Why conservatives should support a free marketplace of ideas

Earlier this month, two items came across my desk that I hope don't indicate a trend. The first was from the American Library Association, noting that efforts to ban certain books from local libraries have escalated in the last few years. ALA officials say they expect to hear of about 1,000 cases this year in which libraries and schools have refused to shelve books or to teach such modern classics as ``The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn'' or George Orwell's ``1984.''

The second was an announcement that Reed Irvine, the ultraconservative founder of the watchdog group Accuracy in Media, has formed a sister group, Accuracy in Academia. Starting this fall, he aims to plant students in political science classes on American campuses to challenge professors who teach what he calls ``disinformation and misinformation.''

Now, I don't want to suggest that all novels, or all political science professors, are morally upright and free from anti-establishment tendencies. I spent some years teaching literature on a university campus. I've seen novels held in high regard among literary scholars that strike me as sadly debased. And I've known political scientists who are well to the left of Tip O'Neill. But I've never been persuaded that either the texts or the teachers had no right to exist simply because I didn't agree with them.

In one sense, I suppose, both literature and political science have a built-in bias toward the subversive. Each, in its way, forces serious reexaminations of the status quo.

Political science does it by delving into the relationships between the powerless and the empowered. Literature does it by probing the inner being and holding the mirror up to mankind. One cannot study either for very long without developing a certain dissatisfaction concerning (as Wordsworth said) ``what man has made of man.''

To those who think they know exactly how the world ought to run -- or who find it running conveniently in their direction -- such reexaminations are threatening. Their gut reaction: Squelch the reexaminers.

Oddly, this impulse toward censorship tends to surface more frequently on the right than on the left. One could make a case, after all, that the liberal -- tending to believe that centralized decisionmaking best serves the public good -- ought to be the one arguing for government-imposed censorship as a means of freeing the poor, strug- gling individual from unpleasant ideas.

In fact, however, censorship most frequently seems to arise on the right -- among those who, in other matters, vehemently preach the right of the individual to determine his or her own destiny unencumbered by external controls.

By way of example, look at a particular left-right debate that illustrates the point: the issue of industrial policy. Should a nation faced with a restructuring of its basic industries leap to the defense of steelmakers and automakers? Or should it accept the ``sunset'' of these industries -- admit that they have been rendered economically untenable by overseas competition -- and let them fade out?

The answer is by no means academic: It has been greatly affecting the lives of striking steelworkers recently at nine Wheeling-Pittsburgh steel plants in Pennsylvania, West Virginia, and Ohio.

Yet the arguments on either side distinguish, in classic outline, the liberal from the conservative. The former, believing that workers deserve better than displacement, leans toward a national policy that would subsidize the struggling industry. The latter, believing that the economy operates best when millions of individuals direct it by their marketplace decisions, would keep government out of the picture.

What has all this to do with censorship? Simply this: that the genuine conservatives, seeing the need for a freely operating economy in the marketplace, should be equally supportive of a freely operating economy of ideas.

They don't need to buy into every idea that floats past -- just as they don't need to purchase everything in the shop. But neither do they need to ban all that displeases them.

Conservatives, these days, can better employ their talents than in book-banning and course-sleuthing. What they need to establish is a kind of moral marketplace -- where goodness and purity are held in high regard, and where their opposites, finding few buyers, lose their market share and slide inexorably toward bankruptcy. The best defense against bad ideas, after all, is a mind filled with good ones. History, I suspect, offers few examples in which politically imposed censorship has produced true enli ghtenment. A Monday column

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