The University of California, Berkeley emerged again as a bastion of protest against perceived fascism. Alt-Right leader Milo Yiannopoulos was invited by the Berkeley College Republicans to speak on the campus, only to be blocked by protestors and violent rioters. President Trump, in true late-night form, tweeted: No free speech, ‘NO FEDERAL FUNDS?’
At a splendid conference at the University of the South last weekend, the most important underlying theme turned out to be the question of the continuity of the 14th Amendment with the rest of the constitution. Some scholars—indeed most– argued that the Reconstruction Amendments represented a second founding and a radical break with the past.
In contrast, I believe that there is substantial continuity between these two essential parts of our charter of liberty. The 14th Amendment advanced and opened to all the commercial republic that was at the heart of the original Constitution. By their secession and actions leading up to succession, the South showed that it recognized that commercial dynamism and freedoms of the original founding would doom slavery. The Civil War just accelerated the realization of guarantees that flowed from principles implicit in the original Constitution.
For instance, before the War Southern states tried to gag discussion of petitions on slavery on the House floor and banish criticism of the peculiar institution from the federal mails, in obvious violation of constitutional guarantees. Slavery supporters also burned down abolition newspapers. They tried to ban books that argued that the wages of Southerners who did not own slaves were decreased by the institution of slavery. As Michael Kent Curtis noted, these acts allowed the North to reframe the debate about slavery as one about established constitutional liberties and the freedom of labor generally.
Has there ever been a July 4 other than during the Civil War or the Great Depression where the domestic prospects of our nation have been so dismal? No presidential contest has ever featured a choice that was as obviously dreadful as this one. I would be happy to hear of contrary claims from the annals of American history, but to me even Nixon v. McGovern falls short of our present plight. Nixon’s role in Watergate was not known at the time of the election, and McGovern at least was a man of good character.
But today we are about to elect someone with disabling character flaws and no commitment to the liberty that has been at the core of American ideals. On character, both Trump and Clinton have reputations for dishonesty unusual even for politicians. They also excel at dividing the American people, Trump with his outrageous remarks about ethnic groups, Clinton with her penchant for blaming her and her husband’s troubles of “vast conspiracies” of her political enemies even in instances where she has every reason to know the cause of these troubles is in her own home.
And these character flaws threaten to widen some of our most dangerous fault lines. Trust in government is at one of the lowest points ever. A President widely regarded as dishonest will exacerbate the trust deficit. Americans are more polarized than at any time since the Second World War. Polarizing figures making uncivil remarks about one group or the other are sure to lead to a more divided nation.
Situated at the corner of Fairfax and Wilshire in Los Angeles, the iconic Johnie’s Coffee Shop was where Mr. Pink plotted a diamond heist in Reservoir Dogs and where Walter offered to obtain The Dude a toe in The Big Lebowski. But it has never witnessed malfeasance like the villainy that has unfolded there over the last few weeks. Johnie’s has been converted into a hub of unregulated advocacy for Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign.
The New York Times recently reported that in 2006 a German executive at Volkswagen gave a presentation on how the company’s cars could evade emissions tests. Who was the German executive at the root of a scandal that will cost VW shareholders tens of billions? The New York Times stated that it could not identify him or her because of German privacy laws.
This example nicely illustrates how privacy laws undermine liberty. Their direct harm to liberty is clear. Because of fear of liability in Germany, the New York Times cannot exercise its free speech rights in the United States to name a key executive in a story about one of the most important business scandals of the decade.
The harm to society is clear as well. Executives in companies (and officials in government) are likely to behave better if they fear exposure. Indeed, privacy laws will reduce the number of investigate reporters trying to uncover malfeasance. Newspapers are naturally more interested in running stories where names are attached than stories about faceless executives or bureaucrats, because they are more likely to interest readers.
But the laws also impose more indirect, but pervasive costs to liberty. By reducing the power of private social norms to restrain bad behavior, they make a more intrusive state necessary. The less civil society governs itself by decentralized, informal means, such as by circulating information, the more there will be a need for the heavy handed enforcement mechanisms of a top-down bureaucracy.
Donald Trump and the new campus political correctness movement have a lot in common. Both want to create safe spaces where people fear no challenge from the exercise of others’ liberties. In the case of the campus PC movement, their disdain for freedom is obvious. They want to stop others from saying things that may offend them or undermine their world view. But the modern university grows out the enlightenment, which of course gave much offense to aristocrats, priests, and various other purveyors of received wisdom. Illiberal political correctness is thus at war with the classical liberal ideas on which our universities are founded.
Donald Trump also wants to create safe spaces for people who do not want to be challenged by the liberty of others. This self-proclaimed master of the art of the deal is no friend of making markets more open. He opposes free trade agreements that would let our citizens and those of other nations make more mutually beneficial deals. He also promises literally to build a fence around America. To be sure, there is a national security threat to the United States from radical Islamic terrorism. But Trump’s proposals to ban Muslim immigration is at once excessive and ineffective. Why couldn’t jihadis simply pretend to be Middle Eastern Christians? Trump’s proposal is better understood as an attempt to insulate America from religious ideas that many disdain. His illiberal program is at war with America’s freedom.
The safe spaces offered by Trump and the PC movement lure people inside for similar reasons.
Leading up to Justice Kennedy’s fateful 5-4 decision, there was plenty of debate on both sides, and the proponents of same-sex marriage emphasized that they just wanted to be treated the same as heterosexual couples. They even coined the deceptively simple slogan, “Marriage Equality.” That was then.
Graduation season is well underway. With all the excitement and regalia of the annual event, it might be easy to overlook the commencement address, an American tradition as old as the graduation ceremony itself. These addresses—and, in particular, the speakers invited by high schools and colleges to deliver them—have at this point become a regular source of controversy, protest, and even, on occasion, borderline violence.
If there was any hope left that a Putin-led Russia might still transition to a democracy with a stable rule of law and truly independent civil society, Karen Dawisha’s Hayek Book Prize nominated Putin’s Kleptocracy would seem to have squashed it. Indeed, Dawisha argues that Putin basically rules through and with a criminal conspiracy whose goals are to “control privatization, restrict democracy, and return to Russia to Great Power (if not superpower) status.” She cites as powerful evidence the penalties imposed by the United States in April 2014 following the Russian invasion of Crimea. The American government didn’t primarily target…
In March the Supreme Court will hear a case in which a Texas group is appealing the state’s refusal to style vanity license plates that include an image of the Confederate flag. The plaintiff’s argument rests on First Amendment rights: because Texas allows other citizens to choose images for license plates, the state is violating the right to free speech by suppressing this group’s preference. Another license plate case is being hammered out in the lower courts in North Carolina. There the ACLU is suing on behalf of a plaintiff who wants a pro-abortion vanity license plate, given that the state permits pro-life licenses.
One might think that these cases should be decided the same way, but Corey Brettschneider and Nelson Tebbe suggest otherwise in a characteristically thoughtful oped in The New York Times. The authors argue that messages on license plates are a mixture of private and public speech. Thus the Court should balance the private interest in free expression with the public interest in permitting the government to control its own messages. They conclude that Texas can suppress the vanity plate bearing an image of the Confederate flag but that North Carolina must permit the pro-choice sentiment because the Confederate flag is a symbol contrary to the constitutional values of equal protection of the law, while pro-abortion sentiments endorse a legally guaranteed constitutional right.
I respectfully disagree. Although the government has no obligation to provide the opportunity for messages on vanity plates (and if I were a legislator, I would not vote to have them), it should not discriminate among messages based on their content once it opens up this space.