Archive for August, 2013

Machan’s Archives: Coping with Smoking

Machan’s Archives: Coping with Smoking

Tibor R. Machan

Laws forbidding business proprietors from permitting smoking in their offices, cinemas, aircraft, stores, etc. are now legion. But such government-mandated prohibitions ignore the rights of those who don’t mind smoking as well as those who wish to live in a tolerant society.

No doubt, smokers can be annoying. They even may be harmful to those around them. One need not dispute these contentions to still be concerned with their rights.

In most cases, anti-smoking ordinances aren’t limited to public places such as municipal courts. If the government confined itself to protecting the rights of nonsmokers in bona fide public areas, there would be nothing wrong with the current trend in legislation.

Instead of such a limited approach, however, government has embarked upon the full regimentation of people’s choices concerning smoking. The government has decided to bully smokers, regardless of whether they violate anyone’s rights or merely indulge with the consent of others.

People suffer many harms willingly. And in a society that respects individual rights this has to be accepted. Boxers, football players, nurses, doctors, and many other people expose themselves to risks of harm that comes from others’ behavior. When this exposure is voluntary, in a free society it may not be interfered with. The sovereignty of persons may not be sacrificed even for the sake of their physical health.

Individuals’ property rights are supposed to be protected by the Fifth Amendment. Not unless property is taken for public use — for the sake of a legitimate state activity — is it properly subject to government seizure. By treating the offices, work spaces, and lobbies of private firms as if they were public property, a grave injustice is done to the owners.

When private property comes under government control, practices may be prohibited simply because those who engage in them are in the minority or waver from preferred government policy. Members of minority groups can easily lose their sphere of autonomy.

There is no need, however, to resort to government intervention to manage the public problems engendered by smoking. There are many cases of annoying and even harmful practices that can be isolated and kept from intruding on others. And they do not involve violating anyone’s right to freedom of association and private property.

The smoking issue can be handled quite simply. In my house, shop, or factory, I should be the one who decides whether there will be smoking. This is what it means to respect my individual rights. Just as I may print anything I want on my printing press, or allow anyone to say whatever he or she wants in my lecture hall, so I should be free to decide whether people may smoke on my property.

Those displeased by or who object to my decision need not come to my facilities. If the concern is great and the opportunity to work in a given place is highly valued, negotiations or contract talks can ensue in behalf of separating smokers from nonsmokers. In many cases all that’s needed is to bring the problem to light. Maybe the firm’s insurance costs will be inordinately high where there is smoking, or maybe a change in policy will come about because customers and workers are gradually leaving.The issue of smoking may not undermine the far greater issue of individual, including private property, rights.

In some cases a conflict about this matter may go so far as to involve tort litigation. Exposing employees to serious dangers that are not part of the job description and of which they were not warned may be actionable. But what the company does initially at least must be its decision. And the onus of proof in these cases must be on those who claim to have suffered unjustified harm.

Clearly, smoking isn’t universally bad. For some people it may be O.K. to smoke, just as it could be O.K. to have a couple of drinks or to run five miles a day. For others, smoking is very harmful to their health. In either case, health may not be the highest good for many people. All things considered, even those whose health suffers may wish to smoke. In a free society, people are free to do what is wrong, so long as they don’t violate the rights of others.

In a free and pluralistic society, it isn’t necessary to appoint the government as the caretaker of our health and the overseer of our interpersonal negotiations concerning how we best get along with each other.

Christie’s Demagoguery

Governor Christie’s Demagoguery

Tibor R. Machan

In his put down of Senator Rand Paul for the latter’s defense of limited governmental powers in foreign policies, Governor Chris Christie has not produced arguments but engaged in demagoguery. Bringing up the grieving of relatives of 9/11 victims amounts to just that.

The issue is whether the government has the authority to exert military and similar power as it carries out the task of securing the rights of the citizenry. It must find a way and not violate rights, for which there is no excuse. If governments do engage in rights violation while securing the rights of the citizenry, they become criminal organizations and lose their moral authority, period.

Senator Rand Paul is asserting this line of thinking and to try to refute him by the demagoguery resorted to by Governor Christie demonstrates that ineptitude of the government. After all, officials of the government take an oath to carry out their task within constitutional limits. Just as cops must not overstep these as they do their job, so must federal officials. Only very rarely may there be exceptions to this policy, in cases of imminent danger.

It is really sad that a governor of an American state doesn’t grasp all this.

Policy Sans Ethics

Policy Sans Ethics

Tibor R. Machan

Yet another ancient political debate concerns whether public policy needs to be based on certain norms, or ethical principles.

Classical and a few modern political philosophers — e.g., Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Aquinas, Spinoza, John Locke, et al. — argued that to learn how to govern, one must have certain values for which governing needs to aim. These would be justice, peace, equality, or liberty. The source of these values might be one or another conception of the divine, human nature, intuition, majority sentiment or something like these.

This approach was referred to as foundationalism and the debates concerned how to achieve the values, not weather such values are needed to guide public affairs.

The idea is well exhibited in the Declaration of Independence where the goal of governance is to secure the protection of the fundamental rights of the citizenry. The limitations of governance stem from those rights, as they are laid out in, for example, the American Bill of Rights. Any policy proposal that violates such rights is null and void and the Supreme Court had been established to supervise governors with that in mind.

In time, however, another school of governance emerged and began to challenge the kind that relied on basic principles and values for guidance. The source of this alternative school was American pragmatism.

Pragmatists such as Charles Peirce, C. I. Lewis, John Dewey, Oliver Wendel Holmes, Jr., didn’t think there exist any fundamental principles to guide public policy. Instead the best we can do is identify practical approaches. This is the by now well known “whatever works” approach. For example, “Defenders of Chicago-style law and economics want to be seen not as ideologues [the term of denigration for the principled approach], but as realists. [Judge 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.

The trouble is that without some reference to ethics or values there is no way to tell what “the best approach for the contemporary American legal system” would amount to. “Best” is a value term and when Judge Posner makes use of it, he admits, at least implicitly, that even his pragmatic or practical approach to law and public policy aims to be tied to certain ideals of right versus wrong.

All pragmatists face this problem, be they inclined toward the Right (such as Posner) or Left (such as Cass Sunstein). Their pragmatism may suggest otherwise but in their public policy preferences they show their hands clearly enough. Without a foundation to back up their preferences, their public philosophy ultimately turns out to be arbitrary, based on wishes and hopes, not on anything that could be ascertained such as human nature, God’s will, etc.

The bottom line is that the pragmatic approach simply fails to be a substitute for the approach that rests on basic principles or values. It invokes hidden principles, ones that its advocates believe can escape the need for justification. But that is quite hopeless.

Shopping in communism versus capitalism

Shopping in communism versus capitalism

Tibor R. Machan

In a narrative portion of his latest (and characteristically riveting) novel the author has written the following sentence that prompts me to wag my finger at him a bit. “Now it was a Western-style shopping mall stuffed with all the useless trinkets capitalism had to offer…” Daniel Silva, The English Girl (2013). The sentence reveals something very important about capitalism as well as Silva’s apparent failure to understand it.

Silva was contrasting the Soviet style, drab, grey shopping center with the more recent type that have been springing up in Russia and the former Soviet bloc. Yet instead of showing appreciation for the mall with its great variety of trinkets, which include both what he can consider useless and the useful kind, he appears to show disdain for it.

It is precisely the fact that such malls include thousands of trinkets, some useful to some, some not, that makes capitalism so benevolent. Unlike the Soviet Union and its satellites, where only what the leadership deemed to be useful got featured in shopping malls (such as they were), in Western-style malls millions of different individual and family preferences are on display and for sale, aiming to satisfy the huge variety of tastes and preferences.

I recall many moons ago there was a fuss about the popularity of the Pet Rock! It was — may still be — a trinket sold as a novelty item. I remember defending it from its disdainful, snooty critics, arguing that there may well be a few people for whom it would be suitable gift.

Say your grandfather worked in a mine or quarry and now on his 80th birthday you want to get him something not quite useful but meaningful! He has everything useful already, so you pick the Pet Rock for him. It would make a nifty memento! Might even bring tears to his eyes.

For millions of others it would indeed be a “useless trinket” but not for old granddad. And for every other item that author Silva may consider useless, there will be someone who finds it touching!

That is precisely what individualism implies. Something Marxists cannot appreciate since for them only what advances the revolution counts as useful. Individuals as such, with their idiosyncrasies, do not count for anything! And capitalism rejects this misanthropic doctrine, which is why the enormous variety of goods and services is part of it while under socialism and communism only what is proper for the revolution makes sense to produce!

I wish Mr. Silva had indicated some of this as he derided those Western-style shopping malls. Even if he cannot find something useful for himself in them, he can at least appreciate them as contemporary museums of possibilities.

Too Many Un-American Americans

Too Many Un-American Americans

Tibor R. Machan

I am not sure Senator Rand Paul’s political philosophy is all around sound but one portion has my support and should have everyone’s. It is his consistent defense of the (George) Washingtonian idea of limited government as it pertains to America’s foreign and military policies. This is especially true as it applies to his recent championing of withdrawing funding Egypt’s military.

Let us remember a simple yet revolutionary idea associated with America, indeed one that has made the country exceptional among all major and minor political associations. This is the basic, natural right to individual liberty!

In more or less complex renditions America has always been associated with the public philosophy that condemns one person’s using another for a purpose that this other doesn’t share. Very, very rarely, in some great emergency only, is it permissible for a person to coerce another, even for the most noble of reasons (something John Stuart Mill demonstrated with his example of forcibly preventing someone from stepping on a collapsing bridge.) That is why slavery was such a blemish in the history of this country, because it was the gravest of evils perpetrated, subjugating others to one’s own will without their consent! It was hypocritical, vile, embarrassing, corrupting.

No governmental policy that goes directly against the mandate by which government must operate — “To secure the protection of individual rights!” — is tolerable. Sadly this uniquely novel American idea is now cast aside by the likes of President Obama and his team of petty tyrants. The notion that politicians, with their bureaucrats, ought to regiment the citizenry is all too often accepted by the citizenry itself, if only because the “public” educational system fails to teach what the American founders spelled out so clearly in the Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights.

Only if the idea of everyone’s fundamental right to liberty is recovered, will most of what ails us be addressed successfully.