Conservatives are the only people who believe in free speech nowadays. At any rate, that’s what many conservatives seem to think. Witness the wearying succession of anti-leftist think-pieces about how progressives have turned into authoritarian censors. Or notice the meteoric rise (and fall) of Parler, a social media site touting itself as a free-speech-friendly rival to censorious Silicon Valley tech giants. Or see the many comedians who, while mostly sharing the progressive sensibilities of coastal elites, bemoan the chilling of free speech at universities. Today, if you care about free speech and you’re looking for staunch allies, they’re more likely to be found in conservative circles.
Author: Robert Simpson
I’m an Associate Professor in Philosophy at University College London; before coming to London in 2018 I was a Lecturer in Philosophy at Monash University (2013-17), and a Visiting Assistant Professor in Law and Philosophy at the University of Chicago (2015). My interests mainly lie in social and political philosophy, with a particular focus on free speech and the philosophical (moral, epistemological) foundations of liberalism.
The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed serious vulnerabilities in healthcare supply chains in many countries, including the UK. Shortages in protective equipment are leading to staffing problems in many hospitals. If these problems aren’t soon resolved they could jeopardise the operations of the entire health system. The same threat looms over the care sector. And even if the NHS remains well-enough staffed to sustain its operations, ventilator shortages may mean that critically ill patients don’t have access to essential life-saving treatments at the peak of the pandemic. And stocks of the chemical supplies needed in order to produce test kits, and vaccines – if and when one is viable – are running short as well.
Countries should try to take proactive measures to pre-emptively mitigate the harm done by future pandemics by disaster-proofing their healthcare supply chains. The probability of another pandemic in the foreseeable future that’s as bad as or worse than COVID-19 may be small. But the probability-weighted downsides of this possible outcome are great enough that they warrant action in strengthening supply chains. This is just one action that’s warranted among others. The question I want to home in on here is how we can disaster-proof supply chains without it being so expensive as to (a) carry prohibitive op-portunity costs, or (b) become politically untenable once the galvanised mood around COVID-19 subsides.
In part 1 of this post I outlined an account of the mainstream liberal view about academic freedom, free speech, and their overlapping democratic purposes. According to this account the university should have an academic zone, protected by academic freedom, and aimed at furthering democratic competence, and it should also have a free speech zone, aimed at supporting democratic legitimation.
I think there’s a problem with this picture. Roughly, what goes on in the academic zone is compromised by what goes on in the free speech zone. The intellectual aims that the university is meant to serve, with a view to furthering our democratic competence, can be undermined by the kind of free speech culture that takes root in universities.
Free speech is vital to democracy. Alexander Meiklejohn offered a powerful defense of this idea in the mid-20th century, and since then it has gravitated towards centre stage in free speech discourse. The modern academic defenders of this view — people like Robert Post, Eric Heinze, and Ronald Dworkin — typically say that free speech isn’t just important for the health of a democracy, but that it’s also a necessary condition for democratic legitimacy. In a free society people are unafraid to broadcast their ethical convictions in public. There is a free press, an arts sector untouched by state censorship, and a cherished liberty for all to mock and criticise our leaders. The democratic government’s authority is legitimised partly through its upholding these freedoms.
But where does academic freedom fit into this picture? And what is the university’s role in ensuring the vitality and legitimacy of democratic society?