Tuesday, July 12, 2005

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.


Ananda said...

But what happens when some truth is actually discovered through the discovery process? I think it is safe to say, for example, that we have discovered the truth as to whether the Holocaust happened. It did. Mill's argument, as you represent it, does little to suggest that the state cannot restrict speech on that topic. After all, once the discovery has been made, you don't need the discovery process anymore. This is different from markets and evolution; in the former, local conditions change all the time and the market must constantly be active to discover the best way to satisfy people's needs, and in the latter, selective pressures change and the most adaptive forms must be "discovered" similarly. Not so with things like historical debate, where the parameters can't change.

Steven Horwitz said...

I think the analogy is stronger than you do. Historical knowledge changes all the time. Go back to my post about the Great Depression - we're constantly learning more by looking at historical records or rethinking our analytical frameworks. I don't think we ever get to a final "truth" in the way you seem to suggest. Sure "the Holocaust happened" is an agreed-upon truth, but the particulars of what happened are constantly evolving.

More important, though, is another aspect of Mill's argument, as he addresses precisely your objection. He argues that need free speech even when a truth is firmly established because without ever hearing alternative arguments (e.g. Holocaust deniers), we start to lose the arguments for the proposition we believe to be true. We need the competition of alternative ideas even when one is well-established as true as a way of keeping that true idea "on its toes" so that we don't forget why we believe it to be true.

I think the analogy here to firms with large shares of them market is a strong one. Even if we have a dominant firm in a market serving consumers well (think Wal-Mart), we want freedom of entry to keep them on their toes. Ideas that are established to be true need that same threat of potential competition.