Sunday, February 04, 2007

Free Speech is Dead

Tibor R. Machan

When Senators Olympia Snowe (R-Maine) and Jay Rockefeller (D-West Virginia) wrote their bipartisan letter to demand that the giant oil corporation Exxon “end any further financial assistance [to those] whose public advocacy has contributed to the small but unfortunately effective climate change denial myth,” I recalled the following report about Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak: “There are freedoms, but they can’t contradict our traditions,” the president intoned some years ago as he opened a book fair in Egypt. “We must guarantee that freedom of expression agrees with our values.”

In a genuine free society there must be freedom of expression even about matters that are highly unpopular and perhaps conflict with received scientific truth, if that idea makes any sense at all in science. Scientists have been notorious throughout the ages for tilting against windmills, for being skeptics about mainstream thinking. And in our day mainstream thinking has it that human beings are a very significant contributing cause to global warming. There are dissidents regarding this view and maybe they are wrong—that isn’t the point here. What is the point is that Snowe and Rockefeller are in the wrong about whether Exxon has the right to support organizations such as the Competitive Enterprise Institute.

Reportedly, Exxon made its decision to withdraw its support of CEI before this letter went out, so that, again, isn’t the issue. What is very disturbing is that the one remaining liberty in the United States of America, due to how the courts have read the First Amendment in the Bill of Rights, is now being threatened by the very agency that is supposed to be making our rights secure. Governments are instituted among us for that purpose, according to the Declaration of Independence.

Of course, when this is noted, apologists will come forth and claim that the Exxon case is special. Richard Littlemore of the blog, for example, writes that “The problem is that this kind of speech [Exxon’s support of CEI] is not ‘free.’ In distracting us from addressing an issue that threatens the world in an unprecedented way, it is costing us all a price that we may never be able to pay.”

Notice how the concept “free” is being twisted around by Littlemore—from meaning that no one may interfere with someone else’s speaking out or funding other’s doing so to meaning that something doesn’t cost anything. Hardly related, if at all! Mubarak is far more honest when he states what Snowe and Rockefeller actually mean, namely, that “we must guarantee that freedom of expression agrees with our values.” But that’s Egypt, which is a virtual dictatorship, not the United States of America where politicians constantly stress how everyone is free, especially as far as thinking and saying what they will.

I happen to agree that there is a bit of confusion about what the freedom is that Snowe and Rockefeller are threatening, although there is a lot of expert debate about this. For example, in the campaign financing debate many who oppose caps consider it a violation of freedom of speech to impose them. I think it is more accurate to view this as a violation of the right to private property. However, since private property is now hardly protected in America, many have decided to attempt to defend our right to give support to causes and political candidates on the basis of the right to freedom of speech and expression. In any case, what is at issue is human freedom and those like Snowe, Rockefeller, Littlemore and Mubarak clearly care nothing about it.

It is no big surprise, of course. There is that famous quip from William Pitt who answered similar arguments by saying, “Necessity is the excuse for every infringement of human freedom. It is the argument of the tyrant and the creed of the slave.” From the Right it is national security or the dire necessity to spread democracy across the globe that serves to justify the abridgement of liberty. From the Left it is poverty, inequality, and, now, environmental precaution that serve to invalidate our rights and undermine the government’s duty to secure our rights.

I am still not fully despondent, though, mainly because the habit of crushing human liberty is a very old one and difficult to shake, like most bad habits are. But to quote another favorite philosopher of mine, the jazz pianist and song writer Mose Allison, “I am not downhearted, but I’m gettin’ there.”

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