I got word late last night that Tibor Machan has passed away. He was 77. Here’s a link to his Wikipedia entry.
I’m in many ways the wrong person to be writing a memorial for Tibor. I didn’t know him very well, and we had an uneasy relationship for at least half of the time that we did know one another. But I owe him a number of debts, and would be remiss in saying nothing on the occasion of his passing.
I probably met Tibor sometime in the early 1990s, probably at the APA Eastern Division Meeting in Washington, D.C. in 1992. If I remember correctly, it was at an after-conference dinner thrown by David Kelley. Tibor bounced in, made some boisterous small-talk with just about everyone in the room, then made a beeline for my girlfriend, and began to hit on her (or at least flirt with her; there’s room for reasonable disagreement here). I don’t bring that up to speak ill of the dead. I bring it up because it’s a vignette that no one who knew Tibor would fail to recognize.
We had an intemperate falling-out sometime in the 2000s over ideological matters–intemperate on both sides. I regret my contribution to the acrimony, and particularly regret that we quarreled over something as stupid as intra-Objectivist politics, instead of something important, like his hitting on my girlfriend. Incidentally, I later discovered that at one point, Tibor and I had dated the same woman, which was frankly one of the weirder discoveries of my life. (I hasten to add that we did this during different decades.)
I find it interesting to reflect on a common pattern in all of our disagreements. Tibor’s arguments were (as I see it) weak, but his conclusions were right. My arguments were, I think, pretty good, but my conclusions were generally wrong. The upshot seems to be that Tibor had less interest in rigorous argument, but more common sense, than I did. Since it’s an occupational hazard of professional philosophers to value “argumentative rigor” over common sense, that ended up being a fairly valuable lesson. I regret not telling him that.
That, perhaps, is also the spirit in which Tibor’s philosophical work is best read. If you read it for “the arguments,” you’ll probably be disappointed. But if you read it for the common sense achieved through the hard experiences of a refugee from Cold War Hungary (and a runaway from a Nazi father), you’ll get a lot more out of it. The truth is that while I read Tibor’s political philosophy books in college–Human Rights and Human Liberties, Individuals and Their Rights–I was never really on board with the case he made for a “minimal state.” Even at my most zealous as an Objectivist, I had qualms about libertarian politics, and still do (to put it mildly). What I got from reading his work was not so much an argument proving the defensibility of political libertarianism, as a sense of why someone might sincerely be attracted to it in the first place.
Though Tibor was best known as a political philosopher, I’ve always thought his most interesting insights were expressed in other parts of philosophy: the two works of Tibor’s I like best are in moral epistemology and applied ethics, respectively. The first is his paper “Epistemology and Moral Knowledge” (Review of Metaphysics ), and the other is a neglected but very insightful paper, “Human Action and the Nature of Moral Evil” in his 1998 book, Classical Individualism. (Here’s a PDF of the whole book. Here’s a review [PDF] of it that I wrote for Reason Papers back in 2000.) What’s common to both papers is a sense of urgency about philosophy–an implicit recognition of the fact that the exercise of moral and epistemic agency is an urgent, practical matter, or put another way, that doxastic and personal irresponsibility are in some sense the root of all evil.
For me personally, Tibor’s lasting achievement is Reason Papers, which he founded in 1974 and edited until the year 2000. I co-edited Reason Papers with Carrie-Ann Biondi for about four years, from 2011 until 2015. It was hard, thankless work–and unlike Tibor, Carrie-Ann and I had the benefit of the Internet at our disposal. It took me four years to burn out at the job. Tibor spent six times that, and somehow managed not to burn out.
Tibor started Reason Papers from scratch while working a full time academic position. (I might as well let out the secret that for awhile, he funded it out of his own pocket as well.) Between 1974 and 2000, he managed to get contributions from the likes of James Buchanan, Wallace Matson, John Gray, John Kekes, Gilbert Harman, Tom Regan, David Norton, Donald Livingston, J.G. Merquior, David Keyt, Martin Golding, Susan Haack, Henry Veatch, Laurie Calhoun, Bruce Detweiler, and Crispin Sartwell. And people that we now think of as household names within libertarian/Objectivist theoretical circles often got their start (or something like it) at Reason Papers as well–Fred Miller, Douglas Rasmussen, Douglas Den Uyl, Israel Kirzner, Don Lavoie, Lester Hunt, Loren Lomasky, Christopher Morris, Neera Badhwar, John Hospers, Eric Mack, Chris Sciabarra, and Jan Narveson, among others.
That’s always struck me as a remarkable achievement, and one for which I owe Tibor a large personal debt. He not only invited me to write for Reason Papers, but to edit it, and viewed with apparent equanimity Carrie-Ann’s and my decision to take the journal in a somewhat different direction than he had himself envisioned for it. Despite the apparent departure, we took Tibor’s work as our guide and benchmark, and it’s an open question whether we succeeded in reaching it.
I’m sad that he’s gone. My condolences to his friends and family.
Postscript, April 6, 2016: I should correct a potential misimpression that might be fostered by my saying that Tibor invited me to write for “and edit” Reason Papers. Tibor invited me to edit Reason Papers in 1999, at a time when I was unable to accept the invitation. I thanked him for the invitation, but declined it, telling him that I might do it later in my career, but couldn’t do it then. In the interim, Aeon Skoble became Editor in Chief of Reason Papers. It was Aeon (not Tibor) who, in 2010, asked both Carrie-Ann and me to co-edit Reason Papers–an offer we both ended up accepting (this latter fact is spelled out in the link in the paragraph in question, but omitted in the paragraph itself). There’s no reason to think that Aeon was carrying out a prior wish of Tibor’s, or that Tibor had anything to do with Aeon’s decision. They were two separate decisions. I just happened, in the original post, to be focusing on the fact of Tibor’s invitation, not the ultimate outcome of editing the journal.