Posts tagged Plato

Column on Fourth of July and the Public Interest

Fourth of July and the Public Interest

Tibor R. Machan

Throughout history political thinkers have been doing a lot of fretting about the public good (or public interest, common good, general welfare, etc.). Usually they came up with massive plans or enchanting visions. Plato’s teacher, Socrates, was the great grand daddy contributing to this tradition, what with his strictly imaginary totalitarian society, the Republic. (Arguably neither Socrates nor Plato envisioned it as a blueprint, only as a kind of model to help us remember what’s important.)

Not, however, until the American Founders wrote the Declaration of Independence did a truly credible official idea of the public good finally emerge. Others did, of course, educate the Founders, most notably the 17th century English philosopher John Locke. Curiously, even paradoxically, it took a bunch of individualists to finally come up with a sensible notion of the public good!

The reason is not altogether difficult to appreciate. Human beings, while alike in some important respects, are also very different in other important ones. That is what a sensible individualism teaches: we are all human individuals! Accordingly, the message of the Declaration is that the public good, quite unexpectedly for many people, is something rather modest. Instead of devising some kind of utopia in which all the problems people face is dealt with by government–the king, czar, pharaoh, Caesar, Sheik, democratically elected group or some other supreme ruler–the Founders realized that the public good is the competent, diligent, conscientious protection of everyone’s unalienable individual rights.

Yes, that’s the only bona fide, genuine public good. Certainly what all too many con artists are foisting upon us as cases of the public good do not qualify at all–a sports arena, a convention hall, a city pool or golf course, AIDS or obesity research, the city zoo, and so forth. None of these amount to true public goods. They are all pretenders, private or special projects masquerading as something that will benefit us all!

Yet the only thing that qualifies for being a public good is the protection of the rights everyone has by virtue of his or her human nature. And, as the Founders so aptly put it, governments are properly instituted so as to secure these rights, not for any other purpose.

This is why the American political tradition–though, sadly, not American political history–is associated with the notion of limited government, government restricted to some few essential tasks. The Bill of Rights suggested some of the details of this by laying out a few or limited powers of government, with everything else left for us all to do in the myriad of voluntary groupings we can organize. And it matters not at all that Founders and Framers thought all this up back around 1776–it is still as sound an idea as it was back then. (After all, those who disagree and want a massive government, intruding on us all in innumerable ways, are actually advocating something that is much older than the limited government idea–from the start most political thinkers promoted the idea of some kind of super state with an absolute or barely limited ruler on top! Yes, Virginia, it is statists who are reactionaries instead of radicals or progressives!)

So, the American Founders did propose a solid idea of the public interest, of everyone’s genuine interest in society, namely, protecting everyone’s basic rights. That’s a serious task, in need of focus and discipline, and when it’s abandoned in favor of the multitasking government we actually suffer a great loss. (Arguably 9/11 would not have happened had the government kept to its limited job and done it well!) Their idea also answers an age old question: What really is the public good, what really promotes the general welfare? It is to make sure everyone is free of coercion, that’s what.

Some think this isn’t a grand enough vision of government and they are dead right–it is a grand vision of the potentials and capacities of the citizens of a country, not of its government! Instead of championing the all mighty state, which is still so often irrationally worshiped around the globe, the American idea was–it is now nearly forgotten–that government is to be scaled down to a manageable scope and size and citizens, individual human beings and their voluntary associations, are to be entrusted with the really significant tasks in society.

So on the 4th of July we need to celebrate this magnificent, revolutionary idea, the confidence in the human individual, not in some version of bloated government.

Column on “The Sleep of Reason…”

“The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters”*

Tibor R. Machan

In basic reasoning courses one learns that certain ways of thinking are fallacious, others are sound. Sadly, most students don’t actually remember much of what they learn here because these courses are taught too early in their college years, just at the time they are still celebrating no longer being in high school. (Yes, for nearly two years many students pay hardly any attention to their studies, having been incarcerated in school for 12 years prior to entering college!)

Had they been educated about reasoning well versus badly, they might catch some of the howlers committed by members of the media (or anyone else). As a case in point, I had the distinct displeasure of watching Bill O’Reilly during the 2000 presidential election, when the mess in Florida with those hanging chads was going down. In his ponderous and pompous manner, which apparently many people welcome for some reason, O’Reilly announced in the middle of his coverage of the events that journalistic objectivity is a total myth, that everyone is biased, including him. And not just when they are voicing their particular viewpoint. Also, when they report on facts.

Now here is a good case of muddled and fallacious reasoning. It is inconsistent for a journalist to both make a report about journalism–e.g., that it is always biased–while also claiming that all such reports are biased, which is to say unreliable, distorted, one-sided, partisan or subjective. If the latter were true, than the former could not be treated as also true since it would also fall victim to distortion or bias. And why would anyone trust a journalist who distorts the facts he is supposed to be reporting to us? We could find something far more productive to do.

More generally, any kind of corruption in a profession, such as journalism, cannot be inherent. If it were, no distinction between distorted and dependable reporting could be identified. At least the possibility of credible reporting must exist. It’s like food–not all of it could be poisonous; nor could we all be sick all the time. These pairs of concepts, like poisonous versus healthy, corrupt versus honest, biased versus objective, etc., and so forth are meaningful only if both were possible. Just one of them on its own makes no sense. Like beginning versus end, or up versus down–they make sense only when paired.

Anyway, quite a few people get tripped up by forgetting these and many other elementary points of human reasoning. They will accept the idea, for example, that all human thought is fallacious; that everyone is always lying; that our minds are innately defective, etc. None of this could be so, in part because then these reports about us would themselves be unreliable since we made them with our human minds (and our human minds, remember, always distort everything, etc., etc.).

Why is there so much of this sort of babbling about when it is so flawed? (Another infamous case in point is “All property is theft” since theft presupposes the existence of untainted property.) One reason is that a great many people are misanthropes. They are very eager to demean humanity, to put it down as something worthless or inherently flawed. So they attack our most vital faculty, the human mind. (Maybe in fact they are projecting!)

The most prominent example of this is a certain version of the idea of original sin, in the form that states that human beings are basically and thoroughly sinful from the git-go. (If all it means is that human beings are capable of being wicked, well that’s no news!) Another source is the famous and famously misunderstood idea the comes to us from Socrates, the main character of all those great Platonic dialogues. Socrates is supposed to have said, if Plato is to be believed, that the only thing he knows is that he knows nothing (and that no one who thinks he is wise is really wise, including he).

These are very paradoxical claims to make and, most probably, their point is ironic not literal. They could be one approach to keeping hubris in check, making sure no one takes himself too seriously, no one gets carried away with his or her cleverness. This is also where the idea “sophistry” comes from, of cleverness masquerading as wisdom. Sophists in Plato’s time where those who pretended to be wise but in fact merely exhibited technical skill in argumentation, a bit like attorneys are reputed to do.

It would be nice if all those hours of sitting in basic reasoning classes actually left their mark on all students. But since you can become a famous anchor on TV while committing lacunae galore, I suppose many fail to see the benefit from it.

*Francisco José de Goya y Lucientes.

Column on Equality is Only A Cheap Dream

Equality Is Only A Cheap Dream

Tibor R. Machan

Two academic researchers, both of them psychologists, have recently rekindled all the fuss about inequality of income in the United States of America. Mostly this topic has been the province of political philosophers, economists and theorists, many of whom have been urging the government to engage in more aggressive coercive resource redistribution. (Such redistribution is, of course, what happens routinely in the marketplace–where people take their wealth and use it to obtain various goods and services, thereby handing to the providers wealth that they, in turn, will redistribute–without any coercion involved.)

But the peaceful wealth redistribution of a free society and market doesn’t sit well with these avid egalitarians because free men and women spend their resources without worrying about distributing it equally, evenly, or fairly, only with doing it peacefully, voluntarily and productively. So the goal of economic equality isn’t served vigorously enough for them, thus they want the government to nationalize the process, take it out of private hands.

OK, so these two psychologists went around asking people about what kind of society they would like to live in and the responses to the question, “What kind of country would you like to live in?” convinced them that most people, as Bloomberg Businessweek reports in its 10/25-31, 2010 issue, “shared a similar vision of what they thought America looked like and what a fairer society would be.” The bulk, “Rich and poor, Republican and Democrats” tend toward egalitarianism.

Well that may be what many people wish for in their dreams. It is fairly cheep to dream like this. But the two researchers–Professor Dan Airely of Duke and Michael I. Norton of the Harvard Business School–did not ask the pertinent question, namely, “Would you prefer a fairer, more egalitarian, society if it meant that your liberty to use your life, time, labor and resources would be severely curtailed by the government as it undertakes making people equal?” But this question wasn’t asked and accordingly the conclusion the researchers reached is completely useless.

People have always had dreams of equality in their view of social life, starting with Plato (who had Socrates imagine the perfect society wherein equality reigned supreme). But as most Plato scholars know, the Republic presents an impossible society, a highly distorted one. Then, more recently, we have Karl Marx whose communist society is supposed to be populated by fully equal citizens who love one another intimately and for whom the principle “from each according to his ability, to each according to his need” governs the realm. This is not a formula for perfect equality but for a great deal more of it than any free market system would generate. However, people forget that Karl Marx imagined communist society as populated not by men and women such as we are but by what he called “the new man,” a different kind of (specie) being from us. Those “human” beings would love the society above all, love everyone as only intimate friends do now. Marx realized that an egalitarian society cannot be the home to ordinary, normal human beings but only to those who fit his idea of the new man.

Our champions of egalitarianism fail to appreciate the significance of the point Karl Marx made. They do not realize that human nature would need to be re-engineered before an egalitarian social-political-economic system could come about. The so called findings of the two researchers also fail to show any appreciation for the point Marx did appreciate. And the price of this error is that the sort of equality they think is so desirable would require the systematic coercive remaking of human beings (something Stalin once envisioned when he hoped that Lysenko, his agricultural guru, could remake us to fit the communist dream).

If the subjects of their study had been apprised of what Marx knew and what has always been true, namely, that making people equal conflicts with their liberty, it is doubtful that they would have jumped on board of the egalitarian ideological train.

Column on Natural Rights

Let’s Talk about Natural Rights

Tibor R. Machan

When various skeptics question the soundness of the American political system, one of their targets is the idea of human nature. After all, the founders took their political philosophy mainly from John Locke who thought human nature does exist and, based on what we know of it and a few other evident matters, we can reach the conclusion that all human beings have certain rights. This is what is meant by holding that there are natural rights and that they are pre-legal, not a creation of government.

This is the idea that is rejected today by one of President Obama’s top advisers and the man in charge of the federal government’s regulatory operations. Cass Sunstein, who is now a professor of law at Harvard but is on leave to work with the administration, rejects any notion of rights not fashioned by government. And one reason for this may well be, although I am not certain about it, that Professor Sunstein does not agree that human nature exists.

Certainly many prominent legal and political theorists share this skepticism. I recently read one of them who argued that because in some cultures there is no reference to human nature anywhere, let alone in the law, the idea of human nature cannot be right. As if consensus determined whether human nature exists; as if it were impossible that some folks could be entirely ignorant of what human nature is, so much so that they might even deny its existence.

When the idea emerged in philosophy that things have a nature–e.g., starting with Socrates and his pupil Plato–it was thought that the nature of something resembled geometrical objects by being perfect and timeless. So if there is a human nature, it must be something perfect and a-temporal. But because none of us is going to live to eternity, none of us can establish anything as timelessly true. If human nature has to be something like that, then skepticism about it would be warranted.

But human nature–and, indeed, the nature of anything else–need not be timeless. What makes us all human, our human nature, can be the most up to date, well-informed specification of attributes, capacities, or properties so far. Anything else would be unreasonable to ask for since, as I already said, none of us is going to be here till the end of time and can thus establish that what we understand as human nature will not need some modification or adjustment. The principles the American founders rested on human nature were understood as capable of being updated, which is why the U. S. Constitution has provisions for its amendment. This, however, does not justify fundamental doubt or skepticism about either human nature or the principles based on it, such as our natural rights.

So at least one source of skepticism about our basic rights, rights that do not depend upon government’s grating them (even if their protection is government’s main job), can be set aside. But there is more. We are all dependent upon knowing the nature of things so that we can organize our knowledge of the world. We know, for example, that there are fruits–a class of some kind of beings–and games–another class–and subatomic particles–yet another class–and so on and so forth. These classes or natures of things are not something separate from the things being classified but constitute their common features, ones without which they wouldn’t be what they are. Across the world, for example, apples and dogs and chicken and tomatoes and, yes, human beings are all recognized for what they are because we know their natures even when some cases are difficult to identify fully, completely, even when there are some oddities involved.

So there is good reason that governments do not create rights for us–we have them, instead, by virtue of our human nature. And this puts a limit on what governments may do, including do to us. They need to secure our rights and as they do so they must also respect them.

Column on Is The U.S. Self-Interested?

Is the U. S. Self-Interested?

Tibor R. Machan

It baffles me why so many people are apologetic about the U. S. having a self-interested foreign policy. When President Obama recently declared that the U. S. “is not a self-interested empire,” the part about being self-interested, pace Obama, sounded just right to me. (It is the “empire” portion that would be disturbing since an empire is a country that aims needlessly to lord it over other countries.) Being self-interested could mean no more than being vigilant in the defense of one’s country, making sure it is safe from invasion or attack.

Who can dispute that self-defense is self-interested? Of course, with the prominence of altruism among intellectuals and public figures, it is probably no great surprise that Mr. Obama would reject characterizing American foreign policy as self-interested. “Selfish” has this bad odor about it and has had that since when philosophers, theologians and psychologists have decided that the human self is something malign.

At one time, of course, it used to be a good thing for one to be self-interested. I am thinking of ancient Greece where both Socrates, as presented by his pupil Plato, and later Aristotle defended self-interest and self-love, respectively. That’s because the ancient Greeks tended to view human nature favorably, not as innately tending toward evil, something that became more in vogue later in the history of Western thought. Both religious and secular thinking veered off in this misanthropic direction in part through the doctrine of original sin and then with Thomas Hobbes’ idea that everyone is basically motivated by a fierce passion for power, including, especially, power over other persons. If that is indeed what the human self aims for, then no wonder it doesn’t have a sterling reputation and selfishness or being self-interested no longer amounts to something honorable as Socrates thought it was.

Yet even in our time something of the ancient Greek attitude remains in play. Just notice how often people say “You take care now” or “Take care of yourself” as their parting words to each other. I have been noticing this for many years and just a few days ago it was in evidence again as I watched some saying farewell. No hesitation at all: Go and make sure you do well for yourself! So self-interest, prudence, taking care of oneself cannot be taken to be all that bad by most of us, even though the sentiment isn’t given much support among those who write on morality and public policy, including American foreign affairs.

For some it is just a matter of cynical realism to accept that a country’s foreign policy will be dictated by its international interests. But is this something one must apologize for or even deny, as Mr. Obama apparently feels necessary to do?

Only if self-interested conduct, including in matters of diplomacy and military policy, must be reckless. But must it be? Does one’s country really benefit from a reckless, loose cannon foreign or military policy? No. Properly conceived and undertaken self-interested foreign and military policy, just as personal conduct, needs to be decent, guided by virtues or moral principles. Indeed, as Socrates, Plato, Aristotle and others have maintained–but recently with only a few such as Ayn Rand and quite a few psychotherapists joining them–the virtues are necessary to advance one’s proper self-interest. Morality for these thinkers is about making it possible to succeed in one’s human life, doing well at living as a human individual. It includes the virtues of prudence, honesty, moderation, temperance, courage, and such but also generosity, compassion, and even charity when it is needed. Only with these virtues in full display in one’s life will someone accomplish that most vital task in of being morally good, being a good person.

The same, it can be argued, applies to foreign and, especially, military affairs. A country’s foreign policy must not aim for martyrdom, for self-sacrifice. Thus, putting this into practice, General George C. Patton Jr. is supposed to have told his troop, “The object of war is not to die for your country but to make the other guy die for his.