Posts tagged integrity

Column on An Extremist, and Proud of it

An Extremist and Proud of it

Tibor R. Machan

Yes, I am that for sure, an extremist. I am totally against taxes, consider them extortion. I think all government regulations are vile, cases of prior restraint and thus unjust. I think a government has only the function assigned to it in the Declaration of Independence, namely, to protect our rights.

I knew I was an extremist from the time Barry Goldwater announced that “Extremism in defense of liberty is no vice, moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue.” That’s because an extremist is just someone who holds a set of positions that is internally consistent, uncompromising, and demands full integrity.

Of course, once you enter the political fray, it is pointless to be all these things except in how you identify and hold your political position. In the political philosophy one is convinced is sound, everyone ought to be an extremist, even a politician, but in one’s strategies for realizing one’s principles in public policy it is quite all right to be practical, pragmatic, or prudent. This extremism is a matter of holding certain views, not in throwing bombs or murdering one’s adversaries.

Politics takes place among thousands and thousands of people and many of them have agendas very different from one’s own. To make any headway at all in the direction of the policies that would help realize one’s political philosophy, at least to some degree, one cannot simply hold out for the vote that will agree with that philosophy. Here is where compromise is required but never in watering down one’s ideals.

It is mostly those whose views are wishy-washy but who do like to wield power who promote the idea that compromise in how one thinks about issues is necessary, even honorable. But that is false. The world does not conform to a compromised position on anything–it is a consistent system of facts disallowing any inconsistencies or contradictions as possibly true. But the sociology of politics does make compromises useful, provided one never forgets the goals that are being served by it. In and of themselves compromises are worthless–they are in fact evidence of incoherence. But as means to get closer to one’s objectives when inescapably working with a lot of folks who hold drastically different views they have merit.

Extremists are folks who stick to their guns as a matter of principle and integrity but they aren’t prevented by this from making headway through the give and take of politics. A good case in point would appear to be Representative Ron Paul. Dr. No, as he is often called, holds to his principles unwaveringly but he does have the skills of a politician to make progress toward his goals in the midst of colleagues with whom he doesn’t see eye to eye.

Those who defend the idea that a politician must not be principled, must not hold to fundamentally coherent ideas, are hoping that they will make headway with their own ideas while their opponents wobble. Some issues, especially, aren’t about how much or how little should be done but about whether certain objectives are even permissible in a free country. Abolitionists knew about this well and while many were willing to politic about various measures that more or less promoted abolition, they never caved in on the idea that blacks were human and thus had all the same basic rights that human beings have. Maybe this involved taking two steps ahead and one backwards but they knew that all in all there was no warrant for compromising their fundamental position.

Of course there can be a point beyond which no negotiations with opponents is tolerable. One could give away the ball game by going along with certain means so as to attain the necessary goals. At that point one may simply need to withdraw and wait for a more opportune time to press one’s cause.

All of this takes intelligence, discretion, even some special talent and not everyone can do the job well–e.g., some have temperaments that simply don’t suit the machinations of politics. The division of labor applies here as elsewhere. The basic point is that one can be an extremist, a principled advocate of a position, and also be smart and skilled about how to make advances toward its implementation. And those who observe such people need to make sure that they aren’t protesting when such smarts are being displayed and mistake it for having compromised political-economic principles.

Column on Risk & Liberty

Risks and Liberty

Tibor R. Machan

The New York Times editorialized in panic, predictably, in the wake of the U. S. Supreme Court ruling striking down Chicago’s ban on handgun ownership. Lamenting the Court’s highly abstract debate about the constitutional clause that needed to be considered, The Times alleged that Monday’s ruling will “undermin[e] Chicago’s [sensible] law” and lead to “results [that] will be all too real and bloody.”

The Times’ central complaint amounted to the claim that the freedom to own handguns is entirely too risky. It threw out some completely discredited statistics that suggest a link between the striking down of such bans and the fostering gun violence. (This allegation is discredited in part by the failure to compare it with the beneficial results of handgun ownership, a result that has by now been demonstrated and published, for example in John Lott’s More Guns, Less Crime: Understanding Crime and Gun-Control Laws [Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998].)

But what is of greater interest is just how ignorant–or is it duplicitous–The Times’ editors appear to be about the connection between liberty and risky conduct. And this is all the more annoying because of course the very liberty so cherished by The Times, the right to the freedom of the press, is one of the most risky liberties in a free society. Need it be chronicled here how the freedom to speak out and write whatever one wants can produce enormous risks. The Times commonly defends the freedom of the press by fully acknowledging this risk, as in the case of Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentegon Papers some many moons ago, while insisting that the risks posed by this freedom simply must be accepted–it’s indeed one of the costs of a free society.

Handgun ownership is, of course, risky, but then so is the disarming of the citizenry. And let us remember that the most risky feature of a society is when government is the only institution that is legally entitled to wield guns while the citizenry is forbidden to do so. Not only is this a blatant case of the unequal application of the law–somehow government people aren’t supposed to pose risks while peaceful citizens are–but it is oblivious to all the studies that show how leaving free citizens armed tends to put criminals are guard, even discourages them from using their own guns.

But even if it were true that gun ownership is more risky, over all, than is the banning of guns, it is a gross non sequitur to claim that this then proves that the right to own guns must be legally invalidated. Just does not follow.

Free men and women are naturally risky types! Freedom is characterized by making it possible for people to make choices, even bad ones, just as in the case of the liberty of the press. Journalists, editorial writers, reporters and the lot who are free to do as they choose can and will do what is risky, and at times what is indeed outright malpractice. Freedom is a precondition of both good and bad human conduct. And so long as such conduct isn’t violent–and the carrying of handguns plainly isn’t, only their aggressive use is–it is the right of adult human beings to have and even use guns.

But The New York Times’ editorial team has no principled commitment to human liberty. It is concerned only with its own protected privileges while government forbids other citizens to be free. Perhaps The Times prints whatever is fit to be printed but has no concern with integrity, namely, keeping loyal to values it promulgates whenever it is convenient for its own agenda.

Of course, in this as in many other matters The Times is in sync with the Zeitgeist. Who in mainstream politics and law steps up vigorously in support of human liberty? Nearly everything favored by the current administration and its cohorts in Congress wreaks of worries about risk, safety, precaution and the like and hardly anyone cares about liberty. Security si, liberty no!

But as it’s been noted by such champions of freedom as Benjamin Franklin, those who would give up liberty so as to obtain security risk both and probably deserve neither.

Column on No Excuse for Coercion

No Excuse for Coercion

Tibor R. Machan

I am always baffled and now and then really angered when people defend using coercion against other people. (Some will say I must be biased since I come from several early years of tyranny and since one of my parents was an out and out brute. How could I be objective then, about the merits of coercive force?)

For my money coercive force is not only when someone threatens to beat up or kill another unless that other does as told. I start much earlier, when someone presumes to have the authority to entice or nudge his or her fellow human beings to do as told (hoped for)! I don’t see that the importance of the project that’s to be served by such coercive force has anything to do with it–people aren’t supposed to be other people’s tools, unwilling devices for the sake of achieving even the most magnificent objectives. Certainly no one is made a morally better individual by way of being beaten or threatened to be beaten into being such, to do what is morally right. How could they, since moral goodness, if it amounts to anything intelligible at all, must involve the agent’s free choice. Without the chance to choose to do the right or wrong thing any kind of worthwhile conduct amounts at most to good behavior, like what we want from dogs or horses.

But never mind the complications–nearly everything in human life can be made to appear utterly complicated, so that people can be intimidated into thinking they have no way to tell right from wrong about it. Sophistry is a very potent motivation for withdrawing from the moral game, as some philosophers would put it. Make it all appear to be incomprehensible to us, a matter of the facts and laws of highly specialized science, at best, or beyond the pale altogether and only to be intuited by leaders. As the late Harvard psychologist B. F. Skinner proposed, only technologists of human behavior can be entrusted with the authority to make us all do what is desirable to do. Since, of course, there are umpteen schools of psychologists who are candidates for this role, using force to decide in the end who shall be our technologists is immediately unavoidable. So power will decide!

What really gets to me is how casually these advocates of nudging, manipulating, incentivizing, and so forth think past the idea that they are proposing using force on other people, not all of whom will protest but many others who would not comply other than from fear for their lives and liberties and that of their loved ones. How they can just get past the policies for how to treat people that their ideas imply? They have to do some serious evading, since one cannot easily imagine that they would advocate such coercive policies concerning themselves or those they respect and love. And would they happily embrace the idea of, say, rape, pedophilia, kidnapping, assault, torture, etc., since all these are but variations of coercive conduct toward other people in support of some kind of desired objective? How can their defense of coercive policies against other human beings–be they filthy rich, unfairly tall, racists, and anyone who does anything morally wrong that doesn’t qualify as violating anyone’s right to life and liberty–be sustained when they must know that when human beings are involved, what is due them is civilized persuasion, not coercion. So integrity, clearly, is not a strong virtue for such folks. Yes, I think some serious evasion is afoot here, people really failing to live up to principles that aren’t mysterious but plainly enough the foundation of civilized human interaction. To be civilized is to deploy not coercive force in how one acts toward others but rational persuasion, often indeed patient and prolonged rational persuasion.

Some will say, “Well all this preference of coercion is simply the natural hunger for power in human nature,” but that surely can’t be right since millions have no such hunger at all, quite the contrary. What millions and millions have yearned for and are yearning for is peaceful, civilized interaction with others but with a fraction–albeit influential faction–choosing the shortcut of coercive force.

Yes, there are cases that make it difficult to tell the difference between such untoward, barbaric ways of acting and the civilized ways but that is one reason we have minds, namely, to work on figuring out the distinction and to act and shape policies and institutions accordingly. It is no excuse for continuing with coercion against one’s fellows that now and then coercion isn’t easy to differentiate from peaceful interaction and that perhaps once in a billion it seems justified. Most human endeavors pose such difficulties, borderline cases as philosophers have dubbed them, yet they manage with building skyscrapers, massive dams, MRI and Cat Scan devices–you name them and people have handled them all despite the occasional difficulties and even quandaries.

So, no, there is no excuse for coercive treatment of one’s fellows, not in 99.99% of the cases where such treatment is deployed. Let no sophistry distract anyone from that.