Posts tagged Jr.

Column on MLK’s Public Philosophy of Freedom

MLK’s Public Philosophy of Freedom

Tibor R. Machan

As I flew home across the country from NYC on January 16th, the holiday this year in honor of the birthday of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., I had the opportunity to watch several programs on television devoted to his legacy. I was especially struck by the fact that commentators — for example Amy Goodman, the host and executive producer of Democracy Now!,” a national, daily, independent, award-winning news program” — keep imputing to him a welfare statism that seems not to have been part of his thinking. (I have no idea what Democracy Now! is independent of since all the programs on it evidence a distinct perspective, no less so that those on Fox TV.)

During the flight I managed, also, to listen again to the entire speech Dr. King gave in Alabama, on the day before he was assassinated, and what it was mostly about is freedom, not at all about welfare statism.

There are, admittedly, several senses of the term “freedom” in use. In particular there is negative and positive freedom. The former is strongly associated with the American political tradition — spelled out, for example, in the Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights — the latter with the ideas of FDR’s New Deal. The first means being free from the intrusions of other people, including government, however well intentioned; the second means being provided with support by others, including the government through its power of taking what belongs to one so as to hand to another. So one is free to do what one chooses to do if one is free in the first sense, while one is free from having to cover one’s various expenses in the second sense.

The free society as understood by classical liberals stresses the protection of the freedom of the citizenry with a suitably framed legal system, while the society fashioned by modern liberals stresses government’s providing to people what they are said to need by way of confiscatory taxation for this purpose.

It seems to me that Dr. King was talking about the former kind of freedom, freedom from the oppressive acts of most whites toward most blacks, for example. Many of those who today wish to invoke his stature and ideas for their political purposes, however, are talking about the second kind of “freedom or liberty.” That is the freedom, so called, that the welfare state is supposed to protect for people, at the expense of those whose resources are confiscated so as to achieve this goal. Yet there are many who insist that Dr. King had in mind the second type of freedom — or perhaps that he believed in both. As one commentator put it, “On that day, Dr. King spoke of two types of freedom — one from ‘the chains of discrimination’ and one from living on ‘a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity.’ Somehow his first message has been taken to heart while his second has been forgotten.” (This is what John Fullerton, founder of Capital Institute, declared in his recent essay on Huff Post.)

The problem with attributing to MLK this two-pronged idea of freedom is that if it is correct, it makes his ideas incoherent. The first type of freedom just cannot co-exists with the second. If A can be coerced to provide support for those who are “living in a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of materials prosperity,” then A would have his right to freedom violated. If anytime that someone achieves material prosperity that individual becomes a target of the adjusters who would not accept his or her freedom to make use of it, then such an individual is not free in the first sense. To steal from Peter so as to provide for Paul does not support freedom but servitude.

It is much more sensible to attribute to Dr. King the more coherent view that if the freedom of individuals to do as they choose is properly respected and protected, they will be enjoying the first kind of freedom — freedom from others’ intrusions — and become capable of achieving freedom from poverty. Free men and women have generally been quite able to provide for themselves, perhaps with occasional voluntary help from their friends and neighbors. That is one of the lessons of history! It is entirely inappropriate to suggest that one person’s poverty authorizes others to take from those who have managed to achieve prosperity. I doubt that Martin Luther King Jr. didn’t grasp something so elementary — it is an insult to his memory to believe that.

Instead what seems to be happening is that people who are aspiring to rule others are invoking his good name for their coercive purposes. It would be a shame if this were tolerated by all those who admire Dr. King for his championing of human liberty.

Column on Revisiting Obama’s Pragmatism

Revisiting Obama’s Selective Pragmatism

Tibor R. Machan

Some may remember that during the debate about federal government bailouts and stimuli the Obama regime made it very clear that no ideology will be allowed to sway the administration and that what is important is that the government stick to a pragmatic policy, meaning a policy of expediency, one concerned with what works not with what conforms to principles, such as the right to private property or limited governmental powers. As he is quoted to have said, “What the cynics fail to understand is that the ground has shifted beneath them,” Mr. Obama told Americans with what he regards as old-fashioned ideological beliefs, “that the stale political arguments that have consumed us for so long no longer apply. The question we ask today is not whether our government is too big or too small, but whether it works….” That is indeed the calling card of the pragmatist–do whatever works! (In a recent movie by Woody Allen. Whatever Works, the protagonist follows this advice but it isn’t clear how well he comes off doing so!)

Ironically, pragmatism, the quintessentially unprincipled philosophical movement, was born in America, the one country in human history and around the globe most explicitly tied to certain basic principles of community life–e.g., the existence of unalienable, natural human rights, a tradition now widely mimicked (more or less, around the world, not least by many members of the United Nations). Such American thinkers as William James, C. I. Lewis, John Dewey, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., Willard Van Orman Quine, Richard Rorty and, right near the current White House, Harvard Law Professor Cass Sunstein, all professed to be pragmatists. Although their specific positions are not identical, what they share most of all is that they reject the idea of foundations to human thought and action. Anti-foundationalism is a prominent stance they all share, meaning that what people think and do cannot be given some kind of basic grounding in reality or thought or God or anything. Whatever works is all that can be produced in support of what one thinks, does, supports as law and public policy. No principled support for–or opposition to–what we think and do is possible to find, so we need to abandon the myth of foundationalism! Let’s just settle for what pans out in practice.

As many critics of this position have pointed out, it is a non-starter; it cannot be practiced at all since what works is always related to some objective or goal that one aims to achieve and if there are no principles on which to rest such goals, they remain simply a wish list of powerful, influential people, quite arbitrary in the last analysis; most importantly, pragmatism is the foe of a society that aims to establish and maintain justice among its citizens since principles of justice are plainly unknowable so far as pragmatism goes. It is also blatantly offensive–no basic reason can be given for opposition to torture or rape or murder? Give me a break!

In the recent dispute over the building of a Muslim mosque near Ground Zero in New York City, however, President Obama elected to try to take a principled, totally anti-pragmatic, stand when he said that everyone has a right to practice his or her religion, never mind whether it is done wisely or not. As the president said, the right to religious liberty “includes the right to build a place of worship and a community centre on private property in lower Manhattan, in accordance with local laws and ordinances.” He went on to say, “This is America, and our commitment to religious freedom must be unshakable.”

So, suddenly Mr. Obama is one of those old fashioned principled Americans, right? Forgive me if I am skeptical. Pragmatists do not change their colors so easily. Once a pragmatist, pretty much always a pragmatist, so that whether in matters of economic policy, torture, or the right to religious liberty no pragmatist would cite an alleged basic principle in support of what he or she supports. No, what would matter is whether the policy being promoted works.

Accordingly, Mr. Obama must believe that insisting on the rights of Muslims to build a mosque near Ground Zero in New York City and not commenting on the wisdom or propriety of their doing so is indeed what works! But what does it work for?

Well, that is the 64 thousand dollar question. My suggestion is that it works to keep Mr. Obama’s image reasonably respectable by way of its ultimate obscurity. Nothing like rolling out one’s credentials as a sophist, an obfuscator of ideas, so as to make one seem erudite and cool.

Column on Democracy versus Liberty

Democracy versus Liberty

Tibor R. Machan

Professor Benjamin Barber, author of the book Strong Democracy (1984), was recently a guest on John Stossel’s FOX Business News Network program honoring the memory and ideas of Milton Friedman who wrote the world famous book Free to Choose (1980) and has been for all his life a dedicated defender of the free market capitalist system of political economy.

Barber was critical of Friedman’s ideas, claiming that instead of the alternatives of socialism and capitalism, what is really the best system is a democracy. By this he meant, as he explained, a society in which decisions concerning economic and most other matters of widespread interest are made by way of the ballot box and not privately, by managers of firms and, especially, big corporations.

The same program had as a guest David Boaz of the Cato Institute who defended Friedman’s views and added a nuance. He pointed out that no actual systems of pure socialism or pure capitalism exist, so we do best by judging which of these is better by examining societies that have come reasonably close to the pure versions thought up by political theorists. For example, although the Soviet Union, North Korea, Cuba, and Venezuela are not pure socialist systems, they come close enough to serve as laboratories of that kind of political economy, just as the U.S., Hong Kong, and the former West Germany come close enough to free market capitalism to serve the same function when we study, evaluate, and compare political economies. As Boaz pointed out, in matters of human affairs controlled experiments are impossible so we need to rely on historical examples, even if they are somewhat messy.

The thing about democracy is that it offers something that is relatively new in human political affairs, namely, popular participation in political decision making. And this is such a welcome thing that sometimes it obscures that democracy also has serious liabilities. These can be appreciated by considering that in democracies the majority can pretty much subject the minority to intolerable treatment. Sometimes, in fact, majorities are more ruthless than, say, a given monarch–Austro-Hungarian “Emperor” Franz Joseph is a good case in point.

Majorities often ignore due process, the requirement of justice in how minorities are dealt with. It all depends on what is the scope of politics in a society. If it is fairly limited, then majorities can be restricted to making decisions only about certain topics, like who should be the justice of the peace or how large should be the military’s budget. (Even here the democratic method allows for using experts who understand special problems better than does the general population.) A bloated democracy–what some dub an illiberal as opposed to liberal democracy–can be quite tyrannical. And Professor Barber’s so called strong democracy runs exactly that risk, that the majority in a society will simply run roughshod over the minority or various relatively small groups, not to mention the individual, the smallest minority.

The contrast that Professor Barber emphasized on Stossel’s program was between a society in which big corporations versus one in which the majority make significant decisions. And if these were the only alternative facing us, democracy would be preferable most of the time. But big corporations can be restrained by way of holding them fully accountable for what they contract to do and how they handle their property and whether they encroach of the rights of the citizenry.

Take, for example, British Petroleum. Sure it has probably bungled its oil drilling operation in the Gulf of Mexico but this is partly because where it is doing the drilling is actually public property and BP’s responsibility is determined not by the scope of its property rights but by government regulators, by what the government permits it to do (which usually is influenced by democratic politics).

If the government stayed out of economic affairs the way it stays out of religion or journalism, there would be no great problem with corporate power, no more than there is with university power or the power of any other united group of interested citizens. Sheer numbers in the face of principled courts is impotent. That power is only destructive when enhanced by government officials who are willing to cave into pressure, like referees who might take bribes from competitors.

Huge corporations aren’t bad things–indeed, they make all kinds of valuable undertakings possible. What is bad is when huge corporations get into bed with government, which gives them special advantages, like all those bailouts they received from Washington which was in the hands of Democrats–”the will of the people,” remember–at the time!

Huge companies are still just a bunch of people and when the rule of law is firmly adhered to, it makes no difference how huge they are. But without emphasizing the role of individual rights in our political and legal system, democracy can run amuck and follow lynch mob habits.

Professor Barber’s strong democracy can produce California’s Proposition 8–anti-liberty for gay couples–type of politics (which, of course, many liberal democrats do not like despite how it expresses the will of the people there). Instead of strong what is needed is liberal democracy, the kind held in check by the rule of law and individual rights.

Column on Do We Need More Guilt?

Do We Need More Guilt?

Tibor R. Machan

It is a running joke, of course, concerning Jewish mothers that they relentlessly try to instill guilt in their children along lines of, “You owe me since I brought you up.” Never mind now that bringing up children is something parents usually sign up for freely and it is a fair assumption that they do so for reasons of their own. There is no gratitude required when they carry out what they themselves decided to do, only if they did it exceptionally well, super-conscientiously. (My own children owe me no more than ordinary respect and some thanks for extras. The rest was all my idea!)

In times like these, when a good many of those in some parts of the globe are hit with massive catastrophes, most decent people not experiencing plight ponder just what they might be able to do to help out. Sending some supplies or money is the usual, normal and sensible answer.

Yet there are those among us who jump at the chance to indict all who are doing reasonably well in these times of confusion and uncertainty, by claiming that we owe everything to those in dire straits; that any joy we experience during these days must be denied a place in one’s life since it would be an insult and affront to those who suffer and who have perished.

I was reflecting on this not just in my usual role as a student of ethics or morality but also as an ordinary person, as I am sure quite a few of us have been doing. I had been on my morning constitutional, walking past some homes in my neighborhood, and I heard laughter coming from some porches or kitchens and thought that this is a welcome sign that the world isn’t quite going to hell in a hand basket, that people go on about with their lives even when some others are having a really bad time of it. And that is, I figure, just as it should be, except for some outreach with effective assistance by those who can handle it.

But I can tell you, from having read the writings of some very influential people, including academics, that that is not what some people in prestigious places would want from us all. Martin Luther King Jr. wrote, for example, that “An individual has not started living until he can rise above the narrow confines of his individualistic concerns to the broader concerns of all humanity.” And academic philosopher Peter Unger wrote–in his provocatively titled book, Living High and Letting Die: Our Illusions of Innocence (Oxford University Press, 1996)–that “On pain of living a life that’s seriously immoral, a typical well-off person, like you and me, must give away most of her financially valuable assets, and much of her income, directing the funds to lessen efficiently the serious suffering of others.” If one takes these proclamations seriously, one will never have any peace at all and defeat the very thing in one’s own life that one is being urged to help support in the lives of others people, namely, personal well being and happiness.

The other side of the coin, however, isn’t to stick one’s head in the sand and pay no attention at all to how others, even total strangers, are faring. In clear emergencies, such as what happened during the Southeast Asia tsunami a few winters ago and what is happening right now in Haiti, decent human beings will take some of their time or resources and chip in not because they may not be happy without doing so but because no such individual ignores the plight of other people who are facing sudden drastic circumstances.

It would be absurd to begrudge those who are living reasonably satisfactory lives what they have in light of the fact that there are others who aren’t so well off. After all, what is one lamenting but the very fact that these others are lacking in what some of us do have (whether deservedly or fortunately)? The idea that just because there are other persons who are disabled or lacking in what they would want, no one may take pleasure in what he or she does have, may have a noble ring to it but it is complete folly. It is contrary to the very point of feeling sorry for those who are in a bad way. It suggests, implicitly, that the best state of affairs would be for everyone to be badly off, for us all to suffer. Sheer nonsense!

Clearly a proper concern for the bad lot of one’s fellow human beings does not entail by any stretch of the imagination the adoption of an ascetic life of one’s own. Showing care for the mishaps of others cannot even be effective if one proceeds to join them in their misery!