Posts tagged Robert Nozick

Column on the Bottom Line on Obama-Economics

The bottom line on Obama-economics!

Tibor R. Machan

Economic fairness is impossible: an oxymoron. Since economic activities are inherently varied and often competitive and since one size doesn’t fit all and not everyone can win in a competition, no such thing as fairness is possible unless it simply means no one may be prevented from taking part. Certainly, however, the outcome will most likely be very different for different participants.

The sort of fairness and equality President Obama and his supporters are after maybe achieved around a family or fraternity dinner table or in a last will and testament where goods are being distributed among family members who each expect the fulfillment of an implied promise from elders to receive a “fair share” of the wealth left to them. “Fair” here makes sense since the idea is that no one is going to get much less or more than another. But no such expectation makes any sense throughout a country! The government owns nothing and can thus leave nothing to the citizenry without engaging in massive redistribution of wealth it doesn’t have any authority to distribute or redistribute.

When fairness is demanded, it implies that the government does have the authority to assign winners and losers in the economic sphere. As if we still lived in a monarchy awaiting the decision of the king as to who will be the beneficiary of his largess. All the subjects can hope they will receive a fair share of the wealth of the country.

But in a free country, with the principle of private property rights as the law of the land, the king or government has no business engaging in wealth distribution so the issue of fairness is entirely moot. It’s a dream and where attempted, it leads to a police state. All that Mr. Obama needs to do to appreciate this is to read George Orwell’s Animal Farm, a wonderful parable about what happens when equality is demanded and government tries to produce it. He might also check out the late Robert Nozick’s famous Wilt Chamberlain example, from this book Anarchy, State, and Utopia (1973) where he shows that when goodies are fairly distributed among people they will turn right around a rearrange it all so the “fair” distribution is completely upset.

Or if he wants real life cases from which to take lessons, Obama & Co. might remember the Soviet Union and investigate how things are panning out in that heavenly egalitarian country, North Korea. They could perhaps consider that in Cuba the rulers are finally realizing the futility of the socialist-egalitarian ideal and are making changes to turn the place into more and more of a free market system.

Still, there will always be those who want to level the economy. The main reason is the misguided conviction that we are, after all, in the same boat, just as are the children in a family. But the government isn’t like our parents who have made a promise to care for all their children. We aren’t the children of Mr. Obama and his administration! To try to serve us all with all the benefits that parents owe to their offspring would be futile and invites totalitarianism.

Parents, after all, own their resources and owe some of it to their children; this is not the case with governments and the citizenry. They don’t own anything at all without confiscating it. At most they may do this up to what is needed for administering the laws of the land–providing the citizenry with national defense and a sound legal system and its maintenance. Even some of this can be achieved without much government management. After all, who is the government but other citizens who have been hired to do a rather limited job in the country. It is up to the citizenry to secure for themselves economic growth, solvency, innovation, investment, etc. To attempt anything more would involve the government in tasks that free citizens aren’t entitled to.

Sadly Obama & Co. see the country as it if were some club or team where everyone is part of it and needs the same treatment as everyone else. But a country is not a club or a team–those are the results of free men and women coming together voluntarily for a great variety of purposes. The government of such free men and women must not get involved with what the clubs are embarking upon, be it business, athletics, education, entertainment or whatever else peaceful such folks will embark upon. Like the proverbial cop on the beat, the government isn’t there to pick the goals and tasks of those whom they serve in a limited capacity of securing their rights. It’s there to keep the peace, that is all!

Essay on Are Societies Owned?

Are Societies Owned?

Tibor R. Machan

Libertarians tend to view taxation as unjustified. It is something associated with statism, a kind of coercive institution that expropriates resources from members of society rather than securing the resources voluntarily. Statists, however, criticize the libertarian view, claiming that in a way taxation is voluntary, only apparently not so. Such defenders of statism as Liam Murphy and Thomas Nagel, in their book The Myth of Ownership,[1] have made this case and they have done so along lines worth some attention here.

Assume you wish to sell antiques, so you rent space in a building owned by someone and agree that whenever you make a sale, some of what you fetch goes to the owner. Craig Duncan claims this is analogous to the nature of taxation. The country is like the building. “The building’s owner … charges vendors a percentage of their sales intake—say, 20 percent—as payment for the opportunity to sell from one of the building’s stalls…. The owner is not stealing [the vendor’s] money when he demands this sum from [the vendor].”[2] According to Duncan it is by comparison to this kind of situation that taxation ought to be understood, not, as I and other libertarians argue, as extortion by some members of society (the government) of the rest who live and work there or, as Nozick claimed, as something on par with forced labor.[3]

But the analogy is a bad one. No one owns a free society. No one who lives in a free society is provided with the opportunity to strike up a deal with some owner of that society or to choose, from among different owners of societies, in which he or she might live and work.

Instead, people would be born into a free society where others, including their parents, relatives, or guardians, own homes, places of work and so on. Other people—the government—would not have the authority to coerce them into paying them “taxes” and to put them in jail if they refuse to pay up, with no chance of bargaining about the percentage, of whether to pay a flat fee (whether they win or lose in their various commercial endeavors), a percentage of some possible take and so forth.

All of these latter options are, however, possible when an antique seller rents a stall from someone who owns a building where customers may seek out vendors. But free societies, unlike the place where an antique vendor may or may not rent a stall, are not anyone’s property.

Professor Duncan does, however, correctly describe societies that are not free. In a feudal system, for example, the king or tzar or other monarch owns the society. In a dictatorship the dictator is the owner. In fascist societies the leader in effect owns the society. And in democracies that aren’t governed by a constitution that protects individual rights the majority owns the society. These owners then charge a rent from those they permit to live and work on their property.

That kind of system is, indeed, the natural home of the institution of taxation. Such societies are also the natural home of serfdom, where others than those who own it live and work only when permitted to do so. They have no rights other than those granted at the discretion of the owners. Both serfdom and taxation arise naturally in societies that are owned by someone.

In free societies, however, no one owns the society. Individual citizens may or may not own all kinds of things in such free societies—land, apartments, family homes, farms, factories, and innumerable other items that may be found before human beings have expropriated them from the wilds or what has been produced by or traded back and forth among the free citizenry.

Of course, in complex, developed free societies the citizenry will most likely have instituted a legal order or government, based on the principles of freedom—individual rights to life, liberty and property, for example. And they will probably have instituted some means by which those administering such a system will be paid for their work—user fees, shares of wealth owned, a flat sum, or something more novel and unheard of (e.g., contract fees). Citizens can come together, roughly along lines of how the original American colonists came together, and establish a legal order or government that will be empowered, without violating anyone’s rights, to provide for a clear definition, elaboration, and defense of everyone’s rights. Then, once such a group of citizens has come together and instituted a government with just powers—powers that do not violate but protect individual rights—the proper funding of the work of such a government can be spelled out.

What is crucial here is that such funding must occur voluntarily, namely, as the kind of funding that does not violate anyone’s rights. Unlike the case Professor Duncan gives us, where someone has prior ownership over the various items in society that can be owned, in a free society ownership is achieved through various types of free action. This includes coming upon something unowned and appropriating it—land, trees, lakes, whatever—or being given in trade various things by others or, again, being born into the world with various assets or attributes that may well be used to create wealth through production, use or exchange.

A truly free society, then, does not belong to anyone but is a region wherein individuals are free to come to own things. It is one within which those who live there are free to embark on actions that involve, among other things, the acquisition of property. That is part of being free, not being coerced by others to give up what one has peacefully acquired, not be prohibited by others from embarking on various actions, including peaceful acquisition (including production and trade).

In short, a free society is based on principles of individual rights, not on having gained permission from prior owners of the society on analogy with how a renter of a stall in an antique mall comes into possession of that stall. In free societies ownership is a right everyone has by his or her nature as a human being and it isn’t granted as a privilege by a prior owner, ad infinitum.
[1] Liam Murphy and Thomas Nagel, The Myth of Ownership (London: Oxford University Press, 2002).

[2] Craig Duncan & Tibor R. Machan, Libertarianism, For and Against (Rowman & Littlefield, 2005), p. 46.

[3] Robert Nozick, Anarchy, State, and Utopia (New York: Basic Books, 1974).

Column on Inequality


Tibor R. Machan*

Much consternation is spent on income and related inequality. Or call it unequal advantages in life. As if it were some kind of moral or political imperative that we must all enjoy equal benefits and burdens, though few will say why that would be a good thing or why it is right to aim for it, considering that throughout nature inequality is clearly the norm.

Isaiah Berlin is supposed to have stated that equality is a virtual axiomatic norm of social-political life, so Amartya Sen, the Harvard Nobel Laureate in economic science tells us in his book The Idea of Justice (2009). Professor Martha Nussbaum of the University of Chicago Laws School and Philosophy Department also adheres to this idea. Indeed, it is widely embraced by philosophers at the top schools everywhere. It has made its appearance in political history mainly in the writings of the French philosopher Jean Jacques Rousseau.

Yet, as hard as I have tried to locate an argument for the idea, I haven’t been able to find any. Even as a matter of moral intuition, something many contemporary thinkers in ethics favor, it doesn’t appear to be plausible that everyone ought to be enjoying the same conditions of life and that when they don’t, it becomes a political and legal imperative to rearrange things so that they will. It was the late Robert Nozick who in his famous book Anarchy, State, and Utopia (1973) advanced an argument against the intuitive power of egalitarianism. He did this with his famous Wilt Chamberlain thought experiment in which we are all equally well off but then many of us decide to contribute some of our resources to Wilt so we can see him play his fabulous basketball game, which immediately upsets the supposedly desirable equality among us all since, of course, Wilt will be but the rest of us will not be very rich. So this will require constant readjustment, wealth redistribution, by the government which will of course have to be very powerful, much more so that the rest of us, and this once again shows that inequality is unavoidable.

Of course, we have different kinds of equality before us and some do appear to be imperative, such as equal protection of our rights in the legal system. But this is about a procedural matters, not about results. But perhaps the fact of our humanity alone supports the equality that egalitarians promote? Yet while people are alike in all of them being human, this itself goes hand in hand with immense legitimate diversity and inquality among us.
Just take a peak around you and confirm the plain fact that inequality is everywhere–in talents, beauty, athletic prowess, luck (good and bad), etc., etc. And there is, of course, that fact of the widespread inequality of wealth enjoyed by us, the inequality that appears to annoy so many people. I am not convinced it really is since we all live with it day in and out everywhere and peace still prevails among most of us. No doubt there are people who are heavily beset with envy and for them all inequality of advantage justifies massive political efforts to even things out. (Consider Occupy Wall Street as a case in point!)

Of course in some areas equality is imperative, if only to make things more interesting. For example, in foot races and such the competitors all start at the same point–none is supposed to enjoy an unequal advantage, at least not in their initial positioning. (Yet even there, some start with a good night’s sleep behind them, others with nerves having kept them awake all night long.) The oft mentioned “level playing field” is a myth, too, since while the field may be level in some cases, much else isn’t.

In life, including human affairs, inequality is routine. What matters is that whatever inequality exists not be the result of violence, if coercion. If my fellow marathon runners are unequal in their readiness for the race, so be it. But if they try to undermine the readiness of their competitors by spiking their breakfast or water bottles or tripping them up during the race, that’s where things become intolerable. Similarly with wealth. If you are Bill Gates or Warren Buffet but got there peacefully, without using force against those who didn’t, such is life and upsetting it merely increases the coercive power of some people (thus introducing the most insidious form of inequality among human beings).

So unlike in the wilds where many animals rule others by means of physical strength and brutality, in human society advantages are to be gained and kept without resorting to force or fraud. Once those are ejected from the sphere, the outcome cannot be objectionable other than as a matter of a wish or hope. Even those would be unbecoming, which is why envy is a vice, not some admirable sentiment toward those who are well off.

*Tibor Machan is the author of Equality, So Badly Misunderstood (2010).

Column on Hail Sandel

Hail Sandel!

Tibor R. Machan

Thomas Friedman, prominent New York Times columnist, recently penned a kudos to Harvard University professor of government Michael J. Sandel because Sandel received some fine notices recently in China Newsweek (not part of the American publication). Friedman could hardly contain his glee since Sandel’s ideas are the opposite of those of the American political (Lockean) tradition.

In a column of mine a while back I wrote this: “One famous scholar who finds this [that we have rights but no innate obligations] very annoying is Professor Michael J. Sandel, so much so that his recently published, Justice, What is the Right Thing to do? [Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2009] based on his very popular PBS TV and Harvard University lectures by that same term, begins with a frontal attack on libertarianism [a la the late Robert Nozick]. Sandel’s central complaint is that libertarianism doesn’t acknowledge that everyone has unchosen obligations to society. The famous American and classical liberal idea that government must be consented to by the governed is tossed aside for this reactionary idea that when you are born you are already legally ensnared in innumerable duties to others which, of course, government is authorized to extract from you. The idea, most forcefully defended by the French father of sociology, Auguste Comte, is a ruse and used mostly to make people into serfs, subject them to involuntary servitude, however noble sounding the sentiments behind it.”

It is simple enough to see why a government-sanctioned Chinese publication–kind of like the Soviet Union’s Pravda or Izvestia–approves of Sandel’s ideas. They certainly serve to rationalize state power over the citizens of a country. If you and I are born with positive duties to others–God, the world, the majority, that government, whoever–and government is the enforcer of obligations (as when it enforces those created by contracts), then citizens are clearly servants. Involuntary servitude is then every citizen’s proper role. And government gets to make sure that this service that’s due is efficiently and promptly extracted from us.

Professor Sandel champions these ideas not from a society with a strong statist tradition in its politics and law but from the United States of America which is associated with the classical liberal/libertarian political tradition. So now Chinese communists need not invoke Marx, Lenin, or Mao, whose reputation has plummeted in recent decades, so as to buttress their public policy of coercion against the citizenry. They can point to a famous Harvard University American political philosopher instead. Here is a star academic from the leader of the free world, as the US used to be called, endorsing what is normal practice in statist countries, ones where natural individual rights are denied and rights have become government granted privileges. (Another famous American academic who see things this way is, of course, President Obama’s friend and former University of Chicago Law School colleagues, Cass Sunstein!)

In the American tradition government’s just powers are supposedly derived from the consent of those whom government governs. As the Declaration put it, “to secure these rights [i.e., those negative one’s the Declaration lists], governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed….” Which clearly implies that (a) our rights don’t come from government but must be secured by it, and (b) the government’s authority is based on the citizenry’s consent not on some kind of innate obligation government must collect on by subjugating the citizenry.

Now this bona fide American idea cannot possibly sit well with the Chinese authorities. It is far more likely that those authorities will endorse Professor Sandel’s notion where the citizenry’s consent is not necessary to impose various obligations on them to come up with labor and resources for the government to use as it sees fit. (Which, of course, means for other people, a select few, to do this!)

And the folks at The New York Times, including regular and very prominent columnist Thomas Friedman (constantly feature on PBS’s News Hour and by Fareed Zakaria on his GPS CNN program), cannot but be pleased with Sandel, just as the Chinese communists are, since they also hold that government is supreme and the people are born with numerous unchosen obligations it must enforce.

Column on Where Multiculturalism is OK

Where Multiculturalism is OK

Tibor R. Machan

It is reported that France’s, England’s and Germany’s leaders have issued an announcement claiming that multiculturalism is a failure. But are they right? Or perhaps it is more likely that implementing multiculturalism the way it has been tried in these and many other countries cannot work? Multiculturalism requires a particular kind of legal system. Not any will do.

What is multiculturalism? For political purposes it is the idea that members of different cultures can co-exists within a given legal order. But what order might that be? (There is an untenable philosophical idea of multiculturalism which holds that every culture is equally sound, equally well suited to human community life, which is clearly bunk.)

Now if members of different cultures are expected to co-exists as in the same family or fraternity or church, there will be serious problems, irresolvable conflicts afoot. Take those who believe in polygamy or who think women must not show any skin in public. Surely close coexistence between such folks and others who don’t share these practices is going to be difficult. But impossible?

In a society that strictly upholds the principle of private property rights the potential for conflict among members of even radically different cultures and religions is drastically curtailed. This is fairly obvious–if you stick to your own place as you practice your culture’s edicts and principles, you are not going to run into much opposition. Frank can do his bull fighting in his arena but you need not join him and can ban it where you are in charge. I can marry as many women as will have me where I am the owner of the realm while you can insist on the practice of monogamy where you are.

Crisscrossing the various cultures in such a society would be by mutual consent. No one would be required to admit into his or her realm those of whose cultural practices one disapproves. Catholics would not need to accept the practices of Jews or Muslims or atheists where they are the proprietors. And the examples can multiply endlessly.

Now it has to be admitted that there are limits to what a regime of private property can make room for as far as diverse practices are concerned. It would not be permitted to intrude upon other people who don’t consent to such intrusion. One could not trespass on to other people’s land and various spheres either. So if one’s culture demands that one invade the spaces of others, that would not be permissible. But that is a restriction that everyone should be able to live with since if one’s practices are important, they would be important mainly to oneself and one’s fellow faithful or cultural mates. To impose these on non-believers could not be necessary so as to be loyal to the creed.

It was the late Harvard political philosopher Robert Nozick who called attention to this feature of a genuine free society. He called it “experiments in utopia”–innumerable different approaches to community life carried out side by side with the only common requirement that everyone’s basic rights, especially private property rights, are respected and protected. In his powerful book, Anarchy, State, and Utopia (Basic Books, 1974), he argued that while other systems demand a one size fits all policy for everyone to follow, in a free society there is room for a great variety of ways to live.

America in a way approximates this and has done so all along. Maybe more of that is what we need to create peace among people. And maybe that is one reason why some Americans hope that their ways are going to spread around the globe.

In contrast, consider the religious conflicts in Jerusalem where three different faiths are all laying claim to one realm instead of dividing it and living peacefully together. The public square can never be truly multicultural while a group of private ones definitely can.