When the United Nation’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights was adopted in 1948, it seemed as though perhaps the liberal dream of a global consensus regarding the conditions necessary for human flourishing was at last within reach. Coming, as it did, on the heels of a global war that had taken the lives of over 40 million people and included organized industrial-scale genocide, this consensus was no small accomplishment.
For many, the ACLU (American Civil Liberties Union) may seem like the perfect choice for a libertarian like myself. Indeed, they have some good viewpoints with which I agree with. The ACLU heavily opposes the methods of the drug war while supporting free speech and privacy. Furthermore, they take aggressive stances against torture and many other cruel cases of abuse of rights. While I may not agree with the ACLU on everything, I would be able to agree to disagree on some minor issues, however, one issue makes my hesitation towards this organization extreme.
In a recent CNN opinion piece, author Noah Berlatsky contended that “protecting Nazi speech doesn’t protect free speech” and concluded that a Nazi salute by a group of teenagers endangers the speech and lives of all non-Nazis. Although I credit Mr. Berlatsky for his laudable zeal and well-expressed opinion, his article is laced with multiple fallacies regarding free speech that must be confronted.
Firstly, our Bill of (Human) Rights are not, and should remain, non-negotiable, and that includes the first, second, and fourth amendments. Mr. Berlatsky attributes the belief that safeguarding controversial speech, which inadvertently protects less contentious or innocuous speech, to free speech ‘purists’.
Need I remind anyone it was less than 54 years ago that countless Civil Rights demonstrators were savagely attacked for merely utilizing their freedom of speech, expression, and assembly by law enforcement and firefighters on their solemn march to Montgomery from Selma.
It is for similar reasons that Martin Luther King Jr. wrote from his Birmingham jail cell, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.” I wonder if Mr. Berlatsky disagrees.
Mr. Berlatsky proceeds, “Defending the speech of white kids doesn’t necessarily protect… marginalized people.”
To some extent, he’s right. Defending those kids doesn’t necessarily guarantee everybody’s speech of every demographic is going to be protected every time in the future. However, it does set a precedent favoring free speech compared to censorship, which should be a commonly held interest.
Mr. Berlatsky’s most startling, misguided premise about freedom of expression is whenever he discusses “giving free speech to fascists” and how organizations and judges need to balance ambiguous ‘interests’. Mr. Berlatsky blatantly misunderstands that our rights are not given to each other by society, rather they are innate, endowed to us by our Creator.
We don’t ‘give’ each other the human right to privacy, just like we don’t ‘give’ each other the 14th Amendment right to birthright citizenship. All of our rights are intrinsic to our humanity, inseparable from our existence, and deserving of our unwavering defense.
At some point in his article, I questioned if Mr. Berlatsky is aware of the equal protection clause since his attempts to justify censorship tend to fall apart when applied to groups outside of fascists. In regards to the Charlottesville rally in 2017, Berlatsky suggests that since white supremacists used their freedom to ‘terrorize’ people and one individual killed one person and injured nearly 20 others, that is cause to deny every individual within the group their human rights.
Using Mr. Berlatsky’s logic, shouldn’t all members of Antifa have their constitutional rights suspended? After all, when a Hillary Clinton supporter in Portland refused to surrender an American flag to the domestic terrorist group, Antifa members cracked his head open. And that’s only one example of their repeated malice. Shouldn’t their hatred be enough to disband the violent, left-wing faction?
What if you applied Mr. Berlatsky’s logic to religious fanatics instead of ideological extremists? Wouldn’t the tragedy of September 11th be enough to deny every American Muslim the freedoms of speech, expression, and assembly because of the actions of 19 men?
After all, haven’t Islamic extremists terrorized multiple nations and killed thousands of people throughout the globe in the last two decades? Any reasonable person would not punish a group of people for the actions of its individual members but would advocate for equal protection under the law, foils to Mr. Berlatsky’s arguments.
Next, Mr. Berlatsky makes the case that the Wisconsin school district should’ve reprimanded the students for their inappropriate picture that appears to show them performing a Nazi salute, despite being off-campus and unaffiliated with the school district at the time of the photo. In an attempt to buttress his argument, Mr. Berlatsky reports that a school suspended 20 students for a tweet that falsely accused a female teacher of flirting with students, justifying the suppression of expression.
The problem is that the Salem students were guilty of libel and accused a staff member of coquetting with her pupils, a criminal offense. The only crime the Wisconsin teens committed was taking a reprehensible picture, making the situation incomparable.
Mr. Berlatsky’s final argument centers around discipline and race. According to the Government Accountability Office, Black students, in 2014, were 15.5 percent of the U.S. student populace, yet accounted for almost 39% of suspensions. Mr. Berlatsky attributes the disproportion to schools inevitably using their disciplinary authority against ‘marginalized students’ at the expense of others.
However, American schools are extremely localized, meaning parents and administrators have the final say on countless decisions, from electronics to dress codes to disciplinary policies. Regrettably, American schools are nearly as segregated as they were in the 1960s.
So in other words, the black students who are subjected to disproportionate suspensions are largely attending non-white majority schools which choose to chastise their students at a rate that is, apparently, acceptable with school personnel and parents.
Free speech is under siege like never before in American history. I hate bigotry. I detest fascism. However, I appreciate our collective, human right to speech and expression, even if I disapprove of somebody’s opinions and/or actions.
Today, the groups whom people loathe most are nazism and fascism. Nazism, by definition, is national socialism. Socialism is just a few steps away from communism. Communism has left over 100 million people dead in 100 years. What would people think if you could no longer raise your fist in public because of it’s communist insignia?
We are better as a society for the ability to openly express all of our ideas, even ones we don’t concur with, rather than only tribal-mentality approved perspectives, regardless of ideology. If detestable, bigoted opinions are allowed to be expressed in the open, it allows society to weed out the most reprehensible of ideas. It is best we don’t take for granted the ability to communicate freely and openly with each other, as anything less is a form of authoritarianism, oppression, and tyranny.
71 Republic is the Third Voice in media. We pride ourselves on distinctively independent journalism and editorials. Every dollar you give helps us grow our mission of providing reliable coverage. Please consider donating to our Patreon.
The gross domestic product (GDP) made sense in the 1930s. For one thing, we lacked both the understanding and the tools to effectively track progress in many of the areas that people really care about. For another, we were in the midst of a depression that demanded some means of confirming the success of our efforts to escape it.
In the immediate aftermath of World War II, the GDP was likewise a useful statistic to measure economic progress in countries that had been ravaged by the conflict. Though it was understood by some, including the economist who developed it, Simon Kuznets, that it wasn’t necessarily an indicator of human welfare, the fact remained that anything like human welfare was impossible to address in nations whose major cities had effectively been reduced to rubble.
The US, for its part, saw only positive impacts from the conflict. The war had pulled it from The Great Depression while two large oceans had made a bombing campaign against cities and industries based on its mainland impossible for either the Germans or the Japanese to practically pull off. Given its unprecedented economic and military position on the world’s postwar stage, America’s decision to use what was then referred to as the GNP to track economic activity and growth almost feels in retrospect like rigging the game to ensure the score always placed it way out in front.
What society measures are an indication of what it values. To Americans, the GDP figure has achieved something like the same status E=MC² enjoys amongst physicists. Donald Trump could hardly contain himself when the last quarterly report indicated America had temporarily achieved greater than 4% annualized GDP growth and felt certain that such growth figures had vindicated everything from his fiscally irresponsible tax cuts to his dangerously ill-conceived tariffs.
The problem, as has been pointed out by figures no less notable than Robert Kennedy, is that the GDP doesn’t distinguish between car accidents and car sales. The GDP “does not include the beauty of our poetry or the strength of our marriages, the intelligence of our public debate or the integrity of our public officials.” Kennedy continued, “It measures neither our wit nor our courage, neither our wisdom nor our learning, neither our compassion nor our devotion to our country, it measures everything in short, except that which makes life worthwhile. And it can tell us everything about America except why we are proud that we are Americans.” Nearly three months after he delivered those words, the GDP measured the amount of money spent to mourn and bury Robert Kennedy after an assassin shot him in the kitchen of Los Angeles’ Ambassador Hotel.
Some will undoubtedly object that Robert Kennedy was being unrealistic. ‘We can’t measure the beauty of our poetry’ they will say, ‘or the intelligence of our public debate.’ What society needs, according to these GDP apologists, is an objective measure of how the economy is doing and, according to them, that’s precisely the role the GDP plays.
But there’s a problem with this line of reasoning, and it’s a big one: the economy isn’t an objective thing, at least not in the sense many economists and politicians mean. There isn’t a family on the planet that thinks that because a loved one’s death took roughly the same financial toll as their last family vacation together these two events are objectively equivalent. There isn’t a soul on earth who thinks that a weekend spent engrossed in a hobby that they truly enjoy or playing with their children is less valuable than a miserable day at work just because the GDP counts the latter as the larger contributor to economic activity. What things cost reflects how much we pay for them, not how much we value them.
In his book, Utopia For Realists, Rutger Bregman demonstrates why the GDP has always been too blunt an instrument to use as an accurate indicator of progress. Output has always been what the GDP measured best. However, automation and other improvements to efficiency are now dulling the GDP to the point that it’s practically useless as a tool for dissecting what’s happening within the economic sphere. Bregman writes:
When the musical mastermind [Mozart] composed his 14th string quartet in G major (K. 387) in 1782, he needed four people to perform it. Now, 250 years later, it still requires exactly four. If you’re looking to up your violin’s production capacity, the most you can do is play a little faster. Put another way: Some things in life, like music, resist all attempts at greater efficiency. While we can produce coffee machines ever faster and more cheaply, a violinist can’t pick up the pace without spoiling the tune.
In our race against the machine, it’s only logical that we’ll continue to spend less on products that can be easily made more efficiently and more on labor-intensive services and amenities such as art, healthcare, education, and safety. It’s no accident that countries that score high on well-being, like Denmark, Sweden, and Finland, have a large public sector. Their governments subsidize the domains where productivity can’t be leveraged. Unlike the manufacture of a fridge or a car, history lessons and doctor’s checkups can’t simply be made ‘more efficient.’
Policymakers and citizens alike are likely to make better choices when they have a diverse collection of data resources from which to draw. The GDP lumps too much together under the same umbrella, counting money spent on cancer treatment the same as money spent visiting a national park. When GDP growth alone is a nation’s primary public policy goal policies that often increase personal costs yet worsen people’s lives are too frequently incentivized.
Fortunately, there is an alternative to GDP. The Social Progress Index (SPI) tracks a nation’s progress by creating a score for categories and subcategories listed under three main headings: Basic Human Needs, Foundations for Wellbeing, and Opportunity. So, for example, one of the four main categories listed under Basic Human Needs is nutrition and basic medical care. To determine how a nation is doing in this area the SPI looks at a country’s rate of undernourishment, depth of food deficit, maternal mortality rate, child mortality rate, and deaths from infectious disease. The SPI evaluates 50 indicators overall to determine the score for any given country.
The Index aims to be a practical tool that helps leaders and practitioners in government, business and civil society to implement policies and programs that will drive faster social progress. To achieve that goal, we measure outcomes in a granular way that focuses on specific areas that can be implemented directly. The framework allows us to provide not only an aggregate country score and ranking, but also granular analyses of specific areas of strength and weakness which allow change-makers to identify and act upon the most pressing issues in their societies. ~ Social Progress Index methodology
Unfortunately, citizens are not used to thinking about all the particulars that go into creating maximum wellbeing and opportunities for fulfillment, and politicians from across the political spectrum too often seem to like it that way. Political leaders have an interest in keeping their voters focused on a single number rather than having the information they need to identify areas needing improvement within their communities, states, and countries.
The pleasure Donald Trump recently took in reporting a temporary quarterly spike in growth is a prime example of just how toxic focusing on GDP alone can be for a society. Because he had “good” GDP numbers to report the president was able to not only completely ignore the ongoing stagnation in wages but divert the public’s attention away from the slow-motion economic and political crisis that stagnation is creating. In addition, America’s skyrocketing health and education spending actually increase the GDP, incentivizing politicians that associate economic improvement with gains in this single metric alone to potentially make these problems even worse for the average American rather than better.
This laser-like focus on the GDP causes us to lose sight of the big picture. We believe we have an indicator that functions as a kind of grand unified theory of economics. In fact, the data used to generate it comes from too many disparate sources to tell us much of anything about how the economy is really doing. It tells us even less how the people that make up that economy are managing.
The GDP is a kind of life preserver thrown to the status quo. It makes it difficult to impossible to hold government, business, or other civic institutions accountable or to develop plans that target specific problems that are often desperately in need of our attention. The GDP in Flint, Michigan, for example, will probably go up in spite of the lead in its water because increases in health care spending are one of the many unfortunate side effects of lead poisoning. But while Flint’s GDP may rise, its Water and Sanitation and Environmental Quality scores on the SPI cannot. This fact alone should be enough to give those defending the GDP some objective considerable pause.
“Growth for the sake of growth,” the American writer Edward Abbey wrote, “is the ideology of the cancer cell.” We should have started asking ourselves a long time ago what ends all this economic growth was meant to serve. Instead, we lazily allowed growth itself to become the end to which all other aspirations take a back seat.
It’s always possible to convince yourself you’re making progress when you’re measuring how far you’ve moved in the wrong direction. The US does have the largest GDP on the planet, for example, but it also has tens of millions of uninsured and under-insured citizens and an infrastructure that is decaying much faster than current investment can keep up with. The $1.5 trillion in student debt that disproportionately burdens its young and poor all adds to the nation’s GDP as well but at the expense of leaving them feeling increasingly hopeless and angry.
America, along with much of the rest of the world, can keep putting off a great debate about what really matters but sooner or later entropy will demand that debate not be postponed any longer. Climate change, if nothing else, looks increasingly poised to force the issue. The SPI gives us 50 places to start the discussion, but this needn’t represent an exhaustive list. The GDP, on the other hand, represents the “ideology of the cancer cell.” Left untreated we all know where that leads.
*Author’s note: The original measurement of economic activity was known as the gross national product (GNP). The US switched to the GDP in the early 1990s. Since the criticisms raised in this article apply equally to both means of measuring economic activity, the relatively minor differences between these two methods have been intentionally ignored. With one small exception, I chose to apply the contemporary term “GDP” throughout the article for consistency’s sake.