What Freedom Can Tolerate

Earlier this year, I went to La Jolla, CA for a conference on the “Future of Free Speech in America.” The topic of the conference was how ever-increasing government regulations on the “market for goods” have been accepted by public opinion for many decades and how such regulations are now increasingly tolerated in the “market for ideas.” This new development is particularly dismaying, since, until very recently, a broad consensus along the political spectrum had protected the realm of speech and ideas from interference.

The conference started with a discussion of Ronald Coase’s 1974 article, “The Market for Goods and the Market for Ideas.” In that paper, Coase argued that the freedom that reigned in the market for ideas at that time should be extended to the market for goods. By doing so, the kind of innovations and progress seen in the intellectual realm might also be seen in the economy.

For Coase, the same ideological consensus protecting free speech could be hopefully extended to other markets. In 1974, Coase could reasonably argue that the intellectuals would not tolerate interference with free speech because that was their fare, after all. Now, in an age of “cancel culture,” we can see that Coase was far too optimistic. Illiberal ideas are no longer just at the “fringes” of American society, they have become definitively mainstream, and that has very serious consequences.

After about two generations, we have not only failed to reverse the illiberalism of Keynesian economic policies, but have also seen the support for the last bastion of liberal ideas—free speech—erode on both sides of the ideological divide.

In our days, that illiberal ideology, as applied to the economy, has permeated our governmental institutions and given us out of control spending, inflation, financial repression, and “green” industrial policy—along with the resulting low growth and declining real wages, if not a downright recession on the horizon. Now, after succeeding in taking hold of corporations, higher education, and the media, the same illiberal ideology has been extended to what is considered acceptable discourse.

Each day that goes by, we see more speech restrictions in the educational system, corporate world, and media, both traditional and social. They target anything that is not the “party line,” be that related to therapeutics during the Covid 19 pandemic, realities of human biology, the climate, etcetera.

Such speech restrictions pose a grave risk to the advancement of human knowledge. No one may have a monopoly on the truth, but that does not mean that there is not an objective reality. Engaging in an argument means acknowledging that we may learn from one another and improve our understanding of reality by the application of logical reasoning, that is, non-fallacious arguments.

That is why debates among opposite interpretations of reality are so important and freedom of speech needs to be protected if we hope to advance our knowledge at all.

Granted, there are limits to free speech. For instance, a schoolteacher or a school sport coach cannot say whatever pleases them while in their capacity as educators—the purpose for which they are employed. Also, even if I accept that an anti-Semite or racist should be entitled to promote his bigotry and prejudices limited only by defamation laws, the moment that individual incites violence against me and my coreligionists, it is no longer a matter of civil rights and protected discourse, and becomes a criminal offense. As said by John Locke long ago, whoever threatens violence against civil society has put himself outside civil society and should be hunted down by the state as the wild beast that he or she had become.

But today we live in an environment that often silences people merely for heterodox views, and expands the concept of violence to include words. Just as such restrictions stifle innovation and growth in the economic sphere, they will stifle knowledge and freedom of thought in the realm of ideas. Can America and other Western societies survive such a challenge to their distinctive, fundamental values?

That brings me to a visit to the La Jolla branch of the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego that I made while I was there for the conference.

Most modern art does not appeal to my aesthetic sense. But I realize that even an ugly and childish work of art can make you think and can inspire an emotional reaction that may trigger you to think about some aspects of reality.

The problem is that most modern art is also politically engaged and intended to promote values and ideas that are antithetical to those of Western civilization in general, and American society in particular.

A case in point is the MCASD in La Jolla.

In their exposition, you can find a depiction of the “last supper” made with chocolate so that a fundamental moment in the history of the Christian religion becomes ephemeral, requiring immense care not to be corrupted by the elements.

American society has not only survived, but has prospered despite the best efforts of its cultural enemies and the alienation of part of its economic elite which funded museums similar to the one in La Jolla to promote and celebrate anti-Americanism.

There is also a mural made with a collection of Portuguese decorated bricks, a traditional form of art in former Portuguese colonies. This one, though, includes “wounds” in the mural exposing the “entrails of colonialism” beneath the surface of the decorative bricks. The same colonialism which, with all its real-world flaws, took the few million natives living there out of  Neolithic conditions, integrated them in a modern society, and created the tolerant, open, prosperous, and peaceful home of about 230 million people that Brazil is today.

A final example of what you can find at the MCASD is an installation, finished in 2007, formed by replicas of landmark buildings of main American cities, a clock, and a moving model of a jetliner that periodically falls down in the middle of the buildings, followed by sirens and other sonoplastia as if to say that the clock is ticking to another and another airplane to be used as a weapon against other American iconic cities. Conspicuously absent from the description is any mention of September 11, 2001.

I could go on and on, but I will spare you from all the examples of exhibits that take shots at Western civilization and American life. Mind you, not everything there is ugly or obviously aimed to attack beauty, religion, freedom, the rule of law, or civility. But on the whole, the museum seems to me to be a celebration of anti-Western values and American society in particular.

That made me think. The first exhibition in the museum is a series of dolls disfigured by gunshots from the early 60s by a local artist.

About 60 years later, La Jolla has been transformed from a sleepy coastal suburb, where a local artist could invite her friends to use shotguns on dolls in her backyard, into a fancy and sophisticated urban setting, one in which you might easily pay $1,000 per square foot for a home.

So, American society has not only survived, but has prospered despite the best efforts of its cultural enemies and the alienation of part of its economic elite which funded museums similar to the one in La Jolla to promote and celebrate anti-Americanism.

A visit to the museum by most of the literati and bien-pensant should be a blast. The majority of the population, though, would probably only choose the museum over strolling along the boardwalk or the beach if it were a rainy or breezy day. And they would likely find it to be a waste of time and money, if not an unpleasant or even disgusting experience.

My “take-home” lesson from the museum, then, was that as long as the majority, or even perhaps just a significant portion of the American people see the radical opposition to the values of American society such as free speech, the market economy, rule of law, limited and representative government, as just something to be tolerated like an eccentric and sometimes inconvenient relative whom we need to get along with during family reunions, we should be fine.

The problem becomes serious, however, when the coercive powers of the state are used to impose such negations on our understanding of things like human biology, the actual human impact on the climate, the relationship between children and their families, and even the very character of our civilization.

Let us hope that if the marketplace for ideas remains open and that, by disputations between opposite views of the reality and of the good, we can not only prevent the decline of Western society, but also continue to improve it as the best foundation for human flourishing ever created by humankind.