When Amazon Erased My Book

Published February 23, 2021

First Things

My book When Harry Became Sally: Responding to the Transgender Moment was released exactly three years ago. It was attacked twice on the New York Times op-ed page. The Washington Post ran a hit piece on it that was riddled with errors. It was obvious the critics hadn’t read the book. But they were threatened by it and wanted to discredit it lest anyone pick it up and learn from it.

Now, three years after publication, in the same week that the House of Representatives plans to ram through the Equality Act—a radical transgender bill amending the Civil Rights Act of 1964—Amazon has erased my book opposing gender ideology from its cyber shelves.

The people who did read the book discovered that it is an accurate and accessible presentation of the scientific, medical, philosophical, and legal debates surrounding the trans phenomenon. Yes, it advances an argument against transgender ideology from a viewpoint. But it doesn’t get any facts wrong, and it doesn’t engage in heated rhetoric.

Moreover, it was praised by experts: the former psychiatrist-in-chief at Johns Hopkins Hospital, a longtime psychology professor at NYU, a professor of medical ethics at Columbia Medical School, a professor of psychological and brain sciences at Boston University, a professor of neurobiology at the University of Utah, a distinguished professor at Harvard Law School, an eminent legal philosopher at Oxford, and a professor of jurisprudence at Princeton.

But for a heretic-hunting Left, none of that matters. It’s not about how you say it, or how rigorously you argue it, or how charitably you present it. It’s about whether you affirm or dissent from the new orthodoxy of gender ideology.

Amazon never informed me or my publisher that it was removing my book. And Amazon’s representatives haven’t responded to our inquiries about it. Perhaps they’re citing a religious objection to selling my book? Or maybe they only sell books with which they agree? (If so, they have a lot of explaining to do about why they carry Adolf Hitler’s Mein Kampf.) If there’s a religious or speech objection, let’s hear it. But if it’s just an attempt to skew the conversation in the public square with an attempt to discredit one of the Equality Act’s most prominent critics, that’s a different matter.

So first, a caveat: If you fear what Big Tech can do if you dissent from gender ideology, just wait to see what Big Government will do if the so-called Equality Act becomes law. Second, a lesson: If you fear Big Government, don’t turn a blind eye to Big Tech. Conservatives need to get over the misguided belief that private businesses can do whatever they want. That isn’t true. And it’s never been the American law on the issue. Nor is it what the natural law supports.

From a natural law perspective, both the liberal and libertarian approaches to economics and property rights are inadequate. By now, conservatives know well the criticisms of left-liberal approaches. But too many conservative thinkers assume that the classical liberal and libertarian approaches are in fact the conservative approach. They aren’t. They contain important truths, but they omit others. The conservative approach comes out of the natural law tradition.

In the natural law tradition, there is no single correct economic system. There are, however, certain systems—such as radically individualist philosophical libertarianism and radically collectivist socialism—that are incompatible with the flourishing of human beings and their communities. But between these extremes lie many permissible regimes of property and market relations. Decent governments create and structure various systems of ownership rights and obligations with an eye to what will best serve the common good of their societies, with their particular histories, traditions, and circumstances. Thus, government regulation of the market isn’t inherently wrong. If a particular instance of regulation is wrong, it will be wrong for some other, more specific reason, which has to be identified on a case-by-case basis.

No less a natural law thinker and teacher than Pope Leo XIII—who was clear that “private ownership must be held sacred and inviolable”—emphasized that property rights come with corresponding duties, and are thus not absolute or unlimited. As George Will once observed, “the most important four words in politics are: ‘up to a point.’” Property rights and economic freedom are important, up to a point—where they cease to serve human flourishing. All liberties have limits. So do market liberties.

This doesn’t mean that the government should step in every time a person or business exercises ownership rights in ways that harm the common good. A government willing to do that will ultimately do more harm than good. Still, some regulations are justified. We cannot rule out in advance the possibility that some regulation of Big Tech’s power may be prudent.

I say “Big” Tech on purpose. No one would (or should) care if one brick-and-mortar shop decided over the weekend to no longer sell one of my books. The market would more than pick up the slack. But what would happen if all the booksellers in a locale got together and agreed to no longer carry the book? Or what would happen if one of the booksellers had, let’s say, an 83 percent market share of all book sales, and that seller memory-holed the book?

We regulate businesses all the time. We need not apply to Big Tech all the features of an existing form of regulation that was designed for other contexts—whether it be nondiscrimination law, antitrust and monopoly law, or legal rules for common carriers and utilities—but policy makers need to take seriously the question of what limits should be placed on the power of Big Tech. The point is that absolutism about market freedoms is untenable. Repeating the mantra “it’s a private business” doesn’t cut it anymore. It never did.

None of this is to downplay the importance of economic freedom and property rights. It is just to say that while those freedoms are important, so are other things. The common good is multifaceted. Promoting liberty as the highest good—libertarianism—improperly downplays other important facets. We want laws that take into account all the relevant factors.

This is why when Sherif Girgis and I wrote our chapters for Debating Religious Liberty and Discrimination, we didn’t embrace the libertarian critique of all government regulation, including antidiscrimination laws. On the contrary, we outlined the kinds of cases in which market forces and market actors so systemically undermine human dignity and the common good that the government should respond.

To take another example: If all the bakers in Colorado refused to serve LGBT-identifying people, there might be justification for a law. But when all the bakers (including the conservative Christian ones) readily serve LGBT-identifying customers, and exactly one baker in the entire state objects to creating just one kind of product—a custom cake celebrating a same-sex wedding—there is no justification for the state to limit his property rights or to violate his religious liberty.

Again, I’ve heard nothing from Amazon regarding the decision to remove my book. Perhaps it’s a religious liberty or compelled speech concern. But I doubt it. I do know that there’s no reason to blindly believe that granting Big Tech unlimited liberties is how we best protect human flourishing and human dignity. Policy makers will need to address what sort of limits to place on Big Tech to protect the common good.

My prediction is that in the short run I’ll sell thousands more copies of the book thanks to Amazon’s censorship. In the medium run, things will get worse for those who hold to traditional American values. But in the long run, a people can struggle against the natural law for only so long. And that’s true for both economics and gender ideology.

Ryan T. Anderson, a former First Things assistant editor, is the President of the Ethics and Public Policy Center and the author of When Harry Became Sally: Responding to the Transgender Moment.

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