More Timely Than Ever!

Friday, July 21, 2023

TGIF: Paternalists Cross the Free-Speech Line

Some pundits are puzzled that respectable mainstream Democrats and  "progressives" are no longer free-speech absolutists but rather are enthusiastic defenders of the government's massive effort to squelch expression on the social media platforms. (Glenn Greenwald is one of those puzzled pundits.)

The center-left goes so far as to smear the exposers and critics of government censorship as tin-foil-hatted conspiracy theorists. For example, Matt Taibbi is called a "so-called journalist" for his work on the Twitter Files, despite his award-winning career in investigative reporting. And look how hysterically the center-left reacted to a judge's preliminary injunction against government pressure on social media to suppress dissenting and inconvenient posts.

But why should those pundits be agape? If censorship (by which I mean government suppression of expression) is motivated at least in part by the paternalist desire to protect people from themselves, then I don't see why the censorship arrow would not be in the paternalist's quiver. Any consistent paternalist would believe that the unenlightened public can't be sensible enough to sift "information" from "mis- and disinformation" and read only the "proper" things.

Maybe the paternalists took longer to cross the free-speech line than they might have -- the First Amendment is a powerful taboo in America-- but cross it they now have. Is that so mysterious?

The statement The center-left is paternalist should occasion no controversy. We already knew that. (Of course, it has no monopoly on paternalism, but it is a strong element there.) Government interference with people's freedom to choose in the market is always proposed at least partly to protect them from themselves.

I acknowledge that the line between intending to protect people from themselves and intending to protect them from others can be blurry. Both rationales qualify as paternalistic, and both have been used to limit speech: think of the laws restricting commercial speech. But the former is definitely present.

Classical liberals have rejected that sort of paternalism. John Stuart Mill (not the most hardcore classical liberal) wrote:  "The only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others. His own good, either physical or moral, is not sufficient warrant." (On Liberty) That is, the government should not protect people from themselves.

It's not just classical liberals and full libertarians who have criticized paternalism, or nanny statism. We've all heard that "the road to hell is paved with good intentions." We've been told that the words most to be feared are "I'm from the government and I'm here to help you." It's been said that "a government powerful enough to do everything for you is powerful enough to do anything to you." In politics the term do-gooder is an insult.

I admit that the paternalist's defense of invasive government action might be a lie to cover another objective, such as power or unearned financial gain. But I see no reason to doubt that the expression of paternalism is usually sincere. I'm not saying that sincerity is a good defense of paternalism. We might want to despise the paternalist who really means it even more than the liar because as C. S. Lewis wrote:

Of all tyrannies, a tyranny sincerely exercised for the good of its victims may be the most oppressive. It would be better to live under robber barons than under omnipotent moral busybodies. The robber baron's cruelty may sometimes sleep, his cupidity may at some point be satiated; but those who torment us for our own good will torment us without end for they do so with the approval of their own conscience.

Lewis was no libertarian, so here's Lysander Spooner in No Treason: The Constitution of No Authority:

The fact is that the government, like a highwayman, says to a man: Your money, or your life. And many, if not most, taxes are paid under the compulsion of that threat.

The government does not, indeed, waylay a man in a lonely place, spring upon him from the road side, and, holding a pistol to his head, proceed to rifle his pockets. But the robbery is none the less a robbery on that account; and it is far more dastardly and shameful.

The highwayman takes solely upon himself the responsibility, danger, and crime of his own act. He does not pretend that he has any rightful claim to your money, or that he intends to use it for your own benefit. He does not pretend to be anything but a robber. He has not acquired impudence enough to profess to be merely a “protector,” and that he takes men’s money against their will, merely to enable him to “protect” those infatuated travellers, who feel perfectly able to protect themselves, or do not appreciate his peculiar system of protection. He is too sensible a man to make such professions as these. Furthermore, having taken your money, he leaves you, as you wish him to do. He does not persist in following you on the road, against your will; assuming to be your rightful “sovereign,” on account of the “protection” he affords you. He does not keep “protecting” you, by commanding you to bow down and serve him; by requiring you to do this, and forbidding you to do that; by robbing you of more money as often as he finds it for his interest or pleasure to do so; and by branding you as a rebel, a traitor, and an enemy to your country, and shooting you down without mercy, if you dispute his authority, or resist his demands. He is too much of a gentleman to be guilty of such impostures, and insults, and villanies as these. In short, he does not, in addition to robbing you, attempt to make you either his dupe or his slave.

I also acknowledge that honest paternalists are happy to join with (usually tacitly) seekers of unearned income in pressing their policy preferences. Don't forget the "bootleggers and Baptists" phenomenon. That's Bruce Yandle's term for when preachers, for example, team up with moonshiners to make or keep liquor illegal. That doesn't change what the paternalists are up to.

The point is that for a long time American paternalists drew the line at the First Amendment because censorship was such a taboo. Alas, that taboo is gone.



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