I watched with great interest, great inspiration, and sometimes great horror the Democratic National Convention and Republican National Convention. The Presidential nominees, Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, and their supporting speakers pitched opposite visions of how to make America great. Clinton focused on service to others, cooperation, and inclusiveness. Trump emphasized protection against international enemies, economic stability, and domestic law and order. Although Clinton’s message of “Stronger Together” is certainly more palatable than Trump’s divisive, alarmist rhetoric, I believe that it also undermines something fundamental that makes our country truly exceptional – individual rights.
Even at the expense of purely utilitarian social welfare, America offers a unique mix of individual liberties, including free speech protections matched nowhere else in the world. Hillary’s message of “Stronger Together” is a nice moral message. We should protect the vulnerable members of our society and recognize our place in a community that both serves us and is served by us. That said, legislating that compassion, while sometimes appropriate and beneficial, often comes at the expense of individual rights. In many cases, this tradeoff is worth its costs – paying taxes to fund schools and give children good access to education and health care actually promotes a more meritocratic system and social mobility. But, in some cases, having our fates all rise and fall together, and removing winners and losers from the political equation, reduces incentives for striving and removes choices that allow people to unconventionally get ahead. In Germany, for example, academic salaries are awarded on a much more egalitarian basis, so individual schools don’t distinguish themselves as much and don’t get the best students, diminishing the contribution to scientific progress. One benefit of capitalism is a greater concentration of wealth and talent that leads to, and motivates, real advances.
Clinton should remember, and should remind us, that “Stronger Together” must coexist with the spirit of individualism. The desire to not have to conform to the dictates of our parents or our culture, the idea that we are individuals as well as members of a collective, and that we should have the right to a good deal of social and economic autonomy, promotes economic success, progress, and the “freedom” for which both parties believe is worth fighting. Clinton’s message of “Stronger Together” should be a message of pluralism, which requires tolerance of everyone’s views (as long as they aren’t directed into violent action), including the intolerant, the selfish, and those who disagree with the “Stronger Together” message. True pluralism must exist at a variety of levels of abstraction, where we embrace not only those who look, talk, or love differently, but where we embrace and allow voices to even those who do not share that view. That is what sets America apart.
What truly makes America great is that we can all have different ideas of what makes America great, and we can express those ideas even if they offend others. After ruminating on American exceptionalism (it’s impossible not to during the melee of the conventions), here is a list of just some of the outstanding American free speech protections and why they matter.
- Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act insulates Internet sites and Internet Service Providers from liability for the comments of those who add content to the sites. No other country has this immunity, and it means that America hosts more prominent websites any other country. The Internet has been a huge boon for the democratization of speech.
- We have a much higher threshold for when speech becomes incitement to terrorism. The Brandenburg standard means that speech can be regulated for inciting violence only when it is intended to cause violence and will likely produce that violence imminently. The arrest of French comedian Dieudonne for incitement to terrorism would never happen in this country.
- More broadly, the category of “hate speech” is not a recognized category of unprotected speech in this country. This means citizens can express their views on topics for public debate without worrying that they will be arrested or sued for hateful or offensive speech. Instead of driving bigots underground, we allow them to speak and be challenged. This protection for the outer edges of speech that may have little value also avoids the slippery slope issues where one person’s truth is another’s ignorance. We do not let the government decide which views are too hateful or sanitize certain viewpoints from public discourse. We do not believe anyone has a monopoly on what is right, despite our certainty in any given moment.
- We allow for economic rights in one’s likeness that can be freely alienated. This gives people a choice for how they wish to trade in on their images, even salacious ones, giving people autonomy over the paternalistic “dignity” rights that exist in Europe that nullify contracting for certain types of expression.
- We have much stronger First Amendment protections against libel suits and privacy claims, allowing information to flourish. It is much harder, contrary to Trump’s wishes, to sue the media, and the “right to be forgotten,” which is plaguing Google in Europe, could not exist here.
Trump’s views on building a wall or excluding Muslim immigrants are explicitly antithetical to the freedoms and unique values this country offers, and perhaps Clinton is just reacting as a foil to Trump. However, I hope Clinton’s message doesn’t, in a less obvious and less objectionable way, undermine the spirit of individuality and true pluralism that I believe makes America great.