Why support free speech, asked Gaurav in a comment on a previous post here. The short answer is: because we are not infinitely wise, our rationality is bounded; because we are not equally wise; because ideas matter, and because markets work.
Let’s start with the last bit—ideas and markets. Humans are unique in that they have ideas. Non-humans don’t have ideas. Every hard-won advance in any field of human endeavor resulted from the triumph of an idea among other competing ideas. The winning ideas had to duke it out in the marketplace (markets, lest we forget, is itself one of the finest ideas) and in a Darwinian process of natural selection proved their worth.
We are not equally wise. Some of us are smarter than others. All our ideas consequently are not equally good. Some ideas are wonderful and others stupid. Our rationality is bounded and no one among us is infinitely wise. Therefore it is hard for us to judge ex ante whether an idea is good or not. Ex post we can see the results of the idea and determine whether the idea is good or not. So it is better to let all ideas play in the marketplace. From among the diversity of ideas, the good ones will survive.
We not only don’t know in advance which idea is good but more importantly we don’t know who has a good idea. People don’t come with a label on their forehead which says that their idea is bound to be good. All we can do is to allow everyone to throw their ideas into the ring.
All this talk about ideas is rather abstract. Let me use “stuff” as a proxy for ideas, because in the end, all stuff is embodied ideas. I use the short word “stuff” to stand for “goods and services.” Goods such as an internal combustion engine or an MP3 player, and services such as provided by a search engine or surgery. Everything you see around yourself began as an idea, was embodied in stuff, and survived in the marketplace competition with other stuff.
Ideas build upon other ideas and they evolve. This same process is duplicated in the stuff that embody the ideas. Someone comes up with the idea of a steam engine; someone else comes up with the idea of mounting it on wheels to run around on roads; and another comes up with the idea of using it on rails; and so on.
It is easy to appreciate that good ideas are good because they lead to good stuff. But that is not all. Some humans just enjoy a good idea for itself. A nice poem, a good story, a philosophical flight of the imagination are all ideas which may not have any practical value other than that they make life enjoyable. Ideas are goods in and of themselves, aside from their instrumental value of producing stuff.
Any institutional arrangement which prohibits the free expression of ideas is not a good idea because it can be argued that it will suffer from lack of progress. Furthermore, societies that prohibit free expression are seen to be materially and culturally poor. Both theoretically and empirically one can defend the idea that free expression is good.
I am against monotheism because it prohibits free expression. A bunch of ignorant savages a thousand or two years ago motivated by bloodlust, greed and fear concoct a fantastical tale which they put together in a book and consider it the final word on every conceivable matter under the sun. The idea that all other ideas that do not conform to this narrow bigoted savage comprehension of the universe should be prohibited is an enormously stupid idea. Why? Because it produces stupid results.
Infected with the ideas contained in a hateful book of ignorant rubbish, people become stupid. They become incapable of generating new ideas. Society stagnates and the people get trapped into the mentality of the century that the ideas originated in. There is no progress. They become incapable of getting out of the trap on their own. In some cases, they drag others down into the hole with them. They fly into a murderous rage if their ideas are challenged, and routinely kill people for questioning their beliefs.
Bad ideas have to be confronted. Free speech and expression is important because it exposes bad ideas. Censoring of expression is bad because the censors cannot be infinitely wise because no one is.
My obsession with free speech and expression is not gratuitous on this blog. I am convinced that the freedom of expression has implications for economic growth and development. India will not be able to progress if it goes down the path that it occasionally treads—of censorship. The government often bans books and movies. That is purely idiotic and if I dare say extremely evil.