How Capitalism Destroyed Censorship

James Peron
Sep 6, 2018 · 21 min read

Pornography, like all products, cannot be separated from technology and technology cannot be separated from economics and not all economic systems are conducive to production. To be more precise mass commercial pornography is fundamentally the creation of a market economy. Those places in the world without depoliticized markets neither produce nor consume significant quantities of pornography. To the extent they do it is mostly via the use of capitalist technology such as the computers and the internet.

Capitalism as a system rewards rebellion. The entrepreneur in a capitalist society is someone who braves new paths. Markets per se don’t pass moral judgment on the actions of buyers or sellers. Its principles are basic. It rewards people who produce goods or services wanted or needed by consumers. The market doesn’t say what consumers should want. It merely rewards those who discover what consumers do want.

The birth of capitalism changed human society in radical ways. Previously human population was kept low due to high death rates. One dramatic effect of capitalism was a radical decline in the death rate and a temporary huge increase in population growth rates. This was the result of the increased standard of living that followed the birth of capitalism.

This population increase allowed for greater specialization in production, which was followed by increased productivity and wealth. So, on the one side increased population stimulated economic production, while on the other side it increased demand for goods and services. More importantly, it increased the demand for goods previously in low demand. For instance a city with a million people is going to have grocery stores catering to vegetarians, meat-lovers, specialty foods, etc. In a small town one general store may cater to the consensus. The increase in the demand for specialty items, through an increase in population increases the likelihood of the production of specialty items. For instance, a large city may well have a gay newspaper where it’s unlikely for a small one. The mere fact capitalism increased human population by decreasing the death rate meant that the status quo would inevitably be challenged.

Let us assume only a hypothetical 5% of the population has any interest in the purchase of erotic material. In a town of 1,000 this means 50 customers. To open a shop catering to 50 people isn’t particularly profitable. And, in rural settings people tend to know other people’s business. This means many of the 50 customers who wish to purchase the material won’t do so as long as the town may be informed of the purchase. But, in a community of 50,000 the number of potential customers increases to 2,500. And with the increase in size the anonymity of individual buyers increases.

People concerned about neighbors knowing their business are less concerned in a big city. With the increase in size the individual preferences of each consumer dictates purchasing habits more so than the moral opinions of neighbors. The increase in population brought about by capitalism thus increases the number of potential customers for erotic material by: 1) increasing the raw number of customers, and 2) decreasing social pressure by allowing more consumer anonymity.

According to psychologist Abraham Maslow humans have a “hierarchy of needs.” Our most basic needs are physical. We must survive physically before we become interested in achieving higher order needs. Survival needs are followed by safety needs, which are followed by social and love needs. The top of Maslow’s hierarchy is the need for self-actualization or self-fulfillment. Some may argue Maslow’s lower order requirements are human needs,while those at the top of the hierarchy are human wants.

Pornography is clearly not a need in the strict sense of the word. But, it is a want. Pornography as a mass consumer product exists only in those societies which reach a certain level of technological development and which allow people the freedom to produce and sell i.e. depoliticized market economies. Individuals such as Orwell in Nineteen Eighty-Four were able to fictionally create societies with technological development and authoritarian rule. But technological development and controls do not mix well. It is the freer societies of the world experiencing the most rapid technological developments, and more precisely, it is the less regulated areas of the economy that see rapid growth, compared to the more staid, controlled sectors. In other words countries with less politicized markets prosper.

Lower order needs are minimally met in the socialist state, but, higher order needs are difficult to achieve because of the problems inherent in state socialism. The collapse of communism has shown as Marxist countries liberalise and adopt more aspects of the market economy individuals begin seeking out aspects of Western culture more properly classified as wants than needs. The women of Russia made huge efforts to be able to purchase Western style make-up. Make-up, like pornography, is not a basic need. But both bring pleasure and happiness to those who seek it out.

The market economy was the result of an ideological revolution. The Western world went through a period when classical liberalism (libertarianism) was ascendant. Classical liberalism emphasized rationality, natural individual rights, the maximization of individual freedom and the minimal state. It was this spirit of reason that brought about the challenges to both theology and the unholy alliance of church and state. With the rise in the standard of living larger numbers of people were able to seek out formal education. Not only did the number of those educated rise, but so did the level of education obtained.

It was as a result of these higher levels of education that much of the theological hold over people began to diminish. With the rise of reason and the waning of theology social tolerance began to increase. In his book Capitalism and the Permissive Society Samuel Brittan wrote, “Capitalist civilization is above all rationalist. It is anti-heroic and anti-mystical.” He points out the capitalist, as a profit maximiser, is forced to ignore the “traditional, mystical or ceremonial justification of existing practices.” The capitalist who doesn’t do so will lose out to the capitalist who does. Thus he concludes, “The breakdown of theological authority, the rise of scientific spirit and the growth of capitalism were inter-related phenomena.”

The book Intimate Matters: A History of Sexuality in Americanotes the United States government shifted its law enforcement focus from morality to property with the rise of the libertarian ideology which had spurred on the American Revolution. “The new laws formulated by the American state and federal governments took a laissez-faire attitude toward the regulation of the family in general and of sexuality in particular. In the early 19th century, property rather than morals offenses preoccupied legislatures and courts.” What this means is that instead of trying to regulate the sexual lives of people the state changed its focus to stopping individuals from violating the life, liberty or property of others.

The authors of this book, John D’Emilio and Estelle Freedman, point out that classical liberalism became the dominant ideology in the United States and there was “an overall decline in state regulation of morality and a shift in concerns from private to public moral transgressions.” Because classical liberalism removed the church from the levers of state power “state regulations of morality declined noticeably. ….according to Robert Wells, ‘government in the American colonies gradually lost interest in prosecuting sexual sinners…’” “Thus with the formation of state and local governments during and after the Revolution, and the gradual separation of church from civil authority — a process that extended into the 1830s — the prosecution of sexual offenses lost the central place it had held in early colonial society.” D’Emilio and Freedman realize that expanding sexual freedom in the United States was “protected by the laissez-faire attitude toward morality and commerce.” It should be noted that much of the morals legislation and enforcement that is associated with the Victorian era came about under the influence of the so-called “progressive” movements of the Left. Censorship, the regulation of prostitution, and the increase in age of consent were brought about by social purity groups with a decidedly collectivist, anti-laissez-faire attitude.

The rise of censorship followed an ideological shift. When American’s supported the suppression of “vice” they believed group rights superseded individual rights and it was the function of government to regulate all aspects of human existence. The American Revolution was based on certain liberal ideas, such as minimal government and depoliticized markets, and following the Revolution state control of sexuality declined radically. But, with the rise of the Progressive/Populist movement with its support for state control of the economy attitudes shifted again in favor of government enforced morality.

There are only two ways for humans to allocate resources in any society. In other words, there are only two ways to order an economy. Western society, on a whole, follows the market process. The alternative is the planned economy. The latter relies on the use of state coercion while the former is the result of voluntary choice and trade.

While the market economy encourages diversity, the political process of central planning, relies on, and creates conformity. Milton Friedman wrote, “The characteristic feature of action through political channels is that it tends to require or enforce substantial conformity. The great advantage of the market, on the other hand, is that it permits wide diversity.” Planning, or the political process, by its nature creates a bureaucracy. Since it repudiates profit management it must instead rely on bureaucratic management. The latter is centralized with decisions being made by a hierarchy whose leadership is usually conservative and dependent on obtaining general consensus. This type of management is not likely to allocate resources to the production of erotica.

Free markets are known for producing a plethora of goods and services. The choices almost seem endless. This diversity is so distinctly a feature of competitive capitalism that collectivists of the Left and Right both attack this feature. They say it is wasteful; they say we don’t “need” so many choices and advocate economic systems that will strip us of those choices. Conservative collectivists use the diversity of the marketplace to demand state control. They, for instance, argue a free market producing pornography is proof control is needed. They would argue some diversity is “good,” by which they mean those goods and services they personally want, or are willing to admit they want. They also argue other goods and services are “bad,” meaning those they don’t want or more importantly which they feel no one should want. To them pornography is a “bad” product, which should be banned. But the market is morally neutral. It doesn’t pass judgment on the wants of consumers. The great error conservative collectivists make is assuming they can ban the “bad” diversity while encouraging the “good.”

Their argument is flawed by what F.A. Hayek calls a “pretence of knowledge.” They assume they can judge which diversity is good and which is bad. But, what proof do they have to justify placing themselves in such a lofty position? Where do they obtain their knowledge to determine “right” for the rest of us? And, if we allow one group to start imposing their personal preferences on society where do we stop? If other groups also demand the right to ban “bad” diversity will this be allowed? In the end such a process will destroy diversity itself. The great strength of competitive capitalism is the diversity it generates. The fact none of us possess total knowledge is the reason we need liberty. Hayek, in his monumental The Constitution of Libertysaid:

If there were omniscient men, if we could know not only all that affects the attainment of our present wishes but also all our future wants and desires, then there would be little case for liberty — while liberty of the individual, in turn, would of course make complete foresight impossible. Liberty is essential in order to leave room for the unforeseeable and unpredictable: we want it because we have learnt to expect from it the opportunity of realizing many of our aims. It is because every individuals knows so little, and in particular because we rarely know which of us knows best, that we trust the independent and competitive efforts of many to induce the emergence of what we shall want when we see it.

In his classic book BureaucracyAustrian economist Ludwig Mises wrote:

…the first step [in bureaucratic management] is to obtain the consent of old men accustomed to doing things in prescribed ways, and no longer open to new ideas. No progress and no reforms can be expected in a state of affairs where the first step is to obtain the consent of old men. The pioneers of new methods are considered rebels and are treated as such. For a bureaucratic mind, law abidance, i.e., clinging to the customary and antiquated is the first of all virtues.”

British socialist Evan Luard noted, in agreement with the antisocialist Mises, that “collective power is also conservative because within the democratic system, political parties and leaders are obliged to converge to a point near the average views of the majority… Because the majority are rarely in favor of important or imaginative changes, this inhibits any radical challenge to the status quo.”

This conservatism is apparent in any bureaucratic system. Those outside the mainstream are rejected and the system does not allocate resources for their use. A centrally planned economy is simply the bureaucratic method of management taken to its ultimate extreme. The result is the stifling of creativity and diversity. Old ways are clung to because promotions in the system are given to those who don’t rock the boat. It is not necessary to meet the needs or wants of the consumer because advancement is not based on the generation of profits as it is in the market process.

Gordon Tullock, in his Politics of Bureaucracy,showed a bureaucratic system does not meet human needs for two reasons. First, the structure is centralized with the older superiors having control over their subordinates and secondly, most subordinates are self-interested and thus unwilling to challenge their superiors. Since profits play no part in this system there is no counterforce encouraging these individuals to promote new ideas. Thus the same force, self-interest, encourages diversity in a market economy but discourages it in a bureaucratic one. In the market economy the self-interested individual wants to profit and can only do so by meeting the needs and wants of consumers. In the bureaucratic system advancement comes only by meeting the expectations of Mises’ “old men.”

The quandary for moral conservatives is economic prosperity requires economic freedom, which is only secure in a society based on classical liberal values. Economic prosperity ultimately rests upon a liberal theory of values. Conservatives, of the Left and the Right, who favor economic prosperity are forced to reign in state power and unleash individual initiative.

But, once the forces of competitive capitalism are unleashed, entrepreneurs produce goods and services conservatives oppose. The market economy creates competition in ideas, information and images. Yet the conservative forces don’t want these new ideas competing with their own. But, if the conservative succeeds in controlling the economy to the degree necessary to achieve this goal, he will simultaneously destroy economic prosperity. This happens because to control the “undesired” effects of modern capitalism is to control capitalism. If central control of the economy is imposed the creative nature of capitalism is destroyed. Whether the conservative elites, be they Afrikaner Calvinists in South Africa or the Chinese Communist Party, like it or not economic liberalization will ultimately lead to social liberalization. Brittan’s “permissive society” is deeply and inseparably tied to the capitalist society.

One powerful way in which competitive capitalism destroys “conformity” and encourages the permissive society is through technological development. Societies which have competitive markets tend to advance technologically more rapidly than controlled societies. These technological advancements themselves undermine the ability of government to regulate. While it has been a popular theme in fiction to imagine authoritarian regimes to be technologically sophisticated the opposite is more likely true. The more controls imposed on an economy the more likely it is to rush into the past. A society of total control would be one that is relatively primitive. The reason is basic: controls destroy the creative nature of competitive markets.

The evolution of modern technology in the competitive market has clearly changed the battle between the censors and pornographers. The producers of erotic material have, like other entrepreneurs, taken advantage of the evolving nature of technology. While these technological advancements have also been available to the censors in the centuries long porn war, it is the producers who have benefited.

Pornography is not new. It has been around as long as humans. Any culture that has produced the technology to produce pornography has done so. What has changed is the form and quantity of porn. In ancient Greek and Roman murals, vases, etc. portrayed sexually explicit acts. In India carvings of explicit sexual acts were common. Compared to present day techniques these works might appear crude and amateurish, but they didn’t lack anything when it came to their explicit nature. And they certainly didn’t limit themselves in the range of sexual possibilities portrayed. For years when such work was discovered they were hidden away from the sensitive eyes of the public. Scholars were not only discouraged from publicly admitting the existence of erotic material but were even attacked for discussing the subject privately.

As technology progressed pornography kept pace. With the invention of the printing press books with sexually explicit themes were produced. Some contained crude etchings as well. But their content was not fundamentally different from the murals of the Greeks or the modern day video equivalent.

The invention of photography revolutionized the printing industry including pornography. As soon as the camera was invented some individuals took sexually explicit photos of women, men, men and women, women and women, and men and men. In any major city where photographers existed pornography was available.

The next major technological development was, of course, the invention of motion pictures. Now the portrayal of sex acts could be made that much more life like. And, of course, they were. X-rated films have been around as long as motion pictures themselves.

With the invention of video things changed dramatically again. Pornography became a cottage industry. In the past only individuals with the specialized training necessary to develop film or print books could become pornographers. Now anyone with a little money to spare could produce X-rated videos and show them on his own television set. With two VCRs it was possible to reproduce the tapes for marketing.

The most recent stage, but surely not the last, in the development of the technology of pornography has been the computer. With the leaps made by computer technology individuals are able to transmit written, visual, or audio pornography with the click of a button. And the ability to transmit this material isn’t limited by borders, laws, or other natural or unnatural boundaries. Virtual reality computer technology is reaching the point where the images created by a computer are so lifelike the viewer/participant perceives them as real. Future developments may easily mean individuals can experience any sexual fantasy they wish without having to leave the room or needing to have physical contact with any other individual.

Technology and Censorship

With the evolution of technology the ability to censor has been greatly reduced. Would-be censors are finding it increasingly difficult to stop the spread of information, ideas or images they find offensive. When the first porn was produced it was limited to murals, statues or vases. If it was written down it was a time consuming process and only one copy could be made at a time. The censors didn’t bother much with such material because it wasn’t easily disseminated to others.

The creation of the printing press, however, turned things upside down. In Victor Hugo’s The Hunchback of Notre Damea scene depicts a printing press inside a room. Through the window the cathedral is clearly visible. Inside a man is standing. He points first to the press and then to the cathedral saying, “This will destroy that.” In fact Hugo underestimated the power of the press. The printing press challenged, not only organized religion, but the very power of the State itself.

With printing “dangerous” information, ideas or images could be mass produced. The censors were quite upset. Such dangerous concepts could no longer be limited to the elite few in society. The masses might get “ideas” from the material and this had to be stopped. Historically the call for censorship is based on an elitist view of society. The censors usually proclaim that it is the “people” who mustn’t be allowed access to the dangerous ideas, images or information. The elite, usually the censors themselves, are often allowed free access to this material. Censorship laws often have “loopholes” allowing the ownership of these items for the social elite while restricting access to the public. When pornography is banned outright the only people who have easy access to it are the censors.

In South Africa, where censorship laws were a prominent feature of the apartheid government, the only people who easily had access to pornography were the enforcers of the censorship laws. The Publications Control Board regularly viewed such “banned” material without any apparent detrimental effects on the members of the Board. But the assumption always was people like themselves are capable of viewing such material but it’s the public that can’t be trusted. On the other hand police officers were asked to confiscate this material whenever they found it. More often than not a good deal of the confiscated material disappeared along the way. The best source for pornography in apartheid South Africa was a friend in the police.

Censorship must assume some people are safe and others are dangerous. The safe people can view the dangerous material since they are needed to carry out the censorship. It is a system that assumes an elite moral few at war with the immoral masses.

From the moment the first printing press was invented people have been trying to find ways to silence it. The typical method involved physically destroying the press. Censors found this rather effective. And since presses were relatively expensive this generally silenced the printer for some time. But with the growth of capitalism presses became less expensive. They also became smaller and easier to hide. And more and more of them started cropping up, even in the smallest of villages.

Now things started becoming difficult. With one expensive, large press in an area the censors knew which press to destroy. With presses proliferating and becoming easier to hide the censors where finding their work cut out for them. Often they didn’t know which press printed which book or etching. The forces of censorship had to organize and they needed to find new methods to control expression.

The most effective method they could find was the use of the state legal system. Printing unauthorized publications would be a crime. The agents of the state would raid printers suspected of printing unapproved publications — especially publications questioning the authority of the state or which proclaimed certain dangerous beliefs such as individual rights.

The control of images and ideas became more difficult and the new technology spawned a greater rebellion against censorship. When presses were few there were few troublemakers. After all, it wasn’t often someone with the courage to stand up to the King also had a printing press as well. But, with the proliferation of the press more and more “rebels” became press owners. Soon the Western world was in turmoil and the democratic revolution was spawned. Most historians agree America’s great libertarian revolution was the result of huge numbers of citizens reading Thomas Paine’s call to revolution in his book Common Sense.And, when the Founding Fathers of the United States declared their independence from England they used the power of the press to get copies of that Declaration of Independence out to the people in order to drum up support.

But often the same presses were used to print sexually explicit books. And the censors were still around. They tried to use various laws to prevent the distribution of these books. But they had a hard time finding the material once it was distributed. Since they were not in a position to search every print shop and every home they could only try and find the material as it was being distributed. Now and then they lucked out and made spectacular raids on printers. But in general they were fighting a losing battle. They decided to do what they could, where they could and ignore the rest. So once a person got hold of porn they usually could safely keep it. The censors primarily limited themselves to opening people’s mail, policing bookshops and controlling the media. The most effective means for controlling media has been through state ownership, which is why state ownership of television or radio is inconsistent with a democratic and open society.

The invention of photography, while it dramatically changed the form of porn didn’t radically affect censorship. Photos needed to be printed and distributed pretty much in the same manner as books. The censors now had to police society for books and photos. But nothing else changed much. Even the development of motion pictures didn’t affect things greatly. It did add movie theatres to list of establishments to be policed but changed very little else.

During this era the technology of modern industrial society only affected the form which porn took. Films, book, or photos were quite similar in their production techniques and their methods of distribution. At first the new technologies were quite expensive so only a few could afford them but as time went by they became more readily available to the public. The progress of these specific technologies made porn books, photos, and film less expensive and thus more easily accessible to the masses.

The real revolution in technology and censorship came with the invention of video. Suddenly any citizen could manufacture and reproduce pornography with relative ease. Even some of the most staid citizens were producing “acceptable” porn such as home movies of themselves making love. No great skills or major investment was needed. Instead of being able to concentrate on a few major producers the censors were faced with thousands and thousands of amateur pornographers. Policing movie theatres didn’t help all that much since people could now watch the films at home on their television. The ability to censor was under attack. The new technologies which arose in market economies stripped censors of much of their powers.

Of course, the invention of the computer is the final nail in the censors’ coffin. All the old methods of policing are useless. An individual, sitting at home with a computer, can now access pornography halfway around the world. Customs agents searching suitcases at the airport are ineffective. Opening mail is no longer enough. Porn could now be transmitted digitally through the air bounced off satellites and beamed into anyone’s home.

Borders became meaningless and savy consumers in illiberal nations could import that which was banned at home. The only way to prevent this plethora of porn from becoming available is to cut a country off from the world technological revolution. That would have disastrous consequences for the nation’s economy. Now the censors can make only a pretence of policing. They can still go after bookstores but they can’t stop the computer wizards of the world from gaining access to virtually any image, idea or information they want. The censorship battle is, for all practical purposes, over. Technology slew the censor.

There are still attempts to control computer technology but they are politically motivated and doomed to fail. The Internet has seen to that. Created by no one individual or group the Internet is a collection of millions of computers spread all over the world linked together randomly and without central organization. It is a spontaneous order the likes of which had never been contemplated. A system that would withstand a world wide nuclear war isn’t about to be effected by a few zealots here and there. Attempts to control such a spontaneous order are futile and censors aren’t serious about their attempts. In general such attempts are temporary fussing by politicians to get votes from antiporn voters. Now and then self-serving police officials make absurd claims about the World Wide Web and computer porn and vow to stamp it out. But they too are doomed to fail and are only seeking publicity and perhaps promotion.

When censorship and technology first went to war the censors only had to wipe out the local printing press. Today the world is the area and every computer is a printing press. Hundreds of millions of people have to be controlled and the entire internet monitored if the censors are to win. Since there aren’t enough censors to carry out this work they cannot succeed.

Erotic publications can now be produced with a home computer, laser printer and a copy machine. We no longer need large bulky presses. Photos can be scanned directly into the publication by computer. Even images from home-made videos can be used. The home video revolution means that pornographic films are a cottage industry. Self-developing cameras mean any photo is possible to the amateur. The Internet has meant anyone, anywhere in the world, with access to a computer can tap into the “forbidden” material. Ideas, information, and images cannot be repressed successfully any place significant in the world today. The triumph of consumer capitalism and technology has made censorship impossible. Censorship is a dinosaur lumbering about in a world in which it is no longer fit for survival.

Nicholas Wolfson, Professor of Law at the University of Connecticut, my alma mater, summarizes the matter:

It is no accident that capitalism and free speech are so frequently present together. The free flow of information, ideas and technology is essential in the modern age. We live in an age of information. The computer, the micro chip, the fax, television, and cinema have created a universe in which the barriers to information and new ideas fail everywhere. Efforts to restrain free speech limit not only intellectual freedom, but result in a stultified and failed economic system. It is no accident that communism collapsed as this age came to fruition. Communist systems were unable to compete in the new technology and the new economies based upon the computer. The explosive mix of free speech, fax machines, and computers has created a universal knowledge and appreciation of the achievement of democracy and capitalism. Students in China, before the regime murdered them, marched with statues of liberty and slogans based upon the Jeffersonian ideals of the American revolution.

The new critics stress the value of equality above all other values. Only an authoritarian or totalitarian state can impose that goal. Only the state can place all individuals and all groups in a position of equality with all other groups. More successful groups or individuals must be restrained in speech as well as conduct. Interest group politics are suspect, and would be ended. Only the authoritarian or totalitarian state can accomplish those results. A strong libertarian version of the First Amendment is a threat to that goal. The new critics view free speech as a wild card that creates uncertain, unpredictable, unequal results. Hence, they desire to dampen spontaneous change and create a fixed and static society. Their efforts will fail.

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