I consider freedom of speech to be one of the most important foundations of today’s society. However, in this post I’d like to present what I believe is the strongest argument against free speech, then follow it up with the reason I think said argument is wrong in a later post.
The groundwork for this argument (though certainly not the argument itself) is laid out in detail in Scott Alexander’s Meditations On Moloch, which I recommend you read first. The most relevant part is as follows:
The point is – imagine a country full of bioweapon labs, where people toil day and night to invent new infectious agents. The existence of these labs, and their right to throw whatever they develop in the water supply is protected by law. And the country is also linked by the world’s most perfect mass transit system that every single person uses every day, so that any new pathogen can spread to the entire country instantaneously. You’d expect things to start going bad for that city pretty quickly.
Well, we have about a zillion think tanks researching new and better forms of propaganda. And we have constitutionally protected freedom of speech. And we have the Internet. So we’re kind of screwed.
The obvious way to solve the problem in the analogy is to remove the right to exist and contaminate the water supply that the bioweapon labs currently possess. The other apparent option, eliminating the mass transit system, is both less effective, since the pathogens will merely spread at a lower rate, and more costly, since the mass transit system is otherwise a very useful innovation.
The implications of this are troubling. The problems with eliminating the mass transit system appear analogous to problems with eliminating the Internet. Eliminating freedom of speech also seems like it would be more effective, so the only part of the analogy that remains to be upheld is the lower cost.
This is the point where the marketplace of ideas will be brought up to justify keeping freedom of speech. Allowing ideas to compete so that the truth may come out on top makes freedom of speech very beneficial, and thus much more costly to remove than the analogous rights of the bioweapon labs. Unfortunately, another point made by Scott Alexander suggests that this is a weak argument:
Memes optimize for making people want to accept them and pass them on – so like capitalism and democracy, they’re optimizing for a proxy of making us happy, but that proxy can easily get uncoupled from the original goal.
Chain letters, urban legends, propaganda, and viral marketing are all examples of memes that don’t satisfy our explicit values (true and useful) but are sufficiently memetically virulent that they spread anyway.
So the marketplace of ideas is not actually as valuable as it may seem. After all, think tanks wouldn’t be that large of a threat if it were; their ideas would simply be outcompeted by the truth. This implies that the cost of eliminating free speech is not that high, and thus that doing so is the correct solution.
Next post will be an explanation of where I think this argument breaks down.