Freedom of Speech on Campus

Much controversy rages over campus speech these days. Examples abound; here’s one from George Washington University about students hanging flags from their dorm windows. What legitimate free speech rights do students enjoy on campus? The answer is: it depends.

Before examining the dependency, let’s distinguish natural rights from contractual rights. Natural rights are entitlements that stem directly from our humanity. It’s often said that freedom of religion and freedom of speech are natural rights but they aren’t. The only genuine natural rights are property rights: control of our own body, control of our own material and intellectual creations, and control of things we have acquired through voluntary transactions.

Contractual rights arise from an exchange that plays out over time. If I’m a student at GWU, a private University, I may have been promised that in return for my tuition, I will acquire a number of entitlements including freedom of speech on campus, within limits (no yelling “fire!” in a crowded lecture hall). That’s the only freedom of speech I have on campus. If GWU should want to forbid pro-Israel speeches on campus, for example, and I accept that as a condition of admission, then I have no right to lobby for Israel on campus.

Things get complicated when the institution is publicly owned.[1] Who owns San Jose State University? Not “the people”—that would be meaningless. The owner is the person or group who has final say over campus property and policies. That might be the Board of Trustees of the California State University, but how much of their control have they relinquished to what other parties? Hard to say, and in particular it’s hard to say who gets to set restrictions on campus speech—and of course all manner of such restrictions are necessary if the business of the University is to go forward. No blocking hallways, no disrupting classes, etc.  In the case of a public university, somebody has to decide what sort of speech is allowed, usually according to what is politically palatable to the loudest voices.

 

To repeat, the only genuine natural rights are property rights. Freedom of speech or religion are not fundamental rights but are contingent on the ownership of property involved in any particular speech or religious activity.

[1] “Public ownership” is actually an oxymoron because ownership means some people are excluded while public means everybody is included.

To Pledge or Not to Pledge

I attended a public meeting last night as I do from time to time. It’s a bad habit I can’t seem to shake. Like many of the more formal public meetings in this country, it started with the Pledge of Allegiance. (Foreign readers may not know that this is a 31-word quasi loyalty oath of allegiance to “the flag.”) When the time comes, everyone is supposed to stand, put their heart on their hand, face the flag, and recite the Pledge in unison, which is drummed into all schoolchildren.

My policy during the last several years has been to stand and remain silent with my hands at my side. I don’t make a spectacle of myself by staying seated, but I’m not willing to say the Pledge, for several reasons.

  • It’s too much like religion, and not just because of the “Under God” phrase
  • I don’t like feeling like a sheep following the herd
  • I don’t like the implication that we should bow and scrape to our rulers

Plenty of people would brand me a traitor for my attitude, an ingrate who doesn’t appreciate the benefits of living in the good ol’ U.S.A. In fact, I am quite grateful that I live in the U.S.A. because

  • I grew up in this culture and feel a part of it (omitting rock “music”)
  • The land is beautiful
  • Our politicians are less rapacious than in some other countries
  • We still have a reservoir of individualist sentiment that resists the “Progressives” and the neocons and their relentless push for a made-in-America brand of fascism
  • The libertarian movement has grown enormously in the years since 1971 when I signed on

I do indeed feel some kind of loyalty to the land and the people. But not to the government. And to swear allegiance to the Constitution, as the newly elected councilmen did last night, is a farce because the Constitution was shredded years ago, starting with Abraham Lincoln and perhaps earlier. At the federal level, they swear allegiance to the Constitution and then turn around and spit on it.

But wait, you might say, if you’re loyal to the people you have to be loyal to the government because we elect our leaders. But that’s a slender thread indeed. The government is controlled by unelected bureaucrats and powerful special interests. The government is not “the people.”

So, with only the mildest misgivings, I’ll go on boycotting the Pledge.

My Publishing Adventure

As you see in the right-hand column, I am co-author of a new book, “The World’s Your Stage.” The intended audience is performing artists (musicians, dancers, etc.) and those who manage artistic groups. So it isn’t directly related to this blog, and in fact my co-authors are not libertarians. But readers who are thinking of publishing may be interested in what I learned from dealing with a commercial publisher, so I’ll write a little about those experiences here.

A great deal more is involved in getting a decent book out the door than writing and editing. Most would-be authors know (I hope) that a good editor is essential. Our first editor did a poor job and was fired, at which point the publisher, perhaps out of embarrassment, assigned their top editor to us. He was very helpful. Some editorial corrections can be very hard to swallow. One has to give a great deal of latitude to an experienced editor, while knowing when to stand firm on an essential point.

It had all started with a contract. They sent us a long document that we had to initial in about forty places. We were promised an advance, which showed up about a year after we signed the contract: $5,000 split three ways. I expect to see little or nothing beyond that, making this very much a labor of love. A learning experience, certainly.

They want you to conform to their specifications for writing the document in MS Word (font, spacing, figures, etc.). No problem there.

Publishers are scared silly about copyright infringement. For example, I had used a 52-word quote from a book, but they said I would either have to cut it to 49 words or get written permission from the author. I cut it to exactly 49. There were lots of other places where we did have to get permission. Fortunately one of my co-authors had the patience to get most of these.

They are also picky about citations. In several instances they wanted sources for facts that I thought were common knowledge.

Several times I thought we were through with revisions only to find out we weren’t. After the editor comes a copy editor whose job (I think) is to read it all for consistency and various other picky but necessary things. These good people don’t miss a thing.

A good cover is essential, and for that they have graphic designers who sent us proofs for our approval. A dramatic pictorial graphic would have been nice but beyond the budget, no doubt. They needed photos of us for the jacket along with the photographer’s name, for credit. Mine was a selfie, which had them scratching their heads at first.

Quite a few competent professionals seem to have spent time on our book, and they don’t come cheap, especially when the publisher is headquartered in Manhattan.

So the book is in print and we’re done, right? Not exactly. For a niche book like ours, marketing is pretty much up to us. So one co-author is working on a web page, and we’re all thinking of where and how we might pitch the book. The other co-author was head of public TV in New York for 20 years and there are lots of doors he can open. He got Rene Fleming, an opera star, to write a plug for the back cover. He can easily get speaking gigs and possibly TV appearances.

Now I’m thinking about my next book. Even with this first book in hand, getting a publisher for the second is a long shot so I’m looking at self-publishing. I think there’s a lot I could do on my own, using my experience from the first book, and a lot where I would need help. I would hire an editor, but how to find a good one? And a graphic designer—who? How to market it? Stay tuned.

What About Terrorism?

Thoughts on terrorism from “The Moral Arc: How Science and Reason Lead Humanity toward Truth, Justice, and Freedom” by Michael Shermer (Holt, 2015).

I may be doing more quoting here than is allowed under “fair use” but here goes.  I will paraphrase his seven myths about terrorism.

  1. Terrorists are pure evil. This was what Bush said after 9/11, but studies show they are typically motivated by outrage at U.S. foreign policy.
  2. Terrorists are organized. There is no top-down, central organization directing terrorism.
  3. Terrorists are diabolical geniuses. The shoe bomber and others following 9/11 were incompetent.
  4. Terrorists are poor and uneducated. They are typically higher-income, better-educated individuals.
  5. Terrorism is a deadly problem. Compare 13,700 homicides per year with 3,000 from 9/11 and an average of 70 terrorist deaths per year, or 7.8 per year excluding 9/11.
  6. Terrorists will acquire and use a nuclear weapon or a dirty bomb. A real danger, but nuclear weapons require a lot of scarce material and sophisticated engineering.
  7. Terrorism works. Terrorists usually wait until after their deed is done and then proclaim that whatever outcome happened was in fact their goal.

Please read the book yourself.  The section I have paraphrased (pp. 80-86) is a response to objections to his thesis that the over-arching trend of recent decades is toward a safer, more peaceful world.

I’ll add some thoughts of my own:

  1. Groups based on violence and hatred will eventually self-destruct as they splinter into factions and devour one another.  But “eventually” leaves time for a lot of damage.
  2. This seems like a great opportunity for Western governments to cooperate with Russia and perhaps China because Islamic terrorism is a threat to all those parties.

Leaders of all the Western nations have expressed outrage, as has Putin.  Radio silence thusfar from leaders of Islamic nations which, one presumes, have a lot to gain by distancing themselves from terrorism.

Republican Tax Plans are Misguided

Predictably, Republican candidates are showcasing tax plans offering goodies for everybody. When some spoilsport has the nerve to point out the worsening deficit that would result, the most common retort is that the tax cut will spur economic growth enough to overcome the higher deficit. Some day. Somehow.

Of course lower tax rates will spur growth so that the loss in tax revenue will be less than proportional to the cut in tax rates. But it is foolish to think that we’re ensconced on the far side of the Laffer curve, for those who know that phrase, which simply means that tax rates are so high that cuts will produce higher revenue.

What about the claim that a flat tax is fairer than the graduated rates we have now? Perhaps, but how does one judge the fairness of any tax? The usual answer is that taxes should be based on the taxpayer’s ability to pay. But that is a nebulous concept at best. It means that somehow we figure out how much income is necessary and how much is up for grabs by politicians  Do we need a cell phone, cable TV, air conditioning? Who’s to say?

At least a flat tax would treat everybody alike. Or would it? Under a flat tax, where everybody hands over the same percentage of their income, those who earn a lot pay more money than those who don’t. Why? Do the high earners consume more government services? Are high earners bad people who deserve punishment?

I concede that some tax schemes could be fairer than others. For example, much as I might like the idea of complete tax exemption for septuagenarian European-American males, I’ll grant that would be a bit unfair. But in the end no tax can be entirely fair because taxation is coercive activity: stealing if you like.

Don’t get me wrong: I like tax cuts, preferably across the board, but targeted cuts are fine with me too. But the focus on the tax code is misplaced. The root problem is the amounts of real goods and services that are consumed by politicians and bureaucrats. Whether they are financed by taxation or borrowing is a secondary issue.

Republicans should be drawing up lists of programs to reduce or eliminate. “Defense” spending should be at the top of the list. The list should be broad enough that everybody’s ox is gored. Who knows, this approach might actually gain some traction with the fed-up electorate.

Assisted Suicide and the Catholic Church

News item: the California legislature has passed a bill loosening prohibition of assisted suicide. No word from the governor as to whether he’ll sign the bill. I expect he will. I certainly hope so.

I trust no one on this site favors drug prohibition. To be consistent, we must oppose restrictions on medicinal drugs (commonly called “ethical”), not just recreational drugs. As things stand, the government forcefully suppresses purchases of certain drugs. We in the U.S. are forbidden from buying any medicinal drug that is deemed to require FDA approval but has not yet gotten it. Approved drugs are available only if prescribed by a licensed physician. And of course some drugs are freely available over the counter.

Our opposition to drug prohibition is grounded in the most basic human right: control of our own bodies. As competent adults, our choice of what we ingest is nobody else’s business, period. It matters not whether we take drugs to counter illness, enjoy a high, or indeed, to end it all.

Of course, suicide is not something to take lightly. If someone close to us is contemplating suicide, we have an ethical duty to reach out to them and help them find alternatives, if they exist. But we have no right to use violence to restrain them, nor do government agents.

The Catholic Church is leading the opposition to this bill, and has shown its seamiest side in doing so. They are perfectly happy to see terminally ill people forced to endure agony. This is Exhibit A for Ayn Rand’s characterization of the Catholic Church as profoundly anti-life.

Marriage Licenses Should Not Be Granted to Gay Couples

Marriage licenses should not be granted to gay couples nor to straight couples. Marriages should be private consensual agreements between any two competent, consenting adults. Or three or more, for that matter. Governments should not be involved: no licenses, no special privileges, and no special obligations for married couples.

However, the fact that an action is legitimate and non-coercive does not mean any term can be used to describe it. Gay couples should not call their agreements “marriage” because that term is taken. For centuries, it has stood for heterosexual unions in almost all cultures. Marriage might be called a “trade mark.”

Kim Davis is a hero. She is the county clerk in Kentucky who was jailed for contempt because she refused to issue marriage licenses to gay couples.

She bases her stand on her religious beliefs, but that’s not why she is a hero. If she were acting on secular philosophical grounds, her case would be just as strong. She is a hero for standing up to a central government that is smothering civil society, reaching its tentacles into all areas of life and strangling spontaneous freely evolved social order.

Of course, she is guilty of contempt. That’s only right, because the process that has led to her imprisonment is in fact contemptible. She is following a course of civil disobedience that I must admire, and I wish her well.