Archive for December, 2011

Essay on Ideological Thinking Revisited

Ideological Thinking Revisited

Tibor R. Machan

Following the December 15th Republican “debate,” New York Times columnist Paul Krugman wrote once again about the evils of ideological thinking.

Krugman began piece by criticizing Mitt Romney for his repeated vacillations about which public policies he supports, which he opposes, a problem Romney has been plagued by most of his political life. But Krugman didn’t do what follows form this, namely, praise Romney for being a pragmatist, for his agility and flexibility. No, he decried the former Massachusetts’s Governor’s various views. And then he moved on to a more familiar target, one he has been shooting at every chance he gets. This is Representative Ron Paul’s integrity and consistency. Calling it ideological thinking, Krugman considers this a far great failing than anything he could find with Romney.

As Krugman summarizes all this, “In a way, that makes sense. Romney isn’t trusted because he’s seen as someone who cynically takes whatever positions he thinks will advance his career – a charge that sticks because it’s true. Paul, by contrast, has been highly consistent. I bet you won’t find video clips from a few years back in which he says the opposite of what he’s saying now. Unfortunately, Paul has maintained his consistency by ignoring reality, clinging to his ideology even as the facts have demonstrated that ideology’s wrongness.”

Ignore, please, for the moment that Krugman is every bit as ideological as would be anyone who tries to make sense of political economy, just one field of study that tries to learn generalities from the past so as to prepare for the future. The way this is done is by the identification of certain principles and then implementing them with the expectation that bad results will be avoided and good ones fostered. There really is no practical field, such as farming, medicine, engineering, child raising, and so forth, that can carry forth without this approach. Call it theoretical or ideological thought, no one who even dabbles in them can avoid them.

Ron Paul’s theoretical guidance comes from a certain school of free market economics, laid out by the likes of Ludwig von Mises and F. A. Hayek. (Other free market schools are those of Milton Friedman–the Chicago School–and those of James Buchanan–the Virginia School.) Massive volumes lay out these positions, in more or less technical ways, as they do the positions of Paul Krugman and his idol, John Maynard Keynes. It is routine in the social sciences for up and coming scholars and researchers to hitch their wagon to some earlier leader in their field. Just check out sociology or anthropology–they all follow this pattern. Krugman is no exception–he has hitched his wagon to Keynes and follows Keynes’ pragmatic, erratic economic thought. It happens to accommodate his hostility to principles. It doesn’t demand any integrity in one’s thinking; only expediency counts.

Because we are talking here about how political economy should be approached, or if you will macroeconomic theory, the impact of unprincipled thinking is quite remote. It is difficult to tell which results of such a mishmash political-economic thinking come from which ideas–as I have argued before, it is like getting food poisoning or, alternatively, health benefits from a smorgasbord meal which contains many diverse ingredients. But if you consider some areas of concern that are more immediately relevant to one’s life, the unprincipled approach shows its damage right away.

For example, it is generally understood that people with certain medical maladies should stick to a certain diet–think of diabetics. In engineering, medicine, nutrition, farming and the rest the practitioners learn their general principles and implement them in the course of their practice. Or consider morality; it is pretty much the case that lying and cheating ought to be avoided. Eve more drastically, deploying coercion in sexual relations is not just immoral but outright criminal. Everyone must, therefore, practice consensual sex so that rape, for example, is never acceptable. That is the principle of the thing, no exception.

Yet by Krugman’s lights to prohibit rape in all cases, as a matter of one’s ideology, is a serious flaw in one’s character, just as sticking to free market economic analysis is supposed to be in Ron Paul’s thought. As Krugman says, “Paul has maintained his consistency by ignoring reality, clinging to his ideology even as the facts have demonstrated that ideology’s wrongness,” but the only case he offers to illustrate the alleged wrongness is that Paul and his allies have warned about inflation for years and yet we are not seeing inflation break out all over. (Of course, there are those, rather more subtle economists, who see it break out in numerous hidden way–like postponing the destruction of the value of money for a while, kicking the can down the road to confront the mess later, e.g., by our grand children.) In other words, inflation can be prevented in various clever ways but not without eventual dire consequences. So here, too, Krugman is off.

What Paul insists on is consistency in one’s economic theorizing, something that every bona fide science insists upon. Pseudo-sciences like astrology and tarot reading don’t, with the result that they accomplish nothing useful at all. Most of Krugman’s ad hoc economics is like that–fancy footwork without any useful wisdom in its wake.

The ideology that Krugman follows despite denying it–just as many pragmatists deny that they firmly stick to some ideas–is the economic philosophy of coercion, of the state’s regimenting economic agents at nearly every turn. At no time will coercion as such be frowned upon by Krugman–it would be ideological to do so, in his view.

But the issue isn’t whether ideology is admissible but which ideology is sound, which bogus.

Machan’s Archives: “Fetal Rights: Implication of a Supposed ‘Ought’”

Fetal Rights: Implication of a Supposed Ought
[from Liberty Magazine, July 1989, pp. 51-52]

Tibor R. Machan

[Introduction to Reprint:
When back in 1973 I edited The Libertarian Alternative (Chicago: Nelson-Hall, 1973), the libertarian political outlook wasn’t well known and “libertarian” certainly was no household word as it is today, what with prominent media figures identifying their own position by that term. Several presidential hopefuls have stopped being coy and now openly describe their own politics as libertarian--e.g., Ron Paul and Gary Johnson. Judge Andrew Napolitano of Fox Business News’ daily “FreedomWatch” program, as well as John Stossel of that same outlet’s weekly “Stossel” program make no bones about their championing libertarianism.

Now all of this is very welcome to those who hold that the fully free, libertarian polity is superior to all other live options advocated by political thinkers. There is, however, one small fly in the ointment. Among those I mentioned above several are "pro-life," so called, in the debate about whether one of the liberties citizens have a right to is obtaining abortions. Ron Paul and Andrew Napolitano are both of this school, holding that abortion is the killing of a human being. One may assume that they would both accord full legal protection to zygotes, embryos, and fetuses, seeing that as they see it, these all have the right to life just as any other human being does. Maybe they would qualify this just a bit by noting that the homicide involved would be akin to infanticide, not the killing of an adult. But just as infanticide is one variety of homicide, so could abortion be.

Several decades ago, when libertarianism was not yet discussed on news programs I aired some concerns with the position held by Representative Paul and Judge Napolitano on the abortion topic. It sparked some response from some who embraced the position--e.g., certain prominent members of the organization Libertarians for Life--but it certainly cause little stir even among the participants of the then budding libertarian movement. At this time, however, it may be worth revisiting the issue and seeing how it might be dealt with by those who embrace the Paul/Napolitano viewpoint. For this reason I want to once again publish the piece in which I aired my concerns, this time on line. (The original article was published in Liberty Magazine and a response was penned by Edwin Viaira, “Fetal Rights: Enforceable in Principle” at Libertarians for Life [1996]. Although Vieira stated in that essay that the argument I advanced is “one frequently used,” he cites no other literature in which it is presented. I myself know of none.)

So then here is the essay as originally published in Liberty Magazine:]

Among the many issues considered in connection with the abortion controversy, there is one that has, unfortunately, received little attention. To wit, if the “pro-life” position is roughly right—that is, if human conception entails a serious right to life for the conceptus—then certain radical legal consequences follow. If zygotes, embryos, and fetuses have a right to life comparable to infants and adults, then miscarriages or spontaneous abortions must become subjects of extensive and constant police scrutiny.

Every state has some public policy regarding police investigation of unexplained deaths and homicides. (See Wayne R. LaFave & Gerold H. Israel, Criminal Procedure [St. Paul, Minnesota: West Publishing Company, 1985], Chapter 1.) The authorities must determine that there are no reasonable grounds for suspecting murder or some other variety of illegal killing. In addition, if a fetus or zygote has a right to life, it follows that any activity on the part of the pregnant woman (or even a companion or stranger) that might result in a miscarriage (say, arising from some sport or a minor traffic mishap) could constitute negligent homicide. (See Criminal Law 21 Am Jur 2nd Par. 132; Model Penal Code Article 210, Section 210.1 & 210.4 Criminal and negligent homicide [1962]; Commonweath v. Nelansky, 55 N.E. 2nd 902 [MA. 1944].

In the death of an adult or even a child, the public accessibility of the deceased makes it relatively easy to determine whether foul play can reasonably be assumed. Innumerable forensic methods and devices exist for this purpose. Simply checking the body will usually provide investigators with sufficient information to determine whether there are grounds for suspecting a crime. Often, there are members of the public well-acquainted with the deceased, and these friends, family and neighbors can testify to suspicious circumstances, history, and the like. The same situation, however, does not apply in the case of deceased zygotes.

Whatever it is that is created at conception—whether it is something that is human or something that is only potentially human—it is often not known to exist until long after conception. Women do not know that they are pregnant immediately after they have conceived. The plain fact is that “unborn children” are hidden for several weeks from the kind of public exposure that even babies enjoy. In advanced civilizations, many of these unborn are monitored by physicians, but this usually occurs only after they have lived and been vulnerable to mistreatment for several weeks. This alone seems to violate the “ought implies can” provision of ethics, which states that if someone is required to act in a particular way, it must be possible for that person to carry out the responsibility. The veil of ignorance that surrounds the early stages of pregnancy causes many problems unforeseen by the advocates of fetal rights.

Even if immediate knowledge of conception were possible for a pregnant woman, the situation would be the same. What is required is public knowledge, as well as private knowledge. It is the rights-protecting authorities who must be able to know of the existence of the embryo, zygote or fetus in order to protect their rights. This requirement is not easy to meet.

Of course, one could imagine the following: At the moment of any possible conception—that is, whenever heterosexual intercourse takes place between fertile parties—an extensive machinery of examination, registration and supervision of possible pregnancies could be generated. Every woman would have the constant duty to check whether she is pregnant. If the answer is in the affirmative, the woman would immediately have to register the conception of the new human being. She would then have to submit to constant inspection and supervision, so as not to permit the possibility of a neglectful miscarriage—for example, from sports, recreation, work, or play, or any of a number of other activities.

This kind of “solution,” however, conflicts with the existence of the rights of persons to not have their lives unreasonably scrutinized by authorities—or, as the 4th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution puts it, “against unreasonable searches.” The threat to the rights of possible parents would be enormous—indeed, to do their duty, governments must violate human rights on numerous fronts. A veritable police state would have to be established so as to uphold ordinary justice.

This extraordinary extension of state power can also be considered a violation of the “ought implies can” provision, although in a somewhat complicated sense. Ought implies can not only in a physical sense, but also in a moral sense: a moral obligation must not require immoral acts. Rights must be compossible—the human right of a fetus cannot contradict the equally basic human right of anyone else (although some prima facia rights theories allow for the ranking of human rights). Accordingly, even if all pregnancies could be detected immediately upon conception, the institutional arrangements required for this would involve extensive rights violations and, thus, make discovery of negligence and other criminal conduct during pregnancy morally impossible.

A legal policy consistent with the idea that the human being is formed at conception could not be carried out in a society that respects the sovereignty of all of its citizens, including pregnant women. If a law is unenforceable in principle, it is inoperative. This, in turn, suggests that the “pro-life” position implies a set of legal consequences that are impossible in the very society that supposedly recognizes the rights of its citizens in all cases other than the unborn. If we add to these considerations the possibility that some alternative theory of when a human being comes into existence makes better sense and does not imply a widespread official violation of individual rights, then the case against the “pro-life” position seems very strong indeed. Before it could even be considered sound, it would have to be shown that the widespread intrusion into the lives of persons as discussed here is not implied by the “pro-life” doctrine.

The normal respect for and protection of individual rights cannot be extended to the being that is created by conception—not, at least, without an absurd invasion of the rights of adult human individuals.

Column on Capitalism & Socialism Rightly Understood

Capitalism & Socialism Rightly Understood

Tibor R. Machan

In a recent Op Ed for The New York Times, Professor Gar Arperovitz of the University of Maryland, who teaches political economy there, has written that “something different [from what OWS wants] has been quietly brewing in recent decades: more and more Americans are involved in co-ops, worker-owned companies and other alternatives to the traditional capitalist model. We may, in fact, be moving toward a hybrid system, something different from both traditional capitalism and socialism, without anyone even noticing.”

Well, this comment shows, among other things, a profound misunderstanding of both capitalism and socialism. In the formers system there is no prohibition of pockets of communitarian associations, kibbutzes, communes, cooperatives, and so forth. This is a point made emphatically by one of the 20th century’s foremost philosophical defenders of capitalism–or, as he put it, “capitalist acts between consenting adults”–the late professor Robert Nozick, in his famous book Anarchy, State, and Utopia (Basic Books 1973).

Nozick pointed out that in the libertarian system he presented in his book there is every chance to experiment with a great variety of human associations–he called the “utopias”–provided these do not sanction the coercion of some people by others. And since the kind of associations that “worker owned companies” are need by no stretch of the imagination involve any kind of coercion, they are entirely compatible with capitalism wherein the major element is freedom of association, not the pursuit of any particular goal (including profit).

It is odd that Professor Alperovitz would not be up front about this. Is he perhaps intent on misrepresenting the nature of a capitalist political economy, making it appear to be something it isn’t, namely, limited to promoting only certain types of human associations such as business firms? What about the thousands of churches in the semi-capitalist system of America which are on record promoting various spiritual goals? What about the Amish, the Moonies, the Roman Catholics, the Salvation Army, the Red Cross and many others, including clubs, fraternal organizations, and so forth, that have nothing to do with seeking the ends that most business enterprises seek? All these are fully compatible with the basic principles of capitalism but not so much with socialism. None of these are permitted in countries like North Korea or Cuba, let alone in the former Soviet Union which attempted to implement socialism, namely, the state ownership of the major means of production and the total abolition of the right to private property, a right that indeed facilitates the variety of ways people may freely associate with one another.

Professor Alperovitz is a teacher of political economy so he must certainly know about the point Nozick made and about how a near-capitalist society such as the United States of America and many other Western countries are hospitable to, indeed promote, the great variety of communal associations he misleadingly identifies as socialist? Why would he do this?

If Professor Alperovitz wants to defend socialism or some hybrid of true capitalism and true socialism–whatever that might be–he should do this up front. He should acknowledge that socialism involves state coercion, especially on the economic front, and capitalism doesn’t. The various non-economic human associations he misidentifies as socialist do not involve coercion, which makes them fit within a capitalist but not within a socialist political economy.

But I guess Professor Alperovitz isn’t really willing to put his money where his mouth is, to come out four square for a genuine socialist/capitalist hybrid. He is, instead, defending something no bona fide capitalist or libertarian–e.g., Milton Friedman, F. A. Hayek, Ayn Rand, Murray N. Rothbard, Ron Paul et al.–opposes. Every one of these champions of capitalism accepts that in a genuine free country there can be innumerable human groupings and these include worker owned firms and farms.

Essay on Are Societies Owned?

Are Societies Owned?

Tibor R. Machan

Libertarians tend to view taxation as unjustified. It is something associated with statism, a kind of coercive institution that expropriates resources from members of society rather than securing the resources voluntarily. Statists, however, criticize the libertarian view, claiming that in a way taxation is voluntary, only apparently not so. Such defenders of statism as Liam Murphy and Thomas Nagel, in their book The Myth of Ownership,[1] have made this case and they have done so along lines worth some attention here.

Assume you wish to sell antiques, so you rent space in a building owned by someone and agree that whenever you make a sale, some of what you fetch goes to the owner. Craig Duncan claims this is analogous to the nature of taxation. The country is like the building. “The building’s owner … charges vendors a percentage of their sales intake—say, 20 percent—as payment for the opportunity to sell from one of the building’s stalls…. The owner is not stealing [the vendor’s] money when he demands this sum from [the vendor].”[2] According to Duncan it is by comparison to this kind of situation that taxation ought to be understood, not, as I and other libertarians argue, as extortion by some members of society (the government) of the rest who live and work there or, as Nozick claimed, as something on par with forced labor.[3]

But the analogy is a bad one. No one owns a free society. No one who lives in a free society is provided with the opportunity to strike up a deal with some owner of that society or to choose, from among different owners of societies, in which he or she might live and work.

Instead, people would be born into a free society where others, including their parents, relatives, or guardians, own homes, places of work and so on. Other people—the government—would not have the authority to coerce them into paying them “taxes” and to put them in jail if they refuse to pay up, with no chance of bargaining about the percentage, of whether to pay a flat fee (whether they win or lose in their various commercial endeavors), a percentage of some possible take and so forth.

All of these latter options are, however, possible when an antique seller rents a stall from someone who owns a building where customers may seek out vendors. But free societies, unlike the place where an antique vendor may or may not rent a stall, are not anyone’s property.

Professor Duncan does, however, correctly describe societies that are not free. In a feudal system, for example, the king or tzar or other monarch owns the society. In a dictatorship the dictator is the owner. In fascist societies the leader in effect owns the society. And in democracies that aren’t governed by a constitution that protects individual rights the majority owns the society. These owners then charge a rent from those they permit to live and work on their property.

That kind of system is, indeed, the natural home of the institution of taxation. Such societies are also the natural home of serfdom, where others than those who own it live and work only when permitted to do so. They have no rights other than those granted at the discretion of the owners. Both serfdom and taxation arise naturally in societies that are owned by someone.

In free societies, however, no one owns the society. Individual citizens may or may not own all kinds of things in such free societies—land, apartments, family homes, farms, factories, and innumerable other items that may be found before human beings have expropriated them from the wilds or what has been produced by or traded back and forth among the free citizenry.

Of course, in complex, developed free societies the citizenry will most likely have instituted a legal order or government, based on the principles of freedom—individual rights to life, liberty and property, for example. And they will probably have instituted some means by which those administering such a system will be paid for their work—user fees, shares of wealth owned, a flat sum, or something more novel and unheard of (e.g., contract fees). Citizens can come together, roughly along lines of how the original American colonists came together, and establish a legal order or government that will be empowered, without violating anyone’s rights, to provide for a clear definition, elaboration, and defense of everyone’s rights. Then, once such a group of citizens has come together and instituted a government with just powers—powers that do not violate but protect individual rights—the proper funding of the work of such a government can be spelled out.

What is crucial here is that such funding must occur voluntarily, namely, as the kind of funding that does not violate anyone’s rights. Unlike the case Professor Duncan gives us, where someone has prior ownership over the various items in society that can be owned, in a free society ownership is achieved through various types of free action. This includes coming upon something unowned and appropriating it—land, trees, lakes, whatever—or being given in trade various things by others or, again, being born into the world with various assets or attributes that may well be used to create wealth through production, use or exchange.

A truly free society, then, does not belong to anyone but is a region wherein individuals are free to come to own things. It is one within which those who live there are free to embark on actions that involve, among other things, the acquisition of property. That is part of being free, not being coerced by others to give up what one has peacefully acquired, not be prohibited by others from embarking on various actions, including peaceful acquisition (including production and trade).

In short, a free society is based on principles of individual rights, not on having gained permission from prior owners of the society on analogy with how a renter of a stall in an antique mall comes into possession of that stall. In free societies ownership is a right everyone has by his or her nature as a human being and it isn’t granted as a privilege by a prior owner, ad infinitum.
———————
[1] Liam Murphy and Thomas Nagel, The Myth of Ownership (London: Oxford University Press, 2002).

[2] Craig Duncan & Tibor R. Machan, Libertarianism, For and Against (Rowman & Littlefield, 2005), p. 46.

[3] Robert Nozick, Anarchy, State, and Utopia (New York: Basic Books, 1974).

Column on Needing doesn’t justify Stealing

Needing Doesn’t Justify Stealing

Tibor R. Machan

What one needs depends on one’s goals. And much of the time what one needs to pursue various goals is produced by other people, including some rather important stuff or services. Nonetheless, among genuine free men and women whatever it is that one needs may only be obtained voluntarily, not by coercion. Even if the need is great.

Yes, now and then one’s needs can be urgent and great, as when one must get the services of a surgeon lest one lose the use of a limb. Yet, one isn’t by any stretch of the imagination authorized, morally, and should not be legally, to conscript those who can provide the necessary service. That would make slaves of those professionals! And no one is justified in enslaving anyone, however urgent one’s needs may be.

One would think these are elementary matters in a society that has experienced slavery or involuntary servitude and finally abolished it. But no. I recently objected to the first class mail monopoly that the US Postal Service enjoys, as a Constitutional grant in fact, and someone commented that people often need first class mail, so surely it must be provided to them.

Doesn’t follow at all. We often need things quite badly that others can supply but they and their labor doesn’t belong to us so we must obtain them voluntarily. And that has proven to be a very workable arrangement, much more so than have coercive alternatives. Why then do people often support the idea that it is OK to conscript other people’s work?

Maybe one reason is the regrettable precedent of taxation. For a while even in the USA, a supposedly shining example of a polity of human liberty, the military draft was legally accepted, tolerated. And of course for centuries on end coercion was routinely used by the powerful to obtain what the less powerful produced. Today it is quite common to have major political and academic figures chiming in favoring robbing the rich because, well, they have what others want from them. The idea that it belongs to them and thus must be obtained without resort to the violation of their basic rights doesn’t even come up. It’s just wished away, silently, as if it should be forgotten in the face of the needs of others. But then, of course, at one time these needs were used to justify chattel slavery and servitude to the ruler. It is not an accident that the Southern social theorist George Fitzhugh considered and favored slavery as a quintessentially socialist institution.

But just because an older generation got wise about these matters it doesn’t follow that we inherited this wisdom. Many of us are perfectly willing to forget what we should have learned from history, including that no matter how precious our goals may be, conscripting others to serve them is morally and should be legally prohibited. So the president of the USA, shamefully, is advocating robbing the rich so as to help him carry on with public policies that he prefers but cannot find sufficient support for.

At this point, of course, it isn’t very simple to sell the public on the idea that the rich must become slaves, so various theories are rolled out that maintain that the rich owe it to us, so taking it from them is just fine. That is the thesis candidate Elizabeth Warren was airing when she was campaigning for a Massachusetts Senate seat. And she wasn’t the only one. Such thinkers as NYU professors Thomas Nagel and Liam Murphy, Harvard Law School’s Cass Sunstein, and others have been making some amazingly spurious arguments that support the notion that all wealth really belongs to the government instead of individual citizens. Sunstein has also been peddling the incredible idea that all rights are grants from government, an idea directly opposed to the American tradition of individual rights (developed mainly by John Locke). Nagel and Murphy wrote a little volume The Myth of Ownership, for (of course) Oxford University Press back in 2002, which would, if it had any merit, clear the way to the government taking from us whatever it wants.

You need to realize, though, that government is nothing more than some people who are hired by others for specific, limited purposes; indeed their proper purpose is to protect or secure the rights of the citizenry, their natural rights! But that is, sadly, still an unfamiliar idea in many circles that stick to the reactionary notion that you and I and our belongings aren’t really ours but were granted to us provisionally by those other people, the government. How they came to have such authority is of course a complete myth. Let’s get past it already and carry on with the American revolutionary idea that citizens are the sovereigns, not the state.