Freedom (of Speech) Makes Politics
Used as nouns, the three German words in the name of this new platform (Freiheit – Macht – Politik) highlight the key elements of democratic governance: freedom, power, and politics. In a quirk of the German language, however – “macht” is a declension of the verb “to make” – the same three words also form a sentence loaded with meaning: “Freedom makes politics.” In the lifetimes of most people reading alive today, that message never has been more important to hear, especially concerning freedom of speech.
Across the ideological spectrum today, many of us behave as if the extent of free speech and our own political influence are inversely proportional. The thought process is simple and in today’s polarized information silos it sounds logical: “The perspectives and proposals of my opponents are nonsense and often dangerous, if not outright lies or even a form of violence. Therefore, my opponents’ freedom to articulate and spread their ideas is harmful to society and must be constrained. My correct and good ideas only can prevail if the conflicting views of others are not allowed even to compete for attention.”
This mindset is nothing new in authoritarian societies organized along one-party or strongman lines. But in recent years, the same mindset has gained a foothold in the most influential precincts of liberal-democratic countries – nowhere more so than in my own United States.
Many U.S. colleges and research institutions protect ideological monopolies in which even the constructive probing of orthodoxies on education policy, environmental science, equity among the genders and races, public health, and other complex matters is not tolerated. Dominant approaches even to the study of history can be questioned only at enormous reputational risk to the questioner. Administrators in higher education and other elite opinion leaders take seriously the notion that speech can be “violence” (and therefore prevented as such). Thus empowered, America’s cancel culture – efforts to destroy careers or simply to achieve a conformity of silence – no longer is confined to academia. Among those working in the arts (including even the comedy scene), newsrooms, philanthropies, and most large companies, Americans today understand which viewpoints are acceptable and which are not. In public, at least, they usually follow the acceptable path to protect their livelihoods and social standing. Even medical organizations recently have threatened doctors with decertification for disagreeing with dogma on issues such as abortion, pandemic responses, and vaccination mandates.
National politics in the U.S. now are often contests between absolutes: extreme proposals in the form of executive orders or laws unimproved by serious debate or consensus-building efforts. Numerous political leaders stick shamelessly to false claims (“collusion with Russia,” “stolen election,” etc.) rather than admitting that serious dissenters might have a point. Corporations take poorly considered positions on complex issues having nothing to do with their own operations. Politicians threaten the corporations in response. In this environment, Americans increasingly believe almost anything about each other, their leaders, and once-beloved companies and other institutions – no matter how fabulously exaggerated or even fabricated the claims might be.
Interestingly, neither side in America’s tribal-political standoff believes that it is getting stronger as a result of all this. Both embrace apocalyptic projections in which every election or judicial ruling is a last chance to avoid societal ruin, and every political setback is another example of their side’s hopeless disadvantage and the other side’s endless perfidy.
In this much the political tribes are correct: they are not getting stronger. Democrats and Republicans no longer achieve the sustained electoral success and landslide presidential elections that once demonstrated meaningful power in the U.S. Major legislation passes by a hair’s breadth if it passes at all – lacking crossover support from the other party or deep constituencies in American society as a whole. Unable to achieve majority support even in their own parties, successive presidents resort to “executive action” (often verging on quasi-authoritarian dictates) to impose large financial and legal obligations on the country. And far from becoming more influential and more attractive to investment or talent, businesses that engage in dogmatic political interventions distract themselves from their actual missions and alienate many of their customers and employees alike.
Here is what cancellers and other tribal combatants fail to understand: encouraging disagreement and reflection is precisely the source of enduring strength. Consider:
Competition almost always makes ideas, party platforms, and legislative packages stronger. Economic markets can teach us something here. The most successful goods and services are those that demonstrate their superiority in a free competition of features, price, quality, and value – and attract millions of buyers as a result. The marketplace of ideas and the competition for political power are no different. So: let us figure out how to be the Amazons or SAPs of politics rather than trying to keep an inferior vendor out of the marketplace of ideas.
Synthesis can be the source of good ideas and better public policies. Engaging with other points of view can produce truly compelling breakthroughs that earn broad-based support in the public arena. Carbon taxes, climate-change mitigation (rather than just prevention) efforts, school-choice initiatives, restorative-justice alternatives to imprisonment, fully funded pension schemes, and hybrid health-insurance systems are examples of policy proposals strengthened by intellectual and political synthesis. Sadly, but tellingly: almost none of these examples is less than two decades old. So: let us work on the next cool concept to make society better.
Silencing the other side usually helps it to gain support. Far from defeating opponents, cancel campaigns and other forms of political and social isolation can make their targets more interesting to others. Ostracized “losers” throughout history have attracted followers, especially among young people who are more curious about what appear to be transgressive points of view. Martyrdom can strengthen bad actors such as racial supremacists at least as much as it can benefit liberal-democratic heroes such as Václev Havel, Martin Luther King Jr., Nelson Mandela, or Alexei Navalny. So: let us not create martyrs of any kind but rather let people be heard.
Like much of the classical-liberal intellectual inheritance, these propositions feel wrong to brains hard-wired for fighting or fleeing and other zero-sum behaviors. They may even seem dangerous or naïve. That is why humans spent the first several millennia of our existence settling matters with clubs rather than with free-speech protections. But consider what the clubs achieved, compared with all that we have achieved since letting other people talk and compete and succeed or fail to the best of their abilities. Consider how the heartland of classical liberalism (what we call “the West”) still somehow persists and usually prevails against the despotic alternatives despite all of our dangerous, foolish, or stupid ideas.
Bizarrely, then, you will be stronger if your opponent’s views are heard. Listen to them and learn; or rebut them convincingly. Either way, it is likely that your cause will be served, and your ideas improved. If they are not, then perhaps it is time to reconsider your cause and your ideas.