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Godwin's Law in the Public Square, or, Unowned Property Leads to Hitler

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by Art Carden

Various incarnations of what is known as "Godwin's Law" suggest that if a discussion goes on long enough, it will invariably devolve into one party comparing the other party's position to Hitler or the Nazis. Similar principles include the argumentum ad Hitlerum, which is a fallacious argument that attempts to discredit another's position by invoking Hitler.

On a family vacation, I once saw a fascinating History Channel special on the American Nazi movement in the late twentieth century. The special piqued my interest for several reasons. First, I have done research on the relationship between racist violence, economic development, and social change. Second, the power of ideas--particularly divisive ideas that pit a wise and virtuous "us" versus a degraded and inferior "them"--manifests itself in historical atrocities like the Holocaust, Jim Crow, the Great Leap Forward, and the Gulag Archipelago. Third, people sometimes conflate the right to speak freely with the right to an audience and a subsidized soapbox. Conflicts about "free speech" for groups like the Nazis and the KKK are rooted not in the merits (or lack thereof) of hate speech but in questions about who gets to use public property.

History provides ample evidence that ideas matter, and not just the ideas of those who stand to gain or lose materially from policies. Southern slavery was undergirded by a racist ideology that developed as part of the system and that helped ensure support for the system even among non-slaveholders, and the Nazi atrocities of the 1930s and 1940s were enabled in part by anti-Semitic public opinion. It has been said that eternal vigilance is the price of liberty, and the power of racism throughout history provides ample evidence of cases in which opinion leaders were asleep at the wheel. How much poorer are we for it? Fortunately, great thinkers like Ludwig von Mises and others escaped the Nazis. How many great minds perished in the concentration camps? What great books were never written and what great advances in science were never made because racist violence felled people in their prime? We will never know, but it is a question that deserves somber reflection.

Public property creates many thorny issues about freedom of speech that can only be resolved with private property. The aforementioned History Channel special discussed a conflict in which the American Nazi party was trying to get the permits it wanted in order to stage a rally. With the attempted extermination of the Jews during the Holocaust only a few decades old, this was still an extremely divisive issue. The root of the conflict, however, concerned the use of taxpayer funded private lands. While local authorities tried to stop the Nazis at every turn, they were ultimately represented by the ACLU (and by a Jewish lawyer, incidentally) in a case in which they were ultimately granted the right to march.

You have a clear right to express views that others find offensive, but airing offensive views raises the prospect of violent objection from those who are offended. Who is responsible for paying for security? It certainly isn't the taxpayer or the municipal authorities. Further, the police-perpetrated outrages that occurred during the Civil Rights Era suggested that it is probably a mistake to trust the government to keep the peace.

Spewing hate would have been much more difficult in a world with secure private property rights. Right now, expressive racism is cheap. You need to be able to fill out the forms to get a permit, carry a few signs, shout loudly, and if you are really sharp, you might need someone who can write a good press release. My guess is that hate speech would be much more expensive if now-public spaces were privately owned. You would not need a permit, but you would need to rent a space from a private owner. This is not a praxeological certainty, but I would expect that businesses who earn a reputation for supporting Nazis or the KKK would lose business.

There is no principled way to exclude people with hateful messages from use of the public square. There are, however, principled ways to exclude people with hateful messages from the use of private property. I agree with Steven Landsburg that tolerance and pluralism are the prices we pay for freedom, but we can draw the line at the use of real resources. There are a lot of things I can do with my time and money that I would greatly prefer to helping foot the bill for security and port-a-potties for KKK rallies. I do not object to racists' rights to spread their message, though I object to their message. I especially object to their use of others' money to spread that message. If you wish to spew hate, I'm not going to stop you. I'm also not going to volunteer to provide you with a forum or security, either.

Art Carden is Associate Professor of Economics at Samford University's Brock School of Business, and he is by his own admission as Koched up as they come: he has an award named for Charles G. Koch in his office, he does a lot of work for and is affiliated with an array of Koch-related organizations, and he has applied for and received money from the Charles Koch Foundation to host on-campus events.

Comments and Sharing

CATEGORIES: Liberty , Property Rights

COMMENTS (13 to date)
G writes:

The need for security arise from counter-protests. So logically it should be counter-protestors that pay for security, not the people organizing the original demonstration. So it isn't the KKK that is costing you money, it's the people that want to demonstrate against them.

And the private property argument is bogus. There has always been a public space, and there always will be a public space. If it isn't a park, it would be a street or the front steps of an official building.

Based on your thinking, the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom would have probably never happened and there wouldn't be a civil rights act. Based on your thinking there wouldn't have been any anti-Vietnam war protests. Basically based on your thinking, no unpopular public opinion would be allowed to organize a meaningful protest.

Right, you sir truly believe in freedom of speech...

Thaomas writes:

Security beyond basic traffic directing should not be a cost if fines are collected from those that cause trouble.

This is a non-issue. No one is very much concerned about the costs to the city of the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville.

Tom DeMeo writes:

It won't work.This blog is controlled by private interests, and yet somehow, this post got published.

Clearly, private property doesn't solve everything.

Hazel Meade writes:

Private property would solve the problem, but then the racists and their fellow travelers would object that the private social intolerance of racists was itself a constraint upon their liberty, demanding the creation of racism-tolerating social norms norms. I.e. reverse-PC - such that a private business owner would feel obliged to rent property to a neo-Nazi rally under the premise of freedom of speech.

There's a significant debate going on over whether a libertarian social norms ought to imply either (A) a society where people can express any beliefs they wish without fear of "politically correct" condemnation, or (B) a society in which people can walk around with any skin color they happen to be born with without fear of being insulted or molested by racists.

I happen to believe that (B) is the correct answer - libertarianism should support social norms which suppress racism. But there are a lot of people (including libertarians) who actually believe (A) - that general pluralism and tolerance must include tolerance and social acceptance of Nazis and KKK members.

Tom DeMeo writes:

@Hazel Meade

"Private property would solve the problem"

What would it solve? How?

Would it prevent racist speech? Are you suggesting that private social intolerance of racists would be universal? That no one would allow them to speak on their private property?

Hazel Meade writes:

You're right. I'm not 100% sure that private social intolerance would make racism go away, but it would at least not force anyone to finance speech they found objectionable.
I would hope that social norms against racism would develop to make life sufficiently difficult for racists that they would generally keep their views to themselves in public.

Mark writes:

Tom DiMeo

"It won't work.This blog is controlled by private interests, and yet somehow, this post got published.

Clearly, private property doesn't solve everything."

I can't figure out what your point is. Why is the publication of this post a problem to be solved?

In any case, there's obviously a trade off to be assessed. What is more important, the prevention of racist speech, or individual freedom? How much of the latter is worth sacrificing for the sake of the former, and vice versa? Personally, I don't care much about the opinions of random strangers, and I aspire to care even less. I think the world would be a much better place if we all cared less about what everyone else believed.

I would note, regarding Hazel's point, that the inclination to criticize social intolerance toward racism if often motivated by the fluid nature of the definitions of racism or bigotry. Where one person's idea of hate speech is shouting the N-word repeatedly in the public square, another's idea of it is publishing a memo criticizing affirmative action and suggesting gender disparities aren't primarily due to discrimination. And there are plenty of cases of prominent people and institutions employing the latter sort of 'liberal' definition of hate speech.

So think of it from a tactical point of view. If one thinks that shouting the N-word in the public square or having a neo-Nazi parade is bad, but one, say, opposes affirmative action or thinks accusations of systemic racism are often frivolous and unfounded, it might occur to one that, "today it's white nationalists and 'race realists' or 'alt-righters' who rub shoulders with questionable types, tomorrow it'll be me." That is, the fear is that the narrowing of the Overton window does not stop at the boundaries of actual racism.

If I believe that the people calling for social intolerance of racism generally believe that I'm racist because of my views of BLM or affirmative action, it may behoove me to keep the Overton Window from shrinking at all. I may not like the racist dominoes, but I know that after they fall, I'm next.

That, I think, at least a large part of the sentiment you're seeing.

Henri Hein writes:

Did you mean the Cultural Revolution? I do not see The Great Leap Forward as being an us-vs-them event, abject failure though it was.

J Mann writes:


I consider myself a moderate libertarian, but if your argument is "we should have less public property, because then it would be easier for mobs to prevent unpopular groups from speaking their opinions by threatening violence" I don't find that very convincing. Hopefully, I've misunderstood you.

Are you proposing not to protect unpopular people from violence if it occurs on private property, and how would that work?

If we call the police to my family's Thanksgiving dinner (on private property), and it looks Uncle Bob is about to attack my brother for arguing for racial integration at our and Uncle Roy is about to attack my sister for arguing for racial segregation, are the police only going to protect one of them?

What if there's a mob forming outside David Duke's house with torches, claiming they're going to attack him if he doesn't take down some sign or other? Aren't the police going to protect him? If so, why is it relevant if we make him put the sign in his yard?


Hazel Meade writes:

I generally agree that some parts of the PC crowd go way too far in trying to classify speech they don't like as "racist". The point I'm trying to make is that there is a trade-off between how socially acceptable it is going to be to say racially intolerant things vs. how socially acceptable it is to be a black person, or other minority. To some extent, the more you expand the Overton window for white racists, the more you shrink it for racial minorities. It seems to me that this gets overlooked a lot - that tolerating racism imposes a non-zero cost on minority groups due to the fact that it implies tolerating people who are determined to make public spaces unpleasant for them, to make them feel unwelcome.

That said, there is certainly a lot of speech made by people who have no intention of driving minorities out of public spaces or making them feel unwelcome, and are just trying to engage in conversation, however awkwardly. People definitely need to make a strong distinction between speech which is intended to declare white ownership of the public sphere, figuratively speaking, and speech which is intended to engage people in a real discussion.

Tom DeMeo writes:


I was being a bit of a wise-ass.

Mr. Carden did another post a short time ago about the economic benefits of disposable towels:

Whether its the convenience of using a towel once and tossing it into a landfill, or suppressing Nazi's, the underlying idea of this post and his previous one is to promote a relatively extreme, absolute interpretation of private property rights and the reduction or elimination of public property.

Roger McKinney writes:

More property rights would help a lot, but what if the state was truly limited? If the US couldn't enforce slavery as it did in the early days and had no power to enforce racist ideas, who would care if Nazis were in power?

Dave Kristopeit writes:

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