The classical liberal analysis of freedom of speech must be updated

This is a part of a longer text I published in January. Read the full text here.

The principle of freedom of speech is one of the most important ideas in classical liberal theory. In a liberal democracy, the people are at liberty to openly advocate their ideas and criticize their leaders and government’s policies without fear of retribution, civil or public. Not only that, classical liberals also believe that the freedom to openly discuss controversial issues leads to a better society. A free exchange of ideas renders ideas better. John Stuart Mill wrote:

… the peculiar evil of silencing the expression of an opinion is, that it is robbing the human race; posterity as well as the existing generation; those who dissent from the opinion, still more than those who hold it. If the opinion is right, they are deprived of the opportunity of exchanging error for truth: if wrong, they lose, what is almost as great a benefit, the clearer perception and livelier impression of truth, produced by its collision with error. (On Liberty, Chapter II: Of the Liberty of Thought and Discussion.)

Among other things, the classical liberal support of freedom of speech entails that the state is mandated to punish wrongdoers who, for instance, threaten to inflict harm to their political opponents. However, there are other issues than violence or the threat thereof relating to freedom of speech—perhaps most notably so in the digital age.

Under freedom of speech one is legally entitled to, for instance, cherry-pick bits of information to create a biased impression. For example, a journalist could choose to report of the tragic death of a young and promising student, intentionally leaving out the fact that the deceased was an activist who trespassed on dangerous grounds with the aim of conveying a political message. Thereby, the journalist could successfully bring about certain sympathies, set the tone for further reports, and stimulate public discourse on some chosen topic rather than another. She is a ”director” of public debate.

Directing political debate has always been a possibility in the modern world, at least for the rich. It is not uncommon, and not always a bad thing. When states do it we call it propaganda. In the digital age, the possibilities to influence public discourse accordingly has been multiplied countlessly. With very limited means, some people and organizations manage to achieve positions as powerful directors of public debate.


The recent rise of Western right-wing populism has been accompanied by the rise of directors of public debate. Having managed to establish the view of mainstream media as governed by a ”politically correct elite,” they have undermined the public’s trust in traditional news outlets. Among other things, this has facilitated anti-liberal migration policies, relativist whataboutism that may in the future affect foreign policies, and islamophobia that stigmatizes large groups of the population and creates divisions among people.

One might wish to claim that freedom of speech has failed to deliver the goods promised by classical liberal theory, though that would be false. Still, it is evident that freedom of speech has brought about unforeseen evils.

It is not the case that the classical liberal analysis of free speech has been wrong; it has instead been underexplored. The belief that a free exchange of ideas renders ideas better is only conditionally true.

Here, in the spirit of hypothetical philosophizing, I present three phenomena that pose a challenge to the classical liberal belief in the benefits of freedom of speech. The list is not intended to be exhaustive, and I am fully aware of that each part of it is severely underdeveloped in terms of empirical support.

First, the context in which the exchange of ideas takes place is fundamentally different from that of classical liberal theorists such as Adam Smith and John Stuart Mill. To them, and perhaps to everyone prior to the digital revolution, it was unthinkable that a civil person or organization could achieve an impact even remotely comparable to modern directors of public debate.

An updated classical liberal analysis of freedom of speech must take into account the fact that the modern arena of public debate is unequal, in the sense that the power—in terms of impact—of some players is immense while that of others is insignificant. The truth is often simply overrun by the mere quantity of false information and the force of its proponents.

Second, the strategy of many directors makes rational exchange of ideas impossible. One strategy, for example, is to distort information by overemphasizing some aspect of it. The image that directors manage to establish of a case may deviate from reality to a degree that makes the truth completely unrecognizable. They create irrational narratives that influence behavior.

These irrational narratives are stories of what is going on in society, how it should be interpreted, who the major actors are, and so on. The stories are nonsensical, yet they dominate much of the public’s mindset. When ordinary people assess political propositions their frames of references are skewed. They are unable to make rational political judgments.

Third, the analysis has yet failed to appreciate the importance of social status in ordinary people’s appraisal of ideas. Ideas are often adopted not because of their merits, but because they are advocated by a certain kind of people. Sometimes that is the right thing to do. For instance, I do not assess the arguments for and against minor details in string theory in theoretical physics. I could not even if I tried! It is more rational of me to assess the trustworthiness of the proponents for and against, especially if decisions must be made when time is scarce. The same applies in politics.

However, the arena of political debate is deeply infected by, among other things, negative campaigning, public image control, and directors’ influences. Thereby, many of us are unable to make real character assessments. We cannot effectively tell who is trustworthy and who is not.

In the words of John Stuart Mill, ”the opportunity of exchanging error for truth” does not arise. People do not enjoy the ”clearer perception and livelier impression of truth, produced by its collision with error.”

Thus, there are at least three phenomena—inequality of influence, the creation of irrational narratives, and a general inability to make real character assessments—present today that both individually and jointly have a significantly negative impact on the quality of public debate, and may pose a serious problem for classical liberalism. Classical liberals must adapt to this development without committing to state intervention.

1 Response to “The classical liberal analysis of freedom of speech must be updated”

  1. 1 Yttrandefrihet: vem, vad, hur? | Jesper Ahlin Trackback vid 10 maj, 2017 kl. 13:15


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