In Neither Left nor Right, a collection of his columns, Machan, a relentless advocate of the political philosophy of libertarianism, offers his always well-reasoned, often controversial opinions on the variety of threats to individual liberty in the United States and around the world.
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Neither Left nor Right
By Tibor R. Machan
Hoover Institution PressCopyright © 2004 Board of Trustees of the Leland Stanford Junior University
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Why Liberty Is Necessary for Morality
Yuma (Arizona) Sun, March 22, 2003
It is often taken to be a feature of a free society that it rests on the belief that no one can tell what is morally right or wrong. That is supposed to be why government doesn't impose a lot of strictures that people are forced to follow. If, however, we could determine what is right and wrong, then, the idea follows, government could just proceed to force everyone to behave right.
A sad result of so explaining the merits of a free society is that it begins to look as if liberty is the enemy of morality. And it is in just this way that a good many people have understood the Western tradition of liberalism. They have come to believe that if you accept the Western idea of a free society, you must not care about morality at all. Arguably, a great many enemies of the West hold such a view. Love the West, reject morality; love morality, reject the West.
Yet this is completely wrong. In fact precisely the opposite is true. The reason the Western idea of a free society makes a great deal of sense is that unless people make their own moral choices and act on them freely, there cannot be anything morally praiseworthy in what they do.
A person who does the right thing because it is commanded, forced upon him, isn't acting morally. Such a person is acting from fear, not from the conviction that what he is doing is right. It is only in substantially free societies that men and women can be morally good. If one is forced to praise Allah or God, give to the poor, or defend one's country, there is nothing praiseworthy about that. One is then a mere puppet, not a morally responsible agent.
Of course, there have been some who have defended the individual's right to liberty on the ground that no one can tell what is right or wrong. Some very famous people have done this. Yet their defense of human liberty is a weak, ineffectual one. That's because if one cannot tell what is right or wrong, one cannot tell whether violating someone's right to liberty is right or wrong. So a moral skeptic simply has no consistent reason to complain if the right to liberty is violated.
Those, however, who insist that they do know right from wrong have no justification for opposing a free society. For men and women to be morally praiseworthy — or alternatively, blameworthy — for something they do, they have to do it freely, of their own initiative, not because they are coerced to do it.
No one is morally improved by being forced to be generous, just, kind, courageous, prudent, honest, charitable, moderate, humble, or the like. The paternalistic motivation behind many government measures that ostensibly aim to make people good is hopelessly misguided.
I would even question the motivation of those who promote coercive government measures aimed at reducing vice and increasing virtue — since coercion kills personal responsibility and does this very obviously, it is more likely that advocates of forcing people to be good are power seekers, not promoters of morality at all. They use morality merely as an excuse to rule other people. In the name of an allegedly good intention, they perpetrate the most dehumanizing act; they rob people of their liberty to choose.
Of course, the laws of a free society cannot guarantee that citizens will choose the right way to act. That choice is in the hands of the citizens themselves and their fellow citizens, friends, community leaders, teachers, writers, and others who urge us all to do what's right, not law officers whose task is keeping the peace, not making people good! But in a free society, where no one is authorized to dump the results of his or her misdeeds on others' lives, people are encouraged to do the right thing more than in societies where personal responsibility is missing because of a lack of individual liberty. So the critics of a free society who want more emphasis on morality than on liberty would do better if they first stood up to defend liberty. In a free society the prospects for a genuine, freely chosen morality are far greater than they are wherever men and women aren't free.
Is Human Nature Good or Evil?
As a little Catholic boy, I was taught that we are all born in sin — we inherited it from Adam and Eve who defied God in the Garden of Eden. That is the story of original sin, and in most Christian religions one gets over it by being baptized. The theologians of Christianity, as well as the philosophers on whose thought some Christian ideas were built — Plato, Plotinus, and others — cooked up this idea.
Is it right? Are we really all basically rotten?
The secular version of this story is a bit different, but not that different: we all have some rather low instincts or drives that make us vicious, nasty, greedy, and only when we are properly socialized do we manage to get straightened out. This nonreligious version of the idea gained prominence through the writings of such figures as Thomas Hobbes in the seventeenth century, and Sigmund Freud in the nineteenth and twentieth.
Again, the real question is, are these folks right? Are we all tainted from the start — is human nature basically corrupt?
An alternative view has also emerged, both from religious and from secular sources. For the religious, it holds that the doctrine of original sin doesn't mean we are all base or lowly, only that we are capable of going bad, of getting corrupted. Young ones aren't evil, but they can become so, as well as good — it is a matter of our God-given free will. Saint Augustine and Thomas Aquinas taught roughly this idea, as did Aristotle in ancient Greece.
For the secularists, it is a similar story: we are born innocent enough, by no means inclined toward good or evil, but as we grow up, our choices guide us toward one or the other, more or less. It is up to us; we aren't hardwired either way.
Of course, there is yet another idea, pushed by many natural and social scientists, that all this stuff about good and evil is nonsense — we just are what we are, as wolves, birds, whales, or ants are, and all the talk about good and evil is superstition or myth. But this view has its problems since those who hold it pretty much denounce those who don't, thus implying that the moralists are not doing right in holding their crazy ideas.
It looks, therefore, as if we cannot just toss out the notion that human beings can go right or wrong and do so on their own initiative. The only real question is whether they are predisposed to do one or the other or are free to do either.
But wait, isn't this just a question of opinion? Can these matters be settled? Haven't we tried fruitlessly to resolve them, all through human history?
One promising way to look at it is that yes, we have tried and have maybe even succeeded in finding some pretty good answers, but one generation's answers will not hold up automatically for the next. It seems to be a stable part of human nature to want to find things out for oneself, not just be told what others have come to think about basic issues.
So these basic questions, even if they have been dealt with successfully in the past, will recur again and again. Those who are dedicated to tackling them will continue to have jobs, one might say. It isn't like the sciences or technology, where we are always building on the latest advances, never mind what people did in the past. It's more like getting a job — just because mom and dad did doesn't mean I don't need to get one myself.
Now don't worry, I am not going to try to give some facile answers to all this — I would need volumes to treat the issues, if I were up to that in the first place. But I do wish to suggest something that may be of use.
When it comes to whether people are good or bad, originally or of their own making, it does not help any to inject government into the picture. Morality cannot be forced on people; it has to be something people choose on their own. A habitual, reckless gambler isn't going to be a better person if forbidden to gamble, nor will a greedy person become generous if others take his money and give it away. They may change because they become scared of gambling or of losing money but not because they have seen the light.
Another point is even more important. This is that if there is any impetus to wrongdoing, nothing works better to that end than placing extraordinary powers in some people's hands. We know this from common sense: the temptation to become a bad cop is considerable because the means to do it are greater when one is legally entitled to use a gun on other people. Power corrupts, as Lord Acton said, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.
Governments that have too much power become despotic, mainly because they cannot resist using the force at their disposal for misguided purposes — censorship, regimentation, oppression, privileging some at the expense of others, and so forth. The kind of power governments have works well only when properly restricted to certain retaliatory purposes.
So admitting that, for whatever reason, there is going to be bad behavior wherever we find human beings should not encourage us to think that this requires empowering certain folks — the government — to try to mend everyone's ways. Once these folks get the power to attempt to do that, they become the most susceptible to evil.
Evil in most cases can only be fought with social, not political, pressure, with education, with the influence of intimates and neighbors. It is useless to try to do it by making some people rule others — that only makes things worse.
What Free Will Is and Why It Matters
Orange County Register (California),January 4, 1998
Free will isn't usually a topic for pundits, but I happen to work also in the discipline of philosophy, so I may be excused for thinking free will important and wishing others did, too. After all, it is vital to how we see human nature and conduct, ethics, law, and even international affairs.
The idea of free will is in deep trouble nowadays. First, this is what it means: we, human beings, have a basic and unique ability to be the primary cause of what we do. We are individually responsible for our conduct, unless we have sustained some serious damage in our brains. But normally, for those able to navigate their lives more or less successfully, free will is a reality.
Second, free will implies that since we cause much of what we do, we can be held responsible for the good and bad outcomes of our behavior. Our system of criminal law still sticks to this, more or less, though attorneys more and more resort to claims that their clients couldn't control themselves, had no free will. The famous defense attorney Clarence Darrow used to argue upfront against free will. Today it is an underlying theme in the defense of most who are accused of crimes — most recently, Theodore Kaczinski, who will probably give as his defense against the charge that he committed the crimes of the Unabomber that he lacked free will. But that defense still leaves open the possibility that others do not lack free will.
In the fields of psychology, sociology, economics, evolutionary biology — and even linguistics — there seems to be a consensus that free will need not even be mentioned when we consider how people think and act. All that we hear is that most of our behavior is caused by our genetic makeup or, alternatively, by our environment. Scientific reports on such debates have made the papers recently, and no attention at all has been paid in them to the possibility that we ourselves produce our behavior, as we choose, not as either our genes or our environment forces us to.
Most of the consensus about free will stems from the belief, embraced about four hundred years ago, that the world operates like a kind of clock. God wound it up, and since then it is pretty much running a predetermined course. Isaac Newton seems to have thought this — certainly many of his students supported the idea. Many philosophers, such as Thomas Hobbes, David Hume, Adam Smith, John Stuart Mill, Karl Marx, and others accepted the position, in some version.
The belief of these philosophers has left us with the view that nature makes no room for freedom. Only religion does, but there it becomes a matter of faith, not something that can be demonstrated.
Well, this view is misguided because nature does not really look the way early scientists thought it did — populated by tiny bits of matter colliding with one another in an infinite daisy chain. Nature is more complicated, made up of varied things, with diverse natures and abilities, so that human beings could very well have the capability, unmatched elsewhere, of causing their own actions. Some rare scientists have actually argued this — the late Roger W. Sperry, the Nobel laureate from the California Institute of Technology, did.
It is also pretty evident that we have free will if we just consider that nothing in nature makes us do the things we do; nor are we hardwired to do them, since many of us do not. Take writing poetry, composing music, devising multibillion-dollar mergers, or writing newspaper columns — or, indeed, almost everything human beings do — to do these things we have to take the initiative. Even to argue against free will or not to consider it is a matter of choice.
For purposes of our brief consideration of the topic, just think that when someone criticizes the free-will position, this means we ought not to hold it, does it not? Well, but that implies we have a choice whether to believe this or that viewpoint, and that pretty much assumes we do have free will. Otherwise why debate the issue?
Perhaps it is worth noting that although so many of the people concerned with how human beings behave give a cold shoulder to the topic of free will, in nearly every waking moment of our lives we assume that free will exists. This is clear from how much we criticize folks: such criticism — of people in politics, education, athletics, entertainment, business, law, science, and even philosophy (say, for misguided thinking about this very topic) — would all be beside the point if people couldn't have acted differently from how they actually did. It would all be "que sera, sera," and the critics would be uttering total nonsense.
Are they? All the time?
What Is the Nature of Self-Interest?
November 7, 1997
The beauty of free-market capitalism is that it does not require anything more than ruthless self-interest from its most ruthless, self-interested citizens. When the system works properly, they enrich us all by enriching themselves without giving the matter a great deal of thought. If that is no longer true, it is not a sign that people are less moral but that the invisible link between private gain and the public good has been severed.
Michael Lewis, "Lend the Money and Run," New Republic, December 7, 1992
Lewis's observation, made in an essay reviewing books by Nicholas von Hoffman (Capitalist Fools: Tales of American Business, from Carnegie to Forbes to the Milken Gang [Doubleday, 1992]), and James Grant (Money of the Mind: Borrowing and Lending in America from the Civil War to Michael Milken [Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1992]), has several questionable assumptions embedded in it. And they are all worthy of scrutiny. For although some economists who champion the free market embrace some version of Lewis's idea, their use of it does not quite fit his characterization.
First, Lewis assumes that we all understand what "selfinterest" means. But from the time of Plato there has been serious debate about whether self-interest means "doing what one wants" or "doing what one actually benefits from (by some objective standard of what benefits a person)" or, again, "doing whatever one is doing."
There is nothing remotely "ruthless" about doing the second, while the first is tautological, redundant. It amounts to saying no more than that people act because they want to act, so invoking it as a characterization of what they do makes little sense unless those who invoke it smuggle in some objective standard of what benefits oneself. The last way of understanding self-interest is what most technical economists mean: when we see people doing things, they are pursuing their self-interest. In other words, the self-interest referred to in economic analysis is really what Milton Friedman said it was in his Nobel prize acceptance address: "The private interest is whatever it is that drives an individual" (Milton Friedman, "The Line We Dare Not Cross," Encounter [November 1976] 11). By this account, both Michael Milken and Mother Teresa act from self-interest. In fact, however, this just means that both have their own motives from which they act. Their motives may be very different, and to understand their conduct it is this difference that is most significant. Knowing that they both want to do what they are doing and are, indeed, doing something isn't going to tell us a lot about the character of their acts. Yet that is all that being "self-interested" seems to mean here.
Excerpted from Neither Left nor Right by Tibor R. Machan. Copyright © 2004 Board of Trustees of the Leland Stanford Junior University. Excerpted by permission of Hoover Institution Press.
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Table of Contents
2. HOW TO THINK,
3. THE INDEPENDENT SELF,
4. SEX AND POLITICS IN AMERICA,
5. CAPITALISM AND ITS CRITICS,
6. THE INDIVIDUAL VERSUS THE STATE,
7. PEOPLE AND ENCOUNTERS,
8. AMERICA UNDER ATTACK,
10. LIFE IS GOOD,
AFTERWORD: LAST REFLECTIONS,
What I Have Done and Why,