Archive for February, 2013

Libertarian Public Interest

The Libertarian Public Interest

Tibor R. Machan

A particularly irksome rhetorical ploy against the free society’s champions is that they refuse to acknowledge that there is such a thing as the public interest (or public good or general welfare or some such goal). Critics of these champions routinely wag their fingers charging that those who insist that the free society — with its minimal government — is the most just order that has been conceived by political philosophers and economists fail to pay heed to the public interest and focus only on what private citizens want and benefit from. (Their candidate is usually something like profit or personal pleasure!)

I wish to urge that this charge be rejected good and hard. As I have tried to stress on other occasions, the fully free society has a perfectly proper conception of the public interest or good. This is, to put it briefly, the respect for and protection of individual rights. As the Declaration of Independence puts it, governments are instituted so as to secure the protection of the rights of the citizens. And that is exactly what the public interest amounts to in a just society, nothing more.

Given the enormous variety of the citizenry in a free society, what will be the public interest or good will vary accordingly. Since human beings are first and foremost individuals and will pursue a great variety of goals within the country in which they live, the first objective of government or law must be to make sure that everyone’s rights are secure, well protected and elaborated in the legal system. That is what the public interest amounts to; that is why champions of the free society are the bona fide, genuine promoters of the one meaningful public interest, namely, the securement of human liberty!

The public consists of millions of citizens with sometimes minor and other times major variations in what is to their best interest. So that they may pursue their best interest of their own initiative, as a matter of their free choice, their rights must be respected and protected vigilantly and competently. Which is what justifies government or the legal order of a free society. Such a society does not embrace the typical statist, totalitarian, one size fits all conception of the public good. It would be tyrannical to do so since imposing some one conception of the good life on all citizens will require a police state and ignores what human beings are. (To the extent that this is already routine in many societies, they are naturally coercive, statist!)

What is central here is that those who champion the fully free society do in fact have the most sensible, most coherent conception of the public good or interest, namely, a legal order that refuses to deploy just one individual’s or group’s idea of what is right for everyone to do or pursue. The public consists of millions of diverse individuals, often pursuing goals on their own, most often, however, coming together with a bunch of others and engaging in common pursuits but always voluntarily. The legal framework for this is what amounts to the public good or interest, not various “public” programs politicians and bureaucrats happen to select, programs that may indeed be OK for some folks but certainly not for all.

So the bona fide public good or interest is the protection of everyone’s right to liberty so everyone can choose, more or less wisely, to seek his or her own proper ends in life.

Self-Referential Paternalist Foibles

Self-Referential Paternalist Foibles

Tibor R. Machan

Over the last several years statists have changed their tune a bit. Instead of advocating Draconian governmental intrusions on people’s lives, in the tradition of the Soviets and other unabashed tyrants, they have at least seemingly reformed and changed their tune: now they mostly promote the Nanny state (under such labels as libertarian paternalism, nudging, and so forth). These champions of government interference in our lives are convinced, it seems, that they can somehow select a restrained government which then can carry out various worthy regulations and regiment us all to our benefit without succumbing to the temptation of absolute power. They appear to be heeding Lord Acton’s admonition that power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely but not by refraining to support the wielding of power by some people over others. No they think they can moderate their tyrannical habits by promoting what I have called as far back as the 1970s a regime of petty tyranny.* Their intrusiveness will be gentle, delicate, subtle, considerate and kind–like those of Nannies–unless you offer resistance, in which case the more Draconian statism is just around the corner.

The most visible promoter of this kind of statism is the political theorist and law professor Cass Sunstein, now teaching at Harvard University, where he has joined Michael Sandel and others in the effort to erase all libertarian elements of American law and public policy. He has been promoting the paternalistic state for some time but more recently he has revved up his efforts, with books, reviews, essays, speeches, media appearances pouring out and with political allies in the corridors of power standing ready to turn his ideas into public policies and laws.

At the foundation of this paternalism lies the belief that many of us ordinary blokes need some pushing around so we conduct ourselves properly, sensibly, prudently, wisely–in short, virtuously. Never mind that virtuous conduct needs to be freely chosen for it to amount to something praiseworthy. Much of such conduct has to do with not harming others or ourselves and despite the widely shared belief in John Stuart Mill’s idea that not unless one harms others may he or she be forced to desist, if one holds that harmful conduct in and of itself must be averted, public policies will live up to that expectation. The state and its cheerleaders will stand ready to run interference if we do not behave well.

Of course, underlying all this there is a highly dubious assumption, namely, that those who will identify our misconduct and stand ready to straighten all of us out are properly fit to do that job. In short, there is a segment of society, an elite, if you will, that is knowledgeable and virtuous to be entrusted with the power to make the rest of us do the right thing.

This elite is somehow deemed immune to the flaws that render all the rest of us in need of the interference by the Nanny state. These folks seem somehow to not be flawed as we are so that when they administer their remedial measures upon us, that itself is not vulnerable to malfeasance. The good and wise operators of the government can be fully trusted with the power Cass Sunstein and Co., believe we need to have imposed upon us for us to live right.

None of this is new, of course. Political thinking since the time of Plato and his teacher Socrates had often veered in the direction of the more or less overt tyranny Sunstein & Co. are championing. Indeed, only a few of human history’s outstanding political philosophers and theorists set out to warn against entrusting a special group with power over the rest. So long as the intention behind such power wielding was successfully promulgated as benign, kind, generous, helpful–that is to say, paternalistic–why oppose it?

The main reason is that no one has the proper authority to play parent to another except in very rare circumstances, mainly when he or she is indeed a parent of that other, with the responsibility to be the caregiver. Government, as the American founders realized, must refrain from such paternalism not only because it is likely to be inept but mainly because sovereignty belongs to the adult citizens of society, all of them, a not just to some special group which is, after all, no less susceptible to malpractice as are the rest of us.

Whatever help we require with setting us on the right course must not come at the expense of our basic rights, our nature as sovereign individuals.

*See “The Petty Tyranny of Government Regulation,” in Tibor R. Machan & M. Bruce Johnson, Rights and Regulation (SF: Pacific Institute for Public Policy Research, 1983), 259-288.

Republicans’ Achilles Heel

The Republicans’ Achilles Heel

Tibor R. Machan

In a recent Wall Street Journal essay, “Generational Theft Needs to be Arrested,” three men advanced some suggestions to Republicans. Their main focus was the need for Republicans to address what they, following others who have chimed in on the topic, have criticized as current members of the public robbing future members of their resources by means of various welfare statist policies, specifically accumulating massive debts that those in the future have no opportunity to vote on, to argue against, and to oppose.

Their suggestion is to be applauded but as they phrased it the cautionary message contains a major flaw. At one point the three men assert that “The government has an obligation, of course, to support needy seniors.” They do not qualify this by saying that the obligation is a legal one. Rather they leave it unqualified, suggesting something that is completely false, namely, that the government and by implication the citizens, have a moral obligation to support needy seniors.

Now it is of course plain common sense morality that younger folks ought to make provisions for their older relatives, seniors, who are needy. That would arise from familial ethics but even that does not amount to a legally binding obligation. It is a matter of ethics, which has to be something freely followed otherwise it isn’t something praiseworthy at all. And strangers have no such moral obligation.

To put it rather plainly, younger Americans are not to be placed in involuntary servitude to older ones. If they choose to give their support to older Americans–or, indeed, older people anywhere on earth–that can be a worthy thing for them to do. But it has to be on their terms, not terms others impose on them, certainly not by their political representatives. Clearly there is no end to those who could demand their support if such an obligation existed for all young people! When government must do, as spelled out clearly in the Declaration of Independence, is to secure the rights of all the citizens to be free to do the peaceful things they have decided to do, period.

Believing in welfare statist obligations, via the government’s taxing authority, is clearly tyrannical. It also leads to a flood of claims on the labor and resources of young people! Needy seniors are just one special interest group that will stand ready to be beneficiaries of this servitude. Farmers, artists, students, and millions of other needy people will insist–indeed, many already do insist–they they too be provided with support.

Such parasitism is totally contrary to the principles of a bona fide free society. In such a society citizens will often volunteer to help one another but not as a matter of some unchosen obligation but out of generosity, kindness, and now and then out of charity.

If Republicans believe that young people are legally obligated to support needy seniors how can they resist the call of a constantly expanding welfare state? How can they deny anyone the support they need to pursue goals they deem important? There is no way. And the logical implication is that saying no to any group in society, denying them support from others, is morally wrong, cruel, heartless, just as many politicians claim it is.

But that is simply false. Some people do have a morally valid claim on the help of young people but not all do. We are not all friends and family! Spreading the idea that we are is hopeless and ultimately cruel. It leads to false expectations and in the last analysis bankruptcy–exactly where most welfare states are today around the globe.

Morality is a valid consideration in how we relate to one another but it must be a reasonable morality, not a blind, reckless idealism.

The Sad State of the Union

Sad State of the Union

Tibor R. Machan

President Obama delivered a state of the union address that made no secret of his essentially statist political-economic philosophy. Apart from the details, the major message was that Americans must become part of a herd whether they actually want to, involuntarily serving the country. Even the conservative commentator, Charles Krauthammer, characterized Mr. Obama’s viewpoint without reference to its coercive nature. That is how ingrained statism is in America now.

There was absolutely no reference in the speech to the quintessential American political idea, individual liberty. Instead the president promoted regimentation of the citizenry into a collective that would be guided — no, ruled — by him and his friends. He didn’t propose that Americans volunteer to serve each other. He asserted that they will be forced to labor for common objectives.

As a naturalized citizen who escaped to America from communism Mr. Obama’s political vision is sadly reactionary. It aims to take us all back to an era when kings, czars, and other forceful rulers herded populations into armies to serve impossible ideals. What Mr. Obama completely ignored in his speech is that America is supposed to be a community that respects and protects everyone’s rights to pursue their own version of human happiness! And he promoted this idea on the back of one of the the most despicable Leftist mantras, namely, rich bashing. He evidently is counting on the prejudice of millions against those who are well off. He is, in short, counting on the envy of Americans.

One can only hope that Mr. Obama is misreading the American people’s general outlook on social-economic issues. Do Americans really accept that the country is involved in a class war, a war pitting those who are striving to improve their lives against those who have attained that objective! I am hoping that the liberty I and millions of others came to America to enjoy as a matter of our individual human right will once again resume its place as America’s public policy priority.*

*This comment was solicited by The Heartland Institute of Chicago, IL, and is among others submitted featured at its blog.

Guest Post

This is a short essay by a friend of mine. He has my full support, as does his cause. The right to choose one’s sexual orientation needs support and protection, no less so than other individual rights.

Tibor R. Machan


Dear friends,
I would like to ask you for your support for a worthy cause I very much care about.
In Bangladesh, lesbian, gay, and bisexual (LGB) people encounter extensive prejudice, discrimination, and violence because of their sexual orientation. Many face discrimination at school, university, and their workplace, are denied access to health care & justice and find little support from family members & friends. Section 377 of the
Bangladesh Penal Code, a colonial law enacted in 1860 and left behind by the British Empire, makes same-sex intercourse a crime punishable by imprisonment for life. I described the impact this hostile environment has on the daily lives of LGB people in Bangladesh in a short article published about a year ago:

I’m a member of the Bangladesh Liberal Forum (BLF), a group of loosely associated activists dedicated to the promotion of liberal values in Bangladesh. We recently joined our forces with the Bandhu Social Welfare Society (BSWS, and Boys of Bangladesh (BoB, in order to combat homophobia in Bangladesh. We believe in the power of education to change the world and consequently created a brochure that we intend to
use to educate people about psychological, legal, and moral issues pertaining to sexual orientation. We will distribute this brochure at workshops and conferences, at universities and to NGOs and government offices in Bangladesh. We will start distributing next month when BSWS will hold workshops about the rights of sexual minorities with students of two universities in Dhaka (ULAB and ASA).

I would like to invite you to support us in our struggle against homophobia in Bangladesh and help us cover the printing cost. We just ordered 5,000 copies of the English version of our brochure (which you can find here: < What_You_Should_Know_About_Homosexuality.pdf >)
for 350 USD, and we will order a larger number of copies of the Bengali version once the translation is completed. There is no administrative cost, so every dollar you give will be used to cover printing cost, and to educate people about this important issue. Your donation may be in the form of cash or check. Please mail checks to me at 8803 Timberside Dr, Apt 2, Houston, TX 77025. If you are in
Germany, the easiest way to give is by bank transfer (Überweisung an Rainer Ebert, Kontonummer: 54761000, BLZ: 61491010, VR-Bank Elwangen, Verwendungszweck: LGB Bangladesh). If you are in Bangladesh, please contact me.

Thank you for your consideration and support. If you have any questions, please do not hesitate to contact me.

Best wishes


P.S.: I plan to thank supporters at – if you’d like to stay anonymous, please say so.

Department of Philosophy
Rice University
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