The Anarchist (at Best) Paradise of the Mob and the Liberal Elite

One of the more inane lines of argument that has been offered to justify last week’s decision by Brown University, in deference to an unruly mob, to cancel a talk to have been given by New York Police Commissioner Ray Kelly on the subject of stop-and-frisk police tactics, is that the freedom of speech of the denied speaker is not an issue. This rationale rests upon a faulty assumption that the entirety of the principle of freedom of speech is the limit placed on government by the First Amendment to the United States Constitution and therefore no right can have been involved in the incident, since neither the mob nor Brown University is part of the government.

Let’s consider of what this view of rights implies. We’ll start from a fairly innocuous set of rights mentioned in the US Declaration of Independence…

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. — That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed…

The right to life by itself is enough to start thinking this through. What does the self-evident truth that there is a right to life entail? Well, if we follow the same “logic” (actually ideology, in its truest sense) used in support the mob-initiated shutdown of Commissioner Kelly’s speech, which is a loose mix of the ideas that rights are mostly prohibitions on government actions and that no rights exist outside of public spaces, then a right to life imposes no limits on private organizations or non-governmental mobs depriving the lives of individuals not situated in public places. Not being killed by someone not from the government and outside of public spaces is downgraded from the status of a right, to that of convention agreed upon because it’s presumed to be useful – but that can be unagreed upon, if deemed not to be useful.

We can hold to be self-evident that to deny that the right to life extends to private property or non-government action is to define the right in an absurdly narrow way. Ad-hoc modifications to try to shore this up, e.g. that mobs can be trusted to respect a right to life even on private property, but might have to limit other rights as they deem necessary, because the right to life is a “real” right, while a right to free speech is something less, don’t make the problem any better. We’re still left with self-appointed groups setting limits on the rights of others in their decisions about which rights are “real” and which rights aren’t.

The subject of the cancelled talk, the stop-and-frisk policy, and the rights involved, provides  a more pointed example. The same limitation that speech restrictionists want to apply to freedom of expression — that the right should be presumed to have no relevance to non-government action on private property – can similarly be applied to freedom from unreasonable search and seizure. Under this narrow formulation, mobs are not prohibited from taking it upon themselves to stop-and-frisk people on private property they deem to be suspicious, so long as the owner does not object to the practice, not only at private universities, but at restaurants, shopping malls, etc.

This is not a conception of rights upon which a peaceful society can be built.

Once society accepts that fundamental rights can be limited by self-appointed groups who declare that their causes take priority over the natural rights of others (as long as they are non-governmental groups, of course), then the rational response for every individual is to join a strong group that will protect their basic rights. With different groups sharing the same space, each defending the “rights” of their members, but not recognizing those of outsiders, the result will be an anarchy more brutal than anything any libertarian would be comfortable with (libertarians, after all believe in natural rights) – at least until one group gains an upper hand over the others, and declares that no other group has right to organize (because just their act of organizing can cause harm to others), and society is moved to a place as bad as or worse than anarchy.

When the basic right of free expression can be declared irrelevant at a place that is supposed to be at the pinnacle of free expression in a society, the journey to anarchy or worse is well underway.


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