Entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy is the newest candidate running for the Republican presidential nomination. You can read about his agenda in The Wall Street Journal. It’s heavy on trendy populism, but his embrace of meritocracy and economic growth is an improvement over the dour dead-end statism of the “post-liberal” right.
But his most unique proposal, one that will probably sound enticing to many people, is a terrible one — and one that would expand state interference in speech and end up boomeranging on those it claims to protect:
Viewpoint censorship extends beyond the internet and pervades our economy. If you can’t fire someone for being black, gay or Muslim, you shouldn’t be able to fire someone for his political speech. I will work with Congress to enshrine political expression as an American civil right, and I will enforce existing civil-rights laws to protect workers from invidious viewpoint discrimination. The federal prohibition on religious discrimination forbids employers from forcing employees to bow down to any religion, including secular ones as defined by the Supreme Court in U.S. v. Seeger (1965) and Torcaso v. Watkins (1961).
There’s a significant moral and legal difference between firing a person over an immutable characteristic, such as his skin color, and a political opinion. Ramaswamy’s idea, as far as I can tell, would not only make it illegal for Disney to fire a social conservative but for a Jewish restaurant to sever its relationship with a neo-Nazi, or a Catholic adoption agency to fire an employee who believes ninth-month abortions are “health care” and the nuclear family should be destroyed. Hedge funds would be compelled to keep a Trotskyite who believes profits are evil on the payroll and Wal-Mart would have to wait for the worker who spends his days trying to put big box chains out of business to leave of his volition.
Corporations would be barred from firing executives who embarrass the company when publicly converting to Pastafarianism, even if stockholders lose millions. It is far more likely that such a law would only further politicize the marketplace as employers will be more interested in digging into the ideological dispositions of prospective employees.
Why should any business owner be forced to hire a person who holds views they find ethically abhorrent? Political expression is already protected by the First Amendment. What Ramaswamy proposes is transforming the negative liberty of free speech into a positive “right,” which is to say, a “right” that compels others to accept, endorse, and sometimes fund political viewpoints they disagree with.
Even those who support overturning Section 230, which shields tech companies from liability among other things, typically argue that social media is the public square and should be treated as a utility, with guarantees of state-imposed viewpoint neutrality. It is a debatable position, but it is narrowly focused. You have no inherent “right” to work for a company that manufactures widgets.
The logic, if not the intention, behind banning viewpoint censorship is quite similar to the rationale of states like Colorado when they try to destroy people like Jack Phillips. A state charged with deciding which viewpoints deserve special protections will be asked to bore into the soul of owners to decide whether their intentions were corrupt or chaste. Rather than merely a state agency, though, we would have the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission overseeing speech. There would be litigious free-for-all, with all those who have been fired claiming viewpoint discrimination — because everyone has a view.
None of this even speaks to the inevitable mission creep. If history holds, bureaucrats will end up using this power to compel minorities — almost surely social conservatives — to accept ideologies that will chase them out of the marketplace. We should be untethering the relationship between the state and business, not coming up with new ways to fuse them.
And, granted, I’m not a lawyer, but Ramaswamy’s claim to precedents set in Torcaso v. Watkins, a decision barring the federal government from requiring religious tests for public office, or U.S. v. Seeger, a case that found conscientious objectors didn’t need to believe in a supreme being, seems quite tenuous considering both cases involve speech as it relates to the state, not private entities.
Undoubtedly, embracing free expression as an ideal, not just as law, is a prerequisite to having a healthy, free society. A great many Americans are no longer interested in living peacefully with those they disagree with. It’s a serious problem, even though the vast majority of Americans still get along far better than our politics might suggest. And it is also true, as Ramaswamy notes, that federal prohibitions on religious discrimination forbid employers from forcing employees to bow down to any religion. But forcing people not to bow down to their religion is no better.