Distinguished guests celebrate liberty movement jubilee

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I recently returned to D.C. from Tampa, Florida, where I attended the 60th anniversary meeting (“Diamond Jubilee”) of the Philadelphia Society. For those who might be unfamiliar, the Society describes itself as “a membership organization of scholars, educators, journalists, business and professional leaders… dedicated to the goal of deepening the intellectual foundations of a free and ordered society.” That boils down, in my experience, to mostly being a group of conservative (and some libertarian) politics nerds. At this year’s meeting, members looked back over their own history and organized a series of panels themed by decades – looking back at the 1960s, 70s, 80s, and so forth.

For dinner on the first night the featured speaker was Dr. Jay Bhattacharya, Standford professor and Covid lockdown skeptic who was co-author of the Great Barrington Declaration. He talked about how his pandemic social media posting had been suppressed and shadow-banned on Twitter at the behest of the federal government, a controversy that is now being considered by the Supreme Court in the case of Murthy v. Missouri. I recently interviewed Jenin Younes of the New Civil Liberties Alliance, who is an attorney on that case, for Episode 68 of the Free the Economy podcast. My colleague Dr. Joel Zinberg also wrote about the case for City Journal earlier this year. Dr. Bhattacharya, in referencing the theme of the evening, promised the room full of conservative political theorists that he would convince them that the political legacy of the 1960s was actually a good thing, and in that case, he was referring to the fight for free speech.

While plenty of campus radicalism from the 1960s hasn’t aged nearly as well, the Free Speech Movement that started at UC Berkeley in 1964 has a legacy we can still celebrate today. It may seem strange nowadays when college campuses are so closely associated with protests and demonstrations, but there was a time when paternalistic college administrators routinely prohibited students from advocating for and against causes in public at all. The eventual changes in university procedure that emphasized the importance of being able to voice disagreements on important political issues was a welcome expansion of free expression in American society. Thinking back to those days is also a reminder of a time when left-of-center activists could be expected to automatically take the side of those facing censorship against the government agencies trying to do the censoring. These days, especially in the case of dissenting from federal public health policy during the Covid pandemic, that commitment seems to have softened.

The rest of the event covered a range of other topics, like the growth of government bureaucracy, the energized school choice movement, debating how interventionist the US should be militarily, and how to build vibrant families and communities in an increasingly secular nation. The one thing that impressed me about the event in general was how collegial and polite everyone was, even when there were significant disagreements about preferred policies and strategies. Perhaps there’s something to be said for looking your interlocutor in the eye, rather than firing off tweets from behind the cover of a pseudonymous profile.

That being said, there was plenty of disagreement, because the world of right-of-center politics is as fractured as it’s been in decades – as ably described by people like my distinguished colleague Iain Murray in his recent paper for the Heritage Foundation, “A New Birth of Freedom: Free Markets, the Institutions of Liberty, and the Common Good” (Iain was also my guest in Free the Economy Episode 63). Given the right setting and participants, however, it’s entirely possible to disagree and still enjoy a respectable event.

I should also mention that the assembled Philadelphia Society members and guests made for a very distinguished group of intellectuals, as evidenced by the presence of multiple prior Free the Economy guests in attendance. That group included Russ Greene of Stand Together from Episode 5, Stephanie Slade of Reason magazine from Episode 17, Allen Mendenhall of Troy University from Episode 28, Samuel Gregg of the American Institute for Economic Research from Episode 56, and future guest (and noted 1619 Project critic) Phil Magness coming up for Episode 75.