“If you have an apple and I have an apple and we exchange these apples then you and I will still each have one apple. But if you have an idea and I have an idea and we exchange these ideas, then each of us will have two ideas.” — George Bernard Shaw
Here is a thought experiment. Imagine yourself in a commercial jetliner cruising at 500 knots 37,000 feet above the earth’s surface. Who on earth created the contraption which gives you the ability to do something so awesome? Humans. And out of what? Stuff that came out of the earth. You can trace every bit of that plane to its origin, the earth. The metals, the glass, the plastics—you name it—every bit of that aircraft was once in the earth. The raw material has been around for billions of years but only in the last few centuries have humans developed the ability to work the raw materials into sophisticated shapes and forms that extend the reach of humans in unimaginable ways.
Not just commercial jetliners but every human artifact is a combination of raw material and human agency. The computer which I am writing this on—every bit of it was raw material fashioned into a computing device. Everything I see around me – the building I am in, the furniture in this room, the books, the music system, the light bulbs, … the list goes on. Every thing made by humans. But raw materials have existed for billions of years and humans for millions of years. If I were living a million years ago, I would not have all this stuff which enriches my life. I would be poor. Surely, while raw materials and humans are necessary in this whole scheme, it is definitely not sufficient. The magic sauce which completes the recipe is one word: ideas.
Ideas matter. Over human history, some humans have had ideas on how to do things based on discoveries they or their forbearers made. As the stock of ideas grew, so did the ability of humans to create stuff out of available raw materials increased. Ideas have the peculiar characteristic in that their stock does not diminish from use. Economists call this property “non-rival in consumption.” Ideas multiply the ability of humans to achieve whatever it is that humans desire. The world we live in is one constructed by human will using raw materials—and ideas. What human will can achieve is only limited by the ideas that are available to humans at any point in time. Since there can be no conceivable limit to how large the stock of ideas can become, there is no conceivable limit to what human will can achieve.
To put it another way, every artifact of human endeavor is basically embodied ideas.
Ideas grow on ideas provided sufficient numbers of human minds have access to the stock of ideas. Each individual human life is limited compared to the extended lifetime of human society. No person is smart enough to evolve all the ideas from scratch. Fortunately, each human can potentially take from the stock whatever is best suited to his or her own predilections and build on it.
There is a monotonic increase in the stock of ideas, which of course means that humans collectively know more today than they used to know at any previous time. The wisest person of a thousand years ago did not have access to the stock of ideas that even the average person has today.
Human welfare depends on ideas. The range is impressive, from meditation to medication and everything in between. The germ theory of disease to the notion that speciation is a consequence of natural selection to the theory of computation to the grand unified theories of the origin of the universe to the notion that the mind and the body are a unity and that they interact and influence each other—all are ideas which have consequences for the well being of people.
Ideas matter. Every object and every institution originated as an idea in some mind. And then it spread to others. It is a marketplace of ideas out there and over time, ideas that confer advantages to those who adopt and use them, survive. The more ideas that enter the noosphere, the more advantage it confers to humans collectively. The sages who composed the Rig Veda recognized this and proclaimed a few thousand years ago, “Let noble thoughts come to us from all universe.”
Ideas are dangerous. They are dangerous because they are harbingers of change which structurally alters society. Those who have a vested interest in the status quo therefore resist new ideas which would dethrone them from their privileged positions that depend on inferior ideas. It is natural for them to prohibit the emergence of ideas however good the ideas may be to general welfare.
To secure their own position, therefore, the strategy adopted is to proclaim that their ideas are the most perfect ones and all other ideas are verboten. Indeed, their insistence on the prohibition of any new ideas is a sure sign that they are not entirely convinced of the superiority of their own ideas. Because if they were so certain of the perfection of their ideas, they would have welcomed competing ideas. Which explains why, for instance, the Catholic church burnt Giordano Bruno at the stake in 1600 CE after incarcerating him for eight years.
Giordano Bruno (1548-1600), was an Italian philosopher and astronomer/astrologer, burned at the stake as a heretic, regarded by some as a martyr to the cause of freedom of thought because his ideas went against the Church doctrine.
Ideas inspire fear. Bruno while receiving his sentence told the Inquisitor, “Perhaps you, my judges, pronounce this sentence against me with greater fear than I receive it.”
Those who are against new ideas are the ones who are afraid that their own ideas are worthless. New ideas, especially those that fundamentally restructure human society, pose the greatest threat to those who have little trust in themselves. One test of a potentially good new idea is to note whether it is opposed by those in power. Burning at the stake, sending people off to gulags, banning books, etc, are time-tested methods of suppressing valuable ideas that threaten the worthless in power.
Societies that encourage the generation of new ideas within and welcome ideas from abroad prosper. The development and growth of societies mirror that of ideas. Institutions, machines, buildings, markets, and a million other things are nothing but embodied ideas.
Ideas arise in human minds. They have to be expressed for them to be conveyed to other human minds. That immediately means that if there are limits placed on the freedom of expression, the increase in the stock of ideas will be curtailed. Worse yet, the good ideas which invariably threaten powerful vested interests will be prohibited and society will lose.
The development and growth of an economy depends on the generation and adoption of good ideas, which in turn depends on the freedom to express ideas. Thus there should not be any limits placed on the freedom of expression for the very practical reason that that freedom has an instrumental role in promoting the development of an economy.
To some, absolute freedom of expression may seem like too much to grant. “Yes, but, shouldn’t there be some limits on what could be expressed?” they may ask. My response is, “Who defines those limits?” Surely the powerful will define those limits, whether individuals or collectives. The record of the powerful in the past when it comes to defining limits has been dismal. Just two examples from the past: the Catholic church and the communists. Every good idea was resisted by those two.
In India, the freedom of expression is severely curtailed. The government is deathly afraid that the truth will come out. Banning of books is only part of the story. The larger story is about what is called “official secrets” which basically shields the powerful from the scrutiny of the people. Politically unpopular views don’t get to see the light of the day. The government censors and prohibits publication of ideas under the guise of “national security.”
India’s development is dependent on absolute freedom of expression.