Rebirth of Reason

The Free Radical

Magnificent Machan
by Lindsay Perigo

"We cannot talk about politics or economics in a vacuum. We have to ask ourselves: On what do our political convictions rest? What is the implicit view of human nature that lies behind or underneath our political beliefs? What is our view of how human beings ought to relate to one another? What is our view of the relationship of the individual to the state? What do we think is 'good' & why do we think so? Any comprehensive portrait of an ideal society needs to begin with identifying such principles as those, & from that developing the libertarian case. We do have a soul hunger, we do have a spiritual hunger, we do want to believe & feel & experience that life has meaning. And that's why we need to understand that we're talking about much more than market transactions. We're talking about an individual's ownership of his or her own life. The battle for self-ownership is a sacred battle, & it involves much more than economics."
—Nathaniel Branden

Tibor Machan’s new book, "The Passion for Liberty," is like an extended Amen! to the above quotation from his good friend Nathaniel Branden. It’s also an eloquent echo of that part of SOLO’s Credo that says:

"SOLO seeks to galvanise all Objectivists who recognise that Objectivism is a way of living & who repudiate any reason/passion dichotomy. We seek to be a magnet & a home for those who are exuberantly rational & rationally exuberant, who aspire to the 'total passion for the total height,' intellectually & emotionally, simultaneously & harmoniously."

Not that Professor Machan needed SOLO to point out the false reason/passion dichotomy to him! As he observes in his Epilogue:

"The very idea of passion has often been demeaned in connection with liberty or its philosophical champions, classical liberals. ... In this work, I do not at all shy away from showing the merits of some of these ideas, bit I wanted, also, to put on record a certain measure of enthusiasm and awe where the idea and prospects of liberty are concerned. There is nothing wrong, indeed everything right, with human beings feeling and showing passion in support of what is good and right and beautiful, and liberty is certainly all these and more once it is well understood. There would be a certain vital lack in the case for liberty if it could not inspire a bit of excitement."

Those who know Machan know the excitement he projects in his lectures and in his informal conversation. They know the delight he takes in an informed objection, a thoughtful doubt, a request for clarification. They know that he doesn’t pretend to have all the answers, though he has more than most. They know the painstaking care he takes to build a critic’s case accurately (and seemingly convincingly) before he charmingly knocks it down — when he is sure of his own. They know how prolific he is, churning out op-ed pieces daily, effortlessly, heedless of where or whether they’ll be published (they usually are, in a variety of places, including SOLOHQ.com).

Once, when he was my house-guest, I found him pounding away on my keyboard in the small hours of the morning, unable to go back to sleep without giving literary shape to another op-ed idea that had just occurred to him. A conversation at the gym will inspire an essay on the nature of values; the receipt of junk e-mail will prompt reflections on whether this is an initiation of force or not (which you can read in this book); conversely, the theory of natural rights will be brought right down to earth where it properly begins. Nothing is too mundane to spark glorious heights of abstraction; nothing is too rarefied to be made concretely intelligible. When he is not writing or lecturing, he is reading or exploring or taking in a movie. As Uncle Walt would say, he "sucks the marrow out of life." He is your quintessential Renaissance Man.

"The Passion for Liberty" is at once a commendable starting point for novice freedom-fighters and a battery-recharger for veterans. Machan lays out the theoretical groundwork — an unabashedly Aristotelian/Randian one — for a free society in language that is accessible and with logic that is irresistible. Along the way he raises and answers objections, and quietly moves to one side a couple of minor impediments to the credibility of the orthodox Objectivist exposition that were of Ayn Rand’s own perverse making: the dogmatic insistence that human beings could not possibly have any instincts at all, and, as an extension of that premise, that they have no inherent desire to live. "Human beings may also have some instincts," allows Machan when discussing man’s status as the rational animal, "but if this is the case, this fact is negligible or borderline." Much better! And later — "The normal case, of course, is not only that we do choose to live, but also that we are naturally inclined to do so."

Machan demonstrates anew that "rights" are a social requirement of human beings because of their nature as creatures of reason and choice, for whom the good is the pursuit of the excellent. He distinguishes authentic rights — to life, liberty and the pursuit of property and happiness — from bogus ones — to other people’s lives, effort and earnings. He then proceeds to apply natural rights theory to controversial contemporary issues. Perhaps his most arresting application is to the subject of abortion, where he agrees with the proposition that "only after the cerebral cortex has fully developed, at about the twenty-fourth week of pregnancy, has a human being emerged. The distinctively human capacity to reason emerges as an actuality only with the development of the cerebral cortex." From there he concludes, "Thus, for purposes of law, the pro-choice position should prevail until the twenty-fourth week of pregnancy and the pro-life position thereafter."

Machan — a refugee from Communist Hungary — brings his magic carpet ride through the theory and practice of liberty to a close with a plea to his fellow-citizens to restore the original American Dream — to repair to the authentic rights on which the freest-ever nation on earth was founded. His plea is sobering and salutary:

"As long as our right to free thought is still respected in at least the law, we the people are still in charge. We can still decide between a future guided by the principles that gave birth to our nation — or alien and destructive ones that will send us lurching back into a dark age of feudalism and arbitrary rule. One can only hope. As the founders knew, we are free to choose."

"The Passion for Liberty" can be ordered from the publishers:


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