Armed Men on Campus!

A student group called Columbia University Apartheid Divest issued a statement quoted by the Wall Street Journal (“New York Mayor Says Conflict at Columbia Must End as Police Amass Nearby,” April 30, 2024):

“Do not incite another Kent or Jackson State by bringing soldiers and police officers with weapons to our campus,” the group said, referring to deadly shootings amid campus unrest at the universities in 1970. “Students’ blood will be on your hands.”

I don’t know why “student blood” should be special (blue blood?) but let’s ignore this detail. They are young and still have to learn about life, history and, hopefully, evaluating ideas. I hope they do learn something in their “higher education” institutions. And we should certainly hope that the National Guard is not called in and that the police will act with wisdom and restraint.

The idea that the armed men of political authorities should not enter a university must have been inspired by the self-governing universities in Medieval cities of Europe. Autonomous universities were part of the polycentric political system of the High Middle Ages which, according to Alexander Salter and Andrew Young, provided a foundation for the decentralized power that characterized Western modernity in the 18th and 19th centuries (see their book The Medieval Constitution of Liberty, and my forthcoming review in Regulation).

I don’t know when the idea of quasi-untouchable universities died in practice, but I suspect that, while it was alive, it would not have prevented university leaders from calling in armed men to expel other armed men (either a neighboring lord or a mob armed with batons and fists) invading it. The autonomy of universities was meant to prevent bullies from interfering with their functioning, not to allow them to do so.

This reminds us of James Buchanan’s concern about the undermining of the “ordered anarchy” of university campuses in the 1960s and 1970s. This spontaneous order rested on rules of free inquiry and free speech in an atmosphere of quiet studies and civility. Once enough participants break the rules maintaining it, a spontaneous order collapses, and bullies rule. Reestablishing ordered anarchy instead of resorting to authority may be difficult.

Can we hope that the blatant contradiction between identity groups pursuing “safe spaces” and fighting “micro-aggressions” on the one hand and, on the other hand, the same crowd espousing ideologies of forcible exclusion will ring the end of their domination in universities?

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I instructed DALL-E to imagine a counterfactual historical scene: the Mongols invading the Sorbonne (University of Paris) in the 13th century (in reality they did not dare go further than the East of Europe). I don’t vouch for the historical details of the image, but its literary flavor suggests that the Mongols were not overly concerned with micro-aggressions in Women’s Studies classes.

Counterfactual: Mongols at the Sorbonne in the 13th century (by DALL-E and Pierre Lemieux)

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Pierre Lemieux