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Selective Freedom of Speech

Sticks and stones may break our bones, but words cannot hurt us. Why punish freedom of expression?

Written by johnleemk on 9:38:40 am Aug 7, 2007.

Few things in life are as irritating as hypocrites, especially hypocrites who refuse to acknowledge their self-contradiction. One of the worst hypocrisies in my book is advocates of freedom of expression who then pick and choose the views they would allow.

To a lot of people it probably seems obvious that most, if not all, views should be tolerated. But to a probably equally large number of people, it seems obvious that some views are too extreme to be allowed.

The whole point of freedom is to avoid being judgmental about different points of view. Sticks and stones may break our bones, but words cannot hurt us.

That is the difference between advocating genocide and actually carrying out genocide. I may disagree vehemently with the views of ethnic supremacists, but they have the right to voice their views as long as they do not act on them; the simple act of talking is harmless.

You may wonder what we gain from permitting such talk. After all, what are the benefits? But I believe this is looking at the situation from an entirely incorrect perspective.

When it comes to freedom, the appropriate question is, what are the costs? Is there any significant, tangible downside to permitting this freedom? If not, why not let people be free?

Of course, now we have to deal with the argument that people might be swayed by the talk of ethnic supremacists, just as Germany was swept up into the Holocaust by the charisma of Adolf Hitler.

But again, the question is, why not trust the collective wisdom? We know that the free market is the ideal solution to allocating scarce resources, but why do we shrink from permitting the free market to act in the sphere of ideas?

The fact is, for every failed market, there are ten prosperous markets. For every state which has fallen prey to the wrong ideas, there are ten which have survived by permitting the expression of ideas counter to the status quo.

If there are people who are inciting others to commit crime, then this speech is no longer harmless. There are laws against incitement for just this reason. But as long as no harmful action is taken based on the propagation of an idea, what reason have we to ban people from expressing this idea?

There is no need to selectively apply freedom of speech. In most places, there is room for a substantial middle ground, but not when it comes to freedom. As long as the exercise of my freedom does you no harm, you have no right to stop me.