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Friday, March 25, 2016

Tibor R. Machan on the Questions that Matter

A great philosopher and journalist has died

Philosopher and journalist Tibor Machan has died at the age of 77. This widely published writer was a professor emeritus in the Department of Philosophy at Auburn University, taught at Chapman University, served as a fellow of the Hoover Institution, and was a prolific columnist and public intellectual.  

His work was very important to the history of the Foundation for Economic Education, which provided him a venue for his writing for many decades. His first article appeared in 1969 and his most recent in 2013, for a total of 73. So FEE has especially good cause to mark this scholar’s passing by celebrating his literary contribution.

He wrote tirelessly and voluminously with a dedication to the principles of human freedom. He never grew weary, never lost heart, never relented in his enthusiasm for explaining and promoting the idea of liberty. It always fascinated him. He engaged critics closely and carefully. And through his many books and articles, he had a wide influence. His work helped sustain the flame of liberty through dark times, long after the demise of classical liberalism, and long before libertarianism became a substantial academic and public movement.

At the very dawn of my ideological consciousness, I was challenged and deeply influenced by a book he edited. It was a series of essays on the debate between libertarianism and conservatism. This was a pressing question for me at the age of 20. I had already rejected socialism and interventionism. Yet, as young people do, I felt the need to ally myself with some camp that represented the opposition.

Which ideological package made more sense? I read voraciously on the topic, and Professor Machan became my guide.

There were so many issues to consider. In fact, the entire universe of social, political, and economic theory was relevant to the question. What is the role of values in public life? Where does order come from, and what is the role of law? How can we distinguish vice and crime? How important are religion and culture to the foundations of a free society? What is the relationship between individualism and civic institutions?

Trying to juggle all these ideas in one’s head can be tremendously confusing, and it seemed to me that conservatism and libertarianism had differing views on each of these topics. True, the libertarians could sometimes have a tin ear for issues of culture, faith, history, and so on. Beyond that, the core principles of conservatism in this volume were foggy. Was conservatism nothing more than a cultural affectation that opposed leftism and irreligion? Also, the conservatives were absolutely brutal on the libertarians, calling them myopic celebrators of relativism, hyper-individualism, and aggressive atheism.

Amid this fog, Machan’s contributions to the volume were a brilliant shaft of light and clarity. He brought around the focus of debate to the crucial issue. Regardless of your views on culture, philosophy, literature, religion, morality and so on, the central question that society needs to answer is the following: under what conditions are you willing to use the force of law, the coercion of the state, to impose your views on others? If you are willing to do that, are you also willing to consider the costs of doing so and take responsibility for the results?

He made this point again and again in this book and throughout his life. He had to repeat and repeat it, because his interlocutors proved themselves oddly unwilling to even address it. The conservatives in this volume could write pages about the glories of Western philosophy, the need for moral absolutism, the merit of tradition, and so on, but never quite get around to that critical question: what should the state do about it?

This is where Machan’s libertarianism provided clarity. His answer is a good rule of thumb: the law only pertains where there is aggression on life and property. No, this doesn’t provide an all-encompassing answer to all life’s mysteries, and it does not guarantee specific social outcomes, but libertarianism doesn’t seek to do that. It only seeks to shift the burden of proof concerning when it is appropriate to unleash the violence of the law on people.

The conservatives by comparison were a muddle of confusion. As a reader of their work, I might be riveted by their celebration of tradition, literature, institutions, and high moral purpose in life. Maybe everything they say is completely true. But what is true in life isn’t necessarily true in politics. All the poetic celebrations of virtue and tradition do not answer that great question that  Machan never lost sight of: to what extent are you willing to use the violence of the state to impress your vision of virtue, tradition, religion, and order on the rest of the population?

I can recall closing the book without being fully settled in my mind. But at least I felt more prepared to argue the case he was making. Most importantly, Machan focussed my mind on the central questions. What is the driving purpose of law? What is the proper scope of state power? Here is the nub of the matter, which nearly everyone on all sides of the ideological debates of our time want to avoid. In fact, you can see the avoidance problem in the political debates of this election season.

Wouldn’t it have been wonderful if, during the primary debates, one candidate had been asked that basic question: what is your philosophy concerning the role of the state in society?

As time went on, my own views became more focused, and I eventually came to disagree with Machan on a number of issues, from foreign policy to intellectual property to the need for any kind of state at all. But he was always open to debate; in fact, he loved it. On the essentials, however, we never parted: liberty must always be the central value of political philosophy. It is the condition that makes everything else possible.

Machan wrote on much more than that, of course. His scholarly output covered issues of free will, reason, determinism, business ethics, and every issue of philosophy proper. He might be properly described as post-objectivist in his outlook. Even here, he was a pioneer, showing how he could draw from the main themes of the writings of Ayn Rand without clinging to every postulate of her philosophy.

His voice is already missed.