Bless you, Bernie Sanders!

by | Apr 2, 2021


Extra! Extra! Bernie Sanders channels two toxic white males: François-Marie Arouet (better known as Voltaire) and John Stuart Mill.

According to a magnificent statement widely attributed to the former: “I may disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”

John Stuart Mill in his “On Liberty” made a powerful utilitarian case for free speech. It is the best, perhaps the only way, to get to the truth. As well, if you are not aware of what the other side of a debate is saying, then you don’t even fully comprehend your own position, since the two are inextricably tied together.

In what way does the Independent Senator from Vermont make common cause with these two giants of western civilization? Responded my boyhood chum (we overlapped for four years in Brooklyn’s James Madison High School and were on the track team together), when asked if liberals had become “too censorious”:

You have a former president in Trump, who is a racist, a sexist, a homophobe, a xenophobe, a pathological liar, an authoritarian, somebody who doesn’t believe in the rule of law. This is a bad news guy … But if you’re asking me, do I feel particularly comfortable that the president, the then-president of the United States could not express his views on Twitter? I don’t feel comfortable about it.

Bernie quite properly warned that “tomorrow it could be somebody else (with) a very different point of view” who might well be banned.

This doesn’t quite have the ringing tones of a Voltaire or a Mill, but it will do, and quite nicely too. Only a Nixon could “go to China” and only a Bernie could defend Donald Trump.

No men of good will should feel comfortable with the muzzling of a president, an ex-president, or, indeed, with anyone at all. According to that hoary cliché “sunlight is the best disinfectant.” The way to combat viewpoints with which we disagree is not to stifle them, but to bring them out into the open and pulverize them then and there for all the world to see. This simply cannot be done if alternative perspectives are not even allowed to be heard.

But we can go a bit further than Bernie’s discomfort. Yes, Twitter and Facebook and all the others should “let freedom ring” in terms of speech acts. But they should be punished for their outrageous acts of asphyxiating conversation. How so? Not by anti-trust legislation, which only punishes commercial success. Rather, by something that is “American as apple pie” (sometimes clichés are just too pithy to resist). And what is that, pray tell? Why, competition, of course.

Parler bodes well to take over the lacuna left by big tech. They announce themselves open to all comers. Well and good. Hopefully, other such organizations will soon enter the breach. The last thing we should want would be newcomers only open to conservative, or libertarian viewpoints, muzzling progressive of liberal voices. Turn-about might be fair play, but it will not promote understanding. If it occurs, we all know who will have “started it.”

I am not an absolutist on free speech; there are certain statements which should be banned by law, and those who utter them consigned to the clink. For example, threats, such as “give me your money or I’ll shoot you.” No violence has (yet) been committed, and yet this “mere” speech constitutes a clear rights violation.

How about incitement to violence? I announce to an already restive crowd: “Go, burn, loot, kill, rape, riot, commit mayhem.” And then I have nothing more to do with any ensuing violence. Those morons go and do just as I have urged them to do. Am I a criminal? No. There is such a thing, after all, as free will. They are responsible for any havoc, not I. On the other hand, if I aid and abet the crowd, then I am guilty as a co-conspirator. The getaway driver for the robber gang commits no explicit violence, but he, along with the mastermind planner, is still guilty of a crime.

Ditto for so-called “hate speech,” or “fighting words.” F this group, the hell with that group, the third group is the spawn of the devil and the fourth is a human virus. Pretty nasty stuff, but this sort of thing should not be considered unlawful.

Sorry, one last cliché: “sticks and stones will break my bones, but names will never harm me.” Some of us need to grow thicker skins.


  • Walter E. Block

    Walter Edward Block is an American economist and anarcho-capitalist theorist who holds the Harold E. Wirth Eminent Scholar Endowed Chair in Economics at the J. A. Butt School of Business at Loyola University New Orleans.

    View all posts