Free speech and the free market: comparable?

Matthew Rao


April 17th, 2015

Can simple economic frameworks be applied to the free speech debate? Matthew Rao believes so.

The attacks on the Charlie Hebdo staff earlier this year in France prompted many to voice their support for free speech. But there are also those who wish to impose limits on speech, for religious, racial or political reasons. In this article, I attempt to show how the free-market economic ideology can be applied in order to explain why a line shouldn’t be drawn.

I’ll start with supply and demand. Anybody who’s studied economics for more than a week knows the significance of this concept. If a product experiences a fall in demand due to a shift in consumer taste, the price falls, the product becomes less profitable and the seller exits the market.

Many arguments I encounter in favour of limiting free speech have good intentions. Many people who don’t want to see racial vilification or hatred infest society think that placing a ban on this kind of speech seems like a sensible route. But speech is in a sense similar to any other product. If there is no demand for it, its seller, or speaker in this case, will be forced out of the market.

Think about it. Say someone makes a habit of regurgitating their belief that a Jewish conspiracy was behind 9/11. The chances are that when they express this belief in ,say, a job interview or a first-date, they’ll be immediately and embarrassingly thrown out of both the job market and the female attention market. People who speak nonsense will naturally find themselves on the fringe of society because what they are selling just has no demand.

When a free-marketer is willing to make concessions, they tend to say that although the free market can lead to failure, government failure is much more acute. This is the central notion of Austrian economics, the idea that the economy is too difficult to understand, and so shouldn’t be trusted to a committee of central planners to navigate through.

To anyone who wants to limit free speech and punish those who cross some kind of line, a similar question has to be asked. Who can be trusted to be the arbiter of appropriate speech? It’s easy to say you don’t want to see racial vilification or hear offensive speech, but who do you trust to determine what is acceptable for everyone?

If we decide to anoint a person or body to be the all-powerful mediator, and they decide that as first order of business that criticism of religious prophets is no longer allowed, what about the great number of people like myself who disagree, and feel that these figures should be subject to scrutiny like anyone else? Would our opinions not be welcome? This is clearly an untenable situation. For proof, look no further than Saudi Arabia, where extreme limits on speech are imposed by an absolute monarch, and where a young man, Raif Badawi, was recently sentenced to a thousand lashes in public for the crime of ‘ridiculing Islamic religious figures’. If you think that this government failure is less problematic than the free-market failure of occasionally hearing something you don’t like, then that’s a problem.

One of the more widely accepted free-market arguments is that an open economy is essential for a nation to flourish. Cutting your economy off from the world is seen to be a self-destructive approach, because when an economy isn’t exposed to the advances made in the rest of the world, it can stagnate.

Let’s once again apply this to free speech.

For a country to truly develop intellectually, the right of its citizens to express themselves is imperative.

Holocaust denial and Nazi propaganda is rendered illegal in some countries throughout Europe, including Germany, Austria and Poland. On the face of it, this might seem rational. These were the nations in which Nazism flourished in the 1930s, so what help would it be to allow for an open season of literature and thought that could re-ignite the flames of the Third Reich? This is, in a sense a form of speech protectionist policy.

Of course one of the key propellers of Nazism was Nazi literature and speech, but interestingly, hate speech laws were on the books in Germany at the time, and many Nazis were taken to court for hate speech in the 1920s. However, rather than discrediting them , the court cases served as important publicity and fed into the idea that they were honourable rebels against a failing German democracy. Attempts to suppress them backfired.

The only way to ensure that Nazism seems as ridiculous as it is is to ensure that its ideas are subject to criticism. That’s why it was refreshing to see that Germany has recently agreed to begin re-publishing ‘Mein Kampf’, Hitler’s manifesto, in 2016. As someone who has read multiple excerpts from the book, I can assure you that one of the best ways to discredit Nazism is to read what Hitler himself wrote. The fact that young Germans now have much more scope to critically analyse the mind of a fascist can only be helpful when the time comes to identify it in someone else.

In the free-marketer’s view, economic development can’t occur if protectionism is ascendant, just like how a country can’t develop in many other ways if it doesn’t open itself up to different and unwelcome speech.

However, I’m sure for some, economic arguments, whether of the free-market variety or not, will not be a sufficient theoretical basis for uninhibited free speech. Many will be skeptical of the notion that unfettered free speech will naturally push racism and bigotry to the fringes, as they will also be of the idea that the availability of divisive literature can pacify a nation rather than radicalise it.

But even if these economic arguments don’t make an impression, I believe that the moral argument to the right of free speech is more than persuasive enough. Any human being, however offensive or inciteful their words may be, should always be allowed to express themselves freely. Because, put simply, the sheer repulsive arrogance of someone trying to tell you what you can say, hear or read, is a much greater offence to decency and justice than the worst kinds of speech you can name.

The views expressed within this article are those of the author and do not represent the views of the ESSA Committee or the Society's sponsors. Use of any content from this article should clearly attribute the work to the author and not to ESSA or its sponsors.

  • Collin Li

    Great contribution – can you convert supporters of free speech into laissez-faire libertarians by playing your comparison to free markets backwards?

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