Archive for February, 2012

Machan’s Archives: Democracy & Liberty

Machan’s Archives: Democracy versus Liberty

Tibor R. Machan

Over the last several decades of American political life the idea of liberty has taken a back seat to that of democracy. Liberty involves human beings governing themselves, being sovereign citizens, while democracy is a method by which decisions are reached within groups. In a just society it is liberty that’s primary; the entire point of law is to secure liberty for everyone, to make sure that the rights of individuals, to their lives, liberty and pursuit of happiness, are protected from any human agent bent on violating them.

Democracy at its best is but a byproduct of liberty. Because we are all supposed to be free to govern ourselves, whenever some issue of public policy faces the citizenry, all entitled to take part. Democratic government rests, in a free society, on the right of every individual to take whatever actions are needed to influence public policy. Because freedom or liberty is primary, the scope of public policy and, thus, democracy in a just society is strictly limited. The reason is that free men and women may not be intruded on even if a majority of their fellows would decide to do so. If someone is a free, which means a self-governing, person, then even the majority of one’s fellows lack the authority to take over one’s governance without one’s consent. I cannot be otherwise unless there is prior agreement by all to accept such a process. The consent of the governed amounts to this and that is what the US Declaration of Independence means when it mentions that government derives its just powers from the consent of the governed.

In a just society no one loses his or her authority for self-government without giving it up as a matter of choice. No one gets to perform an operation on you, no matter how wise and competent, without your giving your consent, and the same is true, in a just system, about imposing duties and obligations on people. They must agree to this. If they do not, they aren’t to be ordered about at all. That would be involuntary servitude!

The only apparent exception is when it comes to laws that protect everyone’s rights. One may indeed be ordered not to kill, rob, rape, burglarize, or assault another person, even if one fails to consent to this. And when government does the job of protecting individual rights, government may order one to abstain from all such aggressive actions. But that doesn’t actually involve intruding on people, only protecting everyone from intrusions.

It is along these lines that the idea of limited government arises: government may only act to protect rights, to impose the laws that achieve that goal, nothing more. Again, as the Declaration of Independence notes, it is to secure our rights that governments are instituted, not for any other purpose. Of course, this idea of limited government hardly figures into considerations of public policy in the USA or elsewhere.

We have never actually confined government to this clearly limited, just purpose. It has always gone beyond that and today its scope is nearly totalitarian, the very opposite of being limited. But there is no doubt that even though liberty has been nearly forgotten as an ideal of just government in America as well as elsewhere, democracy does remain something of an operational ideal. In this way liberty has been curtailed tremendously, mainly to the minor sphere of everyone having a right to take part in public decision-making.

Whereas the original idea was that we are free in all realms and democracy concerns mainly who will administer a system of laws that are required to protect our liberty, now the idea is that democracy addresses everything in our lives and the only liberty we have left is to take part in the decision-making about whatever is taken to be a so called “public” matter. One way this is clearly evident is how many of the top universities in the USA construe public administration to be a topic having to do primarily with the way democracy works. Indeed, after the demise of the Soviet Union, even though the major issue should have been the salvation of individual liberty, the experts in academe who write and teach the rest of the world about public administration are nearly all focused on democracy, not on liberty.

For example, the courses at America’s premier public administration graduate school, the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University, are mainly focused on problems of democracy. At this institution nearly 40 percent of the students attending come from 75 foreign countries, many of them from those that used to be under Soviet rule, and what they focus on in nearly all their courses is democracy, not liberty. Assignments in these courses tend all to raise problems about implementing democratic governance and leave the issue of how individual liberty should be secured as practically irrelevant. Or, to put it more precisely, the liberty or human right that is of interest in most of these courses is the liberty to take part in democratic decision-making. (“Human rights” has come to refer in most of these course and their texts mainly to the right to vote and to take part in the political process!) Yes, of course, that is a bit of genuine liberty that many of the people of the world have never enjoyed, so for them it is a significant matter, to be sure. But it is clearly not the liberty that the Declaration of Independence mentions when it affirms that all of us are equal in having unalienable rights to our lives, liberty and pursuit of happiness.

The Declaration speaks of a very wide scope of individual liberty, while the premier public administration school of America teaches, at least by implication, that the only liberty of any importance is the liberty to take part in public policy determination. This, I submit, is a travesty. Once democracy is treated as the premier public value, with individual liberty cast to the side except as far as taking part in democratic decision-making, the scope of government is no longer limited in principle or practice.

Nearly anything can become a public policy issue, so long as some measure of democracy is involved in reaching decisions about it.

And that, in fact, turns out to be a serious threat to democracy itself. Because when democracy trumps liberty, democracy can destroy itself–the law could permit the democratically reached destruction of democracy itself! That is just what happened in the Weimar Republic, where a democratic election put Hitler in power and destroyed democracy. And check developments in our time in the Middle East!

If you ever wonder why it is that public forums, including the Sunday TV magazine programs, the Op Ed pages of most newspapers, the feature articles of most magazines do not discuss human liberty but fret mostly about democracy, this is the reason: the major educational institutions tend not to care about liberty at all and have substituted a very limited version of it, namely, democracy as their primary concern. Once that is accomplished, individual liberty becomes defenseless.

Indeed, democracy is just as capable of being totalitarian as is a dictatorship, only with democracy it seems less clearly unjust, given that this little bit of liberty is still in tact, namely, to take part in the vote.

Machan’s Archives: Thanks for the Technology (updated)

Machan’s Archives: Thanks for the technology (updated)!

Tibor R. Machan

In 1972 I bought a Volvo P1800 off the Chevy used car lot in Santa Barbara, California. I owned that car for 20 years and am still sad to have had to sell it in 1992, after putting 250,000 miles on it and driving it back and forth over the USA about 17 times.

I recall this now because with all the praise heaped upon “green,” it is largely those in the field of practical science, technology, who have to endure a great deal of finger wagging. Yet, we should often extend warm thanks to the engineers who designed and produced our various technologies? I certainly did, silently but often, extend thanks to the engineers who designed my wonderful car and all sorts of gadgets that have made my life better since.

Today, instead of dissing scientists and technologists, I would like to thank the designers, engineers, and doctors. The latter, for example, have helped me regain the use of my eyes. And some are working hard to improve my back which has been operated on a few times but is still functioning pretty well, thanks to science and technology.

I often think about those people who invent the various useful gadgets we nearly take for granted these days – like the central air conditioning system in my house that makes it less of a chore for me to work at my computer, take good care of my house, and read the fine novels I love so much during the hot spells of our summers in Southern California. Or the central heat – which I rarely use because after all, I can put clothes on nearly endlessly, whereas even going about buck naked is no relief when the heat gets very high up there. I think, also, of the people who made the pain-relievers I and millions of others take when we have serious aches and pains, or those who make the supplementary vitamins or… well, you name it. Few among the elite commentators around the country appear to pay them heed other than to lament all the technology they have produced.

All you need to call up feelings of gratitude is to notice how one’s ordinary life is improved when one has the great variety of products available from the market place. Yes, sometimes I am overcome with a powerful feeling of gratitude and wish I actually knew more of those who make such things so I could thank them personally.

Moreover, I feel very protective of these folks when I hear various critics of modern technology. Today nearly all efforts to make things better for us – be it based in biology, chemistry, physics, electronics or what have you – tend to be lambasted by some high and mighty sounding Luddite. Indeed, I have resolved never to be complacent about such attacks, to rise to the defense of these folks who often simply go about the work diligently and competently but do not prepare well enough for being chided by the Luddites of the world.

Greens, in the main, and their kin across the globe tend to be thoughtlessly hostile to those who are devoted to improving our lives. Such critics give voice to an asceticism that no one who has ever had the benefit of microsurgery or ambulance transport could consider warranted.

Take as an example the folks at Oregon State University, who follow the ideas of “Simply Beautiful,” a program developed by Sam Quick and Robert Flashman, whose motto is “To be content with what we have at this moment, to bloom where we are planted – this is the wisdom of gratitude, this is the very foundation of a simply beautiful life.” They want everything to be simple again (as if things ever were simple). They need not preach to me their reactionary notions. This is like that time when a device was invited that restored hearing to some of those who are deaf and some outfit threw a fit about this, claiming that such an invention implies that there is something wrong with being deaf. What perversity!

Of course, we pay for these inventions and creations and those who design them mostly make a pretty decent living, so they do not go unrewarded. But few are actually thanked much. Nor are the middlemen who invest in their work and take financial risks with these designers, engineers, and inventors. They tend to be overlooked, yet they ought to be honored more often. (Now and then I think the Nobel Prize is misdirected to the pure scientists, who are having so much fun already, leaving the practical implementers less prominently acknowledged.)

There’s of course the great benefit produced by all those implements that enable us to keep in touch with parents, children, friends, colleagues and others by electronic means, by email, texting, cell phones (hands free and not), and the rest. (I personally manage to contact my new grandson via Skype and instant message with my three grown children on Google! Then there are my family members who live abroad and whom I used to have to wait for months to be in touch with, via a regular mail and an occasional very expensive phone call!)

Anyway, here is a toast to those who try to figure out ways to make our lives better for us in those more or less small ways by which someone like me, for example, can continue to read and write and drive about safely. Thank you all! The fact that everything can be abused or corrupted, isn’t their fault!

Essay on Faiths and Public Affairs

Faiths and Public Affairs

Tibor R. Machan

Republican Presidential hopeful Rick Santorum has made an impassioned pitch in favor of rejecting the famous doctrine of the separation of church and state. He made his position clear on the ABC-TV program, This Week, on Sunday, February 26: “I don’t believe in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute,’’ Santorum noted. “The idea that the church should have no influence or no involvement in the operation of the state is absolutely antithetical of the objectives and vision of our country.’’

Of course the exact statement he made is sadly hyperbolic since no one has ever advocated that church should have no influence on the operations of the state or government. Religion clearly has influence through its role in the formation of individual opinions which in a free country play a crucial role in guiding public affairs. As a matter of the faith of the citizenry, religion’s involvement in public affairs is ubiquitous.

The idea behind the church-state separation is that when it comes to public affairs or the official edicts of governments, these are not supposed to be based on church policies or doctrines but on the secular ideas of the country’s constitution, ideas that any human being is capable of grasping and criticizing, no matter his or her religion. Let us see what lies behind this position and why it is sound.

When we discuss political economy, resting one’s case on faith places one’s ideas on wobbly foundations. By “faith” is meant a mode of belief based on the will to accept or commit, often despite systematic evidence to the contrary, or on belief not based on supporting evidence of the sort available for systematic, organized, public scrutiny. Indeed, faith is often taken by its champions and adherents to be something extra rational. Its merit lies, supposedly, in the fact that it is not based on evidence or reason but often contradicts both. Thus it is harder to sustain–and it is this difficulty that is supposed to make it a noble achievement to have and keep such a faith. If it were a conviction or belief based on evidence and reason it would lack this element, or so some theologians and religious leaders maintain.

The problem with faith is that, especially concerning matters of public policy, but even vis-a-vis personal and social problems, it is rather hopeless to expect congruence or agreement to arise among very different people with different experiences, traditions, and religious convictions which are based on faith. How, then, can faith be used to reach common or public convictions?

Faith is a very private mental disposition. In many theological systems it is supposed to be at God’s discretion whether someone will have faith or not. Augustine, for example, saw it as something that people acquired by the grace of God. Within this tradition, human beings are in a sense impotent when it comes to gaining faith—they are either graced with it or not.

But in matters of importance to all people, to the citizenry as a whole, it is futile to rely on such a method for reaching understanding and convictions. Indeed, there is a virtual guarantee of discord when faith is invoked. It may be appreciated, in this light, why there are nearly 4,200 different religions in the United States alone and why so many of the public conflicts around the globe find much of their source in religious views, and why religion is something that many people refuse to debate or argue (since, again, one either has or doesn’t have it). The religious based conflicts across the globe occur mostly where religion and the public sphere are thoroughly intertwined.

To be sure, religion has been present for most of history. As George Orwell illustrates in his classic book and indictment of communism, Animal Farm, there is always a priest or minister around no matter what politics happen to dominate (represented by the omnipresence of the raven through his story). Thus, Roman Catholic and other churches didn’t even collapse under the self-proclaimed atheistic system of communism and managed to live peacefully within others.

The presence of religion in nearly all epochs and societies, however, is no argument for the truth of much of what these religions proclaim—after all, most societies adhere to widespread superstitions, such as astrology, as well as all kinds of dubious practices and institutions, which arguably rest on various false beliefs about the world and about how we all should live. The pervasiveness of these doesn’t render them true.

Nonetheless, it is probably because religions consider a good deal of what is important to human life, like codes of conduct that resonate so sufficiently with common sense, that they have staying power. And there is also the plain fact that secular philosophies haven’t been sufficiently attentive to ethics or morality—often claiming that these, too, along with the descriptive parts of theologies, are myths. This isn’t a credible view and religions have thrived by holding that they alone can provide people with ethics for guiding their lives.

There are also many heroic acts by religious people against various forms of tyranny. But these don’t render the general outlook of the heroes true. For example, Roman Catholic Cardinal Mindszenty of Hungary opposed the Stalinist regime in his country, invoking grounds that any secular liberal thinker could appreciate. Lord Acton’s liberalism isn’t especially wedded to religion even though he himself was Catholic. Although the real concerns many religious people have about tyrannies and totalitarian regimes needn’t be based on any specifically religious convictions—unless, of course, everything one believes rests on those—the ethical leadership provided from within religion has been significant in fighting such systems.

The bottom line is that what makes us human, most of all, is that we use reason and need to do so to make headway in our daily lives. In a country fit for human survival and for thriving, religion can’t be a basis for public policy. That’s why resting beliefs on the common capacity to reason, instead of on faith, and the need to discuss with others how one should lead one’s life, has greater promise for peace and justice, especially in organized human communities inhabited by very different people.

So, one crucial reason that religiously based public policies have dubious merit is that their justification can’t be examined along lines available to us in virtue of our humanity alone. A human community, as opposed to a sectarian or religious one, can’t rest its institutions on what arises from faith—especially not if those institutions aim to be considered fairly and openly by all those who might be citizens, including members of very different religious denominations as well as many who lack any such membership.

Nonetheless, in a multicultural, highly diverse society such as those in most of the advanced civilizations today, especially the famous melting pot that’s the United States of America, the realm of public affairs cannot be approached from a religious viewpoint. Doing that would necessarily result in constant internal conflicts that are in principle unresolvable.

Accordingly Rick Santorum’s call for what would amount to a substantially theocratic society must be rejected by all reasonable citizens, especially those who realize that religion is vital to their own lives regardless of how little that religion is shared by their fellow citizens. The best defense of religion and its free exercise is not to allow any particular faith to become dominant via the political system.

Column on a Prominent Pair of False Alternatives

A prominent Pair of False Alternatives

Tibor R. Machan

Jon Gertner, author of the forthcoming “The Idea Factory: Bell Labs and the Great Age of American Innovation,”* writes for The New York Times (in an excerpt from his book), about innovation in America. I spotted the piece and immediately suspected there was a hidden motive behind it, not, indeed, one that was aiming at “understanding,” the purposes Gertner purports to find behind what “our innovative forbears” had in mind, as opposed to profit! So he writes, for example:

“The conflation of … different kinds of innovations seems to be leading us toward a belief that small groups of profit-seeking entrepreneurs turning out innovative consumer products are as effective as our innovative forebears. History does not support this belief. The teams at Bell Labs that invented the laser, transistor and solar cell were not seeking profits. They were seeking understanding. Yet in the process they created not only new products but entirely new — and lucrative — industries….”

This kind of writing, referring to some alleged belief that “we” are lead to–who “we”?–isn’t about enlightenment but about promoting a not so hidden agenda. It is that most of the talk among those who try to understand American culture, including science and technology–especially talk by economists who defend the free market, is misguided–the profit motive isn’t what advances knowledge, it is the goal of understanding that does this.

Well, why is the goal of understanding juxtaposed with profit? Isn’t, in fact, one of the elements of profit to gain understanding? Places like Bell Labs, where Mr. Gertner did much of his research for his book and for the article in The Times, were established throughout the globe so as to promote greater and greater understanding which, in turn, is supposed to give support to the pursuit of all kinds of progress, including making a profit.

So called pure science is often contrasted with so called applied science but the contrast is artificial, just as are so called theoretical and practical knowledge. Such a contrast is the outgrowth of bad philosophy, of an artificial division of human knowledge into two kinds. In philosophy it is the contrast between analytical versus synthetic knowledge, the former dealing with the relationship between ideas and the latter with the application of ideas for some “practical” purpose (suggesting that ideas on their own aren’t practical).

Of course, in philosophy, especially the philosophy of science, such a contrast has always met with strong criticism. One critic, the late Harvard philosopher Willard van Orman Quine, wrote a seminal and very influential paper on this very issue, one that, sadly, Jon Gertner appears to be unfamiliar with. It was written in 1951 and titled Two Dogmas of Empiricism.

Empiricism is a very prominent and promising school of epistemology, the branch of philosophy that examines the nature of human knowledge. The dogmas in question are that there exists factual (empirical) and theoretical (conceptual), knowledge, which are very different. From a long time ago these two dogmas have been very widely embraced but also rejected by many. Plato in his way embraced them while Aristotle didn’t, to put the matter a bit simply. As Quine’s paper suggests, all human knowledge is, well, knowledge of the world, not knowledge of two realms, such as that of facts and that of ideas. The only sense in which these two are actually distinguishable is that there is the world, the realm of facts, and there is our understanding of the world, the realm of ideas. But the latter is always in some way about the former.

Now back to Mr. Gertner’s supposedly innovative idea, namely, that people do not engage in scientific and technological research to gain profit but to gain understanding. In fact the better way to put it is that as people seek to understand the world, they achieve knowledge that enables them to address problems in the world, some of which indeed advance their well being. Which is to say that some of what understanding promotes is prosperity or profit. Some of it is of course, placed on the back burner, for possible future practical use. Some such understanding is used to play with, as it were–for experiment, speculation, etc.

But if one wishes to undermine an element of the case for a free society, including a free market place, one might like to show that understanding is a higher goal than profit and that the two aren’t actually very closely related. Pure science, which is supposed to promote understanding, can be pursued but not in contrast to the pursuit of practical goals.

So there is nothing in what Mr. Gertner argues that undermines one main reason for having a free society, namely, to secure human freedom, with government mainly out of the way other than in its limited role as the cop on the beat who keeps the peace.


Column on the Tenacity of Nihilists

The Tenacity of the Nihilists

Tibor R. Machan

In the book Reading Obama (Princeton, 2010), James T. Kloppenberg makes a case for how the kind of approach President Obama takes to public policy is now widely preferred, to put it paradoxically, on principle at the most prestigious universities. Obama’s rejection of general principles, the kind of we find stated in the Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights, is in sync with what has come to be mainstream philosophy in America.

Mind you this is no novel insight about American intellectual life. Pragmatism is, after all, America’s homegrown school of philosophy, one that on principle rejects the value of principled thinking! Now pragmatism has several versions but the one that has become fashionable is what such people as Paul Krugman ridicule by calling principled thinkers “fundamentalists” as if they were dogmatic, mindless, and doctrinaire.

Principled thinkers, such as the American founders, are nothing like this. The principles they found valid for governing a free society were learned from extensive studies of history, by philosophical education and reflection, and by reading a lot of others who embarked on inquiries about human affairs.

In a way those alleged fundamentalists whom at least the more vulgar type of pragmatists try to marginalize are like medical scientists. They learn about the criteria of good health and physical condition from their study of human life, a study that comes up with certain reasonably stable notions about what can be done to achieve and maintain good health. These notions are not Platonic forms, fixed in heaven forever and incapable of being modified and updated. But they aren’t the infinitely flexible ones that are preferred by those who scoff at principled thinking. Engineers, farmers, gardeners, pharmacists and others who take the findings of the various sciences and translate and apply them to problem solving aren’t doctrinaire or dogmatic for being guided by generalizations, principles that come out of those sciences and the experimentation that is part and parcel of them.

Indeed, all disciplines are comprised of more or less fundamental notions that come out of the studies being done in them and the practical implementation of the results of those studies. It is like a pyramid, with some very basic propositions that, to use a phrase the Cambridge philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein made prominent, “stand fast for us,” as well as ones that are less and less well established and more subject to revisions.

Instead of denying that there are fundamentals in fields like political economy and political science, embracing a vast Heraclitian flux that leaves everything indeterminate, ambiguous and open to infinite interpretation, depending upon the personal preferences of those concerned with a discipline, a better, contextual approach is warranted. Even pragmatists tip their hats to this when they for example refuse to be flexible about the viciousness of rape or murder. They know that some things do stand fast for us, including the value of human life, maybe even of human liberty!

However, those spending reams of paper apologizing for Barack Obama’s wobbly political economic decisions and policies act as if this abyss of pragmatically invented ideas could really guide public policy reasonably, productively. (Check out Sam Tanenhaus’s “Will the Tea Get Cold?” in the March 8, 2012 issue of The New York Review of Books as a good example!) They ought to check with those who study and practice such fields as medicine, engineering, farming, or auto mechanics and see if anything could be dealt with successfully without general principles, with well founded theories in them. They would find that none of these vital areas of concern can bear fruit without principled thought. And thus they could also realize that neither can the discipline of political economy.

To put the matter bluntly, so called market fundamentalists–as Krugman likes to call people who hold that the best economic arrangements in societies should rely on the free choices of economic agents–are on solid footing; it is sheer laziness not to seek out firm economic principles and theories and proceed by mere intuition, by, literally, nothing at all. Such nihilism hasn’t advanced any of the fields of study, research and reflection that human beings have relied upon to steer them toward a more and more successful way of living, including of organizing their communities.

And let us no kid ourselves: One reason the nihilist’s stance is attractive is that it supports the policy of arbitrary governing, governing that need not give any account of itself, governing that is, ultimately, autocratic and a matter of pure will. Yes, there are some authentic pragmatists and even nihilists but mostly these positions give aid and comfort to corrupt leaders and their cheerleaders in the academy.