All Commentary
Saturday, August 1, 1992

Liberty & Culture

I’ve just finished reading a delightfully thought-provoking and entertaining book, Liberty & Culture by Tibor Machan, professor of philosophy at Auburn University. Machan is widely published in professional journals and a frequent contributor to The Freeman. Though the great bulk of Machan’s previous work is scholarly and aimed at a highly trained, specialized audience, Liberty & Culture is more widely accessible. This book is a collection of selected editorials that have appeared, over a period of 20 years, on the op-ed pages of many prominent newspapers and magazines, including The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, Liberty, and the National Review.

The essays cover diverse issues and topics, beginning with Machan’s touching and colorful account of his “Escape from Tyranny” as a youth in Communist Hungary. There are a number of essays each on Marxism, democracy, individual human rights, foreign affairs, politics, economics, business law, morality, medicine, and culture. Each one addresses, in terms of some fundamental principle, a specific event, problem, or issue of the day. The essays, though varied in scope, are smoothly woven together by the common thread of Machan’s concern with the relationship between “liberty and culture.”

The essays are further unified by a common motive. As Machan observes, “my main concern in these writings has been with moral and political standards for contemporary society. I have stressed the enormous diversity open to each of us as we strive to live a morally proper life. And I champion the preservation of individual liberty, which makes moral conduct possible for everyone in the human community.”

What the reader will find in this book are familiar themes freshly and originally applied to contemporary issues. For example, in response to the claim that video recorders make it possible to infringe on the rightful earnings of the Hollywood community, Machan observes that “the crucial question is whether the proposal advanced by the Hollywood creative community—that Congress tax tape equipment and transfer the funds to the industry—is consistent with individual rights. Is this a special case requiring government intervention or is it simply another case of special-interest pleading?” Machan demonstrates that this plea for special government assistance is not consistent with rights of ownership.

Again, in response to the lament that the competition of free markets is good for the swift but cruel to the slow, Machan offers this perspective: “. . . competition is actually only a sideshow in a free market . . . what the market makes possible is only incidentally a matter of contest. More accurately it is a matter of excellence. In a free market people can excel at what they do, even if there is no one challenging them. If there are many who want to excel at some craft, profession, or art, then here we find competition . . . . But that is not crucial. Freedom allows those who want to work at some task to do their best without punishment.”

Machan comments on strikes by public school teachers. He discusses the Supreme Court’s support of statism. He points out that creeping fascism, not socialism, is the greater threat in this country. He writes of the business community’s ironic disdain of capitalism. He explains why it is wrong to blame tobacco companies for the woes of smokers, why defense spending and social spending are no more comparable than apples and oranges, why the government’s war on drugs may be more threatening than drugs themselves, why it is contradictory to claim that “given a free press, a fair and impartial jury is impossible,” also when one has the obligation not to vote.

The essays in this book are challenging but “reader friendly,” requiring no special knowledge, no dictionary at one’s side. Liberty & Culture brings the philosophy of liberty down from the clouds and demonstrates how sound theory and moral principles are solidly grounded in experience. Each essay provides the reader with sufficient information to consider the issue intelligently. This collection of essays would be an excellent introduction to liberty for those many people we know who are not familiar with the literature on the subject, but are genuinely curious about its limits and applications. Such people are not moved by works on abstract theory and lofty moralizing. Give them this book instead.

Mr. Chesher, who teaches in the philosophy department of Santa Barbara City College, is a freelance writer and reviewer.