Speech precedes politics

There seems to be a belief that society should get together and create a body that decides what is good speech and what is bad speech. Recent noteworthy examples are Leveson, the gagging law and Mehdi Hassan, but I include the private correspondence of colleagues, in particular one or two colleagues who draw their views on speech from a popular religion.

As a believer in a marketplace of ideas – where false useless ideas tend to die and good useful ideas tend to flourish – this seems rather backwards. It’s backwardness is clear when one considers the question of how the collected members of society might decide how it’s collected members should be ruled (not that they have any right to). Answers to that question range from “benevolent king” to “leave me alone”. Which is best is the subject of discussion within the marketplace of ideas.

If you now consider the question of a committee deciding what speech is to be accepted by society then it becomes clear that you are loading the game. The ever disputed outcome of one discussion – who rules – is preempted by a decision to have someone rule over your speech. Is it not fairly obvious that those ruling over your speech are likely to have skin in the other game? What are they to do when someone comes along taking an extreme stance on that preliminary question? The temptation to fix the game in favour of the committee is obvious for all to see.

As such, speech should be left as open as practically possible so that society’s discussion over who should rule and what those rulers should do can be a fair fight. The legitimacy of a ruling institution comes from its constant prevalence in the market of ideas. If it loses it’s winning position, it’s rule should end. If it loads the game in its favour it’s rule must end, and allowing anyone into a postion where they are able to load the game is a dangerous proposition that ought properly to be discarded.


  1. If a group thinks criticism of x is out of bounds, bets are that that x is dubious, specious, tenuous, fraudulent, indefensible, irrational, hat stand, you name it.
    It is all part of the inversion: make the ridiculous out to the beyond question.

    Frankly, I consider the word “blasphemy” to be a meme I shall no longer feed. I consider that meme as casting a net of enslavement and silence over another.

    To try to argue something is or is not is to keep alive the concept that it should have any force. We have tried to end physical slavery, despite the state managing to enslave us for half our working hours. We need to end the mental slavery that is the call of blasphemy.



  2. Yes either one takes the position of, for example, the Ninth Amendment to the Constitution of he United States – or that of Sir John Holt in England (Chief Justice in the period of the period of the “Glorious Revolution”) or one does not.

    Either rights are prior to government – or they are (as, for example, Jeremy Bentham argued) just the creation of government. And what the government creates the government can take away…..

    In the stereotyped view of what a “conservative” is, the Old Whig Edmund Burke should take the latter position – actually he took the former position (that the principles of freedom and property are prior to government) and not just in his youth, even in his old age. See Burke’s Appeal From the New to the Old Whigs.

    As for modern supporters of the view that freedom of speech and other private property rights are just gifts of the ruling power- which may be granted or withdrawn at will.

    I do not think there is any point at all in trying to communicate with someone like Mehdi Hassan, that all one can do is try defend one’s self and others against him (not persuade him to be a better person or anything like that), but I am old and cynical.



  3. Question for you Paul. Is a winning position in the battle of ideas a sufficient condition (as opposed to a merely necessary condition) for an institution to be “legitimate”? Is legitimacy different from right and wrong?

    I can’t unpack that before my second coffee.



    1. Simon, deep down, I do not really care about winning the battle of ideas – probably the reason I am so crap at it. I would rather tell the truth – regardless of the consequences, than say something untrue that is popular. To me only the truth is legitimate – only what is right is legitimate. Is that a battle plan for success? Most likely not – but see my first sentence.



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