In defence of free speech

By Graham

United we chat; divided we shout at each other

I promised myself I would not write a post about the Charlottesville riots, the near universal condemnation of Donald Trump’s nuanced position and the taking down of Confederate-era statues. Yet a recent conversation has forced my figurative hand onto the keyboard. I’ll keep my promise nonetheless, by writing instead a post about free speech, and avoiding the specific reference to the recent events in Virginia.

In the conversation, I was accused of being a “white supremacist apologist”, a charge which I found hurtful not for its substance – which missed wide of the mark – but because I care deeply about the person who made it. It revealed to me on a personal level just how fraught are the fault lines that are emerging in this increasingly divided world, and the dangers they present for what I believe to be the finest part of Western culture – intellectual liberty.

Tearing down statues of people you don't like is easy and has a long tradition among intolerant groups. Building statues of people you like is much harder.

Tearing down statues of people you don’t like is easy. It also has a long tradition among intolerant groups. Building statues of people you like is much harder.

Tell me what I want to hear, or STFU

They say in war, truth is the first casualty. I think the first casualty is probably free speech. Wartime demands adherence to dogma. And for dogma to take hold, there must first be a climate in which dissent is not peacefully tolerated. Once dogma has control, it can structure the narrative in whatever way suits the agenda of those in power.

Against this it is often argued that free speech needs its limits. Indeed, the debate has been had in many forms and in many places. It’s not hard to put up a straw man which would appear to demonstrate that, after all, free speech must have its bounds: Shouting ‘fire’ in a crowded theatre; slander; incitement to violence.

Yet in the current climate, it is the principle of free speech that is at stake, not the precise definition of its ultimate boundaries. Guaranteeing the right to free speech, by definition, means accepting a person’s right to say things – not only with which you disagree – but which you find utterly morally repugnant. Just as you cannot make peace with anyone except your enemies, you cannot acknowledge the right to dissent from anyone except those with whom you disagree.

Free speech – just grist in the Mill?

The principle of free speech comes to us from the Enlightenment, refined and perfected by the great liberal philosophers John Stuart Mill and Wilhelm von Humboldt.  In a nutshell, it’s predicated on a belief that truth is something we arrive at through reason, and that reason is a faculty which humans innately possess. It follows from this basic principle that allowing the vile and deceitful to speak freely is not, after all, dangerous. This is because no argument of theirs, if weak and untrue, presents much of a danger, provided its opponents are also at liberty to proffer the (strong and true) counterargument. Like the edit wars of a popular Wiki page, those who spot Elvis pumping gas on the outskirts of Reno will eventually be overruled through an iterative process of argumentation. The truth will ultimately prevail, or at least that which prevails has the best chance of being true.

Those who would resist free speech in the name of an ideology tacitly acknowledge the weakness of their own dogma. They fear dissent either because they do not believe in the fundamental truth of their dogma, because they do not trust in the innate capacity for reason of their fellow man, or else (and this is perhaps the worst alternative) they do not believe at all in the concept of objective truth; leaving only the moral logic of ‘might makes right’.

The Age of Befuddlement is upon us

It saddens me that I should have to write a post like this. I would prefer to think that in the Western World – a place where mass education and universal literacy have existed for many decades – the principles of liberty and free speech would be universally accepted. To witness the barbaric hoards of left-wing dogmatists (I shall not call them ‘liberals’ for fear of making Mill turn in his grave) doxing, rioting and intimidating their opponents is not only saddening because of how self-defeating it is in terms of fighting racism, but also because it reveals their contempt for the greatest principle we have: Freedom of expression.

 Category: Politics

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As with birth rates, we use data for 4 categories of countries from 1990 to 2015 (100 observations total). We have two explanatory variables, AGE and Y, where AGE is defined as the percentage of the population aged over 65 and Y is per capita GDP.

After eyeballing the scattergrams, we test the following functional form:

d = (minY^a)/Y^a * (1/AGE^g)

Where minY is the constant equal to the smallest value of Y in the series.

Logarithmic transformation gives:

ln(d) = ln(minY^a) – a*ln(Y) – g*ln(AGE)

which we test on the data using OLS. Here are the results:

Adjusted R square: 75.191

Intercept coefficient: 7.37384
t-Stat: 20.4011

Y coefficient: -1.01444
t-Stat: -13.1059

AGE coefficient: 2.0097
t-Stat: 11.5208

The estimated intercept is a good, but not perfect, approximation of ln(minY^a)

Here are the fitted against actual values of the scattergram for death rate against per capita GDP:

fitted-death-rates-against-actual-values

While the results are not as good as with the birth rates calculations, it is nevertheless a good enough fit and the explanatory variables have a strong enough confidence factor to be usable in our estimations.

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We begin by examining the scatter of data for 100 observations of per capita GDP and per capita emissions for 4 categories of countries, over 25 years (1990 – 2015).

The scatter suggests a cubic functional form, so we test:

GHG = a + b*Y + c*Y^2 + d*Y^3

where GHG are per capita emissions of GHG, and Y is per capita GDP.

The results from OLS regression are:

Adjusted R square: 0.980438073

coefficient a: 1090
t-stat a: 3.06

coefficient b: 0.709310153
t-Stat b: 8.241453

coefficient c: -0.0000047025
t-Stat c: -1.01233

coefficient d: -0.000000000105314
t-Stat d: -1.47005

While the t-scores on the squared and cubed terms are low, the number of observations are also limited.

Here is the plot of the fitted against actual values:

fitted-emissions-to-gdp-against-actual-values

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