Why Have Free Speech Anyway?

In a handful of articles, I’ve touched on freedoms and rights. In this one, I asked, “Is freedom of speech the goal? Or is it merely a tool? Is it the ends, or is it the means?” In this one, I reported on Amartya Sen’s “five freedoms” that constitute a developed society. And there’s no doubt that freedoms are vitally important to any discussion of society.

I like to use the term “Tribe” to discuss any collection of individuals whose self-interest leads them to cooperate. Freedom, in this context, can be taken to mean “the ability to pursue self-interest without limitation.” But, of course, we’ve seen that unlimited self-interest leads to ruin, so we introduce the State to place limits on freedom to ensure the survival and flourishing of the Tribe. In the article I just linked to, I made the comment that “We are being [sic] in community, all of us, and to deny our connection and our inherent relationship denies every moral system ever devised,” and that’s something I truly believe; I hope to get a chance to write about that later. But at it’s core, that’s the point: that if we are going to get along with one another, we have to accept that we can’t do everything we want to do all the time.

So why let us do anything? Why do we need freedoms anyway? If we’re talking about building a well-ordered society where everybody works together towards a common goal, wouldn’t it make a lot more sense to have a kind of benevolent totalitarianism? Complete control over the population would make it a lot easier to achieve cooperation, right?

Well, no. I don’t think so. Every now and then I get drunk and wonder about how to implement a theocracy, but that’s not really important right now. To be very, very brief: freedoms are important foundations of the Tribe–but the Tribe is more important than the foundation.

On Foundational Freedoms

I’m not going to pretend I invented any of what I’m about to talk about. I’m sure there are many, many smart folks out there who’ve touched on this before. But

Freedoms are important not in themselves, but to the extent they produce valuable outcomes for the Tribe. There’s a term I like to use in this context: Foundational Freedom. If Freedom is the ability to pursue self-interest without limitation, then a Foundational Freedom is a freedom without which a Tribe cannot flourish.

“Flourishing” is a weird, kind of mushy word, I know. It’s kind of hard to grasp and define, and I did that on purpose, because I am lazy, and also a coward, and I don’t feel like doing any hard work that’s just going to end up forcing me into a corner later. For now, we’ll use “flourish” to refer to the achievement of potential we’d associate with an ideal, theoretical Liberal society. We’ll get to it later.

Free speech is an important Foundational Freedom–while you can definitely have free speech in a repressive society (I imagine a totalitarian State with a completely free press, where you can say whatever you want but it doesn’t matter), you can’t have a free society without free speech. We value freedom of speech because, all things being equal, allowing people the ability to share their views and opinions without fear of reprisal creates a healthier environment than the alternative.

Non-violence is another one of the Foundational Freedoms, maybe the most important one. All things being equal, a Tribe has better outcomes when disputes and conflicts are resolved justly, according to laws, and without force. We know what happens to a Tribe when this freedom breaks down.

Ends and Means

If freedoms are important, not in themselves, but because they produce valuable outcomes, that means that they are important only so long as they continue to produce valuable outcomes. All things being equal, free speech will always produce a more valuable outcome than limited speech, but things are not always equal. Free speech is no longer desirable at the point where it ceases to contribute to the flourishing of the Tribe. If, for example, a right-wing provocateur was spreading a message of hatred and agitating against the well-being of the Tribe, then limiting his speech is perfectly reasonable.


Picture unrelated.

The important thing to keep in mind here is the consequences. The ends, not the means. Since free speech (as well as all the other Foundational Freedoms) generally create more positive consequences than negative, they are valuable. Hugely so, in fact. But they are not inviolate. As we saw with the Tragedy of the Commons, a Tribe without restrictions of freedoms can’t survive long. In the same way, a Tribe that values the composition of its foundation more than what has been built on it will crumble under its own weight.

Categories: Dispatch

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1 reply


  1. What Do People Want? – The Georgia Wonk

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