Archive for June, 2012

Anticipated Reasoning by the Court

Anticipated Reasoning by the Court

Tibor R. Machan

A few weeks ago I wrote in one of my columns as follows:

“…[T]he discussion of President Obama’s federal policy requiring that everyone obtain health insurance has frequently focused on the fact that either an employer or individual would be forced to obtain private health insurance instead of, as Wikipedia points it out, ‘or in addition to the institution of a national health service of insurance’. And many have suggested that this is a very unusual measure since it mandates specific performance from citizens, contrary to the legal tradition of the country. One may be forced to give up property but never to carry out a task, something that is reminiscent of slavery or involuntary servitude and thus directly in conflict with the idea of a free society….”

The court ruled in favor of Mr. Obama’s individual mandate on June 28, 2012, by rejecting the idea that it amounted to forcing citizens to purchase something they don’t choose to purchase and held, instead, that it is indeed a federal requirement “to give up property” (or to tax the citizens) which the federal government may impose to its heart’s content.

It is just this power by government that needs now to be challenged since it extend the feudal legacy of extorting people’s resources. The extortion goes as follows: “You get to live in this supposedly free country only if you pay government–previously the monarch–funds demanded from you!” This amounts to the constitutional power to tax!

It should not be, of course, since it is a betrayal of the valid, universal principle of the Declaration of Independence and even the Bill of Rights, the right to private property, the right to pursue one’s happiness with one’s work and wealth. But then remember the constitution also made slavery legal and it remained so until it was finally amended. The 13th Amendment did this when it stated “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction. Section 2 says: Congress shall have the power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.” But this came later! So originally American law tolerated slavery, involuntary servitude.

Well, we now see that it still does. If your resources, property, may be confiscated by politicians then one’s life is not one’s own. The first natural right, namely, to life, is still contradicted in American federal law as it has been from the start.

The schizophrenia between the Declaration, which stated the most fundamental principles on which the country was supposed to have been founded, and the U. S. Constitution, the legal order by which the country was supposed to be governed, remains fully intact. This is the part of the revolution that needs to be completed, namely, the abolition of taxation. The 13th Amendment abolished serfdom, another central element of the old regime; now another needs to be, one that will abolish the forcible taking of one’s property via the feudal power of taxation.

So here is a wonderful opportunity for the current crop of Republicans, with Mitt Romney leading them in the next few months, to mount a bona fide, no holds barred revolution that will complete the first one. Ron Paul might have been counted upon to lead it but one may doubt that Mitt Romney is going to go there. Too many leaders of and people within the Republican Party remain statists who believe that the government rules the people instead of serving them.

I have argued for decades that what is now required is a truly just approach to funding law maintenance and enforcement. Some way other than taxing citizens must be found and implemented to fund the system that protects individual rights, a way that doesn’t also violate those rights. The contract fee approach would work, I am sure, provided it is firmly combined with a policy of strictly limited government, one that sticks to the task assigned it in the Declaration of Independence where we learn that government is instituted to protect our rights, not to run our lives.

Pragmatism’s Problems

Pragmatism’s Problems*

Tibor R. Machan

It has now become something of a badge of honor to be a pragmatist, especially in public policy matters. Being pragmatic means promoting policies that work, being practical or even expedient.

President Obama has often made mention of his own pragmatism. So have some of his most avid supporters, such as Paul Krugman and Cass Sunstein. But not only those favoring the substantially Keynesian approach to macroeconomic policies swear allegiance to pragmatism. The very prominent jurist Richard Posner, of the University of Chicago School of Law, one of the most prolific and widely respected public philosophers in our time, has been unabashed about his championing of pragmatism.

So what makes someone a pragmatist? In these contexts, pragmatic suggests mainly an attitude of realism and flexibility, lack of firm principles or foundations–i.e., eschewing dogmatism or ideology–on which one’s policy recommendations are based. Here is a good sample of the pragmatic approach:

“Defenders of Chicago-style law and economics want to be seen not as ideologues, but as realists. [Richard] Posner [put it this way]: ‘We ask not whether the economic approach to law is adequately grounded’ in any particular ethical system, ‘but whether it is the best approach for the contemporary American legal system to follow.’” Peter Coy, “Opening Remarks,” Bloomberg Businessweek, 6/11-6/17, 2012, p. 10. (“And how can one tell what’s “the best approach” if it’s all purely subjective or relative?)

Even more extremely put, Posner has written as follows:

“It was right to try the Nazi leaders [at Nuremburg] rather than to shoot them out of hand in a paroxysm of disgust…. But it was not right because a trial could produce proof that the Nazis really were immoralists; they were, but according to our lights, not theirs.” “Problematics of Moral and Legal Theory,” 111, Harvard Law Review, 1998, 1644-45.

In what is commonly taken as the pragmatic turn, Posner illustrates that when it comes to morals and politics, no truth is available to us. Objectively speaking, neither the Nazis nor those who condemned them could be said to have had it right (nor indeed those proposing that it’s all subjective)! According to our lights they were vicious but according to theirs they were not–and there is simply no way to adjudicate between them and us. There is then no truth of the matter.

This approach has the fatal problem of being hoisted on its own petard. For it follows from it that saying it is subjective or relative is, well, also subjective or relative; in other words, no truth of the matter in any respect is possible. (It recalls the ancient Greek sophist, Cratylus, who ended up indicating what he meant by wagging his fingers and even that couldn’t do the trick.)

Why is any of this significant? For one, pragmatism of this sort gives carte blanche to those who select which policies a government should follow: whichever they prefer, since none is any better than any other, not objectively speaking. It also concedes virtual absolute authority to those who happen to hold power. They need not justify what they want. Just wanting it is enough. No one can do better, so what is the fuss? That is just how fascists view public affairs since the authority of the ruler is decisive and incontestable. See how one day Mr. Obama claims to follow the US Constitution, the next he maintains he may circumvent it, that his judgment rules!

In the end all intelligent discussion of how people ought to carry on, in or out of government or public life, is pointless. The only thing that counts is who has the power, a very convenient point of view for those who like to lord it over others without having to be accountable for what they do.

Pragmatism has numerous versions and not every version is so outlandish as what we see here, coming from one of the most influential jurists in contemporary America. Just for one example, Professor Susan Haack has been very critical of this kind of pragmatism, which in philosophy is associated with the late Professor Richard Rorty. But sadly in our day it is the most extreme of the pragmatists who wield influence throughout our culture.

*You may have received an earlier version of this piece!

Why Are There Theories?

Why Are there Theories?

Tibor R. Machan

Over the years, especially since the Internet became prominent and widely used, my own ideas have received a lot of challenges. Some of these come from people with different positions on this or that but quite a few actually come from people who find advancing theories to be mistaken. They often just wish to pick and choose from among the innumerable ideas circulating and find fault with formulating a system or general position. They champion adopting the smorgasbord as the model for how one ought to think about the world. Rhyme or reason are shunned as somehow obsolete, old fashioned and instead a hodgepodge of ideas is favored, never mind internal contradictions, inconsistencies, etc.

This disposition is not all that surprising. After all, among the hundreds and hundreds of “isms” that have been advanced throughout the history of ideas, there has rarely emerged one that received universal or even widespread ascent among those who work to get it right. One reason is pretty clear–the standards of adequacy for theories in all sorts of disciplines or regions of human interests were initially impossible to satisfy. Platonism contributed to this by insisting that the right viewpoint or theory had to be complete, final and timeless, something that is impossible to achieve since human beings, who concoct the theories are mortals and cannot show that the views they hold will forever be adequate.

But even once this is granted and a less demanding criteria of success is invoked, a lot of people wish to cast the idea of a coherent, consistent even if provisional viewpoint aside and just stick to this idea of a hodgepodge. But that just cannot work at all.

As mindful beings, humans are in need for ideas about the world in which they carry on so as to navigate it with some measure of success. Like the maps we use to travel around–they may never be completely accurate, final, incorrigible or such but they have to be workable, help us get about. In time the less successful get identified as such and get updated, properly modified but, of course, never finished forever.

For those who find this inadequate there really is no relief. The world is no static geometrical plane, no formal system that is complete. Some of the best theorists have made note of this–I think Kurt Godel’s incompleteness proof is really about this, a critique of the Platonist idealism that demands of a good theory that it be perfect, finished. But, as that wise saying has it, the perfect is the enemy of the good!

If this idea were properly deployed, I believe there would be fewer skeptics, pessimists, cynics, most-modernists, and such among us and many more of us would be doing work on the provisionally successful ideas that can be identified (if the impossible isn’t being demanded) instead of taking up arms, intellectually, against those who are hard at work trying to figure things out.

One sign of misguided thinking along the lines I have in mind is when someone keeps putting up obstacles against a set of pretty good ideas with the preface, “But isn’t it possible that such and such could happen and require you to give up your ideas?” Up to a point there is nothing wrong with this tact but if it continues on and on, without some indication of what will suffice for the skeptic, the exercise is basically pointless. Most theorists put up with these sorts of objections because they realize that they may have missed something their theories needed to address. But that approach can become pathological.

I like what Professor Gilbert Harman once wrote about this matter. He warned that we must “take care not to adopt a very skeptical attitude nor become too lenient about what is to count as knowledge” (Gilbert Harman, Thought [Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1976], 145). Following this advice would, I am confident, help repel those who want to give up on reason and good sense in the approach to understanding the world and one’s place in it.

The Left & Reproductive Rights

The Left and Women’s Reproductive Rights

Tibor R. Machan

At the outset I will declare my commitment to the right of women to terminate pregnancies prior to the time a human being has developed in their bodies (roughly the 25th week*) But then I am also someone who holds that every adult individual has a full, unalienable right to his or her life. (Who else would?)

But one of the contemporary Left’s favorite doctrines, communitarianism doesn’t agree. By their standards we belong to the community. Check out what Charles Taylor says about this in his book Sources of the Self or, even better, read the famous American Leftist, Cora Weiss, who was a prominent American anti war advocate during the Vietnam era, and claimed that refugees who have fled Vietnam were traitors, because, she argued, “Every country is entitled to its people [who are] the basic resource that belongs to the country.” (Washington Post, May 29, 1978)

Weiss was by no means alone in her views. The East Germans argued they had full moral authority to shoot those trying to scale the Berlin Wall because such people were stealing themselves from East Germany, from the country. Then there is the famous Marxist doctrine of the labor theory of property according to which the source of all value is human labor which, however, is public property since it is the major means of production that under socialism is collectively owned.

Softer Leftists, such as communitarian Michael Sandel, also contend that our lives are from birth beholden to the community and we do not have the full right to it. This reiterates the views of the father of sociology, Auguste Comte who wrote this about the topic:

“Everything we have belongs then to Humanity…[Comte’s] Positivism never admits anything but duties, of all to all. For its social point of view cannot tolerate the notion of right, constantly based on individualism. We are born loaded with obligations of every kind, to our predecessors, to our successors, to our contemporaries. Later they only grow or accumulate before we can return any service. On what human foundation then could rest the idea of right, which in reason should imply some previous efficiency? Whatever may be our efforts, the longest life well employed will never enable us to pay back but an imperceptible part of what we have received. And yet it would only be after a complete return that we should be justly authorized to require reciprocity for the new services. All human rights then are as absurd as they are immoral. This ["to live for others"], the definitive formula of human morality, gives a direct sanction exclusively to our instincts of benevolence, the common source of happiness and duty. [Man must serve] Humanity, whose we are entirely.” Auguste Comte, The Catechism of Positive Religion (Clifton, NJ: Augustus M. Kelley Publ., 1973), pp. 212-30.

OK, so what of this? Well, it is entirely inconsistent with the stance on abortion of most of those on the political Left in American. They are pro choice. But pro choice means having the right to do with one’s life as one wants, provided it is peaceful. And so long as abortion isn’t homicide, it is peaceful and every woman has a right to get one if she so chooses.

However, if one’s life belongs to humanity or society or the community or the state, this pro choice position on abortion–and on innumerable other matters–makes no sense. In general, the Left rejects the idea that choices is a vital element of human life. Instead what matters is obligation (or duty) to others (or to humanity or society)!

This idea is the ancient one, whereby everyone belongs to the country, the king, the tzar and so certainly it is utterly selfish to insist that one’s life is one’s own and that from this certain rights follow, even the right to terminate a pregnancy at an early stage. The left simply has no basis for insisting on this. (Not that the Right is much better. But I leave that for another time.)

*This isn’t geometry but biology so the exactitude is appropriately fuzzy!

A Note on Libertarianism and Abortion

A Note on Libertarianism and Abortion

Tibor R. Machan

His pro-life abortion stance has only been a remote problem for Representative Ron Paul and only with some libertarians. Here is why:

If a conceptus or zygote has the rights of a human infant–especially the right to life, so that no one may end its life, including the pregnant woman carrying–then the issue is not a matter of a strictly private decision. If I have an infant in my home I have no right to end its life, not unless it is a direct, unambiguous threat to my own life (like a violent intruder would be).

Self-defense would be the only justification for having an abortion. Otherwise terminating a pregnancy with the result of the death of the zygote would amount to homicide, possibly out and out murder. And anything along those lines opens the matter to a criminal inquiry, which is certainly invasive and contrary to what libertarians consider justified by law enforcement agencies. So it is clear that the pro-life position has problems with the libertarian stance that a government or a law enforcement agency must stay out of one’s life, including the life of a pregnant woman.

The pro-choice stance doesn’t have this problem since it generally doesn’t recognize a zygote as in possession of the right to life. Zygotes are potential but not actual human beings, although they are, of course, human zygotes! But being that they do not have the rights of, say, babies or infants.

Now accordingly a pro-life position such as that of Ron Paul has altogether too much statism involved in it. Government or law enforcement would be authorized to defend the zygote from anyone who would choose to destroy it; even its accidental death, as in a miscarriage, would arguably be subject to legal scrutiny, as would that of any human infant.

While Ron Paul is relatively silent about his stance on these matters, should he become a serious presidential candidate, with prospects of reaching the White House, the surrounding issues could not be avoided. They should not be! Sadly, I do not believe anyone associated with Dr. Paul has fully addressed these matters.