Good Fences and Civility
Ensuring civility in America requires that our political and legal institutions respect our rights to economic freedom and private property
This essay is adapted from a lecture originally delivered as part of Arizona State University’s “Civic Discourse Project.”
It is pointless to exhort students to “law and order,” and to lecture them about “rights and duties,” in the absence of any foundation for human respect—and worse, in an atmosphere of cynicism that claims that human nature is a caged beast. Law and order are not ends in themselves; they are means that society has invented to preserve justice. ... What we have to ask people, then, young and old alike, is not that they respect the law blankly, but that they respect every man as a man, whatever his opinions or his social function.
—Jacob Bronowski, 1970
While there is widespread agreement that our society is suffering from a crisis of polarization and disrespect, what is the cure? That is, how can we reconcile our nation’s commitment to open debate with the civility and mutual respect necessary for democracy to function? Some point to better civic education, to prepare young Americans to participate in democratic dialogue, and to cultivate a greater sense of humility and conciliation.
But frankly, civic education alone won’t give us a more respectful culture. We must understand how the curtailing of economic freedom is partly responsible for this crisis—and realize that we must lessen government’s violation of private property rights and economic liberty to mitigate the long-term damage we’re doing to respect for civil society in America.
A Brief Defense of Incivility
I think the first step to resolving these questions is to ask ourselves: What is the argument against civility? That might seem like a strange question: After all, it seems obvious that civility and decorum are good things that we all could stand to improve. Alexis de Tocqueville wrote in “Democracy in America” that “in the constitutions of all peoples ... there is a point at which the legislator is obliged to rely on the good sense and virtue of citizens. ... There is no country where the law can foresee everything and where institutions will take the place of reason and mores.”
In other words, our habits of interaction—our forms of deference, respect and good manners—are more fundamental forces than even the Constitution itself. They comprise the very basis of our social system, and liberty cannot hope to survive in a society where the habits on which freedom depends have been abandoned. Certainly, the Constitution cannot save us if we cease to revere the values it embodies.
Yet America’s political and educational institutions, and even traditional practices of debate, clearly seem to be deteriorating. Since at least 2016, Americans appear increasingly willing to indulge in irrational, ad hominem attacks, humiliation, intimidation and even violence. And that, of course, benefits nobody. From “cancel culture” to “shout-downs,” political decorum seems to have collapsed. And, understandably, many fear that unless these trends change, they could permanently scar our democracy and maybe even lead to civil war. As Tocqueville said, no system of legal mandates or punishments can possibly substitute for basic attitudes of mutual respect and commonality.
Yet I think we must admit that there are good arguments for not being civil. In fact, we all recognize that there are times when it is not only inappropriate, but downright immoral, to treat others with decorous courtesy. We do not compromise with the mugger who demands “your money or your life.” We do not try to calmly see both sides if a rapist attacks a woman. If there is any lesson to draw from the 1930s—or from the events of October 7—it is, as the old slogan has it, that “you cannot do business with Hitler.”
I would go further: There are times when incivility plays an important role in both democratic debate and personal integrity. Incivility sends a message about what we are unwilling to accept as normal and appropriate, aside from what the law allows or forbids. It’s good that smoking is not illegal—but I don’t have to approve of it, or consider it respectable or allow someone to smoke in my living room. If someone does, it’s right for me to throw him out of my house. It’s no less worthwhile to express my revulsion about, say, Nazis marching at the Arizona Capitol building—as they did in April 2021—or supporters of the Hamas terrorist organization throwing rocks and threatening Jewish students, as they did on Arizona State University’s campus only weeks ago. Loudly expressing our disgust about these things preserves the values on which our society rests, and it reinforces our fellow citizens’ confidence that we still take those values seriously.
But refusing to treat evil ideas with civil decorum isn’t just important for society. It also plays a role in the individual’s own conscience—something we too often neglect. In discussing questions about political discourse, we sometimes speak as though the only purpose of free speech is to help us form a democratic consensus. But the truth is that dissent’s relationship to individual conscience is more important than that.
Consider the famous flag salute case of 1943, West Virginia Board of Education v. Barnette. A group of Jehovah’s Witness schoolchildren refused to salute the flag, and they were expelled for it. The U.S. Supreme Court said that this violated their First Amendment rights, not because their refusal somehow contributed to democratic discourse, but because every individual has the right to choose for himself whether or not to salute the flag.
Refusing to salute the flag was considered profoundly uncivil at the time. But the children were not trying to communicate disapproval of the United States. They simply refused because their religious beliefs—their own consciences—were incompatible with what they regarded as a violation of the First Commandment.
In other words, we should not blithely assume that “dissent” is targeted at persuading others. Often, it’s more about a person’s testament to his or her own values—an effort to live in accordance with his or her own beliefs—and therefore far more sacred than any merely utilitarian political statement.
The Limits of Civility
There’s an even better argument for incivility, however, and it’s this: One often finds that those who insist upon maintaining “civil” disagreement are actually engaging in an intellectual sleight-of-hand, intended to obscure the difference between good and evil, just and unjust.
I think none of us—well, at least not many of us—would be willing to give “equal time” to a modern-day Hitler or Stalin. But when we overemphasize the virtue of “civility,” we risk doing just that: enabling people with truly evil principles to dress those principles up in respectable clothing. By agreeing to share the stage with someone who advocates evil beliefs, we grant his beliefs undeserved credibility and help him conceal their immorality.
Whenever I think about civility and democracy, I think of one of Mark Twain’s lesser-known masterpieces: his 1868 short story in which an old man tells a friend how he was once traveling on a train when it was halted by a violent blizzard. The snow was so thick, in fact, that the train was stuck for six days, and the people on board ran out of food. So, being good American believers in democracy, they did what such people naturally do: They began to politely debate about whom to kill and eat.
Now, the joke in Twain’s story lies in the elaborate sophistication of its language—the exaggerated technicalities of parliamentary discourse among people who are considering eating one another. The debate opens with the chairman announcing “‘Gentlemen: It cannot be delayed [any] longer! The time is at hand! We must determine which of us shall die to furnish food for the rest!’
“MR. JOHN J. WILLIAMS of Illinois rose and said: ‘Gentlemen—I nominate the Rev. James Sawyer of Tennessee.’
“MR. Wm. R. ADAMS of Indiana said: ‘I nominate Mr. Daniel Slote of New York.’
“MR. CHARLES J. LANGDON: ‘I nominate Mr. Samuel A. Bowen of St. Louis. ... ’”
The nominations continue until Mr. Rodgers of Missouri objects to the nomination of Mr. Harris on the grounds that he is far too skinny to provide nourishment for the others. Mr. Halliday of Virginia therefore suggests substituting Mr. Davis of Oregon. “It may be urged,” he admits, “that the hardships and privations of a frontier life have rendered Mr. Davis tough; but, gentlemen, is this a time to cavil at toughness ...?”
Fortunately for the story’s narrator, the storm clears before anyone is actually eaten. But Twain’s point is clear: No amount of civility can legitimize cannibalism. To place excessive emphasis on decorum in a debate over eating one another perverts the democratic process by giving undeserved respectability to notions that in practice violate the fundamental principles of human rights—principles that are the precondition of any authentically civil debate.
To put the point squarely, mutual respect and civil discourse are certainly important to a democratic republic, but it’s also true that there are times when not only disagreement or civil disobedience but outright defiance are warranted by the principles of justice. If we ignore or deny this, we risk transforming our society into a kind of machine—one that operates by mere formalities while grinding up the very human beings the system is supposed to respect. We must not forget that democracy was made for man, and not man for democracy.
Indeed, if we insist upon civility above everything else, we are implicitly surrendering everything into the realm of the political. If we exaggerate the importance of participating in the democratic process, we’re inherently assuming that the democratic process has a legitimate claim over absolutely everything in our lives, and that no aspect of individuality is off-limits to the prying eyes and fingers of our neighbors. But that’s wrong because all government, to be legitimate, must have its limits. That includes democracy. John Locke made this point in his “First Treatise of Civil Government,” when he ridiculed the arguments of Robert Filmer, an advocate of absolute monarchy. Filmer said that kings have the same complete power over their subjects that Adam had over the animals in the Garden of Eden. Locke treated this with deserved ridicule: “Sir Robert,” he wrote, “should have carried his monarchical power one step higher, and satisfied the world that [kings] might eat their subjects, too.”
If we regard civility as a per se good, or decorum as a precondition of political society, we implicitly erase the lines that limit the power of government. And if we erase the lines, we make it impossible to say that something crosses the line—no matter how atrocious, cruel or tyrannical it may be.
I am not, of course, endorsing “shout-downs” or disruptive behavior that violates the free speech rights of people with whom we disagree, or of audiences who want to hear their messages. Even a person with evil ideas has the right to express those ideas, and others have a right to hear them. Holding your hand over someone else’s mouth and preventing him from speaking is not an exercise in free speech. And shout-downs—or as we lawyers call them, “heckler’s vetoes”—only empower the biggest bully in the room to dictate who can speak and what they can say.
If a group of students or a social club invites a speaker to address them, they have an absolute right to hear him speak, and it violates their freedom of speech to interrupt the event with catcalls or vandalism or other hooligan tactics. People who do such things should be prosecuted. Such disorderly behavior is also counterproductive. Shout-downs and vandalism actually make a speaker’s ideas more attractive, because they make them seem like the proverbial “forbidden fruit”—and make hecklers look immature and silly. People who engage in shout-downs appear incapable of articulating any rational argument against those with whom they disagree. I have certainly never heard of anyone being persuaded by a shout-down. On the contrary, it only hardens the hearts of the victims and increases the appeal of their ideas.
And for what? If Martin Luther King was unafraid to debate the segregationist writer James J. Kilpatrick on live television—as he did in 1960—because he knew his cause was just and his arguments sound, why can we not have the same confidence? Or, to take an even more extreme example, consider the words of Frederick Douglass, who a century before King—that is, during the Civil War—defended the right of pro-slavery speakers to express their views. Speaking in New York, where people who supported the Confederacy were then being shouted down by pro-Union audiences, Douglass said:
Detestable as are [their] motives ... I think [pro-Confederate speakers] have the right in the controversy [over de-platforming]. I do not know where I would limit the right of simple utterance of opinion. If anyone is base enough to spit upon the grave of his mother, or to shout for Jefferson Davis, let him. ... [Other than] the Declaration of Independence, [Thomas] Jefferson has left us nothing more worthy of his profound mind than his saying that error may be safely tolerated where truth is left free to combat it. Equally true ... is it that error can never be safely tolerated when truth is not left free to combat it.
We do far more good for our cause by letting those who differ from us express their views—and then refuting their arguments rationally, and then perhaps refusing to have anything more to do with them.
Civility Versus Politeness
But I fear I’ve gotten ahead of myself: We have still not defined what we mean by civility. What is it, and why is it a value? It so happens that my former law clerk, Alexandra Hudson, has just published a book on these questions, entitled “The Soul of Civility.” And in it, she addresses them by drawing an interesting distinction: She differentiates between civility and politeness, and argues that while it sometimes might be appropriate to be impolite, it is never appropriate to be uncivil. Civility, she says, “affirms that the inherent equality and dignity of each person is essential.” Politeness, on the other hand, is a sort of artificial agreeableness.
This means that while it might be impolite to candidly state an unpleasant truth, it is not uncivil to do so. She offers the example of Martin Luther King’s willingness to go to Birmingham jail for engaging in an illegal protest march, as an act of civil disobedience. It was “civil” because King was acting out of a recognition of his fellow citizens, including segregationists, as equals capable of improving themselves and living up to a higher standard. He was essentially challenging them to become their better selves. But, of course, that was not a “polite” thing to do.
This distinction is an intriguing one, but I think it falls short—in fact, I think it approaches committing a fallacy. When we say that civility “affirms that the inherent equality and dignity of each person is essential,” we risk begging the question, because that statement shows that the inherent equality and dignity of each person is the nonnegotiable precondition of civility, not a product of civility. In other words, civility is the consequence, not the cause, of a healthy society.
This should not surprise us. We are only civil—and should only be civil—when we are confident that our lives, liberties and properties are not at risk. To paraphrase “The Federalist,” there can be no civility in a society where the stronger faction can unite against the weaker. If a political disagreement can result in you losing your home, your business, your marriage, your control over your own body—a society in which there are no boundaries to protect us against politics—there is no civility. There can at best be only a counterfeit form of civility. That is to say, a reign of terror.
This terror can be masked with layers of politeness and euphemism—courtly flattery and codes of honor—but in the end, these are not civility, because civility arises from a sense of mutual respect and benevolent confidence in our fellow citizens, whereas courtly terror is based on viewing others as threats, who must always be handled like rattlesnakes. One must be polite to a rattlesnake—but never civil. For exactly the same reason, one does not find civility in Kim Jong Un’s North Korea, or in the Ayatollah’s Iran, any more than one found it in Stalin’s Russia.
No society can be civil that is not firmly rooted in the principles of classical liberalism—that is, on the principles that all people have a basic right to their own lives, liberties, properties and the right to pursue their own happiness. The breakdown in civility we are witnessing today is a symptom of an increasing breakdown of those classical liberal values—values that protect our individual freedoms against political disagreements. Recall that the purpose of our Constitution is not merely to facilitate democracy—a word which does not even appear in the Constitution—but instead to protect us against democracy. And yet year after year, government takes more control over our lives, meaning that more of our futures depend upon who gets elected to office. That makes it inevitable that the temperature of our political conversations will rise, because so much more is at stake.
The problems we are experiencing with civility today are consequences of the lowering of the political fences that protect our rights—combined with the eagerness of some in our society, on both the left and the right, to tear down those fences entirely, so that they can dictate to us how we may live our lives, what we may do with our property, what businesses we can run, what we may read, how we may pray (or not), what we may drive, or eat, or buy or sell. If we want more politeness in our disagreements, we must reinforce the fences that protect us from the realm of politics, and ensure that they remain strong.
I use the word “fences” deliberately, because what I’m saying is well encapsulated in the old adage, “good fences make good neighbors.” Of course, that phrase was most memorably articulated by the poet Robert Frost, in his poem “Mending Wall.” The poem depicts two farmers who own adjacent land, and who meet every spring, when the snow melts, to repair the damage the wall has suffered during the winter:
... on a day we meet to walk the line
And set the wall between us once again.
We keep the wall between us as we go. ...
Oh, just another kind of out-door game,
One on a side. It comes to little more:
There where it is we do not need the wall:
He is all pine and I am apple orchard.
My apple trees will never get across
And eat the cones under his pines, I tell him.
He only says, “Good fences make good neighbors.”
Being a Robert Frost poem, of course, “Mending Wall” has a delicious ambiguity: On one hand, the wall separates the two men—and the narrator wonders about its usefulness. Yet the wall also brings them together to construct a sort of community. This is beautifully captured in the line “We keep the wall between us as we go”—a phrase Frost repeats twice. In fact, the wall is something they do keep, and what they keep is something between them: It unites them, “like a game,” Frost tells us, precisely at the same time that it divides them, and it does this because it represents a form of mutual respect.
We’re prone nowadays to speak of “setting boundaries.” These boundaries reflect our acknowledgment of each person’s autonomy and right to make his or her own choices in life. Only after such boundaries are in place can we expect to have civility instead of mutual hostility and terror. What Hudson calls “the inherent equality and dignity of each person”—that is, respect for individual rights—must come before civility in public discourse. Without it, we’re not engaged in civil discourse at all, but in something like a cold civil war, in which pressure groups use the state to deprive each other of their rights, under polite euphemisms and democratic procedures, just like the cannibals in Mark Twain’s story.
You can see that it’s pointless to tell people to remain “civil” in a debate over morally outrageous attempts to deprive them of their fundamental rights. It’s even more senseless to try to cure this problem by forcing students to take more classes on civics. These proposed solutions merely transform the legitimate value of civil discourse into a tissue of cliches and platitudes about the importance of coming together—all while people are being cannibalized.
The Uncivil Threat to Private Property
Probably the most important fence that makes good neighbors is the principle of private property. Too often, the fences being torn down are literal fences. And tearing them down threatens civil society today and for generations to come.
Consider the 2005 Supreme Court case of Kelo v. New London, which concerned government’s power of eminent domain. That is the government’s power to force people to sell their property, against their will, at a price the government considers fair. This power has existed from time immemorial, and it was originally intended to enable government to build roads or military bases or other public things—in fact, the Constitution specifies that government can only take property for “public use.”
But beginning in the 1940s, courts began interpreting the phrase “public use” quite broadly—as referring not just to roads or military bases, but to any undertaking politicians claimed would benefit the public in some general sense. By the 1960s, government was using eminent domain to help with the “redevelopment” of neighborhoods, by seizing so-called blighted property—that is, land that was less economically productive than politicians wanted it to be—and transferring it to private developers to build new shopping malls in their place. This was called “urban renewal.”
Now, is it a “public use” to demolish someone’s home or business and give it to someone else to build a for-profit shopping center? Normal speakers of English would probably say no—but the judges said yes, on the theory that the overall economic improvement and tax revenue resulting from these projects would benefit the public, and that’s good enough. The result was the wholesale destruction of large communities in Boston, St. Louis, New York and other cities—typically targeting minority neighborhoods, who lacked the political power to defend themselves. “Urban renewal” was soon nicknamed “Negro removal.”
This all climaxed with the Kelo decision, which concerned a group of small homes in a Connecticut neighborhood called Fort Trumbull. Susette Kelo had gone through a divorce and bought a little house there, where she hoped to find the independence and serenity she was looking for. It was her dream home. But Connecticut officials had other plans: They wanted to demolish the neighborhood and transfer the land to a private developer to build a combination shopping center and condominium complex. The idea was that this would improve the local economy.
What happened next was a collapse of civility in Fort Trumbull. Public meetings turned into angry shouting matches. Susette and her neighbors were forced to camp out in their homes to prevent them being demolished—on one occasion, the house next door was bulldozed while Susette stood on her own front porch. She sued, but eventually lost in a 5-4 decision that said the “public use” rule does not actually mean “public use,” but instead allows government to take away anyone’s home or business to give it to whomever politicians would prefer. “Something has gone seriously awry with this Court’s interpretation of the Constitution,” wrote Justice Clarence Thomas, in dissent. “Citizens are safe from the government in their homes, [but] the homes themselves are not.”
Whatever one thinks of the legal issues, the point here is that this ruling did enormous violence to civility in the neighborhood. Indeed, it wrecked it entirely. Neighbor turned against neighbor—friendships and fellowship were destroyed. A few months after the court’s ruling, Susette even sent Christmas cards to the bureaucrats responsible, saying she hoped they would “rot in hell.” Not very civil. But can anyone blame her?
The reason is obvious: Susette’s community lost the good fences that make good neighbors, and consequently, it degenerated from a healthy society based on mutual respect into one in which every person’s home—among their most precious possessions—could be obliterated, with the land handed over to politically powerful entities who managed to persuade politicians that their schemes would generate more tax money. In other words, democracy in Fort Trumbull became a debate over cannibalizing people. Who could remain civil in such a situation? Who could possibly honor the democratic process?
The Social Consequences of Government’s Economic Barriers to Entry
That’s an obvious example of the government wrecking civility. But there’s another, more insidious and long-lasting example of the same phenomenon, one that works more slowly, but does greater damage to the survival and stability of our way of life, by systematically excluding people from the very idea of economic opportunity—and teaching them that the American Dream is a lie. Many industries today are subject to licensing laws, which prohibit people from entering a profession without first proving to the government that they have the qualifications necessary to do the job. The obvious examples are medicine or law: You can’t practice these trades without first passing a test to prove to the government that you have the knowledge necessary to operate on a patient or represent someone in court. But getting a license is extremely expensive and time-consuming. As a result, these laws serve as barriers to entry that block people from entering certain professions—especially people who can’t afford to get the training necessary to even take the test. And when a licensing law requires thousands of hours of education—the equivalent of a college degree—that barrier to entry can be quite high.
Take one law from Michigan, for example: You can’t be an athletic trainer there unless you have some 1,500 days of education and training—that’s four years. In Nevada, Louisiana and Florida, the law requires more than 2,000 days—six years—of schooling to get a license to practice interior design. Meanwhile, you can get a paramedic license after spending, on average, about 30 days in training.
Today, about a third of all occupations require some kind of government license. It’s not just doctors and lawyers: It includes everything from landscape architects to florists. That’s right: In Louisiana, you need government permission to put flowers in a vase for money.
The government’s excuse for these laws is, of course, that they protect the public—but from what? Ugly flower arrangements? In reality, these laws do not protect the public—they protect existing businesses that already have licenses against having to compete fairly in the marketplace. The primary advocates of licensing are not consumers wishing to be protected. It’s existing companies that lobby the government for these laws, because they want the state to prohibit competition so they can keep their prices up.
Economists have studied the financial consequences of these restrictions at length. But these laws also have severe social consequences—ones that ultimately undermine the foundations of civility. Barriers against free economic competition create an “old boys network”—that is, a group of insiders or cronies who profit by excluding others from economic opportunity and enrich themselves through political influence instead of hard work.
The result is obvious: As government regulations close the doors into the economy, those who are already on the inside enjoy the benefits of their privilege—whereas the chances that an unknown entrepreneur, or a newcomer with no political connections, might break into the industry, or get the financing necessary to start a new business, diminish. He can’t afford the classes required to get the license, or get the permits required to open his business or get the special favors that the cronies get.
When this happens year after year, and generation after generation, it creates a class of insiders and a class of outsiders. And that perpetuates the image—indeed, the reality—that the American Dream is off-limits for certain people, particularly immigrants or members of minority groups. No wonder that the Obama administration warned in 2016 against the use of occupational licensing to shut the doors of opportunity.
These kinds of licensing laws are bad enough, but there’s another kind of licensing law that’s even worse. Under what are called Certificate of Need or “CON laws,” the government often blocks people from starting new businesses, not for reasons having to do with their training or skill, but solely and explicitly for the purpose of prohibiting free competition. While most licensing laws require people to take classes or pass a test, CON laws do not include this requirement. Instead, they work this way: If you want to start a new business, you must apply for a CON, and when your application is filed, the government notifies the existing businesses in the industry and gives them the opportunity to object. If an existing business files an objection—and they usually do, because they don’t want competition—you must then go to a hearing to prove to a group of bureaucrats that there’s a “public need” for a new business of that sort. How do you prove that? Nobody knows, because the criteria are so vague. What does “public need” even mean?
These CON laws apply to everything from moving companies and taxi cabs to hospitals and psychology clinics. Some years ago, I represented the owner of a moving company in Kentucky; to run a moving company in Kentucky, you must get a CON. But whenever someone applied for a CON, the state’s Department of Transportation notified all the existing moving companies and gave them the chance to object.
It turned out that in every case in the previous five years in which someone had applied for a CON to run a statewide moving company in Kentucky, existing companies had objected—and they were quite honest about the fact that they only objected because they didn’t want competition. Of the more than 100 objections that were filed, none claimed that the applicant was unqualified, or incompetent or a danger to the public.
Once an objection was filed, the applicant was required to attend a hearing to prove to bureaucrats that there was a “need” for a new moving company in Kentucky. During our lawsuit, I got a chance to depose the official in charge of enforcing this law, and I asked him, “How do you decide whether there needs to be a new moving company?” His answer was: “there are no objective criteria.” Instead, applicants had to bring witnesses to testify to agency bureaucrats to persuade them that existing companies were inadequate—under vague standards that nobody understood.
Now, imagine some unknown entrepreneur in Kentucky—a would-be business owner who wants to start a moving company. It ought to be simple: He gets a truck and paints the word “Mover” on the side, right? But no. Instead, he discovers that he must go to a government hearing and bring a group of witnesses, who must take time off from work to attend this hearing, and testify in favor of a business that doesn’t even exist yet. Perhaps our entrepreneur can’t take time off from work to attend a hearing. Perhaps he’s new to the community. Maybe he doesn’t know any of the bureaucrats personally, as the existing companies do. Maybe he’s a member of a racial or religious minority that’s discriminated against in the area. He finds that he’s excluded from an entry-level, low-skilled business, not because he’s no good at his job, but simply because existing companies don’t want competition.
Can anyone blame him if he concludes from this that people like him don’t really have a chance? That all our talk about the hope and opportunity promised to everyone under the American flag is a mass of hypocrisy and lies? Can anyone blame him if he decides that only the favored few can succeed? Can anyone blame him if he resorts to the underground economy or to crime, simply because it offers him better economic opportunities than honest labor? Can anyone blame him if he loses faith in the American Dream?
Helplessness and Hopelessness Will End America As We Know It
Scholars have a term for what happens when people gradually decide, through the repeated frustrations of their dreams, that success is something that just doesn’t happen to them. It’s called “learned helplessness.” If people are repeatedly blocked by powers beyond their control, they eventually come to believe that they lack efficacy. This demolishes their self-esteem and leads to a pervasive sense of futility and resentment—an acquired passivity combined with a bitter sense that merit is a sham.
People need to feel that their individual qualities matter—that they can do something with their lives. But as restrictions on economic opportunity rise, that sense is gradually drowned in disappointment, and then cynicism. And because members of minority groups are less likely to win these games of favoritism, the consequences often fall hardest on them. Do we not already see this happening?
Thirty-five years ago, sociologists Shelley Green and Paul Pryde wrote in their book “Black Entrepreneurship in America” that “Black families living in poverty have evolved subcultural patterns and values that include a sense of hopelessness and a disbelief in the institutions of the larger society.” Have things improved since then? I think not. On the contrary, nihilism and despair have only become fashionable in the intervening years—so much so that in the past few years, the American intellectual community has showered awards upon Ta-Nehisi Coates and Nikole Hannah-Jones, who have both made writing careers out of denouncing the American Dream—and also Martin Luther King’s dream—as racist delusions. They have now made fortunes preaching a message of overt hopelessness and resentment.
Obviously, I am not saying that occupational licensing laws and eminent domain are the cause of all our social, political and racial strife. But I do say that since 1776, economic liberty has been at the heart of American civilization. For two and a half centuries, it has given millions of people the opportunity to rise from poverty and pursue happiness, and it has drawn millions of immigrants to our shores. To undermine this principle is to sabotage one of the foundation posts on which our civil society depends. To destroy it would be to wreck this nation’s very existence. And I fear we are in the process of doing just that.
Laws and regulations that restrict entrepreneurship and private property rights are gradually transforming this country from a free society into what I call a permission society—one in which our rights are replaced with a requirement that government pre-approve every economic choice we make. Such a system has devastating consequences for democracy—and generates a mixture of cynicism and subservience that is the opposite of civility.
A free society is based on mutual equality and respect for individual autonomy. But a permission society is fundamentally unequal; in such a society, the government stands above the people and chooses which freedoms to give and which to withhold. In a permission society, we all stand in a position of inferiority to the state, and we must flatter the bureaucrats, and cajole and curry favor with politicians who hold our fates in their hands. A free society—one with strong fences—is one in which people acknowledge one another as fellows and view government officials as public servants. A permission society is a society of caste, privilege and rank—in which government officials are the public’s masters.
And, of course, a society that distributes economic opportunity toward entrenched interests will become increasingly stratified and resistant to change. This, in turn, fosters a sense of alienation that makes those who lack political influence ripe for recruitment by demagogues, nihilists and fanatics. What starts as “learned helplessness” with the individual metastasizes in our society at large into what the psychologist Viktor Frankl called “learned meaninglessness”—the sense that not only are one’s own dreams out of reach, but that all talk of dreams is a lie and that our constitution and civilization are not worth preserving.
Frankl warned in 1983 that the nation’s youth, particularly college students, were being indoctrinated with nihilism—that they were being taught every day, especially in philosophy classes, that “there is no justice, everything is random. ... There’s no particular meaning in what decision you make today about how to act.” Nihilism, of course, always masquerades as worldly sophistication—which makes it extremely attractive to young people. And once it takes root in a young mind, it can lead not only to a breakdown in civility, but to violence and even cultish behavior. I’d say we are already seeing this on both the political right and the political left.
A hundred and fifty years ago, Supreme Court Justice Stephen Field wrote that economic freedom “is the distinguishing privilege of citizens of the United States. To [Americans] everywhere, all pursuits, all professions, all avocations are open. ... This is the fundamental idea upon which our institutions rest, and unless adhered to in the legislation of the country, our government will be a republic only in name.” As government increasingly treats economic freedom as a privilege it can parcel out to whomever it pleases, as political leaders increasingly regard our property as resources they may confiscate and redistribute at will, as the doors of opportunity are increasingly closed to anyone who lacks political influence—we are destroying the basic principle of American society and becoming a republic only in name.
The consequences for civility are obvious. The more we teach young Americans that success is a matter of favoritism, luck, dishonesty or gangsterism—and that the notion of working oneself up from the ground is a myth—the more their respect for democratic institutions will vanish into a fog of resentment, despair and poisonous nihilism. If the precondition of civility is that we accept “the inherent equality and dignity of each person,” then I say our political and legal institutions must respect individual rights, including the good fences of economic freedom and private property. Only after these are secure can we hope for the blessings of civil discourse.
In the end, the words were best said by Langston Hughes:
O, let my land be a land where Liberty
Is crowned with no false patriotic wreath,
But opportunity is real, and life is free,
Equality is in the air we breathe. ...
O, let America be America again—
The land that never has been yet—
And yet must be—the land where every man is free.