Why Free Speech

Why support free speech, asked Gaurav in a comment on a previous post here. The short answer is: because we are not infinitely wise, our rationality is bounded; because we are not equally wise; because ideas matter, and because markets work.

Let’s start with the last bit—ideas and markets. Humans are unique in that they have ideas. Non-humans don’t have ideas. Every hard-won advance in any field of human endeavor resulted from the triumph of an idea among other competing ideas. The winning ideas had to duke it out in the marketplace (markets, lest we forget, is itself one of the finest ideas) and in a Darwinian process of natural selection proved their worth.

We are not equally wise. Some of us are smarter than others. All our ideas consequently are not equally good. Some ideas are wonderful and others stupid. Our rationality is bounded and no one among us is infinitely wise. Therefore it is hard for us to judge ex ante whether an idea is good or not. Ex post we can see the results of the idea and determine whether the idea is good or not. So it is better to let all ideas play in the marketplace. From among the diversity of ideas, the good ones will survive.

We not only don’t know in advance which idea is good but more importantly we don’t know who has a good idea. People don’t come with a label on their forehead which says that their idea is bound to be good. All we can do is to allow everyone to throw their ideas into the ring.

All this talk about ideas is rather abstract. Let me use “stuff” as a proxy for ideas, because in the end, all stuff is embodied ideas. I use the short word “stuff” to stand for “goods and services.” Goods such as an internal combustion engine or an MP3 player, and services such as provided by a search engine or surgery. Everything you see around yourself began as an idea, was embodied in stuff, and survived in the marketplace competition with other stuff.

Ideas build upon other ideas and they evolve. This same process is duplicated in the stuff that embody the ideas. Someone comes up with the idea of a steam engine; someone else comes up with the idea of mounting it on wheels to run around on roads; and another comes up with the idea of using it on rails; and so on.

It is easy to appreciate that good ideas are good because they lead to good stuff. But that is not all. Some humans just enjoy a good idea for itself. A nice poem, a good story, a philosophical flight of the imagination are all ideas which may not have any practical value other than that they make life enjoyable. Ideas are goods in and of themselves, aside from their instrumental value of producing stuff.

Any institutional arrangement which prohibits the free expression of ideas is not a good idea because it can be argued that it will suffer from lack of progress. Furthermore, societies that prohibit free expression are seen to be materially and culturally poor. Both theoretically and empirically one can defend the idea that free expression is good.

I am against monotheism because it prohibits free expression. A bunch of ignorant savages a thousand or two years ago motivated by bloodlust, greed and fear concoct a fantastical tale which they put together in a book and consider it the final word on every conceivable matter under the sun. The idea that all other ideas that do not conform to this narrow bigoted savage comprehension of the universe should be prohibited is an enormously stupid idea. Why? Because it produces stupid results.

Infected with the ideas contained in a hateful book of ignorant rubbish, people become stupid. They become incapable of generating new ideas. Society stagnates and the people get trapped into the mentality of the century that the ideas originated in. There is no progress. They become incapable of getting out of the trap on their own. In some cases, they drag others down into the hole with them. They fly into a murderous rage if their ideas are challenged, and routinely kill people for questioning their beliefs.

Bad ideas have to be confronted. Free speech and expression is important because it exposes bad ideas. Censoring of expression is bad because the censors cannot be infinitely wise because no one is.

My obsession with free speech and expression is not gratuitous on this blog. I am convinced that the freedom of expression has implications for economic growth and development. India will not be able to progress if it goes down the path that it occasionally treads—of censorship. The government often bans books and movies. That is purely idiotic and if I dare say extremely evil.

[Related posts:

Thoughts on the Freedom of Expression.

On Being an Armchair Intellectual.

The Freedom to be OffendedPart 1, Part 2, Part 3]

Author: Atanu Dey


10 thoughts on “Why Free Speech”

  1. Damn still making other’s do the “hard work”

    Atanu’s response: Nope. They don’t have to think. They can continue to be un-thinking morons. No skin off my own back. I am just ranting because it amuses me. I am a spectator to the circus. I let the animals do what they please. It is entertaining to watch them. Anytime I wish, I can walk out and do something else.


  2. What are ‘good’ ideas? What are ‘bad’ ideas? What are ‘wonderful’ ideas? What are ‘stupid’ ideas? Who gets to decide what idea to put in what category? Why do they get to decide that?

    Why is the decision taken by the market the best one? What if the market itself is a flawed conception? What if there is a system better than the market but the market is not letting it surface? Why should something that is decided by consensus (as in the case of a market) necessarily be ‘better’ than an idea which could gather no public support?


  3. I remember commenting on the same theme on your blog once and I see that you’ve continued to espouse the same admirable philosophy.

    However, just as before, I have an objection to the same absolutist approach you bring to it – with very little scope for the shades of gray.

    Is freedom of expression a good thing? Yes, of course! But just like perfect beauty or a classless society, it is an ideal that we, in our imperfections, try to achieve amongst the many constraints that face us everyday.

    The ease with which you outline the primacy of ‘good’ ideas and the ultimate decline of any ‘bad’ ideas is simplistic, IMHO. It brings to mind a slightly academic environment where a number of armchair worthies sit with piles of journals, debating the finer points of angels dancing on the head of a pin. Or where a copybook ‘earnest inventor’ toils away in his garret and produces the blueprint for the next amazing machine. In the end, all are rational gentlemen who are able to arrive at a civilized agreement over what is the ‘good’ idea.

    How does this match with the ideas of Jewish annihilation, which must have seemed like a very ‘good’ idea to sections of the Third Reich? Or even the idea of ‘genocide’ in general which has its adherents in various parts of the world? Or the ideas that cite violence, hatred and ruin, yet have enthusiastic supporters who all think they are ‘good’ and exactly what the world needs?

    I’m sure you agree that letting these ideas ‘play in the marketplace’ is dangerous – the world may realize its mistake in the long run, but to quote Keynes, in the long run we’re all dead, and probably quite quickly so, if the crazies have their unfettered way.

    So it seems to me, as in my earlier submission, that freedom of speech needs circumscribing – by laws, morality, principles of good behavior, whatever you choose to call it. Of course, the people who prescribe these things are not omniscient, and we will make mistakes on the way, but I think as long as we accept ‘Freedom of Speech’ as the principle we are guided by rather than a edict written in stone (and therefore inflexible and not amenable to newer prespectives:-)), we will be able to achieve a more balanced outcome.


  4. I was discussing the same issues with 2 generations of my family. This is what my maasi had to say –
    “It made me sit up and seriously think, whether, i missed out on anything, growing up, sheiled and protected, in Chennai? …..”
    Wonderful post, but as reiterated before in this comment list, where do the boundaries of “Offence” and “Ideas” blur, and how does one deal with it.

    -Shriram R


  5. Hi Kamolika,

    Your post itself expounds an idea – fettering freedom of expression. Freedom of expression is not only an idea. It reflects the need that every idea when born is a priori equally probable. Only after interacting with contemporary ideas does it acquire the qualifiers ‘good’ or ‘bad’. In other words, these qualifiers are a posteriori. Law, morality etc. are yet another set of ideas intended, as you aptly put it, to circumscribe freedom of expression. Unlike freedom of expression they are presumptive – i.e. they make a priori assumptions about the nature of good and bad – and are meant to violate the ‘equally probable’ nature of nascent ideas. That attempt to disrupt the ‘equally probable nature’ is the objection to opposing freedom of expression.

    Being a priori equally probable is a requirement of natural selection, and it is this fact that is at the basis of the defence of ‘absolute’ freedom of expression, and is what makes the freedom something more than just an idea :). It is possible that an idea may lose in it’s fight with it’s contemporaries, but can come again in future, e.g. heliocentric view of the Universe.

    We can either ‘structure’ ideas, in which case we need to start with some ideas as ‘absolute’, i.e. have faith in their truth, or we can choose to have an absolutely unstructured set of ideas. The former gives us knowledge and progress, the latter gives us chaos. If we seek progress, then some ideas must form the base of the structure. Ideas that correspond to facts – e.g. equal a priori probability of the rest of the ideas – give us pragmatic faith (as opposed to blind faith). Law or morality (etc.) can be seen as being based on expreience distilled over generations of what are ‘good’ ideas and what are ‘bad’. That they can be circumvented is an evidence of their limitation. In contrast the equal a priori probability idea has withstood the test of time. Every attempt to circumvent it, has not succeeded.

    Finally, the discussion is about having freedom of expression as more basic than law or morality, and not about which one should exist. In other words, I am trying to point out the limitations of ideas of law or morality and not advocating their removal or similar ideas. They are just not as fundamental as freedom of expression. They are useful to make freedom of expression ‘less dangerous’, but can never eliminate the danger. The best defence against a ‘dangerous’ idea is another opposing idea – whose birth requires freedom of expression. Freedom of expression as a basic ideas is amenable to change: just have another idea that corresponds to facts better than ‘equal a priori probability’ idea :).

    The blog in general tries to present the “abstract” ideas above in concrete form.


  6. Atanu

    Firstly thank you for taking the time to post your reply. Appreciate it.

    On reading your reply, I would submit to you that the state of an idea being ‘apriori equally probable’ is so infinitesimal that it is all but insignificant in its journey from germination to decline.

    An idea is born in my mind and immediately after birth, wars with other ideas in my brain. We weigh the idea against what we know and decide whether it’s a ‘good’ or ‘bad’ or ‘brilliant’. How do we decide this? Laws of nature, morality, human experience – there could be a number of things that are weighed in balance before the idea is decided as ‘good enough’ to be voiced.

    Before the idea is voiced, again there is an infinitesimal moment where it is ‘apriori equally probable’ with all other ideas about to be voiced – but not so the moment after. The very next second, it is being weighed and balanced against collective ideas of ‘good’ and ‘bad.’

    So you see, an idea spends much of its life in an ‘aposteriori’ state than an ‘apriori’ state – and that is where the debate with other ideas, concepts, mores, can take sometimes rewarding and sometimes dangerous turns.

    So we try manage this as best as our human condition allows – by trying to make sure there’s space for the ‘rewarding’ ideas to be born and some control on the birth of the ‘dangerous’ ones. In this I do agree with what you’ve written in your last paragraph.


  7. I agree with all your points but find a few things worth mentioning. Here I might be in the company of other commenters.

    While Darwin has given us a nice metaphor to think of markets, biotech industry has been mostly ignoring the role of evolution in health. Nesse, Williams and others have tried very hard to describe disease in evolutionary terms but have not impacted industry much. Why? Is it because the idea is wrong? The scientists mostly ‘know’ that evolution has shaped human physiology. Why then the mad rush of the industry to push pills to all and sundry? Is it safe to allow market forces to take care of the health-care situation?

    In the line of what Kamolika mentioned, ideas are always constrained by parameters in which they operate, either external (law, morality etc) or internal (must form part of a self-consistent system of thought). Since it is not possible to determine with certainty the truth-value of an idea, supporting free expression of all ideas is meaningless (bacause we are leaving the task of finding its truth-value to some forces, name it market if you will, whose truth-values themselves are not known).

    Someone said (was it Vico?) and I paraphrase:
    science and philosophy might be the high fruits of civilization, but they are poisoned fruits, in that they dissolve the irrational, which helps a society to cohere and remain a society.

    It appears that free speech is not any more a priori than law or morality, and I suggest that all of these work not in a hierarchical but cooperative manner, and bootstrap each other.


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