Papers Please

Several weeks ago in Germany, a precedent was set on how the German government will deal with those posting what the state deems ‘hate speech’ on internet websites. The homes of 36 individuals were raided by armed members of the German police and the individuals interrogated as to the postings they had made on social media. Most of the raids targeted individuals who had made ‘right-wing’ comments but some also targeted ‘left-wing’ posters as well. Holger Münch, president of the Federal Criminal Police Office, said in a statement. “Our free society must not allow a climate of fear, threat, criminal violence and violence either on the street or on the internet.”

His statement begs the question, what are the bounds of freedom and who will define what is free speech? Economist and political thinker, Ludwig Von Mises, would have aptly commented on this event with these words, “A lasting order cannot be established by bayonets.” Is it the job of the state to police the words coming out of our mouths? If we desire a free society we must protect everyone’s ability to have their voice heard.

The obvious implication of such a carte blanche theory to free speech is the necessity of the rule of law. Individuals necessarily delegate the power inherent in protecting rights to entities such as a police force, controlled by the state, to better serve the common goal of mutual survival. However, the key premise of delegating such power is that the power wielded is reactive not proactive. The simple idiom, my rights end where yours begin is a cornerstone in understanding the limitations and freedom of free speech. The implications of an unleashed state simply punishing supposed or presumed crimes proactively are manifold.

Economist and philosopher, Friedrich Hayek, eloquently wrote, “‘Emergencies’ have always been the pretext on which the safeguards of individual liberty have been eroded.” Even as we live in a world where growing threats of violence both at home and abroad exist, the championing of individual rights must be our paramount fight. The state should protect open dialogue, as it is only in the protected space of free and open discussion that a market of ideas may exist. Instead, German authorities have chosen to take a public crisis and justify the overreach of a police state.

It is unfortunate that Germany stands historically as a warning of the overreach of a state intent on limiting free speech. While obvious examples from Hitler’s Germany stand as blights on Western civilization, lesser known events such as the public burning of books and the suppression of free speech, struck the match for the conflagration that would engulf Europe during WWII. The events of May 10, 1933, paint a picture of the mass refutation of free speech as students from the most prestigious universities in Germany, joined state forces to burn what the state deemed were un-German texts. These events would occur a mere 4 months before what many consider the beginning of anti-Jewish violence in Germany on a night termed, Kristallnacht.

Violent protests at UC Berkeley and Middlebury College share similarities with the acts of German students in the 1930s, as both are attempts to silence outside opinion. We should not be naive to think that freedom of speech can disappear overnight. The historian, George Santayana, is famously quoted for the phrase, “Those who refuse to study history are doomed to repeat it.”

Today, we do not have a society intent on protecting free speech. Proponents of every issue seek increasingly to use government authority to quell opposition at every turn. Yet a simple solution exists to stem the tide of gross abuse of personal rights. Shrink the state. It’s that simple. If that concept is too nebulous, perhaps a move toward more limited local and federal government is a more palatable approach. Instead of asking government to police our lives at every turn, we should invest in the concepts of personal responsibility and free exchange.