From political philosophy to free speech: Speaker David Boaz traces the roots of liberalism at UC Berkeley

david boaz
Charles McMurry/Courtesy

Last month, UC Berkeley students held protests on Sproul Plaza in response to Brett Kavanaugh hearings. This week, workers, students and faculty members on campus joined in solidarity for a three-day strike for higher wages and better working conditions. Five decades since the Free Speech Movement was ignited in 1964, UC Berkeley remains the flagship among U.S. colleges for its liberal atmosphere.

But what does liberal mean, anyway? On Oct. 17, David Boaz, the vice president of CATO institute, an American libertarian think tank, provided a detailed response to this question in his talk at a Berkeley Forum event. He gave a classical view of liberalism, from its earliest roots in historical movements to the way it is demonstrated on campus today.

“America is a liberal country in a liberal world.” Boaz said, opening his talk. According to Boaz, the word “liberalism” has a more radical meaning in the United States compared to the rest of the world. Most Americans associate the word with left-wing politics and progressive views, whereas global understanding of liberalism bears more resemblance to classical political philosophy.

He traces the origin of liberalism back to the enlightenment era, when scientists, philosophers, politicians and musicians introduced innovative ideas and inventions that reshaped people’s material and intellectual life. With the help of scientific tools and philosophical reason, people attempted to better understand and improve the social world around them.

At that time, there was rapid social progress and the rise of humanism, social mobility and political freedom: From the struggles between proletariat and bourgeoisie framed by Karl Marx to the fall of Napoleon and the outbreak of world war and the civil rights movement, liberalism has turned from theorized ideology into tangible action. Today, liberalism places greater emphasis on human rights, freedom of speech and personal as well as economic and political freedom.

He traces the origin of liberalism back to the enlightenment era, when scientists, philosophers, politicians and musicians introduced innovative ideas and inventions that reshaped people’s material and intellectual life.

As a Libertarian, Boaz offered an interesting perspective on many of these liberal ideals. Although libertarianism and liberalism reflect certain ideological similarities, as they both highlight individual rights and freedom, there are notable differences. Unlike liberalism, which emphasizes rights and freedom guaranteed by the government, libertarianism advocates for decreased government intervention.

“Libertarians like to describe themselves in a nutshell as socially liberal and fiscally conservative,”  said Charles McMurry, event manager and moderator at the Berkeley Forum. “The ‘socially liberal’ is probably where most Berkeley students would agree with them (libertarians). ”

Indeed, UC Berkeley students are widely viewed as liberal and left-leaning. Like most political ideologies, the liberal atmosphere on campus today is the result of decades long struggles, activism and compromises. It traces its roots back to the pre-World War II period, when students formed organizations that held anti-war protests and labor strikes. Their efforts aimed to bring awareness to a range of wartime issues such as lower rent, minimum wage adjustments and an increase in employment opportunities.

In 1951, because of the heightened political repression and fear during the McCarthy era, school authorities banned all communist speakers on campus. Later, as the McCarthy era came to a halt, student opposition toward the ban intensified.

In 1958, SLATE was created, an organization originally held to elect candidates for “a common platform” dedicated to “issue-oriented political education,” according to the SLATE archive. Though it dissolved in 1966, it was one of the precursors to the formation of student partisan organizations. SLATE aimed to address a range of on- and off-campus issues such as minimum wage for students and affordable housing, as well as education reform.

At that time, the university opposed student organizations that voiced their opinion on issues of political controversy, and political activities, such as fundraising for campaigns, were largely limited. The Free Speech Movement was born as a result of the lasting conflict between progressive student activism and repressive school administrators. On Dec. 2, 1964, thousands of students took over Sproul Hall and protested for free speech and political action on campus. It was then that Mario Savio made his famous speech, “Operation of the Machine,” calling for an end to the repression of free speech.

The university eventually compromised, as chancellor Martin Meyerson designated Sproul Plaza open to free discussion and information tables in 1965. For the first time, a surge of student political activism appeared on campus without university opposition.

Today, nearly a century after its inception, the ideals of the Free Speech Movement are still widely embraced among students. Sproul Plaza, considered the birthplace of the Free Speech Movement, remains a platform for students of diverse cultural backgrounds and academic interests to voice their views.

Sproul Plaza, considered the birthplace of the Free Speech Movement, remains a platform for students of diverse cultural backgrounds and academic interests to voice their views.

Boaz was drawn to the way free speech continues to be upheld and memorialized on this campus, and he commended UC Berkeley’s efforts to commemorate the movement: “I’m glad that it is memorialized in a cafe (Free Speech Movement cafe) on campus.” As a firm advocate for free speech and an opponent of government regulation, Boaz emphasized that administrators and policymakers should not place restrictions on free speech. “I don’t think policymakers could tell newspapers what they can print,” he said.

Yet some have raised the concern that the liberal culture on many college campuses can have certain side effects. A New York Times article published in 2004 outlined a surfaced argument that a one-sidedness in political views among college professors will result in biased teaching, as well as increased feelings of alienation among conservative students on campus.

And indeed, statistics reveal that college faculties are becoming more ideologically homogenized. A study that surveyed 1,000 academics nationwide revealed that the views of younger faculty members are often far more Democratic than their older colleagues’.

When a student in the audience at Boaz’s talk raised a question regarding predominantly left-wing political views on college campuses and possible ways of increasing ideological diversity among faculty members, Boaz said the best solution is to encourage more conservatives and Republicans to enter academia.

“There is a general tendency of conservatives and Republicans and maybe libertarians to go into business, tech, finance, rather than using their intelligence to go into the opinion-molding and academic professions,” Boaz said.

Despite certain controversy, when it comes to the political atmosphere on campus, Boaz, like Savio, still emphasized the importance of fostering a liberal ideology on college campuses. “They (colleges) should have liberal attitudes towards freedom of speech and academic freedom,” Boaz said. Peaceful protests and demonstrations, collaborative efforts to address pressing issues in different fields and a vibrant culture of political activism at UC Berkeley all argue that liberalism can encourage positive changes.

“No idea is too horrible to be debated,” he added. “And I believe Berkeley, at heart, still believes that.”

Contact Tianyi Ding at [email protected].