Free Speech and Bad Ideas

There is a view common among free speech advocates that in a free marketplace of ideas, the best arguments prevail most of the time. This view has a long history dating back to Milton who averred that “in a free and open encounter” truth would prevail. Taking us much closer to the present day, in a 2006 article for Time magazine, Nick Cohen lambasted the “European judges and politicians” who “do not believe that bad arguments can be defeated by better ones in a free society”. Leaving aside that I agree with Cohen in this particular case – he’s criticising a proposed ban on genocide denial in France –  I feel more circumspect than he appears to about the best ideas winning out.

The quality or ‘rightness’ of an idea or argument are only two factors among many in determining that idea or argument’s success. Some ideas may be bad or wrong, but they nevertheless prevail because they are flattering to those that believe them. Most wealthy people believe they have earned their success, whereas grousing socialists might see luck as a more important factor. Such beliefs are manifestations of self-serving bias, which is a psychological tendency to believe ourselves responsible for our successes but to attribute our failures to external factors. This is only one of many cognitive biases, each of which subvert rationality in a way that often obstructs us in alighting upon the best idea or argument.

Sometimes an idea prevails simply because the person holding it has an especially loud voice through privileged access to certain media. Rich people can often just buy their ideas success. They could, like Silvio Berlusconi or Rupert Murdoch, buy a bunch of newspapers and TV stations and staff them with people whose ideas they find congenial. They could pay a fancy communications or PR firm to package their messages in ways that give them broader appeal than they might otherwise have. They could spend vast riches advertising their speech, or, most troublingly of all, they could donate large sums to politicians with the tacit agreement that they support a particular law. Or, as in Berlusconi’s case, they could bypass this thickety process by just being one of those politicians…

I don’t think it would be wild speculation to suggest that some of these might be reasons why so many bad ideas seem to prevail. Whilst the evidence for global warming has accumulated and strengthened, a cottage industry of spurious research and confused journalism, funded largely by people like the Koch brothers, has developed. Not one of Rupert Murdoch’s newspapers opposed the Iraq war, a bad idea that might not have come to fruition had, say, the editors, publishers, and writers of the New York Review of Books had a similarly loud megaphone. Perhaps also President Obama would have passed comprehensive socialised healthcare in the US had there been a fewer healthcare lobbyists in Washington. (The ratio of lobbyists to congressmen was apparently 6:1.)

This is not to make some grand point that if only the access to society’s means of communications were more egalitarian, the best ideas would always prevail and we would be living in a land of Edenic bliss – though it wouldn’t hurt – but just to make the narrow point that that, contra Milton, a free and open encounter is not a sufficient condition for the best ideas to prevail.


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