Posts tagged slavery

Column on Stoning & The Times

Stoning & The Times

Tibor R. Machan

Do I search for hypocrisies among my adversaries? Not especially, only when it is too obvious to miss. And what if anything is wrong with hypocrisy? So what if you are a liar but make a big deal about condemning lying in your neighbor? Why is that a problem?

In this era when major political figures denounce ideological–by which they of course have in mind principled–thinking, why should one be consistent, show integrity? Those are not the virtues of sophisticates. Those are pedestrian ideals. As our president pointed out–in the pedagogical, finger-wagging fashion he tends to employ–”the stale political arguments that have consumed us for so long no longer apply. The question we ask today is not whether our government is too big or too small, but whether it works….” So whether the government is a totalitarian tyranny or a dictatorship isn’t of concern–the only issue is, does it work, which leaves entirely unaddressed what it is supposed to work for!

Anyway my issue here is hypocrisy and my candidate for the hypocrite of the week is The New York Times, which in last Sunday’s Week in Review section ran an essay titled “Crime (Sex) and Punishment (Stoning).” Maybe I am overly suspicious but this piece struck me as bending over backwards not to be too harsh on those societies in which stoning people–especially women–for sex crimes is acceptable. But what makes me suspicious?

Well, consider just a few remarks from the piece. “Much of the outrage these [stoning] cases generated–apart from the sheer anachronism of stoning in the 21st century–seems to stem from the gulf between sexual attitudes in the West and parts of the Islamic world, where radical movements have turned to draconian punishments, and a vision of restoring a long-lost past, in their search for religious authenticity.” “Stoning is not practiced only among Muslims, nor did it begin with Islam.” “Stoning is a legal punishment in only a handful of Muslim countries–in addition to Iran, they include Saudi Arabia, Somalia, Sudan, Pakistan and Nigeria, but it is very rarely put to use.” “But Islamic law requires very strict conditions for a stoning sentence….” “Some scholars even argue that the stoning penalty is meant more as a symbolic warning against misbehavior….” and “In any case, societies evolve….”

As I see it these bits tell a story of temptation, the temptation of reckless multiculturalism, of cultural and legal relativism. OK, but so what? Well, I was thinking as I was reading these sentences in the Old Gray Lady how would it go over if this is how some writer discussed, say, slavery, ethnic prejudice or the subjugation of women in the West? I doubt it would fly so well.

This bending over backwards so as to be understanding toward cultures in which stoning human beings is regarded as a proper form of punishment–right now in the 21st century–seems to me to show an ideological bias on the part of the editors of The Times. And that bias is that whenever flaws in American history, law, social practices, and such are being discussed, there is no mercy; Americans are held to far higher standards than are those in Muslim cultures, for example.

Not only is this objectionable because it is unjust toward America but also because it is insulting toward Muslims. Somehow the latter do not qualify to be judged by the standards of humanity applicable to Americans and Westerners, it appears. Are they not human enough for that? Is there something inferior about Muslims so when they act in brutal, barbaric ways what is important to mention is that societies evolve? Should this kind of tolerance be accepted vis-a-vis Muslims but not antebellum Southerners who felt, often most sincerely, that slavery was OK? What about all the male chauvinists who thought of women as too emotional for scientific and other kind of work? Are we to think of them all as simply part of “societies [that] evolve”?

I am not about to venture to try to solve the problem of cultural diversity concerning some important human practices and institutions but I thought it worth calling attention to the anti-Western, anti-American bias at The Times.

On Distributive Justice

On Distributive Justice

Tibor R. Machan

For a long time political philosophers and such were interested in identifying the nature of justice. It started with Socrates and lasted to when John Stuart Mill did his work, although by that time there had been talk of this thing called distributive justice. By now most political theorists dwell on little else.

Yet I have never quite understood why the idea has become so prominent since it is clearly question-begging. Distribution is something done by people who have things to distribute, who are legitimate, rightful owners of what may be wanted from them about town. Money, mainly. So in our day government takes money from people–the resources they have made, earned, found, won or whatever–and hands it to some other people (after taking a good cut for itself). How the distribution goes may be judged as arbitrary, fair, unfair, corrupt, or, just. But all this couldn’t even begin if it were determined that the initial taking of the resources is wrong. And as I have managed to figure these matters, taxing people is wrong. That means that distributing what is taken in taxes is also wrong. Accordingly distributive justice could not be justice at all. It is at most something touched by a bit of generosity, as when bank robbers divvy up their loot among some needy folks, in what is taken to be a Robin Hoodish way (but Robin just took money back that had been taken in taxes instead of taxed people).

Why is taxation wrong? It is depriving people of what belongs to them without their consent. Sure, some people in a society may consent, by voting for it, to the taking of other people’s resources but that couldn’t possibly make the taking anything better than confiscation, an unjust taking because it involves coercion and lacks the consent of the owners. And this is what had been realized, more or less, when individual rights were finally clearly enough understood and affirmed by some political philosophers. Few came right out and condemned taxation because they held the mistaken belief that the administration of a just legal system required it, but it does not. They had similar ideas about slavery in various places until finally they gave that up. They should have given up taxation along with its conceptual sibling, serfdom. Both of these had their home under feudalism and other types of monarchy since in such systems the government–king, czar, pharaoh, dictator, ruler, politburo or whatnot–owns everything and thus when people live and work withing the realm, they are made to pay taxes as their rent and fees. Government in such systems permits people to live and work and charges them for this by making them serve in the military, subjecting them to forced labor, etc., etc. The benefits government provides are privileges, grants from the sovereign to the subjects. Such systems do not recognize individual rights!

Distributive justice is a weird hybrid that combines feudal or monarchical features with those of a fully free society, one in which it is individuals citizens who are sovereign, not the government. But the two, wealth-distribution by government and justice plainly enough don’t mix, despite how sophisticated folks claim they do. Justice requires acknowledging the sovereignty or self-rule of individuals, with what little government is warranted existing with the full consent of the governed. This government has no rightful authority to do any confiscation or conscription at all. Its sole function is that of a protector of individual rights or, as the American Founders put the matter, to “secure [the]… rights” everyone has by virtue of his or her human nature. (In America much of this was discussed but sadly not fully applied since a bunch of perverse ideas, held by powerful recalcitrant people, needed to be accommodated for the sake of establishing a sustainable country.)

When one hears of distributive justice–or another version of this oxymoron, social justice–it is best to conjure up the idea of a square circle or worse, a free slave. Governments that have resources to distribute came by it unjustly, by seizing it from people who are the just holders of those resources.

As to how legal services might be paid for, well, that is important but the answer cannot be “by confiscating the resources of those for whom they are being administered.”