Blogs > Liberty and Power > L&S: Free Speech as a Discovery Process

Jul 12, 2005 12:57 pm

L&S: Free Speech as a Discovery Process

James is doing a wonderful job explicating J.S. Mill's defense of free speech in On Liberty. He's now turned to what I think is one of the best of Mill's arguments - that free speech is required because, as a student just said,"no one has a monopoly on the truth." Given human fallibility, we need free speech to discover the truth. Competition among various views of the world will generate a better approximation to truth than would happen if any limits were imposed upon speech. Thus our ignorance becomes the justification for freedom, as freedom allows us to generate knowledge that would otherwise go undiscovered. Mill is very clear on this point.

Of course this argument is precisely parallel to the Hayekian/Austrian argument about the way in which the market works as a discovery process. (See Hayek's essay"Competition as a Discovery Procedure.") What I find especially interesting about this is that the Hayek essay was written in the late 1960s (although embryonic versions of the ideas were around earlier), after Hayek had been engaged in his fairly deep study of Mill. Hayek long admired Mill and edited a collection of Mill's letters with Harriet Taylor. In the early 50s, he and his second wife took a European vacation that retraced some steps that Mill had taken.

Given Hayek's admiration for Mill, I wonder how much of what emerged in the 1960s in Hayek's thinking about competition came from his study of Mill and Mill's argument for free speech in On Liberty? Furthermore, some contemporary Austrians, myself included, have argued that markets are extra-linguistic communication processes, so one way of seeing the parallels in Mill and Hayek is to argue that all forms of communication should be free because all forms of communication, whether speech or markets in this case, are ultimately discovery processes that are socially necessary to overcome our structural ignorance.

I think this same argument can be extended to Darwinian evolution as well. Evolution via natural selection is a very similar sort of discovery process as markets and free speech. The implied vision of human natural and social life as being an interconnected set of evolutionary discovery processes is, for me, quite inspiring. We are all connected in our biological, social, economic, and intellectual evolution by similar sorts of discovery processes.

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Jason Kuznicki - 7/12/2005

I've never quite been a consequentialist myself; while I think that consequentialism can serve as a good "reality check" to natural rights theory, informing us about when (and sometimes how) we get things right or wrong, still, if a consequentialist argument seems to lead us astray, then I am fine with abandoning it.

That said, I believe Mr. Gould makes some mistakes about Hayek and especially about Mill. He writes,

To the Millian explanation of free speech, there is no value in speech which does not convey information,

This is a misunderstanding of Mill's argument. Mill would most likely have defended free speech that contains no apparent information by replying--How do you KNOW that it contains no information? What is useless drivel to you may be priceless knowledge to me, and in this sense the argument from ignorance really does go all the way down, even to our judgments about the character of knowledge itself.

Mr. Gould continues in part:

Similarly, if we one day build some Ultimate Calculation Engine that _can_ correctly perform the Hayekian information-aggregation task, we ought in this view to abolish the markets.

I would disagree. If ever we build such an Ultimate Calculation Engine, then it too will become a part of the great complexity of our economic/knowledge system. Its own calculations, its findings and predictions, will act to complicate the market. Users of this information will naturally seek to obtain economic advantage through it, and this will call for a new round of calculations: We will then be forced to build an Ultimate Calculation Engine Version 2.0. And so forth... I would theroize (cautiously, of course; this is only a blog comment) that you cannot meaningfully get ahead of the curve by making better and better calculations.

Steven Horwitz - 7/12/2005

You haven't read *On Liberty* very closely, because Mill explicitly addresses the question of why we should have free speech even if we are sure of the truth - namely, without challenges to that truth, we'll lose the arguments for the truth and begin to lose the truth itself.

In the market, there's no such thing as the "absolutely optimal price" (and one could argue that truth is never totally static), because ceteris isn't always paribus. That is, the factors that determine what the "right" price should be are constantly changing. Freedom is necessary to continually adjust to those changes. In the same way, Mill argues that freedom of speech is necessary because truths will fade if they are not challenged, rethought, and defended.

I also don't see the point about Hayek and the price of sand. Hayek gives every reason to think people should charge whatever price they think is appropriate, as that is part of the discovery process of the market. There's no reason ex ante to exclude any possibility.

Finally, yes both Mill and Hayek are making consequentialist and not moral defenses of freedom. That's fine with me.

Grant Gould - 7/12/2005

I've always been a bit unsatisfied with Mill (and, indeed, with Hayek) on this point.

To the Millian explanation of free speech, there is no value in speech which does not convey information, which is provably false, which does not advance an argument. Indeed, if some day we discover the Absolute Truth of a thing -- if there is some topic on which there _is_ a monopoly on the truth -- then free speech ought to be thrown to the winds. Similarly, if we one day build some Ultimate Calculation Engine that _can_ correctly perform the Hayekian information-aggregation task, we ought in this view to abolish the markets.

What Mill explicity and Hayek implicity deny is that there is any moral case to be made for freedom. Free speech to Mill is contingent on disagreement and ignorance; markets to Hayek contingent on the unwieldiness of particular information-gathering and calculation problems.

This is the problem that I would pose: If the absolute truth (or the absolutely optimal price) were known, would free speech (or free markets) be desirable. If so, we have no need for Mill's and Hayek's arguments; if not, a central point of philosophy is reduced to an engineering problem.

In short, Mill cannot explain why I should be free to say that two plus two is five, nor Hayek why I should be free to sell sand for a million dollars a grain.