Posts tagged Socrates

Column on Abusing the Social Contract

Abusing the Social Contract

Tibor R. Machan

At the outset it needs to be noted that whatever is called the social contract, it is not actually a contract which is “an agreement entered into by two or more parties with the serious intention of creating a legal obligation or obligations, which may or may not have elements in writing. Contracts can also be formed orally (parol contracts). The remedy at law for breach of contract is usually ‘damages’ or monetary compensation. In equity, the remedy can be specific performance of the contract or an injunction.”

So then, contracts are legal instruments, means by which legally backed agreements are recorded and used to settle disputes about the parties’ obligations. The idea of a so called social contract is, actually, an oxymoron since most social acts aren’t legal ones. A better term for what is usually meant by “social contract” would be social compact, an plain agreement of some kind.

The idea has been around for centuries. Even Socrates touched on it in Plato’s Republic, but it gained prominence mainly in the writings of the English political philosopher Thomas Hobbes. Hobbes used the device of an imaginary social compact that everyone in society would enter into. The purpose of it is to come up with the most sensible principles of social organization. What if we all got together and reached an agreement about what principles should govern the way we live in a society? What, indeed, would everyone agree to if they had a chance to take part in such an event?

In Hobbes the social compact or contract had been the central device for identifying the principles of justice. No other edicts would be drawn upon, although implicitly the device assumes that participants would all be reasonable, rational people who are pursuing their self-interest. The result of the establishment of such a compact would be a system of principles and laws that would aim to secure peace and prosperity. Everyone can easily be imagined to sign on because such a system would be in everyone’s interest.

Hobbes also imagined that such a system would need an enforcer, a nearly absolute monarch, so as to keep people from breaching the agreement they entered into when they felt like they could get away with this. The powerful monarch or government would dissuade them from breaking the law. But if the near-absolute monarch turned out to be a serious threat to the lives of the citizenry, they could resist and depose such a ruler.

This idea, by the way, found its way into the Declaration of Independence. Here is how it’s put there: “Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shewn, that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed. But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security.–Such has been the patient sufferance of these Colonies; and such is now the necessity which constrains them to alter their former Systems of Government.”

In the writings of the grandparent of the American political tradition, John Locke, the idea changes somewhat because Locke believed that the principles of justice are derivable from human nature and agreement is only necessary for selecting who would secure or protect those principles. So, in effect, the social compact creates the means by which just law is to be protected. The governing body is created by the compact, not the principles of government! And for Locke this isn’t only hypothetical but quite literal. It is why the Declaration talks of the consent of the governed, something that Hobbes’ theory doesn’t require except hypothetically.

The idea made its appearance in the works of Immanuel Kant, too, although in a rather convoluted fashion and, more recently, in the work of John Rawls’s, the most prominent political philosopher in the 20th century whose book A Theory of Justice (Harvard, 1971) invokes, once again, an imaginary social compact. Everyone supposedly enters into this “behind a veil of ignorance,” meaning, without knowing who one will be in the country established by it. (That is one way that such a system would be a fair one, which was a very important goal for Rawls.)

Social compact/contract theories are appealing for being anti-elitist, for not invoking the idea of a natural ruler, political elite or aristocracy. They are, however, also too committed to the ideal of majority rule, as if gaining the hypothetical consent of the people justified all kinds of oppressive measures against individuals. Moreover, such theories leave it quite undecided who is authorized to implement and maintain them.

Just as, for example, Massachusetts politician Elizabeth Warren recently declared that taking private property is justified by some alleged social contract and authorizes her and other politicians to do this taking in the name of this contract, so many others who make use of the idea deploy it for the sake of making riding roughshod over the citizenry by some large number of them palatable. As she put it, “part of the underlying social contract is you take a hunk of that [what you have earned] and pay forward for the next kid who comes along.”

But this is a non-sequitor–no such contract has established Warren’s or anyone else’s authority to violate the basic individual rights of citizens of a free country. And even if it had, no one has consented to Warren or anyone else doing any taking in the name of society! No one can agree to violating rights, especially other people’s, which one has by nature.

Column on Fourth of July and the Public Interest

Fourth of July and the Public Interest

Tibor R. Machan

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Column on Deciphering Paul Krugman

Deciphering Paul Krugman

Tibor R. Machan

It is hardly ever explicit in Paul Krugman’s columns except that he has made it clear that he is a pragmatist and finds all ideologues off base. But what is an ideologue to Krugman? Someone who invokes principles as he or she thinks and copes with the real world. That’s, however, infantilism for any serious or radical pragmatist.

Both President Obama and Professor Krugman have made it abundantly clear that they consider ideological thinking misguided. Serious, radical pragmatists regard such thinking as unfounded—a species of foundationalism, something to be avoided since it involves imposing on the messy world an order it doesn’t have.

The foremost architect of this radical pragmatism was Harvard philosopher C. I. Lewis. In his massive work, Mind and The World Order (Dover 1941), he lays out the case for the view that even logic is something we invent and do not learn from studying reality. (Another famous proponent of this line of thinking was Columbia University philosopher Ernest Nagel—he made out this position in his famous paper, “Logic Without Ontology,” reprinted in Readings in Philosophical Analysis, edited by Herbert Feigl and Wilfrid Sellars. [New York: Appleton-CenturyCrofts, 1949]. More recently the late Richard Rorty, a very famous academic philosopher from Princeton University and several other prominent places, defended radically unprincipled thinking. I don’t know if Krugman and Rorty had been philosophical pals but it would not come as a surprise to learn that they had.)

One thing all this implies is that when one reads Paul Krugman one cannot criticize him tellingly by pointing out that he is inconsistent—e.g., that his serious scholarly work doesn’t jive with what he writes in his columns, or that last week’s column contradicts this week’s or last year’s this morning’s.

That Krugman does not announce this to the readers of his columns in The New York Times and articles in other publications, such as The New York Review of Books, is perfectly understandable. Most readers tend to have respect for logic—it is one way people tend to judge others, trip up prevaricators in law courts and criticize the scientific and scholarly work of those who write and speak out on vital topics. On innumerable occasions many will find a political candidate, president, or international figure criticized for being inconsistent. But that assumes, for Krugman, an ideology of consistency which radical pragmatists see as entirely artificial.

From very early on in the history of human thought it was accepted that logic is the first device to be used in aiming for understanding and in offering criticism—all of Plato’s Socratic dialogues adhere to this. Students at colleges and universities are constantly chided for being inconsistent. Everyone is, in fact. Except by serious pragmatists, at least the radical variety of them. And the reason isn’t very complicated to grasp.

Pragmatism grew out of a disenchantment many philosophers had with principled thinking. Indeed, throughout most of the history of philosophy the effort to come up with a solid, principled viewpoint hasn’t always met with welcome reception. Reasons for this vary but the result is that at least for the better part of the late 19th and early 20th centuries many philosophers not only gave up the idea that logic is a good guide to thinking about the world but they went on to develop what they called alternative logics. This was a big debate back then and many pragmatists took the side of those who rejected classical logic except as a kind of human invention, like the rules of chess or baseball.

When one understand this—and the story is, of course, more complicated in its details—one can also understand Professor Paul Krugman’s way of thinking about public affairs: The ideologues are clueless, thinking that their well thought out theories will help with that task. They will not, or so Krugman & Co., including our president, believe. And at the level of punditry they will not bother to explain this, try to defend it, but merely dish it out in whatever forum will feature them.

Yes, of course, pragmatism is not all that prominent, especially in the West, since most of Western thinking is influenced by Socrates, Plato and, especially, Aristotle, all firm proponents of the importance of a solidly grounded science of logic. Many others throughout human history have followed suite, one or another way, except for a few such as Hegel, Kierkegaard, and Sartre. But even these at least had respect for logical thinking, as they understood it.

Not so with the serious pragmatist Paul Krugman. And readers of him need to keep this in mind.

Column on “The Sleep of Reason…”

“The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters”*

Tibor R. Machan

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*Francisco José de Goya y Lucientes.

Column on Equality is Only A Cheap Dream

Equality Is Only A Cheap Dream

Tibor R. Machan

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

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

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

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

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

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

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