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January 30, 2016



I am not convinced Cowen is right to ascribe intolerance to the side of politics he dislikes...

Leaving that to one side, is this argument of Mill not inconsistent with Utility? I can see how a theory that the consequences of our actions determines their morality can justify Laws against incitement to murder Jews or other groups who are unpopular. All rational people will agree that one consequence of promoting say racial hatred could be violence against ethnic minorities. If this is made more likely by hate speech does not utilitarian theory require the legislature to forbid it? Bentham seems to say that the Legislature has a duty to make Laws to promote security and welfare of the population and supposing such a duty follows from the theory he advocated. Allowing incitement is a breach of the states duty of care to the society on behalf of which it acts. Mill seems to tie himself in knots by both advocating a form of passive Liberty and supporting Utilitarianism. How can he be consistent doing this when Utilitarian systems are certainly not passive but involve the pursuit of public goals as a key element of ethical theory.

I do not say Bentham is correct but I have never understood how mill can be consistent here. Off course this theory should apply to the Daily Mail AND the street hate preacher; but supposing a socialist revolution did lead to the Mail being subject to the same rule, would the rule be an error?

Nick Cowen

Mill is quite consistent on this. He favours outlawing incitement to violence. He does not favour things like outlawing incitement to 'hatred' because he thinks such laws are too ambiguous and too easily misused. He is a utilitarian but also a believer in constitutional constraints on legal powers because he is not confident that public officials will consistently have utilitarian motivations.



Here's a video of a "refugee" taking a shit in the middle of the street in Germany. What was that you were saying about "freedom", Chris?

Ralph Musgrave

Very erudite essay from Chris above on the theoretical points in favour of free speech. Unfortunately the nasty little pricks who make up much of Britain’s political left still think they have the right to arrest anyone they choose and on the grounds that those arrested are guilty of “hate speech”. Hate speech being any point of view not approved of by the political left. Nick Griffin was arrested and put on trial ten years ago for speaking the truth about grooming by Asians and Muslims.

Peter K.

Tyler Cowen is the worst.

Sarah Welter, 22 year old Bernie Sanders supporter, reported in Time magazine:

"We work for the 1%. We provide for their wealth. I have two jobs. I had to drop out of college because it was too much. I still struggle financially to get by. Somebody who works 40 hours or more a week should not live in poverty again."

Jessica Boyd, 20 year old Bernie Sanders supporter, reported in Time magazine:

"The kids that are born into the powerful families of this country are automatically told they will be successful. If it's not fixed, the United States is going to go into a collapse. We're on the road to becoming an oligarchy."

Dave Timoney

Cowen's ongoing struggle to claim Mill for the right yokes the historic "Progressives" (late-19th century managerialists avant la lettre) - and by implication their modern inheritors, i.e. Democrats - to the "left" in a classic conservative manoeuvre (like claiming Hillary Clinton owed it all to Rosa Luxemburg). This allows him to construct a tendentious link between eugenics (and its presumed legacy in abortion) and "safe spaces", and to imply a monolithic left position that is casual about free speech. This is bullshit.

Re "Liberals believed that free speech and intellectual progress went together". No. In practice, classic liberals believed in free enquiry rather than free speech. In other words, they disliked expression that lacked utility (they were liberals, not libertines). Free speech, as we understand the term today, is a product of the social democratic era (and still emergent) and tied to consequentiality - i.e. not suffering the sack/expulsion/ostracism for speaking your mind.

Re "laws will be used by the powerful against the powerless". True. And many of the powerful will be self-identifying liberals. This tells us something about power, but it tells us little about liberalism and nothing about free speech. This is a good argument for the diffusion of power, but it isn't a compelling argument for free speech.

Uncertainty (which reconciles the distinct liberal strands of Hayek and Keynes), is a good argument for free speech, but it is utilitarian, being concerned with aggregate benefit. This is problematic because it is always vulnerable to the renewed claims of certainty and net benefit - e.g. the modern pretensions of 'big data'. This means it is not a robust defence of free speech.

Your conclusion ("the assertion of freedom and of substantive equality go hand-in-hand") is spot-on, but this does not mean that we should see them as equal in strategic terms. The better (left) argument is that the diffusion of power, and thus equality, necessarily entails the diffusion of speech power.

Laurent GUERBY

OT of this post but might be of interest for the blog: http://www.liberation.fr/debats/2016/01/29/thibault-le-texier-nous-sommes-si-impregnes-par-la-logique-de-l-entreprise-que-nous-l-appliquons-a-n_1429856

History of managerialism (in french)
Thibault Le Texier
le Maniement des hommes


"This is one reason why the commitment of the current Left to free speech just isn’t very strong."

This is rich coming from a propertarian who argues that there is no freedom of speech on someone else's property -- actually, no freedom of any kind at all (no rights to organise, assemble, etc.).

So in the workplace, for example, workers' can be fired if they express their wish to join a union. Or a landlord is justified in using (private) cops to break up a protest meeting on their land.

Still, this seems to be the case with the right -- take an area they are obviously weak on and turn it around and use it to attack the left...


Anarcho makes a key point here. We might think of the way public parts of London have been given to private owners and thus become areas where free speech doesn't apply. (Illustrated dramatically when protests sprang up.) Cowen is fine with that - and fine with the idea that everywhere should be that way.


"He does not favour things like outlawing incitement to 'hatred' because he thinks such laws are too ambiguous and too easily misused. "

But any Law is open to interpretation. In practice you can conceive of situations where hate speech will create an atmosphere conducive to violence, or not be far removed from open incitement to violent crime or bullying. I am unconvinced you can draw this kind of distinction in reality. All Utilitarians agree with Laws they like and so state power. Which involves judgements of fact and questions of evidence. e.g. if the policeman says you called for the Prime Minister to be Murdered but you deny it and there is no other evidence the verdict depends on the willingness of the court to prefer one version of the truth to the other. A theoretical belief in uncertainty is a fine affectation in the lecture room but it has only limited applicability in real life.

Also off course violence may be justified. For example if you think a Revolution should be arranged to overthrow the Government calling for "action direct" may be the lesser of two evils. On Utilitarian grounds banning calls for Revolution are improper if the conditions that would justify it exist. People do this all the time with war. Blair admitted people might die who were innocent in his war against Iraq and he might be wrong to start it; but hey thats fine for him to do and he has still not been indicted.

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