Posts tagged rights

Machan’s Archives: Democracy & Liberty

Machan’s Archives: Democracy versus Liberty

Tibor R. Machan

Over the last several decades of American political life the idea of liberty has taken a back seat to that of democracy. Liberty involves human beings governing themselves, being sovereign citizens, while democracy is a method by which decisions are reached within groups. In a just society it is liberty that’s primary; the entire point of law is to secure liberty for everyone, to make sure that the rights of individuals, to their lives, liberty and pursuit of happiness, are protected from any human agent bent on violating them.

Democracy at its best is but a byproduct of liberty. Because we are all supposed to be free to govern ourselves, whenever some issue of public policy faces the citizenry, all entitled to take part. Democratic government rests, in a free society, on the right of every individual to take whatever actions are needed to influence public policy. Because freedom or liberty is primary, the scope of public policy and, thus, democracy in a just society is strictly limited. The reason is that free men and women may not be intruded on even if a majority of their fellows would decide to do so. If someone is a free, which means a self-governing, person, then even the majority of one’s fellows lack the authority to take over one’s governance without one’s consent. I cannot be otherwise unless there is prior agreement by all to accept such a process. The consent of the governed amounts to this and that is what the US Declaration of Independence means when it mentions that government derives its just powers from the consent of the governed.

In a just society no one loses his or her authority for self-government without giving it up as a matter of choice. No one gets to perform an operation on you, no matter how wise and competent, without your giving your consent, and the same is true, in a just system, about imposing duties and obligations on people. They must agree to this. If they do not, they aren’t to be ordered about at all. That would be involuntary servitude!

The only apparent exception is when it comes to laws that protect everyone’s rights. One may indeed be ordered not to kill, rob, rape, burglarize, or assault another person, even if one fails to consent to this. And when government does the job of protecting individual rights, government may order one to abstain from all such aggressive actions. But that doesn’t actually involve intruding on people, only protecting everyone from intrusions.

It is along these lines that the idea of limited government arises: government may only act to protect rights, to impose the laws that achieve that goal, nothing more. Again, as the Declaration of Independence notes, it is to secure our rights that governments are instituted, not for any other purpose. Of course, this idea of limited government hardly figures into considerations of public policy in the USA or elsewhere.

We have never actually confined government to this clearly limited, just purpose. It has always gone beyond that and today its scope is nearly totalitarian, the very opposite of being limited. But there is no doubt that even though liberty has been nearly forgotten as an ideal of just government in America as well as elsewhere, democracy does remain something of an operational ideal. In this way liberty has been curtailed tremendously, mainly to the minor sphere of everyone having a right to take part in public decision-making.

Whereas the original idea was that we are free in all realms and democracy concerns mainly who will administer a system of laws that are required to protect our liberty, now the idea is that democracy addresses everything in our lives and the only liberty we have left is to take part in the decision-making about whatever is taken to be a so called “public” matter. One way this is clearly evident is how many of the top universities in the USA construe public administration to be a topic having to do primarily with the way democracy works. Indeed, after the demise of the Soviet Union, even though the major issue should have been the salvation of individual liberty, the experts in academe who write and teach the rest of the world about public administration are nearly all focused on democracy, not on liberty.

For example, the courses at America’s premier public administration graduate school, the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University, are mainly focused on problems of democracy. At this institution nearly 40 percent of the students attending come from 75 foreign countries, many of them from those that used to be under Soviet rule, and what they focus on in nearly all their courses is democracy, not liberty. Assignments in these courses tend all to raise problems about implementing democratic governance and leave the issue of how individual liberty should be secured as practically irrelevant. Or, to put it more precisely, the liberty or human right that is of interest in most of these courses is the liberty to take part in democratic decision-making. (“Human rights” has come to refer in most of these course and their texts mainly to the right to vote and to take part in the political process!) Yes, of course, that is a bit of genuine liberty that many of the people of the world have never enjoyed, so for them it is a significant matter, to be sure. But it is clearly not the liberty that the Declaration of Independence mentions when it affirms that all of us are equal in having unalienable rights to our lives, liberty and pursuit of happiness.

The Declaration speaks of a very wide scope of individual liberty, while the premier public administration school of America teaches, at least by implication, that the only liberty of any importance is the liberty to take part in public policy determination. This, I submit, is a travesty. Once democracy is treated as the premier public value, with individual liberty cast to the side except as far as taking part in democratic decision-making, the scope of government is no longer limited in principle or practice.

Nearly anything can become a public policy issue, so long as some measure of democracy is involved in reaching decisions about it.

And that, in fact, turns out to be a serious threat to democracy itself. Because when democracy trumps liberty, democracy can destroy itself–the law could permit the democratically reached destruction of democracy itself! That is just what happened in the Weimar Republic, where a democratic election put Hitler in power and destroyed democracy. And check developments in our time in the Middle East!

If you ever wonder why it is that public forums, including the Sunday TV magazine programs, the Op Ed pages of most newspapers, the feature articles of most magazines do not discuss human liberty but fret mostly about democracy, this is the reason: the major educational institutions tend not to care about liberty at all and have substituted a very limited version of it, namely, democracy as their primary concern. Once that is accomplished, individual liberty becomes defenseless.

Indeed, democracy is just as capable of being totalitarian as is a dictatorship, only with democracy it seems less clearly unjust, given that this little bit of liberty is still in tact, namely, to take part in the vote.

Machan’s Archives: Zoning versus Private Property Rights

Machan’s Archives: Zoning versus Private Property Rights

Tibor R. Machan

Among the elements of a free society looms very large the institution of private property rights. It is this element that gives concrete, practical expression to a citizens right to liberty. The reason is that living free means doing what one chooses to do someplace, connected to the world around oneself. John Locke, the major theorists of individual rights in the history of political thought, believed that private property rights punctuate our jurisdiction over our lives since what our lives amount to is to a large extent interacting, mixing our labor, with the rest of nature. If we lack the right to private property, we lack the freedom to live on our own terms. Although he wrote that God owns everything, he also believe that God gave it all to humankind and the principle of private property rights served as the best rationing device henceforth.
No one who defends freedom suffers from the illusion that free men and women always do what is right. And this is true about how they make use of their property. But in a genuinely free society that is one of the troubling yet unavoidable conditions of living with others people. Just as one is, so are others free to use what belongs to them as they judge proper. If this is undermined, so is human freedom.
One of the areas in community life where this element of freedom is often evaded and opposed is the institution of zoning ordinances. Zoning amounts to the regulation of one’s use of one’s land and home and business in favor of how others prefer. In a democratic society these others are usually representatives of the majority, although very often they become nearly independent agents who can dictate the ways land and buildings must be built, decorated, rebuilt, and so forth. Historic preservation groups lobby incessantly to rule us in these regards. The basic reason for this as for most other violations of private property rights has to do with protecting the members of the majority from the choices of members of the minority, choices that the majority would find objectionable. Thus the typical announced objective of a zoning ordinance is to preserve the styles that majority of the community prefers within a neighborhood and to keep out undesirable colors and architectural styles, not to mention business establishments and life styles.
All this is usually put in terms of establishing and maintaining community standards, of course, as if there were such a thing as the community apart from all of its individual members. But there isn’t. So some members of the community decide for all the members whose private property will be used, like it or not. In effect, of course, this means the abolition of private property rights, that great goal that was first on the list of Karl Marx’s and Frederick Engels’s Communist Manifesto. Sure, defenders of zoning laws will insist that they simply want to protect the private properties of members of the neighborhood, against those who would undermine property values and the desirability of the vicinity as a residential, commercial or industrial region. However, whatever their motives, these defenders are still working to undermine and have been succeeding at undermining the institution of private property rights.
A right is a freedom to do what one wants, be this good or bad, provided no one’s rights are violated in the process. Freedom of speech, for example, means one may say anything one wants that amounts to speech, provided it does not violate another’s rights. What is said could be filthy, false, offensive, unwise, and so forth. But free mend and women may not be stopped from speaking out whatever the quality of their speech.
Now perhaps it appears to many that freedom of speech is more important than property rights but this is easily disproved. Indeed, without private property rights, there cannot be freedom of speech. The community would own or control all places where things could be said and published and thus, also, what can be said and published. (This is why, for example, government can regulate television and radio content but not that of magazines and newspapers. They own the electromagnetic spectrum on which broadcast signals travel!)
But perhaps in the case of certain kinds of property, such as land and buildings, the borders between what one person owns and others own cannot be determined, so there really cannot be any private property rights applicable in such spheres. There seems to be something to this mainly because many people think that when they own a piece of land or a house, the surrounding views also belong to them – or at least they ought to have a say as to what happens to whatever is in view. But this is clearly false. If one’s neighbor is a nice looking person but then decides not to remain nice looking, one has no right to stop the person from changing, however disappointing this may be to one. Indeed, this is true about another’s automobile, backyard, and so forth. And that should be the model on which to base our understanding of private property – those who own it must have control over it, otherwise they aren’t free persons but belong to other people who claim to represent the community.
So what now? If zoning ordinances violate certain valid principles of a free society, how can one nevertheless work to keep one’s neighborhood presentable? How can one influence, if not control, other people so that they do not make the neighborhood unpleasant and allow it to deteriorate?
OK, so far I tried to show in rather general terms why zoning laws are inconsistent with a free society’s principles, in particular with the principle of private property rights. Basically they amount to impositions by some people on others of conditions for using property that are the owners’ proper, justified authority to determine. No one has that right, however tempting and desirable it may appear to imagine otherwise.
But what about the perfectly honorable wish to have a nice neighborhood in which to live, work and play? How, besides by means of zoning ordinances, could people protect their neighborhoods?
Before answering this question it must be noted, quite emphatically, that zoning ordinances by no means achieve what their advocates claim justifies their use. In many communities, indeed, that have stringent zoning ordinances there are neighborhoods that are a mess, to put it mildly. Especially right where the zoning provisions change, say from commercial to residential use, the areas are usually in a deteriorating condition. That is where buildings are usually dilapidated, shabby. And it is usually those who lack political clout who must live there.
In more general terms, by no means is the institution of zoning laws a panacea. Just as with the welfare state in general, which simply shoves around the misery it aims to eliminate, zoning laws, too, are mostly an expression of special interest clout. A drive through any of the heavily zoned communities will demonstrate this right away.
In fact, the record of the institution of zoning as far as making areas of residential, commercial and recreational living orderly and pleasant for all is by no means a good one. Let us look at this briefly, without entering the ample scholarship that exists on that topic. (But anyone wishing to check for detailed studies can examine William A. Fishel’s works, The Economics of Zoning Laws : A Property Rights Approach to American Land Use Controls, Regulatory Takings : Law, Economics, and Politics, Do Growth Controls Matter? : A Review of Empirical Evidence on the Effectiveness and Efficiency of Local Government Land Use Regulation, The Economics of Zoning Laws : A Property Rights Approach to American Land Use Controls, and Land Economics : Private Markets Public Decisions, as well as Bernard H. Siegan’s seminal book, Land Use Without Zoning.)
For one, there is a city in the USA that has enjoyed freedom from zoning and has worked pretty well while it lasted. It is Houston, Texas. No disaster, no catastrophe, no mess, no property devaluation, nada. Just a city where what zoning was supposed to achieve had been achieved without it, more peacefully, more through cooperation than through coercion.
Second, a little imagination and history should suffice to teach us all that it is better all around to strive to achieve goals without forcing people to accept what they would freely reject. And this applies as much to education or military service as it does not keeping their neighborhoods in good shape. Free men and women simply do better, on the whole, than do those who are regimented by their fellows, made to act as they do not choose to.
Third, what zoning aims for can easily be achieved through voluntary agreements among members of neighborhoods. Restrictive covenants work to this end wonderfully, provided those concerned make the effort to bring them into play. As with all things, the free approach always appears at first cumbersome – talking someone into a course of conduct takes more time than doing this by beating the person. But in the end the result is much more rewarding – all kinds of political hostilities, vested-interest battles, and politicking in the worst sense of that term can be avoided if agreements are reached peacefully, through mutual effort.
Of course, in most communities this is at best an ideal, but more likely a political fantasy, along lines that abolishing prohibition had been at one time and substituting a private for a public education system is now. But that does not make it any less feasible and right! So in the current dispute about whether this or that kind of zoning ordinance is needed for a community, it is vital that some voices keep announcing what is the truly best solution, after all.
What is needed, once all the infighting has shown itself the fruitless effort it really is, is the abolition of zoning and the institution of market based, voluntary agreements among members of neighborhoods, commercial establishments and so forth to achieve what these members want to achieve. There will, of course, be limits to what is possible – one cannot live in Shangri-La if one isn’t financially equipped to do so; one cannot live far in the woods if one’s budget provides for only an apartment in the middle of town. But within the limits that one must live with in all realms of ordinary life, the solutions reached via voluntary negotiations and bargaining are far superior to those acrimonious ones that are reached via the political process.
Will this be done tomorrow morning at 9 AM? No. But should we stress its desirability and real availability for any community? Yes.

Essay on The Democratic Ideal

The Democratic Ideal

Tibor R. Machan

Democracy is a process by which some decisions are made and in the context of politics it means the kind of system that depends upon the participation of the citizenry for certain purposes. What grounds democracy as a just mode of political decision-making is that citizens have the ultimate authority concerning certain matters in the polis. And the reason they do have this ultimate authority is that they are, as adults, equal in their status vis-à-vis the stake they have in their political institutions, their laws, public policies, foreign relations, etc. That they have this equal status hinges on certain extra or pre-political matters, to be discerned by way of reflection upon human nature and proper human relations. For now I’ll simply note that as I understand political matters, they arise from the moral fact that each individual adult human being has as his or her task in life to live it rationally, to flourish as a rational animal. Since this task for adults can only be achieved if they are not subject to another’s will―in which case it is that other’s rational choice that would be the ruling principle of one’s life—in communities human beings must be sovereign. From this it follows that they must have a say in their own political fate, ergo, democracy.

In any case, democracy is derivative of what human beings are taken to be as they find themselves within a community that aims at justice, a polity. From the Hobbesian framework, democracy is recommended because all of us are nothing but bits of matter- in-motion and thus lack any significant, fundamental differentiating attributes. Even our human nature is but nominal, a status in the world established by means of the human intellect’s response to the motions that affect the brain, a response itself motivated by the drive for self-preservation or keeping in continued motion in part by naming groups of impulses affecting the brain. We make the categories, create them by naming our sensory input as we will.1 So the reason for democracy a la the Hobbesian view is that nothing justifies differentiating some people from others (indeed, if one were to be fully consistent, anything from anything else, at the metaphysical, fundamental level of being.) A somewhat different reason for democracy arises from the Lockean view, one closer to what I sketched above as my own. For Locke, at least when we turn to his political treatise, we are all equal and independent in the state of nature, i.e., prior to the formation or apart from civil society or the polis. Adult human beings begin, never mind the precise point of reaching adulthood, as equally embarking on a human life, one that is to be governed by the laws of nature, which is reason, if one but consult it. In other words, we are all moral agents having to live up to our moral responsibilities or duties, and in this we are all alike. So we are all endowed with natural rights, which spell out for each of us a sphere of sovereignty or personal authority or jurisdiction. There are no natural masters or natural slaves (although there may be borderline cases of defective or crucially incapacitated persons). If this is kept in clear focus, one will realize that a human community starts with no one superior or inferior regarding the issue of the authority to make law and to govern. Thus, democracy.

But democracy is a process, morally required by the right to take part in deciding or to give consent. It is in fact our natural right to person and estate that lies behind the right to be part of the decision-making process involved in politics. It is not a process that is applicable to everything one might want to influence, however. There is a proper sphere of democracy.

Clearly there are those who propose that democracy is unlimited-only the fact that people will things to be one way or another matters. Some interpreters of Locke have claimed this—e. g., Wilmore Kendall and his followers—as well as some conservatives, e. g., Robert Bork. Thus they argue that once human beings are no longer in a state of nature, they have in effect adopted democracy as a decision-making process regarding whatever comes up for public discussion, whatever a sizable number of them want to subject to this process.

Yet this seems to me to be wrong, whatever the proper interpretation of Locke might be and I would dispute that Locke can be coherently interpreted this way. For in Locke the justification for government lies in the need for the protection of natural rights, a protection not easily obtained (except by the strong) in the state of nature. (And the state of nature need not be a source of much intellectual consternation—it refers to a circumstance not governed by due process or the rule of law, one that we may even encounter in a back alley or away from civilization where we can be easy prey for thugs. In the classic movie, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, it was the situation prior to when John Wayne enabled Jimmy Stuart to establish law and order. In actual life it is the situation one may face in the middle of the Mojave Desert or in any inner city park where law enforcement is nearly nothing.)

So Locke sees the protection of everyone’s natural rights as the proper purpose of government. Since establishing, maintaining and protecting government is itself a form of human activity that can be done well or badly, it must be guided by the principles of natural rights-its creation, development and operations may not encroach upon those rights, lest its proper purpose is undermined. Perhaps the best way to understand this is by recalling the common sense notion that even the securing of highly valued goals does not justify the employment of immoral means.

Quite a part from Locke, in any case, unless democracy is itself guided by norms-unless the people express and implement their will as they should and not as they should not-it becomes self-defeating. Not only is there the problem that such a process is in violation of the rights of innocents who would be made victims of the use of arbitrary force. Unlimited democracy, furthermore, can undo democracy itself. If democracy, for example, is applied too broadly, it is bent upon defeating its very purpose, the goal that justifies its employment. To provide a hint via a possible result of the democratic process, suppose that we democratically vote to exclude some people from the voting process. This is a legacy of some state governments in the United States of America, as well as the efforts of the federal government. When the possibility of voting is linked to property ownership or some other condition, the democratic process is weakened. It also occurs when the federal government focuses on what has come to be called inclusiveness so that, for the sake of including into the governing process members of some minority groups, it is decided that other members should be given lower representation. Such group inclusiveness undermines the natural rights of individuals to take part in the political process, a right that derives from their right to liberty of association. Yet the underlying justification for democracy is that individuals have the right to consent to their government. In other words, if the democratic process can justifiably produce governmental measures that violate the natural rights of individuals, this undermines the capacity of these individuals to be full, equally free participants in the democratic process.

Other kinds of cases abound. If by the democratic process the rights to life, liberty or property could justifiably be abrogated or violated, those taking part in the process no longer can act freely and independently. The majority can threaten their free judgments. It can enact measures that will authorize vindictive official actions against the minority, something that inevitably leads to the undermining of democracy. That is just why the “democracies” of Eastern Europe were a complete farce despite the great numbers of participants in the actual electoral process. Thus parties, however, had no liberty to vote as they wanted, for whom they wanted.

If when I vote I know that voting my conscience will result in having my sovereignty undermined, leading to my partial enslavement or involuntary servitude, I will not likely vote my conscience. I will act like the victim of the mugger who is told, “You r money or your life!” When I hand over my money I do it under compulsion not by choice. (It is a myth that we always have a choice, for a choice that is set out by others regarding one’s life, that robs one of one’s life and takes away the prospects of a self-governed future, is no choice.) If a democratic process allows the similar act on the part of the majority, the members of the minority will vote-voice their judgment, indicate their preferences-under severe constraint. No true majority will can emerge under the circumstances.

We can extend this analysis now to the realm of contemporary politics in Western democracies. Let’s focus on the general situation in the United States of America today.

Whenever public programs are being cut, those who have their benefits reduced offer cries of need and those who feel for them cries of compassion. Yet whenever public programs are proposed, which also cuts out the benefits of those who need to pay for i t from higher taxes, it is contended that this is just the result of social life. After all, “we” have decided to fund social security, unemployment compensation, the national parks, public broadcasting, or whatnot, haven’t we? So it is no objection to this that some of us suffer losses, that some of us now have to forego benefits, experience reduced income which can lead to reduced quality of education, recreation, home life, dental care, transportation safety, cultural enrichment, and so forth. None of this is supposed to matter because “we” have decided to tax ourselves higher to fund all those public programs.2 Why is it that it is OK to violate the individual rights to liberty and property of millions of people when the lot of us decide to do this but not OK to reduce the benefits of people when a somewhat differently configured lot of us decided to do that? Why may the choices of some individuals be ignored and thwarted by democratic decision making but not that of others trumped by the same process? The fact is that most people who talk of and like democracy in the context of the currently bloated understanding, they do so only when it supports their agenda. It is fine to use democracy to rob the rich-it makes it valid public policy instead of theft. But if the poor are the targets than suddenly democracy is invalid.

Indeed, the reason is, as suggested earlier, that democracy is never enough. There must always be some specification of the goals for which democracy is appropriate. It isn’t enough to have a democratic process-it can lead to results of widely different quality. Sometimes the majority does right, sometimes wrong. And the task of political theory is, in part, to identify those areas of public life that should be subject to democratic decision making.
What are those areas? And why are they the ones?

Whether alone, or with one’s fellows, a human being may not do some things to other human beings. Especially no one may take over another’s life. This is so whether that other’s life is fortunate, well to do, talented, accomplished, and beautiful, accepted by others and freely granted benefits. In short, neither those who are fortunate—let alone those who are accomplished—nor those lacking in good fortune, are available for others to be used when permission hasn’t been granted, when consent is not given. In either kind of ca se, no one or group may take over another’s life-it amounts to the kind of crime classified, variously, as theft, robbery, assault, kidnapping, murder, battery, rape, and other forms of aggression. And the fact that the numbers of those who do such thing s is increased and even constitute a majority of those concerned makes no difference. Nor does the fact that some procedure has been followed as these policies are instituted, for lacking the consent, tacit or at least implicit, of those who are to be deprived, makes any such process invalid, unjust, undue.

It is wrong to steal on one’s own as well as with the support of millions. It is wrong to enslave, to place others into servitude when they refuse, etc., no matter whether one is in the minority or the majority.

Nor can majorities authorize certain people, such as their political representatives, to carry out such deeds, even if they do it indirectly, by threatening those whom they would rob, steal from, kidnap, assault or whatever with aggressive enforcement at the hands of the police. It is wrong, then, even for the government of a representative democracy or republic to carry out such deeds. Having done it with democratic “authorization” makes it no more right than if no such authorization had taken place. There i s simply no moral authority for anyone to delegate to another such powers since one hasn’t got them in the first place. If my friends and I enact an elaborate process, surrounded with pomp and circumstances, ritual and ornamentation, to commence kidnapping your children or confiscating your wealth, all this is morally and politically trumped by the fact that your consent to the process has been lacking. Unless you are a criminal, who has by his or her crime in effect tacitly agreed to accept our forcible (self-protective) response, you may not be intruded upon.3 Most of this is admitted by all the parties to the debate. This is why even when the people elect certain political representatives (for example, conservative Republicans), others (for example, liberal Democrats), often claim that what results, in terms of legislation, is wrong and should not have been done. They maintain this in various political forums that are supposedly the spheres of democratic decision making. So they evidently think t hat what the democratic process produces is not decisive as to what ought to be done. Even if a law passes, critics will call it wrong-heartless, unkind, lacking in compassion. Even supporters of legal positivism, who discount any moral dimension of the legislative process, such as the obligation to be guided by natural or divine law, will protest democratic attacks upon values other than democracy.4 Because no one simply accepts the answer to a challenge of a democratically arrived at result which the y find morally abhorrent that, well, it was brought about by way of the democratic process-”we” did it, so it’s OK, a matter of society’s collective will. (Even in criminal trials, the mini-democracy of jury verdict is governed by firm provisions of due process and with opportunities of appeal.)

It is, then, no valid answer to those who protest the taking of their life-time, income, good fortune or whatever by way of majority vote that, well, this is OK since it is done democratically. The violation of the rights of individuals is no less justified by democracy than is collective callousness. This raises the problem of how to be kind, compassionate, generous, and helpful to those in genuine need without violating the rights of individuals to their life, liberty and property? The answer is actually quite simple: Do it, promote it, and exhibit it by your own conduct! When members of a society learn that moral principles cannot justly be violated by the democratic process, so they may not violate anyone’s rights with the excuse that “we” did it so it’s OK, they learn, also, that when the right thing must be done, it has to be done by choice, free of coercion. So the help that the poor and needy should be given must be given at the initiative of the free citizen—via charity, generosity, philanthropy, and, yes, the facilitation of productive opportunity.

Interview on Argentine TV in 2001

This Interview was conducted on Argentine television, October 2001

Question: Do you have any explanation for the fact that the U.S. developed in the way it developed in the last two centuries, compared with its neighbors in Latin America – who didn’t develop that way?
Roughly speaking the answer is that the founders of the U.S. were people who had had it with monarchies “up to here” – they were opposed to top down government. They were not right in everything – they made mistakes – but their primary message was that it is not the king (government) who is the sovereign in a society – it is the individual members of the society who are sovereign. They rejected the status of the inhabitants of the society as subjects, and insisted that they were citizens who had basic rights The fact that they announced that in the Declaration of Independence – that everyone has the basic right to his or her life, liberty and pursuit of happiness and that the only function of government is to secure these rights – made the biggest difference, was the most revolutionary development of human political history. All the rest follows from there.
Even the mistakes they made, for example, about slavery or the treatment of the Native American “Indians,” could only be corrected in terms that they themselves laid down to guide the nature of social life, namely, in terms of individual human rights. It is not the family, the tribe, the clan, the ethnic group, or the nation but the individual human being who’s the most important “ingredient” in society.
All the other nations went along with that only willy-nilly, including Latin & Central American nations that were far less clear-cut in their opposition to monarchies, to top-down rule & society.

Question: What would you answer to philosophers like the guest we had program – a philosopher/professor at the University of Buenos Aires — who sustain that in general the problem with Latin America and the lack of development is excess of individualism, excess of selfishness and we should really in order to progress, to be part of the group, to consider ourselves part of a big type of animal where we are all involved with each other.
Poppycock is the American expression to that. I consider that completely wrong — way, way the “wrongest” answer you can give. It simply increases the power of some people [to reject individualism]. There is no such entity as the society. There’s no such as entity as the group. Those are all [conceptual and verbal] shortcuts to talking about people [in various associations with one another].
Whenever people bring up the community above individuals, they really mean that some individuals should have more power than other individuals. There is no escaping from that. Nobody who talks about the public interest vs the private interest really means some different interest. It’s some private interest that he prefers or that he considers more important vs other private interests.
I don’t know this gentleman who we are talking about but whenever people talk to me about how there’s too much individualism, and too much selfishness, that’s usually a code word for saying it’s some one else’s individualism, some one else’s selfishness that is to crowd out my individualism and my selfishness. In fact they have goals and I have goals and other people have goals. A proper society makes the realization of these goals peacefully possible. That’s what’s necessary.
There are corrupt versions of any kind of point of view including individualism. Individualism does not mean Robinson Crusoe on an island all by himself – self sufficient, unrelated to people. All individualists who have something to contribute to the discussion of political matters recognize that individuals flourish with other individuals, but not on just any terms. They have to be terms that respect the individual’s right to sovereignty in terms of which any individual should chose other individuals as members of the community. I ought to relate to friends, to relations, to colleagues, to neighbors, to fellow participants in the market place. It is better for me to do that, but not when they start violating my rights.

Question: But is it not the case, as some people sustain, that in general if you leave people alone in the market just in general, you have winners and losers, and there is no remedy to that. That in general some people will prevail over the other ones and will take advantage of them.
The market place is not a field of combat. It is field of peaceful, even friendly, competition. It’s not like a boxing ring; it’s more like a marathon race. Everybody moves forward and as long as people move forward, they sometimes drag other people forward. It’s not a zero sum game – it’s a mistaken view of the market. When there is freedom of competition, when there is freedom of enterprise, everybody gains.
Even egalitarians like John Rawls at Harvard, who’s the foremost political philosopher in the U.S. today, admit that in order to increase the common wealth of a country you need to allow for free competition. You need to allow that some people are going to get ahead faster in order for everyone to gain from this – gain that they make themselves for themselves. There is no reason to believe if you honestly look at it, that free people who respect one another’s rights become enemies of each other. They become friends/associates, of each other.

Question: Good. What I would like to review with you are some premises in general for philosophical talk, study by metaphysics in general. I would like to know, what’s the nature of reality for you?
The nature of reality is not “for me,” not for my thought. The nature of reality is what it is. This glass of water is a glass of water, whether you are a Hottentot, a German, a Japanese, or an American. It’s going to remain a glass of water until someone drinks it, then in which case, it will an empty glass of water.

Question: What about that sentence that says that everything is according to the way, the color that you see, and the different things?
No, partly because that mistakes awareness for influence. Awareness is awareness. As an analogy, when I grab a glass, I do not distort the glass. I simply pick it up; I adjust myself to the glass. When my mind becomes aware of the glass, it doesn’t distort the glass, it doesn’t make the glass into something else. You see, if you believe that it does, you are in very, very deep trouble because then your belief that that’s what’s going on is also intruded upon by your mind. Which leads to an infinite regress of distortions. There is no escape from it.
So even the people who propose that as we understand the world, we’re distorting it don’t believe that that insight is distorted and so they think something is objective, namely their understanding of the lack of objectivity between human beings and the world.

Question: I understand that, but what about relativism; is reality moving, always, in a process of changing, so you never can know it as it is, because there is always another approach. Knowledge should be obtained all the time. You never just reach a certain point where everything is known.
My response is that, if you have an unrealistic conception of what it is to know something – if in order to know that this is a glass of water, I have to have the final word on it – then knowledge is impossible. We are never here to eternity to get that final word. Knowledge is misconceived as the final word; it’s the best word on something. That is clearly possible. Even though I don’t know what may be discovered about this thing 10,000 years from now, I can know what has been discovered about it up to now. That is enough for me to know what it is. That’s all that knowledge means. Knowledge is not a promise for a finished product.

Question: I would like to know your definition of truth, according to what you said before.
Truth is a property of a belief, a judgment, or a sentence or a statement indicating that it accurately reflects what is in the world. If I say that you are wearing a dark suit; then this sentence is true just in case you are wearing a dark suit. If the suit is not dark, if you are not wearing a suit, or if you’re not even here, then this is not a true statement.

Question: So a lie is . . .
A lie is something very complicated. Now it’s not just a falsehood; a lie is an intentional falsehood. When someone deliberately says what is not the case, or what he believes is not the case –because by accident someone could lie and tell the truth – if he mistakenly thinks that something is the case, and he wants to deny it and it turns out the denial is true, then he lied and also told the truth.

Question: I want to know your opinion about miracles – and people feel well about it, and they feel like they are not transgressing their nature.
Well, they are wrong. They are transgressing their nature.

Question: What is your view of politicians?
Politicians are often criminals in disguise and this is a very sad thing and they have been like that from the time of Caesar’s and pharaohs up to today. There is no big mystery, really: they routinely rationalize their stealing and today, for example, call it redistribution of wealth, helping the poor children, or the orphans or those who are sick. It all a ruse; it’s all a charade, it’s quackery. The fact is that politicians have one job to do. That is to protect our rights, so that we can proceed with our lives peacefully. Then if we need to help people, we need to exercise the virtue of generosity. We need to be charitable. It is not charitable to steal from you and give to me who may need some help. That is theft, not charity.

Question: The idea behind this is: that we need education, somebody needs help; somebody needs to build new houses for the poor.
The “we” tends to disguise what is going on here. Granted, parents need to give their children an education, if they cannot give their children the proper education, they should not have children. It is malpractice for them to multiply without the facility to bring up their children in a helpful, flourishing way.

Question: Not allow poor people to have kids?
I’m not prohibiting them from having kids. I’m simply insisting when they have kids, they need to take care of them or ask for help from willing others and not rob other people who have goals – an artist has the goal to paint or write or compose, a scientist to study the universe, etc. These people’s goals are just as important as those parents who didn’t think before they had children. They do not have the right or the authority to take these other people’s resources and convert them to their goals. Not without their permission.
Politicians pretend that they do have this authority, which they don’t have. Legally they do, but that simply means they have the army behind them. In fact, morally speaking no one has the right to steal from another – even for a very good purpose, even for an excellent purpose. Suppose I am the most wonderful artist in the world, I compose the most beautiful music, but I am too poor to buy a piano and buy sheet music. I don’t have a right to go over and steal from you your resources that you might even squander or gambling away. As long as it comes from you, as long as it is something you’ve created from your assets, from your resources, you are entitled to dispose of those things as you see fit – even when you do it wrongly. I may criticize you; I may beg you to do it right, but I may not send the police out to reform you in my image.
This is the nature of civilization. Civilization means treating other human beings with attention to their reasoning capacity and abstaining from the use of force – even for very good objectives.

Question: So the only proper role of government is justice. No other role, like the one mentioned before – education, or just building houses for the poor or security.
A proper government is a like a referee at a game. There could be all kinds of things going on in the audience, on the playing field. Some of the players might need help, may need to be consoled because they lost the last round, but the referee must keep his/her integrity and uphold the rules, and not get involved in other things. There are other parts of society that take care of that – of charity, of generosity, of philanthropy, of business, or competition. The role of the government is to be the guardian of the rules of the free society. Those rules consist of defending individual rights; making sure that nobody gains some advantage through force and that all advantages are gained voluntarily, peacefully. Even if the advantages are huge; peace, justice is what the government is obligated to secure; not some other goals, which are perfectly OK for other people to strive for.

Question: You mentioned rights – to defend individual rights – don’t people have the right to have a job, for example in the country with such unemployment is 14%?
Consider for example if I had a right to have employment. That means I have a right for other people to buy my goods or services. Other people would then have to be conscripted – forced – in order to give me this job. They would have an obligation to buy things from me, to use my goods and services. They would not just have perhaps a moral responsibility but also a legally enforceable obligation. That would place them into involuntary servitude to me.

Question: So you don’t think people have a right to a job?
Of course not. Jobs are created through trade and exchange – through voluntary trade; to people’s free consent to use the services of those offer those services for sale. That what brings about jobs.

Question: Why in this society don’t we have jobs? And people are unemployed?
That’s a historical question. Very often the reason for that is that business, commerce, labor, is stymied – it’s blocked, there are protectionist measures that are introduced to protect some industry and give them an advantage over other industries. That keeps production enterprise down. Consider for example the fact that in the U.S., which is a welfare state, but a milder version of a welfare state, compared to France, Germany, or Argentina to some extent. There is a fairly open employment market. When you get hired by an employer he/she isn’t required to immediately give you life-long benefits. That means that more people enter the market with new ideas, with new projects, because they are not afraid that the moment they enter the market, they would be over-burdened with all these obligations to their employees. So there is more work, there are more jobs, there is more employment and they have an unemployment rate of around 4% compared to Germany where you start a business, you immediately have to promise your employees life-long security. That creates a depression of enterprise. People cannot afford to enter new enterprises and to risk assuming all these burdens they didn’t choose.

Question: What about income tax?
If you consider the origin of taxation, you will have an understanding why I will answer you the way I will. Taxation was at home in a feudal system where the king owned everything. Taxes were the rents the kings collected on other people working their property, on their land. It all belonged to the king; the king owned everything. So taxes were a form of payment to gain the king’s permission to work there. But once you change the idea of politics away from the sovereignty of the king to the sovereignty of the individuals in a society, taxation lost its rationale. Now taxation is anomaly – a strange thing in most western societies. Here we are basically paying someone because they won’t let us work without paying them. That’s called extortion. That’s what the Mafia does. It goes to a shop owner and says if you do not pay me something, I’ll burn down your shop. That’s like the government coming to say, if you don’t give me part of your income, I’ll not let you work.

Question: But how do you fight this?
That’s an interesting question. Ask yourself that question in another context. Suppose you were used to a government establishing a religion in a country. Now you suggest that that should no longer be the case. People will scratch their head and say, then how would you have worship in a country if a government does not establish it? Look at the U.S. – the government is explicitly prohibited from establishing a church. Do you know how much religion that there is in the U.S.? A lot. Everybody goes to church. Almost 90% of the people profess to be in God, and go to church. Religion did not die because the government does not protect it. Now, there’s the same question – how would legal services be funded in a society in which robbery or extortion by the government is prohibited. It has to be done by charging a fee for the services for the government should provide.

Question: What is the role of democracy in such a context?
You’re jumping ahead a little bit too fast. But my basic answer to the previous question is contract fees. You charge a fee for all written contracts in order to provide the legal background within which contracts can be adjudicated and protected – that requires police, courts, military, etc. If you confine a government to its proper role, then this will be sufficient to pay for it.

Question: In Argentina, the gross national product is 300 billion – and in general the government is taking a hundred billion of it. Would you consider that an excess?
Highway robbery. This is some people living off the backs of other people. There is no question in my mind about this. No matter how nice a rationalization for this, no matter how saintly you think politicians are, the fact is that they are robbing people of their lively-hood for purposes to which those people have not agreed.

Question: So if our president had the chance to look at the program right now and if you could give him some advice, what would you say?
Scale down the scope of the government. Not so much it’s size, but it’s scope. It needs to focus on protecting the rights of the citizenry – not on building roads, not on building sports arenas, not about protecting some industries against others, and regulating people – confine yourself to the honorable task that a politician truly should be loyal to – that is, defending individual rights.

Question: Shouldn’t the government impose science?
No! That is not its business – any more than it is its business to promote religion or to promote sports. That’s not the government’s business – the government is agent of force. Just like you can only use force when you defend yourself – not in accomplishing something with me. If I don’t give you the right answer, you can’t come over and hit me in the head, right? You have to plead with me for the right answer. Similarly the government should never use force except in defense against criminals or outside aggressors. Any other use is illegitimate use of its tools.

Question: Aren’t you defending the concept of government that was the concept in the 18th century?

Question: There is no room for government – what is going to happen to the poor people?
First of all, there is a role for legal authorities to defend people’s rights. Within the context of having your rights effectively, properly defended by this legal authority, all kinds of charitable, philanthropic – kind, compassionate arrangements can reign. In fact, free societies are far more generous than coerced societies. You don’t see Iraq sending a lot of foreign aid to people – you see America doing so much more. There’s a great deal more scholarship and voluntary help when people are free. Because generosity and charity – in order for them to be true virtues have to be chosen – they cannot be coerced. Any form of coerced good behavior no longer is good behavior. It is simply regimented behavior. Now as far as sacrifice is concerned, it is true that I do not believe that the primary role of human beings in life is to sacrifice themselves. Notice the consequences of thinking so. Suppose you do believe that I should sacrifice myself for you – and then you believe that you should sacrifice yourself for somebody else and on and on and on. Who are the beneficiaries? So the only thing that could mean in any rational sense is that when people are in a special needy situation, in some emergency, when they have through no fault of their own, become in dire straits, when they are very much in need of some help, then we should take up pause with our attempts to flourish in life, and get ahead in life, and pay some attention to them. That’s what the virtue of generosity urges us to do. That was occasional charity – that’s what contributions to philanthropic groups – that’s why we should do that because people are in special circumstances – sometimes. But that shouldn’t be generalized into an overall ethics. That is, in Aristotle’s tradition, the greatest virtue is to think rationally – and thinking rationally will guide you to when to be courageous, when to be prudent, when to be honest, when to be moderate, when to be generous. Generosity shouldn’t be wasted on frivolous things; it should be exercised when genuine need from deserving people warrant it.

Question: So there is nothing wrong with accumulating wealth according to your views.
Nothing at all.

Question: Why do you think that a person that is accumulating wealth in our society is not seen well?
There are many reasons for that. Different people have different reasons and some people have a combination of reasons that leads them to think that way. Part of it is envy, part of it is resentment, part of it is the belief – an ancient belief – that this earth is not worth living for – that the only worthwhile lives are lives that are devoted to supernatural realm, to a spiritual existence. To some extent this is enhanced by some religions – not all religions. One of the reasons that in Christian Europe Jews were resented so much is that first they were excluded from ordinary professions, and the professions that they thought they could do – finance, banking – the Christians didn’t think they could do, so the Jews became rich and successful. Then suddenly everyone resented them, and eventually that is one of the major causes of the holocaust – this resentment toward the success of Jews whose religion did not prohibit them from striving for wealth. The only time Jesus became violent is against moneylenders. That’s a clue to the attitude toward riches – toward wealth gaining – that we’ve had in much of western society – especially other societies. When Saddam Hussein wanted to denounce the U.S. during the Gulf War, his major accusation was “you are materialistic”. But in fact what wealth seeking amounts to is seeking prosperity. Seeking success in a certain realm of one’s life. That’s not the most important thing, but that is one important thing – just like health. What are people who seek good health? After all they are healthy in this world; once their dead, health is not going to do them any good. Why don’t we resent people who go to doctors? Who seek help from medicine. . . we don’t resent them. Why don’t we resent people who seek health from nutrition? We don’t, because we generally recognize that a proper concern for one’s well being here on earth is a commendable, respectable objective. People who make wealth; they just don’t make wealth for them, they make wealth for their families, for their friends, for their organizations they believe in. For example, Bill Gates gives around hundred million dollars even billions of dollars sometimes to causes in which he believes. Just because there is a proper role for charity and generosity, it does not authorize the government to come in and play highway robber with the phony promise that they will allocate the wealth that they have stolen to the right cause.

Question: So your are not happy with the Robin Hood concept . . .
Well if you remember Robin Hood stole not from the rich but from the tax takers. He took the taxes back and returned to those from whom the taxes were taken. So Robin Hood was a good guy; he took only from those who first stole. He didn’t redistribute wealth that was honestly earned. That’s an interesting thing that is misunderstood about Robin Hood. There are many misunderstandings that people invoke to justify their criminality,

Question: Protectionism – do you think it’s a proper tool for development?
Protectionism is just a nice word for intruding on business. If I have a barbershop, and you have a barbershop, and you cut hair for a lower price than I. Am I entitled to hire some big fellow to stop at your door all the customers who go to your barbershop?

Question: Of course not.
Well then, that’s protectionism. That’s the bottom line of protectionism. Getting government with its armies, with its police – to protect some people against the competition in the marketplace.

Question: But what about the people we are protecting – our industrialists against foreigners?
There is no “our” vs “foreigners” in a marketplace. We don’t have “our vs. theirs.” It’s a form of discrimination that should be resented just as much as any sort of ethnic or sexist discrimination is. Any sort of protection should be given to individual rights – and let the rest of it play itself out, as freely combining and interacting human beings will.

Question: It is said that the U.S. develops itself thanks to protectionism.
It may very well be true to some extent. The U.S. has done that – and it was wrong for it to do so. It shouldn’t have advanced its own economic well being by barring others from competition. To the extent that it is done so, it was wrong. That’s true of all countries that practice protectionism. There is no excuse for it – it’s all a pretense; they are all farmers – they are human beings. If they honestly produce, they should be able to honestly trade.

Tibor, thank you very much for this lesson.

Column on Are Corporations Persons?

Are Corporations Persons?

Tibor R. Machan

Actually, no one thinks corporations are persons but some do believe they are groups of persons. No one thinks orchestras, or football teams or universities are persons but many do think they are variously configured people. If this is so, then they, as groups of persons, have rights, including the right to private property and freedom of speech.

When people come together for some common purpose, they do not lose their basic human rights. So all the hollering about how the recent Supreme Court ruling about whether corporations have the right to engage in political advocacy, based on the allegation that corporations aren’t persons, is off base.

Even those who oppose the ruling implicitly acknowledge the above. Thus Justice Stevens, the major dissenter on the Court, wrote, that “[T]he distinctive potential of corporations to corrupt the electoral process [has] long been recognized.” But only persons can corrupt something! Theodore Roosevelt advocated prohibiting “all contributions by corporations to any political committee or for any political purpose.” And this, too, implies that corporations are made up of people, people who have rights! There is no other way corporations can make contributions–buildings, trees, land, the sea, none of these can make contributions, only people can. Ergo, corporations are people!

In any case, I have no idea what else corporations would be. Yes, they have some kind of legal identity but that is completely derivative of their being made up of people. Usually, it is a bunch of people who get together and incorporate–now that monarchs no longer create such associations–which is to say they form a specific type of organization, usually involving pooling some resources and hiring specialists to administer these resources either for profitable or non-profitable purposes. But whichever it is, it is persons who are doing this and nothing else. You may not like those types of persons but in a democracy they have the right to obtain and wield political power.

Now it is true that when people unite with one another, they tend to gain in influence, even power, if power is at issue. Sadly, given how much politics is not a matter of upholding principles, as the American Founders envisioned it, but of confiscating funds and then distributing them–that whole redistribution thing that candidate Obama had out with Joe “the Plumber”–having united powers can go a long way to gaining political clout. But this has nothing to do with corporations as such, which are perfectly benign outfits unless they commit crimes, just as this is so with individual citizens.

So then what is up with all the corporate bashing? Mostly that if you aren’t a part of the corporation but a lot of others are, it is they and not you who will wield more political power. And if one believes in democratic politics, why complain about this? If a huge company, owned by thousands of stockholders and other investors, exerts power, such is democracy. You cannot cherry pick which group of citizens should get democratic power and which should be ignored.

The remedy for out of control corporate political influence and power is to limit democracy to very few tasks in the country, such as the selection of public officials. They will then represent those who elected them but not by doing them special favors but by helping in extending the principles of the country to new and uncharted areas of the law.

I am no corporate attorney, nor a constitutional scholar but our legal system must make sense to all citizens, not just to experts. And as a plain, ordinary citizen it seems to me that all the derision extended toward corporations amounts to rank prejudice, bias, as a generalized dislike of movie actors or farmers would be. This is nothing to be proud of, that’s for sure, even if it is widely accepted and practiced. So was racial prejudice once. Not that those who have shares or manage corporations are all fine people, not by a long shot, but neither are all doctors, teachers, engineers or bureaucrats upstanding citizens. At any given time the bulk of the members of a professional could be engaged in malpractice or be decent in how they conduct themselves.

But there is no reason to suspect those who own or run corporations of any greater predilection toward malpractice than anyone else. Sometimes, of course, they operate in a system that encourages corruption, which the welfare state clearly does, what with all the selling and buying of political favors it involves. And big firms will probably be able to get more from politicians than little ones. That, however, is the problem of the system, not of any given profession.