I’ve been reading more about propertarianism of late. While I consider myself to be a propertarian, I always had a bit of an issue with propertarianism’s opposition to freedom of speech. This was a subject I debated with one of propertarianism’s best spokesmen, Eli Harman, (whom I had the pleasure of introducing in his 20-minute summary explanation on the philosophy; to date, it is the best explanation on propertarianism I have come across).
Some background: I have been championing free speech for almost a decade now. Aside from religion, it is probably the subject I have researched the most thoroughly and debated most frequently.
But more recently, I have begun to change my thinking.
To begin with, it has become increasingly difficult for me to maintain the philosophical distinction between “speech” and “action,” upon which many of the classical arguments defending free speech depend.
Second, the challenges of multi-culturalism have led me to believe that freedom of speech is untenable outside of a relatively homogeneous environment. The cost of miscommunication and misunderstanding is simply higher than the benefits of sharing ideas, which becomes more difficult in a multicultural society anyhow.
Then Vox Day came out against free speech, with a fairly compelling argument that essentially treated speech as morally equivalent to an action, in terms of our ability — and therefore, responsibility — to regulate. In order to defend free speech, I had to differentiate between “enlightenment free speech” and “common law free speech,” the latter being defensible, though not recognizable to most advocates for freedom of speech today.
And as I thought about it further, paradoxes began to emerge. Some of these were legal in nature, but the big, inescapable, fundamental one was whether or not speech qualified as an action or not. There seemed to be no getting around the fact that it was, in fact, an action, despite clearly being different in kind from most actions that we prohibit. But this apparent difference was merely a matter of directness. If I kill someone, that is murder. If I hire a hit-man to kill someone, the only “action” I have performed is speech, unless speech is interpretable as an action. Telling lies can have just as harmful effects as physical assault.
Consider, for example, the phenomena of libel; if I were to spread false stories that someone I knew was a rapist or a child-molester, then I am probably doing far greater long-term damage to that person than if I were to simply punch them in the face.
After thinking through all of this, I do not think I can defend freedom of speech any longer. And it occurred to me that what I always wanted to defend in the first place wasn’t freedom of speech anyhow.
It was freedom of inquiry.
One can inquire and learn about a subject without speaking of it. Although speaking of it often helps others learn, this is not actually necessary, so long as some are permitted. For instance, I am not qualified to expound upon medical best practices — indeed, I could be sued if I were to offer medical advice, and someone who takes my advice suffers serious injury or illness as a result. But I am more than free to learn about medical practices, and there is no shortage of qualified sources to learn from.
Between the media, academia, and the various political machines at work in the United States, it has become self-evident that the deception and outright lies purveyed under the protection of “free speech” are serious. And further, it is clear that the benefits of free speech go largely absent, given the difficulty in clearly communicating across cultures in a multi-cultural empire like the United States. Whether or not free speech might be worth this cost in a more homogenous society, I am no longer even sure, but I am sure that at present, it is a moot issue. We do not live in a homogenous society. Other tribes can and do take what we say and weaponize it against us. Freedom of speech, at present, does not exist, regardless of what the first amendment does or does not promise.
This brings us to the question of whether or not it should exist.
I no longer believe the answer to this is “yes.”
For starters, I believe the term is inaccurate. The defensible manifestations of “free speech” are so full of exceptions and special cases that the honest observer is forced to agree with Justice Thomas: that people seem to have a right to speak freely, “except when they don’t.”
This is not just a matter of acknowledging the present. I remain strongly against prohibitions on “hate-speech,” but what about libel? What about copyright infringement, or plagiarism? What about threats to life and family? Many defenders would argue that these forms of speech are not really “speech,” but constitute an action. But how does this categorization not apply to all speech?
Another popular defense of free speech — one made by Hitchens years ago, and indeed, by myself in my debate with Eli — is that it is technically impossible to actually regulate speech. But this challenge is actually not a problem with these other, regulated forms of speech (libel, threats, copyright, etc). No law is enforced perfectly, and there will always be challenges and difficulties with particular laws, but the prohibitions on plagiarism, and slander have not been significantly more difficult to enforce than any other law. Probably easier than many, in fact.
This may sound petty, but it is not.
I am get more and more annoyed every year when people dismiss an argument as “just semantics,” as if the meanings of things was a kind of side-note, irrelevant to the greater picture. An ideological loyalty to “free speech” has left right-wing people frantically standing up for the rights of their enemies to criticize them, yet unable to enjoy the fruits of a truly free culture: the freedom of inquiry.
We are fighting for a right that we do not have, and perhaps cannot actually exist. Contrary to the argument that speech cannot be regulated, speech actually cannot be protected. The first amendment says that Congress shall make no law abridging the freedom of speech, but Congress is not the only censor in town. In today’s social media age, it is not even the biggest censor in town. International corporations can unperson you, from social hubs, payment processors, and even knitting groups. Unelected advocacy organizations can get you fired from your work, and irreparably damage your social life and career prospects. They can punish you for what you say, and sometimes, even stop you from saying it.
And in the fight against this censorship, advocates for free speech seem to become very image-conscious. They try not to push boundaries (at least, not the wrong ones). To my knowledge, Hitchens was the only true exception to this rule, defending the historian David Irving and holocaust-denial in general on free speech grounds, despite not being a holocaust-denier himself. No other public “defender of free speech” that I know of goes so far. Instead, most focus on the law, and not on the aim of the law. “Free speech,” as it turns out, is not the aim. No one wants simply to say things at random. Freedom of speech is a means, but a means to what?
The proper, and often implied end of the freedom of speech is freedom of inquiry, and this can be attacked without endangering the freedom of speech. In fact, free speech is often utilized to squash freedom of inquiry. Lies, personal sabotage, libel, and mob-campaigning are all — at least in principle — “free speech,” and are used freely against those who are exploring the “wrong” ideas.
Because freedom of speech necessarily includes the freedom to willful dishonesty and deceit, which are tools against free inquiry, I think that the current political climate not only highlights the difference between free speech and free inquiry, but actually pits them against each other. Freedom of inquiry is the ostensible aim of free speech, yet is not necessarily the result, especially when those with an axe to grind and time on their hands put effort into squelching opposition, through means other than good ol’ fashioned argumentation.
It’s been a long road, but I do not think I can any longer call myself a “free speech advocate.” My aim is argumentation and learning, and certain kinds of speech protected under “free speech” (the means of distraction and deception that propertarians identify) actually hinder this aim.