Archive for March, 2013

Public Museums & Censorship

Public Museums and Censorship

Tibor R. Machan

Is there a difference between censorship and selectivity? In a private gallery or museum the owners or curators must always be selective. There isn’t infinite, unlimited room available to place all the art that might be exhibited. Good judgment is part of the job of management. Not unlike including versus excluding columns and other materials in magazines and newspapers and chapters or stories in collections, or stocking libraries, such editing is not censorship. The latter would involve some public authority imposing his or her decision on the owners/editors. Exercising professional judgment and authority isn’t censorship.

It is different when it comes to public museums or other public offerings. Reportedly some time ago Brooklyn, NY, deputy mayor, Joseph J. Lhota, who never went to see the paintings nevertheless made decisions about which were to be included and excluded from the Brooklyn Museum, decisions that turned out to displease some citizens. Supposedly just hearing about the materials was enough for Lhota who tried to make the museum remove ‘Holy Virgin Mary’ by Chris Ofili (a portrait initially accepted by the museum authorities) that contained elephant dung and images of genitalia in an eight-foot-tall portrait of the Virgin Mary, a semi-abstract collage that had been hanging at the museum.

Was Lhota engaged in censorship or the responsible supervisory work of a public official? There is no way to know. The reason is the radical yet entirely reasonable notion that in the last analysis there should be no public museums as all any more than there should be public churches or bakeries! For one, no decisions such as those that fall upon the curators can be made in the name of “the public.”

Even if one rejects the idea that beauty or artistic merit lies in the eyes of the beholder–in other words, even if there are objective standards of artistic excellence or merit–those aren’t the job of public officials to deploy. What is artistically worthwhile may not be subjective but it is highly varied, not uniform. But even if it were uniform, it would not be right for public authorities to meddle in art criticism, just as it isn’t right for them to adjudicate among different religions or moral systems. In a bona fide free country such tasks are all supposed to be privatized!

A Precis on Libertarianism & Capitalism

A Précis on Libertarianism & Capitalism

(Excerpt from Philosophy With Meaning [Addleton Publ., 2013])

Tibor R. Machan

Libertarianism is the political system wherein the highest political good is the protection of the individual citizen’s right to life, liberty and property. Capitalism is the economic system of libertarianism since in libertarian societies the institution of the right to private property, that is, to own anything of value (not, of course, other human beings, who are themselves owners), is fully respected and protected.

Libertarian law rests on the idea that the individual is the most important member of society, with all groups to be formed by the consent of individual members, including the military, corporations, universities, clubs, and the government itself. What is primarily prohibited in a libertarian society is involuntary servitude. What is primarily promoted via the political administration is the liberty of all persons to advance their own objectives provided they do not in this process violate anyone’s equal rights.

There is dispute about the label “capitalism” as the proper way to call the economic order under libertarianism, mostly because its definition is often a precondition of having either a favorable or unfavorable view of the system. Some have insisted on the use of “laissez-faire,” in memory of the French entrepreneurs who responded to the king’s question as to what the government can do to help the economy by exclaiming: “Laissez-faire, laissez passé,” or “allow us to do, allow us to act.” Some use F. A. Hayek’s term “the spontaneous order” to stress such a system’s support of uncoerced behavior. There is also the more popular term “free enterprise.” Yet capitalism is most widely used, by both critics and supporters of an economic order in which individuals have the right to own property and to use of it on their own terms.

By itself capitalism is an economic arrangement of an organized human community or polity. Often, however, entire societies are called capitalist, mainly to stress their thriving commerce and industry. More rigorously understood, however, capitalism presupposes a libertarian legal order governed by the rule of law in which the principle of private property rights plays a central role. Such a system of laws was historically grounded on various classical liberal ideals in political thinking. These ideals can be defended by means of positivism, utilitarianism, natural rights theory and/or individualism, as well as notions about the merits of laissez-faire (no government interference in commerce), the “invisible hand” (as a principle of spontaneous social organization), prudence and industriousness (as significant virtues), the price system as distinct from central planning (for registering supply and demand), etc.

Put a bit differently, “capitalism” or “libertarianism” is the term used to mean that feature of a human community whereby citizens are understood to have the basic right to make their own (more or less wise or prudent) decisions concerning what they will do with their labor and property, whether they will engage in trade with one another involving nearly anything they may value. Thus capitalism includes freedom of trade and contract, the free movement of labor, protection of property rights against both criminal and official intrusiveness.

The concept “freedom” plays a central role in the understanding of both libertarianism and capitalism. There are two prominent ways of understanding the nature of freedom as it pertains to human relationships. The one that fits with capitalism is negative freedom: the condition of everyone in society not being ruled by others with respect to the use and disposal of themselves and what belongs to them. Citizens are free, in this sense, when no other adult person has authority over them that they have not granted of their own volition. In short, in capitalism one enjoys negative freedom, which amounts to being free from others’ intrusiveness. The other meaning of freedom is that citizens have their goals and purposes supported by others or the government so as to prosper. Under this conception of freedom one is free to progress, advance, develop, or flourish only when one is enabled to do so by the efforts of capable others.

In international political discussions the concept “capitalist” is used very loosely, so that such very diverse types of societies as Italy, New Zealand, the United States of America, Sweden and France are all considered capitalist. Clearly, no country today is completely capitalist. None enjoys a condition of economic laissez-faire in which governments stay out of people’s commercial transactions except when conflicting claims over various valued items are advanced and the dispute needs to be resolved in line with due process of law. But many Western type societies protect a good deal of free trade, even if they also regulate most of it as well. Still, just as those countries are called “democratic” if there is substantial suffrage – even though many citizens may be prevented from voting – so if there exists substantial free trade and private ownership of the major means of production (labor, capital, intellectual creations, etc.), the country is usually designated as capitalist.

The most common reason among political economists for supporting capitalism is this system’s support of wealth creation. This is not to say that such theorists do not also credit capitalism with other worthwhile traits, such as encouragement of progress, political liberty, innovation, etc.

Those who defend the system for its utilitarian virtues – its propensity to encourage the production of wealth – are distinct from others who champion the system – or the broader framework within which it exists – because they consider it morally just.

The first group of supporters argues that a free-market or capitalist economic system is of great public benefit, even though this depends on private or even social vice, such as greed, ambition, exploitation. As Bernard Mandeville, the author of The Fable of the Bees, put it, this system produces “private vice, public benefit.” Many moral theorists see nothing virtuous in efforts to improve one’s own life. They believe, however, that enhancing the overall wealth of a human community is a worthwhile goal.

Those who stress the moral or normative merits of capitalism, mostly libertarians, say the system rewards prudence, hard work, ingenuity, industry, entrepreneurship, and personal or individual responsibility in all spheres of human life, and this is all to the good. This alone makes the system morally preferable to alternatives. Yet another other reason given why libertarianism or capitalism is not only useful but morally preferable is that it makes possible the exercise of genuine moral choice and agency, something that would be obliterated in non-capitalist, collectivist systems or economic organization.

Capitalist theorists note that most critics of capitalism demean wealth. Indeed, they virtually attack the pursuit of human individual well being itself and, especially, luxury, anytime there are needy people left anywhere on Earth, as well as, more recently, if any portion of nature is overrun by human beings (as if they were not natural creatures). But, the champions of capitalism argue, this stems from utopian thinking and has the consequence of begrudging anyone a measure of welfare, since some people will always be poor some of the time and nature will continue to be transformed by people.

Yet the capitalist advocate need not be seen as reckless toward the environment. Indeed, arguably the strict and consistent institution of the principle of private property rights – through, for example, privatization and prohibition of dumping waste into other private as well as public realms – may solve the environmental problems we face better than any central planning champions of the environment tend to propose. Libertarians and capitalists think that the environment suffers worst when the “tragedy of the commons” is permitted, whereby commonly owned values are overused since everyone is deemed to have a right to such use while no one in particular is left with the responsibility to care for it.

Capitalism rests in large part on the belief that human beings are essentially individuals and a society’s laws must value individuals above all else. Most historians of ideas admit that whether the importance of human individuality should have been recognized in earlier times, it certainly was not much heeded until the modern age. Even in our time it is more often that groups – ethnic, religious, racial, sexual, national, cultural etc. – are taken to have greater significance than individuals. The latter are constantly asked to make sacrifices for the former. In capitalism, however, the individual – e.g., as the sovereign citizen or the consumer – is king. Undoubtedly, a capitalist system does not give prime place to economic equality among people, something that group thinking seems to favor since in groups all are deemed to be entitled to a fair share.

(Excerpt from Philosophy With Meaning [Addleton Publ., 2013])

Tibor R. Machan holds the R.C. Hoiles Chair in Business Ethics and Free Enterprise at the Argyros School of Chapman University.

Welfare Rights are Wrong

Welfare Rights are Wrong

Tibor R. Machan

Ever since John Locke developed the theory of natural individual human rights, there has been an ongoing attempt to change his idea to something very different.

For Locke the natural rights all human beings have are basically prohibitions. They forbid people from intruding on other people–from killing, assaulting, kidnapping, robbing them, and so forth. In the field of political theory they are referred to as negative rights. They hold up a sign to all concerning invading people’s lives and spheres and insist: “Halt, you need permission to enter!”

This can be well appreciated when one considers that throughout much of history ordinary folks had been viewed as subjects, not sovereign citizens. A subject is one who must follow the dictates of some master or superior. Kings have subjects who must obey their will! Once this fiction is abandoned, it becomes clear that all adult human beings are independent agents, no one’s subject!

But of course many insist that such sovereignty is highly objectionable because it leaves it to the individual whether he or she will give support to others and their various projects. Involuntary servitude is ruled out if we are all sovereign citizens rather than subject to the will of a king, tsar, or ruler. Even the majority may not ignore this fact about us, so democracy is properly limited to some very few matters once the sovereignty of individuals is acknowledged.

But by introducing the idea of welfare or positive rights, we are back in the old system since a positive right imposes an enforceable obligation on one to provide others with goods and services, never mind what one chooses to do. Thus if people have a positive right to health care or insurance or education or housing or a job, they must be provided with this, just as when their right to life or liberty is recognized, they must not be interfered with.

One’s basic rights impose obligations on everyone not to violate them. But negative rights only impose an obligation to treat others without resorting to coercion, without using them against their will. Involuntary servitude counters this and sanctions violating such rights as to one’s life, liberty, property, etc., holding that we are born with enforceable obligations of various sort of services to others–God, the state, our neighbors, etc. Instead of seeing us all as free and independent persons, the positive rights doctrine re-affirms the ancient idea that we do not have a life of our own.

The more modern idea is that while we ought to be generous and charitable, this has to be something we choose! That is the only way our moral nature is protected and preserved, if the right things we ought to do are done voluntarily, not forcibly imposed by others.

The basic point here is that the doctrine of positive or welfare rights stands on its had John Locke’s insight about the status of an adult human being in a human community, an insight that had been growing in influence in America and the West until recently. But instead of relying on people’s good will and generosity to help out those in need of various goods and services, the positive or welfare rights doctrine reintroduces the old regime that people in society aren’t free agents but serfs. (Here is the main point of F. A. Hayek’s superb book, The Road to Serfdom [Routledge, 1944] in which he critiques the modern welfare state!)

The Soviet Goal in the Cold War

The Soviet Goal in the Cold War

Tibor R. Machan

For a very long time after I left communist Hungary I have been witnessing how numerous Western “Sovietologists” have been trying to clear the USSR of any responsibility for imperialism and, thus, the Cold War. In the April 2013 issue of Harper’s magazine one James Leigh chimes in with a letter to the editor in which he raises the questions of “whether Stalinist policies were prima facie evidence of a Soviet desire for world domination.” He claims that the demonstrable brutality of Stalin’s regime gives no evidence of a Soviet policy of expansionism. Rather America’s nuclear program is supposed to have been the “proximate cause” of the Soviet Union’s imperialist attitudes and policies.

This is a position I have encountered even from stalwart libertarians, such as the late Murray N. Rothbard. He, too, if memory serves me right, blamed mainly the American government for pushing the USSR toward imperialism. In other words, the Soviet Union, however vicious, wasn’t aiming to rule the world and the only thing that made it appear so is that America was provoking the Ruskies to be fiercely defensive.

I have always been curious how those who were blaming the Americans for being the aggressors in the Cold War managed to ignore a certain element of Marxian ideology and geopolitics. Given that Marx and his followers in the USSR were advocates and promoters of international communism (socialism), their intention to spread Soviet domination across the globe is difficult to deny and natural to fathom.

Marx himself argued, back in the 1880s, that the movement toward a communist future across the world had to involved spreading out the borders of socialist Russia. Marx explained: “If the Russian Revolution becomes the signal for a proletarian revolu­tion in the West, so that both complement each other, the present Russian common ownership of land may serve as the starting-point for a communist development.” [Karl Marx, Selected Writings (Oxford UP, 1977), ed., D. McLennan] Soviet expansionism, the “desire for world domination,’ was consistent with this Marxist communist idea: the Soviet Union would be a “signal for a proletarian revolution in the West.”

There are those Sovietologists and scholars of the Cold War who would ignore Marxian ideology as they propose to understand the behavior of the USSR. For them it was a mere epiphenomenon, not a guiding doctrine. Yet that ideology held that capitalism must necessarily be imperialistic so as to create foreign markets for capitalist nations. And the military of such nations were supposed to be bent on securing those markets coercively, so socialist countries such as the USSR needed to prepare for this. Ergo, the USSR must achieve global dominance lest capitalist nations do so.

It is true that capitalists want to reach foreign markets but by all accounts they would want to do this peacefully, through trade instead of military conquest. The idea that the USSR and not the USA was aiming for world dominance by military and political/diplomatic means is then a very plausible supposition. By all reasonable accounts that is just what transpired during the Cold War until the USSR fell.

Which doesn’t mean that the Western governments were in no way responsible for a good deal of the malfeasance during the Cold War. But arguably the Soviets had an official state ideology that rationalized aggressive expansionism and imperialism far more readily than what guided diplomacy and military policy for the Western powers.

A Few Choice Quotes to Consider

A Few Choice Quotes to consider!*

Bannister on Theories:

“… the psychologist cannot present a picture of man which patently contradicts his behavior in presenting that picture.” From Borger & Cioffi/Bannister, eds., Explanation in the Behavioural Sciences (Cambridge UP, 1970), p. 417.

Aristotle on Skepticism:

“It is in the highest degree evident that neither any one of those who maintain this view nor any one else is really in this position. For why does a man walk to Megara and not stay at home, when he thinks he ought to be walking there? Why does he not walk early some morning into a well or over a precipice, if one happens to be in his way? Why do we observe him guarding against this, evidently because he does not think that falling in is alike good and not good? Evidently, then, he judges one thing to be better and another worse.” Metaphysics 1006b (IV, iv, 40)

Coase on economic man:

“There is no reason to suppose that most human beings are engaged in maximizing anything unless it be unhappiness, and even this with incomplete success” (Ronald Coase, The Firm, the Market, and the Law, U of Chicago Press, 1988), p. 4.

Salzman on Comparative Political Economy:

“’Well . . . the world is basically divided into two kinds of countries—communist countries and capitalist countries. A capitalist country is a place where people own things privately and can become more wealthy than other people. They use money to get whatever they want, and can oppress poor people. A communist country is a place where the government owns everything. That way, everyone is equal, and no one can be oppressed. Without money, people share willingly with each other and help each other rather than just helping themselves. Everyone works for the good of the people, not just for personal gain.’ Colonel Sun thought about this for a moment, then burst into derisive laughter. ‘The capitalists sound pretty normal,’ he observed, ‘but that communist arrangement sounds like a lot of crap to me.’” [The Laughing Sutra, p. 58]

There is a story that Communism, Capitalism, and Socialism decided to have lunch together one day. Communism and Capitalism were on time, but Socialism arrived late. He said, “I’m sorry I am late, but I had to queue up to buy some sausage. Communism said, “What’s a sausage?,” and Capitalism said “What’s a queue?” [The Laughing Sutra, p. 210]

Quine on Cultural Relativism:

Truth, says the cultural relativist, is culture-bound. But if it were, then he, within his own culture, ought to see his own culture-bound truth as absolute. He cannot proclaim cultural relativism without rising above it, and he cannot rise above it without giving it up. [Willard Van Orman Quine, “On empirically equivalent systems of the world,” Erkenntnis, Vol. 9 (1975), pp. 327-8 (pp. 313-28).]

Roger Sperry on Reductionism:

We no longer seek ultimate nature of reality within the smallest physical elements, nor in their innermost essence. Instead the search is redirected to focus primarily on the patterning of the elements, on their differential pacing and timing and the progressive compounding of patterns of patterns, and on their evolving nature and complexity. (American Psychologist, Vol. 50, No. 7, 506)

John O’Brien:

“The desire of one man to live on the fruits of another’s labor is the original sin of the world.” [George Seldes, ed., The Great Thoughts (Ballentine Books, 19850, p. 314]

Rand on Human Nature:

“Man gains enormous values from dealing with other men: living in a human society is his proper way of life – but only on certain conditions. Man is not a lone wolf and he is not a social animal. He is a contractual animal. He has to plan his life long-range, make his own choices, and deal with other men by voluntary agreement (and he has to be able to rely on their observance of the agreement they entered).” [“A Nation’s Unity,” Ayn Rand Letter, Vol. II, 2, p. 3.]

Alexis de Tocqueville on business:

“The transactions of business opened a new road to power, and the financier rose to a station of political influence in which he was at once flattered and despised.” [Democracy in America, p. xxxvi]

Jostein Gaarner on the supernatural:

“So you don’t believe in anything supernatural then.”

“We’ve already talked about that. Even the term ‘supernatural’ is a curious one. No, I suppose I believe that there is only one nature. But that, on the other hand, is absolutely astonishing.” (Sophie’s World, p. 360)

Arthur Miller on salesmen:

His was a salesman’s profession, if one may describe such dignified slavery as a profession…(“In Memoriam,” The New Yorker, December 25, 1995 & January 1, 1996)

Business Besmirched:
In 1769 [Benjamin] Franklin had written to his friend Henry Home, Lord Cames, the Scottish jurist and philosopher: `There seems to be but three ways for a nation to acquire wealth. The first is by war, as the Romans did, in plundering their conquered neighbors. This is robbery. The second is by commerce, which is generally cheating. The third by agriculture, the only honest way….’”[from Forest MacDonald, Novus Ordo Seclorum]

*From my personal collection