Free Speech Is Threatened by Right and Left - Intercollegiate Studies Institute

Free Speech Is Threatened by Right and Left

Earlier this week, Amazon without warning erased Ryan T. Anderson’s book When Harry Became Sally: Responding to the Transgender Moment. (Amazon is still happy to sell Hitler’s Mein Kampf, however.)

Clearly, the state does not pose the only threat to free speech. Which makes this piece by Kai Weiss, originally published in October 2019, an urgent read.    


Freedom of speech, thought, religion, and press are under attack today around the world. Press freedom has been on the losing end for many years, especially in many European countries. Religious liberty feels like a dream at this point, with Christians increasingly on the defensive and Jews regularly attacked in the performance of their religious duties.

Free speech, meanwhile, has been strained by political correctness. Social justice warriors on college campuses clamp down on any opinions they deem inappropriate or “hate speech.” Social media platforms, pretending to be “woke,” are banning voices out of political motivation. The public square, where debates ought to play out in a civilized manner, has turned into a battlefield in our polarized societies where political differences are a matter of life and death.

But the left’s intolerance should not be our only concern; there are doubts about whether the right, too, supports the “marketplace of ideas.” Civil debate is not that important to many conservatives anymore. Instead, some have argued that the same tactics as those employed by the left should be adopted “to fight the culture war with the aim of defeating the enemy and enjoying the spoils.” Opposing views can easily be muted. And for more religious voices, because we need “a political regime ordered proximately to the common good and ultimately to the Divine,” it is justifiable in “requiring temporal powers”—that is, the state—“to recognize and promote the true Faith.”

Or put differently, the government should be allowed to promote certain views—in this case, the Christian faith—and, presumably, reject views that go against the Truth.

What the Founders Wrought

This is all rather shocking, especially for the U.S. and the Western world in general, where principles of free speech have been part of the collective psyche and considered foundational for any political system that can call itself free.

The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution makes the importance of free speech clear by stating that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”

The Founding Fathers’ goal in constructing the Bill of Rights was to limit the power of the state. The First Amendment has the same goal. Surely both left and right can dream of being able to constrain free speech when they are in power. But the decisive question is, What happens when they are not in power and the other side determines what constitutes free speech? Social justice warriors would think about political correctness differently if the right were to implement its own version. And many (Christian) conservatives, apparently, would have no qualms about promoting their faith with taxpayer money if they were in power. Power, once given to the state, can quickly be corrupted. And that goes for governments left and right.

Founders like Thomas Jefferson believed that, over time, as opposing ideas and policies were put on display in the “marketplace of ideas” (an overly economic term that was originally used as a metaphor for civilized debate), the better ones would win support. Jefferson argued in his First Inaugural Address that “error of opinion may be tolerated where reason is left free to combat it.”

That is, as long as the option to make good and proper arguments exists, free speech can tolerate opinions that are considered stupid or wrong.

Over time, as the debate of opposing ideas rages on, fundamental truths may be discovered by larger swaths of the population. These truths come to the forefront “from an independent and spontaneous process,” as Friedrich Hayek put it in The Constitution of Liberty. This should be cause for hope among conservatives.

As Ryan Anderson and Robert George explain in their recent must-read essay “The Baby and the Bathwater”: “Limiting the authority of the state to regulate speech based on the government’s judgment about the truth or falsity of the speech seems to be the approach that best allows for the pursuit, attainment, and appropriation of truth in the context of robust debate. Perhaps paradoxically, it is precisely out of concern for real human flourishing—not out of a belief in or commitment to moral neutrality—that the state limits its own judgments about truth in the context of speech regulation, and protects within broad limits a ‘neutral’ space for communication.”

Anderson and George go on to say that this does not result in relativism, as some conservatives fear. Rather, “there are indeed universal and objective moral principles, but people are more likely (though by no means guaranteed) to grasp them, embrace them, and integrate them into their lives (especially when it comes to beliefs that do not enjoy the favor of the governing class or the majority) when the government isn’t empowered to police speech based on its own judgments about truth or falsity.”

Are Conservatives Abandoning the Marketplace of Ideas?

Yet the concept of a marketplace of ideas has been increasingly ridiculed by conservatives in recent months. They seem to forget that they depend on—and have profited from—that very marketplace themselves. If conservatives want to further their cause, they need to do that by means of public debate. By relying on government coercion or public shaming to promote their views, conservatives would adopt the same tactics as the left, implying that the “marketplace” has always been little more than a power game in which the gradual attainment and adoption of fundamental truths played no lasting role.

Yes, some thinkers have gone too far with the “marketplace” metaphor. They have assumed that in the end good ideas would necessarily win out. An example of this overconfidence can be found in the usually enlightening Ludwig von Mises, who wrote in Theory and History that “in the long run even the most despotic governments with all their brutality and cruelty are no match for ideas. Eventually the ideology that has won the support of the majority will prevail and cut the ground from under the tyrant’s feet.”

Such über-optimism can at times be unjustified, because bad ideas and arguments do have an awfully long shelf life. But conservatives shouldn’t become impatient or lose hope. Public opinion changes slowly. As Tyler Cowen has shown, even the left’s identity politics, safe spaces, and accusations of cultural appropriation have developed over decades. The lesson, argues Cowen, is that “if you are dealing in the world of ideas, play the long game.” And if conservatives feel they are on the losing side, maybe that’s a sign that better arguments are needed. It may even be an opportunity to recast the conservative vision in more meaningful ways.

Christians in particular should be wary of “requiring temporal powers to recognize and promote the true Faith.” It’s natural for Christians to want their fellow human beings to live virtuous and faithful lives. But virtue is only truly virtuous if chosen freely, not coerced. As Hayek said, “Moral esteem would be meaningless without freedom.” And, indeed, “liberty is an opportunity for doing good, but this is so only when it is also an opportunity for doing wrong.”

Dignitatis Humanae, a core document from the Second Vatican Council, echoes this line of argument, insisting that religious truths should be attained by individuals freely: “The truth cannot impose itself except by virtue of its own truth, as it makes its entrance into the mind at once quietly and with power. Religious freedom, in turn, which men demand as necessary to fulfill their duty to worship God, has to do with immunity from coercion in civil society.”

Hold on to Hope

It’s frustrating and even discouraging when your opinions are not taken seriously and you’re constantly subjected to ad hominem attacks. But rather than using the left’s own tools, treating others in a civilized manner can get you much further in the long run—to the benefit of our entire civilization. Yoram Hazony was quite correct when he wrote that “the choice between polite and abusive discourse isn’t just a matter of personal preference, like the ice cream you like. Polite public discourse was part of the old Anglo-American political tradition that [has] been destroyed in the last generation. Trying to revive it represents hope.”

Conservatives need to set an example and take the high road. Instead of attempting to coerce others to submit to favored policies or attacking those with different opinions unfairly, they should continue to persuade the public of the redeeming qualities of the conservative worldview.

Kai Weiss is a Research Fellow at the Austrian Economics Center and a board member at the Hayek Institute in Vienna, Austria.

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