Blog Past: Freedom of Expression

25Oct09

Some bits from previous posts on freedom of expression and on the importance of ideas for human welfare.

Freedom of expression is something that some people grant to themselves, and some don’t. The people of the developed nations grant themselves that freedom. A case can be made that development is in a sense an outcome of that freedom. Support for it is provided by noting the strong correlation between how free a society is and how prosperous it is. Societies that forbid freedom of expression are insecure, cowering, fearful, and cowardly.  [Forbidding Expression — Part 1]

The short answer to why support free speech is: because we are not infinitely wise, our rationality is bounded; because we are not equally wise; because ideas matter, and because markets work.

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. [Why Free Speech.]

The welfare consequences of the freedom of expression are hard to overestimate. Every human advance has been the result of some idea that had to win a battle of survival against those who would have liked to see it suppressed. Ideas matter and therefore the freedom of expression matters.

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