Photo: AP

It is with a heavy heart that New York’s Jonathan Chait must announce that the illiberal, anti-speech left is at it again.

The liberal ideal sees free speech as a positive-sum good, enabling an open marketplace of ideas where, in the long run, reason can prevail. (And while reason may not always carry the day, if you compare the current state of affairs to 50, or 100, or 200 years before, the liberal model looks pretty good.) Left-wing critics of liberalism instead see the free-speech rights of the oppressed and the oppressors set in zero-sum conflict, so that the expansion of one inevitably comes at the cost of the other.

Others can quibble with Chait’s formulation of the left-wing position, but we can assume he is not presenting a caricature his own beliefs. Given time, and unfettered public debate, Chait believes, reason generally wins out.

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Later, he writes (emphasis mine):

It is likewise highly doubtful that the need for repression would be limited to the right-wing fringe. A racist like Milo Yiannopoulos might seem like an easy case. Charles Murray is a harder case. Murray was targeted by protesters because of his work two decades before defending scientific racism in The Bell Curve (a work I’ve never read except in abridged form, and which has been persuasively, to me, demolished by scholars). But the speech he attempted to deliver at Middlebury College before being shut down by a mob was not on that topic. Indeed, when some scholars distributed a copy of Murray’s speech to 70 college professors, omitting the name of the author, they deemed it quite moderate. Even assuming his Bell Curve work does not merit free-speech rights, should that subject any future speeches of his to suppression? 

It has been a bit less than a quarter-century since the publication of Murray’s The Bell Curve. Murray has spent that all of that time as a well-remunerated participant in the marketplace of ideas. He has never renounced his work, and he would surely reject the notion that it has been “demolished by scholars.” He is currently a fellow at a major conservative think tank, and, as we can see, he is still regularly invited to campuses to discuss his ideas and theories.

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Liberals and scholars have politely explained why and how Murray is wrong for decades; he remains a prominent public intellectual because his ideas are useful to a white nationalist political movement underwritten by plutocrats. This movement currently holds power at nearly every level of American government, and Murray’s ideas are as influential now as they’ve ever been.

Free speech absolutism is an eminently defensible position, but if your case for it depends on assuming the efficiency of the “marketplace of ideas,” perhaps you shouldn’t make an example of someone whom the market has rewarded handsomely for being wrong in a politically useful way.