Free Market Humanism
My friend Paul Kurtz states that “the free market is not a panacea for every social ill” (“The Free Market with a Human Face,” FI, February/March 2004). I disagree, respectfully.
If it is grasped that “free market” means “an economic organization in which individual property rights are fully protected and never sacrificed,” then it is indeed the panacea—that is, optimal socioeconomic system—Paul Kurtz claims it isn’t. This is because in such a system millions of individuals, independently or in voluntary cooperation, are free to—and very likely will—embark on the solution of “every social ill.”
How else might those ills get remedied? By violating individual rights? What argument is there for the idea that when some people are legally empowered to violate the basic rights to liberty of others, this can have the net effect of solving more problems than creating them? Since when has the idea of coercing people to do this and that, even good things, ever been a source of overall improvement in human affairs?
The problem with big corporations begins only when they gain special government support—subsidies, protection from competition, special favors—and by such means become complicit in violating individual rights. A consistent, uncompromising policy of protecting individual liberty has never been shown to be the source of social ills—quite the contrary.
Tibor R. Machan
In “The Free Market with a Human Face,” Paul Kurtz mentions that he believes health care to be a “human right” and that this belief is a “basic humanistic principle.” I consider myself a devout humanist, but I am also a strong political libertarian. I believe that life, liberty, and property are basic human rights, but not health care, because health care is contingent upon someone else providing it. In his opinion, am I a humanist?
Throughout history, governments have been the most anti-humanistic institutions on the planet. Governments —even democratic ones—have committed atrocities such as burning humanist “heretics” at the stake, burning the library at Alexandria, committing genocide, upholding slavery, and violating the basic freedoms of women. Why should humanists trust this same type of institution to perform the humanistic functions of health care, especially when draconian government regulations have greatly increased the costs of healthcare and put it out of reach of millions of Americans?
Paul Kurtz responds:
I am equally concerned about excessive government power repressing people. Yet we do consider the government, in a democratic society, to have some responsibilities, such as protection against threats to bodily assault (the police) or disasters (the fire department) or ensuring that children be given the opportunity for education (even if their parents are unable to afford it). I think that, in today’s complex society, threats to health need equal protection, especially given the fact that health care is so costly. An insurance program is one such device, but not everyone can afford the premiums or has a job that would insure him or her. There are other such protections, such as unemployment insurance, and saving people from starvation if they lack funds to provide food. These come under the welfare provisions of a just society. I do not think it is inadmissible to call for governmental help, where the private sector cannot provide what’s needed; and I would say this implies some sort of moral obligation on the part of the society.
Property Rights and Human Rights
I disagree with the ideas and reasoning in Tibor Machan’s article “In Praise of Private Property Rights” (FI, February/ March 2004).
Machan says, “The right to private property is the basis for the rule of law.” In reality, the original basis for the rule of law was the necessity for members of a tribe to agree on rules that governed the behavior of its members to their mutual benefit. Inevitably, leaders would emerge and acquire power enabling them to shape the rules to their personal benefit. This human characteristic still exists, and we find that laws in various societies reflect the influence of those with power.
Machan sees no difference between being born with an exceptional talent and being born into a wealthy family. He suggests only two choices: either we try to make everyone equal or we accept and support the results of natural processes. Of course it is ridiculous to try to make everyone equal. Of course society can’t control inherited characteristics at birth. But it can have a say in how the wealth produced by its citizens is distributed to those citizens. When left to natural processes, those who are clever and lucky acquire power that allows them to accumulate wealth, which gives them more power, etc. The rule of law should protect the people from the abuses of such power.
Silver City, New Mexico
It is an extremist rightwing myth, this idea that taxes are “stolen from us at gunpoint.” And it was disappointing to see it preached by Glade Ross in his oped, “Humanism and Compulsion” (FI, February/March 2004). He was right to criticize the use of public funds to further private agendas in public education. But he also asserts that any compulsory tax is immoral.
Ethical people pay taxes for the same reason they pay their mortgage. The obligation arises from a contract they have made with others. In the case of the Constitution, it is a contract between all of us with each other.
There is nothing in this contract that says we have to agree with every program or tax. We can lobby for or against any law, and we elect representatives who make the laws. A law outside the authority granted by the contract can also be challenged and overturned by the courts.Mr. Ross believes that each of us should choose which if any taxes we wish to pay, and that no one should be compelled to pay any tax. But that’s not what the contract says. If he wants to change the contract, he should pursue amending the Constitution. But claiming taxes are “stealing his money at gunpoint” is pure rhetorical baloney. The position is immature and irresponsible.
Glade Ross decries the “theft” of his “hard earned” fruits of labor. But it is a fact that a large proportion of the “fruits” of the upper echelon of society are from dividends, capital gains, and tax breaks. We can hardly call these “hardearned.”
Also, underlying his philosophy is an obvious belief in a laissez-faire economic system. But this type of capitalist society is designed and promulgated by the very people that most likely will succeed within this system. This is hardly fair and certainly not compassionate.
Like it or not, we are born into a society and are subject to a social contract. In order for the society to function properly (police, fire departments, water supply, power, refuse collection, and roads and bridges, to name just a few), funds have to be raised for its proper operation. This is why we pay taxes; it is not theft, but a requirement of us all, and paying your fair share is part of what is considered good citizenship. Society will only intervene against those that try, because of selfishness, to get a free ride.
David M. Keranen
Discrimination Against Atheists
The February/March 2004 edition of Free InquIry featured a thoughtprovoking article by DJ Grothe and Austin Dacey titled “Atheism Is Not a Civil Rights Issue.” At the age of sixtyfive, I have countless tales of discriminatory conduct on the part of everyone from local newspapers and television stations to public libraries and even nextdoor neighbors. Though governmental discrimination would be the only reason to establish a “civil rights” law for atheists and secular humanists, Grothe and
Dacey cannot reasonably deny that such a law would eventually change public sentiment from hostility to a certain amount of respect.
They mustn’t forget that an overwhelming majority of Americans tell pollsters they would “never vote for an atheist under any circumstances.” Add this to the fact that we secularists can now be taxed to support private religious schools and the “preservation” of older historic churches, and one can see that a civil rights law is not a bad idea.
If, as the writers claim, there is no “visible” oppression, it is only because our atheism isn’t obvious to strangers the way one’s skin color would be. However, if we had to identify our lack of faith with an armband like those worn by Jews in Nazi Germany, there’s no doubt in my mind that things could get pretty scary in a “nation under God.”
The bottom line is that “public awareness” can never be fully promoted as long as the public refuses to be informed by “evil” atheists. Being forced to conceal our true identity just to be accepted in the arena of free speech certainly seems like a form of oppression to me.
Grothe and Dacey say they find no evidence of any such thing as atheist bashing. Here’s one example.
Huntingdon College, a religion-affiliated institution in Montgomery, Alabama, had every right to reject me after I declined the invitation to join a Methodist congregation. Dean Stone, a chemist, was apologetic in pointing out that major contributors would be upset by the idea of an atheist teaching biology.
Before accepting an invitation to visit Del Mar College in Corpus Christi, Texas, I learned that it was a public institution supported by the city and state. But I was told by biology faculty members that an instructor was leaving because “the Dean called him in and raked him over the coals for teaching evolution.” The dean, whose credentials were a master’s in education from Baylor, looked over my vita and said, “I don’t see anything here about your religion. We don’t care what your religion is. We have Jews on the faculty. We just want to be sure all our faculty are good, Godfearing, redblooded Americans.”
This was 1957.
Wayne H. Davis, Professor Emeritus School of Biological Sciences,
University of Kentucky Lexington, Kentucky
Dacey and Grothe respond:
The letters by McClelland and Davis reinforce the basic thesis of our article that there is no need for an atheist civil rights movement. McClelland points out that “we secularists can be taxed to support private religious schools and the ‘preservation of older historic churches.’” While such government activities may well violate church-state separation, they do not violate anyone’s civil rights. If being taxed to support something one dislikes suffices for a rights violation, then everyone in America is oppressed, since no one approves of every government activity. As for Davis’s uncomfortable chat with the dean of Del Mar College in 1957: while he does not say so in his letter, presumably Davis was denied the position on account of not being a “good, God-fearing, red-blooded American.” Thankfully, citizens are now are protected from this sort of rights violation by general civil rights laws that guard against religious discrimination in hiring.
In “The Rise of the Nones, Part 1” (FI, December 2003/January 2004) and Part 2 (FI, February/March 2004), Figure 2 carries a confusing label that was introduced in editing. The label for the lower line on the graph should read simply “Raised.”—eds.