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The degradation of classical liberalism

Channing Wang/Thresher

By David Getter     11/12/19 10:23pm

Free markets are not very popular on college campuses. As rigid economic regulation has become a staple of leftist politics, another market — the marketplace of ideas — is now being subjected to the same type of boundless regulation.

The “marketplace of ideas,” coined by John Milton in 1644 and popularized by John Stuart Mill over 200 years later, posits that free-market principles ought to be applied to speech in the same way as they are to economics. John F. Kennedy affirmed this sentiment a mere six months before coming here to deliver his iconic “We choose to go to the moon” speech at our very own Rice Stadium. 

“We are not afraid to entrust the American people with unpleasant facts, foreign ideas, alien philosophies, and competitive values,” he declared. This idea that it is okay to be subjected to speech that strikes us as “unpleasant” or distasteful is a classically liberal idea. 

Liberalism, which comes from the Latin root “liber,” or “free,” is the foundation upon which all valid democracies have been built. Classical liberalism is predicated on the notion that freedom is paramount. It identifies the individual as unique, free-thinking, and highly rational. However, such emphasis on individualism has fallen out of favor with the modern left, supplanted instead by collectivism and group politics. The type of liberalism that pervades today’s college campuses is not classical liberalism. It is defined by the postmodern belief that it is our responsibility to legislate thought and punish ideas that we perceive to be hurtful. 

This phenomenon is evident in our reaction to the incident at Willy’s Pub last Thursday in which three members of the Rice community made the ill-advised decision to wear U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement uniforms for Halloween. Their costumes were perceived by many to be crude and racially insensitive. Two of the students were subsequently asked to step down from their positions as committee heads at McMurtry College, and one was even fired from his job at Pub. The Rice chapter of Jolt Texas went so far as to “urge Dean [of Undergraduates Bridget] Gorman to consider social rustication.” 

However personally offended this incident makes you feel — and I happen to believe strongly in the validity of such feelings and the offensiveness of the actions in question — we all have a vested interest in promoting free speech. When emotion takes precedence over rational thought to the point that free speech is called into question, we have arrived at a state of “Social Marxism,” where thought is regulated as stringently as the Nordic economies. Locke argued that our aim should not be “to abolish or restrain, but to preserve and enlarge freedom,” including for those whose speech we find objectionable. In ideologically homogeneous communities like colleges and universities, however, this argument has fallen on deaf ears, which has led renowned free-market economist Thomas Sowell to decry postmodern liberalism as nothing more than “totalitarianism with a human face.” The late Milton Friedman remarked that “liberalism now stands for almost the opposite of its earlier meaning.” 

True classical liberals would never actively wish fear or pain on another person, but they are also cognizant of the fact that a world without fear or pain is a world without liberty, and such a world is antithetical to every fundamental American value that makes this country the “shining city” that it is. If you don’t want to listen to me, heed the words of former president Obama. A few weeks ago, the liberal icon denounced what he called “woke” culture, saying, "If all you're doing is casting stones, you are probably not going to get that far.” A few months prior, he rebuked what he called the “‘circular firing squad,’ where you start shooting at your allies because one of them has strayed from purity on the issues.” 

As postmodern liberals attempt to grapple with this new wave of political correctness, purity tests and Twitter mobs, they will have to find some way to reconcile these new liberal ideals with the fundamental American value of free speech. So, next time someone on campus wears an offensive costume or says something culturally insensitive — which is inevitable — let’s try to find it in ourselves to restrain our inclination to react punitively and instead use the intellectual acumen that we all possess as Rice students to settle our disagreements in an open marketplace of ideas. For a community that views diversity as paramount, it is imperative that we protect diversity of thought with the same vigilance that we protect other forms of diversity.

In short, it is incumbent upon the entire Rice community to abide by the age-old adage — first uttered by Voltaire three centuries ago — that instructs us to “defend to the death” the right of others to say that which we disapprove of. Only then will we truly realize our stated goal of “cultivating a diverse community of learning and discovery.”

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