Pursuit of Truthiness

my gut tells me I know economics

Freedom of Speech in America

with 5 comments

Scott Adams of the Dilbert Blog wonders about this “alleged freedom”.

“In the United States, we have freedom of speech, in the sense that the government won’t arrest you for speaking your mind. Yay for freedom!

But your fellow citizens will happily ruin your economic life if you say something unpopular in public. Some might say that has nothing to do with the right of free speech. It’s an example of free people acting in a free way. But to me, it looks like cutting out the middle man. There’s no point in electing a government to punish unpopular speakers when the citizens can do it themselves, and cheaper. It might look we have freedom of speech to you, but to me it looks like we just found the most efficient system for limiting it.

[Interesting side note: For this post I made a list of opinions you are not allowed to express in this country, and realized I can’t even publish the list without a social and economic penalty that wouldn’t be worth the benefit.]”

I myself have long though that restrictions on the freedom of speech only “count” if they are imposed by the government.

But some life experience and some exposure to such radical thinkers as Alexis de Tocqueville (who noted how Americans treated those with differing opinions in Democracy in America) has made me more sympathetic to Scott’s point of view.

As someone with no job to lose and little fear of social penalty (mostly because no one reads this), I thought it would be interesting to compile the list Scott could not- what are the opinions you just can’t hold without risking your job and/or access to public debate.

1) Outsourcing is good for the American economy

It’s the orthodoxy among economists, but death in the political arena as Greg Mankiw found out when he went from harmless Harvard professor to Bush economic advisor… and back again.

2) There are non-physical, non-trivial differences between men and women

Rather the inverse of the outsourcing question; this is the orthodoxy, I think, among ordinary men and women in everyday life; but its the kiss of death in the academy. Just ask Larry Summers, former Harvard president, now demoted back to Harvard professor after suggesting that men and women have differing abilities in math and science.

(maybe the real lesson here is to not be a professor at Harvard)

3) Genetic variation in intelligence is not distributed randomly

Ie, intelligence may correlate with other factors like (oh no!) race. This is the worst of all, as it brings out the hate from scientists, politicians, journalists, and ordinary people. Just ask James Watson, one of the men who first identified DNA. One response of his to the controversy made it into the Daily Mail:

“Our wanting to reserve equal powers of reason as some universal heritage of humanity will not be enough to make it so,” he says.

One of the sad truths of life is that wanting something good and beautiful to be true is not enough to make it so. (Exceptions to this are really cool and rare as unicorns)

I think that most people fail to realize this or choose to ignore it. Certainly I struggle against it. But if anyone should base their views on what they can prove to be true, rather than what they want to be true, it must be the scientific community. There are other issues where scientists appear fairly dogmatic; global warming is a mild case, evolution a stronger one. But Watson seems to have revealed some of the strongest scientific dogma of all.

That was kind of a tangent… anyway, I’d like to see your own ideas in the comments about what you can’t say in America.

Final quiz prep, in case anyone surprising is among my normally intelligent and educated audience: for those who missed Civics 101, protecting someone’s freedom of speech doesn’t necessarily mean you agree with them; in fact the whole point is to tolerate dissent. For those who missed Logic 101, the truth of an idea not dependent on those who believe it, or even those who put it forward; ie, just because scientists largely believe in evolution or the equality of intelligence across races for unscientific reasons doesn’t mean they aren’t true.



Written by James Bailey

November 5, 2007 at 3:22 pm

Posted in Dilbert, Politics, science

5 Responses

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  1. Government restrictions (or freedoms) are artificial.

    Societal restrictions (or freedoms) are real.

    As my high school Civics teacher was fond of reminding us, there are so few policemen in the world that citizens need to “police themselves.” Naturally, in a room full of teenagers, the entire class laughed at him, but he is correct, and people do actually police themselves. It’s just that society has different rules than the government.

    I’ll police my neighbor down the hall without hesitation; if I saw him dragging a dead hooker out of sight, I’d immediately call the cops or interfere myself. But if I walk to my room and am nearly overpowered by the pungent aroma of some fine herb, I’m not likely to do much of anything.

    Freedom of speech works the same way. 99% of what I say will never reach the ears of the government (hopefully, anyway), but 100% reaches someone else. Of those people, probably a large portion will disagree with what I have to say – I’m not a particularly politically correct man. I’m far more worried about Johnny next door than I am about Johnny Law. So what do I care what the official position of the government on free speech, or anything else, is?

    I have no idea whether or not my neighbor’s name is actually Johnny.


    November 5, 2007 at 7:30 pm

  2. …He does, however, really enjoy fine herbs.


    November 5, 2007 at 7:31 pm

  3. Way to put it much more succinctly than I did, Ben.


    November 7, 2007 at 1:39 pm

  4. Well I could never say the following two things as a history teacher:

    1. I would have gladly followed Hitler if I had been a blonde, blue eyed German

    2. Corruption is what makes the world go round


    November 10, 2007 at 5:23 pm

  5. Certainly not at the K-12 level anyway.
    I think a lot of the modern literature in political science and economics (high undergrad and up, at least) acknowledges that corruption is really important, and they will plug their noses and study it- and admit that corruption, cronyism and clientism is what keeps a lot of leaders in power.

    While your Hitler statement would be considered extreme in any modern setting, I think a lot of the new work on WWII sees it as much less black and white- such as this review of Max Hastings’ new book on the end of the war.


    November 12, 2007 at 2:26 pm

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