Tyler Cowen on the Harper’s free speech letter

Here is a link to the letter: https://harpers.org/a-letter-on-justice-and-open-debate/

And here is a link to Cowen’s blog post (quoted extensively below, with my reactions/comments interspersed — italics): https://marginalrevolution.com/marginalrevolution/2020/07/the-harpers-free-speech-letter-and-controversy.html

[Cowen] Of course I side with those who signed the [Harper’s] letter, but I would add a few points.

First, I don’t think the letter itself quite pinpoints what has gone wrong, nor do I think that such a collective project is likely to do so.  Most of us would agree there is nothing wrong per se with voluntary standards of affiliation, or voluntary speech regulations in private institutions, nor should the NYT feel obliged to turn its platforms over to tyrants such as…say…Vladimir Putin.

[me] Certainly, there are special issues when speech/expression regulation (and personal exclusion) is involuntary – especially when the sanctions come from the government and even more especially when that government is appropriately committed to the basic values of a pluralistic, liberal society). And voluntary speech regulation still needs its standards – presumably that is part of the issue here. Moreover, when standards become public and dominant, they might as well be enforced through the government. There is a similar chilling effect. And there may well be similar – or even more intense – censorious ill will behind the regulation. I take it that it is these cases of voluntary speech regulation (and personal regulation – inclusion or exclusion from benefits, institutions, etc.), not the cases of voluntary regulation or exclusion that are pretty clearly things we should allow (like my decision not to associate with this or that person whom I regard as an asshole), is the matter of concern. True enough, we need to say more about when speech regulation and associated personal exclusion are appropriately allowed or not (and why). It will matter a lot, I think, whether a personal speech-regulative or associative/dissociative action is merely personal or part of a larger, public dominant standard.

The actual problem is that we have a new bunch of “speech regulators” (not in the legal sense, not usually at least) who are especially humorless and obnoxious and I would say neurotic — in the personality psychology sense of that word.  I say let’s complain about the real problem, namely the moral fiber, emotional temperaments, and factual worldviews of the individuals who have arrogated the new speech censorship functions to themselves.  I am free to raise that charge, a collective letter signed by 153 diverse intellectuals and artists really is not, and is strongly constrained toward the more “positive” and “constructive” approaches to the problem, or at least what might appear to be such.

Maybe this (the character of the enforcement personnel) is the main problem, but maybe not. Are the present standards for what speech is to be regulated and how perfectly okay, the main problem being that they are enforced by folks who are incompetent, borderline mentally ill, etc.? I think there are significant issues with the standards themselves (e.g., offense as a harm and a sufficient reason to regulate) and how they are to be enforced (e.g., via collective ostracism and often actual hatred directed against the offenders). Also, because of cultural and institutional changes in modern life (e.g., social media but also shifts in reasonable weightings given to different competing values), we need to update traditional ideals of free speech (so I don’t think that the problems with extant dominant standards for speech regulation is that they just don’t get it that we had the right standards before). 

The letter is descriptively accurate in blaming lack of “toleration” and increased “censoriousness” for our problems, but those words only make sense if you have a much deeper mental model of what is actually going on.  There is ultimately something question-begging about words that do not pin down the proper margin of objection, or what might be a correct worldview, or what might be a worldview we should in fact not tolerate in our affiliations.  In other words, a non-question-begging answer has to take sides to some extent, and that is especially hard for a collective or grand coalition to do.

Sure, we need to know when “toleration” is bad and “censoriousness” (if this term is being used in a non-pejorative way) is good. And why. I don’t think it is too much to ask, in such a letter, to provide something of a contrast object – to say something about the kinds of speech and expression that should fall on the okay-to-regulate side of the ledger and what the salient factors are for making this determination. You don’t need a full theory and you don’t need to be off-putting.

That is fine!  No complaint from these quarters… But in reality, the letter itself, de facto, decided to elevate consensus and reputational oomph over actual free speech about the real truths in our world… So in the Straussian sense it is actually a letter about the limits and impotence of true free speech, and the need to be constrained by social consensus.

How about the signers and non-signers?  Here is from the NYT piece:

“We’re not just a bunch of old white guys sitting around writing this letter,” Mr. Williams, who is African-American, said. “It includes plenty of Black thinkers, Muslim thinkers, Jewish thinkers, people who are trans and gay, old and young, right wing and left wing.”

Only a very small number of individuals in the world even had the option of signing, and it seems the particular individuals chosen were selected with an eye toward their public and intellectual palatability.  Do you really think they would have invited [fill in the blank with name of “evil” person of your choice] to sign?  Or how about such a letter signed only by white males?  More prosaically, how about a few vocal Trump supporters or members of the IDW?

You can’t expect readers to scroll through thousands of names, but of course with internet technology you could have a linked pdf with a second tier of signers, more numerous and also more truly intellectually diverse.  The de facto message seems to be: “free speech is too important a cause to let just anybody sign onto.”

Again, what they did is fine!  I work with voluntary institutions all the time, and am quite familiar with “how things have to go.”

But again, let’s be honest.  To produce a paean to free speech, acceptable to Harper’s and worthy of receiving a non-condemnatory article in The New York Times, the organizers had to “restrict free speech” in a manner not altogether different than what they are objecting to.

And this brings into relief, once again, the contrast object of acceptable speech regulation. So far, so good. However, though these folks are obeying and enacting certain constraints on speech in order to achieve consensus with their target group (mainly, the “woke” left), they are not knuckling under in the face of threatened or imagined sanctions. There is a “deep” free speech ethic that they are not exemplifying (and that I am sympathetic to): that of systematically and decisively elevating truth (and difference and error and contention as an essential means to the truth) and the free expression of one’s person, over avoiding giving offense. In line with such an ideal, one would speak one’s mind no matter what and even offend people and create contentious situations on purpose (not to hurt, but to achieve truth/expression and model the ideal that includes the essential means to these). Maybe the right lesson here is that such a deep ethical ideal of free speech – as opposed to a probably-narrower but more public one grounded in basic moral reasons we all share – is a rare flower that does not grow well everywhere. For the purposes of this letter, defending free speech by modeling “deep” free speech (that ideal of free speech) would not work out very well…

Fortunately, most people will read the Harper’s letter straight up rather than in Straussian terms.  The Straussian reading is far more depressing than the pleasure you might feel at seeing this missive take center stage, if only for a day.

Depressing, I think, only relative to one’s acceptance of what I’m calling (with a Rawlsian twang) the deep ethical ideal of free speech. But maybe a thinner but still worthwhile ideal of free speech is available. Maybe such an ideal will neither decisively elevate contentious truth-seeking over avoiding offense nor revel in disagreement, contention and even giving offense – but will nonetheless treat moral hysteria mobs, especially those generated on thin pretexts and meting out ruinous punishments, as unacceptable. I can envision a “public” free speech ideal like this that is both inspiring and not in the least betrayed or ignored in this letter or the strategies behind it. With Tyler, I’m disappointed that we don’t live in a “deep free speech” world. But I’m a truth-seeking, rationalist outlier and so, as a matter of realistic and respectful public consensus, I’ll have to take my half loaf. We need to be clear on what this half-loaf is, and then clearly defend it, or we risk getting no loaf at all and living in a “woke” version of sectarian society. 

I worry some that the Harper’s letter is not clear about just what ideal of free speech it is defending – and thus might be (or might be reasonably interpreted as) defending, as a reaction to new information and a changed weighting of values in society, an old-school free speech ideal that is, I believe, more sectarian than publicly-defensible (and, in any case, quasi-Rawlsian framing aside, a bit reactionary). I definitely worry that Tyler, in addition to making a similar mistake, also errs in pinning the main problem of excessive speech regulation on the “neuroticism” of the speech enforcers, thus distracting from academic and public discussion of what speech-regulation standards should be, how they should be enforced, how one might enforce them in good or bad faith (borderline mental health issues aside), etc.  I would address the neuroticism (or whatnot) indirectly, through calling out the failure to meet valid public standards. When the failure is rooted more in borderline mental illness than in error, ignorance, incompetence, etc., then I guess we’ll have to deal with the borderline mental illness.

One thought on “Tyler Cowen on the Harper’s free speech letter

  1. Pingback: Nightcap | Notes On Liberty

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