Posts tagged John Locke

Column on Warren’s Non-Sequitor

Warren’s Non-Sequitor

Tibor R. Machan

So Elizabeth Warren, Massachusetts candidate for the US Senate, says “there is nobody in this country who got rich on his own. Nobody.” And so she is said to reject that it is possible for Americans to become wealthy “in isolation.” (As if someone defended that silly idea!)

So she sounds off about this, with evident righteousness, as follows: “You built a factory out there? Good for you,… But I want to be clear: you moved your goods to market on the roads the rest of us paid for; you hired workers the rest of us paid to educate; you were safe in your factory because of police forces and fire forces that the rest of us paid for. You didn’t have to worry that marauding bands would come and seize everything at your factory, and hire someone to protect against this, because of the work the rest of us did.” And she goes on to declare, “Now look, you built a factory and it turned into something terrific, or a great idea? God bless. Keep a big hunk of it. But part of the underlying social contract is you take a hunk of that and pay forward for the next kid who comes along.”

First of all, nothing at all follows from any of this about how Ms. Warrant has any authority at all to rearrange the world her way. My nose and ears and kidneys and eyes weren’t created on my own but none of that implies for a second that Elizabeth Warren is entitled to start invading my body and decide how its parts ought to be used. Nor even that my parents actually own me!

Of course, property rights start simple enough and then become complex. But that is just why a free country has a law of property instead of Ms. Warren as a tyrant who orders us all to do as she wishes.

It is necessary to be careful about how property is properly allocated, with close attention to original and subsequent creation, with what has been voluntarily shared, given away, earned through work and exchange, etc. Why?

Well, from the time of Aristotle it has been clear to quite a few political theorists and economists that common ownership sucks. As the ancient Greek sage put the point:

“That all persons call the same thing mine in the sense in which each does so may be a fine thing, but it is impracticable; or if the words are taken in the other sense, such a unity in no way conduces to harmony. And there is another objection to the proposal. For that which is common to the greatest number has the least care bestowed upon it. Every one thinks chiefly of his own, hardly at all of the common interest; and only when he is himself concerned as an individual. For besides other considerations, everybody is more inclined to neglect the duty which he expects another to fulfill; as in families many attendants are often less useful than a few.” (Politics, 1262a30-37).

Then there was Thucydides on the commons, noting that “[T]hey devote a very small fraction of the time to the consideration of any public object, most of it to the prosecution of their own objects. Meanwhile, each fancies that no harm will come to his neglect, that it is the business of somebody else to look after this or that for him; and so, by the same notion being entertained by all separately, the common cause imperceptibly decays.” (Thucydides, The History of the Peloponnesian War, bk. I, sec. 141).

So John Locke came along who didn’t even deny that to start with property is commonly owned but that it is best to create a system of private property so that property will be taken good care off and because those who work hard to improve it are justified in benefiting from it and make use of it as they see fit.

So not only is Ms. Warren way off with her idea that the state gets to decide what happens to property and that there is some kind of unwritten–i.e., not consented to–social contract that obligates us all to give to the state. But it is a wasteful and bad idea, as the Soviets and other socialists who disallow private property in their realm, have found out to everyone’s despair.

But of course it is not going to be easy to get agreement to statist redistribution policies if all this is admitted. So Warren needs to attempt the impossible and show that she, not you and I, get to say what happens to what we own because how we obtained it involved other people! Again, it doesn’t follow!

Column on Statism v. Labor and Persons

Statism vs. Labor & Persons

Tibor R. Machan

Under hard line statism, such as centrally planned socialism and absolute monarchy, everyone belongs to society–there are no individuals, no privacy, no private property, etc. Thus, for instance, in Marxism all vital property is collectively owned and administered by the state/government. Since the most vital of all property is human productive labor, everyone’s productive labor belongs to the society and must be administered by the state/government. (The late Robert Heilbroner, the author of The Worldly Philosophers, a book that for many decades was required reading for many incoming college freshmen, is one Western Marxist who acknowledged this in his book Marxism: For and Against.) It follows from it that those who tried to escape from Easter Germany were officially taken to be stealing the state’s property, taking it to the West, and this had to be opposed and prevented. Shooting those who tried to scale the Berlin Wall amounted to shooting thieves!

Given Marx’s labor theory of value, it follows that a socialist system involves public ownership of human labor. And that pretty much implies the public ownership of human beings.

Yet it isn’t only Marxists who are philosophically committed to the idea that people belong to society. Charles Taylor, the Canadian communitarian philosopher from McGill University holds that people belong to their communities. Just what counts as one’s community is difficult to be sure about–in one sense everyone belongs to innumerable communities, such as families, neighborhoods, professions, political parties, drivers of Volkswagens, joggers, twenty-somethings and on and on. None of these have a claim on any human beings beyond being associated with many, many others who share in a common purpose or in some common activities. All are associations that are voluntarily entered into or continued and are easily ended.

The kind of belonging Taylor and others have in mind is more forceful, coercive, the sort one cannot unilaterally end. Like being from a certain country or being a member of an age group or, again, having a given ethnicity. These communities are part of what some would call one’s identity and by the communitarian account have a claim on one’s life, labor, resources and such. One might even say that one belongs in such cases as one might belong to a proprietor. It calls to mind slavery or at least serfdom. It comes, as communitarians such as Harvard University’s famous Professor Michael J. Sandel (the host of the program Justice on PBS TV and author of a book by that title) holds, with unchosen obligations, duties that government may enforce, like doing military service to the country or paying taxes.

It is this element of communitarianism that qualifies it as mainly a statist political position and indeed there are some conservative champions of the doctrine as well. Even the avowed individualist conservative, the late William F. Buckley, Jr., advocated national service for teens! In either case it is, pace Buckley, the source of hostility toward individualism, be that the mild one according to which everyone has the basic right to choose on his or her own initiative what kind of life he or she will live, or the more radical type which holds that we are all self-sufficient, independent persons. The extreme version of the communitarian idea is th that we all belong to society or humanity or humankind. And here the “belong” is meant in the proprietary sense.

The most forceful statement of this collectivist view was put forth by Auguste Comte, the French “father of sociology” in the following passage:

“Everything we have belongs then to Humanity…Positivism never admits anything but duties, of all to all. For its social point of view cannot tolerate the notion of right, constantly based on individualism. We are born loaded with obligations of every kind, to our predecessors, to our successors, to our contemporaries. Later they only grow or accumulate before we can return any service. On what human foundation then could rest the idea of right, which in reason should imply some previous efficiency? Whatever may be our efforts, the longest life well employed will never enable us to pay back but an imperceptible part of what we have received. And yet it would only be after a complete return that we should be justly authorized to require reciprocity for the new services. All human rights then are as absurd as they are immoral. This ["to live for others"], the definitive formula of human morality, gives a direct sanction exclusively to our instincts of benevolence, the common source of happiness and duty. [Man must serve] Humanity, whose we are entirely.” Auguste Comte, The Catechism of Positive Religion (Clifton, NJ: Augustus M. Kelley Publ., 1973), pp. 212-30. (It was Comte who coined the term “altruism”!)

What was unique in the American political tradition, which drew on John Locke instead of the likes of Comte, is the rejection of this reactionary idea! That is what made America exceptional, albeit, sadly, incompletely so.

Column on Society’s Rules Don’t Create Wealth

Society’s Rules Don’t Create Wealth

Tibor R. Machan

In olden days people were forced to labor for the king and his minions in return for being allowed to live within the realm. This kind of extortion finally got tossed over and people’s basic right to their lives became acknowledged–in the political philosophy of John Locke and the Declaration of Independence, for example. You don’t belong to society, to other people. Your life is yours to live as you choose, although, admittedly, you could live it bad or well but not in terms set by others who claim a portion of it.

But this realization that each individual has the right to his or her life got a bit arrested when later thinkers, like Auguste Comte and Karl Marx, argued that your property does belong to everyone else, not you. (In the case of Marx this didn’t quite fit his labor theory of value, but skip that for now.) Among some of today’s most prominently placed intellectuals, such as Professors Cass Sunstein of the Harvard Law School and Thomas Nagel of New York University, private property rights are taken to be nothing but a myth. (As one of Nagel’s co-authored book, The Myth of Ownership, announces, wealth is a collective phenomenon, never mind that some produce hardly any while others make gobs of it!)

Since one’s life is intimately dependent upon property–no way to live without some stuff, to be plain about it–if all property is owned by the public at large, collectively, that pretty much means one’s life is too. So the liberation from serfdom, one of the greatest achievements of classical liberal thinking, is to be undermined, reversed, by the idea that it is after all society that owns our resources, not we individually or corporately (in each others voluntary company). Taxes, then, amount not to a coercive taking but a rightful claim by the government that’s standing in for society as a whole (or so statists love to pretend). Taking private property for public use need not be very carefully justified as the fifth amendment to the U. S. Constitution insists, no. Such taking is really just government’s way of affirming its ownership of everything while generously leaving bits of it for the people to use.

But this is all nonsense and a ruse, to boot. For there is no society as such apart from the people who comprise it. Like my classes at the colleges where I teach–they do not exists as some kind of separate entity, only as a group of individual students with a common purpose. So then when it is argued that in fact society owns all the resources, the cash value of this is that some people who have laid claim to speaking for the rest of us own it all or at least get to use it as they see fit.

One retort to this is that without society’s rules and laws property could not exist. So society must, after all, own the stuff. But this is like claiming that because without the rules of tennis or football or any other game there could not be points scored or touchdowns run, it really isn’t the players who score the points or achieve the touchdowns but the referees! This is complete bunk. The referees, like governments, have a job, namely, to make sure the rules are observed as the people or players go about their tasks. They aren’t’ the ones who carry out those tasks and may not lay a claim to the results, either.

There have always been those who were insistent on lording it over other people, including their lives and property. In ancient times they rationalized this by reference to some alleged special status among us–natural aristocracy, superior race or class, God’s assignments, etc. But then it was discovered and finally driven home in many places that no one has any claim to lording over others, not without their consent (as when members of an orchestra consent to the conductor’s role). But this doesn’t sit too well with those who wish to rule us all. So they are now inventing different reasons, such as their supposed role of speaking for society, which is used by them justify their rule. Let us not fall for this, please.

Essay on Revisiting Natural Rights

Revisiting Natural Rights

Tibor R. Machan

In response to an essay in which I discuss the difference between Amartya Sen’s and the late Peter Bauer’s recommendation for how countries can achieve economic development, one in which I touch on the topic of natural rights, someone sent the magazine where my essay had appeared the following communication. I believe that it will serve as a good beginning for some further considerations of natural rights.

The author of the letter, Stephen E. Silver (to Free Inquiry Magazine [August-September 2010]), wrote as follows:

I think the simple answer to Tibor Machan’s question (“Sen v. Bauer: On What Do Rights Stand?” Fl, June/July 2010) is that human rights do not stand on anything. These rights, when first promulgated several hundred years ago, were called “natural rights” or the “Rights of Man.” They were believed to be God-given; if there was no God, then there was no basis for these rights.

As deism gradually gave way to outright secularism, so “natural rights” (based on “natural religion”) gave way to “human rights.” But if they did not emanate from God, what was their origin?

Machan would like us to believe that such rights are based on an objective knowledge of human nature. There is, of course no such knowledge. Different cultures have different concepts of human living. There are many societies that, as Captain Cook learned, have little or no concept of private property or in which the personal ownership of land is inconceivable. Even within the same culture, there are many different concepts of human nature—should we accept that of Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau, or Nietzsche?

Additionally, he posits that such rights rest in the human capacity to reason about reality. In fact, as anyone watching Fox News will confirm, the human capacity to reason about reality is extremely limited and cannot be used to establish that we have or deserve to have human rights. This is a complete non sequitor.

In either case, Machan believes that certain rights actually exist. He calls them “pre-legal principles,” but this is simply a euphemism for “natural rights,” i.e., natural rights without God but which are nevertheless inviolable and not open to discussion.

There is absolutely no evidence that such abstract rights or pre-legal principles exist. And certainly, in practice, these so called inalienable rights may be abrogated or withdrawn. If we have a natural right to life, then why is there a death penalty? If there is a right to liberty, why is there incarceration? Our “freedom of speech” is limited by laws against libel, slander, and “hate speech.” Obviously these “inalienable” rights are, in fact, provisional.

Perhaps we should treat others as if they had human rights, and we should ourselves be treated as if we had human rights, but these rights do not really exist. We have made them up for ourselves. We have put them to good use, but we should admit that they are simply a figment of society’s imagination. Indeed, they may represent our best aspirations.

Let me start with the first point Mr. Silver raises, namely, that human rights used to be dubbed natural rights and were as such thought to be God-given. Yet, as the term “natural” clearly suggests, these rights were believed–for example by John Locke–to be based on an understanding of human nature. Human beings may have been regarded by some natural rights theorists as God-created but their basic rights were alleged to be derivable from their nature as free and independent moral agents. That is how John Locke saw it, rightly or wrongly. So what matters here is whether there are human beings as a class of living entities in the world and whether they have attributes that imply that they have certain rights once they find themselves in human communities. Locke and the American Founders held that they do. God had nothing much to do with this part of the theory.

Next, the reason for the switch to human rights from natural ones was not due to any theological considerations either but because the idea of “the nature of X” fell into disrepute at the hands of skeptics, like David Hume, who disputed that things had a firm, stable nature. Yet this is still a very open issue in philosophy, so it is widely argued that human nature exists and that certain rights may be derived from it. Even if widely disputed, it could well be right, which is what really matters.

As to whether there are many different conceptions of human nature throughout history and the globe, that’s irrelevant. There are many different conceptions of justice, fairness, equality, virtue, vice, etc., but that’s due to the simple fact that people don’t see things eye to eye. It does not imply for a moment that no human nature can be identified, only that they dispute about the matter just as they do about most other serious human concerns (even in the natural sciences). In my view, which is by no means idiosyncratic, human nature exists–it consist of those aspects of what human beings are that they share, in virtue of which we are classified as human beings rather than, say, bears or zebras (which also have a nature).

Also, the fact that a principle can be violated doesn’t disprove its existence–woman have the right to their sexual liberty yet rapists violate this principles all the time. Moral and political principles are of that sort.

Another point on which the letter’s author is mistaken is the defining capacity of human beings to reason. They are rational animals, as most thinkers have found since ancient times. This means they have the capacity to be rational, to reason carefully about the world. It does not mean that they do so all the time–on Fox TV or MS NBC, for that matter–or that all of them choose to do so.

The idea of natural rights is pretty well grounded–I wrote about this in my Individuals and Their Rights (1989)–and the existence of disagreement does not undermine it. There are thousands of racists who disagree about the moral equality of blacks and whites and they are entirely irrelevant when it comes to the truth of the issue.

As a side issue, this author’s case against natural rights, is exactly the same as that presented by the philosopher Kai Nielsen in his paper from 1965, “Skepticism and Human Rights,” in The Monist. The debate goes on but that doesn’t mean there is no truth about the matter. Today it is the president’s favorite attorney, Cass Sunstein, who voices the skepticism about natural rights, to morrow it will be someone else. That’s why eternal vigilance is needed.

Equality’s Irrelevance

Equality is Irrelevant

Tibor R. Machan

Equality is a deceptive political concept. In the hands of the American Founders it had great merit since it was based on those aspects of human nature that everyone not crucially impeded does in fact share, namely, everyone’s basic rights.You and I and all the billions of people in the world and throughout human history are and have, of course, been quite different from one another while we also possess our basic rights to life, liberty and property.

In certain respects the difference among people stems from the plain fact that human individuals are at a certain level utterly unique, irreplaceable. This is why no substitution can be made for a deceased friend, a spouse, a member of one’s family. Once you grow close to someone and know him or her intimately, there is just no one like that person. Which is one reason the deceased are mourned so much–they will be missed because no substitution for them is possible.

Human beings are in some limited respects the same but in most respects different. And this is further complicated by the fact that some of their differences as well as some of their similarities are innate, just a matter of what they were born to be, so to speak, or accidental, due to circumstances over which they have no control at all; other differences and similarities are the result of their choices, be these good or bad ones, by they trivial or morally significant.

So both equality and uniqueness are part of normal human life. The results of this can be extremely wide-ranging and the last thing that would be sensible to expect is that some pattern of equality, be it economic, social, religious, ethical, medical or anything of this sort can be implemented or should be attempted. The Procrustean temptation is an incredibly hazardous one. Its sources are many, some benign and some mendacious but all to be guarded against.

For example, often people find a way to carry on in their lives, including how they drive, bring up kids, cook dinner, arrange the furniture, choose a career, invest in the market, etc., and so forth, and this often suggests to them that others need to follow suit. Wouldn’t the world be just swell if everyone followed one’s example, seeing how it has been so fruitful for oneself? But, of course, different folks, different strokes, more often than not. Different people will enjoy different sports, entertainment, tourist attractions, cuisine and all. And even more importantly, they will actually be better off pursuing different objectives, ones that really suit them well but not their fellows, certainly not most of the time. Indeed, this is well borne out by the fact that when people recommend things, they can usually do a creditable job only when they do so to someone they know very well, at least within the sphere of the recommendation. “You just have to see this movie or go to this store or eat at this restaurant or take your vacation here, etc., etc.,” said to a total stranger tends to be quite risky, even reckless.

On the continuum from what is universal, applicable to us all as human beings, to what is only right for a given individual human being, there is a vast array of options suited all the way from what suits millions to what only some here and there and, finally, to just a solitary single one individual. This is what the American Founders, guided by their study of political history and thought, especially the ideas of John Locke, suggested, which is why their claim that we are all created equal had to do with “equal with respect to having certain basic rights” and not with equal opportunities, equal conditions, equal consequences and the like. Equality under the law, of course, is what their idea clearly implies but not other kinds of equality promoted to much these days.

Yes, Virginia, there are those very influential, even powerful ones, who want us all to be engineered into one type, all to be serviced by the same public policies (“options” is a really insulting term since they are not optional for citizens to, say, pay for!). Yet, what a just society is characterized by is that its principles are suited to an incredible variety of citizens, all carrying on as they choose, provided they do this in peace, without invading others or their realms. Egalitarians would toss all this out to institute their one-size-fits-all policies, except of course for one element, namely, that they alone should run the show, no one else. Sharing power isn’t on their agenda, especially sharing it with everyone by letting everyone enjoy sovereignty.

Finally, in answer to the claim that equality is necessary to stop envy, I wish to quote Nobel Laureate Edmund S. Phelps:

“The idea that ordinary people are anguished by the thought that other people have extraordinary wealth is also cultivated in fashionable circles without the presentation of any evidence. Most people are practical enough to see that when, say, they have to go to the hospital for tests, what matters is whether the right kind of diagnostic machine is there for them, not whether there is a better machine for others somewhere else.”