Say ‘Yes’ to the First Amendment

“For in politics, as in religion, it is equally absurd to aim at making proselytes by fire and sword. Heresies in either can rarely be cured by persecution.”
—Alexander Hamilton, Federalist 1

All university-level students should read, study, and discuss The Federalist Papers (1787–88). This most sacred document of the American founding explains the logic of the Constitution. It’s more important than ever to understand that logic because the advent of Artificial Intelligence means that we are rapidly approaching a dystopian singularity that requires serious thinking about individual rights and freedom. For this reason, above all others, the sanctimonious mob that currently tyrannizes academia poses a major risk to Western Civilization. The time is now. Either we learn from the past by taking it seriously, or else we will be consumed by our future. A good exercise is to write an essay that supplements The Federalist Papers for today’s citizen. This is one of mine. If you object, then write your own.

I’ve already written a basic introduction to the negative logic that is the scientific basis for the Bill of Rights. Consider this lesson an immediate corollary. The First Amendment to the United States Constitution is vital above all the others, and there’s a single sociological reason that so much of what we hear in public discourse undermines it.

First, the reasons the First Amendment is vital. The right to believe and say anything is fundamental to the proper functioning of markets and political systems. Mental freedom provides the antifragile underpinnings of commerce and the law. Without competition among a variety of products, services, and ideas, we end up making big decisions without the price signals and public debates that allow us to consider important information.

Think of East Germany or North Korea. Life becomes painful, gray, feeble, and unfixable without prices and ideas. And when that happens, external and internal changes become problematic. Those who control rigid markets and governments dig themselves into negative feedback loops. They grow even more tyrannical because they can’t see change as “creative destruction.” To them, change amounts to “apocalyptic suicide.” An alternative product or idea can make it obsolete overnight.

In the social sphere, reasoning must operate effectively, even though achieving absolute truth and perfection is impossible. Allowing individuals to think freely and express diverse ideas is essential for this purpose. Similarly, in markets, having a wide range of options contributes to stability, especially when facing creative destruction.

A product or service can almost always be improved upon or substituted—i.e., just as there’s no ideal political arrangement, there’s no absolutely true or perfect outcome to market competition. But that’s precisely why we must keep these active as systemic processes and not end goals. Not all products and services will endure, and when they become obsolete a lot of people will lose their livelihoods and no longer get what they want over the short term. That’s precisely why options are important: so that people can make and do other things and adapt to change more easily. Moreover, in politics, as it is with markets, stagnation can lead to decay and corruption, which accentuates the pain of social and commercial change.

But how do we know finally what is good and proper in government and business?

The answer is that we don’t. We can’t. If we did, human activity would be meaningless and would just make the world a more loathsome place. We don’t intuitively know what’s best. Individuals will have opinions. Some individuals will be more right more often than others. But if we merely assume that all human beings can be wrong at least once in life, then we still must discover what is preferable through individual experimentation and comparison.

Now, for the sociological reason, the First Amendment is always under attack: the mob.

We’re social creatures. There’s no doubt about that. We need partners, family, and friends. The kindness, communication, and company of others are desirable and keep us sane. We have a tribal instinct wired into us. Sacrifice and cooperation have always been keys to our survival during a crisis. But it goes deeper than that. We even need enemies to coordinate and locate our groups. For these reasons, the social instinct is so intense that when we lack a collective identity, we’ll make one up out of thin air. It’s also so strong that when we sense that our group is threatened, it alters how we feel, think, and behave. And perhaps the true tragedy is that the mob instinct has its most powerful effect on successful people. In other words, the very people who, in theory, should be much more inclined to favor rugged individualism and independent thinking are the ones most vulnerable to groupthink.

It’s this group instinct that’s constantly attacking the First Amendment, threatening and retarding human progress in social, economic, and scientific terms.

Our tribal confirmation bias means truth unavoidably devolves into tyranny at some point. While it’s true that we need others, it’s not true that, therefore, others should be allowed to trump our individuality. But they do, and we let them. Look at every major institution in the United States today. Conformity to the most irrational and diabolical ideas is now the norm.

At universities, corporations, and government agencies in the United States, it’s now routinely expected that people must agree that the accused are guilty until proven innocent, that men can be women if they so choose, and that we must live according to a racial and sexual hierarchy with black homosexual females at the top and white heterosexual men at the bottom. There’s even a convoluted ideology called “intersectionality,” which attempts to define and promote people by their collective identities rather than their abilities or accomplishments.

America is now the antithesis of itself.

These ideas are dominant at our most respected institutions. MIT, arguably the most advanced university on earth, is plagued by well over 75 DEI administrators. Why? It turns out that, on aggregate, the smarter you are, the more prone you are to accede to the pressure of the group. This does not mean that a few brilliant individuals won’t emerge to challenge the status quo. It means that most brilliant individuals will make sacrifices to the tribe in order to assuage their guilt and fear.

I’ve listened to some very smart people—Charles Murray, Richard Brookhiser, Pedro Schwartz, Mark Cuban, and Jonah Goldberg—maintain that Donald J. Trump is bad for America because he’s autocratic, corrupt, and ill-mannered. But what they object to is style not substance.

There are a lot of things wrong with Trump. He’s human. However, refusing to see that government officials have targeted him unjustly and, in the process, unwittingly proven his absolute innocence in juridical terms means disregarding the only method we have of assessing such matters. When over thirty highly trained lawyers, including Robert Mueller, Andrew Weissmann, and Rush Atkinson—a team that NBC News called “the best prosecutors in the business”—were given more money than the Vatican and two years to investigate Trump, they found nothing. All they could say was, “we can’t prove his innocence.” When a team of lawyers with such extreme incentives, skills, and biases resorts to inverting the essence of Western jurisprudence—i.e., the principle that citizens are innocent until proven guilty—then, as far as such things can be determined in the public sphere, Trump is the antithesis of corruption. He might be the most pristine president the U.S. has ever had, and all claims to the contrary are most likely deceptive, emotional, and self-interested.

Furthermore, the notion that Trump’s disagreeableness disqualifies him from public office ignores the most realistic political advice formulated by everyone from Thucydides to Machiavelli: historians and citizens must evaluate the actions and policies of their leaders and eschew the pretense of fretting about their personal virtues.

What does all of this have to do with the First Amendment?

Well, many very smart people are incapable of reason in politics. They’ve succumbed to the sacred anger of the crowd. They’re either joining that crowd or appeasing it out of fear or greed, or both. But they’re not thinking logically about the differences between Joe Biden and Donald Trump. Why? Because powerful people are those most at risk of crowd violence. French anthropologist and sociologist René Girard wrote multiple books about what he called the “scapegoat mechanism,” wherein the mob attacks any wrinkle of difference in the social field to which it might attribute the cause of any crisis that throws it into a frenzy.

I call this the “Romantic anti-hero effect.”

Behind everyone’s romantic nightmare, from Dr. Frankenstein to Dracula to Dorien Gray, is the perception of evil as weirdness. This explains why so many talented and successful people spout utter nonsense when it comes to politics. Great actors, musicians, scientists, engineers, and even entrepreneurs and financiers feel the weight of the public eye. Thus, they tend to hold political views that they think will placate the mob. It’s usually not even conscious. It’s just an instinct that ensures their survival.

Recently, Dr. Jay Bhattacharya, an incredibly smart man with whom I agree on just about everything, tweeted that his mother had been watching CNN until 2021 when she saw a report that criticized her son. Dr. Bhattacharya was proud to report that his mother no longer watches CNN because she does not suffer from the Gell-Mann amnesia effect. But with all due respect, here is the problem.

A very smart man’s mother, a woman he claims does not suffer from an inability to perceive the propaganda of a major news service, was still watching CNN as late as 2021. In fact, she didn’t stop watching CNN until the network’s reporters took a swipe at her own son. Very smart people spend so much time in the light of moral rectitude and political certainty that they confuse these for reason (see the movie Poltergeist, 1982).

You might object. You might hold that society must regulate the First Amendment because someone might act on their evil thoughts or the evil thoughts of others. Okay, hurting people is bad. But we punish those who hurt people, not those who express the ideas that might inspire them. This is the only we way we can lay claim to the idea that people should think before they act. Moreover, the definition of suffering is itself part of our problem. To harm the bodies or property of others is wrong. But people will do anything for money and approval. This especially includes false claims to have been hurt by anyone who angers the mob. Further, what people consider an evil idea today might be good tomorrow, and vice versa.

Censuring what we consider evil can only promote tyranny in the end, not alleviate it.

In sum, yes, there will always be moments when the principle of liberty gets elided due to a crisis or a particular case, but we must always reassert that principle. This is what Reagan meant when he said that freedom is never more than one generation away from extinction. And freedom of thought is the most basic principle of all, the one upon which depend the other personal freedoms listed in the Bill of Rights.

This is simply because without the freedom to think and say what we want, sooner or later, we’ll find ourselves unable to defend all the other personal rights. Artificial Intelligence is rapidly approaching the ability to read our minds. By definition, many smart and powerful people will use this technology to offer up all of our rights to the mob as a means of gaining power over and safety from that same mob. And nobody will be allowed to object without tremendous risk to themselves. I find the moral argument for my personal liberty the most compelling one. Who are you to make me confess or conform? However, given that individuals shape the world by developing the ideas, tools, and practices that enhance it, the true stakes here include wealth creation, scientific progress, and our ability to improve life.

Art by Joe Nalven


  • Eric-Clifford Graf

    Eric-Clifford Graf (PhD, Virginia, 1997) teaches and writes about the liberal tradition as authored by men like Alexander Hamilton, Frederick Douglass, and Jorge Luis Borges. His latest book is ANATOMY OF LIBERTY IN DON QUIJOTE DE LA MANCHA (Lexington, 2021). All of his work can be found here:

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