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Tibor Machan on Private Morality Versus Government Perfectionism – and Who Wins ...
With Anthony Wile - October 02, 2011
The Daily Bell is pleased to present this exclusive interview with Tibor Machan
Introduction: Tibor Machan is currently Professor Emeritus, Department of Philosophy, Auburn University, Alabama, and holds the R. C. Hoiles Endowed Chair in Business Ethics and Free Enterprise at the Argyros School of Business & Economics, Chapman University. He is also a research fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University. Machan, who earned BA (Claremont McKenna College), MA (New York University), and Ph.D. (University of California at Santa Barbara) degrees in philosophy, has written numerous books and papers in the field of philosophy, including on issues surrounding the free-market. Machan was selected as the 2003 President of the American Society for Value Inquiry, and delivered the presidential address on December 29, 2002, in Philadelphia, at the Eastern Division meetings of the American Philosophical Association, titled "Aristotle & Business."
Daily Bell: Hello again. One of your recent articles on Reason magazine was a big hit and received many responses here at DB. Can you explain why?
Tibor Machan: I don't know why it caused a stir, except perhaps that I touched a nerve with some. At Reason, I think there is now leadership that rejects the possibility of objectivity in ethics or morality and I criticized this stance. But you would have to ask those who found it provocative or objectionable to figure out why.
I used a quote from a book review in Reason magazine as an example of this growing subjectivism and expressed disappointment that Reason magazine seemed to have come down on the wrong side of the issue. I quoted a passage from them as follows:
"Every one of us has our perceptions filtered by the thousands of stories and assumptions and rituals that constitute our culture. Every one of us has held beliefs that seemed self-evidently accurate but were actually contingent elements of the time and place that produced us. This is true not just of the people reading this article, but of every person, in every era, who has been capable of perceiving anything at all. You can stretch those perceptions, expose yourself to new worldviews, learn new things, but you'll always be embedded in a cultural matrix...."
Daily Bell: You have a personal relationship to Reason Magazine, don't you?
Tibor Machan: I helped found Reason magazine and therefore I was doubly disappointed with the suggestions that there is no such thing as moral objectivity.
Daily Bell: Why is it important for people to be objective regarding morality?
Tibor Machan: It is important for people to TRY. If people simply accept the notion that they can never be objective – and that judgments are impossible in this modern age – then this is an open invitation for government intervention, among other bad things since those who support such intervention can just say, "Well, from our perspective, from where we stand, it's OK to meddle in other people's lives." That is just what defenders of so-called libertarian paternalism or nudging (e.g., Prof. Cass Sunstein) would maintain.
Morality is an important part of a private social order. No one should try to argue that modern progressivism precludes moral objectivity. Individuals can try and sometimes even succeed at being objective and reasonable. Nothing impossible with that.
Daily Bell: People seem to think so ...
Tibor Machan: Well ... it's always difficult. You have to discard your frame of reference and think outside the box. Try to get a good education and then try to discipline your emotions, especially as regards issues that are important to you. Try to be impartial as much as you can.
Daily Bell: Is this what Ayn Rand taught with Objectivism?
Tibor Machan: Rand believed in logic and that rational people were the hope of a better world. People should try to confront their prejudices so that they can act rationally in life instead of irrationally.
Daily Bell: You believe that Reason has departed from that goal?
Tibor Machan: I think if you look at the Reason of today, it's sometimes timid in terms of pursuing its mission as regards commenting freely and judgmentally on issues. Like CATO, it sometimes falls into the habit of focusing on the details rather than larger statements that could be construed as judgmental. We need more judgmentalism when it comes to opponents of the free society and free markets, not less.
It's common sense. But as I have pointed out, objectivity is not a fashionable talking point in the 21st century. You can trace this back to 18th century philosophers, especially Immanuel Kant and especially positivists such as A. J. Ayer and even some neo-classical economists. Kant believed humans could not have confidence in any of their judgments, moral or not. They might on occasion be right but they could never tell for sure.
Daily Bell: Yes, you explained that Kant believed everyone may be biased and therefore whether one is being objective is impossible to ascertain.
Tibor Machan: We can never rid ourselves of bias, subjectivists believe, because in ridding ourselves of bias we are merely indulging in a new bias. We can never overcome the obstacles listed in the paragraph I quoted from Reason magazine.
Daily Bell: Obviously, you don't think Kant was correct.
Tibor Machan: Kant was mistaken, mainly because he believed that the human mind was not capable of objectivity but was an obstacle to it. Interestingly, this was his assumption. He attempted to prove it rationally, but at the end, it remains a paradox. I used the examples of spoons and eyes in my article. As an example of Kant's logic, he would claim that spoons may well be an impediment to eating and eyes to seeing, we can never tell for sure. He would no doubt reject this as simplistic, but I think it fairly sums up the gist of his approach.
I pointed out that the only solution to Kant's skepticism was to defend the idea that people are capable of being objective and so they can TRY to be. Kant's statements would, of course, get hoisted on their own petard, just as does the statement in Reason. I am disappointed with Reason Magazine adopting the Kantian line since the magazine was founded precisely to counter this trend of thinking.
Daily Bell: Let's turn to the issue of government involvement in the perfectibility of humans versus private efforts. It's an Age of Reason argument.
Tibor Machan: You're speaking of modern (as distinct from classical) liberalism in my view, the idea that people's better natures can be coaxed out of them via government action. And if not, the best and brightest are authorized to coerce good conduct from them (as they understand that).
Daily Bell: And you also wrote of dogmas ...
Tibor Machan: Yes, before you have government action, you need dogma. Otherwise, you have no operative or animating principles. Two central dogmas of contemporary liberalism, as I've written previously, are that the rich are to be blamed for all our ills and that in the end all people are the same and no one is more or less worthy than anyone else.
Daily Bell: Are there exceptions to this dogma?
Tibor Machan: Well, the entirety of the dogma is contradictory. Everyone is supposed to be equal, but the dogma acknowledges that everyone is NOT. Those who are well off get a lot of criticism for not being generous and charitable. They have committed the crime of not being like everyone else and thus they need to be nudged and leveled. The leveling occurs through taxes, which are plain extortion, as I understand them, a legacy of feudalism. The average serf was taxed around 30 percent and that was later thought intolerable. These days in progressive countries, especially Europe, much higher rates are common. And of course the modern liberal holds that though everyone is equal, some are, to quote Orwell's Animal Farm, more equal than others and may, therefore, rule others.
Daily Bell: You had a technocratic point to make as well.
Tibor Machan: Technocracy, as DB has well argued the point, is the application of science and engineering to morality. It was very popular in the 1930s and 1940s and gave rise as you've pointed out to such controversial memes as Peak Oil. Now, Peak Oil may exist or may not, but it's obvious that the technocratic movement invented it as a problem to solve. People need to be frightened before they will accept the wisdom of so-called experts. You can't use an empirical scientific method to improve the human condition. You can't use it to abolish moral principles.
Daily Bell: But is it correct, say, to be judgmental about the less fortunate?
Tibor Machan: Not at all. On the other hand, it doesn't PRECLUDE it. Not all poor people are victims of circumstance or lack of education. Everyone can be subject to moral assessment. This would include people who make no effort to remove themselves from poverty or produce more children than they can care for. Using this perspective, we can also arrive at an opposite conclusion, thatt he rich can be admired for having worked and used their talents in a way that generated benefits for themselves and society.
Daily Bell: But certainly you're not saying that all impoverished people are to be judged as morally deficient or all rich people are immediately to be held up as paragons.
Tibor Machan: Of course not. But the idea that people exist in a moral-free zone is a pernicious one and leads to confusion. It also removes tools from the private sector. Unlike government, the private sector demands morality because it doesn't administer coercive laws. Morality – engaging in shaming, in boycotting and in ostracism – these are all methods of private social building blocks. Their removal has often been purposeful as certain people and institutions seek to reduce the tools that people have to create civil societies that are not dependent on government.
Daily Bell: This leads us back to your previous point that government wants to substitute technocracy for morality. Or the extrapolation of the scientific method, as you said.
Tibor Machan: Yes, there is no reasonable doubt about this. Remove morality and all you have is the sterile solution of government progressivism based on how the elite feel! That's been proven not to work and even – eventually – to be dangerous and to result in violence and even genocide as society becomes increasingly dysfunctional as it must.
Daily Bell: Let's try to anchor this in some sort of real-life context. You live in America. Is the Obama administration attempting to substitute a kind of scientism for morality? Are they trying to rule via technocracy?
Tibor Machan: It does seem so to me. One can see this split between morality and science being played out in numerous levels. The Tea Party intends to use morality as a tool to reinforce civil society. The Obama administration believes in various government methodologies and what Sunstein calls "nudging" – low key but pervasive pushing people around.
Daily Bell: It runs right through Western society – not just America – like some sort of geological rift.
Tibor Machan: It is a fundamental issue. Free-market champions believe the private sector has the tools, moral and otherwise, to create peace, culture and prosperity without government interference. They believe the best way to build society is through private initiative rather than state action which is fraught with corruption.
This is where we get Keynesian economic doctrines and other philosophical disciplines that egg on government activism. Those involved with these sorts of dogmas tend to look down on free-markets as disorganized and lacking the requisite discipline. They see the idea of free-market initiative and Hayek's spontaneous organization as something almost primitive.
In doing so, they are discarding a formidable philosophical tradition. John Locke based much of his philosophy on the idea that people have free will. Adam Smith believed that a regime of liberty was far preferable to the dead hand of government. In fact, he coined the phrase Invisible Hand to describe the competition's impact on free markets.
This is not to say government is entirely useless. Governments can help in keeping the peace and defending society, just as referees at games uphold the rules. But for the most part, people can get on without government, without the bullying and prodding that too many governments are responsible for introducing as the 21st century stretches out in front of us.
We've had a ringside seat to the stimulus that the Obama administration used to try to beef up the infrastructure of the US and to create jobs. It hasn't worked (in my view and that of many others). The free market argument is that he should have gone the other way, letting the economy wring out distortions without pump priming or artificial job creation.
This is a big dispute, a substantive one, playing out again today between those who believe that society works best in a laissez faire – including the applications of morality – and those who believe in government programmatic elements.
Daily Bell: All good points, but let's back up. How has it come to this?
Tibor Machan: Those who are government activists don't proclaim it. They disguise what they're after. They have to do so in this country because traditionally American citizens have not been well disposed to government activism, even though there's quite a lot of it. And often they come to believe it is necessary, that their wisdom is supreme, just as did heads of state for centuries. So, in fact, the so-called progressives are utterly reactionary!
Daily Bell: You've referred to what they do as "nudging."
Tibor Machan: It's not my term. The influential pragmatist Professor Cass Sunstein, who is now President Obama's regulation czar, wrote a book called Nudge with Richard H. Thaler. The full title was Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth, and Happiness (Yale UP, 2004).
Daily Bell: Can you give us a little summary?
Tibor Machan: It has to do with the old chestnut of boiling the frog slowly. You find the same strategy advanced by the Fabian Society in Britain. The idea is that you don't want to use brute force to move people toward a society based on government activism. Instead, you want to nudge people, to move them in tiny increments so they do not find it worth their while to object, or at least not forcefully.
Nudging can take place in numerous ways but a lot of it has to do with creating social norms that people will feel they have to conform to. Recycling might be seen as part of this nudging. Regardless of how you feel about recycling and environmentalism in general, recycling is seen within the public dialogue as a general "good." Thus, people will conform to the demands of recycling because they see it as a "good citizen" thing to do. They won't complain or protest that they have been imposed upon. (Just last week the feds banned over-the-counter inhalers on these grounds!)
Let me give you another example. In public policy, an example of nudging would be some sort of tax exemption, maybe for married couples or for first-time homebuyers. On the surface, these seem innocent enough. But the former encourages marriage – indeed, any kind of marriage – while the latter seeks to even out disparities of income by making a home affordable to all at others' expense, of course.
We've found out in the past few years that making home buying affordable to everyone is ruinous. Meanwhile, making marriage a desirable and financially rewarding situation encourages people to marry that would not have sought marriage in the past.
Daily Bell: It sounds like tolerance but in fact, it is manipulative.
Tibor Machan: Such techniques may seem harmless but it's been called "paternalism" for good reason. It's also effective, as I pointed out, because it's low key and gradual so most people won't bother to resist. Over time, however, it's bound to create a good deal of acrimony as the nudging ends up creating really major changes in society over time.
Daily Bell: Have we already seen pushback?
Tibor Machan: The Tea Party could be seen as one such pushback, and that's no minor matter. In the past, especially in America, there has been a good deal of tolerance of social activism, more than elsewhere for sure. Most people tend to be polite and do not seek out confrontation, which is an advantage to activists. But this has also allowed activists fairly free rein.
Daily Bell: So to sum up, we're in a situation – in America and the West generally – where those who believe in governmental activism are gradually trumping those who are trying to wield private morality on behalf of non-governmental civil society. Is that a fair statement?
Tibor Machan: It is certainly fair to say this in an ongoing argument. Whether or not the "gradually trumping" part is correct, only time can tell.
Daily Bell: Well, we've often made the point that the Internet is changing the balance of power between government and private citizens.
Tibor Machan: There is certainly some truth to that. On the other hand, there's a lot of different kinds of information on the 'Net, and misinformation as well, that can work to the advantage of centralization and government power.
Daily Bell: Where do you think this issue of morality versus paternalist government will end up?
Tibor Machan: Right now, when scientism is a dominant force in government, prospects are not good for liberty. The governmental habit hasn't yet been adequately contained. Folks seem to think that if some government can be good locally and regionally then it can also be good nationally or internationally. That's the illogic, anyway. But as you've observed, there is pushback, too. People all over the world want to be in control of their own lives and are wiling to accept traditional morality without thinking it is old-fashioned or not progressive enough.
Daily Bell: It's certainly an old argument.
Tibor Machan: We won't see it resolved during my lifetime or yours. What's interesting is how it reoccurs. The Internet has intensified the battle – one could say that without contradiction, in my opinion. But will it be settled as a result? Of course not. The best we can hope for is that more people recognize the fundamental struggle and how it is being pursued. If people wake up to their own moral agency and power, then some of the negative trends of the 20th century and early 21st stand a chance of being reversed.
Daily Bell: Good points – and an interesting discussion. We hope to see more writing on this subject.
Tibor Machan: Probably so.
Daily Bell: Thanks for your time.
Tibor Machan: Thank you.
The Daily Bell
This was a very interesting interview because it put a lot of modern philosophy into perspective. A large part of the evolution of philosophy over the past few hundred years has to do with whether human beings can actually make judgments and if they are equipped physically, mentally and spiritually to do so.
Tibor Machan does us the favor of explaining clearly what Kant had to say on the subject and why he is such an important philosopher. You could say Kant was a precursor to nihilism – that most prominent of 20th century movements – because of his insistence that humans were not equipped to make moral judgments. Life is meaningless because we can't understand it.
Much of British and American libertarian perspectives can be seen, then, as a reaction to Kant. The thrust of Austrian economics and the freedom movement generally is one that is profoundly objectivist in the Randian sense. It insists that people are perfectly equipped to make sound judgments on their own and to pursue their lives using their senses in a rational way.
Tibor also puts the Kantian conversation into a sociopolitical context. He shows us that Kant's perspective leads to a modern insistence that people are not equipped to make their own moral judgments. And if they cannot make moral judgments then they are certainly not able to build prosperous private societies.
The absence of morality – as defined within the community itself – virtually demands government interference. Government officials are only too eager to substitute their judgment for the private community's. Tibor shows us that this battle has been ongoing for several hundred years at least. It is the clarity of his explanation that made his article "Goodbye Reason" a popular one among our readers, with a good amount of feedback and discussion.
These are important issues and Tibor sheds light on them – as he does in this interview as well. We look forward to a further explanation of these concepts in future articles.