The James Wilson Foundation on Natural Rights and the American Founding

“Friends Clashing Yet Again?: Comparing Notes with Robert Miller”: Professor Hadley Arkes in Public Discourse

In his latest piece, JWI founder and director Hadley Arkes responds to an op-ed in Public Discourse, called “Loose Talk on Free Speech,” in which Iowa Law Professor Robert T. Miller defends classical liberalism’s permissive record on freedom of speech. Miller argues against a claim by First Things senior editor Matthew Schmitz that classical liberalism has paved the way for white supremacy. Arkes concurs with Schmitz, saying that an impenetrable devotion to total viewpoint neutrality in speech produces morally incoherent results. Expounding on Schmitz’s point, Arkes says that classical liberals find themselves having to concede that picking slavery or genocide is fine, so long as it is done at the ballet box in a democratic way. To say that reason and truth will always prevail in the market of ideas is to ignore the daily realities in which the most basic natural rights, including the right to life, are trounced by the left. Above all, says Arkes, liberty must be about more than form, since liberty that is only form and not substance is license. Despite the reading of the law and the political realities of today, not all speech is equal and worthy of existing in the public square. To think otherwise is pure relativism.

A few excerpts from the piece:

“To cast a ballot for a Nazi party in an election is to vote in effect to remove that ‘freedom to choose’ from all of those people around us in the adjacent voting booths.  A man who respects the moral ground of his own freedom would not claim this right to choose the Nazis in an election. It would be an act of moral incoherence. But we absorb that incoherence in this way:  We talk ourselves into the notion that, as far as the law is concerned, we must be free to hear the Nazis because the ends of the Nazis must be as legitimate to choose as any other set of ends on offer in the landscape of our politics.  That is relativism all the way down.”

“The center of the argument among conservatives is whether safety will truly be found in a doctrine of relativism or whether that move will simply give up the moral ground on which the conservatives could still summon a defense of their positions.”

You can read the complete article here.

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Law and liberty cannot rationally become the objects of our love, unless they first become the objects of our knowledge.
— James Wilson, Lectures on Law, 1790