FOR ALL THEIR GRANT MONEY, foundations have done less to ensure the success of America’s think tanks than has the turgid prose emanating from our universities. Envisioned by the late Herman Kahn as a refuge from the jargon-laden pedantry of academe, think tanks have come to shape public policy in America through timely, concise, and well-argued reports, even as mainstream academia continues to generate eye-glazing reams of monographs drawing abstruse distinctions between little known authors—themselves seeking to prove the specious, the unimportant, or the obvious.
Washington, D.C.’s CATO Institute has stood up to this scholarly obscurantism and emerged as a major player on the public policy scene—leaving aside its morally dubious positions on drugs (pro-legalization) and foreign policy (isolationist). Part of CATO’s success has come from gleaning, in a timely fashion, the best anti-regulatory analyses by academics, most notably the late futurologist Julian Simon or campaign finance scholar Bradley Smith.
But CATO seems to have placed aside such standards in publishing Tibor Machan’s Generosity: Virtue in Civil Society. Machan, a syndicated columnist and professor of philosophy at Auburn University, has long been a poster child for the libertarian set; his major books include The Pseudo-Science of B. F. Skinner (1974), and Individuals and Their Rights (1989). His reputation not-withstanding, Machan’s newest work is a sluggish read, based on unoriginal albeit tenuous principles.
Machan’s topic, broadly understood, is a fundamental one: whether the voluntary sector can repair the damage of decades of welfare state liberalism. Machan could have joined the current debate in a convincing manner—say, by challenging the pro-government ethos of the philanthropic sector or the New Democrat claim, championed by President Clinton, that government can be a tool of individual empowerment (a view increasingly prevalent even among once anti-government Republicans).
Instead, Generosity remains mired in abstraction (cf. Machan’s discussion of “Problems with Defining Human Nature”) or intra-academic polemics (cf. Machan’s disputes with Charles Taylor, Michael Sandel, or John Rawls). Machan opens by rejecting Professor Thomas Nagel’s claim that since most men “are not generous when asked to give voluntarily . . . it is acceptable to compel people to contribute to the support of the indigent by automatic taxation.” Machan jumps from this to argue that generosity requires a free society, as if Nagel had defined generosity as meeting one’s tax burden. Indeed, the most compelling (however wanting) justification for the welfare state is that we feel it discharges our sense of duty arising from compassion for the plight of our fellow man.
The author then lays out a complex theoretical paradigm—a hybrid of libertarian theorist Robert Nozick and Aristotle—to argue that government coercion harms the exercise of moral virtue. Moral virtue, Machan argues, requires choice which, in turn, requires individual moral sovereignty. Drawing upon Nozick, he makes the rather pedestrian claim that the moral sovereignty of the individual requires the possibility of exercising free will. It follows that only a limited government flavor of capitalism can secure this exercise.
From Aristotle, Machan culls the idea of moral virtue. As a moral virtue, Machan argues that generosity—“extend[ing] one’s goodwill toward others because one’s happiness is enhanced”—should be cultivated for itself, thereby becoming an unselfconscious way of conducting one’s life. Machan concludes that capitalism is the only system that is capable of facilitating the exercise of moral responsibility for generosity. If society requires us to pay for the sustenance of others, then this action becomes a legal obligation, not a virtue.
But in making the case that the minimalist state increases the possibility for moral virtue, Machan glosses over a fundamental dilemma of his theoretical model: Aristotle himself was no partisan of the minimalist state. For Aristotle, man is by nature a political animal; the political regime governs the whole of human action, including the development of good character. Indeed, Aristotle’s treatise on moral virtue, the Nicomachean Ethics, points to the regime as the teacher of moral virtue, since it is through good laws that good citizens are cultivated.
Thus, after slogging through Machan’s prose, the reader is left with more questions than answers. On the one hand, Machan’s view that “the abdication of personal responsibility is one of the greatest moral failures of the modern welfare state” is so widely accepted that it hardly bears repeating. On the other hand, when Machan departs from the obvious, such as in his theoretical construct of generosity, he obscures otherwise clear and accepted principles. Given the book’s theoretical and practical shortcomings, it is difficult to fathom precisely what it will contribute to either academic or policy debates.
Kenneth R. Weinstein is director of the government reform project at the Heritage Foundation. He received his PhD. in political theory from Harvard University in 1992.