Tibor Machan RIP
By David Henderson
Yesterday on Facebook I learned that libertarian philosopher Tibor Machan died. That caused me to watch two videos: (1) an interview on William F. Buckley Jr.’s show “Firing Line” in which he was questioned by Buckley and Ernest Van Den Haag, and (2) a panel discussion of current and past Reason magazine editors on the 45th anniversary of Reason.
I will post on the latter tomorrow.
I want to do two things with this post: give a personal reminiscence of Tibor that in no way claims to do justice to his many good works and highlight a very important point he made in his interaction with Van Den Haag.
In June 1970, a little over a month after I graduated from the University of Winnipeg, I went on what my friend and mentor Michael Prime called a “libertarian pilgrimage.” I hitchhiked from Winnipeg to Vancouver, stopping at various places on the way and sleeping on people’s floors and couches. I carried a backpack, a small tent, and a sleeping bag.
I was very forward and so I would just call people when I got to their city and ask if I could sleep on their floor or couch. If it was a female, I asked if I could visit.
I then hitchhiked down the West Coast to San Francisco. I called Sharon Presley, whose number someone had given me in one of the previous cities, and asked if I could visit her one evening. I remember being so scared of crime in American cities, given all the propaganda I had heard in Canada, that I asked if I could bring my sleeping bag and sleep on her floor after our visit. This was despite the fact that I had already paid $6 to stay in a divy hotel in downtown SF. Sharon amusedly said yes, but just getting to her place made me realize that it seemed pretty safe, so, after our visit, I took the street car back to my hotel.
When I visited her, though, she told me she and a friend were driving down to a science fiction conference in Santa Barbara over the July 4 weekend and asked if I wanted to come along. I said yes, and got to drive her cool sports car part of the way. It turned out that she and her friend were planning to stay with Tibor Machan and his wife Marilyn that weekend. When we got there, she asked if I could stay and Tibor said yes.
Tibor and I hit it off immediately. Part of it, I think, was my hero worship. I had read some of his work and knew that he was one of the rising stars in libertarian philosophy. That was a small group, but that didn’t matter to this libertarian. We had a number of good conversations during my few days there. I remember also his casually turning on the radio and our both hearing a familiar voice–his–as we listened to a show he had taped for a local radio station. Some UCSB thugs had recently burned down a Bank of America building and, if I recall correctly, he was discussing that on the show. (I could be wrong about the topic.)
But the other part of why we hit it off was that he gave me attention. I was 19 at the time. And in my experience, no one over 25, other than my high school vice-principal Brian Parker, University of Chicago economists Harold Demsetz and Milton Friedman, and my friend and mentor Clancy Smith’s father Max, had shown me a lot of respect. Tibor did.
One other thing: I know this sounds trivial but this one incident helped me remember that meeting vividly for about the next three years. Tibor and Marilyn had a couple visiting who were going on a months-long trip and were getting rid of various things. The guy had a white shirt and asked me if I wanted it. I had been on my own financially since age 16 and so spent very little on clothing. It showed, by the way. That shirt was the neatest shirt I had ever had a chance to wear. I said yes immediately. I wore that thing until it fell apart about three years later. Whenever I put it on, I remembered that visit with Tibor.
Interaction with Van Den Haag
Toward the end of this video, Ernest Van Den Haag tries to put Tibor on the spot by asking what if in your free society, some people go without aid and starve because others aren’t willing to help. Watch how Tibor handles it. It’s his off-the-cuff version of what co-blogger Bryan Caplan did with his post “Tough Luck.” Thanks to Greg Sollenberger for pointing that out.
Which brings me to a not-at-all-hypothetical situation similar to the one that Tibor mentioned and to some that Bryan Caplan mentions. Two weeks ago, I got popped by the California Highway Patrol and given a ticket for driving 85 mph in a 65 mph zone. The bill arrived this week: $366. Now, although that number was shocking, the reality is that it’s a fraction of my monthly budget slack after my wife and I pay all the regular bills.
But for some much-lower-income people, this would be a huge amount. Indeed, many lower-income Californians take a risk by not paying such a bill. If they get caught, the bill is much higher, especially if their car is impounded. I believe they can even go to jail, which then sets them back even further. And it’s not just traffic laws. There are many laws with fines attached, sometimes a multiple of the fine that I will pay. And many of these laws are ones I would get rid of. But these laws have many advocates. It sometimes seems as if lawmakers see Les Miserables as a how-to manual.
So what would at least some advocates of such laws say? Tough luck.