Anti-Communism and Anti-Racism

I hate Communism.  I consider Communists to be the moral approximates of Nazis.  I might talk to a youthful Communist, but after the excuse of youth passes, I deem Communists beyond redemption.

Even so, if George Mason University adopted an official Anti-Communist policy, I would oppose it.

Why?  All of the following reasons.

1. George Mason University is part of the government, and as such ought to scrupulously respect freedom of speech, thought, and association.  And in practice, an official Anti-Communist policy is almost certain to trample these freedoms.  Once you officially declare that Communists are utterly unwelcome on campus, the impulse to officially crush them without mercy is strong.  And the willingness to shield them from unofficial persecution practically vanishes.

2. The total number of bona fide Communists at GMU is tiny.  So if you identify Communists accurately, a big Anti-Communist crusade would be an absurd overreaction.  Not only would it whip up hysteria over a minor problem.  It would distract scarce attention from serious problems.

3. Given the near-absence of bona fide Communists, a big Anti-Communist crusade would swiftly broaden the definition of “Communism” to include a wide swath of the Left.  And most people on the Left are not morally in the same league as Nazis.  Not even close.  So the Anti-Communist policy would end up persecuting vast numbers of flawed but tolerably decent human beings.

4. Once the re-definition of “Communism” starts to snowball, people will self-censor to avoid becoming victims of semantic inflation.  So the policy doesn’t merely persecute people for leftist leaning; it stifles the creation and evaluation of any idea that a paranoid fanatic might interpret as “Communist.”*  Universities should be especially horrified by this consequence, because universities are supposed to be centers for the creation and objective evaluation of ideas.

So why bring this up?  Like many institutions of higher education, George Mason University has adopted an official Anti-Racist policy.  And I firmly oppose it.

Why?  All of the following reasons.

1. George Mason University is part of the government, and as such ought to scrupulously respect freedom of speech, thought, and association.  And in practice, an official Anti-Racist policy is almost certain to trample these freedoms.  Once you officially declare that racists are utterly unwelcome on campus, the impulse to officially crush them without mercy is strong.  And the willingness to shield them from unofficial persecution practically vanishes.

2. The total number of bona fide racists at GMU is tiny.  So if you identify racists accurately, a big Anti-Racist crusade would be an absurd overreaction.  Not only would it whip up hysteria over a minor problem.  It would distract scarce attention from serious problems.

3. Given the near-absence of bona fide racists, a big Anti-Racist crusade would swiftly broaden the definition of “racism” to include a wide swath of the non-Left.  And most people on the non-Left are not morally in the same league as Nazis.  Not even close.  So the Anti-Racist policy would end up persecuting vast numbers of flawed but tolerably decent human beings.

4. Once the re-definition of “racism” starts to snowball, people will self-censor to avoid becoming victims of semantic inflation.  So the policy doesn’t merely persecute people for non-leftist leaning; it stifles the creation and evaluation of any idea that a paranoid fanatic might interpret as “racist.”  Universities should be especially horrified by this consequence, because universities are supposed to be centers for the creation and objective evaluation of ideas.

Are there any crucial disanalogies between Anti-Communism and Anti-Racism?  Indeed.  Most obviously: Communism is a bloodthirsty totalitarian creed.  Only an extreme tail of racists (Nazis, most famously) have been comparably bloodthirsty and totalitarian.  The typical racist is morally comparable to a socialist who dislikes businesspeople and the rich.  Both are unfair and unreasonable, but – unlike Communists and Nazis – neither is beyond redemption.

Final question: Would I still have have opposed a GMU Anti-Communist policy even in the depths of the Cold War?  Yes.  Reasons #1, #3, and #4 would still clearly apply, and #2 was at least debatable.  That suffices.

* An insider once told me that a critic told him that I was a “Communist.”  And vainly tried to get me disinvited from talk.  Because I wrote this.  No joke!

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Bryan Caplan

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Bryan Caplan is Professor of Economics at George Mason University and Senior Scholar at the Mercatus Center. He is the author of The Myth of the Rational Voter: Why Democracies Choose Bad Policies, named “the best political book of the year” by the New York Times, and Selfish Reasons to Have More Kids: Why Being a Great Parent Is Less Work and More Fun Than You Think. He has published in the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal, the American Economic Review, the Economic Journal, the Journal of Law and Economics, and Intelligence, and has appeared on 20/20, FoxNews, and C-SPAN.

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