We have had another excellent (that is, horrible) group of nominees for the William Higinbotham Inhumanitarian Award. It is more than a bit disconcerting that both this year and last we have had a plethoria of compelling nominees.
My own nominee, Paul Ehrlich, was a strong candidate. His modern Malthusian warnings about how humans were exhausting natural resources and needed to control pupilation to avoid an imminent catastrophe helped justify the oppressive and disastrous Chinese One-Child Policy. Ehrlich would have won The Higgy were it not for the fact that folks are already recognizing the dangers of declining birth rates, especially when coerced by the government. Even the Chinese are starting to back away from their policy. The demographic problems of more retireees dependent on fewer workers is becoming a big topic of discussion throughout Europe, Japan, and America. And even the developing world is producing dramatically lower birth rates. The highly influential Higgy does not appear necessary to discredit Ehrlich’s ideas.
Barney Frank is also a very worthy nomination. Frank not only personally contributed to the causes of the Great Recession by championing policies that pushed and subsidized lenders to provide houses to everyone, regardless of the ability to pay, but also has the chutzpah to assert “The private sector got us into this mess. The government has to get us out of it.” But Frank falls short of The Higgy because he was far from alone in the governmental recklessness that nearly destroyed private credit. Politicians on both sides of the aisle favored a house in every pot (they had to up the ante from chickens). Politicians will always be tempted to promise free money and we’re to blame if we take them up on their offer by electing them.
A reader in a comment suggested John Maynard Keynes, who is also a compelling candidate for The Higgy. But the reader did not make a full case, so it is hard for me to fully judge the merits of this nomination. In addition, I’m inclined to believe that governments did not need Keynes to believe that they should actively meddle in the economy. They were doing it plenty well before Keynes came along.
This year’s winner of The Higgy is Paul G. Kirk, Jr. for inventing the pernicious notion of a “free speech zone.” Even with a constitutional guarantee, free speech is always under seige because the government and other powerful folks would rather not be undermined by it. People often wrongly cite the decision in Schenck v. United States as proving that the government would only restrict speech if it posed a “clear and present danger.” What those people forget is that even while articulating the clear and present danger standard, the Supreme Court upheld Schenck’s conviction for passing out leaflets in front of a draft office during the Great War. If a guy on the street corner handing out leaflets can be interpreted as a clear and present danger, then clearly the government will be inclined to restrict speech whenever it can.
The essential check on government control over speech is the popular backlash that would occur if the government over-reaches. The accountability of the government to people in elections (and if bad enough, in the form of revolution) is essential to making the words in the Constitution protecting free speech real. In the face of popular protection of free speech, censoring authorities have to find sneakier ways to control speech. They have to find indirect and less obvious ways, like creating free speech zones.
For contributing to this sneaky infringement on our liberty, Paul G. Kirk, Jr. is deserving of the dishonor of the William Higinbotham Inhumanitarian Award.