Everyone wants free speech. Free from Trump, from protesters, from elite opinion-makers, from anti-intellectual Bible-thumpers. Or is that not quite right? Is our aim to give speech the freedom to express hate, to oppose power, to effect change, to fight? What kind of freedom is speech supposed to have? The classical liberalism which has now become common sense offers an easy answer: the kind of freedom we find in a marketplace. Every anglophone since John Stuart Mill has become accustomed to talking about speech as a marketplace of ideas. Our moment is odd, however, because our anti-free-market left wing applies market forces to the realm of speech better than conservatives do. While conservatives gripe about the “illiberal left” stifling speech, speech has in fact come to resemble a free marketplace more than ever before, under the watch of liberals and leftists on college campuses.
I know about all the constraints, formal and informal, that many universities have placed on certain perspectives. Loud protests and quiet bureaucratic operations have undeniably shut down speech, but this does not mean the free market of ideas is dead. Students who protest, even violently, against speakers are only expressing themselves, just like the speaker. They have just as much legitimate claim to free expression as any speaker they don’t want to hear. President Bollinger himself exercised this kind of free speech when he introduced Mahmoud Ahmadinejad for the World Leaders Forum. Bollinger’s introduction attacked Ahmadinejad’s human rights record and questioned him about his regime. When Charles Murray came to campus last spring, the student introduction quoted Bollinger. With the social scientist as with the dictator, these introductions illustrate the effect of the counter-protest: to dictate the terms in which an audience will see another’s speech, to bring about a chilling effect on the other’s speech. Call it unfair, but this pre-emptive protest is speech and it is perfectly legitimate in our free speech culture. One speaker’s freedom is another’s constraint.
Constraints like these are frustrating, especially since they are consistently employed against the same perspective, but they are not inconsistent with the freedom of an open marketplace. Bollinger and liberal students can, with perfect consistency, use their speech to limit that of others while believing their institutions to represent the free marketplace of ideas. Freedom never means the total absence of constraint.
Before I go further, I should identify two relevant types of constraints one might expect to find in a market. First, there may be constraints on how one chooses an option in the marketplace. This kind of constraint is incompatible with a free market. Freedom in a marketplace means having the ability to make the choice in your own way, with no external obligations to choose one product (or idea) over another. The left has brought about great freedom of speech by doing away with these kinds of constraints, especially for student speech, which enjoys greater freedom from archaic taboos and moth-eaten manners than ever before. A typical conversation between Columbians might feature casual swearing, explicit sex talk, sarcastic denunciation of a home country or a family or a family’s beliefs, all without the slightest pang of a student conscience. Political speech at universities is just as free in much the same way: from any obligation to decorum or sense of proportion, from respect for the dignity of interlocutors, from any burden of argumentation longer than catchy slogans. Most importantly, we are free from traditional definitions of public fora; perfectly legitimate political speech in the form of protest and counter-protest can now happen anywhere at any time, even during someone else’s speech. All kinds of ways for encountering, debating, and choosing ideas are newly free for the use of consumers.
The second kind of constraint is constraint on what consumers can choose in the market. This kind of constraint, unlike the first, is perfectly consistent with a free market, as it follows naturally from the simple fact that people choose between options. Nobody window-shops forever. People make decisions, and their decisions shape the marketplace: if consumers accept one option and reject another, the latter won’t be given space on store shelves. Individuals and institutions choose to commit to certain ideas they find in the marketplace (which is the point of having a market in the first place). College campuses, corporate America, news media and Hollywood, as consumers in the marketplace of ideas, have de facto constraints against views that they see as discriminatory for this very reason. Among the full range of options, they have bought ideas about tolerance and diversity and equality. Terms like “racist” and “sexist” are simply shorthand for “that collection of ideas regarding race or gender that our society chose not to buy and therefore disappeared legitimately from the marketplace of ideas.” Why expect them to start window-shopping again when they already know what they want to purchase? John McWhorter expresses it well: “none of us genuinely wish that absolutely all issues be aired in the name of education and open-mindedness” because we reached a “philosophical consensus” on tolerance and liberalism.
Ideas that fall into the categories of “racism” and “sexism” are to be rejected because we didn’t buy them—not, it should be noted, because they don’t jive with objective reality. They may very well be objectively false beliefs, but what matters is their status as having been rejected by our society, rather than their status as being false. We promote equality and inclusion simply because we have chosen them and that’s that. In the marketplace of ideas, claims about truth or objectivity or natural law are unnecessary (even harmful, since they hint of the first kind of constraint), even though such claims may assert that racist ideas are objectively false and unfit for human belief. All that matters is that we made our free choice to reject racism and racists.
But it’s turning out that social rejection of an idea isn’t quite as effective as rejection of a product in a market. Claims about truth and objectivity might be rather helpful after all, since repugnant beliefs (that you can’t believe anyone still holds in the year 2017!) keep coming back, and we’ve become less and less capable of repudiating them on any basis other than name-calling. What’s more, treating ideas like goods in a marketplace has tended to leave some worthwhile ideas on the outside. For example, if an institution (say, Google) has decided which ideas it wants to adopt concerning the relationship between men and women, it can use shorthand terms like “sexism” to reaffirm its prior decision, without any pressure to re-tread old ground by thinking further the topic (which would be like returning an item you use and enjoy back to the store you bought it from). This shorthand, and the free choice it signifies, excuses Google from consideration of the distinction between ideas of a ‘difference between sexes’ and a ‘hierarchy of sexes.’ So anyone trying to discuss the former, like ex-Google employee James Damore, receives the treatment deserved by those trying to assert the latter.
Conservatives need to ask themselves whether the freedom of a marketplace is really the kind of freedom we want for our ideas. We need to recognize that the marketplace model is fundamentally relativistic, that it sees ideas as ultimately interchangeable products, the choice between which is more a matter of personal preference than objective truth. Any consumer can make any independent and legitimate choice among the options available. But if, as we saw at Charlottesville and UC Berkeley and so many other places, ideas have consequences that differ according to their content, we need to maintain constraints on how to choose between ideas. Those constraints stand between us and falsehood.
But in what sense can speech and ideas be free, if not in the sense of a market? Fyodor Dostoevsky offers an alternative through his dramatic parable about speech and the choice between ideas in the novel Demons. Demons sets the Biblical story of Christ exorcising the Gerasene demoniac in the intellectual circles of a provincial Russian town. Our demoniac, Nikolai Stavrogin, can neither be chained nor subdued because of his erratic behavior and high social standing. His vulgarity and free-spiritedness, which we in 21st-century America can recognize as symptomatic of our ‘marketplace of ideas,’ instead prove symptomatic of a possession; though rather than (or perhaps in addition to) a legion of demons, his head is home to a legion of ideas. He spends the following years abroad with several other young men, into whom the legion disperses. Stavrogin and his three disciples—Kirillov, Shatov, and Verkhovensky—return to the town, where they fare little better than the pigs in the gospels.
Under Stavrogin’s watch, Kirillov becomes a nihilist, Shatov an Orthodox Russian patriot, and Verkhovensky a Leftist revolutionary, each claiming Stavrogin as their source and influence—he had preached all these ideas to each of them during their travels. While each was possessed with a single idea, Stavrogin preserved in himself the full and free range of ideas, never committing to any of them. He acted as a one-man marketplace of ideas, but without any discernment or commitment or love that could have guided others toward good, he set many on a path to destruction. Kirillov commits suicide, while Verkhovensky orchestrates a political conspiracy that results in the murder of Shatov. Their hometown burns, innocent people die.
What does the possession of Nikolai Stavrogin by a legion of ideas tell us about today’s free speech crisis? For one thing, the story insists that ideas are not interchangeable, that they do make a difference irrespective of the personal preferences of the persons they inhabit. Stavrogin is ostensibly able to maintain a fully-stocked marketplace of ideas in his mind by equally believing and disbelieving all of them, advocating for all and none at once (I say “ostensible” because not even he can sustain it, eventually choosing Kirillov’s path). The problem with his agnosticism becomes clear the instant his students step into the life of their community. Some ideas drive characters to murder and suicide, others to piety and patriotism, and though each claims Stavrogin as an influence, he is all but helpless to shape events.
Dostoevsky also illustrates the importance of the criteria by which we select ideas. As I mentioned above, our free speech culture has upheld choice itself as criteria—we reject an idea now because we rejected it before and moved past it. This isn’t good enough. We would do better to restore truth, objectivity, and love to their proper places as our criteria for determining right belief than to re-open the possibility of believing anything we want. It doesn’t do us any good to go from the pigs to the demoniac (from Verkhovensky to Stavrogin). Rather than pretending that all ideas are plausible options in a grand marketplace, our culture needs a re-examination of what to consider plausible. We should make freedom from error, not freedom to choose to believe and express error if we so desire, our primary goal. This change forces us to take up a stronger critique of campus culture than conservative and libertarians usually make: not that it isn’t free enough, but that it has fallen into error.
Pope Leo XIII summed up our situation perfectly in his encyclical Immortale Dei:
the liberty of thinking, and of publishing, whatsoever each one likes, without any hindrance, is not in itself an advantage over which society can wisely rejoice. On the contrary, it is the fountain-head and origin of many evils. Liberty is a power perfecting man, and hence should have truth and goodness for its object. But the character of goodness and truth cannot be changed at option. These remain ever one and the same, and are no less unchangeable than nature itself. If the mind assents to false opinions, and the will chooses and follows after what is wrong, neither can attain its native fullness, but both must fall from their native dignity into an abyss of corruption. Whatever, therefore, is opposed to virtue and truth may not rightly be brought temptingly before the eye of man, much less sanctioned by the favor and protection of the law. A well-spent life is the only way to heaven, whither all are bound, and on this account the State is acting against the laws and dictates of nature whenever it permits the license of opinion and of action to lead minds astray from truth and souls away from the practice of virtue.
Phil Jeffery is a graduate of Columbia College, class of 2017.