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Column on Hail Sandel

Hail Sandel!

Tibor R. Machan

Thomas Friedman, prominent New York Times columnist, recently penned a kudos to Harvard University professor of government Michael J. Sandel because Sandel received some fine notices recently in China Newsweek (not part of the American publication). Friedman could hardly contain his glee since Sandel’s ideas are the opposite of those of the American political (Lockean) tradition.

In a column of mine a while back I wrote this: “One famous scholar who finds this [that we have rights but no innate obligations] very annoying is Professor Michael J. Sandel, so much so that his recently published, Justice, What is the Right Thing to do? [Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2009] based on his very popular PBS TV and Harvard University lectures by that same term, begins with a frontal attack on libertarianism [a la the late Robert Nozick]. Sandel’s central complaint is that libertarianism doesn’t acknowledge that everyone has unchosen obligations to society. The famous American and classical liberal idea that government must be consented to by the governed is tossed aside for this reactionary idea that when you are born you are already legally ensnared in innumerable duties to others which, of course, government is authorized to extract from you. The idea, most forcefully defended by the French father of sociology, Auguste Comte, is a ruse and used mostly to make people into serfs, subject them to involuntary servitude, however noble sounding the sentiments behind it.”

It is simple enough to see why a government-sanctioned Chinese publication–kind of like the Soviet Union’s Pravda or Izvestia–approves of Sandel’s ideas. They certainly serve to rationalize state power over the citizens of a country. If you and I are born with positive duties to others–God, the world, the majority, that government, whoever–and government is the enforcer of obligations (as when it enforces those created by contracts), then citizens are clearly servants. Involuntary servitude is then every citizen’s proper role. And government gets to make sure that this service that’s due is efficiently and promptly extracted from us.

Professor Sandel champions these ideas not from a society with a strong statist tradition in its politics and law but from the United States of America which is associated with the classical liberal/libertarian political tradition. So now Chinese communists need not invoke Marx, Lenin, or Mao, whose reputation has plummeted in recent decades, so as to buttress their public policy of coercion against the citizenry. They can point to a famous Harvard University American political philosopher instead. Here is a star academic from the leader of the free world, as the US used to be called, endorsing what is normal practice in statist countries, ones where natural individual rights are denied and rights have become government granted privileges. (Another famous American academic who see things this way is, of course, President Obama’s friend and former University of Chicago Law School colleagues, Cass Sunstein!)

In the American tradition government’s just powers are supposedly derived from the consent of those whom government governs. As the Declaration put it, “to secure these rights [i.e., those negative one’s the Declaration lists], governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed….” Which clearly implies that (a) our rights don’t come from government but must be secured by it, and (b) the government’s authority is based on the citizenry’s consent not on some kind of innate obligation government must collect on by subjugating the citizenry.

Now this bona fide American idea cannot possibly sit well with the Chinese authorities. It is far more likely that those authorities will endorse Professor Sandel’s notion where the citizenry’s consent is not necessary to impose various obligations on them to come up with labor and resources for the government to use as it sees fit. (Which, of course, means for other people, a select few, to do this!)

And the folks at The New York Times, including regular and very prominent columnist Thomas Friedman (constantly feature on PBS’s News Hour and by Fareed Zakaria on his GPS CNN program), cannot but be pleased with Sandel, just as the Chinese communists are, since they also hold that government is supreme and the people are born with numerous unchosen obligations it must enforce.

Education: Philosophical vs. Political Correctness (an update)

Education: Philosophical versus Political Correctness (an update)

Tibor R. Machan

You will know what I am after here when I tell you how much I dislike it when people talk of “her majesty” or “his highness” or, especially, “ruler” as they refer to various pretenders to heads of countries around the globe and throughout human history. For me such terms are like ones out of fairy tales because, well, there are no kings or queens or any such thing except in myths and fabricated political regimes. In other words kings are really not what they pretend to be, namely, God’s chosen leaders here on earth. In fact they are nearly always out and out tyrants or despots although sometimes they are just wastrels.

As with all in-born status that places some above others not in height or even talent but in political authority—so that some may rule and others will be ruled—the whole monarchical idea is a lie. Yet even now one can encounter references to these pretenders, right here in the United States of America, as if these were the real McCoy! Poppycock. Was it not the American Founders who participated in the revolution that demoted, demythologized these pretenders and declared that no one is by nature the ruler of someone else?

Of course in all of history, wherever there have been human inhabitants, such pretentious ruses and the accompanying distortions of language have been ubiquitous. It is not that the thought of and verbal reference to it ought to be banned by law. No ideas should be regarded as subject to censorship, which is the ultimate objective of construing certain ideas as politically incorrect. The Pope, the Reverend Moon, Father this and Sister that—all these are titles dependent on a dubious narrative. Most of them are phony offices with no rational reason for them. But the idea of them all, however debatable, has to be tolerated in a free country, even if those ideas are a threat to the freedom that’s so central to such a country.

Yes, then, folks ought to give them all up, just as they have given up superstitions of any sort. However, this has to happen through enlightenment, education, reflection, conversation and other peaceful means, not through government intervention. A free country defers to the market place of ideas when it comes to what ideas will be deemed worthy of embrace even if the market place doesn’t always produce sterling results. So, for example, it should not be government that chooses between creationism and Charles Darwin’s evolutionary theory, any more than it should be government that chooses between one or another religion or ethics.

It is another thing, however, for citizens themselves, independently of government, to consider some ideas philosophically incorrect. Just what is and what is not will, most probably, be subject to eternal disputation, especially in societies where the expression and verbal use of ideas of any kind have the protection of the legal system. Even racist ideas, or anti-Semitic ones—indeed any kind of bigotry—must be given legal protection and their criticism needs to be confined to argumentation, ostracism, disputation, debate and such.

There is just one big problem with this in our time. When a country tries to combine freedom of thought and speech with government-administered education, there will be irresolvable conflict. In a system of private education competition among schools would take care of philosophical correctness. In some schools certain books will be featured in the library, in others they will not, and students and their parents will be able to select which they want to be exposed to. Biology will be taught as creationists wish or as Darwinians do. No official doctrine will be imposed, period.

But when government delivers a coercive system of “education”—actually mostly indoctrination, since no alternative is available to the bulk of us who have to pay for and use such a system—any selection of books, magazines, films shown in classes and so forth will amount to censorship of the materials not chosen. They will, in effect, have been banned—whereas in a private system selection by the administrators of some schools, library officials, or teachers will not preclude exclusion by others. It is government’s nearly one-size-fits-all approach to education that stands in the way of free inquiry.

Unfortunately, in many societies people want to mix elements of liberty with elements of coercion, as if that were something trouble free—health food with some poison! It isn’t—the courts will struggle forever with trying to square that circle and politicians will engage in varieties of demagoguery to gain the power over the “educational” turf.

Only by getting government out of education can that matter be made consistent with the principles of a free society and fit for human beings whose minds must forever be free to think. And please don’t even think that government schooling is for the poor among us. There are innumerable sources of help to get poor students educated and, in any case, government is simply no substitute for education.

From the Machan Archives: “Column on Yes, PBS (and NPR), Must Go!”

Yes! PBS (and NPR) Must Go!

We finally have the right idea about public broadcasting in
the air. The New York Times reports that there is now a serious
call in Washington for the total abolition or privatization of
this wholly inappropriate government supported, partially tax
funded medium of Left wing propaganda.
Actually, I don’t care how Left wing any national medium
happens to be, so long as I am not forced to pay even a penny for
its upkeep. There are dozens of very prominent magazines with
a Left wing editorial policy – The Nation, Progressive, Mother
Jones, Utne Report, The New York Review of Books, to name only the
more prominent ones. In the fields of both popular and scholarly
publications, the Left still holds prominent sway, despite all the
talk about the “collapse of Socialism.” But no one is forcing me
to subscribe – I do so, when I do so, because I am interested in
just how wrong intelligent people can be.
PBS and NPR – National Public Radio – in contrast, are massive
broadcast ventures, supported and partly funded by the federal
government, from taxes going to, e.g., the Corporation for Public
Broadcasting.
Contrary to what many conservatives complain about, it is not so
much the lack of balance in the programming that is so insidious. It
is that there exists a first amendment medium that people in this
country are forced to pay for.
Of course, it is undeniably true that both PBS and NPR are run
for the sake of spreading socialist ideology. These people, contrary
to what The New York Times keeps doggedly repeating, are not liberals.
A Liberal believes in, for example, civil liberties and equality of
opportunity, a free press and fairness, among other things. Liberals
lean toward socialism mostly in economic matters. The editorial tone
of nearly all PBS and NPR programming is radically socialist and, more
recently, fascist – especially when it comes to environmental and
feminist matters.
PBS runs innumerable opinion programs, beginning and ending, of
course, with all the opportunities Bill Moyers gets for airing his
pious laments about the universe. Moyers is no liberal but an agitator
for the position that everything that is wrong with the world is due
to the United States of America. His repeated intoning about what
“we, in this country, are doing to …” is so tiresome that I simply
cannot watch him, even when he interviews people I regard interesting.
PBS’s several interesting round table programs on various facets of
our legal system is also very biased toward the left liberal agenda.
The leaders of these discussions, whose panels do manage to be balanced
- if you believe that there are only two viewpoints in America worth
telling the viewers about – are nearly all Harvard law professors and
their orientation tends always toward leftist moralizing. There are
no communists, libertarians, Muslims, Moonies or any other theorists
who don’t fit the mainstream balance, outside of some militant
feminists and multiculturalists on these programs. And, more importantly,
no one outside the Eastern educational establishment ever appears on
them – which, frankly, annoys me, who teaches at a southern university
no one at PBS ever thinks of inviting to appear on their programs.
There are fine things, too, on PBS. And who knows, maybe it does
full justice to the intellectual market place, so balance need by no
means be the standard by which to judge it.
It is only because PBS is a government created and (partially)
funded monopoly that I fully support those who are calling for its
abolition. I would be even more enthusiastic if NPR got the axe – it
has the most whiny, openly Left wing editorial tone among all mainstream
media efforts. Its staff have just one voice, that of the smooth,
velvety Eastern intellectual. (Just listen and try to find someone
with a southern, Bronx or foreign accent, outside a few guest essayists.
But then the same phenomenon would not bother me much if found on ABC,
CNN or A&E, since I am not made to spend a dime of my life on those.)
Let us get the government out of at least one major and very
sensitive industry. There should, in short, be the same policy in
government toward media as there is toward religion – it should neither
ban nor establish any denomination, regardless of its content. Let
all geniuses in the industry like Bill Moyers and Nina Totenberg find
a job on the open market – surely there are plenty of media outlets
now. I look forward to not seeing Bill Moyers, say, on the Discovery
Channel, or, per chance, on Nick at Nite!

Interview on Argentine TV in 2001

This Interview was conducted on Argentine television, October 2001

Question: Do you have any explanation for the fact that the U.S. developed in the way it developed in the last two centuries, compared with its neighbors in Latin America – who didn’t develop that way?
Roughly speaking the answer is that the founders of the U.S. were people who had had it with monarchies “up to here” – they were opposed to top down government. They were not right in everything – they made mistakes – but their primary message was that it is not the king (government) who is the sovereign in a society – it is the individual members of the society who are sovereign. They rejected the status of the inhabitants of the society as subjects, and insisted that they were citizens who had basic rights The fact that they announced that in the Declaration of Independence – that everyone has the basic right to his or her life, liberty and pursuit of happiness and that the only function of government is to secure these rights – made the biggest difference, was the most revolutionary development of human political history. All the rest follows from there.
Even the mistakes they made, for example, about slavery or the treatment of the Native American “Indians,” could only be corrected in terms that they themselves laid down to guide the nature of social life, namely, in terms of individual human rights. It is not the family, the tribe, the clan, the ethnic group, or the nation but the individual human being who’s the most important “ingredient” in society.
All the other nations went along with that only willy-nilly, including Latin & Central American nations that were far less clear-cut in their opposition to monarchies, to top-down rule & society.

Question: What would you answer to philosophers like the guest we had program – a philosopher/professor at the University of Buenos Aires — who sustain that in general the problem with Latin America and the lack of development is excess of individualism, excess of selfishness and we should really in order to progress, to be part of the group, to consider ourselves part of a big type of animal where we are all involved with each other.
Poppycock is the American expression to that. I consider that completely wrong — way, way the “wrongest” answer you can give. It simply increases the power of some people [to reject individualism]. There is no such entity as the society. There’s no such as entity as the group. Those are all [conceptual and verbal] shortcuts to talking about people [in various associations with one another].
Whenever people bring up the community above individuals, they really mean that some individuals should have more power than other individuals. There is no escaping from that. Nobody who talks about the public interest vs the private interest really means some different interest. It’s some private interest that he prefers or that he considers more important vs other private interests.
I don’t know this gentleman who we are talking about but whenever people talk to me about how there’s too much individualism, and too much selfishness, that’s usually a code word for saying it’s some one else’s individualism, some one else’s selfishness that is to crowd out my individualism and my selfishness. In fact they have goals and I have goals and other people have goals. A proper society makes the realization of these goals peacefully possible. That’s what’s necessary.
There are corrupt versions of any kind of point of view including individualism. Individualism does not mean Robinson Crusoe on an island all by himself – self sufficient, unrelated to people. All individualists who have something to contribute to the discussion of political matters recognize that individuals flourish with other individuals, but not on just any terms. They have to be terms that respect the individual’s right to sovereignty in terms of which any individual should chose other individuals as members of the community. I ought to relate to friends, to relations, to colleagues, to neighbors, to fellow participants in the market place. It is better for me to do that, but not when they start violating my rights.

Question: But is it not the case, as some people sustain, that in general if you leave people alone in the market just in general, you have winners and losers, and there is no remedy to that. That in general some people will prevail over the other ones and will take advantage of them.
The market place is not a field of combat. It is field of peaceful, even friendly, competition. It’s not like a boxing ring; it’s more like a marathon race. Everybody moves forward and as long as people move forward, they sometimes drag other people forward. It’s not a zero sum game – it’s a mistaken view of the market. When there is freedom of competition, when there is freedom of enterprise, everybody gains.
Even egalitarians like John Rawls at Harvard, who’s the foremost political philosopher in the U.S. today, admit that in order to increase the common wealth of a country you need to allow for free competition. You need to allow that some people are going to get ahead faster in order for everyone to gain from this – gain that they make themselves for themselves. There is no reason to believe if you honestly look at it, that free people who respect one another’s rights become enemies of each other. They become friends/associates, of each other.

Question: Good. What I would like to review with you are some premises in general for philosophical talk, study by metaphysics in general. I would like to know, what’s the nature of reality for you?
The nature of reality is not “for me,” not for my thought. The nature of reality is what it is. This glass of water is a glass of water, whether you are a Hottentot, a German, a Japanese, or an American. It’s going to remain a glass of water until someone drinks it, then in which case, it will an empty glass of water.

Question: What about that sentence that says that everything is according to the way, the color that you see, and the different things?
No, partly because that mistakes awareness for influence. Awareness is awareness. As an analogy, when I grab a glass, I do not distort the glass. I simply pick it up; I adjust myself to the glass. When my mind becomes aware of the glass, it doesn’t distort the glass, it doesn’t make the glass into something else. You see, if you believe that it does, you are in very, very deep trouble because then your belief that that’s what’s going on is also intruded upon by your mind. Which leads to an infinite regress of distortions. There is no escape from it.
So even the people who propose that as we understand the world, we’re distorting it don’t believe that that insight is distorted and so they think something is objective, namely their understanding of the lack of objectivity between human beings and the world.

Question: I understand that, but what about relativism; is reality moving, always, in a process of changing, so you never can know it as it is, because there is always another approach. Knowledge should be obtained all the time. You never just reach a certain point where everything is known.
My response is that, if you have an unrealistic conception of what it is to know something – if in order to know that this is a glass of water, I have to have the final word on it – then knowledge is impossible. We are never here to eternity to get that final word. Knowledge is misconceived as the final word; it’s the best word on something. That is clearly possible. Even though I don’t know what may be discovered about this thing 10,000 years from now, I can know what has been discovered about it up to now. That is enough for me to know what it is. That’s all that knowledge means. Knowledge is not a promise for a finished product.

Question: I would like to know your definition of truth, according to what you said before.
Truth is a property of a belief, a judgment, or a sentence or a statement indicating that it accurately reflects what is in the world. If I say that you are wearing a dark suit; then this sentence is true just in case you are wearing a dark suit. If the suit is not dark, if you are not wearing a suit, or if you’re not even here, then this is not a true statement.

Question: So a lie is . . .
A lie is something very complicated. Now it’s not just a falsehood; a lie is an intentional falsehood. When someone deliberately says what is not the case, or what he believes is not the case –because by accident someone could lie and tell the truth – if he mistakenly thinks that something is the case, and he wants to deny it and it turns out the denial is true, then he lied and also told the truth.

Question: I want to know your opinion about miracles – and people feel well about it, and they feel like they are not transgressing their nature.
Well, they are wrong. They are transgressing their nature.

Question: What is your view of politicians?
Politicians are often criminals in disguise and this is a very sad thing and they have been like that from the time of Caesar’s and pharaohs up to today. There is no big mystery, really: they routinely rationalize their stealing and today, for example, call it redistribution of wealth, helping the poor children, or the orphans or those who are sick. It all a ruse; it’s all a charade, it’s quackery. The fact is that politicians have one job to do. That is to protect our rights, so that we can proceed with our lives peacefully. Then if we need to help people, we need to exercise the virtue of generosity. We need to be charitable. It is not charitable to steal from you and give to me who may need some help. That is theft, not charity.

Question: The idea behind this is: that we need education, somebody needs help; somebody needs to build new houses for the poor.
The “we” tends to disguise what is going on here. Granted, parents need to give their children an education, if they cannot give their children the proper education, they should not have children. It is malpractice for them to multiply without the facility to bring up their children in a helpful, flourishing way.

Question: Not allow poor people to have kids?
I’m not prohibiting them from having kids. I’m simply insisting when they have kids, they need to take care of them or ask for help from willing others and not rob other people who have goals – an artist has the goal to paint or write or compose, a scientist to study the universe, etc. These people’s goals are just as important as those parents who didn’t think before they had children. They do not have the right or the authority to take these other people’s resources and convert them to their goals. Not without their permission.
Politicians pretend that they do have this authority, which they don’t have. Legally they do, but that simply means they have the army behind them. In fact, morally speaking no one has the right to steal from another – even for a very good purpose, even for an excellent purpose. Suppose I am the most wonderful artist in the world, I compose the most beautiful music, but I am too poor to buy a piano and buy sheet music. I don’t have a right to go over and steal from you your resources that you might even squander or gambling away. As long as it comes from you, as long as it is something you’ve created from your assets, from your resources, you are entitled to dispose of those things as you see fit – even when you do it wrongly. I may criticize you; I may beg you to do it right, but I may not send the police out to reform you in my image.
This is the nature of civilization. Civilization means treating other human beings with attention to their reasoning capacity and abstaining from the use of force – even for very good objectives.

Question: So the only proper role of government is justice. No other role, like the one mentioned before – education, or just building houses for the poor or security.
A proper government is a like a referee at a game. There could be all kinds of things going on in the audience, on the playing field. Some of the players might need help, may need to be consoled because they lost the last round, but the referee must keep his/her integrity and uphold the rules, and not get involved in other things. There are other parts of society that take care of that – of charity, of generosity, of philanthropy, of business, or competition. The role of the government is to be the guardian of the rules of the free society. Those rules consist of defending individual rights; making sure that nobody gains some advantage through force and that all advantages are gained voluntarily, peacefully. Even if the advantages are huge; peace, justice is what the government is obligated to secure; not some other goals, which are perfectly OK for other people to strive for.

Question: You mentioned rights – to defend individual rights – don’t people have the right to have a job, for example in the country with such unemployment is 14%?
Consider for example if I had a right to have employment. That means I have a right for other people to buy my goods or services. Other people would then have to be conscripted – forced – in order to give me this job. They would have an obligation to buy things from me, to use my goods and services. They would not just have perhaps a moral responsibility but also a legally enforceable obligation. That would place them into involuntary servitude to me.

Question: So you don’t think people have a right to a job?
Of course not. Jobs are created through trade and exchange – through voluntary trade; to people’s free consent to use the services of those offer those services for sale. That what brings about jobs.

Question: Why in this society don’t we have jobs? And people are unemployed?
That’s a historical question. Very often the reason for that is that business, commerce, labor, is stymied – it’s blocked, there are protectionist measures that are introduced to protect some industry and give them an advantage over other industries. That keeps production enterprise down. Consider for example the fact that in the U.S., which is a welfare state, but a milder version of a welfare state, compared to France, Germany, or Argentina to some extent. There is a fairly open employment market. When you get hired by an employer he/she isn’t required to immediately give you life-long benefits. That means that more people enter the market with new ideas, with new projects, because they are not afraid that the moment they enter the market, they would be over-burdened with all these obligations to their employees. So there is more work, there are more jobs, there is more employment and they have an unemployment rate of around 4% compared to Germany where you start a business, you immediately have to promise your employees life-long security. That creates a depression of enterprise. People cannot afford to enter new enterprises and to risk assuming all these burdens they didn’t choose.

Question: What about income tax?
If you consider the origin of taxation, you will have an understanding why I will answer you the way I will. Taxation was at home in a feudal system where the king owned everything. Taxes were the rents the kings collected on other people working their property, on their land. It all belonged to the king; the king owned everything. So taxes were a form of payment to gain the king’s permission to work there. But once you change the idea of politics away from the sovereignty of the king to the sovereignty of the individuals in a society, taxation lost its rationale. Now taxation is anomaly – a strange thing in most western societies. Here we are basically paying someone because they won’t let us work without paying them. That’s called extortion. That’s what the Mafia does. It goes to a shop owner and says if you do not pay me something, I’ll burn down your shop. That’s like the government coming to say, if you don’t give me part of your income, I’ll not let you work.

Question: But how do you fight this?
That’s an interesting question. Ask yourself that question in another context. Suppose you were used to a government establishing a religion in a country. Now you suggest that that should no longer be the case. People will scratch their head and say, then how would you have worship in a country if a government does not establish it? Look at the U.S. – the government is explicitly prohibited from establishing a church. Do you know how much religion that there is in the U.S.? A lot. Everybody goes to church. Almost 90% of the people profess to be in God, and go to church. Religion did not die because the government does not protect it. Now, there’s the same question – how would legal services be funded in a society in which robbery or extortion by the government is prohibited. It has to be done by charging a fee for the services for the government should provide.

Question: What is the role of democracy in such a context?
You’re jumping ahead a little bit too fast. But my basic answer to the previous question is contract fees. You charge a fee for all written contracts in order to provide the legal background within which contracts can be adjudicated and protected – that requires police, courts, military, etc. If you confine a government to its proper role, then this will be sufficient to pay for it.

Question: In Argentina, the gross national product is 300 billion – and in general the government is taking a hundred billion of it. Would you consider that an excess?
Highway robbery. This is some people living off the backs of other people. There is no question in my mind about this. No matter how nice a rationalization for this, no matter how saintly you think politicians are, the fact is that they are robbing people of their lively-hood for purposes to which those people have not agreed.

Question: So if our president had the chance to look at the program right now and if you could give him some advice, what would you say?
Scale down the scope of the government. Not so much it’s size, but it’s scope. It needs to focus on protecting the rights of the citizenry – not on building roads, not on building sports arenas, not about protecting some industries against others, and regulating people – confine yourself to the honorable task that a politician truly should be loyal to – that is, defending individual rights.

Question: Shouldn’t the government impose science?
No! That is not its business – any more than it is its business to promote religion or to promote sports. That’s not the government’s business – the government is agent of force. Just like you can only use force when you defend yourself – not in accomplishing something with me. If I don’t give you the right answer, you can’t come over and hit me in the head, right? You have to plead with me for the right answer. Similarly the government should never use force except in defense against criminals or outside aggressors. Any other use is illegitimate use of its tools.

Question: Aren’t you defending the concept of government that was the concept in the 18th century?
No.

Question: There is no room for government – what is going to happen to the poor people?
First of all, there is a role for legal authorities to defend people’s rights. Within the context of having your rights effectively, properly defended by this legal authority, all kinds of charitable, philanthropic – kind, compassionate arrangements can reign. In fact, free societies are far more generous than coerced societies. You don’t see Iraq sending a lot of foreign aid to people – you see America doing so much more. There’s a great deal more scholarship and voluntary help when people are free. Because generosity and charity – in order for them to be true virtues have to be chosen – they cannot be coerced. Any form of coerced good behavior no longer is good behavior. It is simply regimented behavior. Now as far as sacrifice is concerned, it is true that I do not believe that the primary role of human beings in life is to sacrifice themselves. Notice the consequences of thinking so. Suppose you do believe that I should sacrifice myself for you – and then you believe that you should sacrifice yourself for somebody else and on and on and on. Who are the beneficiaries? So the only thing that could mean in any rational sense is that when people are in a special needy situation, in some emergency, when they have through no fault of their own, become in dire straits, when they are very much in need of some help, then we should take up pause with our attempts to flourish in life, and get ahead in life, and pay some attention to them. That’s what the virtue of generosity urges us to do. That was occasional charity – that’s what contributions to philanthropic groups – that’s why we should do that because people are in special circumstances – sometimes. But that shouldn’t be generalized into an overall ethics. That is, in Aristotle’s tradition, the greatest virtue is to think rationally – and thinking rationally will guide you to when to be courageous, when to be prudent, when to be honest, when to be moderate, when to be generous. Generosity shouldn’t be wasted on frivolous things; it should be exercised when genuine need from deserving people warrant it.

Question: So there is nothing wrong with accumulating wealth according to your views.
Nothing at all.

Question: Why do you think that a person that is accumulating wealth in our society is not seen well?
There are many reasons for that. Different people have different reasons and some people have a combination of reasons that leads them to think that way. Part of it is envy, part of it is resentment, part of it is the belief – an ancient belief – that this earth is not worth living for – that the only worthwhile lives are lives that are devoted to supernatural realm, to a spiritual existence. To some extent this is enhanced by some religions – not all religions. One of the reasons that in Christian Europe Jews were resented so much is that first they were excluded from ordinary professions, and the professions that they thought they could do – finance, banking – the Christians didn’t think they could do, so the Jews became rich and successful. Then suddenly everyone resented them, and eventually that is one of the major causes of the holocaust – this resentment toward the success of Jews whose religion did not prohibit them from striving for wealth. The only time Jesus became violent is against moneylenders. That’s a clue to the attitude toward riches – toward wealth gaining – that we’ve had in much of western society – especially other societies. When Saddam Hussein wanted to denounce the U.S. during the Gulf War, his major accusation was “you are materialistic”. But in fact what wealth seeking amounts to is seeking prosperity. Seeking success in a certain realm of one’s life. That’s not the most important thing, but that is one important thing – just like health. What are people who seek good health? After all they are healthy in this world; once their dead, health is not going to do them any good. Why don’t we resent people who go to doctors? Who seek help from medicine. . . we don’t resent them. Why don’t we resent people who seek health from nutrition? We don’t, because we generally recognize that a proper concern for one’s well being here on earth is a commendable, respectable objective. People who make wealth; they just don’t make wealth for them, they make wealth for their families, for their friends, for their organizations they believe in. For example, Bill Gates gives around hundred million dollars even billions of dollars sometimes to causes in which he believes. Just because there is a proper role for charity and generosity, it does not authorize the government to come in and play highway robber with the phony promise that they will allocate the wealth that they have stolen to the right cause.

Question: So your are not happy with the Robin Hood concept . . .
Well if you remember Robin Hood stole not from the rich but from the tax takers. He took the taxes back and returned to those from whom the taxes were taken. So Robin Hood was a good guy; he took only from those who first stole. He didn’t redistribute wealth that was honestly earned. That’s an interesting thing that is misunderstood about Robin Hood. There are many misunderstandings that people invoke to justify their criminality,

Question: Protectionism – do you think it’s a proper tool for development?
Protectionism is just a nice word for intruding on business. If I have a barbershop, and you have a barbershop, and you cut hair for a lower price than I. Am I entitled to hire some big fellow to stop at your door all the customers who go to your barbershop?

Question: Of course not.
Well then, that’s protectionism. That’s the bottom line of protectionism. Getting government with its armies, with its police – to protect some people against the competition in the marketplace.

Question: But what about the people we are protecting – our industrialists against foreigners?
There is no “our” vs “foreigners” in a marketplace. We don’t have “our vs. theirs.” It’s a form of discrimination that should be resented just as much as any sort of ethnic or sexist discrimination is. Any sort of protection should be given to individual rights – and let the rest of it play itself out, as freely combining and interacting human beings will.

Question: It is said that the U.S. develops itself thanks to protectionism.
It may very well be true to some extent. The U.S. has done that – and it was wrong for it to do so. It shouldn’t have advanced its own economic well being by barring others from competition. To the extent that it is done so, it was wrong. That’s true of all countries that practice protectionism. There is no excuse for it – it’s all a pretense; they are all farmers – they are human beings. If they honestly produce, they should be able to honestly trade.

Tibor, thank you very much for this lesson.

Column on Cell Phone Hazards

The Cell Phone Hazard

Tibor R. Machan

For a while now I have been observing all the alarm about the use of cell phones while driving a car, truck, bus, etc. And there is hardly any doubt that doing so is hazardous. In his essay for The New York Times, Monday, December 7, 2009, Matt Richtel chronicles some of this and reports, among other matters, that “Bob Lucky, an executive director at Bell Labs from 1982-92, said he knew that drivers talking on cellphones were not focused fully on the road. But he did not think much about it or discuss it and supposed others did not, either, given the industry’s booming fortunes. “’If you’re an engineer, you don’t want to outlaw the great technology you’ve been working on,’ said Mr. Lucky, now 73. ‘If you’re a marketing person, you don’t want to outlaw the thing you’ve been trying to sell. If you’re a C.E.O., you don’t want to outlaw the thing that’s been making a lot of money’.” Mr. Richtel goes back even further and reports how worries about the safety of using cell phones while driving goes back to the 1960s!

Mr. Lucky’s line of reasoning is, of course, the favorite one to produce about those who defend some private industry–what they do is mainly to recklessly promote their own economic interests, never mind safety, never mind the interest of customers, never mind good sense–just pursue profit and be done with it.

But this is a caricature, born of cynical theory not of real life. While of course most people first think of how something will help them with their own projects and the pursuit of their own goals, there is nothing in this that shows their indifference to and neglect of other concerns, some of them indeed having to do with how other people are affected.

In the ongoing concern with the use of hand-held and hands free cell phone use while driving a car, the focus seems to be all on what such use does to one’s driving and the comparison is nearly always between such use and no distractions at all. But what about the possibility that cell phone use in cars may not be any more hazardous than, say, changing CDs or cassette tapes, tucking in the baby in the back, checking the map, looking for something in the glove compartment, or having a heated discussion with one’s passenger, while driving one’s vehicle. Indeed, this is probably true but not easily tested and confirmed (or dis-confirmed).

Imposing restrictions on drivers concerning these other possible distractions would, no doubt, be somewhat problematic since all those are mainly personal distractions and no big industry can be held complicit. Deep pockets are missing there, too. Instead these other distractions seem quite normal, just part of life on the road and have been with us since automobile and similar vehicle use itself has been.

Not that I have had the chance to make a thorough comparison except in my own case where I have found that using a cell is, yes, hazardous but then so is checking out one’s driving directions, looking for a house number (especially at night), examining a map, going through a personal address or phone book, etc., etc., and so forth. All such activities, while driving, require attention and concentrating on driving at the same time can be challenging; since doing so is not on everyone’s agenda as a general rule, why expect something different from people when they have the option to use their cell phones while they are driving?

Forgive me my suspicious nature, but am I seeing here, once again, the eagerness of some political and bureaucratic types to rush in an micromanage us all? Given how silent they appear to be about how cell phone use in cars compares with all those other, more customary distractions, I think my suspicion isn’t ill founded. A word to the wise should suffice–it may not be about safety as much as it is about control, about the age old government habit.