Edited and written by David Gordon, senior fellow of the Mises Institute and author of four books and thousands of essays.

Rise Of The Thought Police

Summer 1999

Robert Weissberg
Sage Publications, 1998, x + 275 pgs.

Professor Weissberg has taken on, in exemplary fashion, one of the major myths of our age. As everyone knows, America is an intolerant society. Political radicals, members of racial minorities, and homosexuals daily confront prejudice and oppression. This situation is of course altogether undesirable, since a democratic society must be open to ideas and groups that offend majority opinion. What is to be done? (The Leninist accents of this question are deliberate.) An elaborate program of education and propaganda must be instituted, aimed at altering the hearts and minds of the benighted populace.

Professor Weissberg assails the picture just presented at every point, in my view with complete success. The surveys that show Americans to be intolerant are deeply flawed in method. In fact, Americans are remarkably tolerant of all the politically correct dissidents. One only has to look at the proliferating diversity of groups that advance unpopular causes in order to bring into question the conventional wisdom on the subject.

Further, a democratic society should not be tolerant to an unlimited degree; tolerance is one of several competing values, as the great political philosophers who have written about tolerance recognize. If it is thought necessary to promote tolerance, a "hearts and minds" approach is just what we do not want. This leads to totalitarian control: only an approach that confines itself to behavior is consistent with a free society. Fortunately, if we accept the external behavior approach to tolerance, there are effective steps that can be taken. These include separation of groups liable to come into conflict.

As you can see, our author is in close competition with Professor Michael Levin as the most politically incorrect academic of the past fifty years. He begins with a discussion of a number of studies that purport to show deep-seated intolerance in American society. These studies, the most famous of which is Samuel Stouffer's Communism, Conformity, and Civil Liberties (1955) proceed in the following way. People are polled on such questions as "Would you allow a Communist to teach in your local school?" and myriad other hypotheticals. The results, it is alleged, show widespread intolerance. Most people, it appears, would not allow Communists or open homosexuals access to their schools.

Professor Weissberg finds the procedures of these surveys radically deficient. People's behavior in concrete situations may differ sharply from casual answers to situations confronted only as abstract possibilities. "Unfortunately, the inherent nature of the random sample-based opinion poll is ill-suited to study the objects of hatred.... Of 1,500 respondents, a goodly number for a poll, those with controversial views will probably number less than a dozen. Moreover, these data would still be opinion data, not the hard experiences defining the meaning of intolerance" (p. 49).

If Professor Weissberg is right, tolerance surveys fail to prove that America is an intolerant country. But of course it does not follow that we are a tolerant country. Nevertheless, our author embraces the wider conclusion. He largely relies on a simple fact. The views and groups allegedly not tolerated seem to be thriving.

"If one hypothesizes that loathsome Marxists and sexual politics groups are on the endangered species list...[Laird] Wilcox's compilation advertises otherwise. A simple count reveals 1,122 separate Marxist socialist groups and 495 Feminist-Gay organizations of one type or another in 1988.... A cursory overview of this listing suggests that joining a widely untolerated controversial Marxist or sexual politics group would be relatively convenient... Nor are these groups safely concentrated in large urban groups associated with renowned radicalism" (pp. 116-117).

One might raise an objection to our author along these lines: It does not follow that if a minority group has many organizations that its members are widely tolerated. There were in the 1930s several Jewish cultural organizations in Nazi Germany, but it would be rash to conclude on this basis that Nazis tolerated Jews. Nevertheless, given the vast abundance of radical and minority organizations our author has documented, the burden clearly rests on those who would indict us as narrowminded.

But suppose that Professor Weissberg is wrong and that the surveys of Samuel Stouffer and his successors correctly depict American society. Is this bad? A democracy, our author holds, must balance order and liberty. No society can allow unlimited freedom of opinions and behavior. Tolerance is a value, to be sure; but it must be balanced against competing goals.

Here, I venture to suggest, classical liberals will be most likely to part company with our author. Do we not hold that individuals have absolute rights that are not to be balanced against competing considerations? How a libertarian society would deal with tolerance issues is an important question, but I do not propose to summon Professor Weissberg before a libertarian Inquisition. Rather, on the ground he has chosen, that of democratic political thought, his position cannot be challenged. Why is tolerance more than simply one value to be assessed against others? Our avid contemporary advocates of tolerance owe us some account of why their favored values should be privileged above all else.

At one point, and it is a central one, I venture to suggest that Professor Weissberg is much more a defender of genuine freedom than the extreme tolerance advocates he condemns. Their "hearts and minds" approach mandates massive and extensive interference with individual liberty. Children are to be continually propagandized, in the name of tolerance, to adopt the "correct" attitudes toward racial minorities and sexual deviants. (My use of the last expression no doubt shows that I am a candidate for "tolerance" brainwashing.) Nor are adults to be spared. On-the-job tolerance training is the order of the day. Surely Professor Weissberg stands closer to classical liberalism than the Thought Police he valiantly assails.

On rare occasions, the author seems to me to go astray. I think, e.g., that he overestimates the extent to which John Stuart Mill accepted violations of his liberty principles. But such details are of minor importance. Professor Weissberg has written an indispensable book on a major issue.


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