Tibor Machan on Individualism and Its Progress in the 21st Century

tiborReprinted from The Daily Bell

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.” Parts of this interview were drawn from previous Machan editorials.

Daily Bell: Our theme for this interview is the progress of freedom in the Internet era – within the context of individualism that you have written about so eloquently. Please begin by giving your opinion as to whether the United States – where you live – is making progress toward individualism.

Tibor Machan: All right. I would say here and there, yes … some of the Right Wing’s efforts to deny the rights of certain groups of people has met with serious obstacles (e.g., Boy Scouts opening up to gays). There is a downside about this, too, since it seems like the reason why the Scouts made the change isn’t because it makes good sense but because they couldn’t withstand the political/legal pressure from some segments of the population. Very little movement toward individualism appears to rest on good ideas; instead, much of it is pragmatic and political.

Daily Bell: What did you think of President Obama‘s re-election?

Tibor Machan: It was sad, although Mitt Romney was no great alternative. What was disappointing is how in the end the surge for the ideas of Ron Paul subsided. People don’t understand the true significance of Paul’s ideas in the 21st century. I have written, for instance, about a BBC report that summarized his ideas as embarrassing. “Many of his views are seen as too libertarian and isolationist,” the report claimed. “Mr. Paul would order a $1 trillion spending cut, eliminating a number of government agencies, including the Department of Education. He also proposes returning the dollar to a gold standard and cutting all foreign aid, including to Israel.”

Daily Bell: Where’s the controversy? A lot of it is in line with what US opinion polls show people want.

Tibor Machan: Of course, but these reports are being written by the gatekeepers, those in the media who promote certain opinions at the expense of others. In truth, libertarians hope people will be helpful to and supportive, especially when we suffer from conditions we had no role in bringing about. Casualties of acts of nature often deserve our sympathy and even help, unless they have been negligent in taking precautionary measures, such as saving money for health insurance. Even in cases when one has been negligent, often others overlook this and tend to be considerate beyond the call of duty.

Libertarians often are the first to offer help to those who have been hurt by floods, earthquakes or the like. It is private aid, freely offered, often through churches and organized religion generally. This is how aid was delivered in the past, via private and religious groups. What Paul and libertarians in general are bothered by is the government tak[ing] over of these activities. [Even i]f government aid worked, that would not be OK [since one may not be generous with stolen resources; but] it doesn’t work. It’s often wasted and misdirected, and on purpose. I explained this in my book “Generosity, Virtue in Civil Society” [1998].

Daily Bell: How about his support of social spending cuts in particular?

Tibor Machan: Well, we can see that the party itself has adopted Paul’s perspective. There is a huge battle being fought in Washington, DC as we speak over budget cuts. In the nation’s capitol, these cuts are being positioned as a matter of fiscal solvency. But you could also make a moral argument. Government deals in force, and when government takes something, it is with force. Charitable, helpful acts, on the other hand, need to be voluntary or they are not moral.

Daily Bell: Foreign aid?

Tibor Machan: No difference. If you are going to give out money, it needs to be a voluntary effort. Not only that but giving funds from one government to another is highly inefficient and unsuccessful. Usually, you are not helping the average person with this effort but are mostly enriching a small circle of cronies at the top that happens to run whatever nation it is that you are trying to aid.

This sort of activity is never described properly. This country gives aid to that one, it is written – but actually people give aid to other people. And people are human, so the reasons for the aid and its direction are influenced by issues beyond charity. Nothing is ever freely given … when it comes to government largess. This is not the case with private charity, though. Often, private charity is transparent in a way that government giving is not and in any case private charity at least is moral because the initial funds being given are not extorted in any sense.

Daily Bell: Was there voter fraud? Did it make a difference?

Tibor Machan: I am not apprised of any information about voter fraud although I wouldn’t put it past the Obama crowd to resort to virtually anything to keep power. Not a lot has been mentioned by the Republicans, either, and I think the election was lost in part because once Ron Paul was out of the way, no coherent, pro-liberty message was heard from [Republican] leaders. One was – I was – inclined to wait until next time for some progress away from statism either from Democrats or Republicans. But, as I mentioned, the message was not forthcoming.

Daily Bell: Does Rand Paul encourage you?

Tibor Machan: I think Senator Paul needs to establish himself based on solid, principled policy proposals in Washington. He began to do that with his filibuster but a reputation such as his father acquired is not built quickly and must be honed with care and prudence.

Daily Bell: What’s going to happen under Obama in the next four years?

Tibor Machan: He will push for more and more power for his crowd, no doubt in my mind about that. But his crowd is not coherent, either. As libertarians well know, one cannot secure liberty on the intellectual and artistic fronts while neglecting it elsewhere (e.g., property rights). As some have noted, America has turned into a messy social democratic place comparable to, say, much of Europe. There used to be some principles that were reasonably well upheld here but that is no longer true. Philosophically, American politics is simply a stew with mostly dangerous ingredients.

It is not about one philosophy anymore. Obama is not strictly speaking a socialist. He doesn’t [voice his disparagement of] private property, though he is certainly big on regulation and that is not strictly speaking collectivism. What comes across with Obama is a kind of pragmatism married to a quasi-collectivism that is never entirely explained. It may bring to mind a statement from the 1920s by Vladimir Lenin himself: “Only one thing is needed to lead us to march forward more surely and more firmly to victory: namely, the consciousness everywhere that all communists, in all countries, must display the maximum flexibility in their tactics.”

But this isn’t all. When it comes to socialism, or any “ism,” [for Obama & Co.] individuals are to be looked on as specie beings (Marx), like insects existing in the hive collective. This collective [existence and the resulting collective ownership] is the base of these philosophies and it allows for various ways to [regiment any] society effectively. One can even use areas of capitalism if it is suitable. For purposes of efficiency or maybe simply for the sake of confusion, one can advocate these methodologies. But underneath one never forgets that the individuals are looked on within a group context.

The late, great political scientist Leo Strauss used this approach and made it famous. It is Platonic in a sense. The philosopher kings that are trying to rule the world to the betterment of all of us “specie” shouldn’t give us too many clues as to their ulterior motives because we might rebel. No matter what someone like Obama believes, we shouldn’t expect him to come out and say what it is. And if he is blunt, by any chance, a herd of handlers will be right behind cleaning up the statement, repositioning it and making it clear that he “misspoke.”

Daily Bell: That sounds right – it’s already happened, from what we can tell. Even with his signature issue, Obamacare, he hasn’t come out and stated he wants fully socialized health care. It’s wonkier than that.

Tibor Machan: Yes. I am no specialist in this area but my general impression is that nothing entrusted to the government works and in any event Obama would never let himself be pinned down so bluntly.

Daily Bell: Even the Supreme Court gets away from using labels. It’s obviously a step toward nationalized health care but didn’t we learn from the Court that it was merely another tax?

Tibor Machan: In a sense it IS a tax, as all socialist programs involve additional taxation. Of course, I have always been opposed to taxation. So this question is like asking whether the US government is overly corrupt. Any measure of corruption is objectionable!

Taxation never exists by itself. Once government has collected taxes, it redistributes them much as rent was collected and redistributed in feudal systems [for various royal purposes]. The problem is that in the 21st century things are not called what they are. The monarch once owned the realm and collected payments so that people could live there. But the meaning of the payments was quite clear: You were living in the country by permission of the government, and any rights you had were granted to you [as permissions of the Crown]. Private property rights advanced late in the history of Western politics, mostly from Englishman John Locke and his followers. The basis of individual rights was natural rights granted by God. God may have provided the monarch with a divine right to rule, but He also endowed individuals with various rights, as well … natural rights.

Daily Bell: Thomas Jefferson used natural rights as the basis for the Declaration of Independence.

Tibor Machan: It was in the New World that the Lockean system started to be advanced. No more serfdom or servitude for some – at least for “citizens.” Taxes remained, however, though under Locke such a system doesn’t make sense logically. If you are responsible for yourself, then you are responsible for the fruits of your own labor. That got lost in translation and, of course, later on taxation expanded and today we have the federal income tax, VATS, etc.

Daily Bell: Would minimal taxes be better?

Tibor Machan: It is like being a little bit pregnant, unfortunately. Once taxation begins, so does [state] redistribution and before you know it you’ve built a constituency counting on that redistribution. That doesn’t mean you can’t try to keep taxes to a minimum, though, and in the limited government such as what the United States of America was supposed to become, the intention was to keep taxes to a minimum. Mitt Romney enunciated this in his election campaign, though I never heard Obama mention it. That’s not surprising because if you believe – as Mr. Obama may – that citizens are basically the property of the state, then any fruits of their labor are the state’s as well.

Daily Bell: It depends, logically, where you begin …

Tibor Machan: The real issue is not even the wealth itself so much as its distribution. Using taxation, politicians and bureaucrats make it clear that one’s wealth, including one’s labor, does not belong to the individual. This is not just conversation. Major American political theorists, like Thomas Nagel and Cass Sunstein, argue that this is the case, and they are serious men.

This would have been a very interesting issue to argue comprehensively in the presidential campaign – who gets to control one’s money – from within a philosophical context. Is the distribution and redistribution the business of the state or the individual? In a free society, people are in charge of their resources. In a welfare state, people are “permitted” to allocate resources, but not much.

Daily Bell: What is the rationale for taxing – especially given the ability of the US to print virtually unlimited money via the Fed?

Tibor Machan: I suppose they do it because they can. In my view, these are issues comparable to ones concerned with better organization of criminal gangs. The US is now being run like a gigantic firm that’s gone rogue. If it cannot raise funds from fees on bona fide, justified services, it has no authority to spend anything. Otherwise, it should be limited to funding the courts, military and minimal diplomatic procedures.

Daily Bell: Do “the people” realize this? Is this sort of government popular among US citizens?

Tibor Machan: Unfortunately, many of the “transfers” – of the wealth transfers that are made – have considerable backing. Lots of people thoughtlessly accept their and their pals’ “benefits” and do not connect the dots about what is being sacrificed in the process.

Daily Bell: How about the EU?

Tibor Machan: That’s another big story with the same unhappy ending … A pretty pathetic attempt to mimic the USA in its current statist phase. In fact, those in Brussels are even more emphatic in their rhetoric than US Democrats. There is a constant emphasis on the state as the last hope of Europe for peace. It is about the individual versus the community – and in the EU the community is [officially what’s] all-important.

Daily Bell: The whole idea of individualism is misunderstood isn’t it?

Tibor Machan: Individualism does not mean being a hermit. Human activities are not usually carried out in isolation. It is a misunderstanding, purposeful or not, to proclaim that those who believe in individualism are advocating a solitary existence. No man is an island. Individualists want a society that [makes room for them] to make individual choices. And they want to be left in peace to make choices about whom they would like to fraternize with [for whatever peaceful purposes]. And getting back to [Lockean] natural law, we can observe how people live most happily, and it is unlike the lifestyles of insects that live in one hive. Humans make choices, and want to make choices and are miserable when they are deprived of the chance to make choices.

Communitarians are all about dictating what kind of groups people must be part of. Free choice is not just seen as unnecessary but downright subversive, as it stands a chance of spreading. Also, if one grants that people can make their own choices, you run risk of noncompliance because you are then in a position where you need to be convincing rather than forceful. And using persuasion does not guarantee the same results as force, at least not to begin with.

Over time force is a very clumsy way to organize society. You end up with a kind of imperial communalism that includes gulags and concentration camps instead of peaceful communities and companionships. We can already see this happening in the US – it has a huge prison population and it will follow logically in the EU as well – as the EU is heading quickly down the same path.

Daily Bell: Was Ayn Rand right?

Tibor Machan: Mostly. She felt freedom was a personal responsibility. A lack of sufficient vigilance in support of liberty left the door open for these kinds of communal political systems to make progress, as indeed they have.

Daily Bell: You’ve written about Rand a good deal. In your opinion she’s somewhat misunderstood.

Tibor Machan: Yes. I’ve written and spoken about this a lot. People tend to simplify her statements and beliefs but her philosophy is not simple but subtle and nuanced. In my late teens I came across her, first by seeing a play of hers and then by reading The Fountainhead. I think she spoke to me so deeply because of the misanthropy surrounding my existence at the time. I was questioning, including my Roman Catholic upbringing with its emphasis on original sin. I never quite bought the idea that people were evil – and that only Jesus could alleviate that evilness. My own parents were misanthropic and made sure I was reminded of the doctrine of original sin at regular intervals. My father was an anti-Semite and a fan of Hitler’s ideas and that didn’t sit especially well with me. Then there was my country, Hungary, which was communist at the time. The message was clear: individuals were evil and contained no intrinsic value.

It was a struggle to free myself from this intellectual attack, and even today when I come across evidences of it I have a visceral reaction against it. When I witness the foes of individualism, I naturally want to fight back. It doesn’t matter where I see it. It could be contained in a simple sitcom or a movie or a speech – I want to counter with the concept that human beings are not evil and that they have better natures and that we see them in action all the time.

Everywhere evidence provides us with scenarios of admirable humans. It is common sense to conclude that these people are not evil, or certainly that their actions are not evil. Some people ARE vicious but this is their own choice, their human action. In fact, you could argue that the Church, by declaring everyone to be evil actually gives people a justification to be so!

I remain grateful to Ayn Rand and to her writings for giving me insights that allowed me to adopt points of view different from the ones I was raised with and I will always be proud of having joined their ranks and have spent my life pointing out that human beings are capable of great good – and that many are willing to fight hard against the forces of collectivism and dirigisme.

Daily Bell: Okay. So where do we go from here? What do people who believe in freedom and a civil society do to make things better?

Tibor Machan: I am for carrying forth with “eternal vigilance,” as the man said! It would be wise if folks became more concerned with avoiding bankruptcy both in their personal and public finances. Now and then, mostly by accident, a good monarch may appear but there is no reason to count on this (public choice theory tells us why). As they say about broken clocks, twice a day they tell the right time but only inadvertently. The world is messy and it is all up to good people to make some headway toward improving it.

Daily Bell: Is government-imposed austerity ever a good idea?

Tibor Machan: Only if it addresses its own finances. I am modestly hopeful in this regard. I am no utopian and expect no perfection but some improvement here and there, just as it has happened throughout human history.

Daily Bell: Will society have to start over?

Tibor Machan: Well … how did people survive bad times in Eastern Europe? Many didn’t, if you recall. Some will by being very smart and prudent; many will just linger in limbo like people who carry on, out of shape, sickly.

Daily Bell: Can negative trends regarding freedom be turned around?

Tibor Machan: Yes, through diligence, thoughtfulness and some luck.

Daily Bell: Any more books underway? You mentioned Revisiting Individualism on the phone to us.

Tibor Machan: I am working on Revisiting Individualism. It deals with the topics we have been discussing here and the tribal ways of looking at people. Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor, for instance, asserts that individuals literally belong to their group – rather than to themselves. Once again, we find the argument over whether individuals are property or independent.

The initial US’s “exceptionalism” is the cure for this kind of thinking. People are not born only to be useful to the state or society. Being human is an end in itself and if children were raised with this in mind, it would be far more difficult to treat them as malleable and mere tools for the State. It is, in fact, individualism, or its recognition, that disarms our group hostilities. It is individualism, or the acceptance of it, that discourages the view of people as adjuncts to violent ends. But to do this would be to weaken the State that too many use for their own purposes. For them, looking at people as chattel is convenient and enriching.

Of course, there is ample opportunity under individualism for people to immerse themselves in groups – corporations, orchestras, football teams, sororities – and appear not to count for much as individuals. But that is only appearance. Ironically, individualism would seem to encourage just the kind of conditions among human beings that are often used to urge conformity to the group and communal attitudes, namely, peace and harmony.

Daily Bell: Anything else you want to note? Are you hopeful about a reassertion of individualism in the 21st century?

Tibor Machan: I am always hopeful, and the Internet – as you people often write about – has already made a difference in that regard. Where it takes us, we shall see. But in the meantime, always make some room for a laugh or two … and assert yourself thoughtfully! Ideas matter, and so does self expression. These are the main tools that we have in our battle against collectivism.

Daily Bell: Thanks for your time.

Tibor Machan: You are welcome.

Tags: ,

Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.