The Virtue of Liberty

Machan Explores Several Versions of Classical Liberalism

The Foundation for Economic Education • 1994 • 176 pages • $19.95 cloth; $14.95 paperback by Tibor R. Machan

Since the summer of 1990, Tibor Machan, Professor of Philosophy at Auburn University, has been lecturing throughout Europe as a Fellow for the Institute of Humane Studies. These lectures included audiences in Sweden, Poland, Czechoslovakia, Estonia, France, and his native land, Hungary. In his own words, “the main objective in these lectures has always been to explain in plain terms . . . the ideas underlying classical liberalism.” This, in a nutshell, describes Machan’s latest book, The Virtue of Liberty, which grew out of those lectures.

Machan has long recognized that, while a good many intellectuals champion liberty as a political value, they do not always do so for the same reasons, or with the same understanding, of the source, scope, and limits of liberty. Thus, several versions of what is often called “classical liberalism” have developed. Machan critically explores these various political viewpoints.

The book opens with a survey of major liberal/libertarian ideas found in Western thought, beginning with Xenophon from ancient Greece, moving through the Christian and Medieval era and into the modern period, with liberal ideas from Hobbes, Spinoza, Locke, Smith, Mill, and Spencer. From this century, Machan cites, among others, Mises, Hayek, the turncoat Nozick, Friedman, and, of course, Rand. Machan gives a thumbnail sketch and critique of each thinker’s philosophy of liberty.

Machan then explores the question “Why do we have rights?” Here he evaluates arguments from a number of thinkers, with special attention to the views of Thomas Hobbes and John Locke. Though both champion natural rights, and both justify government as answering to certain needs of individuals not realizable in the state of nature, for Hobbes there can be no uniquely “human” rights: any living thing has a “right” to whatever it thinks conducive to survival. It follows that Hobbesian rights lack a moral dimension, and hence lack moral force. In contrast, says Machan, Locke sees human beings as beginning from a position of equality, on the basis of which our rights are derived: we ought to be treated in certain ways because of our human nature; thus, we have natural rights. Now, these rights, Machan says of Locke, are moral rights to which we are entitled, violation of which justifies our retaliating against the transgressors. Though Machan favors Locke’s natural rights theory because it recognizes the moral dimension and also because, more explicitly than does Hobbes, Locke holds that the purpose of the state is to protect those rights, Machan argues that Locke’s view is problematic. For one thing, Locke assumes, without proof, that human beings are by nature moral and political equals. And, given Locke’s empiricist epistemology, a proof is not likely, since empiricism is skeptical about the possibility of ever knowing external reality, much less discovering the nature of things, including human nature. The subsequent dominance of empiricism in intellectual life, Machan observes, eroded support for natural rights and led to a general neglect of political philosophy, from which we continue to suffer.

Machan goes on to discuss the resurgence of interest in political philosophy beginning with John Rawls and Robert Nozick. With Rawls, however, Machan does not find a “robust doctrine of rights” and Rawls can offer no more solid ground for political philosophy than intuition. And, though Nozick was, until his defection, a champion of individual rights, Nozick also fails to offer a proof of individual rights, resting, as does Rawls, on intuition. This chapter closes with the observation that the “concept of rights has by now lost its function as a clear guide to political justice in a free society. In the late twentieth century what are called human rights are not linked to an individualist idea of human nature . . . but to human beings conceived of as members of groups. So we have women’s rights, rights of African-Americans, students, gays, workers, artists, and so forth.”

Next, Machan discusses the concept of liberty, both from a metaphysical (free will) and political perspective. Here he distinguishes moral values from values in general, discusses the challenge of determinism, and shows how determinists, who deny free will, may (and often do) nonetheless support political freedom. A particularly fruitful discussion concerns the “liberty- morality” connection, where Machan discusses the possibility of defending political liberty on moral rather than on instrumental grounds.

In a separate chapter, arguments for and against private property are examined, with succinct and insightful observations about the views of Marx, Locke, Keynes, Mill, and others. Then, after clarifying the concepts of liberty and rights, and providing a framework and foundation for broader concerns, Machan discusses the relationship between morality, liberty, and the market economy. Here he observes that various moral theories are friendly to classical liberalism and free markets, but for different reasons. Since a wide disparity of viewpoints tends toward skepticism, Machan offers, as a solution, a defense of the natural rights approach for morally grounding a market economy. He argues that socialism, fascism, Communism, and other systems have been rightly faulted for being economically inefficient, but their most grievous fault is in promoting moral degradation, primarily by undermining freedom of choice. He describes the general features of moral theories, arguing that the natural rights perspective is not only the most theoretically persuasive, but that it is uniquely consistent with a market economy. In other words, a market economy is morally grounded.

From here, Machan extends his scope globally, to discuss the environmental implications of the political perspective he has been championing. He argues for a form of environmental anthropocentrism as a consistent application of classical liberalism. This discussion involves an explication and defense of the view that human beings, as individuals of a certain specifiable kind, “are of the highest value in the known universe.” While other known beings have varying kinds and degrees of value, only with human beings do moral values come into existence. The implications of this for environmentalism are significant, including a justification for anthropocentrism, as well as protection of the environment.

Returning to more strictly political matters, Machan discusses the use of force by the state, distinguishing between force and coercion. He observes that governments are coercive in making people give up liberty for goals that they have neither chosen nor have a say in, or by making people work for projects that they oppose, or fight in wars that they do not support. Now, some have argued for the necessity of at least some state coercion in order for society to realize certain morally acceptable goals. Machan argues that this is a serious misconception in that morality is, at heart, a matter of volition and choice. “The basic moral support for the coercive state then is the failure to remember that morality is a system of principles serving a basic human purpose, namely, to enable human individuals to be good as human individuals. To even approach being a successful moral theory, this feature must be included within a moral system.”

Machan closes with a response to the common complaint that individualism and liberalism lead to crass hedonism, moral subjectivism, or some other morally unacceptable view. He observes how, no sooner does one form of collectivism fail than another rises from its ashes, as has the new movement of Communitarianism which preaches the dangers of individualism and its failure to promote the common good. Machan argues that there are two distinct versions of individualism, the most influential in Western liberal political thought going back to Thomas Hobbes. This version, Machan argues, is open to the charge that individualism lacks a moral base, and the shortcomings of this view tend to weaken liberalism by exposing it to precisely the objections that are in such wide currency. In contrast, Machan promotes what he calls “Classical Individualism,” which provides an objective moral basis for individualism and has solid roots in the philosophy of Aristotle. Classical Individualism withstands the criticisms leveled against the radical individualism of Hobbes, and provides the necessary moral foundation for political liberty and free markets.

The Virtue of Liberty is bold of purpose and is as rich in content as it is brief in length. Few books say as much with twice the words, and fewer still deal with as important a theme. The vision and the principles championed in this work stand in vivid contrast to the prevailing climate of thought in nearly all of our social and political institutions. The irony is that those very institutions, indeed, democracy itself, which sprang from the idea that liberty makes for human excellence, has so lost course that freedom now has little purchase in the marketplace of ideas. This book is for the politician who may wonder whether there can be nobility in his work; for the economist who seeks a deeper understanding of human behavior than is given in non-normative models; for the student who hopes to find a ground on which to build a view of human life; for the average citizen who senses that something has been lost in our pursuit of happiness. It is something of a “handbook” for those who seek to understand the relationship between liberty, morality, and social life. That a defense of liberty is necessary at all shows us the present danger of our condition. This little book is a welcome addition to the literature of freedom, and yet another reminder that the price of liberty is vigilance. []

Mr. Chesher is Professor of Philosophy at Santa Barbara City College.

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