Should Hateful Speech Be Banned?
By Pierre Lemieux
Hate is not productive in the context of rational discussions. It is collectivist when it fabricates collective sins. And it is downright bigot in many social interactions. Yet, it is not always and everywhere useless. Hating slavery or other forms of tyranny, for example, would seem commendable in any libertarian ethics. Being an expression of human emotions, art cannot blacklist hate—except with the threat of force and especially state force.
The Hong Kong government, under the domination of Big Brother in Beijing, is under pressure to prevent the inclusion of dissenting art in the opening exhibition of the M+ Museum (see Joyu Wang and Yoko Kubota, “Pro-China Lawmakers in Hong Kong Find a New National-Security Target: Art,” Wall Street Journal, May 18, 2021). One of the contentious exhibits shows a photograph of Chinese artist Ai Weiwei offering a middle-finger salute to Tiananmen Square.
Other works by the same artist have shown similar scenes involving the White House and the Eiffel Tower. Whether this counts as art should be left to the museum’s individual customers. But Hong Kong’s recent national-security “law” forbids provoking hatred toward the Chinese government. The Wall Street Journal reports:
In the Hong Kong legislature days later, pro-Beijing lawmaker Eunice Yung grilled Chief Executive Carrie Lam—the city’s top local official—on the subject, alluding to Mr. Ai’s art as insulting to China and potentially in violation of the national security law.
“How would you explain to a kid about a middle finger pointing at Tiananmen Square?” Ms. Yung said in a later interview. She urged the museum to remove any offensive art from its collection.
I put “law” in quotes because, in the Western legal tradition (at least in the Anglo-Saxon and French traditions), a law is not just anything that the Prince, democratic or not, decrees. (See F.A. Hayek’s work on this topic.)
Another contentious painting in the museum’s collection shows Mao Zedong examining a urinal. (One would be forgiven to think that this sort of inspection is a normal chore for a central planner who takes his responsibilities seriously.)
That hateful, insulting, or offensive speech (which can be loosely put in the “hateful speech” category) can be useful is even truer when rational challenges of orthodoxy are limited by the very state that forbids hate against itself. Hate as a substitute to free and rational debates is less likely to thrive in a free society. And it is arguably impossible to ban certain forms of speech without recognizing and encouraging the state’s power to ban any speech it does not like.
Incidentally, the M+ Museum story shows again why the economic power of the Chinese state should not be feared (except perhaps militarily in the short run). This power is a direct function of the state’s capacity to extract resources from the Chinese economy, that is, from Chinese producers and consumers. This extractive capacity depends on the wealth and entrepreneurship of the Chinese economy: if there is little to extract, the most extractive state won’t extract much. The extractive performance of the Chinese state will diminish as its grip on the economy and its control on free speech tighten. Free speech is an important input in the production (and maintenance) of efficient social institutions, which in turn are necessary for economic efficiency and prosperity.
As Walter Scheidel reminds us in his book Escape from Rome, the long-lasting grip of Chinese emperors on their country explains why it lagged behind the decentralized and freer West. The imperial-like communist regime of Mao Zedong continued the totalitarian tradition. After the communist dictator’s death, the Chinese economy started escaping from the state’s stranglehold but the past two decades have been marked by a slowdown of this movement and a return to the long-term trend of tyranny and oppression. Ronald Coase and Ning Wang’s 2012 book How China Became Capitalist was largely about the hopes raised by the happy interregnum and indeed warned that free speech would be indispensable to the continuation of China’s economic growth.
All this also explains why we should be concerned about the mounting attacks on free speech in the West.