February 13, 2006


Free speech ensures economic progress (Gary Duncan, The Times, February 13th, 2006)

The vital link between free speech and economic progress is a neglected facet of the intense debate sparked by the Danish cartoons. It is one that we should celebrate and cherish.

Freedom of expression has been, and remains, the seedbed from which Western economic, social and scientific advancement has flourished. It has been the catalyst for the prosperity that we all enjoy. In earlier times, too, swaths of the history of economic and technological progress are, in fact, a story of heretical rebellion against dogmatic orthodoxy, and thus a testimony to the power of free expression.

Of course, it is possible to point to authoritarian regimes —— now and in the past —— that, for a time, have been able temporarily to achieve economic progress in some form despite brutal suppression of free speech.
History suggests, though, that the inevitable consequence of such repression is to stultify progress, stunt growth and ultimately bring about the collapse of the regime at the hands of a disaffected population. Little wonder that, at this year’’s World Economic Forum in Davos, India was so keen to badge itself as “the world’’s fastest-growing free-market democracy”.

It is, then, sad that some Western governments —— our own and that of the United States in particular —— seem to have forgotten these lessons of history and have been feeble in their advocacy of free expression in recent days.

This is one of those modern mantras we hear so often we rarely pause to reflect on it. Its cousins are the claims that truth will eventually bubble up from the rough and tumble of free speech and that democracy will produce the best public policy in the long run. We all sense some vague connections between Western freedoms and Western prosperity, but these arguments are very different from the traditional conservative defense of civic freedoms–that they minimize injustice and oppression. In the sunny world their adherents inhabit, they also lead straight to wisdom and prosperity.

But is this true? Both the Middle Ages and the Victorian era were periods of economic growth and technological progress and neither is associated with unrestricted free expression. As David noted below, almost all of today’s free speech controversies involve the assertion to inflame or offend for their own sakes, not the right to make underlying criticisms of the political or social orders. Surely the better argument is that prosperity rests on social peace, self-reliance, postponed gratification and community cohesion, and that, whatever the proper role of the law, these cannot hold fast forever in the face of widespread attempts to mock, humiliate, embarrass or degrade.

Posted by Peter Burnet at February 13, 2006 9:20 AM

There's also the paradox that, while aggressively pushing "the assertion to inflame or offend for their own sakes," the "progressive defenders of free speech" happily push for strict limitations on "the right to make underlying criticisms of the political or social orders," both legal (campaign finance reform, the "Fairness Doctrine") and social (political correctness, the opprobrium directed at Fox News). Why, you'd almost start to think that they value free speech only when it agrees with their secularist, statist worldview.

Posted by: Mike Morley at February 13, 2006 10:06 AM

One may, perhaps, question the direct link between freedom of speech and economic progress
(even if, as a rule, totalitarian forms of government are often rife with corruption).

But what about the link between a culture of personal intimidation and economic stagnation?

(And might one expect countries like the US, Australia, and perhaps Canada to receive a rather generous influx of despondent Europeans in the next little while? And if so, why?)

Posted by: Barry Meislin at February 13, 2006 10:12 AM


A rare thing indeed, but the Grauniad got it just right with their leader last Saturday:

No newspaper in this country has published the Danish cartoons depicting the prophet Muhammad in ways that have angered many Muslims across the world. The Guardian believes uncompromisingly in freedom of expression, but not in any duty to gratuitously offend. It would be senselessly provocative to reproduce a set of images, of no intrinsic value, which pander to the worst prejudices about Muslims. To directly associate the founder of one of the world's three great monotheistic religions with terrorist violence - the unmistakable meaning of the most explicit of these cartoons - is wrong, even if the intention was satirical rather than blasphemous.

Note that the rest of the leader nevertheless goes on to heavily but justifiably criticise certain Muslim attitudes and incidents. That's what freedom of speech is about.

Posted by: Brit at February 13, 2006 11:07 AM

You all realize that there is a difference between voluntarily deciding out of a sense of decency not to gratuitously offend and being told by a government that something offensive cannot be printed?

Posted by: bplus at February 13, 2006 11:22 AM


Yes, exactly.

I think most of us criticising the republication of the cartoons feel that it should not be illegal to publish them - ie. the papers should not face any kind of prosecution for doing so - but that we would not applaud the French papers for the republication, and if we were the editors, we would have chosen not to do it.

Posted by: Brit at February 13, 2006 11:30 AM

I am shocked. We are in the end stage of a spiritual war against the principalities and powers of a barbarian atavism and some of us seem hell-bent to send these primitives a message that we fear their wrath.

For that is the message being sent. This is war. We should like to win this war as we won the last one, by convincing the other side that their system had failed, was failing and would continue to fail.

Our goal is to bring about their "Reformation." Given what they are, reformation means going-under. It is desireable that they confront the reality that they do not matter. They need to face the hard truth that their system has resulted in weakness and that weakness has resulted in contempt.

To cringe before their indignity is to enable their delusions of adequacy.

Posted by: Lou Gots at February 13, 2006 12:25 PM

Lou: In your 3rd paragraph, the "they" could pretty easily refer to the modern Europe elite.

Two failed ideologies are now moving towards dropping pretenses and going at each other's throats. Neither can "win" in the long run, but anyone who doesn't want to suffer under the short term winner should move to America, pronto.

Posted by: b at February 13, 2006 1:02 PM

Thank you, Lou.

Posted by: joe shropshire at February 13, 2006 1:10 PM

Mr. Burnett;

But the two periods you cite were in fact much freer than immediately previous eras and competing societies. We still see a strong correlation between civil liberty and economic progress. That doesn't mean that unlimited liberty is an unlimited good in terms of economic progress.

Posted by: Annoying Old Guy at February 13, 2006 1:57 PM

In many areas there was greater free speech in the Victorian era than there is now. The spirit of free speech has declined, what's increased is the tolerance of "free expression".

Posted by: Carter at February 13, 2006 2:21 PM

What's increased is fear of the mobile vulgus, which fear appears to have seized our own Brit and Peter by the throat, and compelled them to sing its tune. Oh, well: one incontrovertible benefit of free speech is that it has a way of making clear who you can count on.

Posted by: joe shropshire at February 13, 2006 2:35 PM

Oh, I don't know Joe. I'm pretty safe I reckon. But I am a little worried about starting with a resolve to fight for the noblest ideals of the West and then somehow suddenly finding myself in "the only good Indian is a dead Indian" territory without really understanding how I got there. And I especially worry that, like you, I'll find I like the scenery.

Posted by: Peter B at February 13, 2006 3:15 PM

Surely the better argument is that prosperity rests on social peace, self-reliance, postponed gratification and community cohesion, and that, whatever the proper role of the law, these cannot hold fast forever in the face of widespread attempts to mock, humiliate, embarrass or degrade.

You can't pin social peace and community cohesion on the Middle Ages or the Victorian period either. The Renaissance/Reformation period showed a much stronger growth in prosperity than the Middle Ages, and that was a period of widespread civil and religious war across Europe.

For social peace I'll choose contemporary America over any of those earlier times. You'll be treated much nicer as a Catholic or Jew or Baptist today than you would in 1875 America. Peter, you're equating the widespread dissemination of degrading images with widespread hatred, which isn't the case. Usually the widepread dissemination of offensive art is facilitated by the offended parties. Serrano's Piss Christ was the work of one man. The fact that it became known nationwide was the work of the firestorm of anger that made sure everyone knew what terrible things the artist was doing with their sacred symbol. The same with the Danish cartoons. You play into the hand of the celebrity offender by taking offense.

Posted by: Robert Duquette at February 13, 2006 3:40 PM

There are no high and noble ideals here, Peter. This is a prison, you are an inmate, gangs rule here, and being a white guy you are either a punk or a peckerwood. That's what the scenery looks like. Nobody ever said it was anything but ugly and stupid. Nor do you have to be that bloodthirsty. You do have to do your time without grovelling too much.

Posted by: joe shropshire at February 13, 2006 4:20 PM

What is your solution to this dilemma? What are you prepared to do to pull us back from the point of no return? Do you favor speech codes? If so, what are the contents of the codes, who is to be protected by them, who is not to be protected, and who decides what is out of bounds or in bounds?

Posted by: Robert Duquette at February 13, 2006 7:39 PM

Peter: The best Indian is a praying Indian. That is, one who has been converted to the ways of civilization, who has undergone "Reformation," for those who favor that analogy.

Among the other kind of Indians, the enemies lashing out against civilization, the Sheridan maxim holds.

Posted by: Lou Gots at February 13, 2006 8:50 PM

Joe and Lou:

If he's managed to convince you that 'we' (the Christian whites) are engaged in a war with 'them' (the Muslims), then Osama bin Laden has won.

Do either of you know any Muslims? Real American ones, not the ones on blogs or in the TV news snippets?

Posted by: Brit at February 14, 2006 4:46 AM