Tibor Machan, RIP

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 [1982]), 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.

9 thoughts on “Tibor Machan, RIP

  1. Hear hear on Reason Papers, which I’ve always appreciated despite my being generally unsympathetic to Machan’s politics; but hear hear, as well, on the claim that if you read his work for the arguments, you’ll probably be disappointed. I haven’t read nearly so much of his work as you have, and I didn’t know him personally (luckily, it seems, from a romantic perspective — though I doubt any of my romantic partners would ever have fallen for him for even a second, and not only because I am so charming), but to my mind he took a very wobbly walk on the tightrope between real philosophy and mere ideology. His unfortunately imprudent contributions to Leiter’s blog here seem to illustrate that. I find myself occasionally uncertain whether I’m too much like Machan in this respect, but I’m at least certain that I don’t want to be.

    From a real-world, common-sense, concrete implications of philosophy point of view, Machan’s individualistic liberalism is a recipe for ignoring, at best, or rationalizing, at worst, serious injustices. I won’t offer an argument for that judgment beyond pointing out how obvious and common-sensical it is; that’s certainly in the spirit of those works of his that I’ve read.

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    • to my mind he took a very wobbly walk on the tightrope between real philosophy and mere ideology.

      I’m afraid that’s true.

      …I find myself occasionally uncertain whether I’m too much like Machan in this respect,

      Highly doubtful that you are.

      From a real-world, common-sense, concrete implications of philosophy point of view, Machan’s individualistic liberalism is a recipe for ignoring, at best, or rationalizing, at worst, serious injustices.

      I agree, but I also think that there’s a problematic tendency among left-leaning liberals to ignore the dangers of an unlimited redistributive state, or those of an ad hoc/unlimited regulatory state, or of being too free and cavalier about spending other people’s money on the grounds that it’s always salutary to stick it to the 1% (or the 5% or the 10%, or if necessary, the 49%).

      I never agreed with Machan’s actual political views, but I found his writing (and libertarian writing generally) a useful corrective to that left-liberal tendency. And his having had an upbringing in socialist Hungary sensitized him to the dangers of socialism in ways that an upbringing in a liberal capitalist regime does not. That’s why Bernie Sanders’s supporters regard Sanders’s socialism as somehow irrelevant to his vote-worthiness. It’s as though they hear the “democratic” part of the “democratic socialist” tagline, ignore the “socialist” part, and proceed as though Sanders’s socialism had no normative import one way or another. But if it didn’t, he wouldn’t call himself one. He’s not a frivolous man.

      Machan’s decades-long philosophical opponent was Jim Sterba at Notre Dame. I watched the backing-and-forthing of the Machan-Sterba debate for decades, and in my view, it’s not a tough call: Sterba had the more rigorous arguments of the two, and (to my mind) got the better of Machan in every exchange. But precisely because his arguments were better, I think that Sterba was systematically insensitive to what Machan got right. As far as redistribution and economic regulation were concerned, there really were no limits to Sterba’s state, and no limits on what could coercively be demanded of capitalist producers or “the rich.” Sterba just thought it obvious that there was an irreducible conflict of interests between the rich and the poor, and that in any conflict between them–conflict being inevitable–you favored the poor because they were the poor and because, morally speaking, the rich took a back seat to them.

      Machan inveighed, adamantly but not very persuasively, about the dangers of Sterba’s view–and he was right to. Despite my lack of sympathy for Machan’s politics, libertarians and Objectivists like him got one set of things right: the state has to be limited; property rights matter; and it’s not a morally trivial matter to sacrifice the rich to the poor in the name of “social justice.” Contrary to what libertarians think, those three insights don’t constitute a political philosophy, but contrary to what many left-liberals seem to think, they’re important truths that have to be accommodated by any adequate political philosophy. Left-liberals have too reflexively denied the grain of truth in libertarianism. Of course, libertarians have tended to treat the grain of truth as a de facto bumper crop. I give Machan credit for insisting as loudly as he did on the grain of truth–though not on his treating it like a bumper crop.


      • Well, I’m certainly not the sort of left-liberal who ignores libertarian arguments and concerns or only engages with caricatures of them (at least I try not to be). I suppose I still am a left-liberal, but I think I’m more sensitive to the problems you mention, at least in as theoretical issues, than most. But the bits of Machan that I’ve read — mainly parts of his Classical Individualism and a few essays in RP that I can’t recall very well — struck me as exactly the sort of thing that would not inspire any left-liberals of that sort to take libertarian arguments seriously. If a self-styled progressive asked me for recommendations of good libertarian philosophy, I wouldn’t recommend Machan, and if I thought he was among the best of what libertarians have to offer, I wouldn’t bother to take libertarianism very seriously myself.

        I do, however, really appreciate what he did with RP. Though many of the contributors, especially in the early years, write from a broadly libertarian point of view that I do not share, the journal has always had an openness to disagreement within that camp and to contributions from folks outside of it, and while I can’t say that the quality of the articles has always been of the highest level, I can’t think of another journal that so consistently publishes entire issues full of material that I want to read. I rarely find myself thinking the thought that I have when scanning the ToC of many “top” journals — namely, “good God, how narrowly specialized can we get? I guess there must be some reason why someone thinks this very peculiar technical debate is worth having.” RP really lives up to its claim to be interdisciplinary in that way. I suppose I also have a soft spot for it because it has so often given voice to positions that are marginalized in much of academia, and I’m a sucker for well argued eccentricity.


        • I wouldn’t recommend Classical Individualism to progressives either, but I think the Sterba-Machan debate should be required reading for both progressives and libertarians. I found it incredibly clarifying.

          Ideally, progressives should come away from it thinking: yes, Sterba won every round of that argument, and no, Machan had no persuasive arguments for libertarianism. But does our position really entail that property rights are ultimately dispensable and that the state can redistribute wealth without limit? And isn’t a problem if it does? The failure to take those questions seriously may not apply to present company, but it applies to many, many progressives.

          Libertarians should come away from the debate thinking: yes, Sterba won every round of that argument, and no, Machan had no persuasive arguments for libertarianism. But is that because Machan has no persuasive arguments, or because there is some systemic problem with the position he’s defending?

          I think Machan inadvertently makes clear that the answer is, “the latter.” The problem is not so much that “Machan doesn’t have good arguments” as that the position he’s defending is so theoretically impoverished that no one could use it as a basis for good arguments. He wants to marry a neo-Aristotelian conception of flourishing with an essentially absolute ban on force-initiations, but he has no account of how the ban fits into a coherent account of flourishing. And that’s ultimately because he has no determinate account of flourishing in the first place. For starters, he has no account of internal and external goods, of the relative value of internal to external goods, or of the axiological status of ill-gotten goods (e.g., can they be beneficial to the agent?). He also has no account of why the ban should be slightly-less-than-absolute.

          Of course, a bit of reflection would suggest that it’s not just Machan who lacks such an account, but that such an account is simply lacking. Machan’s defense of it just serves–by its very adamance–to make that more obvious than it would otherwise have been. But the same could be said, mutatis mutandis, of Sterba’s defense of redistribution.


  2. Thanks for the observations on the Machan/Sterba dialogue, Irfan. I finally took a good while this morning to scan through Tibor’s autobiography written a dozen years ago. He had a lot more memory of his life than I have of mine. Man, was his love life complicated! Pretty amazing life, really. I like this closure, at the end of the pen ultimate chapter, speaking of Kate, Thomas, and Erin: “The other night the kids and I, along with my son’s new wife went to dinner and it was great to watch them all interact with such ease and love and good cheer. The success of this outing was very gratifying. I don’t even with to be with them all the time so much as bring them together so they will have each other long after I am gone. That is as important a legacy I can leave as any.”


  3. Pingback: Remembering Tibor Machan, Libertarian Mentor and Friend: Reflections on a Giant

  4. Pingback: Remembering Tibor Machan, Libertarian Mentor and Friend – Mises Canada

  5. Pingback: Remembering Tibor Machan, Libertarian Mentor and Friend

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