Archive for October, 2011

Column on OWS & zero sum games

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.

Column on Dyson’s Nonsense

Column on Dyson’s Nonsense

Tibor R. Machan

In a recent review essay Freeman Dyson flatly asserts that “social justice demands equality. Fair reward for enterprise and achievement demands inequality.” Well, neither of these is true but for soundbites in a publication like The New York Review of Books one could do much worse. Social justice is neither social, nor just. It is an excuse for some people to run everyone else’s life.

But Dyson doesn’t stop there and adds this:

Advocates on both sides of the debate have tended to take extreme positions. Numerous utopian communities have been founded to put egalitarian principles into practice. Few of them have lasted longer than one generation. Children have a regrettable tendency to rebel against their parents’ dreams. Meanwhile, advocates of extreme free market capitalism have been preaching the gospel of greed. They glorify greed as the driving force that creates new industries and in the end will make everyone wealthy. Unfortunately in many parts of the world where free market capitalism prevails, the rich are growing richer and the poor are growing poorer. [“The Case for Far-Out Possibilities,” Freeman Dyson, NYRB, 11/10/11, p. 27]

Much of this is simply wrong–no free market capitalist champion preaches any gospel of greed. The closest may be some economists who claim that each of us is motivated to make out well in life, a point so broad that it can mean nearly anything. As Milton Friedman put it, “. . . every individual serves his own private interest . . . . The great Saints of history have served their ‘private interest’ just as the most money grubbing miser has served his interest. The private interest is whatever it is that drives an individual.” ["The Line We Dare Not Cross," Encounter, 11/76:11] So being “greedy” is merely to want to do something, anything, one likes. Self-interest is just having some interest, some goals, never mind what they are. No gospel of greed here, none!

Will freedom produce industries? Well, that and also art and athletics and family life and whatever free men and women choose to pursue. Again, nothing here that should offend any sensibilities.

Does free market capitalism prevail anywhere? Not by a long shot. At best we have some welfare states, mixed economies that include a few elements of capitalism, such a moderate protection of the right to private property and some, fewer and fewer, voluntary contracts, in the midst of innumerable socialist features and fascistic political powers. And where capitalism has made some inroads, the poor are definitely not getting poorer but growing rich, though perhaps not as rapidly as those who focus mostly on wealth care.

So why then is a famous public intellectual saying such misleading things? Maybe because his fame comes from doing work in physics, not in political economy. And maybe also because the common sense account of making it rich still owes too much to the times when that goal was pursued through pilfering, murdering, robbing and otherwise depriving others of what they have. In short, for most of the history gaining wealth was a zero sum game, not the win win situation that modern economists have found far more productive. Peace, not ripping people off, is the road to riches.

Dyson is of course saying all this nonsense in a publication that tries every which way to discredit human economic liberty. He promotes some kind of middle way, between liberty and slavery, at least in the realm of economics. But it makes no sense. It rests on obsolete theory about what gets people to create and produce wealth and ignorance about economic history and reality.

Maybe Dr. Dyson should return to physics and leave economics be. Although quite a few so called economists get it wrong just as he does, especially the Keynesians who believe that one can make something out of nothing. That confusing idea ought to be offensive a physicist for sure.

Column on OWS’s Lack of Focus

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.

Machan’s Archives: Liberty & Virtue

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).

Column on Did Rubio’s Parents do Right?

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.