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The game theory critique of free speech absolutism wins again
Liberal norm-setting just can't solve the problem; if you want free speech, socialism is the only way forward.
A while back I laid out a logically insurmountable critique of free speech absolutism that relied on game theory. Since then, the war on Palestine — and the utterly predictable crackdown on the speech of its advocates — has provided a perfect testing ground for my analysis. Free speech absolutists (FSAs), meanwhile, are advancing their own case, so I thought I’d take a moment to explain why they’re wrong.
To rehash, here’s the critique:
FSAs argue that the left and right can best protect free speech by entering into a reciprocal arrangment where we defend the views the speech of those we disagree with on the understanding that they will defend ours.
The problem with this approach is that it actually incentivizes a cheating strategy: the other side defends your speech out of principle or hoping for reciprocation, but you refuse to defend theirs. And this has now become the exact situation that FSAs are complaining about:
Here, social media influencer “Shoe” argues that Palestine activists are now being denied free speech because of an alleged failure to do so themselves; but nevertheless, she intends to continue defending their speech, either out of principle or with the hope that they’ll reciprocate. But for Palestine activists, their ideal outcome isn’t to play Shoe’s FTA game: it’s to take advantage of her unilateral offer without reciprocating!
Bear in mind that this point is true for both sides. Palestine activists might decide that it would be worthwhile trying to enter into a reciprocal free speech arrangement with Zionists in order to protect themselves, but Zionists would have every reason to try to game this arrangment themselves. Look no further than Bari Weiss, the paradigm practitioner of this strategy, to see how it works: she has somehow managed to position herself as “the queen of free speech” even as she has, on her current Twitter timeline, returned right back to her roots: trying to get critics of Israel fired.
For this reason, the best free speech strategy is actually a simple tit-for-tit strategy: you reward the other side for defending your speech by defending theirs, but if they try to free ride on this arrangement by censoring you while you defend your speech, you have to deter them by censoring them. And to the chagrin of FSAs, this is the obvious, intuitive strategy that most people actually work with:
Here, Lee thinks that he can get reactionaries to buy into his FSA scheme by appealing to their self-interest. But the right sees the crucial problem with his approach: they think that leftists will simply take advantage of their forebearance if given the opportunity to do so without penalty.
The tit-for-tat strategy certainly has limitations, too. Since people often conflate tat (retaliatory deterrent censorship) with tit (unprovoked censorship), it can be hard to return to an equillibrium of reciprocal free speech. Lee’s exchange is a perfect demonstration of this, because the longstanding harassment and censorship of Palestine activists was going on long before the right started complaining about “wokeness” and “cancel culture” and so on. And leftists, of course, may argue that it is precisely because of this history of censorship and discrimination that it has had to adopt a strategy of retaliatory deterrent censorship; since Bari Weiss obviously doesn’t care about free speech and just wants to get them fired, their only hope is to cancel her instead.
And that’s why, ultimately, none of these norm-setting strategies for protecting free speech are very likely to accomplish anything. If you adopt the Free Speech Absolutist strategy, you’re inevitably going to get a situation where both sides are censoring each other while demanding free speech for themselves. If you adopt the tit-for-tat strategy then you might occasionally get an unstable equillibrium of reciprocal free speech; but that, at any moment, can easily tip over into a death-spiral of retaliation that will be very difficult to escape from. Though even that death-spiral, I think, is better than what FSA offers: both end up with mutual attempts at censorship, but at least in tit-for-tat everyone’s admitting what they’re doing, whereas FSA ends in everyone censorsing each other and lying about it.
This is why, much to the chagrin of liberals who want to do politics with norm-setting, the best hope for free speech is probably just a socialist state. Flatten the wealth inequalities that lets some people buy media megaphones they can use to shout everyone else down. Guarantee everyone a decent living so that they don’t have to worry about getting fired for what they say. People like to cheat free speech norms, and so no matter how hard you try to promote them with endless hectoring and appeals to self-interest, you’re probably never going to be able to maintain the kind of universal buy-in you actually need for a social norm to defend free speech. But if the socialist state can level the power disparities that censorship relies on, you’ll have a much better chance of actually expanding free speech in a lasting and meaningful way.
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