A Death Penalty for Think Tanks?
Perhaps you’ve never heard of the U.S. Maritime Administration (MARAD), an agency of the U.S. Department of Transportation. You might not be interested in MARAD, but MARAD might be interested in you. Let us hope that MARAD does not have reason to want to put you to death.
Harry Byrd Wilt of The Dispatch (paywalled, but the Cato Institute has a good synopsis) revealed that in March 2020 a committee of the maritime shipping panel reacted to the opposition of two libertarian think tanks, the Cato Institute and the Mercatus Center, to the Jones Act – a 1920 law governing shipping. The Jones Act requires the use of U.S. flagged vessels for the transport of items originating at a U.S. port and bound for another U.S. port. Critics say the law inflates the shipping costs for intrastate traffic.
And what did MARAD propose as a response to these criticisms?
“Charge all past and present members of the Cato and Mercatus Institutes with treason.”
Treason, of course, is punishable by long prison sentences and even death. But why put all past and current members of the Cato Institute and Mercatus Center to death for criticizing the Jones Act when we could, with equal justice, put them to death for their positions on “zoning land use planning” and for writing papers with titles like “Improving the Regulatory Process through Regulatory Budgeting”?
On the surface, this is a silly story. But it contains within it a very serious one. One of the long-standing civic norms that has gone by the wayside in recent years is restraint in the use of the word “treason.” Politicians of both parties and of all ideological stripes now freely accuse one of another of being traitors. This is more dangerous than it seems, because in much of the world, loose standards for treason are a way to imprison and sometimes judicially murder critics of the government. From Iran, to China, to Russia, critics of the government are silenced by painting them as acting at the behest of some foreign (usually American) interests.
It is discouraging to see the same impulse emerging here.
Fortunately, the American Founders were alert to the danger that accusations of treason pose to free speech and the free exchange of ideas. In Article III, Section 3, of the U.S. Constitution, they set a very high bar for convicting an American of treason. Treason consists of a citizen who is guilty of “only in levying War against them [the United States], or in adhering to their Enemies, giving them Aid and Comfort.” Note the use of the word “only.” In addition, the guilty person must either confess or have two witnesses testify against him or her in open court. Furthermore, the Constitution holds that a treasonous person’s guilt cannot be a reason to punish his or her family.
The Constitution is our guardrail against transforming rhetoric about treason into prosecutions. But we cannot rely on that document to shape our norms and political culture. Friedrich Hayek, the Nobel-Prize winning economist and for decades a leading light at the Cato Institute said that “to choose one’s government is not necessarily to secure freedom.” So much free talk about treason, both on the left and the right, betrays a growing desire to use force to silence the other side.
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