Sunday, May 1, 2016

Obama’s Lame Duck Economy

By Kevin D. Williamson
Sunday, May 01, 2016

On the matter of Barack Obama and the performance of the U.S. economy, the aptest metaphor is anatine: We aren’t swimming in gold like Scrooge McDuck, and we haven’t blasted the beak off our face with a shotgun like Daffy Duck, but instead limp along like what the president is: a lame duck.

Spare me the technicalities about how President Obama isn’t officially a lame duck until after the election; we aren’t officially in recession, either, but 0.5 percent annualized growth — the most recent figure — is close enough.

How should we judge President Obama’s economic record? There are two ways to go about that: First, from the point of view of people who understand at least a little about economics; second, from the point of view of Barack Obama.

We Americans maintain a superstitious, priest-king attitude toward presidents and economies. Just as moral and religious defects in the holy chieftains of old were thought to be the source of droughts and crop failures, we take weakness in the economy to be the result of presidential flaws: He didn’t “care about people like us” enough, he followed the wrong policies, listened to the wrong people, etc. That’s mainly not true.

The most important factors shaping the economic performance of the United States, or that of any advanced country, isn’t policy, but events, from developments abroad to entrepreneurship and innovation at home. The 1990s didn’t boom because Bill Clinton pursued a radically different economic agenda from that of Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush: He ran on “time for a change” but more or less stayed the course, thanks in no small part to Newt Gingrich and the 1994 election. The 1990s boomed because the development of the personal computer and other forms of information technology, supercharged by the growth of the web, launched an extraordinary period of investment, innovation, and entrepreneurship. Bill Gates, Marc Andreessen (whose Netscape browsers brought the web to the masses), the development teams at Ericsson and Nokia, and a few million Americans who invested enthusiastically in everything marked “dot-com” had a lot more to do with the economy of the 1990s than Bill Clinton did. Likewise, the rough spots of that era (such as the Asian currency crisis) weren’t the president’s doing, either.

There is no mystical connection between presidents, GDP growth, employment, and wages.

Policy of course has a non-trivial effect on economic events, but the most important policy choices that affect the economy in the near term don’t come from the White House: They come from Congress, from the courts, and from the Federal Reserve. A lot of what we think of as Reaganomics had relatively little to do with Reagan: Important deregulation efforts (airlines, oil prices, telecommunications, trucking and transit) had been enacted by Congresses before Reagan ever took office; in fact, Reagan pandered to the Teamsters by promising to delay deregulatory efforts pressed by the Jimmy Carter administration. What we used to call “the phone company” was broken up by the courts in 1984 as part of an effort that began years before he took office. Reagan’s tax reforms were enormously important, of course, both in terms of their real financial effects and their long-term psychological effects.

President Obama’s term in office was preceded by a housing crisis and a subsequent recession for which he was as much to blame as anyone then in government — which is to say, not very much. The housing and banking policies that resulted in the financial crisis were enacted by politicians of both parties over a span of many decades, from the housing schemes of the 1930s to the creation of Fannie and Freddie to changes in financial practices originating in the Reagan, Bush, and Clinton administrations. Senator Obama did not have much to say about these until after the fact. He is a practically Delphic oracle of hindsight.

President Obama insists — straight-facedly — that in the context of a wrenching fiscal crisis, the United States under his leadership performed better than any major economy in modern history. That isn’t even close to being true, of course. Obama’s presidency will coincide with a remarkably weak recovery, with GDP essentially treading water. His presidency will be the first in modern times to fail to coincide with at least one year of 3 percent economic growth. It has teetered on the edge of recession, and may very well end in formal recession. (George H. W. Bush was thrown out of office in protest of a recession that had ended before the election; it wasn’t the economy, it was boredom.) Wages remain stagnant, and the rate of work-force participation is worryingly low.

What can we actually say about Obama administration policies? One is that the so-called stimulus underperformed on one front and failed on another. It may have provided some meaningful stimulus (economists debate the question still) at a cost — there always is a cost — that will remain unknown for the foreseeable future. What it did not do — we have the president’s own word on this — is dramatically improve public infrastructure. Indeed, every time the Democrats call for a dramatic new campaign of infrastructure investment, it is an implicit indictment of the failure of previous campaigns. The stimulus mainly operated as a covert bailout for badly governed Democratic cities and states. Recovery and reinvestment? Weak, at best.

The Affordable Care Act is a failure. Again, we have the Democrats’ own word on this, as they labor feverishly to keep its least-popular features (such as the taxes that pay for it!) from taking effect. In fact, Obama’s would-be successor, Hillary Rodham Clinton, seeks to partly dismantle Obamacare, repealing the so-called Cadillac tax that vexes her public-sector supporters, whose health-care plans are a great deal better than yours. The woefully misnamed Affordable Care Act hasn’t been a dramatic job-killer, but there is evidence (from the Congressional Budget Office and other sources) that it creates some headwinds against employment, undercutting the equivalent of 2 million full-time jobs. It hasn’t solved the problem of health-care inflation, and probably has made it worse, at a very high cost in terms of actual outlays and economic distortion.

The usual this-’n’-that stuff that the president likes to talk about during State of the Union addresses — green-economy dreams, tax incentives for politically favored businesses, etc. — do not seem to have had much of an effect at all.

We have pursued, with the president’s blessing, a wildly inflationary monetary policy (quantitative easing and all that) without wildly inflationary results, at least in terms of general prices. It may be that the idea of “inflation” as a unitary concept is inadequate to the modern global economy, that the general devaluation of the dollar one would expect has been offset by the supply of inexpensive consumer goods and raw materials from around the world and has mainly made itself felt in the steadily rising stock portfolios of the millionaires and billionaires that President Obama enjoys castigating. (The question of asset-price inflation vs. ordinary consumer-good inflation is an interesting one; I do not necessarily agree with everything in this Robert Blumen essay, but it is an interesting discussion.) Generally speaking, the beneficiaries of a bubble are the last to complain about bubble prices.

In a thousand years or so, archaeologists seeking to understand the last days of the Westphalian nation-state will study the works of Robert Higgs the way Hellenists study fragments of Sappho, and it is here that judging President Obama will be much more art than science. To Professor Higgs we owe the term “policy uncertainty” and its nasty big brother, “regime uncertainty.” Policy uncertainty refers to the costs inflicted when investors and enterprises are faced with unknown developments in the rules governing their activities; for example, employers making plans about employee benefits, headcounts, compensation, and the distribution of part-time and full-time positions cannot make rational plans if they do not know how the Affordable Care Act is going to affect them, whether they will be exempted from it, whether the National Labor Relations Board will take extraordinary and possibly illegal action against them, etc. Regime uncertainty describes the same problem but in relation to the much more fundamental question of whether and how property rights will be respected. For example: How certain are you that this administration, or a future administration, will not attempt to seize through taxation a portion, and possibly a large one, of your purportedly tax-free retirement savings? How certain are you that the federal government will not attempt to rewrite bankruptcy law and apply it retroactively at the expense of the rights of secured creditors, when politics demands it?

The intelligent answer in both cases is: “Not very.”

t is in the matter of such uncertainty that the Obama administration probably will have its longest-lasting and most intensely negative effect. The president’s predilection for unilateral executive action and a maximalist interpretation of presidential powers will no doubt be considered precedent by Democratic and Republican successors alike (the greatest hope of a Ted Cruz presidency is that the great constitutionalist would reverse this even though it would diminish the power of his office) and, because executive action inevitably is more unpredictable and arbitrary than is legislative action, Obama’s poison gift of uncertainty will grow, cancerously, long after he has left office. But it is impossible to put a price on that.

That’s how Obama stacks up on the first metric.

The second task, evaluating Obama by his own standard, won’t take nearly so many words, inasmuch as the streets of this country are not full of automobiles that run on happy thoughts and the lights of our cities are not kept burning bright by the power of unicorn flatulence. The election of Barack Obama did not turn out to be a pivotal moment in human history. He will be remembered as a minor figure, the Al Smith of the early 21st century.

If everything that transpired in these United States up until January 20, 2009, was uniquely and especially the fault of George W. Bush, then there is no dodging responsibility for the weak and muddled current state of affairs. Obama, who must be judged harshly by his own standard, hasn’t read his James George Frazer. (Honestly, he doesn’t seem to have read much.) If you’re going to be a god-man or a priest-king, there’s only one way that those careers come to an end: “The scapegoat, upon whom the sins of the people are periodically laid, may also be a human being. . . . The Athenians regularly maintained a number of degraded and useless beings at the public expense; and when any calamity, such as plague, drought, or famine, befell the city, they sacrificed two of these outcast scapegoats.”

I wonder if they campaigned for the job, the way our contemporaries do.

In Case of Trump Nomination, Break Glass

By George Will
Saturday, April 30, 2016

Donald Trump’s damage to the Republican party, although already extensive, has barely begun. Republican quislings will multiply, slinking into support of the most anti-conservative presidential aspirant in their party’s history. These collaborationists will render themselves ineligible to participate in the party’s reconstruction.

Ted Cruz’s announcement of his preferred running mate has enhanced the nomination process by giving voters pertinent information. They already know the only important thing about Trump’s choice: His running mate will be unqualified for high office because he or she will think Trump is qualified.

Hillary Clinton’s optimal running mate might be Senator Sherrod Brown of Ohio, a pro-labor populist whose selection would be balm for the bruised feelings of Bernie Sanders’s legions. Running mates rarely matter as electoral factors: In 2000, Al Gore got 43.2 percent of the North Carolina vote. In 2004, John Kerry, trying to improve upon Gore’s total there, ran with North Carolina senator John Edwards but received 43.6 percent. If, however, Brown were to help deliver Ohio for Clinton, the Republican path to 270 electoral votes would be narrower than a needle’s eye.

Republican voters, particularly in Indiana and California, can, by supporting Cruz, make the Republican convention a deliberative body rather than one that merely ratifies decisions made elsewhere, some of them six months earlier. A convention’s sovereign duty is to choose a plausible nominee who has a reasonable chance to win, not to passively affirm the will of a mere plurality of voters recorded episodically in a protracted process.

Trump would be the most unpopular nominee ever, unable to even come close to Mitt Romney’s insufficient support among women, minorities, and young people. In losing disastrously, Trump probably would create down-ballot carnage sufficient to end even Republican control of the House. Ticket splitting is becoming rare in polarized America: In 2012, only 5.7 percent of voters supported a presidential candidate and a congressional candidate of opposite parties.

At least half a dozen Republican senators seeking reelection and Senate aspirants can hope to win if the person at the top of the Republican ticket loses their state by, say, only four points, but not if he loses by ten. A Democratic Senate probably would guarantee a Supreme Court with a liberal cast for a generation. If Clinton is inaugurated next January 20, Merrick Garland probably will already be on the Court — confirmed in a lame duck Senate session — and Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Anthony Kennedy, and Stephen Breyer will be 83, 80, and 78, respectively.

The minority of people who pay close attention to politics includes those who define an ideal political outcome and pursue it, and those who focus on the worst possible outcome and strive to avoid it. The former experience the excitements of utopianism, the latter settle for prudence’s mild pleasure of avoiding disappointed dreams. Both sensibilities have their uses, but this is a time for prudence, which demands the prevention of a Trump presidency.

Were he to be nominated, conservatives would have two tasks. One would be to help him lose 50 states — condign punishment for his comprehensive disdain for conservative essentials, including the manners and grace that should lubricate the nation’s civic life. Second, conservatives can try to save from the anti-Trump undertow as many senators, representatives, governors, and state legislators as possible.

It was 32 years after Jimmy Carter won 50.1 percent in 1976 that a Democrat won half the popular vote. Barack Obama won only 52.9 percent and then 51.1 percent, but only three Democrats — Andrew Jackson (twice), Franklin Roosevelt (four times), and Lyndon Johnson — have won more than 53 percent. Trump probably would make Clinton the fourth, and he would be a tonic for her party, undoing the extraordinary damage (13 Senate seats, 69 House seats, eleven governorships, 913 state-legislative seats) Obama has done.

If Trump is nominated, Republicans working to purge him and his manner from public life will reap the considerable satisfaction of preserving the identity of their 162-year-old party while working to see that they forgo only four years of the enjoyment of executive power. Six times since 1945 a party has tried, and five times failed, to secure a third consecutive presidential term. The one success — the Republicans’ 1988 election of George H.W. Bush — produced a one-term president. If Clinton gives her party its first twelve consecutive White House years since 1945, Republicans can help Nebraska senator Ben Sasse, or someone else who has honorably recoiled from Trump, confine her to a single term.

Good News in Global Warming

By Josh Gelernter
Saturday, April 30, 2016

There were two big pieces of news out of NASA this week. NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope and scientists at the Southwest Research Institute discovered a new moon, orbiting a dwarf planet named Makemake (one of the many Pluto-esque bodies that live in the far reaches of the solar system). And NASA announced that the Earth is getting greener. Literally greener. Plant growth is way up.

Why is plant growth way up? Because of all the extra carbon dioxide in the air. According to the study, which was published this week in the scientific journal Nature, the total area of the planet that’s covered by plants has increased by more than 11 million square miles in the last 33 years. For perspective: North America, including Greenland, is a little less than nine and a half million square miles. Of course, not all of this increase is due to CO2 and global warming. But 78 percent of it is. (Says the study.)

This is very good news. Plants feed the world. It is not, however, unexpected news. Wall Street Journal readers may recall a piece published in May of 2013 called “In Defense of Carbon Dioxide,” by William Happer, one of Princeton’s top-flight physicists, and Harrison Schmitt, a geologist, a former Republican senator from New Mexico, and an Apollo astronaut who walked on the moon.

“In Defense of Carbon Dioxide” criticized the “conventional wisdom” about CO2 and the “single-minded demonization of this natural and essential atmospheric gas.” “Contrary to what some would have us believe,” wrote Schmitt and Happer, “increased carbon dioxide will benefit the increasing population on the planet by increasing agricultural productivity.”

Needless to say, they were right on the money.

And this was no shot in the dark — in fact, the benefit of carbon dioxide to plant life is not only a well-established fact, but suffocatingly obvious, when you think about it: The (very reasonable, entirely correct) trope of conservationists is that we need more plants, because we breathe oxygen and emit carbon dioxide, whereas plants breathe carbon dioxide and emit oxygen. It follows that plants need carbon dioxide in more or less the same way we need oxygen. This is why — point out Schmitt and Happer — commercial greenhouses tend to grow plants in air that is 150 percent richer in carbon dioxide than the great outdoors.

Schmitt and Happer’s piece also explained that higher levels of atmospheric CO2 make plants more resistant to drought — basically, by reducing the number of water-wasting air holes a plant needs to breathe — which (they say) is why droughts in the age of global warming don’t look like droughts in the age of the Dust Bowl. And they point out that the current elevated CO2 levels are still much lower than CO2 levels were in the distant (pre-human) past.

They add that “variations in global temperature correlate much better with solar activity and complicated cycles of the oceans and atmosphere” than they do with increased levels of carbon dioxide. And that “there isn’t the slightest evidence that more carbon dioxide has caused more extreme weather.”

Unfortunately, Happer and Schmitt’s good tidings were not enough to assuage the concerns of environmental opinion-makers. But the fact that their predictions have been perfectly borne out should give some ammunition to fighters of the good fight.

And in the meantime, everyone on every side of the global-warming argument should take a few moments to appreciate these, our salad days, and — at last — some good news in global warming.

Saturday, April 30, 2016

Silence Is Death: The Generational Case For Free Speech

By Mark Hemingway
Thursday, April 28, 2016

Note: This is the text of the Eugene C. Pulliam lecture Hemingway delivered at Hillsdale College on March 17, 2016.

I’m a political journalist, and one way of describing at what I do is that I spend my days arguing with people. When you put it that way, the job doesn’t sound particularly enjoyable or pleasant, and I confess that it’s often not. However, the debates roiling America at the moment — from the assaults on religious liberty to the size of America’s ever-growing administrative state — are increasingly vital. To quote Calvin Coolidge, it is important that we be “lovers of freedom and anxious for the fray.”

But as controversial and even nasty as our debates have become, the most dispiriting thing about the American politics is that I increasingly spend much of my time not debating the merits of particular candidates and policies, but having to reaffirm the necessity of having the debates in the first place.

As for needing a reminder about the threats to free speech, you do not need to take my word for it. Last year, playwright and Oscar-winning screenwriter Tom Stoppard observed the threats to free speech are perilous. “I think it’s quite a frightening time,” he said accepting a PEN/Allen Foundation Literary Service Award.

Stoppard fled Nazi-occupied Czechoslovakia as a child and spent much of his career traveling and speaking out on behalf of artists and dissidents in the Soviet Union and communist Eastern Europe, so his concerns ought to carry considerable weight.

In particular, Stoppard was concerned about last year’s attack on the French satirical publication Charlie Hebdo, where Muslim terrorists stormed the newspaper’s offices and killed 12 people in response to the paper’s blasphemous cartoons.

Stoppard went on to say, “The Charlie Hebdo massacre was an appalling body shock to anybody who cares about life, let alone literature. You are left thinking, ‘Well, if it comes to making a choice here, clearly one has to choose that one should be allowed and entitled to offend without being murdered for it.’ That seems self-evident. That doesn’t mean that one is in harmony with the attitude or the particular instances of what is being said and written and drawn.”

Undoing the Cultural Consensus on Free Speech

Stoppard is right. But this point is self-evident only if you are familiar with the West’s heritage of classical liberalism, and there is currently a great effort underway to unmake this cultural consensus on free speech. Case in point: The PEN literary organization, which was honoring Stoppard for his “defense of creative freedom worldwide” last year, soon found itself embroiled in an open revolt with its own membership, who were upset that the organization also wanted to give a free speech award to Charlie Hebdo.

Indeed, a number of other prominent voices used the attack on Charlie Hebdo as an opportunity not to speak out about violence or intolerance but, instead, to criticize Charlie Hebdo.

Barely a week before Stoppard made these remarks, Doonesbury cartoonist Gary Trudeau, was given a Career Achievement Award at the allegedly prestigious George Polk Journalism Awards. For you younger folks, Gary Trudeau rose to fame as a political cartoonist in the 1970s lampooning Richard Nixon at a time when every elite cultural institution in America was already assailing the corrupt president.

Naturally, Trudeau used the occasion of his career journalism award to chastise his murdered colleagues at Charlie Hebdo for drawing cartoons he called “hate speech.” He went on to say that by daring to satirize Muslims’ religious beliefs, Charlie Hebdo was “punching downward, by attacking a powerless, disenfranchised minority.” But when you have the means and will to carry out mass executions of people you don’t agree with, you’re anything but powerless. There’s nice literary irony to Trudeau accusing Charlie Hebdo of metaphorically “punching down” when they were literally shot and killed in response.

After I criticized Trudeau’s remarks in print, my editors at The Weekly Standard received a letter from no less than John Darnton, the curator of the George Polk journalism awards. The letter attacked me personally as a “bent-for-hell headline grabber” and said I was “grievously misrepresenting” Trudeau’s argument.

Darnton went on to explain that Trudeau wasn’t failing to defend free speech, but was merely accusing Charlie Hebdo of having “fed the flames of violence and caused Muslims throughout France to rally around the extremists.” I can only thank Darnton for writing this letter, which both clearly and obliviously reinforces everything I said in the first place. The notion that it is hateful to satirize people who hold undemocratic beliefs—up to and including the belief it’s justified to massacre the staff of a newspaper you think is guilty of blasphemy—just because the people those people are labeled “a powerless, disenfranchised minority” is dangerous nonsense.

Why We Need Blasphemy

Indeed, Charlie Hebdo routinely drew blasphemous and obscene cartoons making fun of Jesus and the pope. Yet, there was never a serious worry that bunch of Christians would storm their newsroom and shoot them all. The suggestion that “Muslims throughout France” should be expected to rally around extremists who want to kill anyone who draws a cartoon mocking their faith is patronizing at best, racist at worst.

It is nearly impossible to understate how ignorant and shortsighted the view that modern notions of racial and class privilege should outweigh the need to draw a bright line protecting freedom of expression, much less serve as an excuse for violence.

Perhaps in an ideal world we’d all refrain from going out of our way to offend, but as columnist Ross Douthat has argued, even the right to blaspheme is crucial to defend. According to Douthat, “If a large enough group of someones is willing to kill you for saying something, then it’s something that almost certainly needs to be said, because otherwise the violent have veto power over liberal civilization, and when that scenario obtains it isn’t really a liberal civilization any more.”

But among his peers, Douthat is a thinker of unusual clarity. I’m afraid that while journalists are fond of uttering self-soothing words about their commitment to free speech, the unwillingness to defend the values that enable their profession is becoming characteristic instead of exceptional.

Civilization’s Vanguard Hides Like Sissy Girls

My ongoing run-ins with the journalistic establishment over free speech are proof enough of that. After the Hebdo massacre, many news outlets noted that one of the much-beloved, now-murdered Charlie Hebdo cartoonists, St├ęphane Charbonnier, was put on a hit list in the pages of the grimly named al-Qaeda magazine Inspire. Also listed at the bottom of the same page, under the headline “Wanted Dead or Alive for Crimes Against Islam” was Molly Norris. I don’t expect you to know who that is; only that the fact you don’t know the name Molly Norris represents a major collective failing.

On September 14, 2010, Seattle Weekly announced that its cartoonist Molly Norris had gone into hiding with the help of the FBI. Earlier that year, Norris had gained some prominence as the founder of Everybody Draw Muhammad Day. Norris hoped this event would become a rallying cry to defend cartoonists. This prompted none other than prominent al-Qaeda and Yemeni-American cleric Anwar al-Awlaki to issue a fatwa calling for Norris’ murder.

At the time Norris went into hiding, I was working at the Washington Examiner, where we published an editorial condemning various media organizations for failing to speak out in her defense, including the Society for Professional Journalists and American Society of News Editors. In fact, I was the one tasked with writing the editorial as well as personally calling the Society for Professional Journalists and American Society of News Editors to find out what they had said in defense of Norris, which as it turns out, was nothing.

As I wrote at the time, “freedom of speech and press are in deep trouble when the American government thinks the best it can do to protect a journalist from death threats is to counsel her to go into hiding, and when the elite voices of American journalism can’t be bothered to say anything in her defense.”

The Society for Professional Journalists responded to this criticism by privately emailing reporters across the country and saying the Examiner editorial was “misleading and was most likely written to gain headlines.” Now, where have I heard that before? That particular attack on our journalistic integrity was even more laughable when the transcript of my phone call to the Society of Professional Journalists was eventually published in response.

How About Rebuffing Instead of Enabling the Aggressors

Yet the most damnable aspect of the whole episode isn’t just that most journalists chose to ignore what happened to Norris, it’s that they are instead willfully deluded about the true threats to free speech. Four days after Norris went into hiding, New York Times columnist Nick Kristof lamented the “venom on the airwaves, equating Muslims with terrorists … Muslims are one of the last minorities in the United States that it is still possible to demean openly, and I apologize for the slurs.” I’d suggest Kristof ask Norris if it’s possible to demean Muslims openly, but I’m pretty sure she’s unavailable for comment.

Even before the Charlie Hebdo massacre, Kristof’s Muslim apologia was pretty rich coming in the pages of a newspaper that had refused to print the controversial Danish Mohammed cartoons when they were the biggest news story on the planet in 2006.

The New York Times justification for this at the time was that “This seems a reasonable choice for news organizations that usually refrain from gratuitous assaults on religious symbols.” After the Hebdo massacre last year, the Times once again doubled down on the pretense it refrains from “gratuitous assaults” on religious believers.

“Under Times standards, we do not normally publish images or other material deliberately intended to offend religious sensibilities,” said the paper in a statement it gave to Buzzfeed. “After careful consideration, Times editors decided that describing the [Charlie Hebdo] cartoons in question would give readers sufficient information to understand today’s story.”

Not five months after their statement on why they would not publish the Charlie Hebdo cartoons, the Times ran a story on Chris Ofili’s painting, “The Holy Virgin Mary.” According to the Times, the painting “caused a furor when it was shown at the Brooklyn Museum in October 1999… The eight-foot-high depiction of a black Virgin Mary, encrusted with a lump of elephant dung and collaged bottoms from pornographic magazines, outraged religious leaders.”

The story was illustrated with, yes, a picture of the offensive painting. Again we see the Times regularly publishes stuff offensive to believers, provided they’re confident those believers won’t shoot up their newsroom.

At Least Don’t Lie About Being Afraid

Saying the New York Times should be brave enough to publish things that may invite violence upon itself is a lot to ask for. What’s not a lot to ask for is for the paper to dispense with their transparently disingenuous rationalizations about why they don’t do this.

After the Charlie Hebdo attack, the Jyllands-Posten, the Danish newspaper that originally published the controversial Mohammed cartoons that sparked violence and worldwide protests a decade ago, refused to publish any of Hebdo’s controversial cartoons. The Jyllands-Posten editor, Flemming Rose, subsequently wrote a book, “The Tyranny of Silence,” about the paper’s ordeal. It is an admirable cri de coeur about the need for free speech. But when Rose was asked about the refusal to publish the Hebdo cartoons he told the BBC, “We caved in. Violence works… Sometimes the sword is mightier than the pen.”

At first blanch, Rose’s explicit cowardice may be hard to digest; but compared to the New York Times— it’s positively heroic. In response to Rose’s comments, British columnist Nick Cohen observed, “If you are frightened, at least have the guts to say that. The most effective form of censorship is one that nobody admits exists.”

It is both sad and undeniable that much of the Western media, along with most other guardians of the public trust, are eager to self-censor and are in complete denial about it. The only question before us now is what to do about it.

The Blame for Higher Education

We certainly didn’t arrive overnight at this place where our great institutions were unwilling to uphold the First Amendment. This cowardice and hostility to free speech is the result of being learned, taught, and absorbed over generations. You can all congratulate yourselves for choosing to attend Hillsdale. But the reality is that higher education might bear more responsibility for this tragic state of affairs than any other institution.

To give you just one example of and how thoroughly baked into the American cake a wrongly critical view of the First Amendment has become, when issues of controversial speech arise in the news, almost inevitably you will hear some educated person quote Oliver Wendell Holmes’s admonition that you can’t falsely shout fire in a crowded theater.

No one bothers to mention that Holmes’s quote comes from a ruling where the Supreme Court decided that merely distributing flyers in opposition to the draft in World War I violated the 1917 Espionage Act. Indeed, a great many Americans did hard time because good Wilsonian progressives decided opposing the government in public was a crime. In case you’re wondering, this is the same 1917 Espionage Act President Obama invoked in 2015 to justify the Department of Justice snooping on the Associated Press newsroom and Fox News national security reporter James Rosen.

I don’t think it’s an accident that Woodrow Wilson, the man largely responsible for probably the greatest abridgment of free speech in American history, the legacy of which still haunts us, was otherwise notable for being the president of Princeton University. Further, Wilson’s pioneering academic work in Hegelian progressivism, which represents a complete denial of obvious truths about human nature, is still the dominant intellectual force governing the academy and many other American institutions.

Free Speech No Longer Means Free Speech

How’s the progressive legacy working out for higher education? Most of you are familiar with the goat rodeo at the University of Missouri last year, where a professor physically threatened a student journalist and the inmates running Mizzou’s asylum managed to get the university president fired.

But it’s worth looking at few more of the many recent examples of higher education gone wrong. Imagine you went back to a more innocent time—say, 10 years ago, when campuses were only largely, rather than completely, insane—and posited any number of recent developments as satire. People would regard these tales as unbelievable and incredibly overwrought.

Two years ago, the University of California Berkeley was celebrating the fiftieth anniversary of the Berkeley free speech movement, often credited with kicking off the modern era of campus activism. Romanticizing the Berkeley free speech movement too much is a mistake, but by the standards of contemporary campus activism even the use of the term “free speech” is laudable. However, I have my doubts that twenty-first-century Berkeley agrees.

To mark the anniversary, U.C. Berkeley Chancellor Nicholas Dirks sent out a memo that read, “As we honor this turning point in our history, it is important that we recognize the broader social context required in order for free speech to thrive.” You can probably tell where this is heading. Dirks went on to say, “Specifically, we can only exercise our right to free speech insofar as we feel safe and respected in doing so.”

You Can’t Talk Because I Don’t Like It

It is emphatically not true that the right to free speech depends on whether you are in a “safe space,” a concept college kids like to talk about but doesn’t really exist. Rather, the entire notion of America stands or falls on the assertion that our absolute right to free speech predates and stands apart from any authority that threatens it.

History is full of heroes and martyrs who can testify to that. Were he alive, Patrick Henry would no doubt inform Chancellor Dirks that “Give me liberty insofar as we feel safe and respected asking for it!” doesn’t quite have the same ring to it.

Last year, Yale faculty member Erika Christakis sent an email in response to Yale University’s Intercultural Affairs Committee’s plea that students avoid wearing offensive Halloween costumes. Students reacted so poorly to her email that a few weeks later she announced she would suspend teaching courses at Yale.

Christakis asked what she mistakenly thought was a rhetorical question: “Have we lost faith in young people’s capacity—in your capacity—to exercise self-censure, through social norming, and also in your capacity to ignore or reject things that trouble you?”

Also last year, contrarian students at Amherst University posted flyers objecting to the message of campus protests sweeping the nation. These said “in memoriam… free speech.” A left-wing student group fired off an angry letter to the administration in response to the students concerned about preserving free speech.

Probably Universities Are a Lost Cause

Among their angry demands were that the students who posted the flyers expressing concern about free speech “go through the Disciplinary Process if a formal complaint is filed, and that they will be required to attend extensive training for racial and cultural competency.”

Indeed, “extensive training for racial and cultural competency” is rapidly becoming the singular, if disturbing, definition of education these days. In any event, Woodrow Wilson would be proud that his enduring academic influence means that people still regard posting flyers as a crime.

Speaking of Woodrow Wilson, students at Princeton University caught up in the recent spate of campus protests have been demanding that Wilson’s name be removed from campus. This is in response to Wilson’s unvarnished racism and in spite of the fact he’s the school’s most famous alumnus… Okay, fine. I have to confess I find this incident far more amusing than troubling.

However, such absurdities suggest the campus intellectual environment is possibly beyond redemption. It would be a fool’s errand to beg professors and administrators to stop propagating the corrosive ideas they’ve been spewing for decades. I think the solution to preserving free speech requires taking different tack.

What Death Can Teach Us about Free Speech

So I propose appealing to America’s students directly, and asking them to do the one thing that young adults never do, and that is this: Please consider your own mortality.

It feels great to be young, and I hope the students here today are self-aware enough to enjoy it. But I know one fact about everyone in this room for certain, and it is that some day we’re all going to die. I don’t point out our finite existence out to be depressing. As a Christian, I would tell you death is not the end. But also I tell you this simply because it’s the truth.

The ultimate point of upholding the right to free speech is that encouraging the robust competition of ideas is the best way that we know of to reaffirm and accumulate truth. That accumulation of truth happens over time. And over time, we all die.

Interestingly enough, it is John Stuart Mill, whose ideas about utilitarianism have done much to undermine natural rights, who has most eloquently articulated the generational case for free speech:

[The] peculiar evil of silencing the expression of an opinion is, that it is robbing the human race; posterity as well as the existing generation; those who dissent from the opinion, still more than those who hold it. If the opinion is right, they are deprived of the opportunity of exchanging error for truth: if wrong, they lose, what is almost as great a benefit, the clearer perception and livelier impression of truth, produced by its collision with error.

Now if silencing expression results in robbing future generations of the truth, then what does this say about current student attitudes? The evidence so far is pretty disheartening. As the Wall Street Journal recently reported:

The William F. Buckley Jr. Program at Yale recently commissioned a survey from McLaughlin & Associates about attitudes towards free speech on campus. Some 800 students at a variety of colleges across the country were surveyed.

The results, though not surprising, are nevertheless alarming. By a margin of 51 percent to 36 percent, students favor their school having speech codes to regulate speech for students and faculty.

Sixty-three percent favor requiring professors to employ ‘trigger warnings’ to alert students to material that might be discomfiting.

One-third of the students polled could not identify the First Amendment as the part of the Constitution that dealt with free speech.

Thirty-five percent said that the First Amendment does not protect ‘hate speech,’ while 30 percent of self-identified liberal students say the First Amendment is outdated.

This suggests that today’s students are retreating from the realm of debate, leaving public opinion to be dominated by the tyranny of deranged minority viewpoints. Further, if we think about free speech in terms of posterity, these trends suggest that it will be as if a huge swath of the up and coming generation never existed. If there’s a blank page in the annals of history where your name and achievements in service of others could have been written, what’s the point?

So ask yourself, what’s the worst that could happen if you speak out? Well, yes, you could die. But once you come to terms with the fact that’s going to happen anyway, it’s tremendously clarifying.

Spend Your Life Exchanging Error for Truth

Tajar Djaout, an Algerian poet and novelist, put it this way: “Silence is death. If you speak, you die. If you are silent, you die. So speak, and die.” Djaout did not say this lightly; he was killed in 1993 by Muslim extremists.

I don’t expect all of you be that heroic, and for those of you who aspire to be, I would caution you not to succumb to the fallacy that the worth of speech is judged by the size of the reaction it engenders.

But this is precisely why your education is so important and you should take it seriously. Adulthood is consumed by difficult judgments and the struggle to balance competing interests. College students are largely free of these responsibilities, because society has decided that now is the time in your development when you should learn to discern and express which ideas are the most true.

It is even hoped that you will learn to do this by also using the words that are the most appropriate and beautiful. Eventually, the best among you will serve as leaders and inspiring figures for the rest of us when challenges inevitably arise. If the last century is anything to go by, millions of lives will depend on the ability to speak the truth when others are incapable. But even a quiet life spent diligently exchanging error for truth goes a long way toward preserving freedom for future generations, and that is no small accomplishment.

So I reiterate that you are incredibly fortunate to attend a university that, from what I have witnessed, stands firmly in opposition to all of the forces conspiring to destroy our heritage of freedom. I hope all of you blessed to attend and contribute to this unique school can both serve as an example and reach out to the many other young Americans who not only aren’t being told the truth, but are being threatened the moment they stumble across it.

I hope you spend your time at Hillsdale honing your God-given abilities so that you are up to the enormity of the task being thrust upon future generations.  But most of all, I hope that when you leave this room tonight, and when eventually you leave this campus for the wider world, you do so with a renewed sense of purpose regarding the two things that all us were born to do: Speak and die.