The First Amendment and the Principles of Public Opinion
By Bryan Caplan
Three principles of public opinion I’ve pushed over the years:
2. Liberty is more popular at an abstract level than it is for specific policies.
3. If anything, policy is more libertarian than the public wants.
When I was preparing my FEE lecture on “Public Opinion for Libertarians,” I had a chance to test these three principles on public opinion about the First Amendment. Do generalizations based mainly on public opinion about economics extend to civil liberties? It’s a nice “out of sample” robustness check.
The best source I could find was the First Amendment Center’s State of the First Amendment Survey. Let’s take a look at the 2007 edition. What do we see? (All responses are for 2007 unless stated otherwise).
1. Two questions are ideal for testing my claim that the status quo is popular. Question 10 asks:
Overall, do you think the press in America has too much freedom to do what it wants, too little freedom to do what it wants, or is the amount of freedom the press has about right?
Question 11, similarly, asks:
Even though the U.S. Constitution guarantees freedom of religion, government has placed some restrictions on it. Overall, do you think Americans have too much religious freedom, too little religious freedom, or is the amount of religious freedom about right?
The results: The median respondent says “about right” to both questions in every year covered – 1997-2007. Support for free speech bottomed out in 2003, the one year where “too much freedom” was a more popular answer (46%) than “about right” (43%). But support for the status quo remained the median.
2. At the most abstract level, there is overwhelming support for civil liberty. In 2007, 98% considered “the right to speak freely about whatever you want” to be “essential” or “important,” and 97% thought the same about “the right to practice the religion of your choice.” Even “the right to no religion” was deemed “essential” or “important” by 89%.
Still, the public sounds much less libertarian when asked about more specific issues. Only 60% agree that “Newspapers should be allowed to freely criticize the U.S military about its strategy and performance” and that “People should be allowed to say things in public that might be offensive to religious groups.” Only 56% agree that freedom of religion, “Applies to all religious groups regardless of how extreme their beliefs are.” Just 55% agree that, “Musicians should be allowed to sing songs with lyrics that others might find offensive.”
3. While the median respondent broadly endorses the status quo, there are a few discrepancies between what we’ve got and what we want. As far as I can tell, all discrepancies are in the direction of freedom. Fully 56% disagree with the view that, “People should be allowed to say things in public that might be offensive to racial groups.” Yet neo-Nazis still have free speech. More amazingly, 61% agree that “The government should be allowed to require newspapers to offer an equal allotment of time to conservative and liberal commentators.” Last but not least, 71% agree that “The government should be able to place restrictions on the amount of money a private corporation or a union can contribute to an election campaign.” The Citizens United decision is clearly more freedom of speech than the public would allow.
Overall, my three principles of public opinion work as well for civil liberty as they do for economic liberty. Once again, libertarians should count ourselves lucky. If the government truly started listening to the people, that would be a sad day for freedom.