Free Hearing

Who gets the right to free speech is a status marker and disputes over this right a status game, so argues Robin Hanson:

The usual rationale for “free speech,” which seems persuasive, is that in the long run we as a society learn more via an open competition for the best ideas, where anyone can try to persuade us as best they can, and listeners are free to choose what to hear. Yet that concept would best be called “free hearing” – a freedom to hear and evaluate any case presented, based on any criteria you like (including cost).

“Free hearing” would apply not just to hearing from adult citizens in good standing, but also to hearing from children, convicts, corporations, robots, foreigners, or demons. We wouldn’t argue if corporations have a right to speak, but rather if we have a right to hear what corporations have to say.

But in fact we have “free speech,” a right only enjoyed by adult citizens in good standing, a right we jealously guard, wondering if corporations etc. “deserve” it. This right seems more a status marker, like the right to vote, than a way to promote idea competition – that whole competition story seems more an ex post rationalization than the real cause for our concern. Which is why support for “free speech” is often paper thin, fluctuating with the status of proposed speakers.

There are other explanations for our focus on free speech rather than free hearing such as it’s the speech makers who are easiest to punish and control (being so many smaller in number than the speech hearers) but Robin’s point remains characteristically insightful.


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