Reflections on Modern Democracy

Democracy – but only when it goes your way!

Tibor R. Machan

Over the years of watching the democratic process I’ve noticed something important.  People tend to reject democracy, indeed, fight it tooth and nail, when it doesn’t go their way.  But when it does, well, it is the tops.

Consider the case of California’s Proposition 187.  Then governor Gray Davis of California was maneuvering to essentially gut this referendum, one that won with over 60% of the votes.  So let us recognize that the leader of the Democratic Party in California has no problem rejecting what the majority of the people want when he and his friends believe that the people are wrong.

Now if you believe in democracy regarding the handling of certain problems in society, whether people actually have signed up for that process, you will go along with the verdict regardless of whether you like the outcome.  That is a principled defense of democracy.  During all the health (Obama) care reform debates it is liberal Democrats who said, repeatedly, that their demand for a government supervised health care system merely expresses the will of the public and thus has ample legitimacy behind it.  That is why there is so much polling, too, by the media — it is widely believed that if “the people” want something, then it is OK. What, then, makes for a good law for champions of democracy is whether the majority wants it to be enacted.  (One reason that most Democrats used to oppose a balanced budget amendment is that they believe it would place undue obstacles before the will of the people.  Surely if they people want to go into debt [read: if that’s what the majority wants], we ought all to comply and go into debt.)

The people — the public interest, the general will, the greatest satisfaction of the greatest number, the will of the people, etc. — have been the objects of adoration of the leading lights of the Democratic Party.  Until the people no longer like what Democrats want, that is.

Consider prop 187.  The people of California wanted it.  But the Democrats did not.  Some years back they did want to make people in business stop hiring illegal aliens, so they enacted legislation and claimed, again, that they impose such restrictions and delegate such police powers as this requires on businesses because, well, the people demand it.

But if you keep fighting the outcome, via law suits and such, you testify to your dismissal of democracy in favor of something else — say, judicial intervention, some kind of higher law that democracy must not abridge, whatever.

Not that there is that much wrong with judicial intervention, as far as I can tell.  After all, the US Supreme Court interferes often when Congress or some other political body acts in defiance of the US Constitution, thus testifying to the conviction that there are some things that are way beyond the reach of the democratic process.  And few folks think it would be OK to, say, vote the Mooney church out of existence or to vote to shut down the New York Times.  That is because the US Constitution protects church and press from democratic meddling, no matter how eager the majority of the people are to meddle.

One of the mainstays of the liberal democrats, mainly members of the Democratic Party of the United States of America, has been that in most matters we should leave decisions up to a vote.  We should vote on whether smoking is to be allowed in restaurants, how much money is too much when given to political candidates, whether zoning ordinances are to be enacted, how high taxes should be, how to run public schools, and so forth and so on.

Not OK by me, of course, but notice that it isn’t OK even by those who champion the “democracy uber alles” theme.  The process seems to be kosher only until things don’t quite go the liberal democratic way.

The flack over Proposition 187 was a wonderful case in point.  Just how hypocritical can you get!  Be a fervent supporter of people power except when people do not like what you like.  Then suddenly people power sucks.   I guess California’s majority will have to pick and choose some other issue on which to unite in order to fend off the duplicitous legalism of liberal Democrats.  I am sure there will be no problem with voting away private property rights, voting for massive government intervention in practically any area of human life, voting for extensive government regulation of business, medicine, and so on.

But if there is a successful vote to rid the community of the expanding tyranny of government, the liberal democrats suddenly aren’t democrats any more.

It just goes to show you.  In their hearts of hearts most democrats are never really democrats at all but merely opportunists who make use of the power of the majority over the minority’s rights.  But should the majority not wish to go along with this plan, well down with democracy — it is the enemy of higher principles in which democrats believe only sporadically, however.

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Recycled but still very relevant

What you “Owe to Society”

Tibor R. Machan

Sadly this is an ancient thesis that’s being revived now in a country that was founded on denying it. The idea is well expressed in a recent book by Professor William E. Hudson, titled, The Libertarian Illusion: Ideology, Public Policy, and the Assault on the Common Good (Washington, DC: CQ Press, 2008). Hudson states, on page 43, that “The ability that any of us have to earn income and acquire wealth depends only partly on our own individual efforts. It relies as well on the operation of political, economic, and social institutions that make it possible for any of us to ‘earn a living.’ . . .Viewed in this light, …deductions from my paycheck can be seen as reimbursements to society for that portion of my earnings derived from social goods.” The very same idea has been championed for years by one of President Obama’s favorite intellectuals, Cass Sunstein, for example in the book the latter co-authored with Stephen Holmes, The Cost of Rights: Why Liberty Depends on Taxes (W. W. Norton & Co., 1999).

Reimbursements to society! What a lie that is, given that society is nothing more than all of us together as individuals and that what we own, so long as we stole it from no one, ought to be left to each of us to allocate as we judge proper, not to the likes of the sneaky professor and his gang in centers of political power.

A long time ago it was the French father of sociology and avid champion of a huge system of socialism, Auguste Comte (1798-1857), who maintained that very same thesis. As he put it, in his book The Catechism of Positive Religion (Clifton, NJ: Augustus M. Kelley Publ., 1973),

“Everything we have belongs then to Humanity…[my system] never admits anything but duties, of all to all. For its social point of view cannot tolerate the notion of right, constantly based on individualism. We are born loaded with obligations of every kind, to our predecessors, to our successors, to our contemporaries. Later they only grow or accumulate before we can return any service. On what human foundation then could rest the idea of right, which in reason should imply some previous efficiency? Whatever may be our efforts, the longest life well employed will never enable us to pay back but an imperceptible part of what we have received. And yet it would only be after a complete return that we should be justly authorized to require reciprocity for the new services. All human rights then are as absurd as they are immoral. This [“to live for others”], the definitive formula of human morality, gives a direct sanction exclusively to our instincts of benevolence, the common source of happiness and duty. [Man must serve] Humanity, whose we are entirely” (212-30).

Both Comte and his contemporary followers–who, by the way, keep calling themselves progressives even though what they advocate is about as reactionary as it could get–maintain the fallacy that because people made major contributions with their works to our lives–the scientists, artists, farmers, inventors, and the lot–we now are obligated to give up our resources, our labor, indeed our very lives, and let a bunch of our contemporaries whom we don’t know and often have never met, decide what is to be done with it all. What a ruse this is!

In fact, of course, the contributions made by all those productive, creative folks of the past were not made with the provision that members of far off future generations will be held in bondage to them somehow, in consequence. And notice, the debt is not said be owed to those who made those great contributions, no sir. The debt is to be paid to these contemporaries who have done little or nothing at all for you and me other than to send out tax collectors to raid our more or less substantial wealth. All because, well, we didn’t earn all the value of this wealth on our but had benefited from those folks from the past. (By that argument you don’t own your health, beauty, talents, nothing you didn’t produce on your own!)

Exactly why any of this should entitle this current bunch to any of what you and I and the rest of us they want to rip off have come by, whether by luck or personal effort, I cannot fathom. The argument they put forth, from Comte to Hudson, just does not prove any such obligation, none at all, certainly not to those who now collect the reimbursement–i.e. perpetrate the extortion, which is what it in reality amounts to.

I greatly enjoy the works of many artists and performers who have long since died, via old movies, reproduction of their paintings, music, literature, and the rest. I mean they literally keep thrilling me, as I listen, watch and read. Quite spontaneously I often wish I could shake their hands, hug them, thank them for having done so much that gives me pleasure in my life. (I am especially fond of the works of some novelist, musicians, and actors or painters with whose work I have surrounded my life for decades.)

By what perverted line of reasoning, if one can even call it that, do the likes of Comte, Sunstein and Hudson make a claim on me in the name of these wonderful folks? Who on earth entrusted them with this job?

No one, that’s who. They are trying to perpetrate an out and out ruse, that’s what they are about. If one falls for their deception, they will have gained power and resources they certainly did not earn and do not deserve. And it will not be luck that landed them all of what they are attempting to steal from us, but trickery, sophistry, and ruthless indifference to our own rights, to make the effort to carve out a decent life for ourselves.

I hope they do not win, at least not for much longer.

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Individualism in the Right Key

Individualism in the Right Key

Tibor R. Machan*

Do not make the mistake of the ignorant who think that an individualist is a man who says: “I’ll do as I please at everybody else’s expense.” An individualist is a man who recognizes the inalienable individual rights of man—his own and those of others.

An individualist is a man who says: “I will not run anyone’s life—nor let anyone run mine. I will not rule nor be ruled. I will not be a master nor a slave. I will not sacrifice myself to anyone—nor sacrifice anyone to myself.”
Ayn Rand

Individualism is the view, put briefly, that human beings are identifiable as a distinct species in the natural world and have as at least one of their central attributes the capacity to be unique rational individuals. Whatever else, then, is central about being a human being, it includes that each one, unless crucially debilitated, has the capacity to govern his or her life by means of the individually initiated process of thought, of conceptual consciousness. In my book, Classical Individualism (Rutledge, 1998) the title calls attention to the type of individualism I regard sound, one that develops from ancient moral thought and stresses the fact that the individual in question is one with a human nature.  This kind of individualism contrasts with the kind associated with the political thought of Thomas Hobbes and his followers. (The best source for appreciating the difference is David L. Norton’s Personal Destinies, A Philosophy of Ethical Individualism (Princeton University Press, 1976).

Furthermore, excelling as such an individual human being is the central, proper goal of each person’s life. A just political community, in turn, is one that renders it possible for this purpose to be pursued by all (or as many as is realistically possible).

As the novelist-philosopher Ayn Rand put the point—following similar observations by Aristotle and Thomas Aquinas—adult persons are “beings of volitional consciousness.” This involves, among other things, the crucial capacity to choose to embark upon—to initiate—a process of (thoughtful) action.

If we are the type of entity that can be a causal agent, the initiator of its behavior, this serves as a crucial basis for individuation: different human beings will be able to and would actually choose to exercise their conscious capacities and direct their ensuing actions differently. Putting it more simply, if we have free will, our diverse ways of exercising it can make us unique. So even if there were nothing else unique about different persons, their free will could introduce an essential individuality into their lives. (This is something that will have a major impact on the social sciences, on psychology and psychotherapy, and, of course, on ethics and morality.)

Yet different people are also uniquely configured, as it were, as human beings; thus they can face different yet equally vital tasks in their lives. Our fingerprints, voices, shapes, ages, locations, talents, and, most of all, choices are all individuating features, so we are all unique. This is the crux of the individualist thesis. Nonetheless, since we are all such individuals, we constitute one species with a definite nature possessed by each member. This may seem paradoxical: one of the defining attributes of the human (kind of) being is the distinctive potential for individuality, based on both diversity and personal choice.

The position has certain implications that are very close to what is usually thought to follow from a somewhat different, often labeled “radical,” individualism. These implications are the existence of the libertarian political ideas and ideals of individual rights to life, liberty, and property.  We might call the earlier version of individual “atomistic” or “quantitative,” while the latter “classical.”

Atomistic or radical individualism is distinct. It is usually linked to Thomas Hobbes and his nominalist and moral-subjectivist followers. Its most basic, ontological thesis is that human beings are numerically separate bare particulars. Their individuality is quantitative, not qualitative, primarily consisting of their being separate entities, not of their capacity and willingness to forge distinctive lives of their own.

A problem some see with the neo-Hobbesian individualist tradition is that it implies that political norms are ultimately subjective—usually taken to be mere preferences. For Hobbes, to start with, “whatsoever is the object of any man’s appetite or desire, that is it which he for his part calleth good: and the object of his hate and aversion, evil.” So the classical-liberal polity is itself, by the tenets of such individualism, no more than some people’s preference, one that others may not share, quite legitimately. As some critics have put the point, in terms of the Hobbesian individualist position liberty is just one among many different values people desire. This political tradition has, thus, been vulnerable to the charge of arbitrariness, of resting simply on preferences that some people—for example, the bourgeoisie, capitalists, or white European males—happen to have.

Even in Hobbes’s time there were other versions afoot, usually linked to Christianity. By the tenets of a Christian version, each person is a unique child of God, thus uniquely important and not to be sacrificed to some purpose of the tribe or state, for example. This, at least, is one path to the conclusion that a just political community must make room for the sovereignty of the individual human being—one’s ultimate and decisive role in what one will do, be it right or wrong.  Another path is the secular, neo-Aristotelian view in terms of which while human beings are rationally classifiable as such, one of their essential attributes is that they can and usually choose to be unique.  So, in contrast to Marx’s claim that “The human essence is the true collectivity of man,” the classical individualist holds that “The human essence includes the true, unique individuality of every human being.”

In the radical individualist tradition a major libertarian element is the subjectivity of values.  Accordingly, free market economists have tended to reject all government regimentation of social affairs, seeing them as driven by subjective preferences that cannot be known to anyone other than those who hold them.  Such a view has served to undermine all efforts to impose values on individuals.

The classical individualist position argues that values are objective but also most often idiosyncratic and require free choice to give them moral significance.  This, too, prohibits government imposition of values but not for skeptical reasons.  And it enables one to defend the political value of liberty is more than simply one of many subjective preferences.

As far as free markets are concerned, one main reason they function more successfully than statist alternatives is that in a free market individual aspirations, goals, preferences, values and such have a major impact on what will be produced.  This, in turn, results in a more prosperous society than one where such individual goals and so forth are trumped by various so called public interest considerations that, in fact, are no more than the interest of certain, special vocal groups of individuals overriding that of others.  Even the famous calculation problem identified by Austrian economists makes more sense if individualism is true.  The reason governments cannot allocate or price goods and services properly is that such resources are ultimately (albeit objectively) valuable for individuals, not collectives.

The individualism that underpins much of libertarian political economy has vital implications for public policy.  In the law, for example, the position of criminal culpability gains support from it.  The rejection of collective guilt or pride in social theory also has its support.  In environmental public policy it makes clear sense of the ubiquitous phenomena of the tragedy of the commons, suggesting that human beings must have an individual stake in caring for resources before those resources can be expected to be well honed.  Public officials, since they can only represent a very general public interest – to secure the rights of individuals – have no clear-cut guide to policies of resource preservation and conservation.

Libertarianism is seen by most to rest on some version of individualism, although there are exceptions.  Some believe that the betterment of society as a whole is what requires an individualist social and legal polity, even though there is nothing ultimately true about individualism. If, however, it is treated in public policy as if it were true, the results will be advantageous to the entire community.  (Karl Marx held a view akin to this, claiming that for at least a stage of humanity’s development, namely, capitalism, the illusion of individualism is very useful since it inspires a great deal of productivity.)

For nearly two centuries the emergence of classical liberalism has irked thinkers both Right and Left. Hegel, Rousseau, Comte, and of course Karl Marx did a great deal of pen-wielding to arrest this development and one of their most potent weapons has been to link the ideals of a fully free society to the flaws of scientism and one of its products, subjective or narrow individualism.

Scientism is the view that everything, including human community life, can be understood by treating things the way that classical physics recommends, namely, by analysis or breaking them into its constitutive bits. This amounts to reducing everything to its smallest component parts and once the laws governing those component parts are identified, the rest would easily follow. Until recently this has indeed been the method of the natural sciences but scientism extended the approach to understanding everything, including human beings and their social lives.

The reductive-analytical method for understanding social and political matters was most popular with Thomas Hobbes, the 16th century English philosopher who has been history’s foremost materialist. By Hobbes’ lights people are merely a collection of matter-in-motion, bits of the stuff of which everything else is made, and by understanding the laws of matter, their lives could also be fully understood.

Hobbes approach made him something of an individualist, especially when it came to metaphysics. He thought there were no classes or natures of things, such as human nature or the nature of an apple or zebra. All that exists, Hobbes advocated, is bits and pieces of matter which we, human beings, classify according to our needs and wants. The nature of a human being is merely the classification we have created to serve our interests. Sure, now we take it, roughly, that a human being must be a rational animal but we could change this if we wanted to and classify things by height or weight or color or anything else we chose. Its all a matter of convention. (Just how come it is human beings who can classify things along such lines, Hobbes doesn’t say—it seems the skill is something unique to beings with a rational nature. But let’s leave that be for now.)

From this methodological approach one kind of individualism did, indeed, develop, in terms of which everything is really merely the atoms that comprise it, nothing more. So, a human community became for Hobbes and his followers, many of them classical economists who favored free markets, a collection of self-sufficient individuals. (The reason this Hobbesian view recommended free markets is that in classical physics when something advances forward, the only thing that will slow it down is some force impeding its progress; so economic advances are arrested when governments interfere with people’s efforts to live their lives, including produce and consume. Ergo, the idea, a la Adam Smith & Co., that laissez-faire is most efficient for progress and prosperity.)

A serious problem with Hobbesian individualism is that it eliminates ethics or morality from human life. If we all move merely as propelled by the impersonal forces of nature, then how we act is not really up to us and we are not responsible for anything we do—there are no standards of right and wrong within this framework accept those we happen to lay down because the forces of nature impel us to do so. Although there were certain individualist elements to this view, Hobbes believed that this recommended an absolute monarchy that had full authority to run all of society (except in the case it turned against the lives of the citizenry).

Now the fact that Hobbes’ ideas encouraged classical economists and early free market advocates has been something of a liability for all those who love human liberty, as well as a boon to all who would find some excuse to denigrate such human liberty. Marx made the most of this and declared liberalism a sort of infantile stage of human social development, concluding that the fully mature human society would be anti-individualist, a collectivist community.

Marx’s ideas had their college try, of course, but they got bogged down, ultimately, because it turns out that human individuality is essential to understanding what a just society must be. When you ignore human individuality, you get a top down authoritarian or totalitarian state which is incapable of figuring out what is good for a human society; this is to be expected when a polity misunderstands human nature and treats us all as if we were members of a bee hive or ant colony.

Marx’s extremely costly and inhuman mistake finally came a cropper and landed us back in the position of having to figure out whether there might not be a form of individualism other than what we inherited from Thomas Hobbes. And there have been dozens and dozens of defenders of the free society who have gotten far away from the scientism of Hobbes as they have identified a version of individualism that does not suffer the deficiencies of the kind concocted by Hobbes and his followers. Sadly, their position hasn’t gotten much attention and, instead, we have the various efforts to salvage collectivism—as communitarianism, market socialism, the third way, economic democracy and so on.

Individualism does require some upgrading by being framed in terms of an objective human nature, contrary to what Hobbes thought. In other words, it is human individuals who comprise human communities, with a definite human nature. It is, however, also true that a central feature of human nature is the fact of human individuality—we are unique in the living and non-living world in part by virtue of being unique individuals, albeit human. That, indeed, is one of the most exciting things about people—they all share in their humanity and yet are unique and irreplaceable. And this kind of being needs a free society so as to flourish.

Alas, this revamped individualism has been a thorn in the sides of those who just do not want human beings to be free. They have insisted, as a result, that every form of individualism is atomistic, Hobbesian. One of those who has been most energetic in pushing this smear campaign against the new individualist outlook has been Amitai Etizioni, for example in his book The Monochrome Society (Princeton, 2003). Nearly the same as Etzioni’s theme can be found in such works as Roberto Mangabeira Unger, Knowledge and Politics (The Free Press, 1985); Thomas A. Spragens’, The Irony of Liberal Reason (Chicago, 1981); Charles Taylor, “Atomism,” in his Philosophy and the Human Sciences (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985), and Robert Bellah, et al., Habits of the Heart, Individualism and Commitment in American Life (New York: Harper & Row, 1985) and The Good Society (New York: Harper & Row, 1991).

All of these authors continue to insist that liberalism and its conception of human community life must be irretrievably wedded to Hobbesian individualism, refusing to consider either that there are other versions of individualism that also support the liberal polity or that in recent decades the new individualism has been developed rather astutely by such authors as David L. Norton (in Personal Destinies, A Philosophy of Ethical Individualism, Princeton 1976), Ayn Rand, The Virtue of Selfishness, A New Concept of Egoism (New American Library, 1961), Fred D. Miller, Jr., Neera K. Badhwar, Eric Mack, Douglas B. Rasmussen and Douglas J. Den Uyl, and many others.

In his book Etzioni conceives of the classical liberal idea, in the apt words of one fan, as the “atomization of modern society.” Nothing new here at all—Herbert Marcuse made his name by characterizing modern capitalist society as producing the one dimensional man, which is pretty much the same idea. And Taylor’s famous piece, “Atomism,” makes the point quite emphatically, too.

And of course there is nothing amiss with pointing out that one line of defense of the liberal social order has its limitations, although doing so over and over again, in books published by some of the most renown presses, suggests a certain measure of insecurity. (Many of those who advance a different version of individualism also repeat themselves but mainly because the presses that will publish their books are few and far between, given how the peer review process tends to be tilted against getting such works accepted by the premier publishers. Yes, Virginia, there is bias and turf fighting in the academic publishing community! If they managed to come to light, they would pretty much rival the scandals in the business world.)

What is worth noting in connection with this new book by Etzioni, containing very old ideas indeed, is how eagerly he and all his communitarian allies rely in their presentations on a lop-sided version of individualism. Aeon Skoble made this point almost a decade ago, in several forums, just for starters.

I suggest that these thinkers, with their redundant attacks on liberalism, know well enough that only if they link the liberal—or, more recently dubbed, libertarian—society intimately to a narrow type of individualism (which itself is linked to scientism), will they succeed in making their case that communitarianism or some other version of post Marxist collectivism is a better alternative. A more robust version of human or classical individualism will not easily yield this result, so such views must be hidden from view.
Individualism in its normative, non-Hobbesian rendition, insists not on some incredible idea that human beings are self-sufficient, have no social nature, can operate in the world independently of communities, make choices about their associations from birth—all of which is what is implied by calling the view atomistic—but on the notion that human individuals are at some basic level initiators of their actions, for good or for ill, and must be provided room for this in a just community. Such institutions as the protection of individual rights, to life, liberty and property, among others, secure for human individuals a sphere of personal jurisdiction, authority, sovereignty—or as Nozick put it, “moral space.”

No community, such as the family, tribe, ethnic group, club, religious order, nation or humanity at large, has priority over the adult individual’s personal responsibility to decide what to do in his or her life. All those communities are in fact derivative of the decisions and choices made by innumerable individuals, all the while these individuals gain much of their resources, for making their decisions and choices, from other individuals in the various communities of which they are members. (Taylor, following Rousseau and others, at this point would use the phrase “belong to their communities,” thus assuming that the community is some kind of body of which the individual is but an organ, cell or limb.) This is contrary to the message of a long line of communitarian, collectivist thinkers who believe that, in the words of Jean Starobinski, explaining Rousseau’s ideas in the May 15, 2003, issue of The New York Review of Books, “The aptitude for moral life is a gift that the individual receives from the society in which he grows up; hence he is in debt to that society.” Starobinski reports, in addition, that “Rousseau treats the life of the citizen as a ‘conditional gift of the state’.” (Exactly how a gift places one in debt to someone is a mystery—genuine gifts aren’t supposed to be given conditionally.)

Two things are repeatedly missed in all these musings. First, it is individuals who utter these positions, hold these views and so betray their own messages of collective identity. Second, because of the first, whatever debts individuals might owe to the society, state, or community will be extracted and utilized by individuals with their own goals as the beneficiaries. States, communities, societies do not have goals, only individuals do, although those individuals who manage to convinced others that they are speaking in behalf of the community, state or society wherein one is a citizens will have an easier time to acquire from others the resources needed to support their goals, having hoodwinked everyone to believe those goals are actually theirs and they are repaying a debt when their own lives are spent on the pursuit of these goals. This is the ultimate message of Comte’s words, in Cathechisme positiviste (Paris: Temple de l’humanite, 1957), when he states, “[The] social point of view … cannot tolerate the notion of rights, for such notion rests on individualism. We are born under a load of obligations of every kind, to our predecessors, to our successors, to our contemporaries. After our birth these obligations increase or accumulate, for it is some time before we can return any service…. This [“to live for others”], the definitive formula of human morality, gives a direct sanction exclusively to our instincts of benevolence, the common source of happiness and duty. [Man must serve] Humanity, whose we are entirely.” Had he been more forthright, he would have added, “And I’ll be pleased as punch to stand ready to extract from you the debt you owe to those predecessors, successors and contemporaries.”

No doubt, with the academic community being in the hands of thousands of scholars feeding off the collectivist political order—most universities are state run and supported and even those that aren’t play the game of sucking up to the state for grants and such—it isn’t likely that the individualist, libertarian theme will soon replace the currently popular semi-socialist communitarian, etc., alternatives. Still, it is useful, as one encounters repeated efforts to shore up what is ultimately a hopeless, indeed, self-contradictory idea—namely that human individuals are merely subsidiary parts of larger wholes (in whose behalf these thinkers are only too willing to speak)—to stress that “there is no there there,” despite all these valiant efforts.

Human beings are both individual and social beings and they do not belong to anything or anyone. Their lives are their own, something that obviously rankles those who would gladly take over and run it for them. And, in the process of living they are responsible to make sure that their inherited or chosen associations are wise ones, not ones that betray their humanity.

Still it is difficult to see how libertarians and defenders of free markets, freedom of trade, etc., can avoid being also individualists.  This is especially true of those who stress the need for the protection of basic human rights in the Lockean individualist position.
Machan is Professor Emeritus at the departments of philosophy, Auburn University, Alabama and at the Argyros School of Business & Economics, Chapman University, Orange, CA where he held the R. C. Hoiles Chair in Business Ethics and Free Enterprise from 1997 to 2014.

Tibor R. Machan, Classical Individualism (London: Rutledge, 1998)
Hobbes, Thomas, “Good,” chapter 6 of Leviathan (New York: Collier Books, 1962).
Norton, David L., Personal Destinies: A Philosophy of Ethical Individualism Princeton, N. J: Princeton University Press, 1976).
Rand, Ayn, Atlas Shrugged (New York: Random House, 1957)
Machan is Professor Emeritus at the departments of philosophy, Auburn University, Alabama and at the Argyros School of Business & Economics, Chapman University, Orange, CA where he held the R. C. Hoiles Chair in Business Ethics and Free Enterprise from 1997 to 2014.

*The Declaration of Independence is sometimes criticized for failing to address the protection of the public interest but that is itself to fail to grasp that securing the protection of the individual rights of the citizenry is exactly the public interest that needs to be the concern of a free government.

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Obama Butts in Again

Obama Butts in Again

Tibor R. Machan

I am puzzled that there is hardly any mention in the press — columns, editorials, etc. — about Mr. Obama’s executive intrusion in the employment relation. He wants to have overtime pay be higher than it is. He seems to think it is the task of the president to dictate terms of trade between employers and employees. But it isn’t, not in a free country. But I suppose “free country” is no longer applicable to the American economy. It has become a fascist system, where the political executive dictates the terms of economic relations. And very few of us appear to mind this.

I am organizing a panel at my university the topic of which is “Entrepreneurship in a Mixed Economy.” The idea is, of course, that when politicians and bureaucrats command the terms of trade among the millions of citizens who take part in market transactions, the normal signals that guide the decisions of entrepreneurs get distorted. What is supposed to be a place wherein the agents carry out their work is not free but managed by a special group of citizens. Why?

Presumably these citizens have superior knowledge and great measures of virtue than their fellows, over whom they have gained legally backed power. They are the regulators and just what qualifies them as superiors to the rest of us is a mystery.

This is one of the features of a mixed economy. The arrogance of it is staggering, although historically it is common — kings, pharaohs, caesars, politburos and such have been butting in the economic affairs of men and women from time immemorial. It is this set-up that was supposed to be abolished by the classical liberal — remember “liberal” means “free” — political-social movement.

Ultimately the only way to combat this reactionary trend led by Mr. Obama & Co., is with the convictions of the citizenry.

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The NYT is wrong once again

The New York Times is Wrong Again

Tibor R. Machan

Here is the opening salvo in The New York Times of a lengthy piece on Rand Paul.  And it is dead wrong: “As Rand Paul test-markets a presidential candidacy and tries to broaden his appeal, he is also trying to take libertarianism, an ideology long on the fringes of American politics, into the mainstream.”

The fact is that the libertarianism was the gist of the philosophical foundation of the American political system.  Natural individual rights! Limited constitutional government! Free market! Due process of law!

All these were there at the start and libertarianism is simply restoring them to prominence.  But of course The New York Times care nothing for historical accuracy.  It wishes, evidently, to demean the ideas both the American founders and libertarianism champion.  No wonder, since The Times loves big government, extensive interventionism, both domestic and international.

It is also quite evident that The Times has a very distorted view of its own readership, as if they had no other sources of historical information aside from that of the editors of The Times. What was central to the founders is, to The Times, fringe!

Shame on them!

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Consumerism and Christmas

Consumerism and Christmas

Tibor R. Machan

You all may recall that after 9/11 Osama bin Laden explained his

orchestration of the terrorist deed that murdered some 3000 innocent human beings as payback for America’s materialism. (His anti-materialist rant is routine – a good discussion of his views may be found here. [])

Yet as the writer of the above piece notes, anti-materialism is a common theme among most religions. Sure, the idea that human life is about preparation for an after-life — a spiritual life superior to the mundane one we can lead here on Earth — is central to religions.

In the West, however, many religions have made peace with the mundane elements of human existence so there tends to be a less avid denunciation of materialism, which is how the idea of being seriously concerned with living prosperously here on Earth is usually designated. After all, the Christian God is both human and divine (in the person of Jesus). Destruction of life is generally deemed to be a sin for Christians, whereas, as bin Laden has noted, the love of death is central in his version of Islam. As one account has it, “This originated at the Battle of Qadisiyya in the year 636, when the commander of the Muslim forces, Khalid ibn Al-Walid, sent an emissary with a message from Caliph Abu Bakr to the Persian commander, Khosru. The message stated: ‘You [Khosru and his people] should convert to Islam, and then you will be safe, for if you don’t, you should know that I have come to you with an army of men that love death, as you love life’.” This account is widely recited in contemporary Muslim literature.

Yet despite the Western theological tradition’s more friendly attitude toward the mundane, nearly every Christmas leaders of Christian denominations tend to revert to the original, anti-life doctrines by condemning commercialism. The latest Pope followed the previous one by lamenting the “materialist” approach to celebrating Christmas. They referred to “the dead-end streets of consumerism,” according to newspaper reports, chiding people everywhere for what the report calls “being caught up with consumerist pursuits.”

Ironically, the Pope issued his proclamations from St. Peter’s Square at the Vatican. If you have ever visited the Vatican, as I and millions of others have, you would know it to be one of the West’s, if not the world’s, most opulent places. And as to consumerism, the gift shop dominates the entrance to the Vatican, where one is invited to spend great sums of money on various small or sizable trinkets. Commerce flourishes there, believe me, as the Vatican cashes in on the desire of many of the visitors to take away some reminder of their having been to that historically and theologically significant place.

Of course, even apart from the Vatican, the Roman Catholic Church, as well as others within Christianity, often excel in ostentatious display of riches – one need but go to high mass on Christmas Eve to witness this.

And why not? That is how human beings tend to celebrate what they value highly, by honoring the occasion with gift-giving. And gift-giving necessarily involves commerce – most of us aren’t skilled at the crafts that it takes to create the various gifts we wish to bestow upon those we love and cherish. I personally bought airline tickets for some of my family members and a computer for another, in part because I have no airplane in which to fly them where they would like to go and no factory and expertise to make a modern, up-to-date computer. To obtain these gifts, I rely, as do billions of others, on commerce.

So why then would Popes besmirch consumerism and commerce? Beats me. (And remember, also, that “materialism” is ultimately a nonsense term – nothing we purchase is simply material but embodies the creative intelligence – indeed the creative spirit – of many human beings!)

So, I urge all Popes to change their message and to have a more generous understanding of all who make use of commerce in our celebration of Christmas!

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IP Anyone?

Intellectual Property Anyone?

Tibor R. Machan

There is a debate afoot now about whether one ever owns the likes of a novel, poem, computer game, song, arrangement or similar “intellectual” items. Some argue, to quote the skeptic, Professor Tom Bell of Chapman University’s School of Law, “Copyrights and patents function as a federal welfare program of sorts of creators,” while others, such as James V. DeLong of the Competitive Enterprise Institute, hold that “It is difficult to see why intellectual property should be regarded as fundamentally different from physical property.” I want to suggest a way to come to terms with this dispute in this brief essay and offer a possible resolution.

A major issue that faces one who wishes to reach a sensible understanding of intellectual property is just what “intellectual” serves to distinguish among what surrounds us in the world and how that contrasts with other kinds and types of possible property. What quality does “intellectual” point to about something? In my list, above, I am assuming that whatever is an invention or creation of the human mind amounts to potential IP, while others would argue that nothing intellectual in fact can constitute property, let alone private property. But this is merely to start things off, in need of clarification and analysis.

Some have proposed that the major element distinguishing intellectual from other property is that it is supposed to be intangible. So, for example, home or car or land parcels are tangible, capable of being brought into contact with our senses. However, a musical score or arrangement or a romance novel is supposed to be intangible – such a thing cannot be touched, felt or otherwise brought into contact with our sensory organs. Yet an immediate problem this attempt to distinguish intellectual property is that there are tangible aspects to inventions, and there are intangible aspects to these other items that are supposedly all tangible. A home is not just some raw stuff but a building that is the result of a combination of ideas, some of them inventions. Even land isn’t owned exactly as it occurs in the wild but is configured by the more or less elaborate design work of landscapers. The same with whatever so called tangible items that function is property. A watch is not just some metal, mineral, glass and such assembled randomly but some assembly of such materials designed to show time and otherwise be appealing as well. In turn, a novel, song or computer game is also a combination of tangible and intangible stuff – the paper, typewriter or pen and the lead or ink with which the novel is written – only the author, and only for a little while, encounters the novel in intangible form after which the novel becomes an often very tangible manuscript.

The tangible/intangible distinction is not a good one for what can and cannot be owned and, thus, treated as distinctive enough to be related to owners. Indeed, the distinction seems to derive from a more fundamental one, in the realm of philosophy and its basic branch, metaphysics. In a dualist world reality would come in either a material or a spiritual rendition. Our bodies, for example, are material objects, whereas our minds or souls are spiritual or at least immaterial ones.

This goes back to Plato’s division of reality into the two realms, actual and ideal, although in Plato particular instances of poems or novels belong to the actual realm. A less sophisticated version of dualism, however, suggests the kind of division that’s hinted at through the tangible-intangible distinction. In nature we may have physical things as well as stuff that lacks any physical component, say our minds or ideas. Yet much that isn’t strictly and simply physical is intimately connected with what is, such as our minds (to our brains) and ideas (to the medium in which they are expressed).

So, the tangible versus intangible distinction does not seem to enable us to capture the distinguishing aspect of intellectual property. What other candidates might there be?

One candidate is that unless government or some other force bearing agency bans the supply of some item of intellectual property, there is never any scarcity in that supply.

There is certainly something at least initially plausible about this view. What is tangible is more subject to delimitation and capable of being controlled by an owner than something that is intangible. A car or dresser is such a tangible item of property, whereas a novel or musical composition tends to be fuzzy or less than distinct. One cannot grab a hold of a portion of a novel, such as one of its characters, as one can of a portion of a house, say a dresser.

Yet intellectual property isn’t entirely intangible, either. Consider that a musical composition, on its face, fits the bill of being intangible, yet as it appears, mainly in a performance or on a recording, it takes on tangible form. Consider, also, a design, say of a Fossil watch. It is manifest as the watch’s shape, color, and so on. Or, again, how about a poem or musical arrangement? Both usually make their appearance in tangible form, such as the marks in a book or the distinctive style of the sounds made by a band. These may be different from a rock, dresser, top soil or building but they aren’t exactly ghosts or spirits, either.

It might also appear that the theological division between the natural and supernatural mirrors the tangible-intangible division but that, too, is misleading since no one who embraces that division would classify a poem or novel as supernatural. Thus it seems that there isn’t much hope in the distinction some critics of intellectual property invoke. The tangible-intangible distinction seems to be independent of the usual types of ontological dualism and so the case against intellectual property, then, seems unfounded. If there is such a distinction, between ordinary and intellectual property, it would need to be made in terms of distinctions that occur in nature, without recourse to anything like the supernatural realm. Supposedly, then, in nature itself there are two fundamentally different types of beings, tangible and intangible ones. Is this right?

Again, it may seem at first inspection that it is. We have, say, a brick, on the one hand, and a poem, on the other. But we also have something very unlike a brick, for example, smoke or vapor or clouds. In either case it’s not a problem to identify and control the former, while the latter tend to be diffused and allusive. We also have liquids, which are not so easy to identify and control as bricks but more so than gases. Indeed, it seems that there is a continuum of kinds of beings, from the very dense ones to the more and more diffused ones, leading all the way to what appear to be pure ideas, such as poems or theater set designs.

So, when we consider the matter apart from some alleged basic distinction between tangible and intangible stuff, one that seems to rest on certain problematic philosophical theories, there does not appear to be any good reason to divide the world into tangible versus intangible things. Differentiation seems to be possible in numerous ways, on a continuum, not into two exclusive categories. Nor, again, does it seem to be the case that there is anything particularly intellectual about, say, cigarette smoke or pollutants, albeit they are very difficult to identify and control. They are, in other words, not intellectual beings, whatever those may be, yet neither are they straightforwardly tangible.

I would like to explore the possibility of a very different distinction, namely, one between what is untouched by human meaning and whatever is subject to it. For example, there would be no poems without intentions, decisions, deliberations and so forth. There would, however, be trees, rocks, fish or lakes. Is it the point of those who deny that intellectual property is possible that when people produce their intentional or deliberate objects, such as poems, novels, names, screenplays, designs, compositions, or arrangements, these things cannot be owned? But this is quite paradoxical.

The very idea of the right to private property is tied, in at least the classical liberal tradition – starting with William of Ockham, to John Locke and Ayn Rand – to human intention. It is the decision to mix one’s labor with nature that serves for Locke as the basis for just acquisition. In the case of such current champions of this basic individual right, such as James Sadowsky and Israel Kirzner, it is the first judgment made by someone to invest something with value that serves to make something an item of private property.

However all of this comes out in the end, one thing is certain: the status of something as property appears to hinge on it’s being in significant measure an intentional object. But then it would seem that so called intellectual stuff is a far better candidate for qualifying as private property than is, say, a tree or mountain. Both of the latter are only remotely related to human intentions, whereas a poem or novel cannot have their essential identity without having been intended (mentally created) by human beings.

Of course, in becoming owned, a tree and mountain does become subject to intentionality, as when someone decides to make use of such a thing for his or her purposes. And, conversely, even in the case of a poem, there are words that are as it were pre-existing and only their particular concatenation is a matter of intention.

I am not certain what the outcome should be from these and related reflections. They do suggest something that is part of both the ordinary and the so called “intellectual” property traditions, namely, that when human beings are agents of creation, when they make something on their own initiative – when they invest the world with their distinctive effort, they gain just possession of what they have produced. And if there is anything that they produce more completely than such items as poems or computer games, I do not know what it might be.

For me, then, the issue is this: When one designs and produces something novel that one has thought up, some gadget or machine or such, does one then own this design/product? And if someone else copies it, did they take something from the former against his or her will? If the answer is yes to the former, then I think the answer must be yes to the latter.

Whether the protection of one’s property occurs via this or that legal device — patent, contract, trademark, what have you — seems a secondary issue and detail. The first is ownership. Also, what one’s owning something one conceives and makes may mean for others who may be thinking up the same thing later is irrelevant, no less so than if one finds a piece of land and appropriates it and then later others, too, find it and would like to appropriate it but now may not.

Those, by the way, who complain that governments enforce patents and copyright laws, should realize that governments also enforce property rights in societies with governments. Governments in such societies are akin to body or security guards. Certainly, taxing others for this enforcement is unjust but that isn’t the essential idea behind the enforcement, not if one understands that copyright and patents could be protected without government, as well, just as other private property can be protected without government. But until it is government that protects — not establishes but protects — rights, it will also protect the right to intellectual property, if there be such a distinct thing in the first place. Taxation for such protection is irrelevant since taxation for the protection of other types of property is also beside the point.

Finally, that patents run out may be compared to the fact that ownership can cease with death, too. Of course, patents or trademarks or copyrights could all be reassigned from one to another owner, just as property in anything can be reassigned upon voluntary exchange or transfer. There is nothing necessarily odd about this, simply because the matter hasn’t developed very smoothly and consistently.

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