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As Far as Thought Goes, Scienter Should Suffice

Here’s a letter to the New York Times:

Hayley Gorenberg and others who support “hate-crime” legislation (“Even Nonviolent Crime Needs to Be Fought,” March 8th) endorse – no doubt unawares – a source of tyranny that dates back ages, namely, ruling-elites’ attempts to govern people’s thoughts.

In the past, thought-policing was aimed at controlling individuals’ notions about sacred texts and other theocratic matters.  Today, thought-policing is aimed at controlling individuals’ notions about sexual practices, racial and gender differences, and lifestyles.  But today as yesterday – and regardless of the ungodliness or shamefulness of the targeted thoughts – no institution is to be trusted that empowers some men and women to peer into the minds of other men and women for the purpose of forcing people’s thoughts to conform to an official standard.

The great early 17th-century English jurist, Sir Edward Coke – whose writings greatly influenced America’s founding generation – famously challenged King James I’s effort to deploy the power of the English crown to punish people merely for what they thought.  Coke proclaimed that “No man ecclesiastical or temporal shall be examined upon secret thoughts of his heart….  Cogitationis poenam nemo emeret – no man may be punished for his thoughts –’For it hath been said in the Proverb, Thought is free.'”*

That maxim is today as important a bulwark against tyranny as it was 400 years ago.

Donald J. Boudreaux
Professor of Economics
George Mason University
Fairfax, VA  22030

* Quoted in John M. Barry, Roger Williams and the Creation of the American Soul (New York: Viking, 2012), p. 31.