental approach to defending political liberty. What if someone doesn’t respect one’s right to liberty? Is he or she to be blamed and condemned? Are those who murder, kidnap, assault, or rob us, guilty of anything other than behaving in ways that are not conducive to the achievement of our values? If not, why punish them, why worry about finding an accused person guilty or not guilty? The problem is that they lack the metaphysical freedom to limit or not to limit our political, economic or civil liberty. So a tyrant is going to be a tyrant quite independent of anything he or she may choose since choice is an illusion. And while it would be valuable if there were no tyrants, tyranny must be looked upon no differently from how an earthquake or some other natural disaster is regarded.
That is the liberty-morality connection. If that connection is established, then political liberty can be defended on moral rather than on merely instrumental grounds. If it turns out that we have metaphysical liberty–that it is a fact of human life–and that in our society not granting it respect obstructs our capacity to strive for or neglect virtue when someone intrudes on us, then we are stopped from being able to seek out virtue in what could be a blameworthy manner. Total lack of political liberty makes morality impossible. Progressive enslavement in a society is demoralizing in the very literal sense of that term: it decreases the relevance of morality in the society. The more we have of a coercive state, the less we have of personal responsibility. On the whole, without the respect for citizens’ right to political, economic, and civil liberty deprives us of a moral map of a country. We have a diminished moral map the more successful the regimentation. In the book by Vladimir Bukovsky on To Build a Castle, the chapter “The Soul of Man Under Socialism” shows that when one lives under a socialist system, moral categories get completely confused. One does not know whether to lie or tell the truth or to trust or betray or whatever should be done because one has no freedom and therefore lacks personal responsibility.
Of course no totalitarian system or tyranny is absolute, so we always have some sphere of personal authority, de facto liberty. It is like a zoo that is actually a large animal park, but still contains secure borders. Ultimately one is still not fully responsible for one’s conduct in such societies.
The elimination of political liberty has objectionable aspects whether one is concerned with an instrumental or a moral conception of value. That is why there are both determinist (or empiricist or, as some people call them, utilitarian) defenders as well as natural law (and/or rights) or moral or normative defenders of the free society. The moral defenders tend to be those who associate human freedom of the will with political liberty. The scientific or utilitarian defenders tend to be those who associate the drive to progress and to reach desirable goals with the value of political liberty.
Let’s now turn to virtue. I have taken it for granted that we all know something about virtue, morality, ethics. But I think it is better to clarify the idea.
If we are free in the metaphysical sense, if there is such a thing as freedom of the will–i.e., to some extent human beings cause their own behavior or are responsible for starting or failing to start things at their own discretion depending on whether their will–then a question can arise for human beings: “How should I live? How should I conduct myself? What standards should I used as I make my choices?” The free will aspect introduces choice, but if you have no standard then you might as well flip a coin, since anything you do could be as good as anything else. But that seems to be evidently false, so the question arises: “Here I am a free being, but what should I do?”
We generally take it that cats, fish, mice, and orangutans don’t ask this question. I have not recently been in communication with them so maybe there is some new development, but I am fairly certain that even those few chimpanzees at American universities that seem to exercise some degree of choice have been clobbered into it by their trainers. After about 20 weeks in those cages they say, “Okay, I’ll make a choice.” But it is not as if it comes naturally with their lives. That it is a basic distinction between the human and the rest of the animal world versus the human world. Human beings evidently lack the instinctual, natural inclination or direction to do what is necessary for them, to live right. Birds fly south in the winter. None says, “Oops, I went north; what a mistake: I probably should have read the directions more carefully.” We, on the other hand, do get lost, we oversleep, we fail to pay attention, we fail to think, and so on. We have guilt, regret, and at times feel some pride. If a lecture or paper goes well, I may justifiably say “good Machan” but if it bombs I just as rightly say “bad Machan.” If I treat my kids rashly or fail to take good care of them, I blame myself, whereas if I do well as a parent, I feel pride. This seems part of our nature, whereas the rest of the animal world does not seem to share it. At the most fundamental level it seems that each of us asks the question, “How should I live?” And it is at this point that morality comes in as the most basic standard of the right course. It has to be so basic that it applies to all times, anywhere, anytime. But as long as there are human beings in a relatively stable world, (and there have been for about 92 thousand years5), this question seems to have been relevant to human life. We all ask it. When someone asks “What the heck am I going to do now?” that is much like “How should I act?” Most people use an informal moral language around the house, amongst each other. We don’t say “You are a bad human being” but “You are a jerk.” We don’t say that “You are a wonderful human being and a fine moral person” but say “You are a great guy,” or something like that.
This is indeed a pervasive issue in human life. In novels, plays, movies, highlighted history, or personal relations, the issue is prominently brought to mind. Virtually all current news deals with who did something wrong and what might be done about it. The field of applied ethics is a growing industry in the academic curricula of most civilized societies. The press is constantly harping on what some people in public life do wrong and how the public is morally lax in responding.
Is there any basis for the kind of pervasive attention paid to ethics and morality? Are these questions valid ones, or are we captive to some mythology here, like those who take astrology seriously? Are we perhaps biologically programmed to ask questions about how we should act, even though these questions are really meaningless, akin to grunts or sneezes in that what we need is to explain them?
Could there be a right answer to the question that gives rise to ethics or is what we say in response just parroting, opening our mouths, making sounds but without any meaning to them. The two matters of foremost concern to moral philosophy is (1) whether this question of “How should I live?” is meaningful and (2) which of the proposed answers is the best: utilitarianism, altruism, egoism, hedonism, stoicism, asceticism or some other.
One central issue, of course, that interests classical liberal moral and political theorists is the connection between respect for the right to liberty and trying to answer the question of ethics and acting accordingly.6 “Is there a necessary or merely accidental connection between this liberty and living the life one ought to live?” Of course, it needs to be noted right off the bat that a lot of people don’t care about such issues. Evil persons are just as pleased at not having any answers to the question because the skepticism and confusion so engendered lead to ambivalence about the quality of their character. If one cannot know who is evil, who is good, who is mediocre, and what actions of other aspects of someone’s life make for all of this, then their own evil can never be pinned on them. Then there is also the simple fact that a great many philosophers are in the business of criticism, not of the development of theories or the construction of answers. The era when grand philosophical systems laid out the cases for all kinds of supposedly true propositions about reality, including morality and politics, has been eclipsed by an era of relentless criticism and skepticism. This is unfortunate but even if it were justified, it should not be permitted to distort the picture of the possible universality of classical liberal political ideals. We should not factor professional skeptics into a data base showing us what ordinary people in different cultures believe about right and wrong, either ethical or political.
One of the causes of concern on the part of those who are interested in liberal institutions is that if a political order doesn’t have some firm connection with standards of right and wrong–if its institutions stand apart from what passes as the best answer to the moral question–than that society lacks confidence in the face of attacks, criticisms, and crises. We should remind ourselves that bourgeois society throughout the Western world is constantly blamed for its excessive materialism, decadence, hedonism, commercialism, and its dearth of spirituality, seriousness, and culture, not to mention concern for the needy of the world.7
Now if the liberal could respond to that “and that’s great, fun is wonderful, decadence really shines, materialism is the greatest thing that we should pursue,” then there would be no problem with these charges. Or the liberal might claim that while those charges are off base, there are genuine values that liberalism does secure in human communities–ones, indeed, that we have reason to consider more important than the values stressed in competing systems.
The liberal has to admit, however, to one charge, namely that he or she is so firmly committed–at the political level–to tolerating any form of behavior that he forgets that people are more than political animals. They also need some confidence that their cultural, scientific, educational, psychological, paternal, familial, athletic, artistic lives have to have moral legitimacy or validity, capable of being defended from the critics.
One of the problems that Solzhenitsyn pointed out with the West is precisely that although in the West people are largely free and enjoy the benefits of ordinary free societies, they do not have the confidence that their free institutions are morally valid and that they answer the question “How should we live?” If these free institutions can be related to that answer in an affirmative wayif free markets, civil liberties, pluralism, the rule of law, defense against self-incrimination and all those classical liberal, libertarian values could be related to the best answer to the question of ethics, then these institutions would stand more firmly and more confidently and could intellectually, philosophically, and maybe even spiritually rebuff the critics.
So that is one reason why the classical liberal worries about the connection between morality and political economy. It is just humanly too important to have one’s political, legal and economic institutions connected with some morally praiseworthy, respectable, upright form of life. It is something of a crowd stopper to be told “You have these fine institutions, but what is their merit?nothing. Ultimately where lies their value in human life, how do they relate to the moral purpose or vision that every human being wants and indeed needs to associate with his or her life or community or family or association?” That’s what explains the worry about the connection between liberty and the pursuit of virtue. By their very nature, human beings are closely wedded to the problem of virtue, and if liberty is only accidentally connected with virtue so that under numerous circumstances it might be given up and maybe tyranny or chaos may facilitate virtue–then it doesn’t seem so unrealistic that people would select non-liberal, even anti-liberal, institutions. If the connection between liberty and virtue is not a firm and indispensable one, then it makes sense that people might not insist on liberty.8
My own position, a position that is not at all terribly original, although it is a controversial one even among classical liberals, is that what makes liberty (both in the metaphysical and the political senses) so closely wedded to virtue is that the human moral good, whether it is prosperity, artistic beauty, scientific progress, loyalty to family and community, generosity, charity, or whatever, is connected with individual initiative.
Firstly, if one could become generous without doing anything about it, that generosity would not be a virtue. If one could be honest by accident, one’s honesty, too, would fail to be a virtue. If one could be made kind, compassionate, humble, modest, or excellent in many other ways, it would not be a virtue.
This point is a very old one and has figured in the works of most moral philosophers. Some crucial passages of Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, show a recognition of the fact that moral virtue is intimately tied to our capacity for choice, for taking the initiative, for volitional conduct. Only those virtues that are practice as a matter of volition can be genuine moral virtues. And this makes good sense.
If one understands by morality or ethics the dimension of human action involving personal responsibility actions for which one may be praised or blamed, actions that are chosen one can see clearly why this is so. For one is morally good, responsible, praiseworthy to the extent that what one does is a deed done by oneself, not merely some movement of one’s body possibly at random or caused by forces impinging upon oneself. To say “You ought to be honest” makes no sense at all if one either must be or could not be honest. It only makes sense if one has the option, the genuine freedom to be or not to be honest.
Secondly, this all has a bearing on the classical liberal concern with the right to life, liberty, and property. These rights are imperatives to all members of society to choose to abstain from interfering with one’s life, actions, and belongings. And an imperative is a moral edict: “You ought to abstain from doing what amounts to interfering.” Yet if one has no choice to act or refrain from acting, there cannot be any meaning to the imperative expressed by individual human rights to life, liberty, and property. In other words, the normative force of classical liberal political theory is completely lost unless human beings are metaphysically free to make basic choices as to what they will do.
Thirdly, if one is being coerced by another person to do the right thing, it is not really a case of doing the right thing at all. One is not doing the right thing if a hood or a bureaucrat backed with police power is making one behave in a way that a morally good personal initiative or choice would lead one to behave.
So not only is the right to liberty a precondition for virtuous or vicious–that is, morally significant–conduct, but that right is itself a morally significant imperative only if choices are available to human beings. And the right also secures one the sphere of personal initiative, so that one’s life has moral meaning.
Thus, we can see, there is indeed a vital and intimate connection between morality and the classical liberal ideals of human freedom. If one lacks such freedom, one’s moral nature is being thwarted, suppressed. This explains clearly why some thinkers such as B. F. Skinner knew that when they deny human liberty, they go “beyond freedom and dignity,” that is, beyond the condition of free choice and morality.9
1. In our time this kind of liberty may also be designated as personal freedom and can involve economic, religious, and related civil liberties. The reason for this is that political liberty is nowadays taken to mean not being kept from participating in decision-making regarding the affairs of state.
2. Sometimes the Hayekian idea of a spontaneous order suggests that what is being talked about came about unintentionally. This is not correct. Human actions are intentional–this is what distinguishes them from the familiar type of animal behavior which is instinctual, not guided by conceptual thinking. What Hayek has in mind, I believe, is that such conduct or action is not deliberate, reflected upon or monitored (the way theorizing is carried on and the kind of thinking and action associated with macroeconomic government planning). Nor is it clear that the order that is produced by such non-deliberative conduct had been entirely unanticipated–there is no way to tell that no one had thought of the order, say, of the monetary system at the inception of the use of money for exchange. Suffice it to underline the Hayekian notion that many of the sensible, natural guiding notions of human conduct are more likely to result in useful systems when thought of as a matter of creativity and personal initiative than if they had been regimented or coerced. Exactly why this is so is probably due to the fact that the creative energies of individuals function more productively, efficiently when the person is left to initiate his or her actions, to do what he or she is doing for self-understood reasons rather than for reasons others think up.
3. Her position was spelled out in Nathaniel Branden, The Psychology of Self-Esteem (New York: Bantam Books, 1969). I myself have elaborate this view in my The Pseudo-Science of B. F. Skinner (New Rochelle, N.Y.: Arlington House, 1974).
4. See Roger W. Sperry, Science and Moral Priority (New York: Columbia University Press, 1983). See for more on this, Dennis Senchuk, “Consciousness Naturalized,” American Philosophical Quarterly, Vol. 28 (January 1991).
5. See, in this connection, Vitaly Shevoroshkin, “The Mother Tongue,” The Sciences (May/June 1990), pp. 20-27. Shevoroshkin traces all languages to the one original sub-Saharan African tongue that developed circa 92,000 years ago.
6. Of course, classical liberals also grapple with such issues as the universalizability of the principles they identify as sound and binding on human communities. Yet those concerns are not unique to classical liberalism’s champions–any moral and political theory has to come to terms with the kind of objections they face from Pyrrhonists, skeptics, Feyerabendians, and the like. In the case of classical liberalism (in its purest, namely, libertarian, incarnation), John Gray, in Liberalisms (London: Routledge, 1989), has offered the most sustained challenge to it at this metaethical, metapolitical level, arguing, in essence, that no common human nature exists from which to justify universal moral and political ideas; a teleological conception of human action is obsolete; empiricism has shown that natural law and rights have no basis in philosophy, etc. I attempt to answer some of these concerns in my forthcoming paper, “Justice, Self and Natural Rights,” to be included in a volume of papers on justice, edited by James Sterba, for Rowman and Littlefield.
7. This is not to say that these criticisms are always just or fair, let alone accurate. Quite the contrary, when we compare bourgeois societies to others. All in all, the more sensible values of humanity find themselves better realized in bourgeois society than in competing systems. As an example of a serious attack, see Kirkpatrick Sale, The Conquest of Paradise (New York: Alfred Knopf, 1990), in which the author argues that the pre-colonial natives of North America exhibited a much better community life than what the Europeans achieved. He is especially critical of the bourgeois principles of individual rights and argues that a community guided by these rights fails in being “harmonious, peaceful, benign and content.”
It is, of course, arguable that these values are by no means the most vital or sound ones and that a system of individual rights make room for a wider variety of possible lives of human goodness than merely stressing the principles that govern, well, a cemetery. Furthermore, there is considerable evidence showing that pre-colonial natives of the Americas were a varied collection of people, exhibiting as much diversity as people do everywhere, so lumping them all together is to distort their history considerably.
8. It is assumed here that the problem of ethics is conceptually prior to that of politics and the best solution to that problem will have conceptual priority, dictating the political solutions, not the other way around. Of course, some dispute this, mostly on the grounds that social or political principles are have greater priority in light of the essential social nature of human life. This is, in the last analysis, a question of metaphysics and I have dealt with it in my Individuals and Their Rights as well as in Revisiting Marxism: A Bourgeois Reassessment (Lanham, MD: Hamilton Books, 2006).
9. Many of the issues covered here have been addressed in detail and in innovative ways by Douglas Rasmussen and Douglas Den Uyl in their book Norms of Liberty (Penn State UP, 2004).
Did Rubio’s Parents Do Right?
Tibor R. Machan
Despite what Florida Republican Senator Marco Rubio has reportedly believed throughout much of his political career, it seems that his parents didn’t flee Fidel Castro’s communist Cuba for political freedom in the US. What some media appear to have “revealed” is that they came to the US in 1956, prior to Castro’s rise to power, so as to improve their lives. And, as reports to tellingly make clear, this is a mere economic reason for emigrating, not the noble one of escaping oppression.
Let me tell you right away that when you live in a hopelessly defunct country, it makes little difference whether you are oppressed or impoverished. Both can kill you good, and both are mostly the result of how the country is being run by the politicians who have taken it over. Batista versus Castro–who cares? Hitler versus Stalin–who cares? Bad news either way and responsible folks, especially parents with young kids, will do the right thing and get out before it’s too late.
When I was smuggled out of Hungary at age 14, I left mainly because of my very bad prospects there, economic or otherwise. I had already begun to open my mouth in unwise ways, such as questioning Karl Marx’s dictum in school, “From each accordingly to his ability, to each according to his needs.” I used to run past the Soviet Embassy and shout obscenities at the frozen guards and tell jokes like “Why is that woman in that famous statue on top of Gellert Hill holding her palm leaf up high? Because beneath her stands a Soviet soldier and she is afraid he will steal it form her.” Or, “How come just seconds after Molotov told Stalin that they’re driving out to the countryside did Stalin’s chauffeur enter the room reporting that his car was waiting for him? Because Radio Free Europe announced the trip a couple of seconds ago.”
I don’t know whether my mother in Budapest and father in Munich, who were considering helping me escape, felt the threat to me was economic or something else. They fortunately decided that it would be safer for me to live in the West. Let’s just say when one is threatened by a dictatorship, often this occurs via economic oppression and deprivation–loss of one’s job, confiscation of one’s property, eviction from one’s abode, etc., etc.–not just out and out jail and torture. Of course, there are also those and deportation–mainly to somewhere like Siberia back in those days in communist countries–or outright murder. All in all the idea is that one’s life is going to suck big time or get snuffed out!
I don’t know about the parents of little Marco Rubio but in any case, I would applaud their actions and as an adult, the Senator is rightly thankful for what they did for him and themselves. Ah, but when it comes to political haggling, any possible weakness in one’s opponent is fair game. Never mind his policies, never mind yours, just besmirch the opponent good and hard and gain power any which way, right?
I supposed leaving a country for reasons of wanting to escape poverty and improving one’s economic circumstances is not noble enough for the members of the US media who delight in this kind of “revelation.” Gotcha is what matters. But why is pointing out that Rubio’s parents left for America for the allegedly “conventional reason of economic improvement” something newsworthy?
Well because of an ancient prejudice among millions of people against those who want to live well, who want economic success instead of failure. To endure poverty is heroic, to escape it petty, by this line of thinking. Never mind that when one’s child lacks food and clothing and the rest of those lowly economic advantages in life, the kid’s likely to grow up in hardship and will need some serious catching up to do.
My parents wanted me to do well enough in life to get a good start and the uniform gross mismanagement of Hungary at the hands of the communists–and, earlier the fascists–was a good enough reason to get me out of there.
Of course, I took a big risk too, since fleeing was hazardous–the border was booby trapped, guards were targeting all those who fled on foot like I and my companions did. (Not that I fully grasped this–for me it was more like an adventure.) But needless to say, it was all worth it, even if we had failed–trying is better with those damned dictators than putting up.
I personally am glad that Sen. Rubio’s parents had the foresight to get him out of Cuba before Castro took over the place and started to make a royal mess of it.