Invitation to Altruism (Again)
Tibor R. Machan
It was when I was in college at Claremont Men’s (now McKenna) College that John F. Kennedy got elected president. Very handsome guy, really Camelot in spades, no denying that! But something seemed rotten underneath all that democratic royalty, at least to me. As time went by, Kennedy started to loose the halo around his scull, what with his infidelities and his rather inept political maneuverings, not to mention his detestable holier than though statism. Had he not been so tragically assassinated and thus, like a martyr, gained much unearned adoration from a great number of sympathetic American citizens, he would very likely have turned out to be a politician kind of like Gary Hart–lots of flash but little substance.
When Kennedy came out with his famous, "And so, my fellow Americans, ask not what your country can do for you; as what you can do for your country," I didn’t approve of it at all. I believed then as I still do that this sentiment belonged not in a free country but a totalitarian one, in Hitler’s Third Reich, for example, or in ancient Sparta. How dare anyone write off the lives of millions of human beings as having as their life’s purposes nothing but service to the government (or state)?
Well, very unfortunately, we are back to this once again. The New Republic published a special insert in its June 3, 2009, issue, titled "The Forgotten Masterpieces of Henry Fairlie" (pp. 14-15). One of these alleged gems ends as follows: "Ideas in politics must sometimes go underground for a while; the time is not favorable to them. But underground they gather new energy and still work their way into the roots of the nation’s life, until the people again feel the need for them. One day some new president will find other words to summon the people from their private pursuits to remember their obligations to the Union, the Republic, the Res Publica–the state." These lines were written February 3, 1986, just around the time Ronald Reagan reminded us that government isn’t the solution but the problem. Mr. Fairlie makes no bones about preferring Kennedy’s idea–which harks back to that of most Pharaohs and Caesars with its insidious demeaning of the value of the lives of individuals–to that of Mr. Reagan; nor did The New Republic dig up the Fairlie quote by accident. Clearly the editors meant to tell readers that now, with the presidency of the new Kennedy, Barack Obama, we may be able to reorient the country in the direction where people will swallow the myth that their lives belong to the state.
And TNR’s editors are not alone. Numerous books, written by political theorists housed in very prestigious academic institutions, have recently given philosophical meat to the reactionary statism and altruism Kennedy and Mr. Fairlie champion. Peter Singer, the animal liberation activist at Princeton University’s department of philosophy, is one of the most voracious advocates of altruism, so much so that he wants people to sacrifice themselves for other non-human living beings whose liberation he considers a priority! There is also Thomas Nagel and Liam Murphy who believe that the state owns everything and it is by its permission that we get to use a bit of it for our well being. Cass Sunstein, the Harvard Law professor who used to have Mr. Obama as a part time colleague at the University of Chicago and now heads up the regulatory regime of the new pres, advocates that we have no rights by virtue of our human nature but only because the government grants us some.
The era in which the American Founders’ notion–that government exists to serve individual citizens who have fundamental, inalienable rights no one can take from them and which the government exists to secure for them–has come under serious attack on all fronts. It is frightening. Let us not fiddle while Rome burns, please, let us not!