Posts tagged the Declaration of Independence

Column on The Times’ Kudos to Petty Tyrants

The Times’ kudos to European Petty Tyrants

Tibor R. Machan

In The New York Times of Monday, June 27th, an editorial heaps compliments upon the bureaucrats of many European cities who have imposed innumerable obstacles on their fellow citizens who want to use the automobile for transportation. This piece of cheer-leading in support of these would be tyrants is an embarrassment in a country that’s about to celebrate its becoming independent of precisely such meddling European governments.

First of all, “cities” are people. They aren’t some kind of supreme consciousness sitting atop the inert bodies made up of the rest, the serfs. So in fact the story should have begun as follows: “Some people in Europe want other people not to drive.”

OK, but then so what? Why are these people privileged with power to have their desires imposed on their fellows? (Why not have an editorial about that very important issue?) “Cities” aren’t some holy persons who know best and who are all virtuous. Cities–meaning the people who rule them–can be tyrannical as all get out. And too many people in Europe’s cities are guilty of just this one-size-fits-all rule about driving. I say break it up, let folks discover their own best form of transportation.

So, you may say, but the roads are public spheres and require making all conform to a set of one-size-fits-all rules, isn’t that the truth? No, it isn’t As with everything else, a principled approach to governing, including governing cities, requires finding out and implementing policies that do not do violence to the principles involved. One may need to get to the grocery store quickly but it is not an option to trespass on the properties of one’s neighbors. One may wish to have a constant companion but it is not an option to enslave some unwilling “partner.” One may wish to spend more on amenities but it isn’t an option to go into endless debt so one is able to do it, nor to rob one’s neighbors so as to build up one’s resources.

Of course, the people who rule cities in Europe and elsewhere, including sadly in the United States of American which is supposed to be the leader of the free world, are eager to forget all this and make the cities their own personal domain where they can impose policies that they prefer, never mind the rest of the citizenry. They have that typical governmental hubris of believing that their preferences trump those of everyone else.

It is perhaps time for prominent advocacy journalists such as the editors of The New York Times to affirm the principles of the American Declaration of Independence and promote liberty instead of all the bits and pieces of tyranny that pleases the meddling bureaucrats around the globe. How about teaching them a thing or two about why freedom matters, including the freedom to make use of whatever transportation one can afford? And if this doesn’t appear feasible at this point, why not investigate the option of, say, private roads (one that has been laid out by several scholars, such as Professor Walter Block of Loyola University of New Orleans) instead of following the discredited and immoral practice of subjugating everyone to the methods of transport-imperialists.

Of course, it is difficult to teach liberty when one refuses to practice it. And those at The New York Times have only one liberty they scream about all the time, namely, the liberty of the press. Which is, no doubt, a vital species of liberty but it ought not to function as a special privileges others may not enjoy because they want to be free not in writing and publishing but in using a great variety of transport. By making it appear that public roads are the only option, these champions of petty tyrannies give clear evidence of the famous insight William Pitt (the younger) who taught that “Necessity is the plea of every infringement of human freedom. It is the argument of tyrants; it is the creed of slaves.” (1783)

Column in Honor of Jack Kevorkian

In Honor of Jack Kevorkian

Tibor R. Machan

Jack Kevorkian died. He was unjustly demonized for standing up for the right to assisted suicide, often referred to as Dr. Death. But he also had a movie made about him recently, starring Al Pacino, titled “I knew Jack.”

Dr. Kevorkian’s case epitomizes the radical difference between American conservatives and American classical liberals. American conservatism, by all rights, ought always to include a radical dimension, one that guided the pen of Thomas Jefferson as he composed the Declaration of Independence, but too many conservatives fail to see this. One of the central, if not the central, principles of this document is that everyone has the right to life, simply be virtue of being human. Among the rights that the founders held to be self-evident–for purposes of the Declaration, to be precise–is the right to one’s life. As the Declaration put it, “all men are created equal; that they are endowed, by their creator, with certain unalienable rights; that among these rights are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”

No sophistry can obscure the fact that by the lights of the American founders everyone has a natural right to his or her life. This means that what one does about one’s life–cultivate it, wastes it, sacrifices it for a cause, develops it, etc.–must be one’s own choice. (It is not whether it is right to do something that is up to one but whether to do it!) Having a right means just that: he or she who has it has a sphere of personal authority or jurisdiction wherein what one does, provided it doesn’t violate another’s rights, is one’s own decision, be this a sound or unsound, a good or bad decision.

So American conservatives, who supposedly are committed to conserve the principles on which the country was founded, ought all to acknowledge and defend the ideas in the Declaration of Independence. That is what should be their orthodoxy, just as Europeans conservatives have their set of ideas they want to preserve or conserve. But often they don’t and compromise these principles so as to favor their own religious or moral convictions.

It may be a difficult matter for one to both hold that life is precious or sacred and ought never to be given up, for example, by committing suicide, as well as that one has the right to end one’s life. But rights are like that: when one has a right one must be free to exercise it whether properly or not. Even someone who considers suicide morally wrong, or who considers aiding suicide morally wrong, must grant that it is up to the individual human being who has the right to life to exercise it either by promoting or by destroying it. This is no different from the right to free speech–whether one says good or bad things, one must be respected in one’s liberty to do either. One may attempt to dissuade someone who is bent on committing suicide but one may not prevent such an individual from exercising his or her right to life.

Of course the law doesn’t everywhere acknowledge this, just as the law fails to acknowledge the right one has to trade freely, to worship as one chooses, to write what one decides to write and so forth. Throughout the ages human beings have had to fight, not always successfully, to protect their rights and that is as true with one’s right to life as with other rights. And in most instances when rights are violated, abrogated, denied, etc., there is usually some fancy excuse that people who perpetrate this invoke.

But it is a ruse. One’s life is supposed to be under one’s own jurisdiction, as a matter of justice, because one has the right to it. One’s sovereignty rests on this right, the fact that others must abstain from imposing their will on the rights holders.

Dr. Jack Kevorkian bravely, in the fact of much demagoguery and ill will, tried to assert and uphold everyone’s right to life and the corresponding right to exercise it by ending one’s right or securing the assistance of someone so as to end it. That is what aiding and assisting those who want to commit suicide amounts to. They may not be prevented from exercising their rights however intensely one wishes they didn’t do so, even in the case of ending their lives.

There are some complications about this, as there is about nearly anything that involves the outer limits of a principle of social or personal life. If someone is demonstrably incapacitated and thus incapable of making a choice about whether to end his or her life, arguably that would justify not protecting the right to commit and seek assistance with suicide. But that’s all. The mere fact that someone makes such a choice doesn’t by any stretch of the imagination show that the person lacks the capacity to make a rational choice. (In some cases committing suicide can be eminently rational! But even if it may not be, it is up to the person with that life, not others, to make the decision.)

Anyway, it is proper to make sure that Dr. Kevorkian’s struggle doesn’t become obscured by all the sensationalism associated with his own career. Like so many others who fight to gain our rights firm protection, he has met with much abuse that he didn’t deserve.

For more, see Tibor R. Machan, “Aiding A Suicide Attempt,” Criminal Justice Ethics, Vol. 4 (Winter 1986), 73-74.