A few months ago, I signed Freedom Conservatism’s “Statement of Principles.” I was eager to join the dozens of lawyers, journalists, think tankers, and academics who had done so. I fear the document’s 10 tenets are losing their grip on the American psyche as our politics descend into scorched-earth tribal warfare between progressives and the authoritarian elements on the right. The freedom agenda particularly needs friends now.
As a college professor, I see my endorsement as an important act of inspiration and instruction. Many critics of higher education believe I should remain politically neutral. Professors’ intervention in public affairs on issues as varied as transgenderism and the terrorist attack on Israel appear designed to shape the minds of America’s next generation, remaking the country as a woke dystopia.
My politics are transparently right-of-center, but my signature invites the armies of left-wing professors in the humanities and social sciences — like my own political science — to divert their focus from liberal education to liberal politics. With, at many places and in many disciplines, perhaps 40 progressive and socialist professors for every conservative on the faculty, legitimizing academic participation in politics can only help the left.
But it is because freedom conservatives are so outnumbered on campus that I did this. I believe strongly in free expression and open inquiry; indeed the Free and Open Societies Project I direct at my institution, North Carolina State University, is devoted to it. The way to elevate the intellectual climate and diversify views is to demonstrate the courage to stand up for ideas. The way to combat the progressive hegemony is not to surmise you can impose neutrality on the politically motivated, but to check their domination and transform college into a true marketplace of ideas.
It may not make me popular, but I think it is important to persuade — indeed inspire — the many students with conservative sensibilities to exercise their liberties. Besides, constructing an argument with logical coherence and empirical evidence to participate effectively in freewheeling debate with adversaries on issues critical to our future is exhilarating. Keeping your head down until you collect your diploma (or in my case, pension), neither brings personal fulfillment nor prepares you for the rough-and-tumble of the real world.
My signing was also an act of instruction. I was teaching by doing. College students today have little knowledge of the advice the giants of freedom conservatism have given us. As John Stuart Mill argued, you should practice your freedom of thought and not feel forced to conform out of guilt or fear. The only way you can illegitimately harm someone, he added, is physically. Our own James Madison explained we serve a greater good, and protect liberty, when we stand up to rapacious majorities.
Of course, my endorsement of freedom conservatism is itself instructive. The “Statement of Principles” is worthy of a public display of support. I embrace freedom — of conscience and thought, expression and speech, worship and action. I believe government has a role, but it is limited. No group should use state power to bludgeon or expropriate compatriots who oppose them. I see our founding documents — including the Declaration of Independence that Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King, Jr. believed fully captured the American spirit — as a “promissory note.”
We should discharge our responsibility and have the confidence to understand our ideas are universal, at home at any time in any place. We need not be defensive or nostalgic, and we should certainly not confine our quintessentially American values to the dustbin of history.
I share Edmund Burke’s views about the importance of institutions such as the family, church, and civic organizations. But they should not be exploited as instruments of division, to turn members against nonmembers. They are where we find deep human connection. Freedom conservatives recognize others’ humanity and individuality. We do not contrive for them abstract identities to some distant and faceless mass.
That is why I signed the “Statement of Principles.” I know there are other professors in the humanities and social sciences who share these values. I invite them to join us, and inspire and instruct their own students.