Here, I’m going to take on three of the major historical arguments for this vision of discursive progress. They are, I think, representative of the larger body of justifications – and they are consistently implausible. The upshot is that there really is no reason to suppose that we can make any kind of intellectual, political, or moral progress through discourse; perhaps such progress is possible, but it is not the discourse that drives it.
Historians, almost unanimously, have long credited seventeenth century poet John Milton as a founding father of free speech. “Milton’s defense of free speech in Areopagitica,” Jack Goldstone writes, is one of “the most profound works of political theory in the English language.” It is the “classic defense of free speech” according to Charles Barzun – a judgement that Mark Graber notes is shared by “most scholars.”
At a glance, this consensus makes sense: Areopagitica was certainly one of the first texts of the genre, and its gist is to call for liberalized free speech laws. But read a little closer, and you’ll run into passages like this:
…popery, and open superstition…should be extirpate[d]…that which is also impious or evil absolutely against faith or manners, no law can possibly permit…To clarify, Milton is giving us a list of speech that must not be tolerated. No Catholicism, no superstition, nothing sacrilegious or rude!
As Stanley Fish writes, this caveat of Milton’s “is rarely noticed in such discussions and when noticed is noticed with some embarrassment.” It has in any case done nothing to displace Milton from the free speech pantheon; we are to suppose, it seems, that the “classic defense” of free speech has not been compromised, and that this has no implications for our commitment to free speech today.
But Milton’s caveat isn’t just some irrelevant tangent – it reflects the narrow and idiosyncratic religious premises on which his entire epistemology is built. He believes that “light and clearer knowledge” are “sent down among us” by God. What makes an argument prevail in the discourse? “Truth is strong next to the Almighty”: it wins by virtue of God’s power. That is why Milton can casually call for the censorship of heretics and sinners; his free speech argument begins with the assumption of God, which means that there’s no need for the discourse to relitigate matters that God has already ruled upon.
Within Milton’s call for free speech, then, is a peculiar theory about how progress in discourse works. When people debate about some point of fact or philosophical truth, it is not logical soundness or empirical substantiation or the laws of morality which guarantee that the right position will prevail: it is God’s divine intervention into the debate.
Suffice to say that this is not a theory about discourse and public debate that is even entertained by most modern Christians. More to the point, it is one that secular liberals would reject in principle; a pluralistic liberalism cannot begin with the assumption that God is controlling the discourse, and certainly can’t defend a theory that smuggles in calls for censorship against Catholics and rude teens.
So it is worth considering why, despite his very illiberal views on discourse, Milton remains venerated as a founding liberal. The answer, I suspect, is simple: the liberal vision of discursive progress is built on an intellectual foundation that we take for granted and don’t reflect on very seriously. The proof is that if we did, we’d notice that the theories behind it are about as antiquated and implausible as Milton’s.
Though Milton is often considered a figure of the Enlightenment, his peculiar, mystical epistemology reflects the older intellectual milieu. The Enlightenment’s real innovation on liberal discourse theory came from figures like John Stuart Mill, who insisted that “Wrong opinions and practices gradually yield to fact and argument.” Mill is voicing here what Gaus calls the traditional liberal view:
According to the traditional liberal view, when we employ our reason we can achieve objectivity: we can see the world as it truly or really is…Liberals influenced by this view of reason believed that free exercise of human reason produces convergence of moral and political views.So rationalism, with its emphasis on logic and evidence, displaced God as the engine of liberal discourse. Once again, speech must remain free; and once again, a major justification for this is the guarantee of intellectual and moral progress, if the discourse remains unobstructed. But this time, the mechanism of progress isn’t divine providence – it’s rationalism, with its emphasis on things like logic and evidence.
Mill’s rationalism still finds significant purchase in the modern world. It’s expressed in academia, with its systematic and highly formalized pursuit of knowledge and truth; academics submit to a whole field of norms meant to ensure that discourse remains rationally sound and intellectually rigorous. It’s expressed in journalism, with its elaborate rules of sound investigation and “objective” reporting. And it’s expressed among the general public – especially among elites – in the norms of civil debate and discussion, with their emphasis on substantiveness, their demands for evidence, their fallacy-policing, and so on. All of this, liberalism tells us, will lead to intellectual, social, and moral progress – if only speech remains free.
Since the time of Mill, however, multiple challenges to rationalism have emerged.
For one, Gaus notes that as a matter of (fairly obvious) sociological fact, we still have different cultures, with different beliefs and perspectives that seem both irreconcilable and stubbornly unchanging. Even where there would seem to be some objective truth at stake – say, when it comes to the imminence of climate change – large segments of the populations are often unpersuaded by appeals to reason. For whatever reason, rationalism often seems completely incapable of driving discursive progress, even in a free speech environment.
Another genre of objection challenges our capacity for rationalism at the level of the individual. The mind, psychology and neurology have taught us, doesn’t operate as some kind of infallible calculating machine; it is riddled with all kinds of powerful cognitive biases that prevent us from engaging in reason successfully. Our capacity for reason is also limited in scope – for instance, as Chomsky has argued, “human behavior might be beyond our inquiry”. Elsewhere, he elaborates:
It’s not really arguable, unless you think we’re angels – but if we’re part of the organic world, we have fixed capacities. Just like I can’t fly. These capacities have a certain scope, and they have certain limits.If this is true, then some of the central focuses of liberal discourse – debates about politics and morality, technical questions about economics and policy, and so on - may simply be too profound and complex for our primate brains to reason about with any rigor and objectivity. We should not be surprised to find Enlightenment philosophers, with their boundless but often blind optimism in human potential, got this wrong – and we certainly have no reason to assume that they got it right.
If neither providence nor rationalism can guarantee progress in liberal discourse, what is left? Barack Obama, in The Audacity of Hope, invokes a third possibility:
…the Constitution…offers us the possibility of a genuine marketplace of ideas, one in which the “jarring of parties” works on behalf of “deliberation and circumspection”; a marketplace in which, through debate and competition, we can expand our perspective, change our minds, and eventually arrive not merely at agreements but at sound and fair agreements.Obama’s references to deliberation and debate may suggest that he’s still dealing in rationalism, but his metaphor suggests something else. There is, after all, no such thing as a “genuine marketplace of ideas” – that is just an analogy we draw to explain, through comparison with the material economy, how ideas circulate and interact.
And in the origin of this metaphor, we see a different premise at work. When Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, in 1919, wrote that “the best test of truth is the power of thought to get itself accepted in the competition of the market,” he is not talking about a rational process so much as a capitalistic process. What proves that an idea is correct, or good, or just, is not something about its correspondence with Miltonian religious doctrine, or even its rationality; what gives it value is the fact that so many people accept it. Blocher:
…academic and popular understandings of the First Amendment have embraced the notion that free speech, like the free market, creates a competitive environment in which the best ideas ultimately prevail…The marketplace of ideas model… remains faithfully wedded to a neoclassical view that depends on a perfectly costless and efficient exchange of ideas.Here, the guarantor of discursive progress is neither God nor reason – it’s the competition and efficiency of capitalism.
But explanations like this only work insofar as one accepts the terms and premises of capitalism – which is how belief in capitalism animates and legitimizes belief in a marketplace of ideas. Widespread acceptance of the marketplace theory can be understood to express widespread faith in capitalism; laissez faire attitudes towards regulation and economic intervention generalize into laissez faire attitudes towards regulating and dictating the discourse. Liberalism is that generalization - it merges these two distinct theories into a single ideology.
That is why the socialist, who meets capitalism with skepticism, might also regard with skepticism the theory of a marketplace of ideas. For example, socialists have always noted that a firm, within capitalism, can build a monopoly that resists competition – why would this point not also apply in the marketplace of ideas as well? Why not suspect that claims of truth and knowledge can dominate our discourse, not because of some intrinsic value, but because they have become intellectually entrenched, just as a firm is economically entrenched? If this is indeed the case, then there would seem to be some real value in a government that makes illiberal interventions into the marketplace of ideas, busting the monopolies of entrenched thought through censorship.
Providence, reason, and marketplace competition – these are three of the major reasons that liberalism has historically given us for believing that our discourse is making progress. This isn’t an exhaustive survey of such narratives, but it is, I think, representative.
Certainly, the preceding critiques do not overthrow the case for free speech. One can still argue for liberalized speech rights as a matter of principle, perhaps on grounds of personal liberty (though this is subject to different objections). What one cannot do, however, is insist upon free speech by appealing to the political, moral, and intellectual progress that it supposedly guarantees. That guarantee rests on grounds that no skeptic of Miltonian mysticism, of rationalism, and of capitalism should take seriously.