You Can't Have a Functioning Nation without Free Speech
A dozen of us were seated on either side of the long dining table. Present were writers gathered from across the nation and around the world. Beside me was a lady from Nigeria. Facing me was a Romanian. The woman next to her had flown in from Sydney, Australia. This was a celebratory supper after a long day of book signings at the Los Angeles Times Book Festival — a major literary event.
The conversation among this group of lively intellects was a sparkling delight — light-hearted and witty. Only for a brief while did it turn to the fashionable liberal topic of the moment: the benefits of censoring free speech. I said nothing. Why spoil the celebration?
It is odd that the notion that speech must be censored is the current fashion of people who call themselves liberal. Liberalism is supposed to be the philosophy of individual freedom and free speech. Well, language evolves, and true liberals are much more likely to be found in the ranks of conservatives than those left of center.
There really are true liberals on the left. The people seated around me certainly were. Unfortunately, they live in an almost impenetrable fortress of specious certainty. Conservatives swim in a sea of progressivism, so they are well aware of the thinking of the left. The converse is not the case. In my experience, people left of center have a fantastically distorted concept of conservative ideas. I suppose this is because they mostly listen to one another, to the progressive media, and to their thought masters, not to real conservatives. Perhaps, too, they fear they might like conservative ideas and so become outcasts.
The current leading thought master is Barack Obama. Despite his pretensions of being a liberal, he is not — he is something dangerously different. "We are five days away from fundamentally transforming the United States of America," he so famously said in the last days of his presidential campaign. You do not fundamentally transform something you love; you fundamentally change what you despise.
Obama later realized that he had given the game away. In a subsequent interview with Bill O'Reilly, he said, "I don't think we have to fundamentally transform the nation." But then he immediately changed the subject. Now, once again, he is at it. In his April 21, 2022 keynote address at Stanford University, he called for Big Tech censorship of speech, in cooperation with the U.S. government. He complained about online "disinformation," "conspiracy theories," "raw sewage," and "deepfake technology."
About deepfake I agree. Quoting speech out of context is a time-honored way of smearing a political opponent. The courts recognize that, for a public figure, you are just going to have to grin and bear it — and watch what you say. Deepfake is very much worse. It is quite possible with modern technology to create compelling images of someone saying something he never said, in a place he never was, doing things he never would do. That is a level of fraud that becomes criminal. Deceptive advertising is illegal and punishable by the federal government and the states. Deepfake deception is likely to be much worse and properly should be similarly outlawed.
Obama proposes a solution to what he claims is pernicious speech: "while content moderation can limit the distribution of clearly dangerous content, it doesn't go far enough. Users who want to spread disinformation have become experts at pushing right up to the line of what at least published company policies allow." Those companies are Big Tech. And, the dangerous disinformation he refers to is mostly conservative commentary.
Obama argues for formalizing the recently developed casual partnership between government and Big Tech to control speech. He is saying, correctly, that you are dangerous to this newly allied establishment when you think for yourself. Your thinking must be done for you.
The recent COVID misbehavior of the CDC, supported by Big Tech's censorship, gives us a chilling example of what such a formalized partnership would entail: government/corporate fully regulated speech and thought and servitude. Without free speech, we would no longer be free citizens of a free nation.
Free speech has long been the foundation of our nation and culture. This isn't just a matter of hundreds of years of practical experience; it is also a matter of hard science.
I'm talking about the mathematical science of servo control mechanisms. Servos are ubiquitous in modern society. Your car is full of them. So is the cell phone in your pocket. We can't live without them.
Servos are designed to give desired results in a continuously changing environment. It is their ability to properly respond to these changes that makes these devices so valuable.
Servo mechanisms work with negative feedback. Through this feedback, deviations from the desired result are detected and fed back to the "steersman" to correct the error. With proper design, a servo achieves the desired objective no matter how the outside world changes.
Signals flowing through a servo are both positive and negative. Negative signals are essential for error correction. In some situations, the signals being delivered to the device from outside are entirely positive. The servo strips off their average value, or bias, and thereby converts them into both positive and negative values.
Society itself is a type of very complex servo mechanism. Negative feedback is where free speech comes in. Without the ideas of the opposition, we cannot detect errors and make corrections. It is the contrast of conflicting ideas that provides the error-correcting signals needed for a democratically controlled society to be stable.
The mathematics of servos tells us why. Suppose the signal in the servo is biased so that it is only one-sided. What happens is runaway positive feedback oscillation. That is what we find on the left. Think of what happens when a microphone is placed too close to a speaker — the squeal is unbearable. That is what will happen if free speech becomes regulated as one-sided speech. Society will inevitably crash!
Servo mathematics tells us even more. It tells us how fast the system needs to respond to changes if it is to remain stable. If the received signal changes faster than the system can respond, then negative feedback can switch to positive, and a runaway crash results. That is why a free market, and rapid local decision-making, is vastly superior to a slow, centralized, over-regulated economy.
Governments always react slowly to events. In a rapidly changing environment, that slowness often produces instability. The Soviet Union fell primarily because of the slow response of its centralized economy to the changes in the outside world and its inability to respond to changing demands of its citizenry. After all, its citizens did find out what was going on in the free world and wanted the same.
Statistics is another branch of mathematics that illuminates the issue of free speech and democracy. Consider a jar of jelly beans. At a county fair, fill a jar with colorful jelly beans, and ask people passing by how many are in the jar. You will usually get answers ranging from a few dozen to many thousands. The truth will lie somewhere in between. Average the guesses. The more people guessing, the more accurate the average. This experiment has been done many times, and the average always comes out to be amazingly close to the real number.
This experiment demonstrates why a representative republic works so well as a system of government. A fair vote (and it must be fair) distills the life experience of the multitude. It is a surprisingly accurate measure of the normal expectations of society. Democracy follows the mathematical laws of statistically governed control servos. To work and provide stability, democracy requires free speech so that, in the collective, any errors will be detected and corrected.
Sitting at that dinner table, I was thinking these thoughts. I only wished that the left side of the political spectrum were open to the reality of real science instead of "political" science. For the time being, that is not possible. Nonetheless, I fully trust that the statistics of democracy will detect the current error signals and make the necessary corrections — come November and 2024.