Free as in Markets

Mike Caulfield
Nov 4, 2017 · 3 min read

Imagine I told you I was for economic opportunity (a goal) and so I supported free markets. You then pointed out to me that in fact, in industrialized countries, the economic benefits of unfettered capitalism have largely gone to the one percent. Ah, I say, but everyone is allowed to succeed, and that’s the important thing. You suggest that better regulation, if undertaken carefully, could both spur growth and better divvy up opportunity to everyone, not just the one percent. “Why do you hate economic opportunity,” I ask. “Why do you want to place restrictions on people’s right to succeed?”

I then go around and tell everyone that you are willing to “sacrifice” economic opportunity because you just don’t like the people who happen to be winning. Toughen up, I say, life is harsh sometimes. We must act on principle.

It’s clear I’d be being both a dick and an idiot here, right? We both want economic opportunity, but you are concerned with the theoretical fairness of the rulebook, and I am concerned with whether people, in fact, have opportunity in practice. This is the point of Chris Hayes’s prescient book on meritocracy — The Twilight of the Elites. Pointing out that in principle everyone can be rich doesn’t make much sense when under a given policy regime the mass of marginalized non-elites turn out poor. The test of a system is not adherence to principle, but the actual effects of the system. If it don’t work, it don’t work.

I think most liberals get this now: when we talk about economic opportunity the metric is whether most people get economic opportunity. If the output of the system is bad, your rulebook is flawed or corrupt and must be amended. So liberals leave it to conservatives to argue that the right to make money is far more important to one’s actual ability to make money.

With Free Speech, however, liberals are weirdly myopic. It is quite clear that malinformation in the forms of bots, harassment, doxing, weaponized transparency and the like radically reduce the accessibility of free speech in practice to individuals wishing to speak and severely limit the range of speech available to listeners and readers. This is a verifiable empirical claim. Everyone has a right to free speech, but in practice many individuals have very little access to free speech. When we try to address this on platforms, by clamping down on things like harassment or bots, it’s portrayed as “curtailing” free speech, in the same way that making the rich pay more tax or follow regulations is seen by conservatives as “curtailing” economic opportunity.

And so we get the odd situation where the people trying to enlarge access to free speech are seen as “sacrificing” it, and the people unconcerned with access to free speech are seen as “defending” it. The term neoliberal is overused, but it can be applied here quite cleanly — to mess with the “freeness” of the speech market is now seen as the ultimate sin, even though it is a market that is quite clearly malfunctioning in practice.

Which, great, if you buy the idea that unregulated free markets produce the most economic opportunity you’ll probably love the idea that unfettered speech markets are right no matter what happens in practice. But if you think markets are flawed in practice and require regulation, it’s curious that speech markets should work in an entirely different way.

So what am I proposing? I’m proposing companies have to do something about harassment on platforms like Twitter, something about threats, doxing, revenge porn, bots. And if they don’t, they are not actually for free speech at all. Because while these things can be seen as “speech” they are also acts, and their primary function is the suppression of speech. So if you actually care about speech in practice, and not your malfunctioning rulebook, you’d address these issues on these platforms pretty aggressively. I’m proposing that if you actually cared about free speech in practice that these things — not protecting the right of Nazis to protest in parks — would be your true crusade, because the speech of millions is affected.

And if you’re a liberal “defender” of free speech, I’m proposing that maybe it’s time to consider why when it comes to speech, you believe in “free” as in “free and unfettered markets”?

Mike Caulfield

Written by

Teaches web literacy and other things. Recent book: Web Literacy for Student Fact-Checkers.