Posts tagged Reason Magazine

Column on Why not Pessimism?

Why not Pessimism?

Tibor R. Machan

By most accounts there is little good news about any progress toward a freer society, quite the contrary. Around the globe, of course, there are some regions that are making small moves away from tyranny but even in those few, human freedom doesn’t appear to be a priority. Instead tribal and religious conflicts are the rule, even as the more vicious rulers are losing their grip on their populations. In Syria the tyrant is hanging on by a very thin thread yet elsewhere it’s mob rule that has replaced dictatorships.

In the USA, which at one time had the justified distinction of aspiring toward a fully free society–”leader of the free world”–the system and those who administer it pay hardly any heed to human liberty; the leadership is either wallowing in calls for economic equality (as if George Orwell had never written Animal Farm) or embarking wrangles about social and religious issues. (These Republicans certainly know how to drop the ball and miss opportunities!) Every problem that gains serious attention seems to call forth simply more statism from the elite; the possibility of turning toward more freedom is routinely denounced by prominent commentators. (I cannot get over Paul Krugman’s widely respected yet totally preposterous complaints about “market fundamentalism,” something he keeps alleging has gripped the country even though no evidence of it exists anywhere.)

Despite all this, there is reason to be hopeful. First, there is that proverbial long run to keep in mind; anyone who takes a close look at the sweep of human political history has to grant that there exists at least a “two steps forward, one back” phenomenon when it comes to the progress of freedom. Then there is the recent emergence of substantial respectability for libertarianism, with the likes of Ron Paul and his son Rand championing it openly among mainstream politicians and with the likes of Fox TV’s Judge Andrew Napolitano, John Stossel and others making a libertarian pitch on a very successful cable network, with regular appearances by and interviews with consistent, uncompromising champions of the fully free society. All those Reason Magazine and Reason.com folks certainly are a very welcome presence “on the air,” repeatedly, making their points very cogently. Gary Johnson, former governor of New Mexico, is going to give it a shot as the Libertarian Party’s presidential candidate, lending his sharp message–one I consider more coherent and on point than those of Ron Paul whose is marred by both certain domestic conservative themes and somewhat over the top ideas on international affairs–to the growing demands for freedom coming from America’s main street (as against the insistent statism we get from too many prominent academics). And there is the growing acknowledgement from many corners that the profligacy of government just cannot be sustained, not without the serious threat of a police state that would be needed to coerce us all into compliance with the resulting grotesque economic policies such as increasing taxes on productive citizens and clamping down on all efforts to resist confiscatory tax policies around the country and abroad. (It bears remembering that John Maynard Keynes considered the Third Reich as a very promising place for his policies of economic meddling by the state–see the Introduction he wrote for the German translation of The General Theory!) Also, the general population seems to be tiring of rich bashing, although there are those, like the Occupy Wall Street bunch, who continue to be ignorantly deluded about the desirability and feasibility of economic leveling.

It is wise also, I think, to keep in mind that massive semi-democratic systems are very unlikely to ever settle into a sensible political regime, given all the conflicting and often bizarre influences that guide public policies and produce truly awful elected officials–think Barney Frank here. Nonetheless over the long haul freedom is making progress. Not in all places, for sure, and with major gaps not just at the national level but in our backyards. When a totally corrupt and counterproductive war on drugs can continue in force, it does appear to be hopeless to expect increasing sanity in the country.

Yet, all in all, the trend, albeit a slow one with many detours and interruptions, does seem to be pointing toward a freer world than before.

Column on Good Bye to Reason?

Good Bye Reason?

Tibor R. Machan

“Every one of us has our perceptions filtered by the thousands of stories and assumptions and rituals that constitute our culture. Every one of us has held beliefs that seemed self-evidently accurate but were actually contingent elements of the time and place that produced us. This is true not just of the people reading this article, but of every person, in every era, who has been capable of perceiving anything at all. You can stretch those perceptions, expose yourself to new worldviews, learn new things, but you’ll always be embedded in a cultural matrix….”

This passage comes from the managing editor of Reason Magazine, which I helped launch back in 1970 and which set out to be a corrective to our society’s widespread embrace of various versions of subjectivism and relativism. The passage exemplifies just such a viewpoint, whereby no one is capable of objectivity and everyone is caught in some set of preconceptions.

The aspiration at Reason had been to further the cause of using our reasoning powers so as to avoid being caught in the traps of prejudice, hasty generalization, bias, preconception, and the like, all of them foes of getting it right about the world. Indeed, some had argued even back then that prejudice is inevitable, we are all afflicted by it no matter how hard we try to rid ourselves of it. Racists were particularly fond of this line of thinking since it would have served them well had it been sound. Who can help but be prejudiced? No one, just as the passage above indicates.

Of course, there is that famous problem with such an outlook of being hoisted on its own petard. After all, if we are all “embedded in a cultural matrix” no matter how carefully we consider evidence, argument, facts, etc., then the passage itself would be no more than a declaration of the author’s own prejudice about, well, prejudice!

Of course, there is a great deal of prejudicial thinking afoot everywhere since human beings aren’t automatically careful in how they see the world. Many do permit their tastes, preferences, biases, wishes, and the like to dictate how they will understand the world, including–and some would argue, especially–themselves. That is supposedly one reason for getting a decent education, studying logic and scientific methods, and getting a clear head before undertaking difficult, challenging tasks. That is why those who care about the outcome of their investigations try hard to overcome powerful emotions that might intrude, including their hopes and agonies.

No one in his right mind can claim that it is easy to be objective, to overcome all the likely obstacles to thinking clearly. All those devices in the sciences, natural or social, by which one tries to secure a reliable, dependable picture of the world, are designed to stave off the evident enough threat of tainted judgments. And not all of us succeed, that is for sure.

However, some do, which is fortunate for us all since otherwise one couldn’t have any confidence in any of the work done in the fields that attempt to understand the world. The claim that it is all hopeless is, of course, an ancient one. It is advanced at various levels of sophistication. Perhaps the most impressive skeptical view comes to us from the 18th Century German philosopher, Immanuel Kant who didn’t so much hold that we are all biased, all the time, but that whether we are or are not isn’t something we can ascertain. We might be right but we will never be able to tell since in order to tell, we would need to overcome the kind of obstacles listed in the paragraph from Reason Magazine. And that is impossible.

Kant was mistaken, however, mainly because he held the odd view that the human mind instead of being an instrument for coming to know things is, in fact, a source of interference. That is like saying that the spoon we use to eat our soup is an obstacle to proper eating, not a means to it. Or that our eyes are not organs that enable us to see but ones that stand in the way of pure seeing.

The discussion will, no doubt, go on as long as there are people around to think of ways to make the case pro or con. However, I am sad that one effort to put in a solid, unyielding defense of our capacity to think objectively, namely Reason Magazine, now seems to be managed by someone who finds the effort futile.