Free speech in the digital age

I finally broke down and wrote a cancel-culture-adjacent piece. It originally appeared at Merion West, an online magazine. Since this essay contains themes I’ve been mulling over but have struggled to articulate for a while, I thought I’d reprint the piece here, with some commentary in the footnotes. Enjoy!


If I had to pick one thing America does better than any other nation, I’d have to go with free speech. The American commitment to free speech is legendary, codified by the First Amendment, which guarantees all Americans the right to worship, peacefully assemble, and otherwise express themselves without fear of government censorship.

As legal protections for freedom of expression go, the First Amendment remains the gold standard worldwide. We often take this for granted, forgetting that most people don’t live under the same conditions. Hold the American stance on freedom of speech in contrast with that of Iran or Saudi Arabia, where blasphemy is punishable by death, or China, where one-to-three million members of an ethno-religious sect are packed into concentration camps for crimes as spurious as abstaining from alcohol.*

If picking on theocracies and dictatorships strikes you as low-hanging fruit, recall that Europeans also live with less freedom of expression. A U.K. man was arrested and fined for posting a YouTube video that showed his girlfriend’s pug performing Nazi salutes, for example. By comparison, the American Civil Liberties Union has used the First Amendment to defend the rights of neo-Nazis and civil rights protestors alike to assemble.

Our commitment to the rights of others to express themselves, even if they hold heinous beliefs, is something uniquely American, perhaps the finest piece of our cultural heritage. Unfortunately, it’s a commitment we seem to be turning our backs on—and the First Amendment is often used as a moral license to do so.

The First Amendment guarantees one freedom from government censorship; it doesn’t establish the positive right to speech. This is as it should be, as anything more would require the compulsion of others to either hear or facilitate one’s speech. However, this allows people to take a narrow view of freedom of speech as being merely freedom from government censorship. We might call this the “showing you the door” strain of free speech thought. Such a view, while legally coherent, ignores that free speech has a cultural component as well—one that needs constant maintenance if it’s not to fall into disrepair.

That component might be described as a willingness to err on the side of permissiveness when it comes to public discourse—or perhaps an understanding that we generally tend to benefit from living in a culture where people can push boundaries without intolerable social and economic risk.** Its bedrock values are charity, humility, and tolerance. 

When I speak of a threat to free speech culture, I’m talking about the newly enabled impulse to defenestrate and defame people, often for trivial transgressions, sometimes years after the offense—“cancel culture,” if you must. It is distinct from free speech culture in that it doesn’t seek to confront opposing views but rather to erase them, often in ways that are financially or personally ruinous for the offending party. It’s the self-righteous, vindictive justice of the mob.

Because the internet

Anyone observer of humanity can tell you this is not new behavior. On the contrary, it’s been more the rule than the exception. But it does seem exacerbated and facilitated by modern life, especially the internet.

As more of life moved online, it became easily searchable, permanent, and largely public. This migration—the result of social encouragement to live in full view of your friends, casual acquaintances, and advertisers—has spawned a panopticonic social archive that can easily be turned against you.*** These are conditions unique to life in the 21st Century that many adults, let alone children, seem understandably ill-adept at navigating.

When paired with the rapid mutation of norms (also aided by the internet) surrounding acceptable speech and the mob mentality incentivized by social media and click-hungry outlets, this creates an environment ripe for reflexive, post-hoc defamation, to which even—or more accurately, especially—powerful liberal institutions (the very same tasked with guarding free inquiry) are showing little resistance

In such a hostile environment, the obvious choice becomes to abstain from speech that not only is controversial but also that which might someday be controversial. (The exception being those who are financially immune to cancelation and can thus be afforded public free thought.) This is clearly at odds with a culture of free speech, in which ideas can be freely debated, and people can change their minds over time. 

We’re already seeing the consequences: authors pulling their own books from publication for excruciatingly trivial offenses; professionals being fired for sharing objective research that supports unhappy findings. But the future consequences will be unseen: the important medical studies that aren’t conducted; the bold art that isn’t created; the policy failures that can’t be named, much less halted. From this vantage point, the future looks bleak, the province of the anodyne and ineffectual.

Censorship has been outsourced to private actors

Much like the social surveillance system under which we live (voluntarily, it must be said), the modern thought police regime is not a product of the state. Censorship has been outsourced to private companies and zealous volunteers, who are themselves often exercising their free speech rights in the course of policing others’ speech. From a legal standpoint, this is of course distinct from government censorship, and therefore not a First Amendment issue. No one has a right to a subreddit or a Twitter handle or a New York Times op-ed.

Yet it would be a mistake to say that these companies and individuals don’t or can’t pose a threat to free speech in the broader, cultural sense. To do so, you would have to ignore the market power of the relatively few actors that control the channels of speech in the modern era. The collapse of local media and the consolidation of firms within the industry, for example, have endowed the remaining actors with the power to filter the coverage of events and viewpoints that millions of Americans are exposed to. Do you trust them not to use it?

Over half of Americans get their news through Facebook, which is known to have manipulated users’ feeds to alter their emotions. Some 80% of search engine traffic flows through Google, home to famously opinionated, activist employees. About a quarter of journalists turn to Twitter—the use of which has been shown by at least one study to affect journalists’s judgement of newsworthiness—as their primary news source. The case of social media platforms and search engines is particularly illustrating: while they are private actors that users engage with of their own volition, network effects are built into their business models, meaning once established, they’re not as vulnerable to competition as other businesses and products are.

These companies are well within their legal rights to create their own policies and remove content that violates them, to algorithmically promote or suppress content on their properties, or to flag content as misinformation if they deem it so. But to deny that in doing so they might chill, stifle, or otherwise impact free expression is fanciful.

There are no easy fixes

Part of the irony of this problem is that addressing it in the most straightforward way (through policy or regulation) would actually represent a huge step in the wrong direction. Do I worry about the market power of companies that control the modern channels of speech? Yes, especially given the political power dynamics at play in many of our most powerful institutions. Do I think media polarization is dangerous and bad? You bet. But maintaining the independence of private actors, and thus the core of the First Amendment, is more important than the pursuit of an ephemeral unbiased public sphere.

That’s fine, because this isn’t a policy problem. It’s a cultural problem, and it requires a cultural solution: a revival of free speech culture and the virtues upon which it rests. We need to check our instincts to banish things we don’t like, and we need to voice our skepticism of those who over rely on the power of censorship.**** (It would probably also be a good idea for individuals to rethink how they use the internet.) 

I know this is a lot to ask, especially under the conditions of the digital age. But I have hope. Cultural free speech is a core American value and a key component of life in a pluralistic society. If anyone is going to defend it, it will be us.

Notes

* When I started writing this piece (about a week ago), Uyghur oppression was the most relevant example of Chinese human rights violation. By the time it was published, that had changed.

** This is one of those American ideals that has certainly never been implemented or enjoyed uniformly. As sociology professor Rod Graham points out, for a long time, you could risk losing your job and destroying your personal life by coming out as gay, for example. So while the tone of this piece is somewhat pessimistic about the state of modern free speech, I think it’s important to note that in a lot of ways, things have improved.

***  I should have also brought up that sometimes, as in many of the “Karen” videos going around, this social surveillance system is quite literally weaponized. There are incentives in place to do so—mainly the promise of money and virality for the poster.

****  There’s always going to be an Overton window; I don’t mean to suggest it could be any other way. That’s just part of living in a society.

Thoughts on Marc Andreessen’s IT’S TIME TO BUILD

Way way back in April of 2020, a venture capitalist named Marc Andreessen wrote an all-caps exhortation to western (particularly American) institutions and individuals: IT’S TIME TO BUILD. It’s a quick read, so I do recommend it. If that’s out of the question, you can get the gist from the opening paragraphs:

Every Western institution was unprepared for the coronavirus pandemic, despite many prior warnings. This monumental failure of institutional effectiveness will reverberate for the rest of the decade, but it’s not too early to ask why, and what we need to do about it.

Many of us would like to pin the cause on one political party or another, on one government or another. But the harsh reality is that it all failed — no Western country, or state, or city was prepared — and despite hard work and often extraordinary sacrifice by many people within these institutions. So the problem runs deeper than your favorite political opponent or your home nation.

Part of the problem is clearly foresight, a failure of imagination. But the other part of the problem is what we didn’t *do* in advance, and what we’re failing to do now. And that is a failure of action, and specifically our widespread inability to *build*.

We see this today with the things we urgently need but don’t have. We don’t have enough coronavirus tests, or test materials — including, amazingly, cotton swabs and common reagents. We don’t have enough ventilators, negative pressure rooms, and ICU beds. And we don’t have enough surgical masks, eye shields, and medical gowns — as I write this, New York City has put out a desperate call for rain ponchos to be used as medical gowns. Rain ponchos! In 2020! In America!

Marc Andreessen, “IT’S TIME TO BUILD”

Andreessen’s blog post is very good, even if it’s mostly an extended rallying cry. I think it was also very timely, as it alludes to a few subtextual themes I’m seeing come up more and more in politics:

  1. The US economy is increasingly concerned with rent extraction and distribution as opposed to genuinely productive economic activity, the latter having been off-shored to a great extent. The dollars-and-cents economic benefits of doing so aren’t really up for debate, but in social and political terms, the trade-off is looking less appealing these days. Prediction: interest in industrial policy is going to (continue to) increase among the right and possibly the left.
  2. Proceeding from a default assumption of capital scarcity is maybe not a smart way to make policy anymore. We are awash in money and not averse to printing more or deficit spending when the mood strikes. Obviously there’s a limit to how long you can get away with stuff like that, but if we can fight endless wars perhaps we can also fix a few roads.
  3. Maybe democracy is the problem? Others responded to Andreessen’s blog post by pointing out that there are political impediments to building as aggressively as Andreessen would like. Vox’s editor in chief, Ezra Klein, writes that American institutions public and private have become “vetocracies,” meaning that they’re biased against action instead of in its favor. Similarly, Steven Buss notes in Exponents Magazine that entrenched interests have captured regulators, making building, in many cases, illegal. Homeowners, for example, are hostile to development and form a powerful local political constituency.

    The thing is… isn’t this basically just policymakers being tuned into the desires of their constituents—or at least those inclined to make their voices heard? The only people who care enough to show up at a zoning meeting are the homeowners who don’t want the high-rise going in across the street. Professions lobby to be licensed so as to increase their income and limit competition, but members of the public generally don’t care enough to show up at the state house with a pitchfork.

    This is just the way it’s going to be, so maybe the answer is a system that doesn’t particularly care what its constituents have to say—or at least cares less in areas prone to regulatory capture.
  4. Finally, America’s ailments extend beyond the realms of economics and technocratic governance. Ours is a crisis of imagination, spirit, and mythology, exacerbated by the collapse of social capital across much of the nation. Consider the following anecdote1:

    In 1869, a businessman named George Atwater set out to install a network of rails throughout the city of Springfield, MA—from where I write presently—on which horses would pull carriages, a pre-electric trolley system. It seemed like such a ridiculous idea the board of aldermen laughed as they gave him permission and mocked him with an “initial investment” of eleven cents.

    Atwater built it anyway, and it turned out to be a huge success, expanding throughout the city and surpassing an annual ridership of 1 million by 1883. In 1890, less than a decade after the first electric power stations were built, the Springfield rail system began electrifying routes. By the next summer, all lines had been converted from horse to electric power. By 1904, ridership was 19 million; by 1916 it was 44 million.

    All of this—bold, successful investment in infrastructure, the rapid adoption of new technology, reliable and profitable public transportation—is technically possible today, yet this story could never take place in 2020. The aldermen would have dragged their feet, insisted on handouts to favored constituencies, and requested a handful of impact studies. Atwater would have stuck his investment in the stock market. The story would not have taken place here, because Springfield, like many former manufacturing cities, is in many ways a husk of its formerly productive self. Atwater would have lived in San Francisco, Boston, or New York.

Andreessen is right. It’s time to build. But let’s go broader than that: It’s time for a general return to alacrity in the public and private spheres, particularly for those of us who don’t live in one of the nexuses of the new economy. It’s time to rebuild social capital. It’s time to turn off autopilot.

Let’s fucking go.

###

  1. I came across this story in Lost Springfield, a local history book by Derek Strahan, who blogs at lostnewengland.com. I really enjoyed the book, so if you’re interested in the region’s history, I’d check out Strahan’s work.

Demographics Aren’t Destined

Last June, the Census reported the white-alone population to have declined by .2% in absolute terms between July 2016 and July 2017. Though it may seem trivial, this factoid has immense significance to those on opposing sides of the culture wars, both of which have taken it to herald the decline of white political significance and the rise of a more diverse, and therefore liberal, electorate.

Frankly, there’s too much there to talk about in one blog post. Instead, I’d like to address an issue that’s bugged me for a long time:

In projection after projection showing a minority-white America, Hispanic members of each racial category are separated and lumped into their own group, despite the racial diversity of Latin America. This is significant because the rising tide of American diversity is mainly the result of a four-decade wave of immigration from Latin America and the high fertility rate of their descendants (though both forces have recently calmed). In 1960, 3.5% of the country identified as Hispanic or Latino. Nearly 60 years later, that figure has risen to 18%, with expectations that a quarter of the country will identify as Hispanic by 2065.

But disaggregating Hispanics from racial categories is inconsistent, not just with official Census convention—which designates Hispanic/Latino an ethnicity, a variable mutually independent from race—but also with evidence that suggests many Hispanics are beginning to assimilate more wholly into the white population.

This isn’t a (just) pedantic rant about Census data. I think there’s a solid argument to be made that we’re actually in the middle of an expansion, rather than contraction, of American whiteness.

Take, for starters, that a slim majority of American Hispanics already identify as white, at least when asked about their race on the Census. This doesn’t seem like a vestige of a more racially animose time. Per the 2010 Census, 53% of US Hispanics describe themselves as “white alone,” up from 48% in 2000.

US Hisp Race
Between 2000 and 2010, the share of US Hispanics identifying as white alone increased, while the proportion selecting “some other race” when asked to identify decreased.

Secondly, Hispanic identity seems to fade the further removed from immigration a one is. According the Pew Center’s 2015 National Survey of Latinos, all but 3% of foreign-born Americans with Hispanic ancestry identify as Hispanic or Latino. In the second generation, that share increases only slightly, to 8%. But by the third and fourth generations, it climbs rapidly, to 23% and 50%, respectively. This is truer among younger cohorts.

All told, 11% of US adults with Hispanic ancestry do not identify as such. Because immigration has been replaced by native births as the main driver of US Hispanic population growth in the last few decades, it’s not unreasonable to expect this fraction of “non-Hispanics” to grow.

Hisp growth
Source: Based on Pew Research Center tabulations, Pew Research Center historical projections (Passel and Cohn, 2008).

Also worth considering are Hispanics’ growing geographical dispersion and high rate of intermarriage, especially among younger generations. Twenty-eight percent of 18- to 35-year-old US Hispanics are married to non-Hispanics. Again, this trend grows stronger the longer one’s family has been in the United States: nearly 60% of third-generation US Hispanics ages 18 to 35 are married to someone who isn’t Hispanic. Moving out of the city and marrying extra-ethnically seem, admittedly conjecturally, indicative of cultural assimilation.

It seems like Hispanics are following the arc of other (European and Levantine) immigrant groups who were once, and in some cases still are, considered outside the bounds of conventional whiteness. All of this is to say, I’m skeptical that the way Hispanics view themselves in 2018 is the way they will in 2050—especially as they become more enmeshed in mainstream American society.

Of course, this is just a prediction I’m making in my living room. I don’t have a crystal ball or any special insight into the minds of the American public. I’m going to end with some reasons things might not go as I imagine:

The 101 reason would probably be “politics,” with which race seems to have a bicausal relationship in America. It’s not hard to imagine the Republican party alienating Hispanics with nativism while selling themselves, intentionally or otherwise, as the party of White America. Similarly, Democrats’ ability to court Hispanics relies to some degree on the extent to which they feel shut out from the cultural and political mainstream. Both could push Hispanics to think of themselves as non-white more frequently.

Relatedly, the Office of Management and Budget could affect Hispanics’ racial identities through bureaucratic means. A few years ago, there was talk of combining the race and ethnicity questions, with “Hispanic” offered as a choice alongside Asian, black, white, etc. As I noted at the time, this might bring the Census questions more in line with the way Americans think about race today—but it would also be putting a thumb on the scales. There’s really no neutral position for the Census to take in this matter.

Anecdotally and finally, it also seems like the psychic benefits of whiteness have waned a lot over the last few decades—especially as regards low-status whites. Part of this owes to good news: cultural progress on matters of race, which has begun to erode the relatively elevated status enjoyed by whites at the expense of minorities. Other explanations are more sinister and reflect anomic decay in the white population: rising rates of suicide, drug overdoses, and voluntary unemployment. For one reason or another, whiteness no longer feels as enviable a club as it probably did in the 20th century when Italians, Jews, and other so-called “white ethnics” made the conscious effort to join its ranks.

Occupational Licensing Versus the American Dream

Imagine: You’re one of the 6.1 million unemployed Americans. Try as you might, you can’t find a job. But you’ve always been great at something—cutting hair, giving manicures, or maybe hanging drywall—so great, in fact, that you reckon you could actually make some real money doing it. What’s the first thing you do?

If your answer was something other than, “Find out how to obtain the state’s permission,” you’re in for a surprise.

A shocking amount of occupations require workers to seek permission from the government before they can legally practice. This includes not just the obvious, like doctors and lawyers, whose services, if rendered inadequately, might do consumers life-threatening harm, but also barbers, auctioneers, locksmiths, and interior designers.

This phenomenon is known as occupational licensing. State governments set up barriers to entry for certain occupations, ostensibly to the benefit and protection of consumers. They range from the onerous—years of education and thousands of dollars in fees—to trivialities like registering in a government database. At their most extreme, such regulations make work without a permit illegal.

As the United States transitioned from a manufacturing to a service-based economy, occupational licensing filled the “rules void” left by the ebb of labor unions. In the past six decades, the share of jobs requiring some form of license has soared, going from five percent in the 1950s to around 30 percent today. Put another way: over a quarter of today’s workforce requires government permission to earn a living.

There’s little proof that licensing does what it’s supposed to. For one, the potential impact to public safety seems wholly incidental to the burden of compliance for a given job. In most states, it takes 12 times as long to become a licensed barber as an EMT. In a 2015 Brookings Institution paper, University of Minnesota Professor Morris Kleiner, who has written extensively on the subject, states: “…economic studies have demonstrated far more cases where occupational licensing has reduced employment and increased prices and wages of licensed workers than where it has improved the quality and safety of services.”

Ironically, the presence of strict licensing regulations also seems to encourage consumers to seek lower-quality services—sometimes at great personal risk. When prices are high or labor is scarce, consumers take a DIY approach or forego services entirely. A 1981 study on the effects of occupational licensing found evidence for this in the form of a negative correlation between electricians per capita and accidental electrocutions.

A less morbid, but perhaps more salient, observation is that licensing often creates burdens that are unequally borne. Licensing requirements make it difficult for immigrants to work. In many states, anyone with a criminal conviction can be outright denied one, regardless of the conviction’s relevance to their aspirations. These policies, coupled with the potential costs of money and time, can make it harder for poorer people, in particular, to find work.

But surely, you might say, there must be some benefit to licensing. And technically, you’d be right.

Excessive licensing requirements are a huge boon to licensed workers. They restrict the supply of available labor in an occupation, limiting competition and in some cases raising wages. There’s little doubt that occupational licensing, often the result of industry lobbying, functions mainly as a form of protectionism. A 1975 Department of Labor study found a positive correlation between the rates of unemployment and failures on licensing exams.

Yet even licensed workers can’t escape the insanity unscathed. Because licenses don’t transfer from state to state; workers whose livelihoods depend on having a license face limited mobility, which ultimately hurts their earning potential.

Though licensure reform is typically thought of as a libertarian fascination—the libertarian-leaning law firm Institute for Justice literally owns occupationallicensing.com—it also has the attention of more mainstream political thinkers. The Obama Administration released a report in 2015 outlining suggestions on how the states might ease the burden of occupational licensing, and in January of this year, Labor Secretary Alexander Acosta made a similar call for reform.

Thankfully, there seems to be some real momentum on this issue. According to the Institute for Justice, 15 states have reformed licensing laws to “make it easier for ex-offenders to work in state-licensed fields” since 2015. Louisiana and Nebraska both made some big changes this year as well. That’s a great start, but there’s still much work to be done.

This article originally appeared on Merion West

Americans Aren’t the Ones Who Should Be Mad about Chinese “Dumping”

One of the few issues upon which Clinton and Trump seemed capable of agreement in the second debate was that cheap steel from China was hurting America. Given how alarming Sunday’s exhibition was, it might have been a nice respite. That is, if they had not both been so wrong.

China produces about as much steel as the rest of the world combined. This is due partly to cheap labor and strong domestic demand, but mostly to heavy government subsidies. Now that China’s economic growth has slowed, markets are awash with cheap Chinese steel.  This has led China’s trading partners to accuse China of “dumping” steel.

Dumping, for those not familiar with the term, refers to the act of selling a good in a foreign market for less than the cost of production. It’s against WTO rules and is penalized by tariffs implemented by importing nations. The United States recently levied a 522% tariff on Chinese cold-rolled steel, which is used for construction and to make shipping containers and cars.

The general consensus, dutifully embraced by both candidates, is that dumping is bad for the importing country and an act of aggression by the exporter. But if you think about it, this is pretty absurd.

First of all, countries don’t trade with each other. The United States doesn’t buy wine from Portugal; American companies buy wine from Portuguese companies. We’re not “getting killed” on bad trade deals as Donald Trump fears; there isn’t even a “we” in the sense that he suggests. There are only people, and people don’t habitually engage in voluntary exchanges at a loss. It should be obvious that importers (American companies, in this instance) are the ones benefiting from cheap steel from China. That’s why they prefer to buy it over more expensive steel made domestically.

It’s true that China’s not a market economy in the same way that America is; their government owns and subsidizes far more than ours. That might sound like an advantage for the Chinese, but it’s really not.

Chinese producers are able to sell steel for less because of large subsidies from their government. The people who benefit from this are the people buying and selling steel–importers and Chinese steel companies, respectively. The people who lose are non-competitive firms and those paying for the subsidies…which would be the Chinese taxpayers.

Subsidized exports are really a transfer of wealth from within a country to without. Importing parties are able to be more profitable and productive, which is precisely why Donald Trump builds with Chinese steel and why we’re all better for it. Yes, it hurts American steel companies, but whatever resources are devoted to domestic steel production can be diverted to other areas with better returns.

Conversely, import tariffs are paid by the importer, and ultimately the consumer. In other words, in order to protect us (read: domestic steel companies) from what amounts to discounted steel, our government taxes the hell out of it so that we end up paying more. Saying that this helps our economy is like claiming that rolling up your sleeves makes your arms warmer. Remember that any jobs or income generated by such tariffs comes directly at the expense of American consumers who are being forced to forgo savings or purchases they would have made with the money they saved on steel.

If millions of tons of steel fell from the sky would we draft legislation to tax the heavens? No, we’d take the free steel and build things with it. If China wants to take money out of its citizens’ pockets and use it to make steel for the rest of the world, Chinese citizens should be outraged. But why should the rest of us complain? When someone gives you a gift, the correct response is: “thank you.”