Democracy Needs Free Speech
I got my PhD in formal political theory from Caltech in 1997. And here I’m going to pull rank, invoking my expertise on democracy.
Our society is heavily regulated, especially its most prestigious and important parts. And much of that regulation gives regulators great discretion, to do as they see best to fix the many problems that plausibly plague our institutions and social equilibria. While some describe this the tyranny of an elite ruling class, others say, no, such regulators are accountable to voters as the ultimate rulers, via democracy.
Talk is often important, and talk can plausibly be plagued by as many problems as are most other areas of society. Thus many push for more regulation of talk, and want to give regulators the usual broad discretion to promote some topics and styles of topic, while suppressing others. For example, in the US we have long strongly regulated education and talk by foreigners, we have heavily regulated TV and radio talk, authorities recently induced heavy behind-the-scenes regulation of social media , many now want stronger open regulation of social media, and many are now eager to regulate AI chatbots. Furthermore, cancel mobs have recently shut down some kinds of talk in some areas.
However, regulation of talk differs in a key way from most other regulation: it threatens democracy. Researchers who track worldwide trends in democracy report a recent decline, and their metrics for measuring democracy put a big weight on “freedom of expression”.
And for good reason; the logic is simple and compelling. Democracy is a system wherein candidates compete in elections for voter support, with the winners gaining temporary political power. So the more that incumbents can use discretion over regulation to tilt elections in their favor, the less competitive are such elections, and the less democratic is that society. Especially damaging are abilities to limit who can run for office, and what challengers and allies can say to who criticizing incumbent choices.
And this is why researchers who rate the degree of democracy of nations put a big weight on who is allowed to say what how to who. As should you. If you want your society to be democratic, you have to accept that you can’t give incumbents as much discretion to regulate talk as you might otherwise want, to fix the social problems you see. Even if it feels hard, you need to just back off on regulating social media, chatbots, schools, foreigners, and much else. Remember: humans have long shown a robust ability to distrust most all purported info sources. They will surely continue to do so.
Most treat democracy as quite sacred, and for them this argument should feel quite compelling. While democracy isn’t as sacred for me, I do admit that democracy tends to be better than the other usual alternatives. Yes, the fact that I think we tend to over-regulate in general makes me especially eager to point out this argument for less regulation. But even so, that doesn’t make this argument wrong.