Essay:Free speech

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This page in a nutshell: A lot of people, including some libertarians, have the attitude, "If you're advocating or condoning the infringement of others' rights, then I'm not going to care much or do anything if that speech gets censored." Since most political speech involves arguing over what people's rights are, and everyone (whether leftist, conservative, or libertarian) thinks that he is just standing up for people's rights (and not advocating the infringement of rights), that essentially means that people won't intervene to stop censorship unless what's being censored is speech they agree with. The result, in a majoritarian system, is the stifling of progress.

What should a libertarian do with reference to free speech? Suppose, for instance, a socialist says, "I think socialists should take over the government and abolish freedom of speech," and the government throws him in jail for being seditious. Should a libertarian stand up for his freedom of speech, when he has used his speech to advocate the destruction of the very freedom he wants to exercise?

I think that in many cases, libertarians turn a blind eye to censorship when they think the person's opinions were abhorrent or destructive of liberty. Their attitude is basically, "I'm not going to waste political capital fighting for you. If you don't want to be censored, don't say that stuff." Perhaps they also think that it's the person's just desserts to suffer the fate that the person would have inflicted on others if that person could have gotten others to agree with his philosophy and to vote accordingly.

In the view of the libertarian, all political speech that is contrary to libertarianism is destructive of liberty. This may sound like a tautological truism, but let's bear in mind that conceptions of what is true "liberty" vary; the leftists too think of themselves as "liberals". But even more significantly, the libertarian believes that all un-libertarian ideas threaten freedom of speech because of the link between human rights and property rights. So, then, a proposal to increase taxes or to regulate business becomes an assault on freedom of speech. After all, if your income is taxed away, or you are unable to get a job because of an onerous minimum wage, how will you pay your Internet bill so as to be able to communicate via your blog?

So then, if someone says, "We should increase taxes" and that comment is censored by the government, should we stand up for the person's right to say it? Or should we conclude, "We should devote our resources to defending the freedoms of people who aren't advocating destruction of liberty"? I think most libertarians would say the latter.

Of course, our adversaries feel the same way about us. They think of capitalism as a system that gives freedom of speech to those who own the printing presses and denies it to the economically oppressed wage slaves. So what would happen if we were to say, "Taxes should be diminished" and the government were to censor us? Would the socialists stand up for our freedom, or would they say, "We should concentrate our resources on defending the freedom of people who are advocating increases in taxes, since those tax increases work toward the equal freedom of expression of everyone"?

Whatever happened to the principle Martin Niemöller expressed in First they came...? If they first come for the socialists and we say nothing because we're not socialists, what happens when they come for the libertarians? Probably often, when the poem is read, people think of apathy toward the groups mentioned (Catholics, trade unionists, etc.) Sometimes it's not just apathy but antipathy that makes people reluctant to stand up for other groups. After all, the anti-papists may think of Catholics as enemies of their God who preach deception and contribute toward others' going to Hell, so they may not feel too sorry about seeing their speech suppressed.

Whatever happened to the principle that can be summed up as "I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it"? Perhaps people don't have the generosity to lend such assistance to their enemies. Might it not be an effective way to win goodwill among one's enemies, to defend their freedom in such a way? But perhaps some people are not interested in winning certain enemies, their antipathy toward them is so great. Or they think it would be easier to just allow their enemies' speech to be suppressed so that then they won't present a threat.

Perhaps it's better to err on the side of seeking immediate freedom — e.g. the right to immediately express one's opinion — even if the exercise of that right, in the long run, could lead to oppression. After all, anyone's calculations could be wrong. Libertarians think of the socialists as wrong and harmful to liberty, and socialists think of libertarians as being wrong and harmful to liberty. But we can all agree that censorship here and now is immediately harmful to liberty. So why not stand together on that point of agreement?

But suppose freedom of speech is trampled, and no one cares. Then what? As in many other situations, the question arises, "What are you going to do about it?"

One could conclude, "Since I couldn't express myself freely, and no one cared enough to help me regain my freedom of speech, I should resist the government, since that is the only outlet left for my viewpoints." But if others did not care enough about one's freedom of speech to advocate for that freedom, then they probably will not join one in resistance to the government either, and so the only result will be an arrest and incarceration of one person. Or at least, that will be the only short-term result; there is still the potential of such actions to inspire a larger movement in the long run.

In a majoritarian system, how will we ever gain freedom of speech unless people with whom we disagree are willing to help in that cause, and we are willing to help those with whom we disagree? To only let the majority, which holds the reins of power, possess freedom of speech is to lock in place the status quo by suppressing the dissident voices that would have endorsed change. Progress always involves someone coming up with a new idea that deviates from what is currently in place; if it had been thought of earlier and accepted, it would not be progress. Even libertarianism is a dynamic philosophy; "Libertarianism, while vital and true, cannot be merely graven in stone tablets; it must be a living theory, advancing through writing and discussion, and through refuting and combatting errors as they arise."[1]