Economy,  Freedom & Liberty

The Empirics of Free Speech and Realistic Idealism: Part I

This is a cross-post from anonymous mugwump

King’s College London recently hosted a lecture given by their Professor of Public Policy and Political Economy, Mark Pennington. In that lecture, he expressed a methodology which is both empirically and normatively sound for constructing and limiting political institutions. The talk was about the ‘project of political economy’ and more specifically, ‘realistic idealism’ which

… rejects a narrow focus on questions of efficiency because it recognises that policy prescriptions that take no account of moral constraints are not worthy of serious consideration. Equally however, it recognises that those forms of ethical or moral theorising that ignore real world practicalities of economics and politics are not worthy of consideration either… It draws on the work of economists, political scientists and philosophers […and] recognises the importance of certain constraints that reflect the human condition.

Much of the debate on freedom of speech has been done over and over and I my main aim is not to go over recent controversies (although I will touch on them in the final part). Whether ‘offensive’ words should be censored is  Very Boring Discussion #1. Whether Charlie Hebdo is racist is Very Boring Discussion #2.  I want, rather, to go back to the basics and apply the above methodology to free speech: what does the empirical literature tell us about political/economic realities and the human condition in relation to the rationale for free speech?

This is an area which I am not as comfortable talking about as terrorism and international affairs so please do refer me any literature not cited here. I am myself am not entirely persuaded by some of the arguments I’m making, but I offer them to be refuted – or strengthened. The length of this post is explained by two factors: first, I do not want to leave claims – no matter how obvious – unsupported because it’s simply a bad methodology. A lot of what follows, unfortunately, many of you will already agree with.

Second, I am using this post as an opportunity to express my wider political and ideological views. I have tried to push as much of the post into endnotes where they don’t affect the main argument made here or are relatively undisputed. However, my primary interest is the talking about studies so cutting down hasn’t gotten me that far. I’d like to thank the Hated Sam Bowman, Ben Southwood and Pseudoerasmus for giving me comments on this post prior to publication. They have (differing) disagreements with this post but were open to reading it.

This post will likely be in three parts – most of which have now been written. The bibliography will be in the final part as I’ve been putting it together as I go along alphabetically and can’t be bothered to subdivide. I will make the entire thing available as a PDF at the end as well.

By way of summary, here is the argument I’m putting forward:

  1. The argument that a market place of ideas works to help individuals find the truth is not empirically robust.
  1. The argument that a market place of ideas works to help progress in human, political and social development over long periods of time is valid.
  1. The argument that certain kinds of speech are harmful is overstated by some but by no means entirely invalid.
  1. There are normative positions we should adhere to that have a radical impact on free speech and public policy.
  1. The argument from infallibility, coupled with the incompetence of the state, is the strongest argument in favour of free speech.
  1. The language that is used by both free speech advocates and detractors is misguided.

Do read the rest of mugwump’s post here