All Commentary
Friday, June 1, 1990

Book Review: Individuals And Their Rights by Tibor R. Machan

Open Court, 315 Fifth Street, Peru, IL 61354 • 1989 • 250 pages $32.95 doth, $16.95 paper

In his new and very readable book on our natural rights, philosopher libor R. Machan has accepted a task that too many contemporary advocates of liberty regard as almost beside the point.

What he has done is ground our rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness in a broad philosophical framework of ethics, epistemology, and metaphysics—that is to say, in a theory of what reality is fundamentally like (metaphysics), how we can know anything about it (epistemology), and what choices we should make given what we know about ourselves and the outside world (ethics or morality). Once Machan has given us answers in those realms, he can then go on to apply his answers to political questions.

The more fundamental levels of philosophy do matter for questions of public policy. To see this, let us suppose that everybody agrees to follow what has been called the “nonaggression axiom,” a principle which some libertarians insist would be sufficient, all by itself, to secure and sustain a politically just society. The nonaggression axiom says: Nobody has the right to initiate the use of force. Simple reference to this principle, it is said, enables us to recognize where the justice lies in any political conflict or in social conflicts involving violence or coercion.

But this approach founders if we ask, for example, what in fact constitutes aggression? What is the realm which may not be aggressed against? How do we determine it? If you punch somebody in the nose out of the blue, is that the only thing that counts as aggression? What about menacing gestures? What about taking property whose ownership is in doubt? But maybe we’re being too ambitious here. Maybe we can’t really know anything anyway. Heck, maybe we don’t even exist—or at least not our rights.

My own attention to such questions has been informed by writers like Ayn Rand, Robert James Bidinotto, Dimitri Rotor, David Kelley, and now Tibor Machan. This book is a full-fledged discussion of human nature, how we can know it, and what the implications are for political and social relations. The author confronts opposing philosophical positions with eminent fairness, and successfully shows why they lead to different, and morally wrong, policy prescriptions. His own argument clearly demonstrates that political principles require a more fundamental philosophical foundation for their intelligible defense and that the specific politics one espouses will be intimately affected by variations in those basic positions.

Rights are a kind of moral claim, based on the objective requirements of life in a social context, although they have been treated by many writers, including Thomas Jefferson, as a kind of endowment. By contrast, Machan defines rights as “social conditions that ought to be maintained, moral principles pertaining to aspects of social life.” He favorably quotes Ayn Rand’s statement that rights are “conditions of existence required by man’s nature for his proper survival.” Although I would say that rights are actually justified moral claims or entitlements to those conditions rather than, as appears to be asserted here, the conditions themselves (one can have a right without its being respected), the relationship of the rights issue to the wider philosophical realm is evident.

If, for instance, man’s nature is fluid, unknow-able, or the opposite of what we think it is, then what we can logically say about the requirements of sustaining man’s life—f achieving his “proper” survival—will be consequently altered. To wit, if man is a predetermined, fate-driven automaton with no genuine capacity for choice, then to declare that he “ought” to do something is meaningless. And if man does not, after all, possess the capacity to reason, then to declare that force is evil because it thwarts his reasoning is meaningless as well.

This book is refreshing not because it aspires to be definitive or exhaustive on these issues, but because it treats them as necessarily interrelated, and profoundly illuminates the connections. Of course, not all readers, even those already in agreement with the broad premise of the book, will accept Machan’s arguments entirely. I had trouble with aspects of his discussion of “consent,” for instance. But certainly those who seek to improve their understanding of the requirements of a free society will be well rewarded by a scrupulous study of this work.

Here, for example, is just one of Machan’s insights that caught my attention. It is an examination of the “tragedy of the commons” that builds on the usual economic treatment:

One way of interpreting the famous doctrine of ,the tragedy of the commons” is to realize that when common ownership and authority attach to some valuable option, individuals who are responsible for making morally right choices cannot make them. They are unable to determine what they should do because they lack jurisdiction over the various alternatives that face them. As a result, one of their alternatives is to not consider externalities [external costs] their use of the property imposes on others. Indeed, it is not even possible to know what are externalities and what are not. “External” and “internal” presuppose borders spelled out by property rights and property law . . . . What is ultimately tragic in the “tragedy of the commons” is that even if one were determined not to neglect any of one’s responsibilities it cannot be clear what one’s responsibilities are.

Here the economic truth of common ownership is related to the essential requirements of moral responsibility to others. Moreover, this insight relies on Machan’s general discussion of man’s nature that spells out in what ways man is a social creature, in what ways he is a purely private and individual creature, and how to properly specify both realms so as to protect all individuals and their rights.

Machan defends his thesis ably against several contending theories, and is generally effective in doing so. He pays careful attention to what his colleagues are arguing and gives their theories their due before exposing their fallacies. My one gripe with his approach and with the entire book is his tendency to garnish perfectly plain and defensible contentions with unnecessary qualifications, including words like “seems” and “appears to be” when the implied uncertainty of these locutions is uncalled for. I don’t believe that Machan is a crypto-skeptic, so perhaps instead he is struggling to be diplomatic with his philosophical adversaries. This tactic seems to be epistemologically wrong, however, with statements that are regarded as certain rather than tentative, especially when issues of life and death are at stake.

Be that as it may, this is not a book to be missed if you are interested in the philosophical defense of individual rights. You’ll be enriched by it, and will want to return to its arguments many times.

David M. Brown is the managing editor of the Laissez Faire Books catalog and a free-lance writer For a copy of the Laissez Faire catalog, write Laissez Faire Books, 942 Howard Street, San Francisco, CA 94103.