Archive for December, 2011

Column on So What’s Wrong With That?

So what’s Wrong with That?

Tibor R. Machan

So there is now concern by some so called journalists that “in his 1987 manifesto ‘Freedom Under Siege: The U.S. Constitution after 200-Plus Years,’ Presidential hopeful Ron Paul wrote that AIDS patients were victims of their own lifestyle, questioned the rights of minorities and argued that people who are sexually harassed at work should quit their jobs.” Of these only the last could be objected to on rational grounds and only if the harassment involved coercion. Thus if some colleague happened to place an objectionable picture on his office wall, a picture that others do not have to look at and can easily avoid, that would be a matter of office privacy unless the firm had a policy against it. There is no universal right to be free of annoying colleagues.

Arguably, though probably not in all cases, AIDS patients did invite their illness through risky activities they choose to engage in. At most Paul was exaggerating: some AIDS patients become infected from blood transfusions for which a hospital or medical office, not the patients, in responsible. In most instances it is probably true that AIDS patients are more like those who experience motorcycle or mountain climbing mishaps; they took on risks that landed them in medical trouble, something we all do now and then as we move through a risk infested life.

As to “the rights of minorities,” Paul is entirely correct. Minorities as a group have no rights. No group has rights, only individuals do. Members of minorities do, of course, have rights and when these are violated, it is the function of the government of a free society to secure them, just as the Declaration of Independence makes clear. Arguably no one has the right to have government mandate affirmative action in his or her behalf. Such a policy needs to be achieved by way of employment contracts, not legislation. More to the point, the whole matter of such mandates is open to serious dispute and should be perfectly acceptable as a subject of political debate.

These complaints against Ron Paul demonstrate a total failure to understand what democratic politics is about, namely, debating public policy. No such policy is sacrosanct apart from the commitment to the philosophy of the Declaration and the Bill of Rights and to constant debate. Just as many liberal democrats disagree with the War on Drugs and free trade measures and are willing to challenge these in public discussions, so libertarians have their list of public policies they want to challenge and change.

Reporters who express shock with Ron Paul’s positions should realize that in a democracy innumerable matters are up for debate, including the right to an abortion, to assisted suicide, minimum wage laws, undeclared wars in Libya or elsewhere. Ron Paul, just as any other candidate, may be open to criticism for the side he takes on any of these issues but it is a complete misunderstanding of the nature of political debate to consider simply holding views with which others disagree as something objectionable. What do these people want, anyway? Do they expect that elections will be about what spices should one use when baking a turkey or colors to decorate one’s garden?

The pretended outrage with Paul’s positions of several decade ago also fails to allow for any nuance in his libertarian stance, or indeed for some change in his political views. Why is this objectionable about Paul but not about Romney or Gingrich? It shouldn’t be about anyone who has a long time ago professed to hold views that he or she no longer considers sound. It is especially hypocritical to object when so many journalists are rank radical pragmatists, like Paul Krugman and President Obama, people who proudly reject principled thinking about anything.

Moreover, when journalists get into the fray and start championing the views of some of the candidates they cover, there is no longer any integrity to what they are doing; indeed, their journalism is seriously corrupted. This is why so many in America have a negative attitude toward the media–to many of these folks put themselves up high as if someone appointed judges and juries of public debate. They should, instead, keep their political opinions to themselves as they carry out their work, just as doctors, teachers, and others should.

Column on Sobbing for Dictators

Sobbing for Dictators!

Tibor R. Machan

As the BBC reported, the late North Korean dictator Kim Jong-il was provided with mass marches throughout the country in mourning of his recent death. As the thousands were shown on TV, they did what is routine on such occasions in countries with absolute rulers. The people gyrate and undulate and holler, supposedly expressing their earnest grief, although it is remarkable that no tears were in evidence from any participants.

These sort of mass exhibitions are not confined to mourning. They also occur during what are supposed to be celebrations of anniversaries, holidays, etc. Because North Korean officials forbid any visits from foreign journalists, it is difficult to get reliable information from the country, including about these mass events. When television footage is shown outside the country, reporters only have the pictures produced by the lackeys of the regime inside.

One way to obtain reasonably accurate news of what is happening is to consult with refugees who have taken part in these kinds of demonstrations in the past. Since, however, such refugees are mostly highly critical of the regime and the rulers, it can be claimed that they will be biased and that they have a stake in giving false reports.

I was personally part of such demonstration during the era of Joseph Stalin, when he cam to visit Budapest in the early 1950s. Thousands of young people were take out of school and ordered to join the mass demonstrations that Hungary’s puppet government was required to organize for the Soviet dictator. We were ordered to get into our Young Pioneer uniforms — white shirt with red scarves — and gather at Budapest’s Hero’s Plaza and shout at the top of our voices “Our Dear Father Stalin” for as long as the parade lasted (except when a speech was given). And at the end we were all counted up so the officials could divide those of us who attended from those who were absent since the latter would be penalized, mainly by docking their grades in school. What happened to adults I do not know although we heard that they were often physically beaten for missing such demonstrations.

The inference that all of this was a charade is impossible to avoid. No kid I knew wanted to be there for most of a weekend’s day; very few I was aware of wanted to exhibit joy at Stalin’s presence in the country. It was all done out of fear except perhaps by a very small percentage of dedicated communists. (And by the way, the political system of communism was itself betrayed at these events and throughout the history of these Soviet puppet regimes since such a system would not have a dictator but would be a massive commune! That’s true for North Korea, Cuba and any other such society.)

The dishonesty surrounding all of this is well illustrated by the terms being applied to the rulers, such as “Supreme Leader” and “Our Dear Father,” let alone by the utterly artificial expression of emotions, good or bad. There are — and have always been — quite a few societies in which the population is coerced into various gestures shown at mass demonstrations, for example for the rulers and the regime or against foreign critics. It is something of a mystery to me how so many people can be induced to take part in these dishonest mass gestures and, indeed, in decades of compliance with the ruler’s orders. For us the biggest incentive was that in our midst there were always people who were lurking about taking down information about those of us who showed any sort of reluctance or rebellion so they could gain favor by making their reports. Since these regimes do not only punish the non-compliant or rebellious but also members of their extended families and friends, the show of resistance wouldn’t only have bad consequences for the perpetrators but many others and hardly anyone wanted to be the cause of such grief and gross injustice.

Making friends with people who rule these countries, as some suggest, is out of the question for anyone with even an ounce of decency. If one must deal with them, as diplomats often do, they have to be treated with utter formality so that no propaganda gains could be gotten for them from such associations.

Indeed, it seems to me that one line of education for diplomats who are required to deal with these dastards would be to learn just how most effectively refuse to show any kind of sanction of the ruler and their regimes while not encouraging the brutalization of their population.

Column on th BBC’s Sorry Journalism

The BBC’s Sorry Journalism

Tibor R. Machan

The BBC recently published the following in a report about the Republican primary contest in Iowa: “Correspondents say a Ron Paul victory in Iowa would be a major embarrassment to the Republican party as many of his views are seen as too libertarian and isolationist. Mr. Paul would order a $1 trillion (£641bn) spending cut, eliminating a number of government agencies, including the Department of Education. He also proposes returning the dollar to a gold standard and cutting all foreign aid, including to Israel….”

“At a recent campaign stop in Iowa a breast cancer survivor began crying after he told her insurance companies should not have to cover those who are already sick, Reuters news agency reports….”

This passage is worth some attention if only because those of us who have sympathies toward Representative Paul’s libertarian politics should not duck out when opponents target him for criticism, be it fair or not. Let me start with the last bit, the treatment of a crying breast cancer survivor as a kind of “gotcha” device versus Paul. (And incidentally, who are those correspondents who say that Paul’s “victory would be a major embarrassment to the Republican party”? Let’s have some names her, some attributions, by BBC!)

Now we all have hopes and wishes that people will be helpful to and supportive of us, especially when we suffer from maladies or hazardous conditions we had no role in bringing about. Casualties of acts of nature do often deserve our sympathy and even help, unless they have been negligent in taking precautionary measures, such as saving up for health insurance. Even in cases when one has been negligent, often others overlook this and tend to be considerate beyond the call of duty, as it were.

Representative Paul and other libertarians are often first in line with offering private support to such people. The citizens of the US are often first in lending a hand to those who have been hit with natural disasters, like a tsunami or earthquake, and the essence of generosity is precisely that, offering private support and aid to those in need.

What Paul and libertarians in general object to is the coerced support given to those in need by governments are expropriate resources from the citizenry, take a sizable chunk of it for administrative expenses, and distribute the funds according to the lights of the politicians and bureaucrats. This kind of forcible distribution of others’ money is what libertarians are against as a matter of principle and Ron Paul is no exception. This does not at all make him or libertarians callous, heartless, cruel or anything of the kind, however much many claim this about them, ones to whom it seems to come very naturally to confiscate other people’s resources and do with it as they think they should. (I explain this in some detail in my book, Generosity, Virtue in Civil Society [1998].)

As to the cuts supported by Ron Paul, I would urge those who are going to give the matter some thought to consider, once again, that these cuts are an effort to eliminate or at least reduce the forcible taking by some people of the resources that belong to others and to which they have no right whatever. All charitable, helpful acts must be voluntary otherwise they have no moral merit whatsoever. Yes, there are some spurious arguments claiming that out good behavior may, indeed must, be imposed upon us by wiser and more virtuous people than we are but it is just a ruse. No one can make other people moral except by example!

This also applied to foreign aid, be it to Israel or Mongolia. People abroad aren’t entitled to the property of Americans or anyone else who has not voluntarily given it to them. Israel is no exception!

Unfortunately this line of thinking is rarely if every presented to readers in an accurate way so they could consider it without bias. Instead journalists have a dogmatic commitment to the coercion involved in government support for the needy, failing to even mention that kind of thinking summarized above and making it appear that those who do share it are monsters.

Lost of people also mistakenly identify the coercive taking of people resources with Robin Hoodism but in fact Robin Hood took back from the tax takers what they forcibly took for the those whom they victimized. The proper approach to seeing people in need is to mount a serious, voluntary effort to secure support for them, starting with one’s own, not to advocate taking from them what belongs to them and what only they have the rightful authority to give away.

Now in a messy world it is very difficult to be principled and trying to be usually brings on the charge of being an ideologue, a blind adherent to simplistic ideas. But in fact it shows integrity, nothing less! And it is time that politicians show some of it because without integrity the game is up anyway–trust, honesty, responsibility and all such virtue go out the window, never mind simple, honest generosity.

Machan’s Archives: Libertarianism and Americanism

Machan’s Archives: Libertarianism and Americanism

Tibor R. Machan

Given that in the main the American political system is still the closest to protecting varieties of individual liberty—regarding speech, commerce, religion, due process, etc.—most of those who peddle political ideas want to hitch their wagon to the ideas of the American Founders. Socialists, conservatives, populists, agrarians and even communists have laid claim to being the proper carriers of the American political flag. Libertarians, of course, are no different. They hold that it is their political philosophy that most fully realizes the vision first put into practice by the American Founders and Framers. And with their current role in America’s political life, it would be useful to see if they or the others are right.

Why would a socialist think the same thing? Or a conservative or populist, let alone a communist?

Socialists tend to believe that the American Founders advocated egalitarianism, first and foremost. They focus on the paramount idea in that document that “all men are created equal.” Conservatives, in turn, consider their position to be validated by the Founders and Framers in light of how they derived their political theory from a study of history and the thoughts of numerous influential political philosophers and theorists. This confirms the conservative notion that to do nation building properly, one must consult tradition, history and custom, not concoct ideas and ideals de novo. Populists, of course, focus on the democratic elements of the American political tradition, those that relate to how every citizen has a right to influence public policy. Never mind the limits imposed by, say, the Bill of Rights. What counts is mass participation, the “will of the people.” Agrarians will insist that Jefferson & Co., were mostly promoting the special interest of the landed gentry. And communists will argue that the American system is simply a historical precursor to the ideal community in which a nation becomes a family of equals.

Libertarians, however, point out that the Founders had a more realistic but also optimistic view of human community life than these other advocates do. They hold that listing the basic unalienable rights of every human being serves as a clear reminder of the radical insight that no one has the proper authority to impose his or her agenda upon others however much these others may mismanage their lives, even threaten some desirable features of culture. The political task is to secure the basic rights of all citizens. Everything else must be achieved without resort to the main instrument of public policy, namely, coercive force. As the libertarian insists, initiating force against others even for purposes that are quite admirable just cannot be reconciled with a proper standard of justice. That standard, which is actually the first ingredient of civilized life, is to interact with one’s fellows voluntarily, even as one disagrees with them, even if they are recalcitrant, even if they act indecently themselves but they remain peaceful, respect for of the rights of others.

The idea that reference to all human beings being equal should usher in socialism is countered by the recognition that the equality referred to in the Declaration is about the equal possession of the unalienable rights all of us have, not about health, welfare, good looks, and other admittedly valued matters. And only libertarianism acknowledges this strict limitation of the Founders’ and Framers’ “egalitarianism.”

Some features of the original American political ideas and ideals are clearly improved upon in libertarianism; abolition of any form of involuntary servitude, for example, including taxation, the military draft, the war on drugs or alcohol and other types of compulsion citizens are supposed to be subjected to just as may be subjects of a monarchy. As the libertarian sees it, some of these elements of the original American system are the unfortunate reactionary residue from prerevolutionary times and not consistent with the fundamental principles laid out in the Declaration, especially the idea of everyone’s unalienable individual rights.

So, I submit, libertarians are indeed the faithful students of the American political tradition, one’s who learned well from their elders and went on to improve on what they have so learned.

Column on Property Rights and the Free Press

Property Rights and the Free Press

Tibor R. Machan

Not as if the point hasn’t been made often by now, but repeating it may be of some benefit: without a firm protection of the right to private property, the rights to freedom of speech, press, religious worship, etc., are under constant threat.

The most recent demonstration of this is happening in Argentina, although Venezuela has served as a recent case in point also. As reported by the BBC, “Argentina’s government wins control of newsprint supplies, amid a long-running feud between the president and a major media group…” It appears that the legislature caved in to pressure from the president of Argentina and basically nationalized all the supplied that are needed to run an independent press. As the BBC put it, “The legislation, which passed in the lower house last week, says the production, sale and distribution of newsprint is of national interest.”

Of course, even if true, nothing follows about how the government ought to wrest control of the “production, sale and distribution of newsprint.” If anything, if it is true and “the production, sale and distribution of newsprint” is in the national interest–allowing that this means that it is generally an important part of the society–it is least secure when government takes control of these matters. The same principle holds for education–its importance by no stretch of the imagination justifies placing it under government jurisdiction.

What too many folks do not grasp is that governments are agencies run by some members of a society and it is most unwise to put these members in control of nearly anything, let alone the dissemination of knowledge and information. If there is a solid enough constitution in place, firmly upheld, perhaps the protection of individual rights might be placed in the hands of the government, provided the government can be kept impartial as it adjudicates disputes, protects rights, etc. But that itself is called into serious question by examples such as the Argentinian case, where instead of protecting property rights, and thus the right to freedom of the press, government is the main violator of them.

Ironically, it is those on the political Left who are most hostile to private property rights. Karl Marx and Frederick Engels made this clear in The Communist Manifesto where they declared that the very first task of socialists is to abolish private property rights. Yet it is just such cantankerous folks as communists who most need the protection of their private property rights, otherwise their many opponents will have no trouble invading their spheres from which they are mounting their challenge to the status quo. (This itself suggests quite strongly that the Left’s political viewpoint is quite confused!)

All this also calls to mind how fiercely some of the Left’s most prominent platforms decry the claim that America is in any way exceptional. Yet it really is, as exemplified in the now sadly fading American tradition of serious respect and legal protection of the right to private property.

In its eagerness to undermine free market capitalism, the Left is willing to sacrifice its major bulwark against those who would oppress it. But it just will not work–without the protection of private property rights, there is no freedom of the press and no effective political freedom either, the freedom needed to institute change in society’s political institutions which the Left is so hell bent on doing.

Of course, much of this is relatively novel in the annals of politics across human history and the globe. The more usual state of affairs is that which we now see in Argentina and many other countries where dissent is eagerly being suppressed by the thugs who rule. Perhaps in time the vitality of the right to private property for all kinds of human endeavors–economic, educational, religious, scientific, journalistic, etc., etc.–will be widely recognized. But as with freedom on all fronts, that requires eternal vigilance.