Why Not Censor?

An important kind of regulation is paternalism regarding individual behavior – we often prohibit or require certain choices, and say this is because people can make mistakes. The story told is that expert regulators can carefully consider the mistakes we are likely to make, and adjust our sets of available choices with an eye to reducing those mistakes. Paternalistic regulations now limit, for example, the investments you can make, the food and drugs you can consume, the professionals you can employ, the cars you can drive, etc.

When considering any particular regulation, officials should consider hoped-for gains from fewer mistakes on the one hand, and then on the other hand subtract expected losses from frustrating preferences, reducing innovation, and enforcement costs. When considering whether to allow regulation in some area, voters should also consider the possibility of incompetent, corrupt, or partisan regulatiors.

While public and elite opinion supports many kinds of regulation, there also appears to be a widely-held consensus against one kind of regulation: censorship. While we accept some limits on what kids can hear, and a few limits on extreme adult expressions, the standard view is that ordinary adults should mostly be allowed to speak and hear whatevever they want.

Yet the same human flaws that lead us to mistakenly consume investments, drugs, cars, or professionals can lead us to mistakenly consume claims, arguments, and opinions. And expert regulators have an apparently similar potential to help people by identifying and removing poor choices from their available consumption options. Why are we so eager to regulate so much individual behavior, yet so reluctant to endorse censorship?

It can’t be because our beliefs and opinions don’t matter – they often matter greatly. Yes, censorship can interfere with the competition of ideas and the evolution of better ones, but regulation can interfere with innovation in most any area. Yes, we do like to interfere in the competition of ideas by favoring some ideas via school curricula, public service messages, and subsidized art. But we still usually stop short of actually censoring messages opposed to those we favor and subsidize.

Actually, we don’t stop short as much with for-profit corporations. For example, we won’t let alcohol makers advertize the fact that most research finds those who drink more are healthier. But we are more reluctant to limit what non-profits can say about the subject. This suggests to me that one big thing going on is an anti-dominance instinct against for-profit firms. We are in general reluctant to limit choices, whether of ideas or other things, but we are more willing to make an exception for products and services offered by for-profit firms, especially big ones.

One big noteworthy exception to this pattern is reporters; we are reluctant to limit what large for-profit news firms can say. News firms have somehow sold themselves as being smaller opponents of bigger maybe-illicitly-dominating governments. When most firms are regulated against their will, they are also smaller opponents of bigger maybe-illicitly-dominating governments. But in those cases we side with the bigger governments against the smaller firms. So why side with big news firms against a bigger government?

I suspect there are multiple equilibria here.  When governments limit criticism we accept their claim that firms must not be allowed to speak freely, but when news firms are allowed to tell us they shouldn’t be censored, we believe and support this position.

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  • rapscallion

    The main problem with paternalistic censoring (as opposed to censoring to protect groups from potentially violence-inducing criticism or censoring because some expressions are thought to in and of themselves offend some transcendent norm–like child porn or blasphemy) is that merely having to resort to it makes the beliefs that one is trying to defend look weak. It’s only really effective if you can hide the fact that you are censoring something, which is very difficult nowadays.

    Also, it’s just easier to regulate non-news corporations, because you know exactly what they’ll be talking about: their products. You can just write laws like, “attach a warning label,” “don’t make empirical claims that aren’t supported by the FDA,” “don’t use kids in your ads for cigarettes,” etc. These regulations are fairly low cost to enforce. With the news, however, you have to either write ridiculously broad laws like, “say nothing bad about the President” or you have to micromanage, and since everyone will know that you are micromanaging the news the beliefs you want to protect will still look weak.

  • Robert Koslover

    Why are we so eager to regulate so much individual behavior, yet so reluctant to endorse censorship?

    That depends on who “we” is. For example, those of us who truly love freedom are neither eager to regulate nor eager to censor! But even among those who get all too much enjoyment from regulating, some of them are at least slightly aware that genuine censorship has always been an essential (and arguably, the most essential) tool for the successful exercise of absolute tyranny. Freedom of speech is always a danger to tyrants because, quite simply, “the pen is mightier than the sword.”

  • This could have benefited from links to previous blog posts:

    How does WikiLeaks fit in your schema?

  • blink

    What would count as evidence of censorship? Sure popular rhetoric opposes censorship, but we live with many restrictions from fire-in-a-crowded-theater to libel, defamation, and blackmail. Moreover, many outlets for speech such as television and radio are regulated and censored. In other areas, perhaps overt regulation is rare because unpalatable speech is handled effectively by social ostracism.

  • “Yes, censorship can [tends to] interfere with the competition of ideas and the evolution of better ones, but regulation can [tends to] interfere with innovation in most any area. ”

    Why do people who favor regulations oppose censorship oppose censorship? Because they reject your second premise above (assuming you accept my bracketed restatement of your weasel word).

    But I guess your question goes deeper: What’s supposed to be different about regulating transactions? Right? Here’s the answer: Regulation of transactions is essentially viewpoint neutral; the central limitation on censorship (at least in the U.S.) is censorship based on viewpoint. There is, in fact, a great deal of “censorship” of speech when it comes to more “regulatory” aspects, such as restrictions on time place, or manner. Some speech is even deemed unprotected.

    Here’s a posting in my blog on a case where speech was unprotected.

  • Seems a little too rooted in the USA (or perhaps the anglosphere or the West?)

    Greater antipathy towards expression regulation in the USA seems to me to have a large founder effect component rooted in the 1st amendment, which I think creates a sense of ordinal importance.

    A lot of 1st amendment defenses seem to me to be rooted in “hey, I know this seems counterintuitive, but watcha gonna do? It’s protected by the 1sat amendment”.

    Expression isn’t excepted from govt. regulation as much in China and the Islamophere, from what I’ve heard. That’s at least 2 billion people, so a good portion of the world lives under regimes with more active regulatory policy in that area. Should be good for empirical research on this topic.

  • Ray

    These things seem to be rooted in our populist conceptions of the institutions involved.

    The press is supposed to be a bulwark against tyranny because they are able to shine a light on the government’s misdeeds. So what happens when the press is relatively monolithic in ideological worldview, and that worldview happens to favor a regulation heavy system of government? We get the internet and a dying newspaper and magazine industry.

    The other part of the populist pattern is that we all need protection from anyone trying to make a profit. The state fighting for the little guy type of thing. So millionaires from blue-blood families buy senate seats and governors’ mansions, open revolving doors for their cronies between the corporate world and the government, and they erect a facade of saving us from the straw men that they actually are.

  • Thomas

    As the press is the main force in shaping public opinion, and public opinion is the main force in shaping legislation in the western system of government, it should not be too baffling that censorship on words and behaviour is handled differently.

    In fact, it pretty neatly fits Moldbugs contention that the press and the university system are in fact the government in a democracy.

  • Here are three possible meanings for the word censorship.

    Censorship1 Only the officials in the office of censorship get to see the unblocked internet. Ordinary people have no way of checking. Overblocking is rampant. Blocking the websites of your political opponents is an accepted part of the political game. When, somehow, the Office of Censor is caught overblocking the complaints get censored. Every so often there is a political scandal. The Office of Censor issues an apology, the blocked sites are restored, but no penalties are imposed on the officials involved and the social game plays on. Censorship is officially to protect the children, but the political parties each think that they can obtain a net benefit from abusing the system, so the system remains open to abuse.

    Censorship2 Protecting the children is taken seriously. Avoiding overblocking is taken equally seriously. The law permits heavy censorship of the internet. However, when members of the general public reach 40 years old they are enlisted into the Censorship Militia. They are permitted access to everything, child pornography, Holocaust denial, Mein Kampf, everything. More than that, every month they are expected to do twelve link-clicks of Censorship Duty, clicking on links forbidden to the under-forties to check that the content really does fall into the forbidden categories. They rarely find overblocking because Censors can be sent to prison for overblocking. In occasional egregious cases this actually happens, which is odd, because the forbidden categories are wide, it is hard to see the motive for stretching the censorship rules.

    Censorship3 is a fuzzy hybrid of censorship1 and censorship2. Very little is actually forbidden, so it is hard to see censorship doing much to protect the young from misinformation. Citizens have no right to check, the institutional checks against abuse are weak. Nevertheless the Office of Censorship is manned by jolly decent chaps who don’t abuse their powers. (Oh! Really?)

    The post uses censorship with its ordinary meaning, which I think is close to censorship3. However, the logic of the post seems to apply most directly to censorship2. Why don’t we have that kind of censorship? One can make a good case that it would both protect young people from corrupting material and avoid the dreadful drawbacks of the hideous censorship1.

    So I agree that Robin asks a good question. Why not have censorship2? Why indeed?

    But there is a preliminary question to ask first. What happened to censorship2? It seems to be completely missing from public discourse.

  • Why are we so eager to regulate so much individual behavior, yet so reluctant to endorse censorship?

    Everybody has opinions so censorship feels like a threat to oneself; few people manufacture goods so regulation feels like an attack on someone else.

    A plausible critique of censorship is that if one is forced to moderate people’s opinions it doesn’t look very good for humanity. I mean, anyone can get hoodwinked by products – how am I supposed to know the vitamin C content of Ribena? – but in deciding what opinions to hold one generally have access to the information one requires; need little more specialisation than critical thinking skills and, if it’s quite beyond one’s powers, rarely need to give a view at all. Sure, that doesn’t mean that people (and – hey! – me perhaps) don’t end up swallowing a load of toxic nonsense but in recognising that it needn’t be that way one could be offering the liberty of aspiration. And, besides, the most harmful opinions are usually pro-government so censorship might be a tad ill-founded…

  • It’s because people (rightly or wrongly) believe seriously in democracy. Opposition to censorship in the Anglosphere gets serious in the 17th century, culminating in the (English) Bill of Rights. It’s no coincidence that this is also when modern democracy is created. And as HA points out, there is a lot more censorship in those countries where there is less cultural attachment to democracy (China, Islamosphere).

    It seems pretty obvious why free speech and democracy go together. On a macro scale, if Party A isn’t allowed to persuade people, then Party B will win by default, and real power is held by whoever gets to choose who can speak. On a micro scale, if there are regulations limiting the investments you can make, then you can complain about the regulator, the people will weigh up the pros and cons, and we will get the right result*. But if the regulator can regulate speech generally, they will quickly stop you complaining about the regulator, and so your complaints will never be heard. Note that this also explains why we are more willing to regulate the commercial speech of companies generally than the (supposedly) political speech of newspapers. It also explains why the public sides with the (much larger) government against big corporations (“the government is us,” or at least, more us than LargeCorp).

    You don’t have to believe in the democratic narrative yourself to accept that most people do, and that these views are immediate and obvious corollaries of it.

    *This may not be realistic, but this is the democratic story and it has wide currency.

  • JL

    Because for many people the risk of censoring some type of Galileo or Martin Luther King Jr. causes us to err on the side of free speech.

    We do censor the big press firms: they are not allowed to publish libel and slander and, in many democracies, they may not incite hatred (e.g. by publishing racist material). And they must also respect copyright and fair use.

    But yet many small groups can publish freely. It would be too expensive to censor the little guy.

    And because western liberal democracies have fared well, we cherish liberal values. Our brains detect correlations, not causations. And we try to emulate perceived success.

    My hunch: If China were to achieve a significantly higher level of wealth than western liberal democracies, the world would start emulating China, including Chinese type of censorship.

  • rapscallion, having to resort to regulation should also make competitors to other banned products look weak. Lots of regulation (e.g., drug, licensure) requires detailed discression.

    Robert, lots of regulation has been useful to tyrants.

    TGGP, done. Wikileaks is the sort of thing regulators might censor.

    blink, social ostracism can also discourage consumption of other products.

    Stephen, when some consumption is banned, that especially hurts people who view that consumption as great. That viewpoint is not nuetrally treated.

    Hopefully, yes, I think there is a lot of path-dependence here.

    Ben, we can be just as arrogant about our ability to judge ordinary products as our ability to judge ideas.

    Salem, party A will also be harmed if products made by folks who support it are banned.

    JL, there are many regulations that apply to small firms, even though those are also more expensive to enforce.

    • JL

      I meant enforcement. Laws only matter if they are actively enforced.

      E.g. In Germany a small town with ten houses has been taken over by neo-nazis and they violate many censorship laws.

      If the German authorities were to crack down they’d get a bloodbath, so they don’t.

      And censoring the internet has proven impossible.

  • Proper Dave

    Why do you think that Big Media orgs isn’t censored? They are obviously self-censored.

    I’m sure you heard the anecdote of the russian journalist (in the bad old days) that visit America, and loudly proclaims, that in Russia they have the secret police, Siberia etc. to censor everything and wonders how we do it.

    • I hadn’t heard that one, though I have heard the one where the Russian says “I can stand right in the middle of the Red Square and denounce your government too!”.

      I also recently heard one where a dissident is handing out pamphlets on the street, and is promptly arrested. The authorities discover the pamphlets are blank, and when asked why he explains “Does it even need saying?”.

      Some evidence that they aren’t censored is New York TImes vs Sullivan which established precedent that they can piss off public officials, the publication of the Pentagon Papers and their recent publication of some Wikileaks materials. They do exercise self-censorship but everybody does that. Expression without it resembles free-association babble.

  • candy

    I think censorship is seen as an unfair move: if someone has something to say that an authority doesn’t like, rather than come back with a good answer, they just disallow further discussion. It’s akin to a physically dominant individual threatening violence.

  • You can’t have free markets without transparency, and you can’t have transparency if there is censorship.

    Most business persons don’t actually want a “free” market, they want a market where they have an advantage, ideally a monopoly on a necessity.

    That is what politicians want too, they want a monopoly on speech. They want the freedom to say what ever they want, even lies and they would like the ability to limit their opponents speech, even when it is the truth. If the power to restrict speech can be used to keep or acquire political power, then at some point it will be. Any monopoly power that can be used to acquire more power will be unless there is collective action to prevent it.

    JL, you may be right. That is the usual mechanism by which fascism is implemented. Damage the economy so much that the people would be willing to give up freedoms to be able to eat. That is what happened in Germany, that is how Mao was successful (among other things) that didn’t happen in the US with the Great Depression. Might it happen now? Time will tell.

  • arch1

    Flexible and efficient communication of complex information among individuals is the single biggest factor underlying the spectacular growth in our species’ capabilities as compared with those of other known species.

    To the extent that communication tends to get privileged status, maybe it’s because people realize this (if sometimes only dimly or implicitly), and don’t want to kill the goose that lays the golden eggs.

  • Candy, regulation can also be seen as an unfair move in the competition between products and services.

    daedalus, regulation means we don’t have free markets.

    arch1, as I said in the post, regulation can limit innovation in most areas.

  • Robin, there is no non-arbitrary distinction between regulations that prevent coercive exploitation (banning the use of AK-47s as marketing tools) and those which do not (requiring truth in labeling). Regulations that increase transparency (requiring truth in labeling), I think, actually increase the freedom of markets by preventing a race to the bottom and reducing the transaction costs for buyers and sellers. There is a cost of verifying truth in labeling regulations, but that cost will be (can be?) smaller than the inefficiencies a lack of truth in labeling would result in. The problem is the costs accrue to different individuals.

    Censorship in markets only serves to reduce transparency which makes the market less efficient. If you are the player who is set up to exploit that inefficiency then you will see censorship as a good thing. Everyone else will see it as a bad thing.

    Buyers would like to know the true cost of what they are buying, including external costs that are not included in the price. Given the choice between two identical products at identical prices, I would choose the one with the lowest external cost, the one made with the least pollution, made without slave labor, made without conflict resources. Sellers externalizing their costs want those externalized costs to remain hidden so buyers cannot account for them. Those external costs can be equalized through regulations (i.e. pollution emissions limits, OSHA, minimum wage requirements), or be made known through the absence of censorship. But without truth in labeling regulations, sellers can simply be deceptive about their externalization of costs, including being deceptive by not measuring or knowing what those externalized costs actually are.

  • You can tell people that vaccinations cause autism but in some places you cannot buy fries cooked in trans fat.

  • Censorship bans opinions. Which “we all have a right to”. Yes, I agree with you that we don’t have a right to our own opinions, but that is not what most people think.

    Opinions can’t be ‘wrong’, even if they can be ‘harmful’. This is again because people have a *right* to their own opinions, even if they do not have a right to hurt others directly. It’s simply a price you have to pay, to respect these *rights*. Opinions needs to get to the level of *wrong* before regulations can be brought to curb it. But this they can never be, because voicing opinions is a *right*.

    And what underlies opinion-as-right is I think opinion-as-expression, of loyalty, of one’s identity. (You have probably mentioned this before). Regulations which are not censorships don’t tread of these

  • Captain Oblivious

    I would say the reason censorship is less acceptable than other paternalistic regulation is that as long as we DON’T have censorship, we can at least read / talk / hear about the things regulated-away (does waiting for FDA approval cost more lives than it saves? Is the war on drugs worth the cost?) and perhaps decide to change the regulations from time to time.

    But with censorship of ideas (if it were truly enforceable, which of course it isn’t) there would almost certainly be no way to discuss the censorship itself, since the fact that censorship was occurring would undoubtedly be the first subject to be censored!

    Or, nearly the same thing from another angle, there’s no way to decide if the censors are are doing an appropriate job, because the public can’t be allowed to review the material that’s being censored.