Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Tibor Machan: Insightful and Confusing

Tibor Machan was the subject of a recent Daily Bell interview.  Having grown up in Eastern Europe, in this interview he occasionally brings a perspective and insight on the issues addressed that many in the West today might not have; at times he seems purposely oblivious to context; mostly, his comments are completely indecipherable.

With that, let’s begin:

DB: That brings us to our larger topic of US imperialism and war….Let's begin by pointing out that since you grew up in a communist country, you tend to believe that US militarism is not as widespread or fierce as some think it is.

TM: For my money, the expansionist geopolitics is found mostly with Russia, China, Japan and so forth. What else would one call Putin's stance? But such generalizations are nearly impossible to ascertain as either true or false.

I agree that generalizations are not useful – however, they can be of advantage when speaking with an audience that holds a common understanding of certain terms.  Machan has contributed articles to The Daily Bell for years – he certainly must have some understanding of the context of the terms used within the community.  Machan seems to avoid this notion throughout this interview.

But what on earth are the specifics?  Japan?  This isn’t 1931.  What has Japan done since 1945 to deserve inclusion in this group?  China?  If China has made any substantial act of war in any region farther than 200 kilometers of its borders in the last couple of decades, I am not aware of it.

Russia?  Putin is no saint, but at worst whatever is happening in Ukraine is the offspring of many fathers – both east and west.  Even if one grants that Putin is an imperialist, does this automatically negate the possibility of any other imperialist regimes on earth?  Why deflect?

In any case, Ukraine is a lot closer to Russia than it is to any Western European (or North American) country.  Besides, Putin was instrumental in stopping the bombing of Syria a year ago.  That isn’t nothing.

Finally, to the extent states such as China and Russia gain influence in the world, it is and will be only because the United States government has so significantly abandoned any semblance of moral leadership.

DB: How has your thinking about natural rights and libertarianism evolved within the context of the West's continued militarism?

TM: This is one of those kinds of questions—"Have you stopped beating your wife?" "The West's continued militarism?" As far as I understand recent, modern geopolitics, there is no "continued militarism" in the West. Luxembourg? Hungary? Lichtenstein? France? Poland?

This is one of those “purposely oblivious to context” moments.  It is obvious the context in which DB is asking the question.  It is equally obvious that the United States (and other “Western” states such as Great Britain) have been quite militaristic in the last several decades – far more so than Japan, China, and Russia.  Machan has noted this in the past.  Why not in this interview?

TM: How about the USSR? Based on its ideology, the Soviet Union had to expand both territorially and so far as its belief system is concerned.

This is true enough – but again, not in the context of DB’s question – which was “continued militarism.”  Continued!  There is no USSR and hasn’t been for over 20 years; what is the USSR continuing?  It doesn’t exist!  Russia (as Machan apparently is not familiar with the distinction) – whatever the sins of its political leaders – has not fomented revolution in Mexico or Canada.

TM: Without such expansionism its imperial ambitions, going back all the way to czarist times, couldn't be sustained. Marx himself noted that in order to fulfill its destiny as the leader of international communism, modern Russia/the USSR had to act as an imperial nation.

Although muddled by the mixing of czars, Marxists, and whatever you want to label today’s Russia, this comment offers a glimpse into his insight; many in the West are not knowledgeable regarding Stalin’s actions and desire to lead Germany, France, and Britain into the Second World War as a means by which to spread communism in the west.  But Machan so far has mixed past and present (China, Japan, Russia, USSR) so confusingly that I have no idea what he is talking about.

DB: Why do you think the West has so many wars – and not against other Western countries but against terrorism and "Islam"?

TM: I disagree with your premise here.

Which premise?  Is it a disagreement about the term “West”?  The term “war”?  Lichtenstein and Luxembourg?  This is “purposely oblivious to context” – he certainly has noted the US aggression in the past.  Is it that the West (as the term is commonly understood) is not involved in “so many wars,” via some type of quantitative measure?  Machan is not so ignorant.  With which premise does Machan disagree?  He offers no answer.

DB: Is the state in a sense at war with the individual – and is that war advanced by non-domestic military action?

TM: The state is a collection of individuals with various more or less aggressive attitudes.

Machan is quite correct, and many of us that write critically about the state often either forget this or merely use the term “state” as a shortcut to describe the individuals that are taking action against individual, non-aggressive, freedoms.  Machan knows this (he has used this shortcut in the past), but instead of using this opportunity to shed light on his views, he avoids dealing with the question – a question behind which there is truth and an opportunity to educate. 

Does he not understand the context?  He has had no problem in the past speaking of the growing tyranny in the United States.  Why is he so evasive today?

DB: Is the West still justifying war overseas as part of the "white man's burden"?

TM: As someone who grew up under a communist regime, with no free press, no public debate of foreign affairs, with schools that were indoctrination camps and a nearly tyrannical bunch of rulers who seemed to believe that their destiny was to guide the workers of the world toward a utopian end state, I don't share your apparent assumptions and tend, in the main, to champion sound Western values.

A comparison to Machan’s communist upbringing was not part of the question, although indirectly Machan raises an important point – those who live under Western regimes (in their homeland, not the “colonies”) have little to complain about personally relative to those who lived under communist regimes.

But this has nothing to do with DB’s question.  Ask a Filipino (the US war on the Philippines was the inspiration for Kipling’s poem – which DFB cites – for goodness sake) if he would have preferred being victim to Marx as opposed to a victim of McKinley and Teddy Roosevelt.  Wait – they can’t answer because they were killed by the imperialistic Americans.

Dead is dead.  Does a murdered victim of military aggression really have a preference as to under whose axe he fell?  Another example of Machan being purposely argumentative.

As to “sound Western Values,” I agree with Machan one hundred percent – as long as he and I share the same view of “sound” (and the more I read of this interview, the less likely that this appears).  Machan must not remember that those “sound Western values” joined with Stalin in committing countless horrendous atrocities during the Second World War.

However, I also accept that there are billions in this world who – voluntarily – would not choose these “sound Western values” to live under; I also see no justification to use force to impose or interject these values anywhere – sound Western values would preclude the use of force to introduce Western values, after all. 

DB: Does it seem to you that Western wars and especially US wars are getting more frequent? How long do you expect the war on terror to last?

TM: No, it doesn't and this question echoes the attitudes I encountered under the Soviet regime from 1930 to circa 1957. You are entitled to your ideology but it doesn't look like I share much of it.

What ideology?  It is an objective question.  It is a question about facts – objective, not subjective.  The US is involved in many wars, both directly and indirectly.  Machan is asked to speculate about the length of the war on terror.  What does any of this have to do with attitudes of the Soviet Union from seventy years ago?  Do the non-combatant murdered Iraqis care?  No, they don’t.  They’re dead.

DB: In your view, is the war on terror justified – or justifiable?

TM: Cannot tell as of yet but assuming there really is a concerted, united effort to murder me and my fellow citizens (which appears to be the case now), a serious defensive "war on terror" would seem to be justified, yes.

For as nit-picky as Machan has been on every other word and phrase used by DB, how does he skim over the term “war on terror” in DB’s question?  This is the most undefinable concept in this entire interview, yet Machan offers a response for this while evading the rest.  I won’t even bother with the substance of the response; I will leave this to Miobi.

DB: The Pentagon just expressed the view that the US standing army should not be reduced but should be expanded. Are standing armies inevitably an invitation to war?

TM: No more than guards at banks entice bank robbery.

Machan completely ignores the different incentives for a government and government actors as opposed to a bank and bank employees, something he does as well in this post.  Again, I know he isn’t an ignorant man.  What is going on in this interview?

DB: Is war in a sense a racket, as Smedley Butler called it?  TM: Don't know or understand this.  DB: Is war the health of the state, as Randolph Bourne argued?  TM: Such quips are usually appealing but also misleading.

I lumped all of this together.  Each phrase DB uses in these two questions is far better defined than is the nonsensical term “war on terror.”  Yet Machan avoids the former and offers a clear, if paranoid, response to the latter.  Again, what gives?

TM: The war that was mostly directed at liberating Jews in Germany seems to me to have been largely just. Or the war aimed at liberating Native Americans and America's black slaves.

This is nonsense cubed (and what finally motivated to write this post): there was no war “mostly directed” at liberating Jews in Germany; there was no war “aimed” at liberating Native Americans; there was no war “aimed” at liberating America’s black slaves.

The only possible meaning I can take from this statement: a small percentage of pre-war Eastern European Jews were liberated at the end of WWII (many by the Soviets) although neither the Americans nor the Soviets had this end in mind during the war (the war certainly was not “mostly directed” toward this purpose); black slaves were liberated as a result of the American Civil War – although this was not Lincoln’s “aim.”  Machan, at least at one time, knew this.  For these two, Machan can only be suggesting that the ends – even undesired ends – justify the means.  A horrendous thought coming from a so-called champion of the individual.

As to the liberation of Native Americans?  This can only be considered “liberation” if one believes that they were being liberated from living a lifestyle different than that available to them under “sound Western values.” 

Machan must advocate that death is preferable to life under the various systems (as there were many) under which Native Americans lived – as if Machan is claiming that because Native Americans did not know western values, killing most of them was a worthwhile price to pay to bring a few of them under a nominally liberal system of governance (called the reservation).  This, of course, is morally bankrupt.  It is also in complete contradiction to the most basic principle of libertarian thought and a complete violation of any concept associated with respect for the individual.

DB: What about big wars like the First and Second World War? Were they just? Were these wars in a sense manufactured?

TM: In what sense? By whom? Who would do such a thing—must be insane!

All powers in Europe worked to manufacture WWI.  Stalin, Churchill, Roosevelt, and Hitler all worked hard to manufacture WWII.  Yes, they were all insane in any rational meaning of the term, yet I don’t think this is what Machan meant to suggest, given his other comments in this interview.

DB: Are the wars increasing as the human population expands?

TM: I am no expert at this – Malthusian doctrine – but doubt it. Reading Professor Steven Pinker suggests that the world is getting more and more peaceful, contrary to your intimation.

War has certainly taken on a different, far more uncivilized, nature beginning in the twentieth century – at least as far as European powers are concerned when compared to their practices from the previous two centuries.  However, overall I agree with Machan – what is happening today is nothing like what was witnessed during the first fifty years of the last century.

There is so much in this interview that is problematic for me.  His posts have appeared at the Daily Bell for years, yet he acts as if he has no understanding of the terms used in the questions – terms that have been part of the Daily Bell dialogue throughout this time.  He is purposely oblivious to context regarding many of the questions raised; he makes no attempt to clarify his views or to get clarification from DB regarding the questions.

He has written in the past on many of these topics, taking what seems to be the opposite position of what is stated here.  What is going on?

I can think of a couple of possibilities: first, Machan is so focused on the individual that he chooses not to address terms such as the state, etc.  Individuals act, and it is on this level where Machan wants to conduct his analysis.  However, as noted above, he has used such shortcuts in the past.  Why not now?  Further, this does not explain every instance in question.

This leads me to a second possibility – and one that I find no reason to exclude: Machan believes that the ends justify the means.  The murder of millions is justifiable if it frees one person; the murder of the recalcitrant is beneficial if it is done to bring Western values to those “fortunate” few who survive.

The Civil War resulted in freed slaves – even though this was not Lincoln’s intent; as slaves were freed, the war was good, justifiable.  Stalin freed a few Jews from death camps; even though Stalin didn’t care one wit about Jews, the unintended end justified Stalin’s brutal means.  Americans are bringing western values to brown-skinned people – first, Native Americans and now Arabs / Muslims.  They are better off dead then living under their current value system, so again the ends justify the means.

The ends justify the means: this is a cruel position for one to hold; it also flies in the face of individualism and liberty when applied in the context as Machan seems to do so here.  I therefore feel it appropriate to find something from Machan outside of this interview that supports such a view.

I found a comment in a paper by Michael Davis, of the Illinois Institute of Technology.  The relevant section:

Only one writer I know of, Tibor Machan, has offered a non-consequentialist principle to support the intuition that torture in a purified Dirty Harry problem is morally justified.  Machan argues, in effect, that torture is morally justified in just those cases where the moral right of the innocent to live preempts the moral right of the “guilty” to be exempt from “retaliation.” 26  Unfortunately for our purposes, Machan does not have much of an argument for this principle of preemption—well, actually, none except for analogy with forms of “extreme violence” we do sometimes consider to be justified, for example, killing an attacker when that is the only way to stop the attack and save the potential victim.  Machan does not seem concerned (as I am) that torture is morally much worse than killing an attacker (the attacker is, for example, not helpless in the way the tortured is)—or that torture does not promise success in as direct a way as killing an attacker does. Machan does not, in other words, see how weak his analogy between killing and torture is.

Machan tried to provide a non-consequentialist foundation for the intuition in question here, setting an example that defenders of the intuition should follow.  But until someone offers an argument substantially better than Machan’s, theory does not give us a reason to move from the intuition of “should,” however clear, to the conclusion that torture is in fact morally justified (rather than, say, merely justified by civic prudence).  Given the doubts raised here, the burden of proof falls on those who claim that the justification intuited is nonetheless moral.  27 They have yet to shoulder that burden successfully.

Apparently Machan justifies torture in certain cases, but – at least in the eyes of Michael Davis – fails to do so.  Davis footnotes a paper from Machan, “Exploring Extreme Violence (Torture).”  Not wanting to spend money for a download of the full paper, I am limited to one page from the abstract.  This seems to be enough:

Suppose a little girl is kidnapped by two known child molesters / murderers and one of these has been caught, while the other is still at large with the child.  Suppose it is known that the captured kidnapper-child molester knows where his partner is hiding with the child but does not want to yield the information, fearing future reprisals.  Is it so incredible to contemplate that the captured…

That’s where the one page ends.  Machan seems to ignore some very basic steps:  How is it known that the captured person has anything to do with the crime?  Was he convicted by an independent third party?  Was a judge involved?  A defense attorney? 

But this issue is secondary to my purpose.  Machan is clearly employing an ends-justifies-the-means standard to torture – and the means are not dependent on being based on a factual foundation. 

From “Terrorism and Objective Moral Principles,” published in the International Journal on World Peace (December 1987):

“A response to effective terrorism amounts to having to decide which is morally worse, violating the rights of innocent human beings or failing to stem future threats to, and sacrifices of, innocent persons.” (P31)

Machan is weighing the certain violation of the rights of innocent persons today – including the most basic right to life – against the possibility of some future violation.  A certain violation against a possible – not yet committed – future violation.

He describes terrorists as “outright enemies of human life…” (P 37)

“…coping with terrorism should be seen as coping with unmitigated evil…as one devises the methods that may be employed in fighting terrorism, one must be clear about the reasons why that kind of fight must be waged.  One should be clear, also, about what sorts of trade-offs, in moral terms, are justified when that kind of fight has to be waged.” (P 38)

When the enemy is labeled as an “unmitigated evil,” every violation of the rights of the innocent can be justified, according to Machan.  Just as the war-mongers label every new enemy “Hitler” for their justification.

Machan attributes an ends-justifies-the-means morality to terrorists (P 35), yet seems to suggest that the end justifies the means in fighting terrorists.  Who is the terrorist in this scenario?  The one who might commit a violation tomorrow or the one who is actually committing a violation today?

Don’t blame me for this choice – it is the one Machan is presenting, and to him the choice is clear.  I put all of this together (including his statements in the interview) and conclude that Machan advocates the killing of innocent human life today in exchange for the possibility of killing someone who might present a “future threat.”

Dick Cheney would be comfortable with Machan as his speech writer and guiding light on morality on these subjects.  Machan is no champion of liberty and he is no champion of the individual.  His tone in the Daily Bell interview (if I may use “tone” to describe the written word) is that of a war-monger; what I have been able to find elsewhere merely supports this conclusion. 

1 comment:

  1. What a strange interview...

    It was like watching an owner try and stroke a pissed off cat who would occasionally rear and bite.

    And at some points Machan resembled the the teenager in this song:

    Well, this kind of reaction is why I prefer small "l" libertarianism: zero compunction to maintain party lines; a spade is indeed a spade.

    Finally, have you perused the Martyrdom of Man by Winwoode Reade ?(1872): http://www.exclassics.com/martyrdom/mrtintro.htm

    So many compare the US to the fall of Rome, but the first 20 pages or so of Martyrdom would seem to find many similarities between the fall of the Egyptians. A lot of insight into the nature of men and what are the fruits of a certain structure of incentive.

    "In the modern world we find luxury the harbinger of progress, in the ancient world the omen of decline. But how can this be? Nature does not contradict herself; the laws which govern the movements of society are as regular and unchangeable as those which govern the movements of the stars.

    "Wealth is in reality as indispensable to mankind for purposes of growth as water to the soil. It is not the fault of the water if its natural circulation is interfered with, if certain portions of the land are drowned while others are left completely dry. Wealth in all countries of the ancient world was artificially confined to a certain class. More than half the area of the Greek and Roman world was shut off by slavery from the fertilising stream. This single fact is sufficient to explain how that old civilisation, in some respects so splendid, was yet so one-sided and incomplete. (Martyrdom of Man, pg. 14)"

    This is written from the perspective of 1872. Pretty marvelous insights.

    Always like passing by here, excellent post.