Jay Bhattacharya, writing at The Free Press, reflects on his and his fellow plaintiffs’ recent victory, against the tyranny of government suppression of freedom of speech, in Missouri v. Biden. Three slices:
On Friday, at long last, the Fifth Circuit Court ruled that we were not imagining it—that the Biden administration did indeed strong-arm social media companies into doing its bidding. The court found that the Biden White House, the CDC, the U.S. Surgeon General’s office, and the FBI “engaged in a years-long pressure campaign [on social media outlets] designed to ensure that the censorship aligned with the government’s preferred viewpoints.”
The judges described a pattern of government officials making “threats of ‘fundamental reforms’ like regulatory changes and increased enforcement actions” if we did not comply. The implication was clear. To paraphrase Al Capone: Nice company you have there. It’d be a shame if something were to happen to it.
It worked. According to the judges, “the officials’ campaign succeeded. The platforms, in capitulation to state-sponsored pressure, changed their moderation policies.”
In exposing this behavior—and in declaring it a likely violation of the First Amendment—the ruling is not just a victory for my fellow scientists and me, but for every single American.
I have been a professor researching health policy and infectious disease epidemiology at a world-class university for decades. I am not a political person; I am not registered with either party. In part that is because I want to preserve my total independence as a scientist. I have always viewed my job as telling people honestly about the data issues, regardless of whether Democrats or Republicans liked the message.
Yet at the height of the pandemic, I found myself smeared for my supposed political views, and my views about Covid policy and epidemiology were removed from the public square on all manner of social networks. I could not believe this was happening in the country I so love.
The case revealed that a dozen federal agencies—including the CDC, the Office of the Surgeon General, and the Biden White House—pressured social media companies like Google, Facebook, and Twitter to censor and suppress even true speech contradicting federal pandemic priorities. For instance, in 2021, the White House threatened social media companies with damaging regulatory action unless it censored scientists who shared the demonstrable fact that the Covid vaccines do not prevent people from getting Covid.
True or false, if speech interfered with the government’s priorities, it had to go.
The decision isn’t perfect. Some entities at the heart of the government’s censorship enterprise can still organize to suppress speech. For instance, the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA) within the Department of Homeland Security can still work with academics to develop a hit list for government censorship. And the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID), Fauci’s old organization, can still coordinate devastating takedowns of outside scientists critical of government policy.
But the headline is a good one: the federal government can no longer threaten social media companies with destruction if they don’t censor on behalf of the government.
The Biden administration, which has proven itself to be an enemy of free speech, will surely appeal the decision to the Supreme Court. But I am hopeful that we will win there, just as we have at every venue in this litigation. I am grateful for the resilience of the U.S. Constitution, which has withstood this challenge.
But I can never go back to the uncomplicated faith and naive confidence I had in America when I was young. Our government is not immune to the authoritarian impulse. I have learned the hard way that it is only we, the people, who must hold an overreaching government accountable for violating our most sacred rights. Without our vigilance, we will lose them.
Liberty does not equal happiness. Nor does it guarantee it.
Liberty, defined as freedom from the arbitrary wills of others, also does not mean unconstrained choice. As Hayek points out, a rock climber with only one handhold option to continue his ascent cannot be said to be “coerced.” Nor, if that rock climber fell into a crevasse and had no way out, could we appropriately call him oppressed, except in a metaphorical sense. There are no violations of liberty here, even though there is nothing the climber can do. He has a different kind of problem.
And so it often is in cases that many people call violations or infringements on liberty – from limited job opportunities to social media censorship to unhappiness. None of these things are good, and we should think about how to change them. But to argue that people’s rights or liberty have been violated in these cases puts the wrong foot forward. Such claims distract us from the real issues while opening the door to all kinds of abuse in the name of promoting “liberty.”
Washington is girding for a spending showdown, as Republicans and Democrats strategize on how to get more of what they want from a divided Congress. But whatever happens in the political drama, the budget reality not to forget is that the deficit for the fiscal year that ends this month is officially projected to be $1.7 trillion, or about $13,500 for every U.S. household.
The estimate is from the Congressional Budget Office’s monthly report for August, and it’s even worse than that headline. President Biden was saved from an uglier official figure only because the Supreme Court reversed his extra-constitutional plan to forgive student loans, producing what the CBO calls “outlay savings” to “reflect the Supreme Court’s ruling.” Ignore that and the deficit would be $2 trillion.
Scholars have studied the relationship between land inequality, income inequality, and democracy extensively, but have reached contradictory conclusions that have resulted from competing theories and methodologies. However, despite its importance, the effects of wealth inequality on democracy have not been examined empirically. We use a panel dataset of billionaire wealth from 1987 to 2012 to determine the impact of wealth inequality on the level of democracy. We measure democracy using Polity scores, Varieties of Democracy (V-Dem) indices, and the continuous Machine Learning index. We find limited empirical support for the hypothesis that overall wealth inequality or inherited wealth inequality has an impact on democracy. However, we find evidence that politically connected wealth inequality lowers V-Dem and Machine Learning democracy scores. Following Boix (Democracy and redistribution, Cambridge University Press, New York, 2003), we investigate the hypothesis that capital mobility moderates the relationship between wealth inequality and democracy and find evidence that increased capital mobility mitigates the negative impact of politically connected wealth inequality on democracy.