With years of emphasis on the study of human beings as if people were no different in essentials from rocks or rats, it is no wonder that intellectuals fail to perceive some of the facts of life in human affairs. How could they? Understanding, and even some perception—its focus, at least—is guided by basic concepts, and when these are screwed up, most of the value of a field of study tends to lie in its lucky disregard of announced methodology.
Nonetheless, the empiricist biases in contemporary social studies are not all harmful. We face the world, first of all, with our senses, after which we have to put our minds into gear lest we miss what else is there. And this first material is indispensable, which is what so many folks used to forget in their speculations, especially in philosophy and (God help us) theology.
Now this important point is not all there is, but once in a while one can appreciate why sense awareness just won't work on its own. In the last 50-odd years those willing to look and think surely have had ample evidence of the failures of, for example, collectivism, especially statism, a species of it. (Communes are collectivist but not statist!) You look anywhere in the globe and, even if you are in second gear, you can make out clearly that freedom is better than slavery. And if more folks went into third and fourth gear they could detect how even the slightest compromise on liberty just leads to so much less of the good things in life! Yes, even the best requires the maximum liberty, however many possibilities of abuse this makes.
Take a recent instance. Swine flu was Uncle Sam's great pacifier yesterday. Whatever else they did badly, our bureaucratic leaders must have meant well with the swine flu inoculation. Only the beastly would mess this up! I know nothing of the problem except that when some old folks died shortly after getting the shot the government did not hesitate to broadcast its assurances that no evidence was available to show that any connection exists between the shots and the deaths.
Two things can be seen here, but not simply by being exposed to the signs. Some thought has to help in this kind of seeing. First, the government applied to itself different standards of medical propriety from what it does to many drug companies and doctors. The government folks realized that when an activity helps some people and no evidence of hurting the innocent is available after some reasonable tests, then go ahead, do it. The Federal Food and Drug Administration, our drug father, demands of drug companies that they prove that no harm is possible, not that help is provided without evidence of harm. The FDA often demands proof of a negative, i.e., the nonexistence of harm, even of the danger of harm. Something possibly possible to be hazardous—yes, the doubled possibility is there on purpose—is prohibited.
So far bad enough. Secondly, when Uncle Sam was challenged by some suggestion that what it did by spreading shots across the land hurt some folks, announcements of disclaimer were immediately aired as news reports! Our marvelous free press demonstrated its independence of government directives with honor, wouldn't you say?
How often would a drug company get "free," prime-time TV and radio coverage in case of a desire to explain what really is the situation concerning a drug banned by the FDA? Or, alternatively, where is Walter Cronkite now and why isn't he screaming bloody murder?
So evidence is all around us. This was a minor instance of the most odious of government encroachments on our lives. What with Jimmy Carter stressing leadership as the prime motive for his presidential plans, with no one mentioning liberty as a public good in the Bicentennial year, with who knows how much more increase of State power, and with less and less political concern for the power of individuals—well, with all this why are all the intellectuals still blind?
Because they are wearing blinders, self-imposed in most cases, obviously without protest in many others, and only slowly being torn off by a few. When social science cannot say what is good, when the concept of tyranny is impossible to render consistent with one's theoretical framework, then how could anyone be scientific enough to identify the evidence of the growth of slavery? Of course, with Nixon they were all willing to scream moralisms from the highest rooftops, but here too it wasn't clearly understood. Nixon had to be made into a monumental evil, the devil incarnate, so that the role Nixon was playing almost very faithfully (but a bit stupidly) could escape the harangue. It was Jimmy Carter, during the first debate, who referred to Nixon as "at least a good leader." That's our lesson to you. But then lessons aren't lessons to those who care naught for learning.
A note for those who do care to learn. There is something to the claim that revolutions at the bad time are mass suicide. For those who had the best goals to support. With the kind of popularity that blinders now enjoy in the intellectual circles of our land there can be no quick advance to culture-wide liberty. Some think that rushing toward disaster would be best since the shock would get people to see better. Not so, because traumas alone do not educate. A trauma is an experience that can only be well managed if there is expert training, and even there that works ill in the case of political affairs. Indeed in crises the military or militant types flourish most, and if these folks take charge you aren't likely to have the chance for teaching heresies, even to the extent you can get away with doing it now.
So moderately but persistently goes it. I have to make this clear to myself over and over again, so rest assured that I am not just preaching.
Senior editor Tibor Machan teaches philosophy at SUNY-Fredonia. His Viewpoint appears In this column every third month.
This article originally appeared in print under the headline "Viewpoint: Reflections on Bad Times".