David R. Henderson  

Tibor Machan RIP

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Don't try to normalize interes... Saturday Afternoon Video...

Yesterday on Facebook I learned that libertarian philosopher Tibor Machan died. That caused me to watch two videos: (1) an interview on William F. Buckley Jr.'s show "Firing Line" in which he was questioned by Buckley and Ernest Van Den Haag, and (2) a panel discussion of current and past Reason magazine editors on the 45th anniversary of Reason.

I will post on the latter tomorrow.

I want to do two things with this post: give a personal reminiscence of Tibor that in no way claims to do justice to his many good works and highlight a very important point he made in his interaction with Van Den Haag.

Personal Reminiscence

In June 1970, a little over a month after I graduated from the University of Winnipeg, I went on what my friend and mentor Michael Prime called a "libertarian pilgrimage." I hitchhiked from Winnipeg to Vancouver, stopping at various places on the way and sleeping on people's floors and couches. I carried a backpack, a small tent, and a sleeping bag.

I was very forward and so I would just call people when I got to their city and ask if I could sleep on their floor or couch. If it was a female, I asked if I could visit.

I then hitchhiked down the West Coast to San Francisco. I called Sharon Presley, whose number someone had given me in one of the previous cities, and asked if I could visit her one evening. I remember being so scared of crime in American cities, given all the propaganda I had heard in Canada, that I asked if I could bring my sleeping bag and sleep on her floor after our visit. This was despite the fact that I had already paid $6 to stay in a divy hotel in downtown SF. Sharon amusedly said yes, but just getting to her place made me realize that it seemed pretty safe, so, after our visit, I took the street car back to my hotel.

When I visited her, though, she told me she and a friend were driving down to a science fiction conference in Santa Barbara over the July 4 weekend and asked if I wanted to come along. I said yes, and got to drive her cool sports car part of the way. It turned out that she and her friend were planning to stay with Tibor Machan and his wife Marilyn that weekend. When we got there, she asked if I could stay and Tibor said yes.

Tibor and I hit it off immediately. Part of it, I think, was my hero worship. I had read some of his work and knew that he was one of the rising stars in libertarian philosophy. That was a small group, but that didn't matter to this libertarian. We had a number of good conversations during my few days there. I remember also his casually turning on the radio and our both hearing a familiar voice--his--as we listened to a show he had taped for a local radio station. Some UCSB thugs had recently burned down a Bank of America building and, if I recall correctly, he was discussing that on the show. (I could be wrong about the topic.)

But the other part of why we hit it off was that he gave me attention. I was 19 at the time. And in my experience, no one over 25, other than my high school vice-principal Brian Parker, University of Chicago economists Harold Demsetz and Milton Friedman, and my friend and mentor Clancy Smith's father Max, had shown me a lot of respect. Tibor did.

One other thing: I know this sounds trivial but this one incident helped me remember that meeting vividly for about the next three years. Tibor and Marilyn had a couple visiting who were going on a months-long trip and were getting rid of various things. The guy had a white shirt and asked me if I wanted it. I had been on my own financially since age 16 and so spent very little on clothing. It showed, by the way. That shirt was the neatest shirt I had ever had a chance to wear. I said yes immediately. I wore that thing until it fell apart about three years later. Whenever I put it on, I remembered that visit with Tibor.

Interaction with Van Den Haag

Toward the end of this video, Ernest Van Den Haag tries to put Tibor on the spot by asking what if in your free society, some people go without aid and starve because others aren't willing to help. Watch how Tibor handles it. It's his off-the-cuff version of what co-blogger Bryan Caplan did with his post "Tough Luck." Thanks to Greg Sollenberger for pointing that out.

Which brings me to a not-at-all-hypothetical situation similar to the one that Tibor mentioned and to some that Bryan Caplan mentions. Two weeks ago, I got popped by the California Highway Patrol and given a ticket for driving 85 mph in a 65 mph zone. The bill arrived this week: $366. Now, although that number was shocking, the reality is that it's a fraction of my monthly budget slack after my wife and I pay all the regular bills.

But for some much-lower-income people, this would be a huge amount. Indeed, many lower-income Californians take a risk by not paying such a bill. If they get caught, the bill is much higher, especially if their car is impounded. I believe they can even go to jail, which then sets them back even further. And it's not just traffic laws. There are many laws with fines attached, sometimes a multiple of the fine that I will pay. And many of these laws are ones I would get rid of. But these laws have many advocates. It sometimes seems as if lawmakers see Les Miserables as a how-to manual.

So what would at least some advocates of such laws say? Tough luck.


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CATEGORIES: Obituaries




COMMENTS (8 to date)

Thank you for this sad news, and links to YouTube.

JayT writes:

This was a really great post David. Thank you.


Your closing paragraph touches on a thought I had a few months ago. I got a red light ticket because even though I came to a complete stop before making a legal right turn, the complete stop was past the white line. The ticket and traffic school ended up being close to $500. I went into the court house to fight it, even though I could afford the $500. I seriously doubt the majority of the other people at the Oakland courthouse could afford it though. It was mainly immigrants and minorities that were crying over the fees they had to pay for not coming to a complete stop at a red light before making a turn. All I could think was that I can't understand why people are so willing to give more power to a government that has so little regard for its citizens. It was all very sad.

Ernest Van Den Haag tries to put Tibor on the spot by asking what if in your free society, some people go without aid and starve because others aren't willing to help.
I watched that interview and then went to sleep. But the backroom workers in my brain kept on and have just awakened me with alternate ways to answer the objection raised by Van Den Haag.

In logic, "if X then Y" is always true if you know X is false. That is, if you start with a false premise then you can prove absolutely anything (if I get it right, from my recent reading of Gödel's proof, by Nagel and Newman).

Van Den Haag starts with a false premise. In his logic, you could remove "If in a free society some people go without aid ..." and replace it with "If horses have wings ...". Both propositions can be imagined, but neither proposition describes the world in which I live. The human race in which I live contains many compassionate members, so I don't think a free society would exist in which some people would go without aid.

Notice that the free society posited by Van Den Haag probably does not include himself. If the free society did include Van Den Haag, then, to meet the condition that no one in this society provides aid, Van Den Haag is saying that he would not provide aid himself. But Van Den Haag is showing himself as a person who cares about unfortunates. So I think his assumption about a free society is internally contradictory. A false premise. Aid would be provided in a free society composed of humans such as I know.

Bryan Caplan also handles it very well. Thanks for that link.


Shane L writes:

Regarding traffic fines, some countries base the size of the fine on the ability to pay:

"Reima Kuisla, a Finnish businessman, was recently caught going 65 miles per hour in a 50 zone in his home country—an offense that would typically come with a fine of a couple hundred dollars, at most, in the U.S. But after Finnish police pulled Kuisla over, they pinged a federal taxpayer database to determine his income, consulted their handbook, and arrived at the amount that he was required to pay: €54,000.

The fine was so extreme because in Finland, some traffic fines, as well as fines for shoplifting and violating securities-exchange laws, are assessed based on earnings—and Kuisla's declared income was €6.5 million per year. Exorbitant fines like this are infrequent, but not unheard of: In 2002, a Nokia executive was fined the equivalent of $103,000 for going 45 in a 30 zone on his motorcycle, and the NHL player Teemu Selanne incurred a $39,000 fine two years earlier."

http://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2015/03/finland-home-of-the-103000-speeding-ticket/387484/

ThaomasH writes:

I'm not sure what the issue is here. Traffic fines exist to create an incentive to follow the laws and the incentive should be related to the severity of the consequences of breaking the law (ideally adjusted for the time and circumstances). They should not be set to generate resources, as has been alleged about Ferguson Mo, etc. The amount of the fine strike me as a bit high if there were no aggravating circumstances, but who knows. Fines, however, like other prices, have a income effect as well as an incentive effect and that's where the problem arises of using fines to discourage bad behavior by very low income people. Perhaps there ought to be some kind of "circuit breaker" to reduce fines for really low income people or substitute some other kind of discouragement for law breaking.

R Richard Schweitzer writes:

@Thaomas H,

Rules of Policy, like facilities or instruments, that are created or come into being to serve a social purpose, all tend to become "institutionalized." That is they take on a purpose (or purposes) of their own distinct from their origins.

From origin every facility or instrument consists of people organized in relationships to one another. Upon institutionalization these relationships become ends in themselves to the detriment of the whole organization and of its originating purposes.

That process of institutionalization is a fundamental syndrome of the deterioration of social orders that make up civilizations.

Carroll Quigley 1961 The Evolution of Civilizations Chap. 4 (Liberty Fund 1979)

ThaomasH writes:

@ R Richard Schweitzer,

So I take this to mean that rules and and laws should be constantly subject to change. For example it might be possible to adjust speeding tickets to road conditions. [My guess is that Henderson was not doing 85 on a narrow twisting road on a a rainy night.]

I can't see this a the kind of issue that Libertarians and Liberals would differ on.

David R. Henderson writes:

@ThaomasH,
My guess is that Henderson was not doing 85 on a narrow twisting road on a a rainy night.
You guessed right. Indeed, a friend of mine who drives that route a lot told me after that there is often a speed trap there. It’s for people who are coming down from the Sierras. After some twisting roads, they see a straight open road in front of them and start speeding. It was daylight on a dry day, and there was no one less than 10 car lengths in front of me.
Which raises the question: why have a cop there? Why not have him where speeding would be more dangerous? To ask it is almost to answer it. The main purpose is not safety; the main purpose is revenue.

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