June 1, 2009

Attacking the Foundations of Freedom

Hatched by Dave Ross

Society and the status quo are uniting as never before in America to ensure the power of equality over freedom -- and in the process attacking society’s achievers as well as the freedom of expression that defends them and our way of life. This is a form of injustice -- perhaps one of the most pernicious.

Will and Ariel Durant wrote in The Lessons of History (1968), "Nature smiles at the union of freedom and equality in our utopias. For freedom and equality are sworn and everlasting enemies, and when one prevails the other dies.”

America’s founders were appalled at the idea of democracy and equality; and while they gave lip service to equality in political classes, they didn’t extend that to economic results. They revered the ideal of the individual, free and owing little to his fellow man, and less to his government -- except occasionally serving temporarily in government or the military to preserve those freedoms.

Equality of opportunity, not equality of result, was their goal. While they envisioned individual liberty and private property as the ne plus ultra of a free society, they also enshrined freedom of expression (speech, press, etc.) as a means of defending those rights.

Or as John Adams wrote in “A Dissertation on the Canon and Feudal Law” (1765), “The jaws of power are always open to devour, and her arm is always stretched out, if possible, to destroy the freedom of thinking, speaking, and writing.”

Although George Orwell invented the term “thought crime” in his novel Nineteen-Eighty Four, the concept was well known to the founders. James Madison, who proposed the First Amendment, once wrote to Thomas Jefferson on the passage of the Virginia Statute on Religious Freedom: “We have in this country extinguished forever... making laws for the human mind.”

We have come a long way since those days. At his first commencement speech as president (May 13, 2009), Barack Obama told the graduating class of Arizona State University that they should not seek honors, riches, status or personal gain:

In contrast, the leaders we revere, the businesses and institutions that last -- they are not generally the result of a narrow pursuit of popularity or personal advancement, but of devotion to some bigger purpose -- the preservation of the Union or the determination to lift a country out of a depression; the creation of a quality product, a commitment to your customers, your workers, your shareholders and your community. A commitment to make sure that an institution like ASU is inclusive and diverse and giving opportunity to all. That's a hallmark of real success.

That other stuff -- that other stuff, the trappings of success may be a byproduct of this larger mission, but it can't be the central thing. Just ask Bernie Madoff. That's the first problem with the old attitude.

This is an argument Immanuel Kant -- from whom much of the Western World’s current unhappiness, at least philosophical unhappiness, can be traced -- would appreciate. The idea that we should not pursue what makes us happy, but rather what benefits society most. It “invites” us to put away the pursuit of success, of individual achievement, and seek “some bigger purpose.”

For one like the president, who in his early career was a community organizer, this seems a reasonable goal -- for him. But for the now immensely powerful president to deliver it as a goal for graduating seniors, and by extension to the nation, is alarming. Especially since he can back up his preferences for what goals individuals might choose with the full power of the federal government.

The injustice being perpetrated, in my view, is to attack society’s achievers, to attempt to level them, to defame them as being unfair and victimizing society. Going hand in hand with this attack on individual achievement is the attack on the ability of people who oppose such actions to defend themselves using the written word, TV or radio broadcasts, internet communications, and other media.

The president has also advocated limiting salaries of corporate executives, not only of companies that took TARP money, but even of banks and high profile companies that didn’t. The argument most often advanced is that it is unfair to "the poor" to allow “the rich” (a term that often means anyone who makes more than the accuser) to make so much more than they.

In promoting such a philosophy Obama is only carrying forward a tradition that goes back at least as far as President Franklin D. Roosevelt -- who, along with Abraham Lincoln, he greatly admires; Roosevelt's “Four Freedoms” speech (January 6, 1941) listed “freedom of speech and expression,” “freedom of every person to worship God in his own way,” “freedom from want” and “freedom from fear.” Only two of these have a basis in our Bill of Rights, and nowhere is mentioned anything about the freedom of individual achievement or liberty. In fact, during the height of World War II, FDR proposed to Congress that it adopt a 100% tax for all incomes over $25,000.

So in today’s world, when many pundits say that the second Great Depression is upon us, it is not hard to imagine that the government that could tell a CEO of a large company how much money he might make could at some point tell a smaller fish in a smaller company how much money she might make.

In the name of equality, freedom is limited or eliminated.

Karl Marx made the case that people were equal until private property evolved, which created the class system. His philosophical descendent Vladimir Lenin, in his “To the workers, everything; to the toilers, everything!” speech (1918), asserted:

It was life itself, real, actual life, which taught the workers to understand that as long as the landholders had entrenched themselves so well in palaces and magic castles, freedom of assembly would be a mere fiction and would only perhaps be found in the other world. To promise freedom to the workers and at the same time to leave the castles, the land, the factories and all the resources in the hands of the capitalists and landowners -- that this has nothing to do with liberty and equality.

At the other end of the spectrum are President Ronald Reagan and his philosophical twin, former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher -- who, when she ran for parliament in 1950 said:

Our policy is not built on envy or hatred but on liberty for the individual man or woman. It is not our policy to suppress success. Our policy is to encourage it, and encourage energy and initiative. In 1940 it was not the cry of nationalization that made this country rise up and fight totalitarianism. It was the cry for freedom and liberty.

Falling somewhere in between would be a political philosopher such as John Rawls, who believes that individual freedom and the capitalist system that derives from it are only moral if the poorest people benefit too. Yet a utilitarian philosopher could argue, as Adam Smith (admittedly an economist, not a philosopher) did, that individual freedom and capitalism produce the greatest happiness for the greatest number, even if it doesn’t always distribute that happiness evenly.

Objectivist philosopher Ayn Rand counters that the capitalist system, and the individual who works for his own benefit and not the benefit of others, together create a result that benefits the most people... although she would hasten to add that she sees the morality of individualism and capitalism as divorced from whether they benefit the majority. In her newsletter the Objectivist (1971), Rand writes: “I shall say that I am not primarily an advocate of capitalism, but of egoism; and I am not primarily an advocate of egoism, but of reason.”

Another modern libertarian philosopher, Robert Nozick, opposes what he calls Rawls’s “distributive justice.”

In the opening remarks of Anarchy, State, and Utopia (1974) Nozick writes, “Individuals have rights.... So strong and far-reaching are these rights that they raise the question of what, if anything, the state and its officials may do,” and argues for a minimalist state that has the powers to protect private property from theft and fraud and not much else.

The president (and his electoral opponent in 2008, Senator John McCain) both would require that all adults devote some years to “community service,” which is, when all high-flown definitions are stripped away, a form of involuntary servitude. This too, can be seen as an assault on the individual’s right to dispose of his time as he sees fit.

Also in the name of equality, to combat “hate speech,” “attacks on other religions,” and to limit money’s influence on politics, freedom of expression is under assault on a variety of fronts.

McCain’s Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act (BCRA) of 2002 (aka McCain-Feingold) makes it a crime to take out advertising criticizing a candidate in a federal election within a certain time prior to the election. Some federal election commissioners have tried to apply this to the internet and to commercial films (such a case is currently before the Supreme Court: Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission).

Earlier this year the U.S. House of Representatives passed the Local Law Enforcement Hate Crimes Prevention Act, about which Colorado defense attorney Robert J. Corry commented that “the state ‘hate crime’ law -- like the newly expanded House of Representatives federal bill -- ‘does not apply equally’ (as the 14th Amendment requires), essentially instead "criminalizing only politically incorrect thoughts directed against politically incorrect victim categories.”

Canadian journalist (now U.S. citizen [I believe he is still a Canadian citizen -- DaH]) Mark Steyn was brought up on charges of “Islamophobia” in 2008 before the Canadian Human Rights Commission, the British Columbia Human Rights Tribunal and the Ontario Human Rights Commission for passages in his book America Alone that were published in the magazine Maclean's.

A previous commission case had involved a minister who attacked gays in print and from the pulpit and whose punishment was to be prevented from publishing or uttering disparaging remarks about gays and homosexuals for the rest of his life. So the threat to Steyn’s freedom of expression was real, although the commissions eventually found him (and McLean's) not guity of the charges:

The Ontario Human Rights Commission ruled that it did not have the jurisdiction to hear the complaint. The British Columbia Human Rights Tribunal heard the complaint in June 2008 and issued a ruling on October 10, 2008 dismissing the complaint. The Canadian Human Rights Commission dismissed the federal complaint on June 26, 2008 without referring the matter to a tribunal.

One might derive comfort from the fact that there are no “human rights tribunals” in the U.S. -- except that versions do exist on university campuses. Students can face real punishments for crossing swords with them and expressing thoughts that are not tolerated.

What to do? It is problematic at best to come up with an effective set of measures that would set this situation right. Tyrannies tend to accumulate; governments tend to become more authoritarian. Rarely do they surrender power.

Nevertheless, unless we want to surrender to being "tyrannized" by incrementalism, like the proverbial trick of boiling the frog, we must try to roll back attacks on the individual and his ability to defend himself by speech and print.

At some point we must strike back by advocating laws that would remove much of government’s powers to impose “equality,” to limit its ability to “punish” achievement, and perhaps most important, to undo its attack on freedom of expression by eliminating the methods that local and federal governments use to regulate various media for the purpose of shutting down opposing views.

This would include removing the Federal Communication Commission’s authority to regulate the content of broadcast media... or better yet, to completely abolish the FCC.

This would also, by definition, require removing much of the government’s power to reward certain segments of society at others’ expense through the use of confiscatory taxation and social-engineering laws. It would also require abolishing all “hate crimes” and any other laws that take into account any aspect of a crime other than the fact that it has occurred and its severity.

Perfectly rational liberals may take the view that while individual liberty is a fine thing, there should be some compromise between the freedom of the individual, which at its core is a purely rationalist position, and the abuses that free individuals can commit against the feelings of others.

As a journalist who has been in the business for over 30 years, I see the benefits of unfettered expression. Newspapers are somewhat immune from attacks on content, because it is so obvious that the First Amendment was talking about them when it referred to “freedom of press.” So for the most part is “freedom of speech.” But other media, such as television, radio, and the internet are not specifically mentioned; so the government is more apt to try to trim their freedoms.

As a journalist I harbor an absolutist point of view when it comes to these freedoms, maintaining dogmatically that the Constitution means what it says. I’ve had discussions with some people who have argued, quite reasonably, that someone like Steyn should simply not write things that offend other religions; then there won’t be any problem of defending his right to say what he wants.

But at this possible tipping point in our culture’s existence, we cannot afford compromise.

Early on I used the quote by the Durants to note the timeless struggle between freedom and equality, where if one triumphs completely, the other dies. I am not convinced that this is so. As a country that was founded on freedom and equality, I think it can be demonstrated that equality did not die in America when freedom was at its most robust -- although it certainly took a back seat.

I do not believe that the opposite will be true if individual freedom is forced into a secondary position. Individualism can be strangled or at least deprived of enough oxygen that it will take many years to recover its vitality.

That is the danger of attacking the very foundations of freedom.

Hatched by Dave Ross on this day, June 1, 2009, at the time of 11:52 PM

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The following hissed in response by: Ken Hahn

The problem with "hate crimes" is that those who devise them feel perfectly free to express their hatred and contempt while limiting the ability of their critics to contest their prejudices. All political speech must be free of limits or a particular viewpoint will quickly become the only acceptable one. So long as one does not directly harm others ( human sacrifice exception to religious liberty etc), the first amendment rights must be as absolute as possible or they will be limited into nothingness.

The above hissed in response by: Ken Hahn [TypeKey Profile Page] at June 2, 2009 10:56 AM

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