Progressive Betrayals of Civil Liberties

In the last two weeks, we have seen the weakness of many left-liberals’ support for civil liberties. Last week, progressive bloggers, activists, and politicians piled on Chick-fil-A, whose president Dan Cathy has spoken critically of and supported groups that oppose gay marriage. For his stance on this issue, which is not all that different from Obama’s stance just a year ago, many in the gay rights movement decided to boycott his fast food chain. Whatever one thinks of this, it is well within the rights of people to vote with their dollars. The Executive Director of Log Cabin Republicans argues that the boycott is poor strategy, however, because “turning a chicken sandwich into Public Gay Enemy Number One makes LGBT people look superficial, vindictive and juvenile—everything that we as a community have worked hard to overcome.”

Yet far more disturbing to anyone interested in civil liberties was the threat of a government crackdown on the basis of the business owner’s political opinions. Chicago mayor Rahm Emanuel and Boston mayor Thomas Menino both indicated a willingness to keep the restaurant out of their cities, using their power as government officials to fight the culture war.

While the most consistent left-liberal voices for civil liberties, among them the ACLU, have defended Chick-fil-A’s right to open a business regardless of the proprietor’s political views, there has been far too much silence or even enthusiasm toward these threats of political coercion, which carry potentially totalitarian implications. A government that can prohibit people from engaging in peaceful commerce based on traditional cultural and conservative political values is as big a threat to civil liberties as anything the left imagines a conservative Big Brother poses. Most strikingly, left-liberals often, with a lot of justification, decry the Red Scares in American history—the private and public ostracism and at times oppression that befell communists, communist sympathizers, or anyone deemed too far radically left in America. Communism posed a real threat to world peace and liberty, and its political leaders collectively murdered close to a hundred million people in the 20th century. If Americans should have a right to pursue work despite their sympathies for such a violent ideology, surely Chick-fil-A shouldn’t be blacklisted simply for holding traditional views on marriage.

So last week we saw the limits of left-liberal tolerance and belief in the First Amendment. The week before, the typical disdain for the Second Amendment was on full display. After the shooting in Aurora, Colorado, the call for more gun control reached a fevered pitch. Putting aside the incoherence of gun laws as a method of stopping people bent on committing the most severe of all crimes, mass murder, we see here a willingness to ditch a precious civil right in the name of safety. Just as conservatives were all too willing to cheer on a nationalist police state after 9/11 in the misguided attempt to achieve pure security from terrorism, so too have liberals been enthusiastically willing for decades to abandon a principal human right in the foolish attempt to maintain perfect safety at home. The way gun control is enforced always results in great injustice—violations of rights to privacy, the erosion of due process protections, the disadvantaging of poor and minorities who do not regard the police as adequate protectors of life and liberty. The history of gun control as a method of oppressing the weak and disenfranchised, particularly racial minorities, should give all humanitarians pause before they jump on the civilian disarmament bandwagon.

Civil liberties are grounded in key principles of a free society, including an unflinching distrust in secular government and a respect for property rights. Without property rights, bodily integrity, freedom from censorship, and guarantees against lawless prosecution are impossible to maintain. Without distrusting government, society loses sight of the importance of civil liberties in the first place. The left has long attempted to marry a loyalty to civil liberties with a trust in government and an attitude toward property ranging from ambivalence to hostility. This contradictory approach to the principal issues of a just society fundamentally explains the unreliability and hypocrisy so often seen with many progressives when civil liberties are under attack.

Anthony Gregory is a former Research Fellow at the Independent Institute and author of the Independent books American Surveillance and The Power of Habeas Corpus in America.
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