The Economics of Freedom of Speech
| Nicolai Foss |
Recent, uhhmm, debate here on O&M has made me wonder why we don’t have an economics of freedom of speech. Freedom of speech has been hailed as the fundamental hallmark of free, open societies and a fundamental human right. It is also clear that freedom of speech is under attack, not just by its traditional enemies within various fundamentalist factions of established religions and authoritarian, populist, and socialist/communist regimes, but also by the tendency to turn political disagreements into moral disagreements (in Europe, most prevalent among lefties who just don’t disagree with you but think you are downright evil in case you defend free markets, nuclear power, etc.).
Related to the latter point, increasingly individuals, groups, and nations define certain opinions, political positions, moral judgments, etc. as “hatecrimes.” This position seems increasingly influential in the EU. Proponents of the right to freedom of speech has countered that part of living in a free and open society is that there is simply no right to avoid insults, hurt feelings, and the like. For example, such arguments have been invoked here in Denmark in the aftermath of the Mohammed cartoon crisis, and are currently being leveled against DK legislation regulating blasphemous utterances. However, even the most ardent defenders of freedom of speech draw the line at the explicit verbal promotion of violence against others. And most defenders of freedom of speech would also argue that organizations and associations have the rights to regulate their members’ freedom of speech.
These are clearly externality and property rights issues, and would therefore seem to fall directly within the orbit of economic arguments. And yet, economists have had very little to say about freedom of speech. Specifically, negative or positive externalities are not conventionally seen as including the untraded effects of utterances. One of the few papers that have dealt with these issues, Coase’s “The Market for Goods and the Market for Ideas,” basically argues that if there is a case for regulating the market for goods, there is also a case for regulating the market for ideas (specifically, politicians — which admittedly adds to the attraction of the idea).
However, it also seems clear that regulating the “market for ideas” is a very slippery slope. It invites to massive strategic behavior, as any individual can present a case that his or her feelings, etc. have been heavily hurt by someone’s utterances — and call for regulation, court action, disciplinary sanctions, compensation, etc. The slide down the slope may lead into an Orwellian nightmare, or a modern-day version of the Inquisition. Protection against this kind of strategic behavior and its consequences calls for strong commitment to freedom of speech. Relatedly, “selective intervention” á la Williamson in which only a subset of (types of) utterances (e.g., nazistic, homophobic, anti-Danish, etc.) is forbidden is probably unworkable for the same kind of reasons: It is too vulnerable to strategic behavior.
Another reason why regulating freedom of speech should be avoided has to do with the growth of knowledge which is prompted by ongoing critical discussion, including discussion of “outrageous,” “offensive,” etc. positions. Regulating freedom of speech limits the variation that the selection forces of critical discussion can work on.
Given the above arguments, and given that the positive externalities (economic growth, growth of scientific, moral, traditional, etc. knowledge) most likely overwhelm the negative ones, can we conclude that freedom of speech should basically be unlimited (save for the above constraints)? I think so.