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 Tibor. We’re going to ask you specific questions regarding the state of the world today, but feel free to respond from an ethical or philosophical standpoint, as that is your area of expertise.
We’ll jump right in. Seems to us that one big reason the US – indeed the West – is in so much trouble is probably because there is no ethical narrative anymore. When countries – empires – lose their justification for taking certain actions, then its citizens have a hard time with support of any part of it. Agree? Disagree?
Tibor Machan: Well, of course, countries don’t produce ethical narratives but the prominent voices in them, those of exceptional novelists, artists, spiritual leaders, journalists, educators and the like, do this. And the current climate produced by these folks tends to be confused, unhinged, just as you suggest. But one problem is that too many seek direction from politicians, something these often encourage with their grandstanding, posturing, as if they were some kind of philosopher kings. If it were widely understood – just as Socrates taught – that it is individuals in a society who set the ethical tone and they need to be more articulate about their thought out values and not look to “leaders” for answers to basic question, the focus of attention would be what is right versus wrong in human conduct, on individual moral standards.
Daily Bell: Why do you think Western leaders are struggling with their moral and ethical compasses? Is it a problem of the Age? Or is it the outcome perhaps of a continued emphasis on state-enforced communitarianism? Does globalism itself have anything to do with it?
Tibor Machan: Yes, part of the problem is that ethics, the values to be promoted, are often allowed to be articulated by politicians and their cheerleaders in the academy. But we need to appreciate that the era of individual responsibility, of caring for one’s life prudently and courageously hasn’t quite set in anywhere; communitarianism – which in effect means letting “leaders” call the shots – is still prominent, what with widely published thinkers claiming that the individual actually belongs to the community, something that doesn’t encourage the thoughtful guidance of one’s life! Of course, with the refusal to assert the importance of the individual’s life this communitarian myth – a remnant of ancient tribalism – keeps circulating in the culture. The constant use of “we” by the likes of Mr. Obama, as if there were an actual collective entity and consciousness in charge, is a feature of the malady. But as Ayn Rand used to say, “It is earlier than you think.” It takes centuries to overcome what J. R. T. Hughes called “the governmental habit.”
Daily Bell: The US narrative included the idea that it was, in the words of one song, “The land of the free and the home of the brave.” Do you think people believe in this anymore? It seems to us that many did when they went of to war against Germany in the 1940s, yet today people seem very cynical about the US’s serial wars and warring. They may not feel so free, either. Is that a discouraging trend? Can you comment?
Tibor Machan: Sadly, the majority never explicitly believed it; however, the main figures in the culture did and that is what many took to be the American ideal. Oddly enough, many people abroad still think of American along those lines, judged by its popular literature.
Daily Bell: Let’s jump to Britain for a minute. The Parliament voted against further involvement in the Syria conflict, which marks the first time the Parliament has vetoed a military action in about 300 years. Are we seeing the beginnings of a real change in how people view their governments and belligerent government action? Is this simply an outgrowth of too many wars or is it partially the result of more information being made available in places like the Internet?
Tibor Machan: No. I believe that was merely an element of the understandable anti-American sentiment that’s popular in the UK since the debacle in Iraq.
Daily Bell: Is the Internet having an effect when it comes to making people consider their ethical positions regarding government actions in the West? Is the Internet in this context proving to be a moral good? Or is the Internet simply a tool that has no ethical ramifications?
Tibor Machan: The Internet is, to date, in the process of positioning itself in the world. So far it has probably unleashed more confusion than good sense. But as with many elements of a complicated world, many can make good use of the Internet and produce some valuable results.
Daily Bell: It seems like so many parts of the US economy are misfiring all at once. Is this simply the result of bad luck or has the US economy been drastically reconfigured over time in ways that don’t correspond to natural law and don’t motivate people properly?
Tibor Machan: I think you are voicing a somewhat misguided sentiment of “the good old days.” Well, those old days were not all that good, on many fronts if the history books are even partly correct.
Daily Bell: What is driving this increasing malformation of markets and incentives? And why?
Tibor Machan: I think you are looking at the empty portion of the glass more than at the full. For example, Professor Steve Pinker has shown that, all in all, the world is getting better, especially for individuals in their places of work, at home, etc. There really isn’t as much mayhem afoot as it looks from watching TV news! Europe and the USA may be stumbling about a good bit these days but elsewhere improvements are aplenty. Keep in mind that news sources – maybe even The Daily Bell, at least in its previous form – tend to focus on troubles and don’t report the good stuff (like how much longer people live now and how much healthier they are).
Daily Bell: All right, good points. Let’s refocus on politics. Is the US political system hopeless? Why has it, in the opinion of some, become so arrogant and dirigiste?
Tibor Machan: No. The ideas of the Founders and their teachers, such as Locke and Montesquieu, take time to establish themselves in practice. (I am always amazed at how even in the USA the reputation of monarchies keeps holding up!)
Daily Bell: Is this the fate of all democracies?
Tibor Machan: If they have turned into mob rule, yes. A properly limited democracy, as the framers began to work it out, is full of promise. Also, don’t keep looking at the public realm but check in with people at home and at work and you’ll cheer up a bit!
Daily Bell: What about the European Union? Why is it that Brussels politicians remains in power despite the foundering of the entire Southern half of Europe? Why haven’t the citizens of Greece, Spain and Portugal walked away from the Union or at least the euro?
Tibor Machan: Most people care very little for power (over other people) and so those who do tend to dominate in places such as Brussels. And, again, there is much folly in nostalgia: Remember that the past is usually recalled without the anxieties it contained about the future that later passed rather well. So it tends to look better than it was.
Daily Bell: Is there something in human nature that craves authoritarianism and even social dysfunction? Are some empowered by such events?
Tibor Machan: There is the influence of family structure, of course, which is mimicked in many organizations, like the major churches, corporations and, of course, governments; top-down rule, never mind how defective it often turns out to be.
Daily Bell: What about the US, the struggle over the government shutdown for instance? Is there an ethical component to that? Is it unkind to remove compensation for government workers? Or should government be dramatically downsized?
Tibor Machan: Political economy isn’t supposed to be about kindness but justice. For the time being the USA is experiencing that famous phenomenon of the chicken coming home to roost. (Will the shutdown matter much? I doubt it, not where serious public purposes are concerned.)
Daily Bell: What is the role, essentially, of government? How have Western democracies departed from it?
Tibor Machan: In most eras governments were collections of well-dressed thugs. What they should resemble is the referee at a soccer game, entering the arena only when the rules are being violated but staying away from the game most of the time.
Daily Bell: What is necessary to bring prosperity back? Is the creation of prosperity and wealth generation a practical question or does it have an ethical component?
Tibor Machan: More awareness of the kind of issues you often discuss in The Daily Bell and stressed by others who have become enlightened about the perils of the politicization of life.
Daily Bell: Is the War on Terror working out? Is the West properly addressing terrorism? Does terrorism even exist or has it been produced to give the military-industrial complex something to justify expenditures and ongoing military activity and expansion?
Tibor Machan: I am not keeping track but from what I learn, there is much less terror now – only noisier and more widely broadcast – than before.
Daily Bell: Why didn’t President Obama bomb Syria? Should the West bomb Syria for using chemical weapons? Did they even do it?
Tibor Machan: He saw the writing on the wall. Very few people in the West are yearning for more bombs and other elements of war, even when some people like Syria’s “leader” may well deserve some strong-arm handling. Just because they deserve it doesn’t imply that the US must deliver it to them. There is a lot of mischief around that may have to go unpunished (as parents well know).
Daily Bell: Let’s ask some specifically focused economic questions now. A big change for the Daily Bell is that it is going to be somewhat focused on investment opportunities within a free-market perspective. In other words, it will track dominant social themes but then seek to apply these themes within an investment context using libertarianism as a criterion. Those investments that support and enhance freedom and human action are going to be pursued; others will be acknowledged but not supported. What do you think of this idea?
Tibor Machan: I welcome this at The Daily Bell but sadly, the lessons that will be taught are a bit late for me. My children could well benefit. My general idea here is that people need to realize just how much merit there is in being economically prudent, in looking out to prosper and flourish economically. Sadly, the culture is still hesitant about praising economic savvy! But it should not be. With more of it, more attention can be paid to how to conduct oneself decently while on the road to prosperity.
Daily Bell: It’s true, of course, that there are entities that promote ethical investing but most of it seems to be focused around environmentalism and scarcity-related items. Is this the only kind of ethical perspective that can exist? Or is there room for investing, especially private investing, which focuses on lifting up enterprises that are empowering for individuals from a free-market standpoint.
Tibor Machan: Investing must be understood as caring for one’s physical welfare is. Indeed, I like to use the term “wealth care” to compare it to “health care.” Responsible adults need the good judgment that goes with smart investing as they need the good judgment that goes with fitness and education in general.
Daily Bell: When one speaks of investing, the problem comes to mind of where my right to perform certain actions leaves off and your right not to be injured by them begins. Where do you stand on this issue? Do you believe in maximum freedom for enterprise as a way of positively fulfilling one’s self-interest or should there be a large regulatory component there to adjudicate appropriate goods and services?
Tibor Machan: It is high time that wealth care gain the importance that health care already has for most people (as well as respect for its professionals). Regulations are folly because regulators are no better and smarter than the regulated and their motives aren't purer, either. As to possible conflict among our rights, if rights theory is well developed, no basic rights should be in conflict with other, bona fide rights.
Daily Bell: There seems to be increased chaos in the West. Do you believe the West is trending toward more individual freedom or is this chaos going to result in more authoritarianism?
Tibor Machan: I am not as pessimistic as you sound. But that may be because I spent the first years of my conscious life in a Soviet bloc country where modern barbarianism was widespread. In comparison what we have in the West today is not so horrible!
Daily Bell: One more on the Internet. Does the Internet itself and the free sharing of information not covered by the mainstream media have an impact on the growing dysfunction we see around us?
Tibor Machan: As I suggested earlier, the Internet hasn’t found its proper niche yet. It may even end up as a playground and experimental lab, mainly. As to the modern mainstream media, it is like most things, in disarray, but that is no great surprise.
Daily Bell: Is that a good thing for human freedom and the evolution of free societies?
Tibor Machan: All technological developments can be turned to the advantage of human liberty by thoughtful and dedicated people. I wish more folks were bent on doing so.
Daily Bell: Why is ethical investing so often considered to be the purview of governmental activism? These days government itself seems to be creating and mandating whole industries and even providing capital for them. Can these industries survive? Is it a good idea to invest in entities capitalized by the government?
Tibor Machan: Sadly, nearly everything is thought to be the purview of the state by the bulk of people who live mostly in their own homes and places of work and have little taste for public affairs.
Daily Bell: Give us a forward look at the next decade, as we move into it more deeply. What are the major ethical and moral dilemmas that you see? Are you worried or frightened, or are you hopeful about freedom trends generally and in the West specifically?
Tibor Machan: If I only could! Soothsaying isn’t my expertise. But on average I think we are going to see improvements in the career of liberty.
Daily Bell: What are some major trends you are tracking from an ethical standpoint? How do they apply in the 21st century?
Tibor Machan: More respect of individual lives and less fuss over communities. As the family becomes more disorganized, other associations take its place.
Daily Bell: Thanks for shedding light on some very important subjects and issues. Any publications or websites you want to recommend?
Daily Bell: Yes we’ve visited there before and hope others have, too. Thanks for your time, as always and we look forward to seeing you in Cape Breton at our upcoming High Alert Investment Conference.
Tibor Machan: I look forward to attending and spending time with your readers. And I am delighted to see the return of The Daily Bell.
What comes through in this interview is Tibor’s optimism regarding the health or renewal of freedom in the West despite the many factors that seem to be mitigating in Europe and especially the United States.
This is a very good perspective to keep in mind because following the day-to-day events may give one a more negative impression. In the bigger scheme of things, what is going on today is surely in part motivated by the advent of the Internet itself and the changes that have come about from information that has been widely disseminated on a variety of dominant social themes.
It is this information that The Daily Bell itself has argued is changing the texture of Western society and galvanizing larger changes that on their surface may look significantly anti-freedom. Step back a bit and the trends are significantly more hopeful. Western electorates in both Europe and the Anglosphere are significantly skeptical of their leadership and showing resistance in unusual ways.
The skepticism has influenced politics, too. Unrest in Southern Europe, anti-militarism in Britain and the United States and a general difficulty with previously implemented memes are all symptomatic of what we have long called the Internet Reformation.
Recently, US State Department head and previous US presidential candidate John Kerry mentioned in a speech to State Department employees that it was getting more difficult to “govern” given the Internet and the information it disseminates. His predecessor, Hillary Clinton, had previously voiced similar sentiments. Indeed, as we have long suspected, the narratives of the 20th century are collapsing around us in the 21st, and despite the gloom felt by Kerry and Clinton that is in no way a bad thing for those who support freer and more prosperous cultures.
The downside of this generalized collapse of elite narratives is that those in power tend to compensate by using the age-old tools of chaos, especially economic depressions and wars. Here, too, as things seem to be growing “worse,” we can take comfort in the realization that the advancing chaos is in fact the response to a growing comprehension of previous sociopolitical and economic manipulations.
Perhaps we should cite a famous truism at this point: “It is always darkest before the dawn.” Of course, it may grow darker still, if we are correct. Yet in many ways the current illumination over time may give rise to more prosperity and freedom rather than less. Thanks for reminding us, Tibor.