Archive for October, 2012

Defending Ideology

Defending Ideology

Tibor R. Machan

It is very common among intellectuals in our time to demean ideology. Thus if one supports, say, free trade with foreign firms, one is belittled for doing so on grounds of one’s conviction that free trade is generally better than trade that is regimented by government. A “free market ideologue” is what one is snidely called in such circumstances.

What is the alternative? How is one supposed to defend a policy one thinks is a good idea for a country to follow?

The first candidate that jumps to mind is pragmatism. If it is pragmatically warranted, then it is OK to support it, or so do many vocal and well positioned public figures claim. And what does that come to?

Pragmatic justifications usually focus on whether a policy works, whether it is practical. But how is that ascertained? How do we know whether a policy works? Well, is there sufficient evidence that it achieves the goal or purpose for which it is proposed.

In the case of international free trade that goal or purpose would be mutual wealth creation. If through such trade the parties gain more wealth than by some other means, like government planning–setting quotas, protectionism, etc.–then free trade will have been pragmatically justified or vindicated; it will have been found the practical, workable policy to follow.

Of course, wealth creation could be achieved by way of a policy of invasion, of confiscating the wealth of some country. It used to be the most prominent approach countries deployed so as to gain wealth in the international arena. That is one reason wars had been started. It had been the reason for imperialism in many instances.

Yet, such approaches are often deemed to be unjustified because they involve the aggression by one country’s government against another. One might even compare this to sex where if it is uninvited and involves assault or rape, it is understood to be unjustified. Peacefully pursued, however, it would be quite acceptable but when it involves aggression it is wrong and may be forcibly resisted.

But why? Well, here is where pragmatism doesn’t help very much. That’s because whether one ought to attempt to obtain wealth (or sexual satisfaction) peacefully isn’t just a practical matter. Certainly attempting to do so before one has learned of the consequences would contradict pragmatism (which is based on practice and history, not on moral theory or ideology). Even if aggression turned out to be effective–so that raping someone gave the rapist great satisfaction–it would be unjustified yet not on pragmatic grounds but on moral or ideological ones.

Granted, most immoral, unethical conduct is also impractical. It rarely achieves goals the best possible way, most efficiently. But that’s irrelevant. Moreover, certain objectives or goals are also vile and thus impermissible. Pursuing them is wrong and may often be banned whether they are practical.

Then, of course, pragmatism is itself an ideology or theory of action wherein what is workable, practical is preferred as against what isn’t. Why should people proceed only when their objectives are feasible? Pursuing the impossible dream could well be a good policy for purposes of gaining stamina, for honing one’s tenacity and grit.

There is really no hope in resting proper public or even private policies on nothing more than that they are practical. Human beings need also to be sure that their choices, including those pertaining to public or political policies, are worthy, have overall merit, square with a proper moral outlook. Belittling that goal by labeling it ideology is a cheap shot. The issue should be which ideology makes the best sense not whether something is ideological.

Obama and Ayn Rand

Obama and Ayn Rand

Tibor R. Machan

In a recent interview in Rolling Stone (November 8th, 2012) magazine President Obama was asked about what he thinks of Republican VP Candidate Paul Ryan’s (admittedly limited) respect for Russian-American novelist-philosopher Ayn Rand. (It is limited because when Mr. Ryan discovered that Rand was an atheist, he, as a supposedly devout Roman Catholic, quickly distanced himself from her.)

Mr. Obama responded to the interviewer’s question as follows:

“Ayn Rand is one of those things that a lot of us, when we were 17 or 18 and feeling misunderstood, we’d pick up. Then, as we get older, we realize that a world in which we’re only thinking about ourselves and not thinking about anybody else, in which we’re considering the entire project of developing ourselves as more important than our relationships to other people and making sure that everybody else has opportunity -– that that’s a pretty narrow vision. It’s not one that, I think, describes what’s best in America. Unfortunately, it does seem as if sometimes that vision of a ‘you’re on your own’ society has consumed a big chunk of the Republican Party.”

Never mind for now that Obama misrepresents Rand idea of ethical egoism–she never advocated “only thinking about ourselves.” And the pursuit of one’s own happiness does take a prominent position at least among the universal, unalienable rights everyone has. Just how sloppy the thinking is that’s revealed in Mr. Obama’s answer can be appreciated from considering a few facts that Mr. Obama ought to have found out before he gave chose to chime in on Rand.

To begin with the millions and millions who have read Rand’s novels and found them serious and very insightful, if not out and out brilliant, certainly were not all 17 and 18 years of age and felt misunderstood. Then, also, among those millions of adults who found Rand’s work worthwhile there were at least half a dozen major contemporary philosophers, such as the late John Nelson, John Hospers, and George Walsh. The late Robert Nozick, who taught at Harvard University and used Atlas Shrugged in his classes to stimulate students’ thinking about political philosophy, didn’t agree with Rand but clearly respected her works. A good many others could be mentioned, not just in philosophy but also in psychology, economics, and even history. (Rand’s novel We The Living is a fine work of fiction that incorporates themes bearing on the Russian [Bolshevik] revolution in very enlightening ways.)

Several textbooks on moral philosophy have included Rand’s ideas on ethical egoism, drawn from her short but powerful book, The Virtue of Selfishness, A New Concept of Egoism (1964). Interestingly enough and instructive for anyone who would take efforts to belittle Rand seriously, this work’s treatment of ethics is quite similar to how two or three major contemporary philosophers, such as Martha Nussbaum, Philippa Foot, and Hazel Barnes (all women, by the way), have approached philosophical ethics. A couple of major books have also been written about Rand, for example Christopher Sciabarra’s The Russian Radical (Penn State University Press, 1995, not a fly by night press, by the way).

OK, enough of this. Suffice it to add that Mr. Obama, himself an ex-part-time university law professor (at the University of Chicago), may be expected to be at least something of a scholar, with the ethics of scholarship being of some importance as he confronts topics like who reads and takes seriously someone whose views he finds disagreeable. Instead, Mr. Obama chimes in like some two bit hack commentator with misinformation and misassessment rampant in his comments.

Too bad. Had he taken the trouble to offer some reasonably serious comments on Rand’s ideas, some of those 17 and 18 year olds who may just now be getting interested in Rand’s ideas might have been helped in how they could approach the views of the Russian radical Obama finds so disagreeable. But by trying to besmirch the lady instead of arguing with her, Mr. Obama has demonstrated how shallows his own thinking is, not to mention how badly he has misunderstood Ayn Rand and her viewpoint.

Let me end with a biographical note. I became interested in Rand when I was 21 years old, based, initially, on being a cast member of a play Rand wrote, one that was performed at Andrews Air Force Base, the presidential airport (from which Air Force One flies out). This was back in 1961 and Rand’s novels were beginning to climb the charts. In time I myself came to write a little book on Rand’s ideas, titled Ayn Rand, which was brought out by Peter Lang Publishers in their Masterworks in the Western Tradition Series in 2001 and has since been translated into German and could soon come out in Russian and Italian.

With these points made, is there any wonder that I have zero respect for our current US President? If he is going to lend his name and the power of his office to an attack on a pretty widely championed intellectual in our culture, surely one may expect him to abide by the elementary ethics of such criticism.

It’s All About Choices, Stupid

It’s All About Choices Stupid

Tibor R. Machan

There is a phony conflict afoot that statists are fond of bringing up when they try to discredit the free society. It is about the individual versus the community. Champions of human liberty are often mischaracterized as denying the significance of human community life. As if individualists advocated that people live like hermits, apart from their fellows, in solitude.

Of course, individualists do not advocate anything of the kind. What they insist upon is that human beings be understood as choosing their associations instead of being simply herded into groups that some of them prefer to be part of.

Nearly everyone is better off living in the company of others. Hardly any human activity is carried out isolated from others and even when it appears like it, others are usually surrounding it, supporting it, helping it along, and so forth. Solitary existence isn’t the objective which individualists are promoting.

What individualists are seeking is a kind of society in which people can make a choice as to what groups they will join, for how long, where, etc. And, yes, they also want to be left in peace for a good bit instead of being dragged into the company of others when they’d rather carry forth on their own. Writers, composers, painters, and the like are among these. Again, the bottom line is that one size doesn’t fit all!

There are animals that naturally exists linked to others of their species, like ants or termites or many varieties of fish. But with humans what makes them distinctive is that they make choices about these matters–will one be part of a choir of sing in a trio or alone? Will one be a hiker by oneself or with a bunch of friends? You get the point.

What the communitarians types want is for them to dictate the kind of groups everyone must be part of. They detest the possibility of people making up their own minds about such matters since free choice runs the risk of noncompliance and to bring others on board for their journey of their own free will requires successful persuasion, something that cannot be guaranteed.

The communitarians want to be in charge of everyone’s destiny. Their imperialism is contrary to human nature and whenever they try it, all hell breaks loose and we get gulags and concentration camps instead of peaceful communities and companionships. Here is a good outline of their social political philosophy:

“We need to see society as an extension of ourselves , an invisible part of our anatomy that assists us every day without dominating us and that, like our own arms and legs, we tend when injured, and whose welfare reconsider at all times. The relation resembles that of a violinist to his instrument–useful but more than something useful, cared for like an esteemed friend. If such a part of us fails, we do not discard it for a peg leg, nor are we fired from our job because we cannot play hopscotch. We may be a disposable member of the symphony, but our violin is us to us. The relation is somethings–oh dear–called love.” (See, William H. Gass, “Double Vision,” Harper’s Magazine, Oct. 2012, p. 78.)

This passage comes from a prominent contemporary public philosopher who I have heard has been close to some Democratic presidents in recent years. In any case, his ideas are close to Mr. Obama’s famous quip that we are all in it together and his repeated blather about how no one achieves success on his own–remember “You didn’t build that.”

The important point is not to argue about how much people draw from each other as they make their way through life. What is crucial is that in a genuinely free country what they draw from each other they do this of their own free will; they are not lumped together by some philosopher king, like it or not.

American Statism

American Statism

Tibor R. Machan

William H. Gass is one of the cheerleaders of American statism and he has done his fair share of work in support of the near total state (having done stints at the White House, if memory serves me right). His latest efforts are in the November 2012 issue of Harpers Magazine, in a pretty hostile article about George Orwell who is perhaps most famous for his book 1984 and short story Animal Farm, both warnings about the love many intellectuals have for powerful government engineering. Here is how he concludes his piece:

“We need to see society as an extension of ourselves, an invisible part of our anatomy that assists us every day without dominating us and that, like our own arms and legs, we tend when injured, and whose welfare reconsider at all times. The relation resembles that of a violinist to his instrument–useful but more than something useful, cared for like an esteemed friend. If such a part of us fails, we do not discard it for a peg leg, nor are we fired from our job because we cannot play hopscotch. We may be a disposable member of the symphony, but our violin is us to us. The relation is somethings–oh dear–called love.” William H. Gass, “Double Vision,” Harper’s Magazine, Oct. 2012, p. 78.

This theme of collectivism spells out Karl Marx’s claim, made in his posthumously published book, Grundrisse (Penguin, 1973) that humanity is an organic whole (or body), a total negation of American individualism wherein you and I and the rest of human beings are understood to be sovereign, independent agents with unalienable rights to their lives, liberty and pursuit of happiness. Instead, we get the vision of human beings as cells in the body of society or humanity. (The best little book in modern times laying out the case for this is Lewis Thomas’ Lives of a Cell [New York, Viking Press, 1974].)

The individualist idea rest on the recognition of the fact that human beings have the capacity to govern themselves, to think for themselves and act from their thinking. Of course, individualism doesn’t contradict the plain fact that we all draw on advice and information we receive from other people, starting with members of our family. But individualist have learned that such learning must itself be initiated by human agents who will draw on it as fuel for their living. Individualism also affirms the capacity we have for free choice. (I fine little book defending this is Theodosius Dobzhansky’s The Biological Basis of Human Freedom [Columbia University Press, 1956].)

In point of fact the collectivist position is, just as Gass notes, the reactionary kind, going all the way back to Socrates and before when people found it of great advantage to unite into groups so as to have a better chance at survival and flourishing. Indeed, uniting into groups has always been a prudent move for people unless the group in question, e.g., Nazi Germany or the Soviet Union, happens to be the enemy of the members of the group.

Individualist have always had to fight off the distortions evident in positions such as the one laid out by Mr. Gass. These views are dangerous because in the name of the collective it is usually a number of “leaders” who offer their own agendas as the state’s business, agendas that are coercively imposed on society. Such leaders are not willing to use peaceful means by which to recruit support for their visions and thus they mostly champion what amounts to a police state. Everyone must be made to conform to the collective vision they insist is the one size that fits us all.

The right approach is, of course, one that acknowledges that human beings are a species and have a common nature up to a point. But it also acknowledges that a distinctive aspect of the human being is its individuality! It is confirmed every minute within human communities, of course, as millions present ideas of their own by which to carry on their living. (Even Mr. Gass testifies to this by presenting his own particular take on the collectivist idea!)

Sadly Mr. Gass’s position is widely shared among intellectuals at some of the most prominent educational institutions. (It animates the thought of Mr. Obama, for example, who is very weak in his endorsement of individual initiative, entrepreneurship, on the economic front and enthusiastic about mandates.)

Another try at voiding our basic rights

Another Effort to Void Our Basic Rights

Tibor R. Machan*

In this short essay I address an argument concerning welfare rights made against the late Robert Nozick by Adrian Bardon a while back.[i]

Bardon brings up an issue that’s central concerning the nature of basic individual rights that the American founders proposed as the foundations of a constitutional government (and were, in fact, partly incorporated and elaborated in the Bill of Rights).

Bardon argues that he has successfully “cast doubt on that approach to rights” that holds that “there are negative rights that cannot be outweighed.”[ii] Interestingly there is no need to go much further since Bardon’s way of putting his point already shows how wide off the mark he is concerning an essential feature or nature of rights. Specifically, individual rights, the unalienable sort the Declaration lists, aren’t like other good things—such as ice skating, volleyball, dinner at home or at a restaurant, a vacation in Hawaii or one in Italy—which may be weighed and compared. It’s a category mistake to think they are, not unlike thinking that one can weigh seconds or that fingers can think about something.

Consider a very widely accepted right, that of a woman to be free of rape. What would it mean to have such a right outweighed? Bardon’s conception of such a basic right raises the possibility that someone might weigh it against, say, a desperate male’s desire to gain sexual satisfaction by using her against her will. But this is quite out of the question—the two are incomparable, incommensurate. The right to be free is a principle—a firm limit or a basic standard of just conduct if you will—which identifies the fact that women are free to do as they choose involving their own bodies, that they are sovereign authorities concerning how to live their sex lives, regarding to whom they will give their consent to engage in sex, etc.[iii]

Of course, Bardon is concerned with property rights but he forgets that these, too, are rights to action, not rights to objects. As Ayn Rand makes clear, “the right to property is a right to action, like all the others: it is not the right to an object, but to the action and the consequences of producing or earning that object. It is not a guarantee that a man will earn any property, but only a guarantee that he will own it if he earns it. It is the right to gain, to keep, to use and to dispose of material values.”[iv]

Put another way, the right to private property is a right to acquire and to hold—which are both actions—various items no one has previously acquired and is holding—or ones others who have acquired them and are holding are willing, freely, to part with (another action).

So, in fact, private property rights are akin to rights to act freely—as when one acts to engage in consensual sex or work or recreation. In the case of property rights, one acts to engage in, as it were, consensual acquisition or holding of some items. (Notice, no one may impose ownership on another against his or her consent because of this right to freedom of actions such as acquisition and holding.)

Thus, property rights identify someone’s sphere or range of freedom of action vis-à-vis items in the world, not unlike the manner in which the right to freedom of speech spells out spheres of freedom of action vis-à-vis verbal or written expression of ideas. Indeed, these latter presuppose the right to private property, for speeches need to be given someplace to which one has a right or gained permission from those who do, and writing takes places on materials (paper, blackboards, sand, computers, etc.)

Now it is true that others could well desperately need the items someone has come to own by exercising the right to acquisition and holding but since that exercise may not be interfered with and interference with it would place others in the position of violating the agent’s basic rights—that is, sovereignty—consent needs to be secured in order to obtain even such desperately needed items. A need cannot be weighed against a right, anymore than a wish or desire or urgent want can be weighed against a right.

There can be no weighing involved, not between rights, nor between rights and needs, etc., although a rights holder could very well weigh whether to hang on to what he or she owns, contribute it to the person in dire need, to some cause or project, or otherwise dispose of it in light of his or her weighing of the importance of these alternative possibilities. The weighing is not of different rights or different people’s rights but of the importance or value of the goals to which one may contribute what one has the right to freely acquire.

Here is what would happen if the weighing were about rights. Someone would have to do the weighing. By what right would such a person weigh other people’s rights? Would that person’s right to weigh also be open to being weighed? By whom? The whole process would amount to a conceptual and public policy mess.

In fact, the role—or conceptual point—of basic individual rights is to remove from public policy, based on constitutional laws that rest on rights, the element of arbitrariness by basing decisions on self-consistent, compossible principles—that is, on the rule of law—instead. The very conceptual point of rights within the sphere of social, political and legal policy is lost if they are subject to being weighed since they are supposed to be the rock bottom of public policy decision making—if I have a right to do X, this is the end of the story—none may act against me as I do X.

There is no such thing as “weighing rights”—the idea is what philosophers call a category mistake, akin to talk about weighing, say, time or concepts. Indeed, to even consider weighing rights is to suggest that the importance of human beings, vis-à-vis their place in the citizenry, may be weighed against each other within the realm of politics, something that had been abandoned once the idea of inherent status was jettisoned, finally, so no one could justly claim to be more important than someone else as far as the law of the land is concerned.
* Tibor Machan is the R. C. Hoiles Professor of Business Ethics & Free Enterprise at the Argyros School of Business & Economics, Chapman University, Orange, CA 92866.