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Free Speech and Power

This post is part of the series Free Speech

Other posts in this series:

  1. Encouraging Respect
  2. Privacy, Sensitivity and Free Speech
  3. Free Speech and Power (Current)

I have discussed a number of reasons to restrict free speech and have found them all wanting. It is better to have unrestricted free speech than to restrict speech in order to protect the feelings, privacy, or any other attribute of another person. But there is a different kind of objection to free speech. It might be possible for one person to “drown out” another person’s free speech. The obvious solution of using government to fix this problem creates many problems while clearly solving none.

A few examples of this might help. The government may express opinions about other nations, individuals within its borders and its own operations. Because of the money and power that they possess, they can spread their message across the entire nation. Anyone who disagrees can be drowned out. Even the largest corporations do not have anywhere near the amount of money or power of a large government. Now, the government may have good intentions and intend to tell the truth. They may also state their opinion. So their opinions are clearly covered by the freedom of speech. But if everyone only hears their side of the story and never their opponents – how can free speech function the way that it is supposed to?

Nor are governments the only ones able to use their freedoms against others. Large corporations, non-profits, unions and wealthy individuals all make use of their money and power to express their opinions to the public. Opposing opinions are ignored. These individuals are not interested in calm, reasoned discussions. They are interested in persuading others to follow their cause. Since their cause requires action, their reasoning often ignored opposing opinions.

Given these very real problems, there are three possible solutions. First, we could use the power of government to restrict the power of large corporations, unions, non-profits and wealthy individuals in promoting their messages. This would naturally increase the power of the government. Second, we could offer some sort of ‘equality’ so that opposing opinions are heard. Since the government must enforce this equality, its power will increase. Third, we could leave free speech alone and do something else to solve the problem that does not increase the power of the government.

The first two options will increase the power of the government. The problem is that both methods make two very important assumptions. The first is that the government will know what ‘equal speech’ or ‘too much promotion’ is in the various situations that are they are regulating. The second large assumption is that the government will act as a reasoned agent while doing so. Neither assumption is reasonable. In order to determine what ‘too much promotion’ or ‘equal speech’ are, we need to be an expert in the situation being discussed. If an opinion is true and not widely known, then a large and vigorous promotion of that opinion is necessary. If an opinion is false but widely held to be true, then no promotion is necessary at all. Equal speech requires that we know what the relevant opinions are. It also requires that we bring up all relevant information such as all evidence, reasons and arguments to support the various conclusions. But we are not going to be aware of what it relevant and what is not unless we know which reasons, evidences and arguments actually support the positions they claim to. We cannot know what the relevant opinions are unless we know which opinions are really plausible given the evidence. But since the government is not an expert in everything, it cannot do these things.

The second assumption is also unreasonable. The government is an organization aimed at a cause – a just order in society. If the government is given power, those within it will use that power to achieve their version of a just society. There is no good reason to believe that their version of a good society is actually just at all. In addition, experience tells us that large governments serve the interests of large corporations (crony capitalism). So any move to restrict the power of corporations, unions and etc. would only restrict some of them in order that large political donors would have greater power.

Without a just and omniscient government rightly using this power, there is no clear benefit. So it seems as if the first two options are not real solutions. The third option must be taken.

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