How to Believe in Free Speech
Almost all libertarians earnestly say, “I believe in free speech.” Normally, though, this goes way beyond the right to speak freely. Most libertarians also believe that free speech “works” in some sense – that given a free exchange of ideas, the truth will at least ultimately prevail.
On reflection, this is an awkward position. Western countries don’t have completely free speech, but they are amazingly close to this extreme. Furthermore, the anonymity of the internet makes it easy to evade most of the lingering restrictions on free expression. And yet, as you may have noticed, libertarianism has failed to become popular.
Which raises an awkward question: If free speech yields truth, then shouldn’t we infer that unpopular viewpoints such as libertarianism are simply wrong?
You could heavily lean on the caveat that free speech ultimately yields truth. But modern libertarianism has existed for over half a century. Its popularity probably peaked either just before September 11, 2001 – or perhaps just before the 2008 financial crisis. Both of these peaks were modest at best. If that’s what ultimate victory looks like, ultimate victory is a small consolation.
Non-libertarians will naturally be tempted to infer that libertarianism is false. But since no political philosophy has achieved decisive intellectual victory, that’s playing with fire. Perhaps staunch moderates could claim victory for every view that 80-90% of people accept, from Social Security to the War on Terror. But staunch moderates are now so rare that it’s not even clear if they outnumber libertarians.
At this point, it’s tempting to backpedal. When we say “free speech works,” why assume that works means “ultimately leads to truth”? People supply and demand ideas for many many reasons. The desire to produce or consume truth is one motive. But people also care about entertainment, tradition, fads, and much more. Books and movies officially labeled “fiction” normally outsell books and movies officially labeled “non-fiction.” So it would hardly be surprising if people preferred to heavily adulterate their descriptive beliefs with drama and wishful thinking.
If you backpedal this much, however, can you retain much enthusiasm for free speech? Yes. While free speech doesn’t lead to the victory of truth, at least it allows the search for truth to continue. As long as you have a large, diverse society, you’re likely to have a rationalist subculture – or at least a bunch of subject-specific rationalist subcultures. Free speech allows these truth-seekers to ask thoughtful questions and propose reasonable answers, even if the thoughtful questions are awkward and the reasonable answers are scary. While the rationalists are likely to remain the minority, free speech preserves their existence. And since the methods and fruits of rationalism appeal to the smart and curious, free speech allows rationalists to continuously skim off the cognitive cream of society. Free speech doesn’t make truth popular, but it does rescue the elect from abject error.
Thus, I can’t honestly give three cheers to free speech, I can give it two. The first cheer for free speech is deontological: People have a right to express themselves freely, even if their expression is erroneous or irrational. The second cheer for free speech is elitist: Free speech lets the best and brightest produce and consume truth, even if most people hold the truth in disdain. But we can’t honestly give free speech a third cheer for making truth popular – because the claim that free speech makes truth popular simply isn’t true.
And thanks to free speech, I’m free to say so!
Jun 12 2018 at 3:21pm
Perhaps there’s a close analogy with scientific fields? The ability to freely exchange information is clearly necessary for scientists’ progress, even if it doesn’t result in very member people have a large set of true beliefs about, say, gene expression.
And of course, society as a whole benefits from the progress of this tiny, informed minority.
Jun 12 2018 at 3:22pm
Your analysis doesn’t take into account the amount of speech going on about different topics, and the group it goes on within. When you have free speech among people talking about a given topic, I think you find that the truth does surface fairly often. To take your example, libertarianism is far more popular among academic economists, who (as a group) tend to talk about the things that libertarianism is true about far more often and with a more diverse group than does the population at large. It hasn’t demonstrated its complete dominance, but it has demonstrated its ongoing viability in the way that, say, naive Marxism hasn’t.
Political truth often doesn’t surface because of the human tendency to only discuss politics within a group where speech is not very free, in the sense that if you disagree too much we stop inviting you to dinner. But that’s not an indictment of free speech or its truth-surfacing properties, but rather a reflection that free speech at a societal level does not imply free speech at a sub-societal level.
Of course, this also blows up the elitist argument, except in the sense that there can be an elite that only partially overlaps on any given subject. I imagine that the hardy rationalists you envision are quite backwards and tribal on any number of topics. Though they probably wouldn’t invite me to dinner if I said so.
Jun 12 2018 at 3:43pm
I question your assertion that libertarianism peaked some time in the new oughts. At least as far as the Libertarian Party goes, which may admittedly be a poor proxy for the spread of genuinely libertarian ideals, electoral returns do not support that claim at all, with more people voting for libertarian candidates than ever in 2016.
That being said, I agree with your last full paragraph completely.
Jun 12 2018 at 4:00pm
To question the premise further, where is the evidence that the majority of people value free speech because it ultimately “yields truth”? A more likely explanation is that freedom of speech is supported for the same reasons that freedom of association or freedom of movement are — all else equal, people prefer fewer restrictions on the range of actions available to them.
Both of these explanations should be easily testable through polling, with the usual Social Desirability Bias caveats.
Jun 12 2018 at 4:30pm
meh – I don’t think it has anything to do with ‘true’ speech winning as much as it has to do with ‘who’ gets to decide what truth is.
Jun 12 2018 at 4:50pm
The marketplace for ideas is not so much about finding true ideas as it is about finding ideas that work. For example, most of a person’s success in life is a matter of luck, but notwithstanding that fact, people are still better off (as measured by personal happiness) if they believe that they control their own destinies, regardless of how true it is. (I happen to believe that it is true.)
So the belief that we control our own destiny is an idea that works regardless of its truth value.
Meanwhile, some true ideas confer no particular benefit and eventually disappear. For example, hardly anyone (maybe even no one?) today knows how to speak ancient Phoenician.
Political philosophies like libertarianism confer benefits to the people who hold them. If those philosophies also happen to be true, and if they can guide policy outcomes, then they will confer benefits to everyone. But even minority positions survive because they prove useful to the small number of people who hold them.
Jun 12 2018 at 5:39pm
A better argument is that free speech gets you closer to the truth. Thus free speech cannot perform miracles, it can’t tell us whether the Copenhagen or the “many worlds” interpretation of quantum mechanics is superior. Some questions are just too hard. And many public policy questions are even more complex, even more difficult than QM. We’ll have answers to key QM puzzles before we find out the optimal level of spending on social insurance, or the optimal length of patents.
From this perspective, free speech has been a success. It gets us closer to the truth on policy questions. Countries with free speech have a more libertarian policy mix (even on non-speech issues) than countries lacking free speech. Free speech countries score higher on indices of economic freedom, on average.
So it does help us get to the truth, and produce good public policies. Think at the margin, not in terms on all or nothing; there is no single silver bullet that can public policy nirvana.
I’d say the same for democracy, BTW; it produces more libertarian outcomes than dictatorship. And I’d say the same for literacy, and many other factors that influence good governance.
Jun 12 2018 at 7:09pm
I would make two observations:
1) I’m currently reading Pinker’s ‘Enlightenment Now’, and he certainly makes a compelling case that the world is significantly more libertarian than in the past, with the trend line showing no significant abatement (despite a setback here of there).
2) You’re conception of the marketplace of ideas as a Hobbesian war of all-against-all, resulting in a single victorious ‘truth’ (or should we call it “The Highlander model”) seems somewhat underdeveloped. I daresay we wouldn’t characterize the pasta sauce market as a competition to establish the one ‘true’ pasta sauce; we understand that subjective preference and tail distributions are normal market features. In fact, we extol markets for their ability to cater to niche preferences almost as well as to popular ones. I humbly suggest you reconsider your model of the marketplace of ideas with these features of markets in mind.
Jun 12 2018 at 7:17pm
It seems to me that free speech is a decentralized system. The key thing for a decentralized system to function is the death of the maladaptive actors within the system. Stated differently, the reason free markets in goods work is less about profits and more about losses (though of course both are important).
Thus, I wouldn’t expect decentralized systems without an absorbent barrier would optimize.
At the same time, I wouldn’t expect a centralized system to develop truth either – the incentives simply don’t lead to truth.
So, why favor freedom of speech? First, if neither system is likely to arrive at the truth, I want the one that uses the least amount of violence. Centrally controlled speech is very violent; free speech much less so.
Second, fat tails. It strikes me that speech (and the related ideas) likely have fat tails. Accordingly, the impact of a wrong idea can be immense. While the mean err or free speech compared to centrally controlled speech may be similar, centrally controlled speech most certainly will show clustering more than free speech. When dealing with fat tails, not sure I want clustering.
Thus, my support for free speech isn’t about truth, but minimizing harm.
Jun 12 2018 at 7:43pm
I think libertarianism is more popular than we realize, even if not by its name.
In my experience, I find that when even slight, casual persuasion is applied, people often happily concur with libertarian principles and policy positions (with the exception of their own special interest that would get gored).
In other words, just because libertarianism isn’t manifested widely in practice doesn’t make it unpopular. Oftentimes, a silent majority might accept or even favor a more libertarian policy on some issue, but the small set of actors with the incentive and motivation to influence government to coerce others wins their desired result. Multiply this phenomenon by most public policy issues and you have a majority sympathetic to libertarianism, subject to the whims of collective minorities.
Jun 12 2018 at 9:50pm
Scott Sumner said what I was going to say: “Countries with free speech have a more libertarian policy mix (even on non-speech issues) than countries lacking free speech.”
Related, I also question the notion that libertarianism isn’t popular in the US. There is a spectrum of libertarian beliefs. If one defines libertarianism as the beliefs held by the, say, 10-15% most libertarian people, then it will always be unpopular by definition. I think that is the source of Caplan’s assertion that libertarianism is unpopular. Whenever there is broad, widespread support for a libertarian view, we start to take it for granted and cease thinking of that view as libertarian. For example, most Americans would oppose a mandatory curfew on every citizen to reduce crime. That’s libertarian but, because everyone holds that view, we don’t think of opposing curfews as a tenet of libertarianism. If one compares the US to authoritarian countries (China, Russia, Cuba, etc.), it becomes quite clear that libertarianism reigns supreme. Caplan claims that libertarianism has been around for only 50 years. But, I think of the Declaration of Independence as a libertarian document. Maybe, about 50 years ago, we started labeling the 10-15% of people that *most* faithfully apply the ideas in the Declaration as “libertarian”.
Jun 13 2018 at 7:58pm
There were a number of comments to this post that apparently have not migrated with the site update.
Jun 13 2018 at 8:03pm
Caplan makes a nice point: Free speech will appeal to different people differently. Caplan notes its appeal to “the best and brightest.” I’ll note its appeal to those who wield it the most effectively: the articulate. And, lo and behold, when we read the views of articulate writers, they tend to favor free speech! Whoda thunk? Thus, even though famous quotes defending free speech greatly outnumber famous quotes to the contrary, we should bear in mind this form of selection bias. Inarticulate people may have many good reasons for seeking to rein in free speech—but who remembers what they say?
I embrace the Churchillian view that free speech is the worst policy yet devised—except for the alternatives. That is, the value of free speech becomes clearest not in the abstract, but when contrasted with the alternative policies. I favor free speech not because I think it always produces great good (just talk to anyone with a mother-in-law), but because the cost of suppressing it generally exceed the benefit (just talk to anyone with a mother-in-law). The remedy to bad speech is not good speech; it’s perseverance, plus strong liquor after your mother-in-law goes to bed.
Jun 14 2018 at 2:39pm
As someone who has written a book on raising children and is currently writing a graphic novel on open borders, can we expect any thoughts or writings from you on the situation at the southern border?
Jun 14 2018 at 8:42pm
If you believe in free speech so much, what are you doing about keeping it; accept to function in safety in a tenured faculty position. Get out and fight for it, not just jaw at it. Your industry is the current biggest threat to free speech. Bigger than the government. Cases of free speech rights being trampled are everywhere in academia. We just had one pop at Denver University that needs publicity, action and law suits. Do something. somewhere.
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