Society 2 (by )

Free Speech

Free speech is contentious. In some parts of the world, despotic governments prevent organised uprisings against them by making it difficult for the populace to know the extent of their despotism, by controlling media and punishing people who speak the truth. Meanwhile, in other parts of the world, people are slandering, lying, and inciting discrimination against people, while claiming the right to do so as "free speech".

How do we stop a corrupt media organisation swaying a democracy by publishing misleading (if technically correct) stories about the activities of government, while allowing an honest media organisation to point out abuses of government power? And even if we can solve that, how do we scale it down to individual people sharing information on social networks? Or just talking to each other in the street?

We don't want a system of free speech law that can be used to suppress statements that are true. Nor do we want one that can be used to protect statements that aren't true.

It's tempting to suggest a system where people can challenge a statement about them in court, forcing the person who made the statement to justify it. But that creates a "chilling effect"; it's all too easy for a well-funded individual (capital again!) to challenge every statement (true or not) about them they don't like, as they have the resources to pursue lots of court cases, while their victims (with less capital) cannot afford that.

I really can't think of a great solution to this. Perhaps it all has to come down to a notion of "reasonableness"...


It's worth thinking about how political systems fail under stress. When the incumbent government takes control of the means of choosing new governments, we tend to end up with a dictatorship. If the goverment is perceived as not acting in the interests of the populace, and the populace's situation becomes too dire, civil wars seem to break out. Another failure mode is democratic stagnation, which is arguably the current state of the Western democracies.

Can we avoid societies falling into such failure modes? They are dynamical systems, so are prone to attractors; making such a complex dynamical system without unanticipated attractors is probably not possible, so perhaps the best we can do to avoid stagnation of one form or another is to inject enough randomness into the process of choosing who will run the government that it can't settle into any attractors. We don't necessarily need to do this all the time - we could have a perfectly "normal" first-past-the-post mainly-two-party elected parliament system, but with a big escape hatch on the side whereby if enough people march on Parliament and demand it at once, every MP is immediately replaced by a randomly-selected constituent of their ward. We'd just need to be very careful not to let the current government find ways of encouraging people to be too apathetic.

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  • By Faré, Fri 8th Jan 2016 @ 8:42 am

    The big mistake many engineers make is to believe they as philosophers are somehow outside and above society and government is a magical tool that can mold society whichever way they want, for free.

    The one thing libertarians understand is that, no, nobody is either outside or above society, that government is not the tool of philosophers above, and not the tool of people below, but is a natural phenomenon with laws of its own, derived from its principle of unaccountable violence; and before to dream of what it "could" or "should" do, realize that not only its action isn't free (as in, it has a dear price), its action isn't free either (as in, it's constrained in what it WILL do — if it doesn't propagate its own survival through domination, it doesn't survive and is replaced by a conqueror that will do what it takes).

    See e.g. "The Calculus of Consent" by Buchanan & Tulloch on how democracy does work in practice (though with very favorable hypotheses), or "The Myth of the Rational Voter" by Caplan on how these favorable hypotheses do not even hold.

    Once you understand what government is, a lot of things change as to how you approach social engineering (if at all).

  • By alaric, Fri 8th Jan 2016 @ 12:27 pm

    I'm approaching the design of a government as a collective body to handle collective issues; I do agree that governments which become entities in their own right, whose interests may not align with the interests of the populace, then You Have A Problem.

    I've yet to see a convincing blueprint for how humanity can manage collective issues (dealing with emergencies, managing shared resources, dealing with disputes about stuff, etc) without forming some kind of forum to discuss it and agreeing to go along with the outcome of those agreements even if you don't like them - and making those agreements useful even if some people refuse to go along with them. Perhaps I am being too broad in labeling that as a "government" of sorts, and damning the whole concept by association with stagnant Western democracies...

    No, I'm not convinced my "second society" wouldn't also fall foul to the attractor of a power-hungry government propagating its own existence at all costs; I have merely tried to discourage it from going down paths I can think of that lead to that. It is my best stab at a model for a government in the traditional-nation-state sense; I would really like a few of those to be competing for citizens with each other, along with an ocean full of seasteads evolving their own forms of little micro-nation and competing with each other for citizens, and we get to see what wins out... As long as there's enough overall consensus that people should be very free to move to a different society, it should be hard for any despots to do a North Korea and lock their populace up without anybody noticing and doing something about it...

  • By Faré, Sat 9th Jan 2016 @ 6:16 am

    But that's the thing: the notional "government" that you're talking about has nothing to do with the institution of territorial monopoly of violence usually known as "government". If you define it as whichever "kind of forum to discuss it and agreeing to go along with the outcome of those agreements even if you don't like them" — then the closest common notion is market, not government.

    And yes, competition between "governing" entities via free association is the one and only force capable of preventing the otherwise non-competed entity from turning into tyranny.

    In any case, a lot of criticism against libertarianism boils down to confusion between these opposite notions, whichever names you use to denote them (society, government, market, etc.)

  • By alaric, Mon 11th Jan 2016 @ 10:45 am

    I do worry about how to stop "governing entities" from (a) absorbing each other, not necessarily through traditional military expansionism but maybe even just through all signing treaties with each other that make them interchangeable in the name of "standardising for the benefit of free trade", or through simple cultural hegemony; and (b) going North Korea and inhibiting flight of disaffected citizens!

  • By Faré, Tue 12th Jan 2016 @ 5:04 am

    (a) Indeed the Habsburg gained power through alliances and weddings (and ended up highly inbred for it). As long as citizens and landowners have an "exit" option, it doesn't matter how much the entities merge. If they don't then it's indeed guaranteed eventual doom as empires merge together and/or collapse.

    (b) All governments have already reserved the right to inhibit the flight of disaffected citizens: that's what border controls and passports are for. It's the other bad aspects of North Korea that they happily haven't copied (yet). "Citizen" control is precisely what government monopoly consists in.

    The idea that "governing entities" should NOT have a monopoly on either territory or citizens is what libertarianism is about.

  • By alaric, Wed 11th Oct 2017 @ 7:43 am

    Here's some more interesting insights into the problem of government:

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