Freedom of speech in a free society

Some people might be deeply shocked by the words, images, arguments and ideas that are sometimes put forward in a free society. But in a free society, we have no right to prevent free speech and block other people’s opinions, even if we all disagree with what is said or find it offensive or immoral.

There is certainly a case for curbing language that incites people to violence against others, or that recklessly endangers life and limb – like shouting ‘Fire!’ in a theatre. And there is a case that children need special protection too, which is why we have age classifications on movies and games.

That is very different from preventing particular words, images, arguments and ideas from being aired at all. There can be no such censorship in society of free individuals – for then they would not be free.

There is a practical case for free speech too. People must understand the options available to them if they are to choose rationally and try new ideas – ideas that might well improve everyone’s future. Censorship closes off those choices and thereby denies us progress.

Nor can we trust the censors. Truth and authority are different things. Those in power may have their own reasons–such as self-preservation–to forbid certain ideas being broadcast. But even if the censors have the public’s best interests at heart, they are not infallible. They have no monopoly of wisdom, no special knowledge of what is true and what is not – only debate, argument and experience determines that. And censors may suppress the truth simply by mistake: they can never be sure if they are stifling ideas that will, eventually, prove to be correct. Some ideas may be mostly wrong, and yet contain a measure of truth, which argument can eke out, while the truth of other ideas may become obvious only over time.

The way to ensure that we do not stifle true and useful ideas is to allow all ideas to be aired, confident that their merits or shortcomings will be revealed through debate. That means allowing people to argue their case, even on matters that the majority regard as unquestionable. Truth can only be strengthened by such a contest. It was for this reason that, from 1587 until 1983, the Roman Catholic church appointed a ‘devil’s advocate’ to put the case against a person being nominated for sainthood. It is useful to expose our convictions to questioning. If we believe others are mistaken in their views, those views should be taken on and refuted – not silenced.

From Socrates onward, history is littered with examples of people who have been persecuted for their views. Such persecution often cowers people into staying silent, even though their ideas are subsequently vindicated. Fearing the wrath of the Roman Catholic Church, Nicolaus Copernicus did not publish his revolutionary theory that the planets rotated about the sun until just before his death in 1543. His follower Galileo Galilei was tried by the Inquisition and spent his remaining days under house arrest. Subsequent scientific endeavour and progress in Europe moved to the Protestant north.

Ideas that cannot be challenged rest on a very insecure foundation. They become platitudes rather than meaningful truths. Their acceptance is uncritical. And when new ideas eventually do break through, it is likely to be violently and disruptively.

Certainly, it can be unsettling when people say things with which we fundamentally disagree, express ideas we believe are profoundly wrong, do things we regard as deeply shocking, or even scorn our moral and religious beliefs. And in a free society we are at liberty to disagree with them and to say so publicly. But that is not the same as using the law, or violence, to silence them. Our toleration of other people’s ideas shows our commitment to freedom, and our belief that we make more progress, and discover new truths faster, by allowing different ideas to be debated rather than suppressed.

Adapted from Foundations of a Free Society.

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A Capitalist Carol, Stave 9: The End of It

Splurge was awakened by the sun streaming through the curtains, and the distinctive morning knock of one of his Downing Street staff.

“What day is this?” cried Splurge.

“Why, the day of your Party Conference speech, Prime Minister!” came the reply from outside.

“Oh spirits!” exclaimed Splurge. “Thank you! Thank you! I haven’t missed it! I shall make them such a speech!”

His hands were busy with his garments; turning them inside out, putting them on upside down, such a state he was in. As he picked up his wallet to thrust it into his usual pocket, he chanced a look inside and saw the picture of Adam Smith on the back of the £20 note. “It’s all right! It’s all true, it all happened! Ha, ha ha,” he whooped.

He frisked into the study and fumbled excitedly for a pen and paper. “Oh, I am light as a feather, as happy as an angel, as merry as a schoolboy,” he exclaimed, laughing and crying in the same breath.

“What a speech it will be! I will tell them that public spending and regulation always has perverse side effects! I shall tell them that government just keeps on growing unless you restrain it! I will tell them how a free society is tolerant of others and does not try to dictate their how they should live; and how we should be wary of politicians telling us they are limiting our freedom of speech and action for our own good.”

“I will tell them about Public Choice! Yes, indeed! How democracy is not the answer to everything, and is best limited to things we cannot decide by any other means. How elections are not a measure of the public interest but a battle of competing interests – and how the majority has no right to exploit the minority with high taxation. The Rule of Law! Yes! I will tell them about how laws should apply to everyone, without favour, and not framed to give privileges to those in government and their cronies!”

“Oh, they will be so surprised!”

“And the IMF too,” he exclaimed all on a sudden, remembering his recent conversation. “I will tell them how the financial crash was caused by our expansionary policy, built on cheap credit and loose money! And how our inept regulators made it worse! That it wasn’t the bankers at all – that they were just caught up in the spiral like everyone else!”

“I know!” – at this point he danced a little jig of excitement – I will tell them that we will adopt market monetarism so that our currency remains sound and these things never happen again. And that we will pay off the national debt and adopt a zero deficit and balanced budget rule so that governments are never again tempted to spend beyond their means.” Splurge looked into the distance for a moment, thinking. “Oh, and I must write to the European regulators too! So much to do! So much to do!”

And gathering up his sheaf of scribbled notes, he dashed onto the street, dismissed his chauffeur-driven car, and took the bus to the conference centre where the Party were assembled. He had never dreamed that being surrounded by ordinary people, who were not part of the political class, could give him so much happiness. Nor that his mission to save and preserve human freedom could yield him so much pleasure.

Splurge was better than his word. He said it all, and did infinitely more. To freedom, which did NOT die, he became the as good a friend, as good a protector, as the good old Westminster Village knew. Some people laughed at his U-turn, but he let them laugh, and little heeded them. For he was wise enough to know, how healthy it is for a society to be able to laugh at its politicians, and how so few societies allow such jest.

He had no further intercourse with extravagant public spending schemes, nor bureaucracy, nor excessive taxation and regulation; but lived upon the Limited Government principle, ever afterwards. And it was always said of him, that he knew how to preserve liberty well, if any man alive possessed the knowledge. May that be truly said of all of us!

And so, as Adam Smith observed, “It is the highest impertinence, in kings and ministers, to pretend to watch over the economy of private people. They are themselves always, and without exception, the greatest spendthrifts in the society.” Save all of us from that, every one!

A Capitalist Carol, Stave 8

The story so far: The third spirit to visit the high-spending politician Ed Splurge is showing him the dystopia that will be created by his statist policies…


What Splurge had seen was bad enough: talk of universal surveillance, the suppression of free action, free speech, even of free thought itself, in this future of his own creation. But as the Ghost of Freedom Yet to Come continued to point Splurge towards the dismal scene, he knew that worse was to come.

The zealots arranged around their computer screens continued their business. “Report from the Minister of Public Safety!” called the figure at the head of the gathering, as another got up to speak.

“I am glad to report, Prime Minister,” said this second figure, “that a complete ban on unhealthy living is now in place. After our total suppression of smoking – “

“Total?” asked another, skeptically. “I understood that the black market in cigarettes was booming since you outlawed tobacco, and that thousands were being smuggled in by organized gangs!”

The Minister of Public Safety hardly missed a beat “– we moved to ban fatty foods and fizzy drinks, with similarly harsh penalties for those who subject their bodies to these vile substances.

“But there is more sugar in orange juice than fizzy pop!” cried Splurge, before realizing that the shadows before him could not hear, and were unaware of his presence.

“Chocolates, bacon, and eating Christmas goose are now all illegal,” continued the Minister. It is a positive contribution to the health and welfare of our citizens.” There was yet more satisfaction expressed by the assembled gathering.

“Oh, spirit! Cried Splurge. “Can they not see that in the name of promoting the welfare of human beings, they have robbed them of their very humanity? They have robbed them of their freedom!”

“Chancellor of the Exchequer!” Another figure rose up to speak at the command: “The new 100% tax on income is working well, Prime Minister,” it reported. “Our procedures to assess how much people actually need to live on are now in place, and most are receiving their allowances within a month at the most.”

“Can we really be taking all people’s income, and then giving them back only what the state deems fit?” howled Splurge, realizing the horror of where his high-spending, high-taxing, high-borrowing policies were actually leading. “Do people in this future really need to ask officials before they dare do anything at all?”

Another figure was called to speak: “The Permission to Act Bill has now completed its passage through Parliament and is now the Permission to Act Act,” it began.

But by this point, Splurge’s head was reeling. As darkness swept over him, he had a strange feeling, that the figure at the head of the discussants was none other than – himself.

“Spirit!” he pleaded. “Are these the shadows of things that must be? Tell me these things might yet be changed!” But there came no reply, only darkness.

A Capitalist Carol, Stave 7

The story so far: The politician Ed Splurge has been visited by two spirits who have shown him the error of his high-spending ways; and now he is expecting the third.


In the darkness, Splurge remembered the prediction of old Adam Smith, and, lifting up his eyes, beheld a solemn phantom, draped and hooded, coming, like a mist along the ground, towards him. It was shrouded in a deep black garment, which left nothing of it visible save one outstretched hand.

“Are you the Ghost of Freedom Yet to Come?” said Splurge.

“You are about to show me shadows of things that have not happened, but will happen in the time before us?” Splurge persisted. The spirit’s garment moved, as if the phantom had inclined its head. That was the only answer he received.

“Ghost of Freedom Future,” exclaimed Splurge, “I fear you more than any spectre I have seen. I am resigned! Lead on!”

He followed the spirit’s outstretched hand, and found himself in his old office in Downing Street. But now it was full of the strangest equipment. Splurge realized he was looking at it in some future configuration. A group of people sat around a circle of computer screens, deep in discussion.

“Next item: report from the Minister of Truth,” said the figure at the head of the circle. Splurge surmised that this must be a Cabinet meeting of the future.

“Excellent progress, Prime Minster,” said another. The last of the nation’s CCTV surveillance cameras have been completely decommissioned and recycled.”

“Well, that at least is welcome news, spirit,” said Splurge. “Freedom is not yet completely extinguished.” But in an instant he realized that he had formed this conclusion too soon.

“Excellent indeed!” said the first, gleefully. “Now that the entire population has been microchipped, we can trace everyone’s movements with far greater precision and reliability. Crime will soon be a thing of the past.”

“But how can this be justified in a free society?” exclaimed Splurge.

The figures round the table did not respond. Splurge knew that they were but the shadows of things that would be, and that they were unaware of his presence, or that of the ghost.

Yet it was almost as if they had heard his question, for they all said in unison, in a sort of mantra, “Only the guilty have anything to hide.” Much mutual congratulation followed.

The first spoke again. “And thought crime…?”

“Quite unthinkable,” said the first, now that all computers are configured to prevent the use of banned words, phrases and concepts. Already this is leading to a measurable fall in criticism of the government.” There was much self-satisfaction again.

“Oh, no! I did not want this to happen,” wailed Splurge. “I just wanted to make people safe. To cut crime. To spare people from upsetting others.”

But the shadows of this dark future carried on with their business…

A Capitalist Carol, Stave 6

The story so far: The second of two messengers sent by Adam Smith is showing the big-government statist Ed Splurge the dismal results of his policies….


“Spirit!” wailed Splurge. “What is this miserable place to which you have brought me?”

They stood in some kind of a prison, though much more dismal a prison than any of Splurge’s imagination. It heaved with abject members of humanity. Yet even though the place already seemed to be bursting at its seams, more new inmates were arriving.

“What vile country, spirit, treats people so?” he inquired.

“Yours, Splurge,” responded the Ghost of Freedom Present. “The more laws you have passed, the more criminals you have created out of honest men and women.”

“Are there no proper facilities for their accommodation, their education, and their rehabilitation?”

“You know well, Splurge, that spending on such things buys you no votes,” answered the ghost. “So you choose to spend public money on much more visible causes.”

Splurge was downcast in shame; he knew it was true.

“You, Splurge, spend it to buy off the vested interest groups. You take money from those who work hard and use it for your own political advantage.”

“Oh, spirit! Such Public Choice Theory realities pain me! Take me away from this place!”

“There is yet more to see,” said the ghost. “Let us visit some of these criminals that your bulging statute-book has created.”

Splurge and the ghost passed down an endless corridor of bulging prison cells. “These unfortunates,” it explained, pointing to the first, “are victims of your anti-terrorism legislation.”

“But we must have such laws!” objected Splurge.

“There were already plenty,” growled the ghost. “And each new law you passed cast wider than the last, until near any action could be punished in the most dire way. This woman was arrested merely for walking along a cycle path. This old man, for heckling a politician at a party conference. This couple, for a silent anti-war demonstration.”

“This was not meant to be,” pleaded Splurge. “The police must have exceeded their powers.”

“You gave them those powers,” replied the ghost. “Did no one tell you that power corrupts?”

“This man” – it pointed to another wretched inmate – ”is here simply for insulting someone else. This other, for proclaiming beliefs that some find unwelcome. These, for selling fruit in non-metric measures.”

It turned to Splurge. “It is evident, is it not, that in this country you have created, freedom exists only in name?”

“Oh, no,” said Splurge. “This was not meant to be! Kind spirit, say that human freedom will survive.”

“If these shadows remain unaltered, none other of your race,” returned the ghost, “will find freedom in any action.”

Splurge hung his head, overcome with penitence and grief. A sudden tiredness came over him, and all turned dark.