- - Thursday, January 2, 2020

The beginning of a new year is a time to take stock in ourselves, to revise our goals and plans for the future, and to hope against hope the coming year will be better than the last. Frankly, there are lots of reasons for optimism. The economy is humming. The United States is as close to full employment as it is ever likely to get and, now that Federal Reserve Chairman Jay Powell has concluded things aren’t overheating and there’s no need for a hike in interest rates to cool things off, growth and expansion should continue.

The beginning of a new decade, as this also is, presents an opportunity to take stock in the kind of nation we are and want to be in the future. That’s healthy, even as the rhetoric flies, reckless, hot, fast and furious out of our televisions and across our computer screens and smartphones. There’s a lot at stake. America is still, as Lincoln put it succinctly in his 1862 State of the Union message, “the last, best hope of earth.” We have to decide, all 300 million-plus of us, what kind of nation we want to be.

In that regard, there are warning signs many of us want to break significantly with the past. America was established as a place where the right of conscience was not only respected but protected, and not just in some ambiguous, amorphous way derived from traditions going back centuries as in England. Here, the founders took steps to ensure the right of conscience was enshrined in written law so that no man or woman could be forced to think as the government dictated.

That concept grew beyond the government to become a dominant theme in our common culture. As a nation, we are rightfully proud of what some call our “free speech” culture in which ordinary people can, as it was popularly put not all that long ago, “speak truth to power” without fear or reprisal.

That appears to be changing. The concept of victimization as embraced by the American left as a political organizing tool and path to power is an inherent assault on our individual right of conscience. All ideas are still said to be equal, as George Orwell might observe if he were writing today, but some ideas have become more equal than others. At America’s colleges and universities, there are countless examples of groupthink where debates over political, moral, and social issues have run freedom of expressed thought to ground, in many cases with the active assistance of university leaders.

Some might call that tyranny and, if it indeed is, be warned that it is spreading to all aspects of American life. Where no less a person than Hillary Rodham Clinton asserted during her husband’s presidency that dissent was patriotic, thoughts deviating from so-called cultural norms expressed by the major and social media are now considered dangerous.

It is fair to ask now — as we begin the decade in which the “sester-” or “semiquincentennial” of the American experiment will be celebrated — what kind of a nation we want to be in the future. Do we still want the right of conscience to occupy its position of prominence atop the list of enumerated rights we enjoy? Do we expect or even want free men and women to still be able to think for themselves? Or are those intent on remaking the American system have it in mind to impose some kind of official or quasi-official standard against which the acceptability of thoughts expressed shall be measured? There are hints abundant that they do.

These questions matter as we debate seemingly mundane things like the responsibility of social media platforms for user-posted content and the requirement of non-for-profit groups engaged in issue advocacy to disclose their funding sources to the government. For most of its history, America has been a place where we have many times accepted that people have an intrinsic right to be wrong. There are a few notable exceptions none of us should forget that add fire to the arguments of those who would disagree with that premise. Yet we know from experience the government cannot make people virtuous. As people as varied as Hannah Arendt and Ayn Rand have observed, a government powerful enough to make people believe something is one with enough power to force people to believe, contrary to their personal knowledge and better judgment, that A is B.

We saw plenty of that in the last century. It always ended badly. Let us now, as we move into the future, be boundless in our optimism and continue to respect our traditions of decent respect for the various opinions of man and womankind. The “right to be wrong” may someday turn out to be the most important right we have.

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