Freedom of thought as a perpetual revolution

I mentioned offhand on Twitter today that I am skeptical of the tendency to brand the classically liberal emphasis on freedom of thought and speech as “centrist.” The implicit idea is that those on the Right and Left for whom liberalism is conditional, and a means at best, are radical and outside the mainstream.

This misleads us in relation to the fact that classical liberalism is the aberration both historically and culturally. Liberty of thought and speech have existed for time immemorial, but they were the luxury goods of the elite salons. Frederick the Great of Prussia had no use for religion personally, and famously patronized heretical philosophers, but he did not disturb the conservative social order of the polity which he inherited. For the masses, the discourse was delimited and regulated to maintain order and reinforce social norms.

The attempt to position the liberal stance as a centrist one is clearly historically and culturally contingent. It reflects the ascendancy of a particular strand of Anglo-American elite culture worldwide. But it is not universal. In the Islamic world and South Asia free expression of skepticism of religious ideas in public are subject to limits explicitly to maintain public order. The Islamic punishments for apostasy have less to do with the sin of individual disbelief and more to do with disruption to public norms and sedition against the state. Similarly, both China and Russia tap deeply into cultural preferences for state and elite paternalism in regards to public freedom of thought.

In fact, the classical liberal perspective on prioritizing freedom of conscience and the ability to explore the full range of ideas is probably counter to the “lowest energy state” of human cognitive intuitions. It reflects only a slice of the “moral foundations” which Jonathan Haidt explores in The Righteous Mind.

To explore some of the demographic correlates of classical liberalism I utilized the General Social Survey. As instruments to assess liberal attitudes toward free speech and thought I focused on two variables, SPKMSLM and SPKLRAC. For the first variable respondents were asked:

Now consider a Muslim clergyman who preaches hatred of the United States. If such a person wanted to make a speech in your community preaching hatred of the United States, should he be allowed to speak, or not?

For the second:

Or consider a person who believes that Blacks are genetically inferior. a. If such a person wanted to make a speech in your community claiming that Blacks are inferior, should he be allowed to speak, or not?

I assess the pro-free speech position by inspecting the subset who accept that both groups should be allowed to speak, and those who reject that either group should be allowed to speak. That is, these are people consistent in their attitudes when it comes to speech which conflicts with community norms.

For demographic variables, I looked at educational attainment (DEGREE), verbal intelligence (WORDSUM), and political ideology (POLVIEWS). For verbal intelligence scoring 0-4 out of 10 was below average, 5-7 was average, and 8-10 above average.

What is clear above is that those with more education and those who are more intelligent tend to support free speech more than those who lack education or are less intelligent. But it is also notable that moderates, in particular, are overrepresented among those who reject freedom of speech. Though tThe proportion of liberals goes up appreciably, the proportion of conservatives also goes up a bit!.

I ran a quick logistic regression model which attempts to predict the odds of two outcomes (support or reject free speech here) across a range of variables simultaneously. Statistically significant B coefficients are bolded. You can see that the demographics which support speech across the two are consistent:

B – Allow Muslim B – Allow racist Who supports free speech?
AGE 0.01 0.006 Younger people
SEI -0.008 -0.007 Higher SES people
POLVIEWS 0.061 0.072 Liberals
WORDSUM -0.306 -0.145 Smart people
DEGREE -0.274 -0.153 More education
INCOME -0.026 -0.026 Richer
SEX 0.45 0.24 Men
GOD 0.151 0.159 Less religious

From looking at the GSS data moderates are the less interested in politics overall, and also less educated and intelligent. In general, when they respond to a political issue they’re going with their gut. Humans are social animals and tend to not look favorably upon public disruption. The rationales for why one should discourage offensive and taboo speech are rather coherent. The liberal instrumental argument for freedom of thought as a social good tends to take a longer view that the proliferation of ideas will lead to greater prosperity and moral advancement.

This is a very Whig model of history. Whether the model is correct or not, it captures a particular moment in the Zeitgeist of the early modern West. The reason that classical liberalism is classical is that it in minimal terms it has never gone beyond its roots in the late 18th and early 19th century in relation to its preoccupations. Within the West many conservatives and reactionaries have argued against the presuppositions of classical liberal thought, which have tacitly been ascendant for the past two centuries (the fascists being the inchoate apotheosis of these reactive strands). Marxists and other radicals have gone beyond the liberal fixation on liberty narrowly defined, while modern Left-liberals tend to put as much emphasis on economic liberty through redistribution as upon civil liberty.

But I also want to suggest here that perhaps the classical liberal fixation on freedom of thought reflects the interests and preoccupations of a particular segment of society: those for whom ideas are fascinating and give sustenance and meaning to life. The Enlightenment can be thought of as the revolt of the middle class, broadly construed, from the mercantile high bourgeoisie down to the broad professional class. These are people for whom “post-materialist” considerations loom large because material considerations have faded into the background. For the poor and those in material want freedom of thought is less important by necessity. Similarly, the large segment of the population which is not interested in novel ideas may not care much about the importance of intellectual novelty. Finally, there are those with post-materialist values which may emphasize the importance of taboos and social conformity of the collective.

Though the majority of the population (at least in the West) seems inclined to go along with liberalism as part of the broader suite of post-Enlightenment Western culture, there is no guarantee that they will always hew to such a position. Classical liberalism understood to be fundamentally radical would be useful insofar as the elites for whom it is an ends, and not a means, would be less complacent and more motivated toward maintaining the primacy of the values which give meaning to their lives.

10 thoughts on “Freedom of thought as a perpetual revolution

  1. That’s a really interesting take, I’ve never thought of it in that way before. Although I think of free speech as being as much about restricting state power as it is about encouraging freedom of expression, maybe even more so, and that would seem counter to Elite interests. Just a thought.

  2. A Question and Related Comment for RK.

    Q1: With regard to the last pair of graphs (Attitudes toward offensive speech by political ideology) you write, “Though the proportion of liberals goes up appreciably, the proportion of conservatives also goes up a bit!” I don’t understand the basis for this statement. The fraction of those against freedom of speech (upper graph) who are liberal is about 22%, while the fraction for who are liberal (lower graph) is about 33%. The corresponding numbers for those who are conservative is about 35% (=1-0.65) and 31% (=1-0.69). It appears to me the proportion who are liberal rises while the proportion who are conservative falls.

    C1: I think it would be more interesting not to examine what fraction of those who oppose (support) free speech are liberal (conservative), but what fraction of those who are liberal (conservative) support (oppose) free speech. My recollection is that even today (well, at least before the last presidential election), a larger fraction of US adults label themselves as conservatives than as liberals, so it is a bit difficult to make sense of the numbers you present.

  3. Comment #2

    C2: RK writes, “while modern Left-liberals tend to put as much emphasis on economic liberty through redistribution as upon civil liberty.”

    As a lefty-liberal squish, much as I might want to repurpose the phrase economic liberty as you seem to be doing here, I think it only leads to confusion. The term has come to mean freedom from restraint in the use and disposal of property as the owner sees fit.

    What lefty-liberals recognize, to cadge a phrase, is that “In its majestic equality, the law forbids rich and poor alike to sleep under bridges, beg in the streets and steal loaves of bread.” Our hope is that some degree of redistribution will both increase the freedom to do things, by increasing the capability to do them, and place both sorts of freedom on a firmer footing, one that is less subject to angry and resentful backlash.

  4. The corresponding numbers for those who are conservative is about 35% (=1-0.65) and 31% (=1-0.69).

    will update later. i must have flipped the numbers. just checked and to confirm the % does change while MORE conservatives in the pro-free speech camp.

  5. (I was adding to my Comment #2 when things got smushed and I ran out of time to complete the edit: this is a final point to that comment. Thank god for the edit feature on the blog!)

    As for the rest, I think you are correct about concern with liberty and ideas being largely the province of the middle class and others who do not have to be overly concerned with material want. From my youthful readings of histories of the French Revolution, I think this has been a foundational belief of much of the left since Babeuf and his Conspiracy of Equals.

  6. This is mildly on topic — not about free speech, but about classical liberalism and what it values. It’s 10 y.o. lecture notes of Brad Delong’s on Weber, Keynes and the giant cock-up that WW1 was for that political philosophy/framework. I wouldn’t think to mention it but for the coincidence that he (re)linked to it today and you mention classical liberalism in this post.

  7. Two pithy thoughts come to my mind on this:

    First, Heinlein was correct in his insinuation that classical liberalism is suited only for competent, intelligent individuals who are psychologically self-reliant and, thus, have no need for external locus of control world-views such as religion and what not. Those who are not of these traits require another kind of system to for functional behavior.

    Two, like Glenn Reynolds, I consider myself a Heinleinian libertarian that holds, among other things, that other value liberty less than I do.

  8. A third thought comes to mind. Different peoples require different systems. There is no such thing as the one perfect system that is optimized for all humans (this is a trait that the Abrahamic religions share with atheist ideologies like Marxism/Leninism). In deed, such a notion can be considered the very definition of utopian. Hence, the obsession of the global so-called elites to foster such a system are doomed to failure.

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