Posts tagged Peter Unger

Column on Politicians’ Criminal Minds

Politicians’ Criminal Minds

Tibor R. Machan

It may have been either Will Rogers or Mark Twain, I cannot now recall which of the two great American humorists it was, who said all politicians are criminals. But it makes no difference because when something is true, its source is not the main issue. Fact is, politicians are extortionists at heart since their forte is that they will allow you and me to live and work provided we fork out nearly half of what we earn or otherwise obtain honestly so they can then dispose of it as they see fit.

In our time, not entirely unlike in others, the main appeal politicians hold out for millions is that they join them in their resentful bashing of the rich. This is a successful ploy because in the past, of course, most riches came from conquest, from governments and their favorite minions sending out thugs to confiscate whatever they desired from those who had some. As the saying has it, behind every great fortune lies a great crime, including extortion via taxation! This is why Robin Hood became a hero to so many: he went out and recovered what the tax takers took by force and returned it to the rightful owners. (No, Robin Hood didn’t steal from the rich and give to the poor; he repossessed from the ruler and his vicious taxers!)

How can politicians live with the knowledge that they are what they are, confiscators, extortionists? Because they tell themselves the story so many tell themselves when they do the wrong thing–”The intended end justifies the means!” Nearly every criminal thinks this way and so do nearly all who perpetrate evil upon others. Some higher goal than what the victim seems to be pursuing motivates them. They are serving the public interest or God or the common good or the environment or science or culture–you name it, there are hundreds of candidates that make the politician feel at ease.

Criminals also have great goals that will be served by their loot and since their victims are well enough off, they have nothing to complain about. After all, isn’t it selfish to insist on trying to hold on to your own resources, your own time, indeed your own life? Prominent university professors spell this out for us–we are all selfish bastards if we hold on to our own and allocate it was we judge fit. No, they will determine to what end my and your life should be devoted and if we disagree, they will send the politician into the arena who will make laws that compel us all to comply with their noble vision. As Professor Peter Unger wrote in one of his “ethics” books, “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.”

I personally know numerous such apologists for actions and politics that involve taking from people what is theirs so as to devote it to objectives the takers have failed to convince their victims to contribute to voluntarily. Never mind that–just like criminals, who cares about the rights of these victims when my noble goals are at stake?! And because there are at least some whose wealth was acquired through some shady dealings, one can rest easy in one’s conscience by telling oneself, well they are all guilty of graft and theft, why shouldn’t we then go after them in the same vein? With the likes of the famous French poet Charles Baudelair, who said that “Commerce is satanic, because it is the basest and vilest form of egoism. The spirit of every businessman is completely depraved” providing them the clear conscience they crave as they rob and steal and extort from us, why would politicians think any differently from criminals? In our day the leader of the citizenry has no hesitation about bashing the wealthy, insisting that robbing them of their lives and resources and liberty to dispose of these as they judge proper is perfectly honorable.

Until this attitude about people and their wealth–reminiscent of the days of serfdom and involuntary servitude–seriously abates, the dream of a genuine free country will remain, well, but a dream. The idea that when one is successful, or even simply lucky so far as amassing resources is concerned, others become authorized to forcibly remove one’s wealth and use it without one’s permission for their however desirable ends, is plainly barbaric. It amounts to subjugating others, actually enslaving them. And that has no place in civilized societies.

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!