Fragile Free Speech

Under the [Irish] law, which went into effect Friday, a person can be found guilty of blasphemy if “he or she publishes or utters matter that is grossly abusive or insulting in relation to matters held sacred by any religion, thereby causing outrage among a substantial number of the adherents of that religion.”  The penalty is a fine of up to 25,000 euros, or more than $35,000. … Nugent, who estimates that there are a quarter-million atheists in Ireland, said the new law is “silly” and “literally medieval.”

More here.  Such free speech limits have a straightforward efficiency rationale – the gains of the few who enjoy saying outrageous things are plausibly outweighed by the harm to the many who are outraged.  The best consequential argument against these limits is the long run innovation gains from free speech; outrageous speakers sometimes change our minds, to our great benefit.  But this innovation rationale for reduced regulation applies pretty well to most regulation; regulation usually hinders innovation.  So why don’t we apply the same argument as eagerly there?

Our cultural heritage is that “modern” nations had freer speech while “medieval” ones did not, so of course nations now prefer freer speech to gain status.  We make up rationales as required to get the high status policies we want.  If in the future a low-free-speech nation becomes higher status, nations will instead copy that policy, and make up reasons as needed for that.

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